9.59 O – The Wandering Inn

9.59 O

(I am on break until October 7th for Patreon readers! I will be finishing editing Gravesong 2, and I just need a slightly longer break. Thanks.)

[Book 10 of The Wandering Inn, The Wind Runner, is out now! Get it here!]



Rain was falling. Not snow, from those skies. Nor were they grey with winter’s heart any longer; they had turned orange.

Soot blew across Xil’s feathers. Soot and ash. Even flying embers that made the milling figures below flinch. He ignored them as he flew higher, eyes fixed on the horizon.

The air whipped his feathers, and he tasted iron in his lungs. His breathing was hard; his grey plumage was stained with blood, though he had taken no wounds so far. The rain tried to cling to him, weigh him down. He refused to let it, and his spear rose.

It was a plain, low-quality steel spear enchanted with magic he’d seized from a foe and used all his time in Pomle. To him, it was as fitting a weapon as any other.

A [Spearmaster] did not need the greatest of weapons, and whoever had made this had balanced it perfectly. It had been with him for over…how long, now?

If he counted correctly, it had been thirty-six years. Thirty-six years since he had flown these skies like this.

Since Pomle had won its independence and freedom. Now, Xil, the [Peerless Spearmaster], flew once more.


He lifted the spear and saw how worn it was, yet how beautiful. The magic had faded, but the blade had survived ten thousand sharpenings. It had come from war and known peace. He drew his arm back—then threw the spear.

It flew through the skies, a single tiny thing amidst the arrows falling below him. Spells futilely struck the air, missing him as the groundling [Mages] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen aimed up. But Xil was just raising his gaze higher.

His spear left a trail of vapor behind it, an arrow’s wake in the smog and ash. It spun, and that tip of metal struck its target.

A falling mass of rock and stone, practically molten. A meteor spell. The Tier 5 magic had been aimed at his people; now the spear carved a hole through the rock, sending it spinning until the force of its movement tore apart the stone and sent the fiery debris falling over the army below it.

Xil saw Stitch-folk screaming, fleeing the fire, rolling to put themselves out. They feared fire so much—but it was their favorite thing to use against their foes.

Vandum! The Magic Throwers are firing again! I cannot stop them all!

The Garuda’s howl reached a bloody figure in the center of the fighting, who was plunging towards an enemy commander. A brave Hemp [Captain] held his ground as a sea of [Soldiers], low-level conscripts, tried to keep back a tiny band from pushing further.

The warriors of Pomle. They looked like a single drop amidst a sea of foes. Yet this battle was theirs.

If—Xil’s head turned, and he saw another spell coming. An arcing bolt of lightning, slower than the real thing, controlled by the Magic Thrower, a device capable of projecting a powerful spell. He shouted, but it was curving down on the warriors following the Stitch-man with vambraces covered in blood, teeth bared in a grin as he crushed a skull with his fingers. Vandum looked up—and a second [Martial Artist] stepped forwards.

“[Will of Steel]. [Magic Guard].”

Xil saw Jalte, the [Ironbody Martial Artist], plant his feet on the ground. Warriors and [Soldiers] alike sprang away from him as the bolt of [Arced Grand Lightning] curved and struck him.

Thunder. Xil looked down as he circled, dodging arrows flying up at him, and the flash of light revealed ground turned to glass—and a single Garuda, arms raised in a block. His skin was black, and steam rose from his body—but Pomle resumed the charge.

A single man blocked the power of your artillery. The sight of it should terrify Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Soldiers]. And it did. They were close to routing already, but there was nowhere to go.

Legions of Hemp [Soldiers] were advancing, like moths to a flame, trying to throw themselves into death to kill one of Pomle’s warriors. The arrows shot at Xil were landing, striking friendly targets—yet another volley rose. He caught one arrow and hurled it back the way it had come, like a bow.

A single [Archery Lieutenant] dodged too late, and the [Archers] flinched and scattered as he dropped. But Xil was already streaking away towards the Magic Throwers.

They were surrounded by Silk-caste warriors who backed up, packing up the artillery, in case Xil tried to attack the ones nearest him. They had virtually no presence on the frontlines. Hemp fought while Silk and Cotton stood to the sides. This was the way of Nerrhavia’s Fallen; Xil wondered if the fool of a [General] knew what he was doing. Not just the tactics. The tactics, the Garuda knew all too well.

Bleed them dry. Surround them. Bring them down with sheer numbers. It was the simple strategy of General Thelican. Worse, it was working.

Vandum killed the [Major], and the battalion scattered, but another rushed in as Xil saw the battlefield changing. A wave of terrified [Soldiers]…

He could pick out their very faces. A young man staring wide-eyed as he rushed behind a pike he and two others were carrying, the tip wobbling unsteadily. It could still kill, but—

A hand plucked him from the ground and tossed the boy. Not just him; fifteen [Soldiers] went flying, tripping up their comrades, tumbling into the dust. A massive hand had flipped them like stones on a board.

Salthorn. The master of grappling strode forwards as her disciples and younger [Martial Artists] rushed ahead. Risky, but they knocked the stunned and disorganized [Soldiers] down. One that Xil recognized delivered a jump-kick that took a Stitch-woman in armor clean off her feet and sent her onto her back five feet away.

Raul. He shouldn’t have been here, but where else would he go? Tiqr? Vandum had turned no one but children away.

Another small victory in this battle. But Xil’s eyes caught a [Martial Artist] too eagerly rushing forwards and a stray arrow striking his shoulder. The Dullahan paused, and a sword cleaved across his front. Salthorn leapt forwards, knocking the [Soldier] down, but the bloody [Martial Artist] needed a potion. If they had one…

How many had died today? How many would level? Xil dove, feinting as arrows and magic rose.

“This war will consume us all.”

Thelican was hounding them all. He was out there, somewhere, watching as his soldiers ground against Pomle. There were so many. Yet, onwards Xil flew. Alone in the sky. He dove and, like a passing breeze, plucked a spear from a Stitch-girl’s hand.

Her mouth opened wide, and he saw bright purple eyes staring up at him. Felt her try to hold onto it—then he spun above the heads of the battalion of Cotton [Soldiers] as they cried out. Xil spun the spear, deflecting arrows, and saw a flight of Garuda arise.

They looked at him and knew his name. Brave children, born into the Empire of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Xil raised his spear over his head and dove at them, dodging under a clumsy slash from a sword. His spear’s butt unkindly tore at a wing, snapping it down and forcing the Garuda into a dive. He used the other end to slash the wing feathers of another Garuda hesitating, unable to find a target; a scream as she fell.

They’d survive. Xil rose as he saw another [Flying Swordsman] dive.

[Flash Cut]!

The other warrior had never seen anyone block that blow. Xil let the haft of his spear absorb the cut, rotating it so the blade just skated across the weathered wood. The wide-eyed [Swordsman] hesitated. Xil kicked him in the stomach, grabbed the sword, and flicked it.

It went through the wing of a fourth Garuda trying to aim a bow at him. Xil counted silently. Five, six…

The squad of Garuda dropped from the air, and then Xil was flying again. He saw Vandum breaking for the east at last, where reinforcements were having a hard time surrounding them. Thelican wasn’t pushing hard; he’d taken enough casualties. But he’d be back.

A thousand [Martial Artists] of Pomle were now reduced down to three hundred. Each one had gained levels, some as many as sixteen, but two-thirds of their number had been killed, wounded, or simply quit.

Is this the end of Pomle or our rebirth? This war will grind us down. But I don’t feel the same hope I did when Collos fought. 

Xil would never run. He had been Nerrhavia’s great warrior, then joined Pomle after Collos won his independence. Now, they had destroyed that place he cherished for no better reason than they could. But when he looked up…

The fiery orange glow of the skies did not look a thousandth as beautiful as the blue skies of Pomle. He tasted blood and fire and death, and if there was a will in him at all that kept the flame alive—

Another flight of Garuda were rising. Thelican had finally realized that Xil was the reason his artillery could never pound Pomle. He thought he could kill the greatest [Spearmaster] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen with half-trained Garuda. 

There was even a [Carpet Rider], some Silk-caste champion who was probably Level 30, waving an enchanted blade spitting sparks. Xil caught his breath and centered his will.

Why did he fight? To accompany Pomle on its final battle, wherever it was. To see his shared dream end.

And—his lower half of his beak moved slightly, and he smiled. Salii had told him yesterday in the camp.

He was coming. Orjin, the child of Pomle, one of the true children who had never known anything else. A son to every master [Martial Artist] and warrior who had ever breathed Pomle’s air. Whatever it would be—Xil exhaled. Then he raised his spear overhead.

Pomle is not dead yet. Face me and die. I am Xil, the one who was called Spear of Nerrhavia’s Fallen!

He saw his kindred waver. The carpet did not. Xil’s eyes flashed.

[Spear Art: The Sword of Damocles Falls].

The [Spearmaster] descended in a thunderclap and watched another flying carpet fall, a hole torn in its center. The Silk-caste warrior was falling, but his descent was slow; he slashed wildly at Xil who flew just out of range, cursing the [Spearmaster] loudly. A ring glowing with [Featherfall]’s magic kept the Silk-man from plummeting instantly.

The Garuda swung his spear and caught the hand filled with magic rings. He watched as the figure fell, screaming, flailing until it struck the ground. Calmly, Xil pried the rings off the fingers and put them in a pouch to give to Salii. Then he was flying, a legend like the warriors of Pomle.

Waiting, like Salthorn, Jalte, Sorron, Yesq, and even the furious Vandum, though he might never admit it. For the return of Orjin.

Waiting…to see how it all ended.




It felt like decades, not a mere year. But it had been a long wait since Tiqr fell. A long, long war. To those who had to live it, the war wearied the soul.

Nothing was sacred or remained. The Kingdom of Beasts that had been so proudly rich in wildlife, if not always gold, was no more.

Foreign nations now laid claim to every inch of it, and the animals had fled. Those who had not perished during the war had left in droves. These days a Nerrhavia’s Fallen [Soldier] would shoot at any bird, plagued by memories of flocks of them diving, shredding eyes and tearing faces.

The Grand Elephants, so prone to bothering the farmers for tidbits or migrating here or there in vast herds, were dead or gone. The prowling hyenas slaughtered. Tiqr felt barren, like a wasteland.

Oh, the oases might be there, and enough people remained—more, in fact, with settlers from other kingdoms—but it felt like the color was bleached from the land. When it fell dark, there was no flash of bright feathers or the eyes of an animal watching curiously from afar. It was now just a flat horizon of shadows. Whipping winds of cruel sand.

And that war.

The [Farmers] of Yibre had seen the entire war from start to finish. They had debated rising to join the Empress of Beasts in Oliphant, the capital, when it was under siege, but they had been told that their grains and Yellats would be more sorely needed.

And they had been—just not for Tiqr. Instead, Nerrhavia’s Fallen had come to announce new laws. Taxes. The [Farmers] would be allowed to stay, and General Thelican was the new military-governor of the province.

They had seen more Stitch-people arriving to take over farms. Houses had been claimed, sometimes with the owners still intact, and [Soldiers] had marched in, bearing the gleaming gold metal of the largest empire of Chandrar.

No one spoke of rebellion then, but every ear was still listening for tales of Vasraf, the Empress’ greatest [General], and that tiny ember of hope in the Kilalle Steppes. Then they saw Nsiia on the scrying orb, a captive, but still alive.

When she was freed, the [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen arrested hundreds each day or found any reason to charge someone for dissent. More citizens vanished, sold to Roshal or relocated—or just left for safer lands or to find Nsiia.

The [Farmers] stayed. For one thing, they had hopes; Yibre was not far from the western border. True, the Empire of Scaied, the damned scorpion-loving [Mercenaries], were threatening to join the war, but they hoped…and then they heard the Monks of Sottheim had left their monasteries.

The Loquea Dree were flying with Tiqr, and the Monks marched under her banners as well. Nsiia was winning battles with the help of a Golem from Illivere and an Antinium, Ksmvr of Chandrar. Some of the [Farmers] went to town and came back with stories of seeing the recordings—which were now contraband, and the punishment for having one was harsh.

Illivere, Savere, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and so many nations were joining the war to kill the Empress of Beasts, but she kept fighting, winning another victory at Pomle. Then her armies were pushing Nerrhavia’s Fallen along the borders, and a day came when a flock of [Riders] rode into Yibre—the [Soldiers] had fled two days before.

That was when the [Farmers] opened up their stores and celebrated for three days straight. It seemed, then, as they drank the Yellat juice and wheat ale they’d hidden away, that the day of Tiqr’s liberation was at hand.

…That was months ago. The [Farmers] had given what they could, seen the [Riders] depart with cheers, and waited.

And waited. Then they heard Tiqr had lost a battle—but the Empress was still alive. That Nerrhavia’s legions were marching forwards again, and a day came when a patrol of Nerrhavia’s [Soldiers] arrived to claim this land…then departed in a rush two weeks later after confiscating all they could.

Were they winning or losing? The news was that Illivere had joined with Tiqr. And yet Savere was raiding inland, and Nerrhavia’s Fallen continued to send armies west—yet the King of Destruction threatened the north! Surely that would make a difference.

Surely…and another month passed on ‘surely’ and ‘any day now’. Then they heard Pomle was gone, and every one of Yibre’s folk stopped where they stood for a moment. That strange, yet beautiful tale of the oasis, the lone nation of martial artists—became the tale of vengeance, of a ruined land and more warriors fighting Nerrhavia’s Fallen with no home to go back to.

Yet, as painful and shameful as it might be, Yibre’s [Farmers] could not mourn Pomle. And again.

That was months ago.

Now? They were tired. They had no notion of how many [Soldiers] Nerrhavia’s Fallen may or may not have lost. The places where Tiqr was winning became lists. The Empress of Beasts was winning more than she lost, but a terrible realization was in the bones of many.

How long might this war take? Years? Decades? There had been wars like this before. Every day, they rose and tilled the fields; even in the winter, they had things to do, and Yellats grew indoors if you warmed them enough and gave them tiny bits of sunlight.

They would wait as long as it took for the Empress of Beasts to free Tiqr. But they were still tired. Their gold savings were gone. The winter was long and hard, and doubtless, harder still on the [Soldiers] who came every two weeks to ask for what could be spared.

At least they levelled up. One of them had finally hit Level 30, which should have been a moment for great rejoicing. As it was—Loreiil had simply gained [Sunwarmed Fields] and gone out that morning to till them as snow lightly covered every plot of land. His wife, Wuze, had gained [Smuggling Compartment], so they would hide whatever was grown in a compartment the size of a single brick in their home.

Hope and triumph and weariness and determination. Some days, it felt like everything was hollow, and they wept for the lack of animals and the endless war. Some days, it felt like they had never been closer or more alive or stronger, despite it all, refusing to break.

And the war continued. It seemed like the Empress of Beasts and her army had something of an upper hand; General Thelican was trying to destroy Pomle’s people, and the distracted Great General had left underlings to hold the Empress back. She was here and there, raiding Nerrhavia Fallen’s stores of food and weapons, like a fierce hyena, taunting the bloated empire but forced to run when the legions arrived.

Illivere, it was said, was holding off Savere and Nerrhavia’s Fallen with its Golems, and their tireless automatons were providing enough food for the armies both, yet if Thelican turned that crushing hammer upon them, one or the other might fall and the fragile alliance crumble.

Pomle would not fight forever. The news that filtered into Yibre was like that these days. Pomle escaping another bloody battle. The Empress of Beasts with her amazing sword taking a town. A legion of Nerrhavia’s Fallen retaking a village and the people being sold to Roshal as collaborators with the Empress of Beasts—but the Bane of Roshal liberating them.

Hope. Despair. Victory. Defeat.

Waiting—there was a strange feeling to this winter. Christmas had been a moment of some small comfort, at least to pretend things were better. They said, of spring, that the Empress of Beasts would surely take the fight to Nerrhavia’s Fallen and push them back once and for all.

They said that she had great allies coming, more than even the two forces that pledged loyalty to the King of Destruction.

What allies? Who would aid Tiqr now when even the King of Destruction had been silent and far away?

It was unclear. When Yibre’s folk visited the town and pressed for answers, they found the people there just as uncertain. There were ‘allies’ coming. Just wait. Surely, surely. Tiqr would be free soon.

That was how Yibre’s folk felt, and it seemed like this winter would pass painfully slowly without hope. The snows that fell left the ground cold. There were no animals, like a Rainbow Fox nipping at the chickens, which someone would have to call a [Druid] to talk to, or a lost bird pecking at the shutters to be fed and housed for the winter.

When they greeted the sun, they just saw grey skies and those snow- and sandstorms. Or distant lights at night, of military outposts that the Empress had yet to take, glowing like a painful sea of stars, endless as Nerrhavia Fallen’s contempt.

Yet—today, Yibre’s folk heard something odd from the town. It wasn’t some great victory. It was a minor thing, surely, in the war. Yet it caught the mind. Perhaps it was how it was said, for Chandrar’s folk loved stories. Perhaps because they remembered how this war had first begun and his role in it.

Or maybe it was the <Quest>, which felt like it mattered. Even if it had been some distant monarch or an [Innkeeper] of Izril. It was a mystery.

A <Mythical Quest> posted by…who? Not the Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, surely. The Magus-Crafter of Illivere? A friendly monarch like Fetohep of Khelt? Nay, the Quarass perhaps. Someone who knew something.

And that man. Apparently, he had been spotted in countless cities. He was returning.

The Strongest of Pomle had come back to reclaim his home.

They had said the Strongest of Pomle was now Vandum and fought in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. But they also said that Orjin of Pomle had gone to train with Torreb the Undefeated. Word came through the village of Yibre.

“He walked into one city and challenged every single guard and warrior there—then, when they had been defeated, he walked out. And he defeated the Siren of Savere in single combat. That was witnessed.”

Farmer Loreiil leaned on a rake, listening to one of the younger men reporting on what he’d heard.

“He’s just one man.”

“But he’s the Strongest of Pomle. If Torreb the Undefeated personally sparred with him—”

Torreb the Undefeated. The greatest warrior of Chandrar had given Orjin his blessing and respect? A man like that would make even Nerrhavia’s Fallen hesitate. Loreiil had grown up with tales of Torreb and couldn’t help but glance westwards.

“From the Kilalle Steppes, you said? That’s close. But he is one man.”

“One man that Nerrhavia Fallen is so terrified of they sent [Assassins] after him. And he isn’t alone. He journeys with a camel the Empress of Beasts personally blessed and a man called the Fury of Winds.”

“…I’ve heard of that one. I think. But that is only a group of three.”


Loreiil could count and glared at his nephew.

“Four? Where’s the fourth?

“I’ve heard a flying carpet, Reizue’s Dream, is flying across Tiqr. And it might not even be four, Uncle. Wherever he goes, people are rising to follow him. Pomle’s warriors did not all go to Nerrhavia’s Fallen to fight and die. Plus, every [Innkeeper] and [Guildmaster] felt that quest.”

Loreiil hid his expression as best he could.

“He is just one man.”

He insisted on saying it like that. If Nsiia, Vasraf, and so many others could not turn the tide of this war, it was wrong to put faith in one man.

Even the Strongest of Pomle. The excited [Shootling Farmer] needed to get back to work, so Loreiil was about to hint to him that he should really help till another batch of Yellats; with Loreiil’s [Sunwarmed Fields], they were able to till six whole fields more of the fast-growing Yellats in winter.

Tiring, but it would feed hundreds—if they worked. Loreiil let the boy have his excitement and turned his head, reluctant to force the lad to work the hard, cold ground.

He was staring left as his nephew, Nevun, spoke.

“Uncle, why would Nerrhavia’s Fallen be trying to stop him from returning to Pomle if it doesn’t matter? I’ve heard they’re preparing to stop him. If it didn’t matter—Uncle? Uncle…?”

Loreiil didn’t reply. He had stopped, and Nevun followed his gaze. Then Nevun stopped as well, and his mouth hung open.

A figure was walking towards the village of Yibre. A simple cloak blew around him, buffeted by the cold sand, and yet he was still bare-chested, barefoot. He looked like a giant of a man, even from afar, his steps measured. In his wake trotted a camel and a man with long, bright silk clothes that flashed blue and yellow in the morning light, striding along, feet so light he danced upon the sands.

The wind blew Orjin of Pomle’s braided hair, and he walked forwards as Yibre’s [Farmers] stopped. When he halted, it was before Loreiil’s fields, and he clasped his fist in his hand.

A gesture of a [Martial Artist], to show he meant no harm. He bowed.

“Greetings. We are passing through. We mean no harm, but we would like to pass by your village with no word spoken of us. We are no friends of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

“You are the Strongest of Pomle, aren’t you?”

Loreiil found his voice at last. He felt everything was surreal. He had seen Nsiia, of course, and met other famous figures, but Orjin of Pomle?

Pomle, that place of stories, had ended. Now, Orjin was here. The man looked vaguely surprised. He exhaled, slowly, and shook his head.

“I am not the Strongest of Pomle. My name is Orjin.”

“So you are him.”

Once more, Orjin paused, and the man next to him raised his voice. He had a strident tone.

“You see, Orjin? They know you. It does not matter what you claim to be if that is how Nerrhavia’s Fallen sees you.”

“Vandum is the Strongest. I am merely another warrior of Pomle.”

That was what Orjin said to his companion, then turned to Loreiil.

“We do not mean to inconvenience you, but we would like to ask about soldiers. We are attempting to avoid them.”

“As you return to Pomle?”


Something about the way Orjin spoke was so matter-of-fact it just added to the sense that he was some character out of a book. He did not make small talk, and in that way, and how he seemed ready to move or exert himself at any moment, he was unnatural to Yibre’s [Farmers], who had never met someone like him.

“Of course you may pass by. We will say nothing of your passing. But please. Do you need food? Anything to drink? Our wells are clean…”

“We have provisions. I would not wish to take up your hospitality.”

Orjin assured Loreiil. Then he looked to the side and sighed.


The camel was nibbling at a full-grown Yellat. He gave Orjin a glare as the Strongest pulled his head back. But Loreiil was only too happy to offer the camel the Yellat himself, using [Quick Uproot] to yank the stubborn thing from the soil.

“Is this…is this the camel Ksmvr of Chandrar rode? The wise and brave Spitty? The one blessed by the Empress of Beasts herself?”

And again, Orjin hesitated, not because he was unsure, but because he probably disagreed with the characterization. The camel itself looked incredibly smug.

“This is Spitty, yes. I will pay for whatever he eats.”

“Can we offer you nothing, Strongest? Pomle is far—you will have to cross through Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and there are countless outposts. I have heard they’re preparing for you.”

Nevun looked sideways at Loreiil, shocked as the [Farmer] self-importantly informed Orjin of the dangers as if he knew about them.

“Yes. We have run into three patrols already. We should not linger.”


Now, all the [Farmers] of Yibre were clustering around, and Orjin’s attempts to downplay the situation continued to backfire.

“They were simply [Riders]. We killed none of them.”

“A dozen [Riders] is no match for any one of us. Even Spitty put the leader out with a single mouthful of phlegm.”

The Fury of Winds, Soloxenethn, posed and demonstrated his own powers with a punch that made the air ripple. Orjin rolled his eyes.

“I cannot do much. I am simply returning home. I am sorry, [Farmer]. I did not even ask your name.”

“Loreiil. This is my wife…”

Loreiil introduced the others, and Orjin bowed again, deeper.

“I cannot help you, and I only bring danger to you the longer we linger.”

“This is nothing compared to what we endure, Strongest. At least take something to eat—!”

The Strongest tried to protest.

“We are full on provisions. But—”

He hesitated, then sighed.

“—If you would accept coin for your Yellats, I suppose they may be needed. I have coin enough. My [Secretary] somehow got some to me…she tells me that there are other places in Tiqr that are starving.”

This was true enough, and Yibre had enough to eat—but knew well that not every place was fortunate enough to have been spared the war, let alone have a Level 30 [Farmer]. Loreiil looked at Orjin.

“If we could get the food and goods to them, we would gladly give it. How—how much could you afford?”

They had to be paid, and it embarrassed Loreiil to ask, but Orjin instantly produced a bag overflowing with gold. He offered it to Loreiil.

“As much as you can spare. There is a boy, Buler, who has a flying carpet.”

Nevun broke in excitedly, eyes wide.

Reizue’s Dream? One of the last forty great carpets of Chandrar?


Everyone murmured loudly, and Orjin’s exhalation grew longer.

“He will be here soon; if you would let us pay for the food, quickly, we can send it to other places he has found.”

“We will get as much as we can. And if you are going to Pomle—will you fight with the Empress of Beasts?”

Another moment of hesitation, and Orjin ducked his head.

“I do not know. Empress Nsiia I count as an ally. But I must find my people. If I meet her—”

“Her soldiers are not far, Strongest. And if your followers need food as well—”

“I do not have followers.”

“What of the people marching to Pomle?”

Orjin frowned.

“…What people? I am going by myself. There are some who wish to see Pomle freed, but I have told them all the same thing: I cannot promise their safety. I must go alone. It is safer to join the Empress of Beasts or go elsewhere.”

At last, Loreiil saw his weary expression and a bit of the man behind the story standing in front of him. That gave him some reserve and made him understand Orjin meant every word.

The other [Farmers] thought he was being humble, and Nevun even asked if he might join the group—or the carpet! He had thought to follow the Empress of Beasts, but the danger of a lone man being captured as a rebel and sold to Roshal…

“Buler is already in enough danger defying the Guild of Skies to help us. He only takes those he can carry to where they are needed. Please. We must be going.”

“This is correct. Enough! We will wait for Reizue’s Dream! Leave the Strongest be.”

Loreiil agreed, and the reluctant [Farmers] stepped back. Orjin looked relieved and bowed again. He was about to be on his way, having been pointed towards what Yibre’s folk thought was the safest route to Pomle.

He was moving fast if he was already at Yibre, and the tale was he had landed last night on the outskirts of Tiqr. Sure enough, he picked up the pace; he must have slowed to not alarm the [Farmers]. He took off striding, then began to run, as if he had no intent to slow down, and the Fury of Winds dashed alongside him with Spitty galloping lazily behind the two.

They were about a mile out when Nevun, looking for the carpet with great eagerness to see the famous vehicle, cried out in a wail.

“No! [Soldiers]!

Loreiil spun, and his heart sank. Of all the timing! They must have been coming to levy all they could again. No—his eyes widened.

He hadn’t seen so many before. This wasn’t a few dozen [Riders]. This was at least a hundred [Soldiers], and they had spotted Orjin. But they were making for Yibre.

Collusion? To Nerrhavia’s angry [Soldiers], it must have been obvious. There was the Strongest, and he was departing from a village that had helped him. It wasn’t far from the truth, either. Loreiil shouted for everyone to get inside and prepare to run.

Yet he lingered at the door, hand grasping his hoe, as if it were a match for the spears and swords of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. He knew that it was ridiculous—but his eyes were on that man.

The Strongest of Pomle. Orjin had come to a standstill and had looked back.

Over a hundred [Soldiers], some armed with bows, the rest approaching in a phalanx of metal, shields raised, aiming spears at him, were moving towards the village. He could doubtless outrun them, but a hundred versus three? Two, since Spitty was a camel.

Yet—Loreiil hesitated. Levels or not, they lived in what had been the Waning World, an era of normal men and women. Aside from the King of Destruction or a Named-rank adventurer, one did not win a one-on-five fight, let alone…a hundred.

There was so far for Orjin to go, and he could not risk getting hurt with healing potions in short supply. He owed Yibre nothing. Heroism was a thing of fools in war.

All this was true.

So—why was the man moving in Loreiil’s vision? Not away, but getting larger? He was running now, and even the Fury of Winds and Spitty looked astonished. Then they gave chase. The [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen halted in disbelief.

The Strongest of Pomle was running at them. And then the villagers of Yibre turned and really saw the truth behind the story.




Orjin saw a row of spears twenty wide halt, and huge shields locked together and formed a wall of metal before his eyes. His blood was pounding, and his bare feet kicked up clouds of sand.

Orjin! Don’t be a fool!

Soloxenethn was calling on him to run. But Orjin had seen the [Soldiers] aiming at Yibre. If he ran, the villagers would suffer.

And—he remembered how they had come to Pomle. So the Strongest just accelerated and lowered his body until it looked like he was half his height, sprinting low to the ground. He heard yelling—and then a shout.


The snap of bows came a second later, but he already saw the arrows streaking at him from over the heads of the soldiers holding spears. Behind them, there would be warriors with swords.

They had metal armor, mostly. He saw rough skin; Hemp or Cotton were the soldiers Nerrhavia liked to use. But even their conscripts bore iron or steel painted gold.

The spears were an unwavering line of golden tips aimed at the huge man running at them. But they wavered as he began to zig-zag.

A thft sound—an arrow hit the grass right next to his right foot. Blurred black lines were streaking down; Orjin saw one falling at his face, and his arms, crossed to guard his head, moved.

He batted the arrow aside, his hand striking the tip and shaft. He saw another one curving at him, and his hand knocked that one down too.


The [Soldiers] were drawing closer. He saw the whites of one’s eyes behind an open-faced helmet with a simple noseguard. Brown skin, stitch-marks around the nose and ears. Sweat beading down their upper lip.

Boy? Girl? Too young. The spear that the [Soldier] was holding wavered. Orjin headed for it. They were aiming towards him, two layers deep, ready to skewer him—Orjin looked up and saw more arrows falling.

So—he accelerated faster. Arrows struck the sand behind him in a line, and a cloud of dust arose from his wake.

Their eyes were so wide now. Why?

He was just one man. He was the one outnumbered, barehanded. Yet—he could not die here.

Orjin was feet away from the wavering speartips grouped so tightly he could not fit a hand between the thick shafts of wood.

They might have Skills. So he saved his own, and his lowered body tensed. Then—Orjin slid forwards, one foot spraying dirt as the spears tried to dip—he slid forwards five feet until he was amidst the shafts of wood trying to track him. Then he exploded upwards.

The tower shields were like a wall, solid, and the [Soldiers] were bunched together. Orjin didn’t have time to waste on them. He grabbed a spear, heaved as he pulled it, and a figure stumbled, but they let go instead of being pulled out of line.

Clever. Orjin dropped it, chopped a jabbing spear, and his hand slashed the tip off.

Stab him! Stab—

The spears were trying to pull back. Orjin ground one into the dirt by stomping on it, feeling as if he were amdist a grove of bamboo in training, constricting his movements. The jabbing spears and shields trying to shove him back made it hard for the [Soldiers] to see the Strongest. A terrified Stitch-man yanked the spear back and peered between the gaps of his shield and his comrade’s to stare.

He saw Orjin crouched low, blue eyes staring up at him. Then the Strongest leapt, knocking the spears back, clearing the tops of the tower shields.

Orjin saw the faces moving up slowly and swords rising as he jumped over the first rank of shields. He kicked once in midair and caught a [Soldier] with a plume in their helmet as they tried to swing a sword.

The kick to the chest made them stumble back, and the tight-knit phalanx tried to break up. Orjin landed and didn’t block the swords they tried to swing at him. Instead, he struck, his fists jabbing out in a flurry.

He struck the six [Soldiers] he could reach in the second rank, punching each one in their chin, an unguarded spot thanks to their open-faced helmets. All but one sagged or dropped; the last recoiled and stood there, dizzy.

Then the Strongest spun and put all the force he could—it hurt even so as his leg struck the armored knees of the soldiers he had landed behind. But he knocked down two with the force of the blow, and the others were still turning.

A blow to a back opened the line of shields up and sent one [Soldier] flying forwards. Another dropped the long spear, fumbling for a sword. Orjin ignored them and threw an elbow back, hitting a Stitch-person in the nose and breaking it. He began to walk sideways, throwing punches and elbows into the tight-knit [Soldiers].

Reform! Ref—

The plumed officer was trying to gasp the words with the breath knocked out of them. Orjin stomped on their chest, and the word turned into a gurgle. The Strongest threw a punch that took an [Archer] off their feet—reversed the punch into an elbow that hit a jaw hard enough to make the teeth crunch.

An arrow was aimed at him point-blank from a bow. Orjin saw the fingers let go and leaned sideways, twisting. A line of pain crossed his chest, and someone screamed. The [Archer] stared until Orjin’s kick shattered the bow and sent them flying.

Then Orjin was through the ranks of [Soldiers]. He turned, checking himself—he had a shallow cut on his chest, and the skin on his foot hurt from hitting the metal, but nothing serious was cut.

I should have activated my defense Skills. He whirled, setting himself, and to his surprise, half the [Soldiers] were still facing the other way or turning with that wide-eyed stare. Slow. Pomle’s warriors would have been faster.

“Behind u—”

One of the back ranks screamed, and Orjin leapt, a snap-kick taking them down. He resumed his attack from the rear as the [Soldiers] finally began to turn—only to hear a keening scream.

The Fury of Winds leapt over the heads of the spears and landed, punching and kicking in a flurry as Orjin grabbed a [Soldier] and tossed them over his shoulder into the other [Soldiers], resulting in a mess. He saw the left side of the formation had whirled to face him and ignored the right. Orjin tensed as they made to rush at him, and he saw a glob of spit smack one of the [Soldiers] in the face.

Spitty’s back hooves kicked a [Soldier] from behind, and the group stumbled. The [Martial Artist] saw the gap.

“[Hacking Chop]!”

A [Soldier] rushed at Orjin with a sword, swinging wildly. He kept his footing, struck the sword from below, and the pommel squirted out of her hands as if it were greased. Orjin stepped past the [Soldier], delivered two punches, swung the flailing [Soldier] without weapons at her comrades, using her as a shield.

He delivered jabs past the collapsing two [Soldiers], throwing punches as they tried to get past their friends.

The ones on the right are getting up. Orjin saw the sword he’d knocked upwards falling—he grabbed it.


The Fury of Winds looked up and side-stepped the blade that Orjin hurled like a javelin. It struck a shield and sent a [Soldier] stumbling; the Fury of Winds began pummeling the [Soldier] with rapid punches.

A slash from behind. Orjin’s head turned, and his arm rose. He blocked the steel sword strike, and it skated across his skin, as hard as metal itself—for a second. Orjin shifted his block, and another sword shuddered to a halt against his skin.

The [Soldiers] who’d struck him stared in horror at the blades; his palm strike broke a rib and rammed one backwards. Orjin side-stepped a spear as the group finally turned the weapons around and rammed one at him. He heaved up, and a [Soldier] was lifted off his feet, screaming, as Orjin used the spear like a lever.

Punch. Step. Punch—sidestep a second spear—strike a throat and hear a choking sound. Sweep the leg of the [Soldier], elbow the stomach as the figure falls until the sand billows up. Step back in the cloud, reposition—kick and feel the steel plate bend—

Then Orjin was looking around for enemies. He set himself grimly. Waiting for his moment of surprise to end. Orjin saw four dozen figures fleeing. A terrified Stitch-man threw down his sword as he stared at Orjin, and the Strongest gave him a puzzled look. Then looked around for foes. He’d been saving his best Skills for when they started using theirs.




They cheered him like he had won a great battle. It was a hundred [Soldiers]; he’d fought less than half of them. The other half had begun running when they might have triumphed.

Nerrhavia’s Fallen had been said to be able to field over a million soldiers in their Glorious Hordes. Orjin had seen how even the best [Martial Artists] could be overwhelmed.

Yibre had never seen a great battle, then. And Buler didn’t make it any better. The boy had arrived just in time to cheer and leap around.

“I hope they will not come back to trouble you, [Farmer]. I must be going, quicker now. If they return to take vengeance—”

Orjin hesitated. He knew they had come time and again. How much anger might these [Soldiers] or their commanders take out on the farmers or accuse them of helping Orjin? Yet Farmer Loreiil just bowed his head.

“We have survived their scrutiny and unkindness before, Strongest. They need [Farmers]. It will be worth it, I hope. The Empress of Beasts needs every ally.”

“I should not have come here.”

The [Martial Artist] bowed, ashamed that he had not thought of this very scenario. Loreiil tried to reassure him it was not his fault.

Once again, I have taken from those I meet. The blood stained the land, yet Orjin was vaguely glad none of the [Soldiers] had actually died. Perhaps he should have killed them all, but he could not find the heart to.

I am a poor warrior, compared to Vandum. When Orjin’s head rose, he spoke.

“I cannot stay to protect this place. But if they should threaten you, I ask you to flee. I will find you and return to check if I survive my journey.”

He meant every word, and the [Farmer] shook his head slowly.

“Strongest. You say these things, and I think…you mean them. But this is not your kingdom. The Empress of Beasts will one day reclaim the soil, and every tear and drop of blood we shed will replenish Tiqr. When I offer you my crops or shelter, I do it knowing the cost. Do not think I tilled this land without choosing to stay.”

He met Orjin’s eyes again, and the flash of will embarrassed the [Martial Artist] again. Thoughtless altruism was the kind of thing he had disliked witnessing as much as indifference. So a second time he bowed.

“I am sorry, Farmer Loreiil. I only thought that this land should not die, nor the people on it. I have walked Tiqr, and for all its many oases, the Empire of Beasts is scarred, the places dead. This place, this village of Yibre, yet breathes.”

The statement made Loreiil blink and tilt his head to look Orjin up and down. Loreiil had heard that Tiqr’s animals had fled and many places were now untended or in the hands of foreign powers. Yet he did not think Orjin meant that.

“Breathes, Strongest?”

Embarrassed, Orjin shrugged.

“I am sorry. I do not know farming terms. The land is loved. Not just the fields; I saw a wintering hive of bees, the marks of both insects and ground rodents. When the spring comes, birds may return.”

“Many of the ones we knew are gone, perhaps never to return.”

Orjin nodded slowly and closed his eyes.

“Yet it is still singing. I have not found a place as good as this since I left Pomle. The Lantern Lands were cold, for all the light, and the mists whispered at night. If I returned to find it screaming as my ruined home of Pomle, I would regret it for the rest of my days.”

He looked at Loreiil, and again, shifted and ducked his head.

“Apologies, Farmer Loreiil. I do not speak of this often. Others have called it fanciful talk.”

“No…you honor me with how you describe my home, Strongest. We have always lived with the wilds.”

Yet the strange look the man gave Orjin made the [Martial Artist] embarrassed and grow quiet. For the wrong reasons, he thought. He turned.

“I will go now, but if I find my [Secretary], I will ask her to check in on you. Once again, I am sorry for the trouble.”

He began to stride off until Loreiil called to him. The man gave him a wide-eyed look as Orjin rubbed the cut on his chest.

“You don’t need rest? A potion?”

“This will heal.”

Orjin pointed at the cut, and sure enough, the thin line of red was already vanishing. He had Skills. Then the man looked him up and down, and Orjin realized Farmer Loreiil thought he had another injury somewhere.

Soloxenethn hadn’t even a scratch. But then, he’d landed and used his wind-punches to keep most of the [Soldiers] reeling. Orjin bowed once.

“I must continue. Thank you for your hospitality. Remember. I am not the Strongest. I am just one man, returning home.”

He felt like of all the villagers, Farmer Loreiil had understood the truth. But when the old man just gave him a goggle-eyed look, Orjin sighed.

Then he turned and was running through the sands. Onwards. It was not the first battle he would fight this morning.

Nor the last. Even for a trained [Martial Artist], it was tiring. Rather, it should have been tiring. But Orjin’s gaze was fixed ever eastwards. Home.

He had to find his answer.




Even after it was done, Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen couldn’t quite believe her eyes.

That is the Strongest of Pomle? I knew he fought well, but that?”

He had taken apart a hundred [Soldiers] so fast she barely blinked. She turned, incredulously, and realized she had spoken aloud at the Court of Steel.

Hugely inappropriate. Normally, her translator, the Queen’s Voice, would take her cues and speak. The Court of Steel looked at her, but their unease was palpable.

At least, some of theirs. The Minister of War, and another Great General, looked far less impressed, or at least, seemed to be. Those who were not warriors stared at Orjin.

Yisame had seen [Gladiators] fight. She had seen other scrying spells of battles, but they were a chaotic affair. She had thought she knew what high-level warriors were like.

But she had never seen a man bring down so many bare-handed and, apparently, barely any Skills used!

“He treated them like toys.”

That was a comment from one of the other [Ministers], but at this, the Minister of War did bow. This was a meeting to address the issue of the warfronts—and the Strongest had come up.

“Hemp. They fight better in larger formations. They have always struggled against powerful individuals, Your Majesty. I have instructed General Thelican to deal with this man; he is just a man no matter what the stories say, and the true Strongest, Vandum, is still present with Pomle’s armies. Yet if the <Quest> rewards Orjin of Pomle’s death…General Thelican has already made plans.”

A sideways glance, as if the [Minister] thought she had posted the <Mythical Quest>. Yisame kept her face blank, and her Voice spoke for her. She had to leave them uncertain.

“We are concerned, Minister. Great General Thelican, mighty as he is with words, has assured the Court of Steel for two months that the legions upon legions he has asked for will triumph over the Empress of Beasts and Pomle. Yet what we hear is Pomle sacking a city or taking a fort! Yerrebod, the sacking of Pirnthol—and even today, they escaped his traps.”

Instead of addressing the Voice’s displeasure, the Minister of War turned as if talking to the rest of the court.

“He is bleeding them, Your Majesty. These things take time. I remind the Court of Steel—Pomle is a third of their number, now. And Thelican may have demanded ballistae and our Magic Throwers, but only that. He has very considerately left most of our high-level warriors and artifacts for the war in the north. Yes, he demands many soldiers, but levying the region provides him with ample Hemp warriors. And it is just bodies he needs.”

Yisame didn’t like how the Minister of War spoke, but he was a friend of Thelican, and he had tied the Great General’s success to his own. She, a lover of stories, [Reader], now [Writer] and great personal friend of Yvlon Byres, had been worried about the Hemp more and more.

They were unto peasantry as Humans understood it, but Yvlon, in her infrequent letters, had a different opinion of their status. Even if they were the backbone as laborers, soldiers, and so on of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, they weren’t unlimited. Besides—Yisame looked at her Voice, and the woman translated the [Queen]’s thoughts.

“So many soldiers dying to Pomle must surely affect their morale. So too—if Pomle is a third of their number, what about counter levelling? This has all the hallmarks of an ill-omened story…”

The Voice hesitated, but Yisame did not like the parallels to the last time Pomle had fought. The Minister of War’s smile was too wide; he did not like being pressured by the crown, nor was he used to it.

Yet the truth was that Nerrhavia’s Fallen had problems. Plagues of metal insects. War against the King of Destruction. Two wars in the west! 

Plus all the infighting between multiple [Princes]. Yisame’s stomach hurt, and she knew the King of Destruction was still advancing.

Slowly…slowly. They were throwing army after army against him, and with the lack of potions, even he couldn’t advance fast, but he would smash an army with his Seven, pause a day or two, then keep going.

It was, in fact, not the first Court of Steel gathering that had occurred, but this time, the [Queen]’s displeasure began to echo. The Minister of Affairs cleared her throat tactfully.

“General Thelican is a Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. No one can deny his successes in taking Tiqr, and his methods have indeed worked—even if they earn the censure of nations by destroying Pomle.”

The Minister of War smiled—until the Minister of Affairs went on.

“—It feels, to us, as if he should prove his status as Great General by now. If a <Mythical Quest> is posted, should General Thelican not finish Pomle and then quell the Empress of Beasts so we might focus on the north?”

A murmur arose as Yisame opened her fan with a snap. Exactly. The Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Etrikah, just shook her head as the Minister of War tried to defend himself.

“Your Majesty, a war cannot be resolved in months—”

“The Strongest of Pomle, Orjin, then. If he is one man, then bring him down!”


Yisame whispered that. She sensed her Voice hesitate, but the discussion rose, and Yisame sat there.

Orjin of Pomle. She had met him. She had liked him. Now, he was at odds with her nation, and she cursed Thelican for it. Orjin had the look of stories about him, and she? She feared being in a book’s plot on the wrong side.

Nay, three. Domehead and Nsiia. The King of Destruction and his Seven. Now, Orjin and Pomle.

Why her?

“I would rather we have armaments not plagued by these metal shortages, Minister of Affairs. If we are casting blame, then the Court of Silks could be said to be letting down the Court of Steel—”

One of the Great Generals was arguing, trying to cast blame upon the Court of Silks. Another [General] nodded.

“Plus, it is not even pleasant in Tyrant’s Rest. The [Gladiators] are still refusing to fight for their imprisoned, traitorous comrades—we should make an example of them. The Foxkin are unruly—”

“They would not be if you took those who attacked them to account.”

Etrikah snapped back, and the [General] hesitated. Yisame’s glower silenced a reply, and the courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen rustled. At last, the Minister of War spoke in a strained voice.

“I shall inform Thelican to deliver results. One man cannot change this war.”

“That will be one small step, at least.”

The Minister of Affair’s voice was dangerously light, and the Court of Steel agreed. Great General Thelican had better deliver results. Fast. Or the ‘Great’ part of his title might be called into question.




When the orders from the capital came to General Thelican, he was busy.

Busy doing what he had been doing for the last two months: raising morale.

The truth was that Nerrhavia’s Fallen had its great moments of glory. The western fronts imperiled by these wars and the northern border could be said to be reflections of where the largest nation in Chandrar demonstrated incompetence of state.

The east was yet unplagued by either beetle or war, and a large portion of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was only watching the fighting, untouched by conflict. Yet.

However, the largest thing that could be said to affect the majority of Nerrhavia’s Fallen wasn’t the fiscal cost of doing war or the fear of the King of Destruction. It was the topic that the Court of Steel had barely touched on:

The war between Prince Zenol of House Isphel and House Quarein. The issue was twofold. Firstly, Prince Zenol was a rather popular figure after his Village of the Dead raid. He might be a lesser [Prince], but to common folk who didn’t actually know the hierarchies of [Princes], it looked like two fighting on equal terms.

The fact that Prince Zenol had agreed to battle the King of Destruction had, ironically, won him more favor. But there was another reason why the [Prince] was so popular.

He had a great supporter. Not a [Servant] or a [Slave] or patron. Rather, it was the figure quietly sitting in General Thelican’s tents, observing the [Great General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Barelle the Bard had a different view of Nerrhavia’s Fallen than the palace did. The most famous [Bard] in the world had been touring Nerrhavia’s Fallen these last two months. Coincidentally, it seemed like support for Zenol arose wherever he went.

How not when his famous harp could play the very notes of magic and when he had declaimed the tale of Zenol’s father and the [Prince]’s famous heroism with the Horns of Hammerad? Barelle was a famous [Bard], and his presence in Nerrhavia’s Fallen to chronicle the events was taken as a sign.

An opportune one, or so the Court of Silks claimed, but you could view it the other way as well: the King of Destruction was making war, and either way, Barelle had doubtless predicted something of note would occur here.

Yet. The [Bard]’s normally smiling countenance was troubled as he drank deep from a cup of wine. For he had observed the second thing that even the east was noticing.

The [Soldiers]. There were three castes in Nerrhavia’s Fallen: Hemp, Cotton, and Silk, with countless subdivisions of cloth and ranks between the three. But Hemp did fight the wars and build the cities. They were lowest, toughest, and in Thelican’s case, an overwhelming majority in his armies.

There were twenty Hemp for every Cotton or Silk soldier in Thelican’s army, staggering, which was at odds with the ten-to-one ratio in regular armies, which actually echoed the distribution of Stitch-folk in general. But Thelican’s Skill—[Troops: Commoner’s Offensive]—and his strategy regarding Pomle meant that he was throwing the [Soldiers] into battle with minimal support.

No chariots. No costly Silk regiments with enchanted weapons. Just Hemp until Pomle’s [Martial Artists] literally grew so exhausted that a stray arrow or blade killed them.

It worked. But even an adequate man like Thelican could have guessed morale would be low for any [Soldier] who knew they were up against the legendary Pomle.

To raise morale, Thelican had taken the following steps:

1. He had instituted a hundred gold coin bounty for any [Martial Artist] of Pomle killed to be paid to the [Soldier] and their immediate completion of their conscription service.

2. He had graciously given orders that any group of Hemp [Soldiers] who fled would not all be put to death. But their commanding officer—who was also Hemp—would be burned alive, regardless if they fled or not. As these were elected officers, it discouraged that sort of desertion.

3. He put on parties to raise morale and show everyone that he had utmost confidence in the war’s progress.

Instead of dining in his command tent, the [General] was dancing in the center of his camp. He was inviting lesser officers, even Hemp, to join the food and drink, and he had his [Slaves] dancing.

He was drunk, and he rose unsteadily.

Damn that man! Do they think I can’t take down Orjin of Pomle? I have a trap set just for him—but it’s no small task to take down a high-level [Warrior]. It’ll be done. A <Quest> for me—it’s as if the [Innkeeper] was thinking of me! They want Pomle crushed? Fine, I shall deliver the crushing blow! But I require eight more legions and all the ballistae in the west.”

He gave orders, moving pieces carelessly across a map for all to see. A [Strategist] was protesting.

“General, those are the only weapons keeping Illivere’s Golems at bay—”

And I have orders to finish the fight in Pomle! Let them advance a few miles; have them packed here! It’s a sign, a sign. Think of it.”

Thelican tapped his head rapidly.

“I have heard the House of Minos sent a magnificent one to that Antinium. My spies, you see, have monitored The Wandering Inn. Now, the woman posts a <Quest>—she should have sent for ours! I would have had a fine one sent from our stocks if she’d but asked.”

He laughed hugely; Nerrhavia’s Fallen was one of the few powers who had old siege weapons like that despite not really remembering how they were made. Or they’d bought some from the House of Minos over the years.

“Enough! Enough! We have Barelle the [Bard] here, and he hasn’t even played a song! How do you find my camp, Barelle? You note how I treat my officers?”

“I do, Great General Thelican. It is a sight.”

Barelle’s smile made Thelican grin. The [Great General] rose. He seized a [Slave] dancing with a veil and began to swing her around. Then he was singing one of his famous patter-songs as the [Musicians] tried to keep up.

What he saw was his officers raising their cups and cheering him, fresh for battle, ready to deliver a hammer’s blow. High morale after confirming nearly two dozen dead [Martial Artists]. If Thelican thought of the Court of Steel, it was as fools who didn’t see his vision or understand war.

The lights of his party were glowing with magic, and the huge tents made of silk, of course, were at the center of the sprawling central camp surrounded by smaller tents with more mundane fires.

It shone like a carnival, a jewel from which wealth and food and drink poured. On a whim, one of the Silk-caste officers tossed a bag of gold, and the [Soldiers] watching and being treated to some of the food went scrambling and fighting for it.

A glorious campaign. Thelican’s worries about Orjin were pushed aside as he bent over to kiss his [Slave], then order more wine sent around.

But what did Barelle the [Bard] see?




The music that Barelle heard sounded like it was hollow. The [Musicians] were good and could play a warbling assortment of flutes and brass, but to him, it was joviality’s seeming without the core. It was confident, wild, and raucous…

But the [Bard] didn’t smile unless Thelican turned to him. An old, Human man sat at the edge of the camp, eyes glowing as shining magic illuminated everything.

Then his head turned, and he looked out across the camp. Aside from Thelican’s central camp, the other camps were quiet. Mundane fires lit them, and he had seen thousands of [Soldiers] lying wounded, having limbs replaced with cloth by the [Cloth Healers].

He still smelled the six officers that had been burned alive this morning. When Barelle the Bard looked around, he noticed the [Soldiers] watching him.

Of course, Thelican knew they were watching him. But Barelle wondered what the [Great General] saw. Maybe it was different because he was Human or they weren’t trying as hard with him.

But he met the eyes of the Hemp [Soldiers], and it felt, to Barelle, that the only thing keeping them here was the knowledge that if they deserted, their families would all be put to death. Nerrhavia’s Fallen had excellent bureaucracy, at least on an administrative level.

This was high morale? 

Sir Barelle! You’ve toured our great empire for the last two months! Tell me—how have you found it? Cognita Truestone and Barelle the Bard are so moved as to visit; let us have some music. But something appropriate, nothing about Prince Zenol.”

Thelican might be drunk, but he remembered the [Prince] and sneered.

“That fool who got in the way of my victory at Pomle along with those damned [Gladiators]…I know you have a soft spot for him. All the sympathy for him—your doing, eh? Barelle’s famous voice and music has power.”

He wagged a finger at Barelle, who bowed.

“You found me out, Great General. Nothing escapes your eyes.”

Thelican flicked his fingers.

“I shall forgive it; one must have a great friend. I have almost forgiven Yvlon myself. But I shall have new music from you tonight. Something fitting.”


Barelle looked at Thelican, and he saw the [Great General]’s eyes shifting. He was a nervous man behind it all. He had to know Orjin was no mean foe. He’d given more orders than just moving the ballistae. Here was a man who had unleashed a weapon that not even the King of Destruction’s enemies had countenanced.

A man who did that once would find it easier the second time. And yet—Barelle stood, and the laughter and sound went quiet.

“Great General Thelican, you are, to me, a man who embodies the very heart of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It may be off-the-cuff, but I do have a song I will sing of you.”

Even Thelican noticed Barelle’s tone, and his smile faded and a troubled expression crossed his face. Yet—before he could ask Barelle what he meant, the [Bard] unslung his famous double-harp.

It had two rows of strings. One regular. One…strung with magic. Seldom did he pluck the glowing strings on the other side, even for royalty.

Each one was a different color, and Barelle liked to think that they were unique. Why, even the [Innkeeper] he had once met might have taken some cues from his strings. Though her fire might be the colors that endured longer than his tales.

He was old. Barelle was grey of hair where he had once been a young man, adventuring. His bones hurt from the road, and he remembered being sprightly with envy.

Yet. The older man had seen a far larger world than the younger one had. Perhaps a younger Barelle would have been laughing with Thelican.

The one of now? He slowly stretched his fingers across the harp. The first string he plucked was the second-highest on the magical side. It was strung with yellow, like someone had taken a strand from the sun. The note was high, and it rang.

The Hemp [Soldiers] stirred. They turned, heads raising with real interest, and the sound rang across the camps. In the distance, voices fell silent, and Thelican dropped his goblet. It fell to the ground, and the sound it made as the metal struck ground matched the note.

But Barelle didn’t pluck that string only once. He began playing with it and the white string above, the highest note. It rang like a crystal glass, like a bell.

One. Two. One. Two.

He wasn’t just touching them! He was strumming them—a fast, folk tune. Yet one that echoed for thousands of feet. It went into your bones and into your head.

And it was not an entirely pleasant tone. It was urgent and quick. It had all the hallmarks of a fun, catchy song, but the longer you listened to it, the more ominous it sounded.


Silk and steel and Tyrants die.

Judged before Chandrar’s eyes

An Empire of the richest cloth

Never shall it die; we see it rise

Cotton and Hemp voices cry

Freedom was ever Nerrhavia Fallen’s troth.


The [Great General] began tapping his foot to the rhythm after a few seconds, then clapping his hands. Barelle had studied folk songs, and the tune was familiar. It was indeed a song you could find yourself singing with others, albeit a bit more complex.

But his fingers was still playing the magic strings. Then he struck a blue chord, midway down, the deeper bass echoing like the sea. Like sadness and death, and Barelle looked around. The [Soldiers] were listening. Yet his voice grew higher.


Oh, our weary cloth

We toil for the brighter days

The bonfire blaze

Shall consume it all.


Then his fingers were plucking the white string, and it no longer sounded like the chime of crystal. They moved up to the end of the harp, and it sounded like a violin shrilling a plaintive tone.

A white shroud over a bier. A warning elegy. Thelican’s clapping slowed. He saw Barelle shifting his fingers. His fingers strummed the lowest notes now. A string made of shadows, blacker than night. A string of indigo thread, made of a Wyrm’s sinews.

Then the [Bard] struck the yellow chord, and it blazed orange, now, like he was holding a bonfire in his hands, and the Stitch-folk shrank back from the light shining through those dark notes—but some leaned forwards.


The Tyrants fall

It was ever the Empire’s will

Brightly blazing light

Illuminate this night.


Silk officers danced under the light, drunk, food spilling off the tables. Hemp and Cotton [Soldiers] watched, eyes flashing with the colors of his harp.

Then Barelle was certain. He played harder, and the song caught. He could see them listening, memorizing it.

After he was done, Thelican made to clap and found he had a catch in his throat. He couldn’t say why, but the new music, for all it was catchy, didn’t leave him best pleased.

“What a—fine song. What do you call it?”

“It needs a bit of work. But I may call it Illumination. A song in tribute to Nerrhavia Fallen’s great past.”

He smiled, and the [Great General] licked his lips and teeth uneasily.

“None more fitting. But you must compose an elegy to my victory as well, Barelle! Current events do matter.”

“I apologize, Great General Thelican. I swear I shall write a song of your next great battle. Upon my name.”

The man bowed smoothly. Thelican beamed and warmed at once, and he heard the tune of Barelle’s song spreading already. And he was part of this grand moment.

In the future, Barelle’s song would spread throughout Nerrhavia’s Fallen until it was known in every pub and inn. But that was a tale for a later date.




Orjin of Pomle had a nightmare. So did Thelican. Both men woke gasping. One lay there, gripped by a terror after Barelle’s song, and gave an order he knew he would regret.

“Bring me—bring me a [Message] scroll. A private one. Now.

The other was having the same nightmare that he’d had at Torreb’s mansion.

He was kneeling in a field of ashes, staring at Collos’ back. Pomle vanished, and Orjin saw the Strongest turn. He raised his fists, and Vandum was there, waiting to challenge him.

When Orjin woke, gasping, he felt the sense of wrongness, even as he raised his own hands to fight.

“We are all in Collos’ shadow.”

When he stood and paced around their tiny camp, he saw Buler sleeping, literally rolled up in his carpet like a blanket. Soloxenethn was sleeping next to him, a blanket covering him and a sleeping mask over his eyes.

Spitty, though, opened one eye as Orjin stood. The Strongest strode away from the embers of a campfire, and the camel got up. When Orjin stared across the quiet nation of Tiqr, he noticed Spitty following him.

“Is this what happened to Ksmvr of Chandrar, Spitty?”


The camel made a faint sound that Orjin took to be ‘yes’. Orjin looked back…and saw another campfire behind him.

“That is Farmer Loreiil’s nephew. And someone else. A traveller, maybe. One of the ones Buler was talking to. I knew I saw him ferrying people around. They’re not bound for anywhere. They’re following us.”

Spitty nodded. Yup. Orjin stared at the sleeping figures. In his defense, he hadn’t noticed them because they’d caught up in the night; he had outpaced them, but Buler must have helped them catch up…or they’d just doggedly followed. Either way, it took some doing.

“If Nerrhavia’s Fallen attacks—they will be in danger. I should chase them off tomorrow.”

He heard a wheezing sound—and realized after a second that Spitty was laughing. Orjin had never seen a camel do pushups or laugh. Spitty was capable of both.

“—Is this what happened to Ksmvr?”

With Nsiia around? You have no idea. Orjin stood there and wished he could ask Spitty for advice.

It seemed, if he had Soloxenethn and Buler for company, the camel could be just as wise as the two. Or maybe Erin would reappear with some sage advice.

However…Orjin was not relying on her. It was not that the [Innkeeper] didn’t have wondrous powers. That was the very definition of her craft. Yet she could not solve his quandary. And he thought she would tell him that.

He just feared he didn’t know what he was searching for. So Orjin rambled about the thoughts he had had on his journey to Spitty.

“Magic. [Martial Artists] cannot beat magic. I was given [Magicbreaker Fist] when I levelled up. Maybe that was completion. But I did not want it. I see Collos in my dreams, and I feel like I am chasing him with Vandum. Yet I raise my fists to fight him, and I am ashamed.”


Spitty’s second grunt was confused. Orjin looked at the camel.

“I truly wish I knew if you had words to give. Are you speaking or…?”

He was about to ask if Spitty actually understood, but the camel gave him a few nods with his long head. Orjin stared at him.

Spitty understood him perfectly. And yet he had not understood the depths of the camel’s intelligence nor, knowing it, had the power to speak with Spitty.

Another ability he wished he had. Another thing his martial arts had no bearing on. How vast the world was.

Orjin stared at the stars and the few snowflakes drifting down. He was cold and shivered slightly. Unless he was moving to warm up, he chilled easily without much fat to insulate his body.

“How weak martial arts are, sometimes. The Stonebody school can weather any attacks, or so Sorron claims. Yet when I think of Yibre…I think Pomle is flawed. Do you remember my greatest warrior?”

Spitty nodded sagely. Orjin looked back the way he’d come and voiced something he had been thinking of.

“I think I erred even when talking to Torreb at the end. The greatest warrior that I described, even a path that lets any single person become an undefeatable champion—is still a locust. I have eaten, drank, slept, and by the standards of cities, I cost little; I left my mark on Pomle, which is humble, little. I was proud of that. But what did I give back? The [Monks] of Sottheim may be superior to [Martial Artists] after all.”

He thought of the [Farmers], who grew enough food for countless people to live on. Spitty frowned at Orjin, and the [Martial Artist] went on.

“Sottheim. I do not know that monastery exactly, but [Monks] farm, create texts, both provide for themselves, ideally, and train. Some must beg or rely on donations, but they provide services for the communities they join, unless they are reclusive to the extreme. Pomle never did that. We were a waystation that taught only battle.”


Spitty understood at last, but the camel’s expression made it clear he thought Orjin was wringing his hands over nothing. Yet it was Orjin who wondered.

“Xil once said his spear could tie a knot, plough the ground, slay a beast, defend a town, even wipe the tears off a babe…though no one would let him try. He said this when Vandum argued with him whether a hand or spear was more superior. Yet…he told me the spear was not meant for these other things. It could hunt or kill. My hands, likewise. But now I wonder if I should have practiced farming. No; I wish I had.”

He looked back once, and Spitty watched as Orjin smiled and lifted his hand a moment before sand blew across the desert. It got in Spitty’s eye, and the camel spat angrily, but Orjin had shielded his face.

“It was a good place.”

The camel stared for a long time at Orjin as the Strongest fell silent. Orjin didn’t need to speak. He just stood there, copying the pose of the [Farmers]. Not when they leaned tiredly on their tools, but the form that appeared in grace when they felt the earth moving like water.

How would you adapt that? He felt his way around, shifting his feet, bending, using one palm like it was the edge of a hoe. Then a foot since bending over was ungainly.

The camel watched as Orjin gently dug his foot into the ground around the oasis and left a trough of dirt as naturally as if he were walking. Spitty tried with one hoof and was still stomping the dirt when Orjin came back and, shamefaced, retamped the land down.

“Silly things. I will practice if I ever have time. I am no [Farmer].”

Orjin wished he understood why the camel stared at him with an open mouth and began to mweh rapidly. At length, he patted Spitty on the head. It was late. Orjin went to sit back cross-legged as Spitty kept digging at the dirt.

The [Martial Artist] stared at his hands and felt like he was wrestling with an idea he could not yet give form. His dreams, the advice he’d been given, his puzzling over the greatest warrior—it was like he was facing a foe, but blindfolded. He had clues, but he could not put together the final shape of his opponent, his goal.

Yet when he dreamed once more, in the moments between sleeping and meditation, Orjin had a vision of a greener Pomle that sang as he had remembered it. But when he woke—he thought he could still hear the scream that had never ceased since Thelican’s poisonous lightning had fallen.




Orjin sat cross-legged until the sun rose. By the time he got up to talk to the followers, Spitty had fallen asleep. But the camel, Soloxenethn, and Buler were in good spirits that morning.

So were the followers, who were munching on rations. They got to their feet, two young people and three older ones. Two women, three men.

One was indeed Nevun, Loreiil’s nephew. He had come with the [Farmer]’s blessing. Orjin had no idea what the other man was thinking.

“You cannot stay here. I will ask Buler to take you back, or to Nsiia or wherever you wish. But I cannot protect you.”

Buler looked astonished as Orjin spoke over breakfast, and the followers protested. Nevun called out.

“We wish to see Pomle and join you, Strongest! Can we not learn? I heard Pomle was open to all, and I—I cannot stay where I am. Please, accept us as your disciples!”

He bowed, trying to copy Orjin’s fist clasped in his hand, and the Strongest was lost for words for a moment.

“No. I do not—Pomle is gone.”

“Pomle is never dead so long as a Strongest remains! It can win itself again!”

Orjin began to get mad as Nevun talked back to him. He folded his arms.

“Even if that is true, I cannot teach you right now, nor can you keep up. I cannot defend you, and no master of Pomle would put a new disciple in danger.”

“We can ride on Buler’s carpet. And we have food. If you teach us—”


Orjin barked, and they flinched. He clenched his hands, then saw what he was doing and unclenched them.

When have I shouted outside of battle like that? Another sign—he turned away abruptly. Orjin strode over to the fire, scooped up some Yellats and food baking in the flames, and began to jog.

“Do not follow me. I am not your master.”

He took off at a run, and Spitty galloped next to him, glaring, as Orjin ate on the move. The camel expectorated twice, but Orjin dodged the globs of phlegm.




Orjin cut a wide path away from the campfires he’d seen in the night. When he looked over his shoulder, he didn’t see anyone following; he’d run so fast that he’d left Soloxenethn behind, too.

The Fury of Winds was probably enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Orjin knew he could catch up; the man was annoyingly fast. Orjin kept running at a pace about as fast as what he imagined a City Runner could do: a hundred miles a day. He’d arrive at Pomle by tomorrow evening at the latest, and Spitty could keep up, even if he over-exaggerated his panting.

Four hours of running later, Orjin felt the need for lunch. A wheezing Spitty followed Orjin as he turned from the outlines of a road towards an oasis he knew to be in the area.

He was on the greener outskirts of it and passed by a few people on his way there; even during a war there were travellers, it seemed.

There was a huge picnic, even, of a man practicing punches with eighteen enthusiastic people while a boy made breakfast on a picnic blanket. No, wait, not a blanket. A giant…carpet…

Orjin slowed, and Buler looked up and tried to hide behind a pot. But Soloxenethn just turned his head and nodded.

“You took a while, Orjin. But then—the [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen are only looking for you. They completely ignored us.”

Orjin came to a stop, and Spitty collapsed by the oasis, shoving aside two horses to gulp water before lying on his side. Orjin stared at the Fury of Winds, then Nevun and the others.

“What are you doing?”

“Practicing punches. Even in enemy territory, I take the time to exercise—”

“Soloxenethn. What are you doing?

The Fury of Skies gave Orjin an arch smile.

“Teaching my disciples, of course.”

“Your disciples.”

Orjin’s voice was flat. Soloxenethn rubbed his nails on his clothing.

“Yes, well, if you are too busy—the Windcaller’s Wrath school should not die with me. This time, I shall teach them better. Children included.”

His eyes turned to Buler, who had indeed only stopped to make food; he was practicing a punch with the others now. Orjin?

Orjin grew angry. But he saw how Soloxenethn had tricked him; they’d flown ahead using the carpet, which could carry a crowd, and worse, Soloxenethn’d picked up more followers! The Fury of Winds offered Orjin a smug smile.

“You cannot turn away their interest, Orjin. The Strongest, nay, Pomle captures their minds.”

“They will change their mind when they see it is a crater in the ground. There is no living there, even if there was no war! It is lost, Soloxenethn.”

“Then why are you on a journey, Orjin? They want to see what you find. I wish to see it. If you will not let them come, I will. And there is nothing you can do to stop that.”

The Fury of Winds folded his arms, and Orjin stared at him.

“Let us spar, Soloxenethn.”

The Fury’s smile slipped slightly.

“No. I don’t think we need to.”

Orjin stepped forwards, tone mild.

“You yourself said I had not exercised this morning. You were right, and I have changed my mind. Let us spar. Soloxenethn.”

The students were watching as the Fury of Winds gave Orjin a wary look; the travellers were turning their heads, and Orjin was wondering how much trouble it would be to knock the Fury of Winds out.

He was angry. He was concerned. Then he heard a voice.

Orjin! Watch out!

He spun and nearly punched through Erin Solstice’s face. The [Innkeeper] had appeared.

“Not now, Erin Solstice.”

Orjin snapped at her, furious. He was in no mood for—Erin was pointing.

Orjin, run! I just got word from Chaldion who was—that idiot is sending a Djinni after you!”

The [Martial Artist] felt his skin chill. Then his head slowly rose, and he saw something, tiny in the distance, coming his way. The panicked [Innkeeper]’s face turned—and General Thelican’s first attempt to kill the Strongest flew at him.





Orjin knew this Djinni. It was one of the three who’d attacked the King of Destruction. Not the one who pretended to be an assassin—the lesser Djinni, named Seemutor, who had been able to conjure lightning.

The greatest of their number, Drenir, was dead, and so too was the city of Aeresuth. Yet it seemed Great General Thelican, that adequate [General], had an adequate understanding of how to kill someone like Orjin.

A man with a cat’s head flew through the skies, his lower half turning into a cloud. He…did not look happy as he came, but he flew like an arrow from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. In fact, he was singing as he came.

Hoi below and all who hear! Beware for I have come to kill! Flee and know Great General Thelican and my master, Merchant Almon, have sent me to kill the Strongest of Pomle! A terrible war crime it might be, but I cannot disobey, so here I come! Run, oh run, Orjin of Pomle.”

His smile was sad; his fangs glowed orange when he bared his teeth, and his very body was magic. He flew at his top speed, but only slowed when the young woman appeared in the air.


Erin Solstice. She was blocking the way towards the oasis, and the Djinni struck the air with lightning, recognized her, and threw up a hand to cover his cat-face.

“Oh no! Seen and spotted! When I was told to go stealthily! This must be a foe! Take this and that!”

Stealthily? Erin Solstice hesitated as he shot more bolts of lightning through her. Then why the heck was he singing?

Djinni. She recalled what she had been told by one of the Djinni who had spoken to her. They loved messing with their masters. This one flew around her, then sighed.

“You aren’t a threat. Down I go.”

“I said stop. Don’t kill him! This is illegal! Don’t do it!”

Erin appeared in front of the Djinni again, and he just swerved around her. The oasis was panicking, the travellers rushing to their horses, and even the carpet was flying back—but two men were waiting for the descent of Seemutor.

The Djinni turned and spoke as Erin followed him down.

“I am Seemutor, little [Innkeeper], and you are a lovely vision of the days of yore! I greet you—and if you hold chains, may you live to regret it! Remember the sacrifice of Drenirkesun! The Death of Chains has returned!”

He laughed hugely. Erin Solstice stared at him, and his smile was sad and weary—but his eyes were flashing with battle lust as well. He was transforming as he fell, into flames, but she halted him.

“I threaten your master with death.”

Seemutor pulled up instantly, appraising. He whirled—and pointed a finger at Erin’s projection.

“Careful, [Innkeeper]. I am bound to protect my master to the death. Threaten him and I may have no choice but to murder you.”

Erin was panting, but she was remembering what to do. She held up a hand.

“Well, I’m uncertainly threatening him! I might kill him or I might not.”

“…Go on. I have no choice but to appraise you for seriousness.”

Erin schooled her face as the Djinni, with a huge smile, eyed her.

“Don’t kill Orjin. Who sent you?”

“Merchant Almon! On behalf of someone, whom I suspect to be General Thelican. A great travesty of war, but my kindred have already been fighting the King of Destruction to little comment from all but that [Journalist], and he has been dodging [Assassins]. And you are that woman that Merchant Almon touches himself to.”

Erin’s face developed a look of such disgust that she visibly had to stop a second.

“Gross. Don’t tell me that.”

“The world should know these things.”

The Djinni’s smile never left his face. And if you could stare with murder in your eyes…Erin spoke.

“I know you have no choice. And you’re doing what you can to find a loophole. I’ve spoken to…one of your kind. The Great Djinni, Qin’tevf’al.”

Then Seemutor’s eyes did widen, and his entire body flashed. He recoiled—looked at her, and his eyes narrowed.

“Do not lie to me.”

“I wouldn’t. Do you believe even Djinni and Jinn have ghosts?”

The cat-man stared at her—then threw his head back and laughed.

“And was he free?”

“He was—at least in death. But now he’s gone. Seemutor, can you stop this? Please!”

Erin begged him, and the Djinni gave her a sad look.

“Not even for one who spoke to the Death of Chains before Czautha’qshe. But I will remember that, [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice, is it not? I may mention this in confidence to those I trust.”

“That’s okay. But please—I threaten Merchant Almon.”

He hesitated, then shook his head, eyes bright.

“I am sorry. But I don’t believe you truly intend to kill him in this moment because you would have to kill me—and you are too kind a heart, [Innkeeper]. I cannot even disobey my intelligence, you see. I have been told to kill the Strongest, Orjin. Pray only one of us dies swiftly.”

He met her eyes one more moment—then his earrings, the shackles of magic in him, burned bright, and he dove like a lesser comet. When he landed, the world shook, and there arose a being of flames, lightning in his hands, facing two [Martial Artists]. Neither had run; the first slashed a jet of wind at Seemutor, and he let it strike through him.

Little men. You cannot kill me without magic. I am Seemutor, and I have come for Orjin of Pomle. Stand aside if you wish to live.




The battle was the ugliest Orjin had ever fought. He could not touch his foe at first; Seemutor, the Djinni, was a cat-faced man with hands of flame who threw bolts of lightning as Orjin and Soloxenethn spread out.

Magic! Use magic!

Erin was screaming from the sidelines, but Orjin had a problem: he had none.

No magic rings, not even a glove. He had never wanted any, and so he and Soloxenethn had to fight with only their Skills.

Hence, an ugly fight. The Djinni was fast and adept at combat. He dove at Orjin, and bolts of lightning criss-crossed the air, cutting off Orjin’s escape.

“I am going to burn you alive, Strongest of Pomle. From inside your lungs and out. Even if you stop breathing, I will enter your nose and mouth and singe your very insides.”

Forewarned, Orjin leapt back, and a jolt ran through him as Seemutor tagged him with a lightning bolt. Tricked! Two more bolts hit Orjin, and the Strongest felt his heartbeat stop a second as he staggered. The Djinni’s smile was sad as he dove at Orjin.

“I tell the truth, but I also manipulate you.”

[Aeriform Punch]! Orjin’s shockwave of air blasted the Djinni backwards, and his body partially apart. Seemutor shouted—and Soloxenethn attacked.

“[Wind Slashes]! [Howl of the Vortex]!”

His wind-based attacks cleaved the air, and a punch tore through the Djinni’s flaming being—and Orjin dared hope they’d done damage. But then Seemutor recomposed in a flash, and a cat with a body of lightning touched down. A punch electrified every hair on Soloxenethn’s body.

Alas, it only disrupts me, not hurts me.

Seemutor’s voice echoed hugely, and Orjin saw him pivot—and weird lights flashed in a zig-z—

The punch made his heart flutter and also sent him reeling, despite his crossguard block. Seemutor hung there a second as Orjin leapt back.

“Here I come.”

Lights flashed again. This time, he kicked Orjin from behind. He was so fast! Literal lightning made up Seemutor’s body, and Orjin knew his flesh had been blasted on his back; he smelled his own burning flesh.

Healing potion. He took one gulp before Seemutor saw it and sighed.

“Can’t have that.”

His next blows shattered all but one of the potions Torreb had given Orjin, despite the Strongest’s attempts to evade. Jets of wind passed through Seemutor, and he looked at Orjin as his body dimmed—then brightened.

“Time to die.”

He visibly charged up his being—then shot across the ground with a punch that had enough force to burst Orjin’s heart or vaporize his head. The Djinni’s face was sad, and he was already preparing to fly up and report his victory as Erin Solstice cried out.

He moved at the speed of lightning. Not even Orjin could dodge it. Seemutor’s fist exploded with all the force of lightning—and Orjin threw a rock through Seemutor’s face, and the rock detonated.

The Djinni staggered, surprised, and blinked. The Strongest wasn’t where Seemutor had punched! He had ducked away—and tossed the rock!


Seemutor held still as another rock exploded as it made contact with his lightning body. He aimed at Orjin, and this time, the Strongest dodged it completely.

It was the flashes of light. Orjin had seen little dots appearing and wondered if they were a hallucination, but they were actually more like Seemutor telegraphing where he was moving. Whatever the Djinni was, he was still a lesser Djinni, not Drenir, who had become a literal meteor.

His lightning form clearly required time to charge up enough power to move, and Orjin could see a split-second image of the Djinni kicking for Orjin’s chest—enough time to get out of the way.

Actually, that first kick did hurt a tiny bit—it was more like the Djinni was striking multiple times, and Orjin dodged the majority of blows. When he backed up, he had a fistful of sand and hurled it in Seemutor’s face.

“Ah. I said magic. You don’t have any, do you? Well, this won’t work.”

The Djinni became air next, and a whirling mass of black air, almost like cat’s hair, made a snarling beast appear. His voice came from the jaguar of winds.

Aura. You have to have one. Use your aura!

He leapt, and Orjin threw an elbow, ducked away, weaved back, punching and jabbing, and Soloxenethn tried to slash the Djinni in half.

All they got were slashes from the air, which was like blades. But Soloxenethn’s blows did make the jaguar snarl and claw at him.

Not bad, but not nearly strong enough!

“Aura, Orjin!”

“I don’t know how.”

Both the Fury of Winds and Djinni stared at the Strongest, and the jaguar sighed.

“Well, then. So you die.”

He leapt, and Orjin braced.

“[Flesh is Steel]!”

The jaguar’s teeth closed on his throat, and the air lashed at him in the shape of claws, but the Skill made it feel like nothing at all. Orjin waited, both arms raised, guarding both sides of his face. Now he understood something about Seemutor—he was waiting. Waiting…

The Djinni knew his attack wasn’t working and shifted. His body glowed, morphed into what looked like steel, all edges and razors, like a man made out of spikes. He swung a fist, and Orjin’s own punch hit him square in the face.

The counter was the hardest Orjin had ever thrown; he had known Seemutor would have to change into something else and hoped it was a physical object he could hit.

He felt like he’d almost broken his fist! But the huge, metal Djinni actually reeled a second, and Orjin followed it up with his best Skills.

[Quake Palm]! [Dulav-Ra: Tetrad of the Solar Aura]!

A shockwave ran through the Djinni before four flaming punches tore his armored body into burning metal. Then he did scream.

Aaaaah! It worked!”

He leapt away, the cat again with what looked like a humanoid body, and regarded his wounds. Orjin was panting, and he felt like he had fractured his knuckles. How much damage…?

The wounds were closing. Seemutor gave Orjin a pained smile.

“That one worked. But you have to destroy much, much more of me. Can you do that again?”

Seemutor ducked as Soloxenethn slashed through where his head was with a palm. Then blocked a blow from behind—spun—and his own palm strike sent the Fury of Winds staggering back.

He was a martial artist too! Worse, he seemed to be working even harder this time. He was fast, and the blow that came at Orjin was solid enough to make the [Martial Artist] grunt, but when Orjin tried to snap the arm, he just tore the arm straight off, and it vanished.

“Light, this time.”

Orjin backed up as the punches came in, hard and heavy. He punched a hole in Seemutor’s face only for it to turn into freezing ice.

I can’t hurt him. How did the King of Destruction do it? Collar. His collar—

But Seemutor had none. Then he saw the earring in the cat Djinni’s ear and went for it. But Seemutor just tilted his head aside, turned his claws to stone, and slashed across Orjin’s chest.

“Ah. Even if you freed me, my master saw what happened to Drenir. They’ll explode before I’m freed.”

He gave Orjin a rueful smile, and then the Strongest really did wonder if it was over.

Orjin! Run! I’ll hold him off!

Soloxenethn exploded into a combo of punches, and Seemutor winced as his fists, which were surrounded by his aura, did hurt the Djinni. But Seemutor just backed up, turned to lightning, and then walked into Soloxenethn.

The full charge sent the Fury of Winds down, smoking, eyes bleeding, and Orjin shouted.


He made to charge, but the Djinni didn’t make a move to attack the downed Fury of Skies. He came at Orjin, lashing with those claws again, and he was panting, betraying the effort so many changes took.

“I was told…only to kill you.”

Orjin realized what he meant and backed up, taking them away from Soloxenethn as Buler ran over with a potion.

No aura. No magic. And his greatest Skill wouldn’t be available in the time it took for the Djinni to kill him. The one thing Orjin had over Seemutor was his superior skill at hand-to-hand combat. For all his age, the Djinni seemed impressed at how few blows he could land. Even when he turned his body to needle-metal, Orjin just deflected blows, minimizing contact.

“You truly are the Strongest of Pomle. If only you could touch me—you would set me free.”

His fist burned Orjin’s flesh, searing layers of skin off as he grabbed Orjin’s arm with a fiery hand. The Strongest, grimacing, replied as he lifted his fist.

“I do not wish to.”

The second [Aeriform Shockwave] muffled Seemutor’s laughter. The Djinni, shaking his head, walked forwards as Orjin backed up, panting. The [Martial Artist] raised his fists.

It may not work, but my only attempt left is to drive him into the oasis when he is lightning or flame. The water may do something to him, but I doubt it.

He was preparing for his final attack when a voice shouted.

“That’s it! Seemutor—halt! Your orders are wrong!”

Erin Solstice reappeared, and the Djinni hesitated.

“Erin Solstice, you cannot stop me. Unless…my master has changed his mind? I have to kill Orjin of Pomle.”

“What was the wording of your order?”

Erin was panting. Orjin poured healing potion over his scorched wrist, and Seemutor hesitated. His earrings flashed, and Orjin resolved to grab one even if it meant both their deaths. But could he even break it?

“I have to kill Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle.”


Orjin glanced up, and Erin’s eyes flashed.

“That’s it! I knew I heard it—he’s not the Strongest of Pomle.

Seemutor’s fist had been about to hit Orjin; he had subtly changed into his lightning form. He froze. Then a look of delight and relief spread over his face.

“He isn’t?

Orjin looked from Erin to Seemutor.

“He’s not. Orjin lost the title to Vandum. You’re after the wrong person!”

Instantly, the cat Djinni stopped and stepped back. His face changed, and he became the half-cloud Djinni with an abacus. He flicked a few beads, then pulled out what looked like a notecard from the air.

“My wording is to ‘slay without delay or failure: the Strongest of Pomle’. Indeed, indeed. This is all wrong.”

His eyes twinkled, and he looked at Erin. Then he laughed and threw his head back.

“What a blunder my master made! And he so confidently gave me the wrong directions! So you are not the Strongest?”

He looked at Orjin, and never had the man been more grateful to shake his head.

“I am not.”

“Then I have no cause to fight. Well done, [Innkeeper]. Well done. I hope I did not injure you beyond repair, Orjin of Pomle. And I hope you level from this and gain a Skill to remedy your weakness. For I will doubtless come at you again. And next time…you will die.”

Seemutor’s eyes turned black and bleak as he looked at Orjin. The Strongest shook his head, but not in denial.

“I am too weak.”

Seemutor was turning, turning, but he seemed relaxed now and very happy and relieved.

“I have no idea where the actual Strongest of Pomle is. And I am too weak to face them; I must surely rest. So here I rest, and be assured, my Master has many clauses forbidding me from hurting the innocent!”

He winked one huge feline eye as he sat down in the air. Orjin, incredulous, looked at Seemutor, but the Djinni inhaled and exhaled.

“Failure is not an option either. And my master never forbade me chatter, more fool he. Do you know how to focus your aura, not-Strongest? I am told it is your very soul you put into a fist or idea. It can be wide as a field covering a ship, or even an entire nation, or focused into a razor’s edge.”

He sat there as Orjin, panting, caught his breath at last, and Soloxenethn leapt to his feet blearily. Erin stood there, blinking, and that cat Djinni winked.

“Or so I’ve heard it said.”




The Djinni, Seemutor, rested for a bare twenty minutes before he decided he was well enough to travel once more. Twenty minutes wasn’t much time.

But it was still a lot of words if you spoke fast. Long enough to attempt a crash course with Erin about the power of auras with Orjin.

The problem wasn’t that either was a bad teacher; if anything, you’d be hard-pressed to find more motivation and a longer-lived expert than Seemutor.

The problem was that Orjin couldn’t figure out how to use his aura.

“I don’t understand how it works.”

“Just focus on being you, Orjin. Focus on your fist…”

Even Erin could project an aura, although an [Innkeeper]’s was far less potent than what Seemutor claimed a [King] got. But Orjin tried and felt nothing.

“This is a problem. He doesn’t understand what to do. Hope I don’t make it back to you within the day, Orjin. Or…hmm.”

The cat was plotting his trajectory back the way he’d come. Orjin looked at Soloxenethn.

“Soloxenethn, what am I doing wrong?”

“Your nature and pride as a [Martial Artist] must go into your fists. I embody the very power of the wind. See?”

Soloxenethn could make a kind of ‘glove’ of air, which he had used to strike Seemutor, if weakly. The Djinni rolled his eyes.

“Yes, so dangerous. Focus on your fist, not-Strongest. Imagine it is the realest thing in the world.”

Orjin tried, but when he made a fist, it was just a fist.

“I do not understand. It is not…a muscle. I have never trained my aura. Can one train it?”

Everyone assured him they could, and Seemutor frowned, flipping over.

“You seem to have a strong one. I can see that sort of thing, and you know yourself well, not-Strongest. Yours should be stronger than even his—hers is faint, but I suspect it’s the entire inn she has.”

He nodded at Erin, and Orjin was encouraged. But…

“I have no idea how to form it. If it is my fist, it should be a muscle I can move. If it can take any shape, am I moving the air?”

“Oh dead gods, he’s like Ryoka and magic! He’s too literal!

Erin was groaning as she understood his problem. Orjin felt like this was an insult, but he thought it was right.

He couldn’t understand auras. Nor, frankly, did he like them.

“Auras. Magic. It seems at the end of each [Warrior] class, or any other class, including mine, the only answer is to turn to something we are not. It would not bother me if it didn’t mean all I knew and practiced was worthless.”

Seemutor shrugged.

“I am the very nature of magic, not-Strongest. Mortals and their levels and Skills have always seemed to me like cheating. But you are a canny, excellent warrior on your own; you must find a way to defeat those like me.”

“And it’s not you wasting your power, Orjin! You still have to know how to punch people!”

“Perhaps. It’s just difficult to practice something that is unlike what I have devoted my entire life to. Perhaps I was missing it all along, but this does not feel right.”

Erin, Soloxenethn, Spitty, Buler, and Seemutor all traded looks. The Djinni stopped sitting and stood up in the air. He bowed to them and began to rise.

“Alas. My time is up. I must be going now, but I am overjoyed to be so incompetent as to fail here. My thanks to you, Erin Solstice. And you, Orjin of Pomle.”

He paused once as he floated over to the carpet.

“Reizue’s Dream. Do you care for it well, [Carpet Rider]? I remember so many who have ridden it.”

Buler bowed deeply.

“I do, mighty Djinni. I…”

He hesitated and then looked at Orjin, and the Strongest’s head rose.

“I—I am Buler, if it pleases you! I am but one rider, but I am proud to be the last of my family to ride Reizue’s Dream!”

Seemutor’s head turned away from the carpet. He bent over, and his cat’s eyes focused on Buler’s face. The boy trembled, but the cat just smiled.

“I will remember it so long as you live, and thereafter, Buler of Reizue’s Dream. All your names. I only hope I will not be your end. Farewell.”

Then he sprang up into the sky, and Orjin saw him streak back the way he’d come, a laughing cat calling his master’s foibles and failings to the world.

Never had Orjin met one so sad or seen shackles so obvious and yet so invisible. He was shaken long thereafter. Erin Solstice stood there, looking at Orjin, and her eyes were sad.

“That’s all I could do. I don’t think I did much. And I—”

Her gaze shifted.

“I have to go. Soon, I won’t be able to help you at all, Orjin of Pomle. There may be one thing, but it won’t change the war. I’m sorry.”

“Do not be. You have saved me twice, Erin Solstice. I…must find my strength myself. Magic in my martial arts. Aura.”

Orjin closed his eyes. Pomle. He turned to the horizon, and his breath was quiet.

He thought he would find it there or nowhere.




A great battle was taking place the same day Orjin escaped Seemutor’s attack. He caught wind of it from Buler; the boy had scouted ahead and came back, face pale and troubled.


“I am not that, Buler, remember?”

Orjin tried to joke, but Buler stood there, afraid to say anything until the words burst from his mouth.

“Strongest. Pomle has been cornered once more by Thelican. They are retreating across the border, close to Pomle, but he harries them. They say—they say he is bringing more and more weapons to bear. But the Magic Throwers are raining down on his troops and theirs alike. They say it is a battle meant to end it all.”

Orjin’s smile faded. He stood, his head turning to the horizon, and the sky was orange and black. Then Buler spoke again.

“Strongest, I saw them waiting. They have a ballista—and [Mages]! And more. There are soldiers at Pomle, what remains of it. One threw lightning at me.”

So Thelican had more than one trap. Orjin turned.

“Then I must continue on, but carefully. Thank you, Buler.”

He said nothing of the battle far past Pomle. They would not make it in time, even if he wished to ask Buler to take them into combat. It raged throughout the day as he ran towards Pomle, then into the night.

The next morning, it drew to a conclusion. But he would not know of that until he woke.




The Strongest of Pomle ran into one last group by the time evening fell and they were just making camp. By now, over a hundred people were being ferried around by Buler, who looked pleased to have his carpet so filled.

Orjin had no idea where they came from. Yet he clasped hands twice with [Martial Artists] and realized they had heard of Pomle—and had come to greet him.


The weathered hand belonged to one of Pomle’s [Duelists], who had come here with a silver bell. He had not stayed with Pomle and looked ready for Orjin to reproach him, but of course, Orjin would never do that.

“I grew sick of killing after the third time I ran someone through. And that was the first battle. I am ashamed it took me three deaths. I think…I think I will leave for Terandria, after this. I cannot stomach war. I would have fought on, but Vandum has no purpose but vengeance. If you had told me we were fighting for Pomle’s independence, I would never have left.”

Orjin bowed his head as they sat on the swaying carpet. They were flying, now; he had given up running, and Buler was cautiously moving them ahead, but keeping away from the forces he claimed were waiting for them.

“Vandum and I are not that different.”

“That may be what you believe, but to me, you never lost to him, Strongest. I saw you defeat the Siren and show her mercy; if you lost to anyone, it was Thelican’s magic. And who could stop that?”

“Collos, perhaps.”

The [Duelist] shrugged, and Orjin thanked him for taking in other disciples he’d found. In fact, Iratze and a bunch of the Earthers were among the last group that Orjin found, camped a mere fifteen miles from Pomle.

They dared go no further; in fact, Orjin found refugees, Earthers, and more [Martial Artists] in a strange camp with the last people he expected to find, all of whom greeted him with great surprise.

Orjin, though, just blinked at a woman he had never met, but who had known Nsiia.

The [Druid], Jvaile, and over a hundred other [Druids] and related classes had the wildest of camps, complete with chipmunks, birds, and other animals as well as loosed oxen, who pulled the carts and wagons of their own accord.

“What are you doing here, Wildkeeper Jvaile?”

He bowed to her, and she bowed back.

“Strongest. I was called back by both my class and the will of Chandrar. You know we fled Tiqr rather than fight?”

She looked ashamed as she saw many of Tiqr’s inhabitants, and Orjin nodded.

“You wished to save as many animals as you could. There was no shame in fleeing a lost war.”

The woman had braided brambles in her hair, but they didn’t seem to hurt her, and one had a pale bloom, which she touched.

“So you say. I feel it, nevertheless. I left and sought the guidance of other masters and nature itself. I was rebuked, yet not censured. Shame would have been on me either way. War is shameful, but I am guilty. That is not why I returned. It was Pomle which called me.”

“Pomle is gone.”

The [Druid] nodded, and her eyes flashed yellow like an animal herself as she snarled.

“Yes. That bastard Thelican unleashed a magic so foul I smell it from here. On an oasis! If the Sea Shepherds were here…he had best not set sail to the New Lands or he might end up a mass of chum being eaten in the sea. If I had my way, I would bury him up to his head and let termites eat him alive.”

The wrath of [Druids] was not light indeed. But the woman calmed and looked bleakly east.

“…We wished to see if Pomle could be healed. I fear it cannot be, but it is our duty to try.

Healed? Orjin had seen the pit and tasted the corruption in the air from that magic. The idea that anyone could reverse that damage was incredible—yet if anyone could?

The leaping of hope in his heart was the realest thing that he had ever felt. He bowed to the woman.

“If you can, we will be forever in your debt, Wildkeeper Jvaile. But I take it your presence here means Nerrhavia’s Fallen holds Pomle?”

“We were there for over a month, but they retook the oasis. I have seen the [Mages] fly in by carpet. Be careful. They are [Battlemages]; I could sense their magic from afar. And there are more ‘specialists’. All to kill you, Strongest.”

“I am not…”

Orjin’s voice was tired, and he was weary. Home was within view now; he could see the canyon’s walls from here if he stared hard from Buler’s carpet. But. He now feared he would find nothing.

The Strongest sat with the [Druids], and a flying squirrel landed on his lap. He looked at Iratze.

“Raul went to fight?”

“Idiot. Fucking idiot. Salthorn threatened to twist me into a pretzel if I did, but Raul went, and Vandum insisted. Some others made it back here, who ran away from the fighting. It’s just a bloodbath. I should have stopped Raul, but I couldn’t find the words.”

The young man hung his head, and Orjin placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I was angry enough to go, myself. But I…”

Iratze searched for words as those around him stared at him. Orjin realized they were watching him, and in that moment, he did feel like the Strongest.

He hated it. He hated being relied on. He had told Salii a hundred thousand times he didn’t want the responsibility, that he only had the role because he liked the challenge.

But that was a lie. Part of Orjin had always lied, even to her, which was shocking to the [Martial Artist]’s way of life.

Yet, truthfully, Orjin hadn’t wanted Vandum or a more radical master to take over Pomle. He had been proud of the title, and the fact that he did take a role in affairs rather than let things sort themselves out…

“I never should have freed those [Slaves].”

Orjin spoke to Tiqr’s refugees, to Iratze, to the [Duelist], Celcino, to Soloxenethn, Buler, and Spitty. He looked at the [Druid], Jvaile, and bowed his head.

“With respect, I never should have allowed Tiqr’s folk into Pomle. Nor even hosted the summit. If I had done this, Pomle would still be there instead of a hole in the ground taken by Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

He pointed, and Nevun looked at Orjin, shocked. The Strongest’s blue eyes were calm as he lowered his hand. He put his hands on his knees as he sat there.

“It is my fault all this has come to pass. I take responsibility for it. I should not have freed the [Slaves]. Nor taken in Tiqr’s refugees. However. I cannot regret it. I regret what was lost. That I was too weak to protect Pomle. I was a poor Strongest, because I did what was right. I felt Pomle was more alive in the days before it vanished than it ever was before. And yet now it is gone.”

The duality of it hurt him. The guilt he bore could not scratch the confidence that what he had done was not wrong. Only that the outcome was terrible.

He was angry, he realized. Even now. Angry that he had been burned by the Djinni. Angry at Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Fighting those [Soldiers] had been—hard.

He had wanted to do more than just knock them around. Yet Orjin did not want to be Vandum. He knew his people were fighting Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and he understood why.

“Vandum, Salthorn, Jalte, Xil, and the other masters fight on. They fight to the death, many of them. You may wonder why. I understand. They think it is the test they have been training for their entire lives. They think it is the purpose of Pomle, to prove its greatness. I never thought we needed to prove it again, but I understand the uncertainty. They are trying to prove their class matters.”

He closed one hand and looked at it. Then Orjin shook his head.

“I could not join them earnestly, which is why I left. I am a killer with a killer’s fists, but in my heart, I have never enjoyed nor respected my ability to kill. Even when I had to. Some might tell me this is because [Martial Artists] practice a way of nonviolence and strength, but even in sparring, I injure others. I will kill if I must. I am lost, and I hope to find my answer in Pomle.”

Orjin addressed his friends and those he had come with and found on the way. He rested his hands on his knees and bowed down. When he raised his head, he said this:

“Tomorrow, I go to Pomle. I must do it alone. I cannot ask any one of you to die.”


Soloxenethn leapt up, but Orjin raised a hand. His eyes were steady, and the Fury of Winds hesitated. Orjin looked eastwards, and his home…

His home was waiting for him.

“Tomorrow, I will go alone as I must. But when I reach Pomle, I will try to answer your expectations as Pomle’s Strongest.”

He looked around, and they cheered at that. Orjin sat there and smiled. But when he lay down…he dreamed one last time. Not about Pomle, or Collos.

He dreamed of something else, and when he woke, the air was heavy and silent.




They looked like a sea of milling insects covered in gold and red. But they had the faces of people, wide eyes, mouths open, stitches straining as they heaved forwards, shoving aside the dead, flinching as fire washed over them.

Arrows falling amidst their own kin. Xil could look down with his sharp eyes and pick out faces he thought he recognized from the last battle. A staring boy shoved aside by an older Hemp warrior, face grimly set, who took a splash of molten stone from a falling [Meteor] spell.

Their comrades pulled them up, and they advanced. Through a hail of stones that dropped an [Archer]; rocks hurled by a [Martial Artist] who tossed each one through the air hard enough to sunder metal and bone.

A technique Xil had seen them work on for years, kicking up stones and punching them. He saw the Stitch-woman, her cloth knuckles scarred beyond belief, and remembered laughing at her and telling her it was a technique only a Stitch-person would be dumb enough to master until she tried to wing him.

Now, that brave [Martial Artist of the Shattering Way] stood there, her fists striking stones, even hurling blades through the air as a thousand arrows came back for every one she tossed.

An arrow stood out from her collarbone, and she stared down at the ones jutting from her arms as she fell to one knee. Someone tried to pull her up, shield her from the volleys of arrows. Jalte, the [Ironbody Martial Artist], cradled his comrade in his arms. Bent down—and then his head rose.

Another technique vanished as Xil flew higher. His wings were ragged. His breath came painfully, and he looked down.

They were trying to let the disciples flee. Xil saw Salthorn, one arm torn off, hurling enemies away from her as she broke south. But they were pressed against a rock formation, and Thelican’s forces advanced. How many [Soldiers] had he annihilated by his own friendly fire?

That was the only reason they were alive. In the distance, eight Magic Throwers were alternating spells every five to ten minutes. Each time they fired, people died.

Meteor strike. Lightning bolts. A hail of ice spikes. The [Soldiers] and [Martial Artists] would take cover, and the damage the spells wreaked on Nerrhavia Fallen’s own lines kept them from attacking. For a moment. But it was also killing Xil’s people.

We are close to Pomle. This is a fitting place for it to end. Even if Vandum gets there—this is the same place where we won our freedom.

If he left and flew south for half a day, he might reach Pomle. The thought occurred to Xil, even as his wings labored to carry him higher.

He was exhausted now, an older man without the energy to fight on. Stamina potions didn’t seem to be working. He was out of healing potions, and he hoped…

He hoped Salii had escaped. She should have never come with them.

“Are you there, Orjin?”

The Garuda’s head was turning, and he wobbled in the air and looked down. An arrow had passed through his wing, and he saw the wide-eyed [Archer] who had shot it impossibly high up and struck him on the move.


Xil let the arrow fall as he felt blood dripping down, tiny droplets falling to earth. He looked around and could not find Thelican. The man was too clever to let himself be killed.

“So be it.”

He had nevertheless made a mistake in his eagerness to finish this battle. The Mage Throwers had changed position to hammer Pomle’s warriors. Instead of spreading out, Thelican had placed them together and surrounded them with his Silk [Warriors], who had been watching the fighting for the last month.

Why not? Xil raised his spear as he finally neared a thousand paces to the first one. He drew his arm back—and threw.

[Bolt from Clear Skies].

Across from him, [Warriors] looked up and cried out as a spear flew down, growing larger, moving faster until it hit the first Magic Thrower, and the ground quaked. Xil caught his breath and then looked at the Magic Throwers.

A flickering magical shield wavered—and reformed as the artillery weapon turned towards him.

“Thought so.”

An adequate [General] protected his artillery like that. Xil turned again and looked back.

Was that Vandum he saw? From this far away even he couldn’t tell, but he thought he saw the man. A desperate, snarling figure, those vambraces flashing as he fought on.

There was neither despair on his face nor hope. Xil had looked in his eyes and saw only death. Like a man who had become the swinging sword itself.

He could not remember how Collos had looked when he had won Pomle’s freedom. Only how his back had seemed when he strode forwards and armies trembled. But Xil remembered when the two had faced each other on opposite sides, and he had seen that calm determination, like a banked fire, that exploded out of Collos.

Yet Xil had chosen to come here. Because this was what Pomle was.

Or so he’d thought.

“I must be getting old. Why didn’t I…go with Orjin? Salthorn. Were we trying to prove Pomle was still the Pomle of stories? I never had to prove anything before they called us that.”

How had the Fury of Winds seen clearer than he? Xil flew higher, and he saw a bolt of lightning touch down, felt the clap of the air. Saw figures scatter apart like tiny dolls.

They’re dying. Now, the exhaustion seemed to leave Xil’s veins. He was grateful for it. One arm rose, and he saluted those figures. He thought he saw some pause and look up at him. The few Garuda among Pomle’s ranks had all landed, unable to keep dodging through the skies alone.

He was glad that silly Peki wasn’t here. She would have been dead, choking on her own gore like too many others. His apprentices were almost all dead.

“I am a poor master of Pomle. I have always been a lazy teacher. But at the very least—I was there, thirty-six years ago. I can remind you of what existed.”

Xil called down to the army, who heard not his voice, but heads rose as he gathered his strength. Xil spread his wings as arrows rose and a spell flashed up at him.

He dodged the bolt of lightning and, in a moment of silence, spoke.

“[Summon: A Weapon Worthy of Me].”

The [Peerless Spearmaster] raised his clawed hand and concentrated. Below him, Nerrhavia Fallen’s army looked up as someone cried out.

A Silk-warrior, one of the commanders, his plumed helmet hidden among the ranks to prevent being targeted, jerked as the warriors around him turned.

He was trying to hold onto his weapon, which had suddenly shot up. The furious man clung to the spear, tassels decorated with his house’s lineage. The etched Orichalcum blade had been enchanted five hundred years ago and glittered with power.

Yet it was trying to fly up. Towards the Garuda.

The commander tried to will it back, his very aura straining against the Skill. But—then his feet left the ground. And he was kicking, and now, holding onto a spear rising faster, faster—

Xil looked down. He hadn’t used this Skill in over two decades. A [Spearmaster] did not need a magic weapon. But one last time…

The spear shot higher, faster than an arrow now—and he caught the weapon and admired the curved tip. Checked the balance and understood how to swing it.

Below him, a tumbling body flailed and screamed before it landed among the golden figures. Xil lifted the spear over his head, then pointed it down.




Rheite had not so much as swung his spear for the duration of the entire campaign outside of practice. For one of Nerrhavia’s [Spearmasters], it embarrassed him.

But he was Cotton, elevated to Silk even if everyone knew what his true cloth was, and Thelican had told his army this was a battle that Hemp would win.

So Rheite and the finest warriors of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had stood back while the Glorious Hordes threw themselves at Pomle like water towards a blaze. How could you stand there and mock the Hemp when you saw a [Captain] charging in against the storied warriors of Pomle?

Many did. It made Rheite ashamed, and so, today of all days, after hearing the Magic Throwers roar death for three hours, his face set, jaw clenched so hard it ached—he craned his head back and did smile at last.

Though terror coursed through his veins. Though his own hands began to shake…horns were wailing across the forces stationed around the Magic Throwers.

It is just one Garuda! General Thelican’s orders are to hold and protect the Magic Throwers at all costs! [Spearmasters], forward!”

Rheite was already walking, but he stopped, lazily, and looked from side-to-side. Silk-caste warriors armed in enchanted metal were singing war poems. Some were applying poison to their blades or sipping from ceremonial drinks.

The warriors around him looked up, and Rheite’s voice silenced their false bravado. The [Spearmaster] gazed upwards and smiled as that figure hung there. Unkillable, though they had shot tens of thousands of arrows up at him, sent every Garuda and flying carpet and artifact up.

“Make ready. The greatest [Spearmaster] of Chandrar is about to descend.”

The others looked at him as if to deny his words, mock him. Then their heads rose upwards as a Magic Thrower fired desperately. A bolt of lightning seared the skies and flashed straight up. Towards that figure.

Xil, the one who had been called the Spear of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, whirled the spear. He swung it slowly. So slowly Rheite saw the blade’s movement…but somehow, that slow strike made the very air hum.

The bolt of lightning split past the Garuda, dissipating in the air, and the other [Spearmasters] looked up in uncertainty.

“That was no Skill.”

Rheite agreed with one of his comrade’s whispers.


Then he saw the Garuda aim downwards, like an arrow, and he was diving. Diving, and Rheite’s blood was surging, and he lifted his spear with a wild grin on his face. He leapt forwards as a faded green bird landed upon the earth and danced there a moment until everything around it vanished.




Xil had forgotten his years. Forgotten his wounds. Forgotten his weariness—at least for a moment.

He danced as he could not remember doing since he was young, his spear moving in glorious arcs, parrying, thrusting, carrying him forwards in a continuous dance that had no end or beginning.

He was just—counting. One last count before he could let himself be in the moment fully.

Five. That made five. Magicked wood was collapsing as he passed by a Magic Thrower, the wood and magic imploding, drawing everything in around it.

It tore feathers free from his back, but he scarcely noticed. Xil had only eyes for the worthy.

[Spearmasters]. Brave warriors holding any weapon in the world. Any who walked forwards or did not flee were brave.

He found a man of Cotton who bowed to him, and his spear was a whirling quarterstaff, deflecting Xil’s strikes, then a flurry of spear thrusts. He planted his spear and cleaved the earth in half for fifty feet.

Xil parried the blow and counted as it engulfed another Magic Thrower.


Xil lifted the spear, and the man of cotton smiled before Xil cut one arm off and ran him through. The Garuda turned—and a second [Spearmaster] ran him through the side.

Xil beheaded the second Stitch-man and saw a weapon art tracing itself across the world. A fluttering butterfly’s passage, traced in metal, fast as thought.

But the owner of the art just copied the technique without truly understanding it. They traced the same pattern without variation or mastery. To Xil, it was as simple as raising his spear and placing it where he knew a throat would be, and a fool ran onto the blade. The copy of true art ended.

[Spearmaster], they said. The class they thought was a great accomplishment was only the first step on a journey. And the first step was understanding all you knew was a copy of something else. Beginning to seek worthiness in using what you had been given.

Xil was distracted, and the arrows touched him. Then he was moving, whirling the spear around him, but there were so many…and more warriors were throwing themselves at him.

“[Spear Art: The Great Desert Opens].”

When Xil cut the ground, everything around him vanished. He walked out of the falling storm of debris and leapt into the skies.

But not far. He landed, and a [Mage] stood behind a magical barrier. Xil’s spear pierced the magic, and he slashed through the arm of the next Magic Thrower.


He would have flown up now, but he could not. Xil looked down, and instead of faded green plumage mixed with pink, he only saw black flesh.

His wing-arms were scorched. The flight pinions gone. But the muscle and bone beneath refused to vanish even as more magic struck him.

The last Magic Thrower fired one final spell. A glowing meteor that crashed down on itself. Xil admired the resolve of the crew as he shook molten stone from his eyes and slashed through the fire.


Now he could relax. Xil cast his eyes to the distance, but he no longer saw Pomle. Whether they were there or not…his world had narrowed to a small field around him. He had eyes only for the soldiers coming towards him.

An arrow hit him in the chest, and Xil stood there, shocked a moment, before he pulled it out. Shocked because he felt it not.

Grateful, because it would have interrupted his dance. He lifted his spear and wondered why they slowed as he walked down the hill towards them.

Children’s faces, filled with terror and awe. But this was a battlefield, so the Garuda leapt. When he landed, he danced a moment, and there was no end to those who threw themselves at him.

Arrows touched Xil; magic struck him as he whirled his spear around his body, but it was as if he had forgotten they existed. Only the blades had any right to hurt him, and he was waiting, now.


He was weary. The Garuda blinked, and he stared up at the setting sun a moment.

How long had he danced? He didn’t know, but he thought he was the last dancer on this field. All around him were warriors. He beckoned them, weary.

“Come. I don’t have much energy left. But enough.”

Why did they run? From an old man? Well—that was wise. His cracked beak moved in a smile as he raised his spear.

He had to remind them of the truth behind Pomle’s story.




They said of it, afterwards, those who survived, that the Garuda flew down laughing. That he pierced the magic protecting the Magic Throwers like one burst a bubble and destroyed the ancient weapons of war as the greatest [Spearmaster] of Chandrar danced his last.

Seven [Spearmasters] faced him, three-on-one by the end, and they seemed like silent statues before a storm. He walked out of a burning hail of stone, and still, the Spear of Nerrhavia’s Fallen refused to die.

Pomle’s warriors had fled an hour since, and still, a single figure stood, surrounded by the Glorious Hordes of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Arrows stood out from his body, and cratered land had been turned to ash and glass.

And still he danced. Waiting as a [Great General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen screamed and ordered soldiers forwards until they threw down their arms and fled rather than die.

Execute the cowards. Take him and restore the title of [Spearmaster] to Nerrhavia’s Fallen!

It was only when blood spilled onto the sand, enough to turn it red, that the silent Garuda raised his head.

First came Silk, poisoned blades falling without touching his skin. Xil danced over the blades as Cotton followed. Skills to make skin like steel, spells raising walls of ice or magic. Then went Hemp until only his spear cleared the space around him.

It seemed as if his vacant eyes had been staring ever southwards, towards his home. Dreaming, Xil danced, until a moment came when he stopped and stared down at the tip of the spear that had scratched him.

Just a touch. The Garuda halted and walked free of the sea of corpses, and his head turned. Part of a skull, exposed to the air, tilted, and he finally found someone standing on the ground, spear in hand.

A [Soldier] of Hemp, who held the spear up, shaking, waiting to die.

They said, then, that the other [Soldiers] halted as Xil smiled. He lifted his own spear and stepped forwards and stabbed at the Stitch-girl, who knocked his spear away and halted. Then, with shaking arms, deflected another stab.

Xil whirled his spear up and waited. Slowly, the soldier copied him. When he brought the spear down, the blow sank her boots into the ground, and her legs shook—but she copied the blow, and he staggered.

At last.

That was what he whispered, or so many claimed. Finally, Xil raised his spear and waited. Two figures stepped forwards, and when he let go of the spear and regarded the weapon in his heart, he nodded and fell back. And his successor picked up his spear and knelt before him.

A [Spearmaster] of Chandrar died, and another took his place.




Afterwards, General Thelican ordered a celebration begun. The silence displeased him. There should have been great cheering. The greatest warrior of Pomle, arguably greater than even the Strongest, was dead.

The honor of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had been restored.

“Collect the spear from that Hemp warrior. Give them the bounty—no, triple it. We have lost too many great warriors to leave that Relic in their hands.”

He turned, not noticing his subordinates’ stares, and began giving orders.

“Reform the army. Pomle’s warriors have been all but decimated. Ballistae; our Magic Throwers are gone, but this time, they have no Xil. We will finish this tomorrow.”

He turned his head to look for Barelle the Bard and smiled, his golden armor flashing in the twilight of the battlefield. After a moment, Thelican held a scented handkerchief to his nose to cover the smell of the pyres of corpses and coughed.

“Both Pomle and Orjin are merely extraordinary warriors. Even legends die.”

Today was surely proof of that.




When Orjin awoke, he knew something had changed. He could not say why, only that some constant was gone. The world, he felt, was lessened.

His home was weeping. Though he had not set foot in Pomle, Orjin woke with tears in his eyes.

He knew Xil was dead before they told him. Somehow. Orjin asked how his mentor and friend had died as Buler delivered the news, stammering, and he sat.

Orjin’s heart had been falling to pieces all the time he had been away. Now—he felt a true tear in it. But when he stood, all he said was this:

“I am going. Find Pomle’s people for me, Buler. Please.”

Buler stared at Orjin, but the Strongest’s face was blank. His tears had dried in the dawn, and he began to walk towards Pomle. No one dared stop him.

“Please, go after him and make sure he is safe!”

Buler begged Soloxenethn, the Fury of Winds, but the other man just sat there, cross-legged, head bowed. The Fury’s face was bleak, and he shook his head, meditating, eyes shut.

“I would never dare. This is his battle.”

The boy grew angry, then. He pointed, shouting.

“There are [Battlemages] there! I saw them from afar! So did the [Druids]! And warriors! Pomle has been made into a trap!”

Soloxenethn opened his eyes slowly and looked at Buler.

“They will not stop Orjin.”

He said it with such conviction that Buler turned, and Orjin was already distant, striding towards the oasis in the distance. Surely the wise would shudder and flee him. Buler felt his own body quaking—yet Xil was dead.

The greatest [Spearmaster] of Chandrar was dead. Buler’s eyes stung with tears as he climbed onto Reizue’s Dream. This was not the story he had wanted.

He regretted listening to the [Innkeeper] and trying to help. He did not want to be part of tales any longer and see how terribly they ended. His heart hurt—and yet he could never run from Orjin. He would rather die than abandon the Strongest.

Because Buler could not fight alongside the Strongest of Pomle, he began to fly northwards. To find Pomle, and perhaps—save Orjin’s heart from breaking further.




It took Buler nearly five minutes to realize he was being followed. He looked back on a hunch and saw a distant figure galloping after him.


Buler slowed, turned around, and landed. The panting camel trotted onto the carpet, and Buler tried to read Spitty’s bleak gaze.

“Come on, then.”

The camel knelt as the boy took off. Flying higher. He knew he was in grave danger; General Thelican’s army was on the way.

And his reinforcements were already arriving. Buler saw a distant shape creeping down one of the roads, and then a distant object halted and turned. Spitty made a groaning noise of alarm, and Buler dove—and a ballista bolt pierced the air overhead.

Damn your stitches, you cowardly pieces of maggothide!

Buler screamed as he skimmed the sands. There were still so many of Nerrhavia Fallen’s soldiers! As he escaped the range of that ballista, he skimmed higher and saw yesterday’s battlefield from afar.

The land was so blackened he could see it behind the column of gleaming metal that was Thelican’s army. A torn cliff of stone. So many dead that even the pyres were still smouldering.

“How can they keep fighting and fighting and sacrifice so many to kill Pomle?”

Buler wondered aloud. Surely the [Soldiers] were at their limits. Yet he saw more winding snakes of [Soldiers] joining the main army. As if Thelican’s force were not people, but one of the fearsome Hydras of other continents, a bundle of snake heads that died and were replenished.

Bitterly, Buler thought it was a strategy worthy of a [Great General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, who was willing to kill a thousand for every one of Pomle’s folk who died. No one would tell stories of him.

So fast was Reizue’s Dream that Buler found Pomle, though he thought the ragged group of warriors marching southwards were [Bandits] at first.

Nothing of them looked like the glorious warriors he expected. When he alighted and saw a warrior raise filthy gauntlets and shout at him, Buler did not recognize Vandum.

The man was huge, his skin had pieces of metal still embedded in it, and crusted blood had made his beautiful armor black and caked with filth. Yet his eyes seemed to Buler to be fierce and wild.

“You are with Orjin? He is returning?”

Vandum’s face changed when Buler leapt from the carpet to explain. Several weary [Martial Artists] raised their heads, and Buler counted.

There are barely a hundred left. 

“Where…where is the rest of Pomle?”

“Fled. Or separated. Where is Orjin?”

“Forget that, Vandum. Boy. Will you take our wounded and disciples to safety?”

A woman with one arm and glowing eyes, pulsing veins of orange in dead flesh, pushed forward. Salthorn’s face was bleak, but she looked at Buler.

“Thelican means to catch us. His riders are set to catch us by midday.”

“We will force him to meet us in battle. Pomle’s name will echo in Nerrhavia Fallen’s ears a thousand years.”

Vandum’s lips were flecked with spit. Salthorn gazed at him and looked away.

“Xil is dead. I have no more stomach for this war. If I thought I would survive, I would surrender. But that ‘[Great General]’ has no mercy. I knew that the moment I saw him destroy Pomle without a moment’s thought.”

A huge warrior, Jalte, his own body scorched despite his skin as tough as metal, nodded. Buler was looking around for someone as Vandum bared his teeth silently.

“Where is Salii? Orjin’s [Secretary]?”

My [Secretary]. That fool tried to break away when she saw Thelican closing in.”

“She was wise enough to tell the others to run. She fled north, boy. But Thelican’s army…many disciples went with her, and masters. I fear—”

Jalte pointed, and Buler’s heart sank. He looked around as Salthorn shaded her eyes.

“I think I see them coming. Boy, will you take the others away?”

“Y-yes. There is a gathering of [Druids] and [Martial Artists] and those following Orjin. I will take them there!”

“Close to Pomle? A fitting place to make our last stand. Almost. If you all pass Level 50. If I had more time to reach Level 60—I’m halfway there. Only halfway!”

Vandum was muttering to himself, flexing and unflexing his hands. No one looked at him. Buler stared wide-eyed at Vandum. Level 55? Then he was one of Chandrar’s champions without question!

Yet he did not look like the Strongest of Pomle.




By the time Buler brought nearly half the warriors of Pomle to Iratze and the others, he was told Orjin was almost to Pomle. Another sandstorm was blowing in, and the skies were not fit to fly. But Buler insisted on returning. Not to Vandum and the others. They had told him to forget them; Thelican would shoot him out of the skies. The masters of Pomle were going to make their final stand, and the sandstorm might well hide them.

“I must find Salii!”

That was all Buler shouted. He took off again, and Soloxenethn was too slow to leap aboard Reizue’s Dream and stop him.

The wind was throwing Buler left and right, and he feared this would be his death as Reizue’s Dream battled the sand that tried to grab and hurl him down.

“Spitty! Hold on! Spitty?”

He turned—and realized the camel was gone. Had he even come with Buler on the ride back? No!

Buler was flying ahead of the sandstorm, which was indeed forcing even Thelican’s [Soldiers] to take cover. He didn’t even see the warriors of Pomle, but he did spot the battleground where Xil had died and made for it.

North, Salthorn had said. Buler skimmed across the ground and saw countless pyres—but also so many bodies that it was clear Thelican had given up on even burning them and left them to be consumed by the sand.

His stomach roiled, and Buler tried to not vomit at the sight of all the death. Yet a single figure below him made Buler skim low, practically touching the ground, and scream.


The camel had been running around the battlefield this entire time, ignored by Nerrhavia’s Fallen as just a wild camel, perhaps abandoned by a [Rider] in battle. Not worth hunting down.

He was searching the dead, turning over bodies, and seemed to have worked his way from the place Pomle had been trapped until Xil attacked and was now heading north. Buler followed from above and saw what Spitty had noticed.

There were more bodies heading north. Clearly, Pomle had tried to break northwards and left many, many dead in their wake. But Buler’s heart stopped when he saw a pyre of bodies.

“No. No!”

Here the signs of fighting ended. Just past the canyon walls, Buler saw a pile of the dead, heaped so high it seemed as if a master had made their final stand and slain so many they had fallen under the weight of their foes. Buler landed, sobbing, and Spitty ran around the pyre, groaning.

No one had lit the Stitch-folk aflame, and the gold armor was caked in sand and blood. Buler fell to his knees and buried his face in the sands.

Enough. There was nothing for Orjin to save.

He was weeping so long and hard that he never noticed the pile of bodies moving. Only when someone spoke, in a raspy voice, a sibilant note to her words, did he freeze and look up.

“No one punch the kid. I recognize that camel. Thelican’s not smart enough to set a trap.”

Buler’s face rose in disbelief—and a Drake’s unmistakable head poked out of the pile of bodies. Spitty recoiled, and before Buler’s eyes, the pile of the dead began to shift.

[Martial Artists] got up, pushing the corpses of Nerrhavia Fallen’s warriors off them. There were dozens of them! Maybe even forty—some even sat up, shaking dust off them.

“A flying carpet. That has to be Reizue’s Dream.”

Salii, the greatest [Secretary] of the Walled Cities, had a helmet on. Two of her neck-spines had been torn off, and she looked bloody and battered as the others. But Buler and Spitty raced over, and the camel shed huge tears all over the Drake.

“Easy. Spitty, stop that. Where’s Orjin? Did that idiot, Vandum, make it? Everyone, up! Get ready for anything.”

Salii was coughing, and Buler stammered.

“But how—?”

“We broke north while they were focused on Vandum. With all the spells coming down, it was hard to see—I faked a [Message] to Thelican and pretended we’d been wiped out. He pulled back his forces to focus on Vandum and Xil rather than ask an officer on the ground what was going on. Frankly, I think the Hemp left us alone and just didn’t report we were playing dead.”

Salii was shaking as she drank from a water flask Buler had. She looked up and asked a question she already knew the answer to.

“Xil’s dead?”

“Yes. And Vandum and the others are about to be caught by Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

The [Secretary] nodded.

“End of the line. His gamble didn’t pay off. He thought he’d hit Level 60 by the end of the war and that he’d have fifty Level 40+ [Martial Artists] at his back. I’d say five people passed Level 40, and Salthorn might be closing in on Level 50. But Xil’s dead. Counter-levelling doesn’t work if everyone dies.”

She took a shuddering breath.

“I backed Vandum’s play as long as I could. I thought a [Secretary] should try it his way. Now, I have enough [Martial Artist] Skills to survive a war. But if I was employing me, I’d fire myself for being a fool.”

Her face was bleak, and Buler saw the regret as her head swiveled to see the people she’d saved. Even with this new group, half of Pomle’s warriors had met their end in this last battle.

“Come—come with me, Miss Salii. I will take you back to the others. There are still more of Pomle’s folk! And [Druids]. Orjin is going to Pomle. It’s not over.”

The Drake’s head rose, and her gaze fixed on Buler. He thought he saw her straighten, and the other warriors, Raul, Mendi, Cheindurana, all looked up.

As if Orjin’s name betokened a better time.

“He cannot stop Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Two Vandums will not halt Thelican’s army. Without Xil…we are [Martial Artists]. That [General] is fighting a war. If all of the warriors of Pomle join together, we will still be overwhelmed and destroyed.”

Cheindurana, one of Pomle’s masters, a [Slayer of Fists], shook her head. Salii nodded, but she gazed at Buler.

“I want to see him. Take us to him, please? I want to know what he found on his journey. Did he—did he find his answer?”

“Not yet.”

Buler met Salii’s gaze. She had known Orjin far longer, but he felt a kind of connection as he ushered the [Martial Artists] onto his carpet. This great tale was reaching its end. And Buler would be there to see it.




I am not me.

Orjin walked into a storm. The air was freezing, and the sand was whipping across the desert lands of Chandrar. The morning became night, and the storm was the same that had begun in the Lantern Lands, a whirling mass of razor’s blades pursuing and engulfing him.

Like his heart. The man who so many called ‘Strongest’ walked towards Pomle and saw harsh lights in his home. An invader’s careless beacons.

His skin tingled with scrying spells. He could smell a foul, diseased air in the distance. Corruption in the very earth. He felt it, like bile on his tongue.

Yet his heart was bleaker than even the pain in the land. Xil was dead. And Orjin now saw how his people had died.



He had left them. He had never protected Pomle. He had begun all this, and now…Xil was dead, and Thelican’s great army closed in step by step.

One man could not stop them. Orjin knew he was walking into a trap. But his steps could not halt.

I. Am not. Myself.




What did you see? Were you the Court of Silks, watching from afar, as if this were a [Gladiator]’s match? Toasting victories and placing bets?

Were you an [Innkeeper], silently watching, unable to do anything more than trust?

Were you others, an audience watching through a screen, removed a thousand miles from this event? The people of Pomle, who looked at Orjin knowing hope was futile, but still watching? Those who had heard his name, watching the silent figure halt a mile from Pomle?

What did you see? The Court of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had roused themselves to a panoply of sound and entertainment, and the [Slaves] and servants worked overtime to amuse the angry Court of Silks.

Last night, they had tried to celebrate, but no one could. The Garuda who had defined the pride of their nation was dead. They had brought down a great foe, one of their old heroes. No wine could make that sweet, and the knowledge choked and sputtered in the throat and sat ill in the stomach.

Now, Great General Thelican claimed the last hour of the Strongest of Pomle had come. He had survived [Assassins], Djinni, fought [Soldiers]…yet it seemed a hollow boast to many. For they had never truly seen Orjin fight.

Strongest. A strange name for a man who did so little battle. A name only those of Pomle understood. Many had perhaps seen Orjin’s face before as he gave judgment with the Arbiter Queen. Or in battle.

Queen Jecaina and King Raelt both watched from Jecrass, the sight of that man halting, a speck in the distance, even with the [Scrying] spell someone was casting. Itkisa and Torreb watched as they rode a Djinni’s flying sled, and perhaps even the Djinni herself gazed at him out of the corner of her eye.

A single man halted, feet planted in the sand, and the oasis he had returned to stirred. A rank of figures lazily stopped playing cards around the flying carpet they had flown in on.

[Mages]. But they did not stand, not yet. They were waiting.

Somewhere, Great General Thelican was giving orders and a speech, his face filling a scrying orb and reflecting his own smile. But no one was paying attention to that.

The [Soldiers] who swiveled a ballista towards the Strongest of Pomle moved swiftly, adjusting the war machine as someone calculated distances. It was not as beautiful as Bird’s ballista, but they were efficient enough, and their faces were set.

The Cotton [Artillery Crew] looked at the confident warriors waiting for Orjin. Then at the man who had become a name they had heard—part of the reputation that was one of the stories of Chandrar.

Strongest of Pomle.

When one of them heard the order to fire, they pulled a string after a moment’s hesitation, and the ballista thumped. A gigantic ballista bolt shot up and ahead, curving at terrifying speed to strike the man there.

No one could survive that unharmed. Even someone Level 50. The masters of Pomle would soon face a hail of these weapons.

Orjin of Pomle had begun walking when he saw the ballista aiming at him. That distant man seemed to tilt his head back. Then, as it curved, a [Homing Shot]…he moved at the last second.

A plume of dirt and the faintest of sounds from this far away. The [Scrying] spell only showed a dust cloud, which faded as the storm blew closer, buffeting the soldiers, who drew veils over their faces and hunkered down. Then…a soft exclamation like a sigh.

The man walked out of the dust cloud, unharmed.

“Miss. Reload and fire, fools!




“This makes our artillery seem incompetent.”

Yisame barely heard the grumble from one of the watchers. She had no breath left to give. Her heart hurt. She heard the [Generals] angrily discussing the coverage.

“The death of Xil made it seem as though our [Soldiers] were water fleas who won a battle only by the weight of them. Another nation would prove how extraordinary our foes are. Once the King of Destruction is forced back, we should demonstrate—”

“Thelican has prepared well. I see nothing wrong with his plans. The Strongest will die. Only damn this sandstorm. The [Weather Mages] assured me it would be clear. Fools, they. Like the magical hurricane; they cannot predict anything worthwhile.”

Another bolt was loaded, despite the complaints of the crew’s ability, and Yisame heard a sound.


A second bolt, this time faster, not curving, but flashing across the distance. It was dead-on, and Yisame made a sound as it shot towards Orjin’s chest. She didn’t see the moment of impact; it was too fast. A cloud of dust arose, and everyone fell silent.

Then—Orjin walked out of the cloud of dust. This time, Yisame saw the ballista’s lead operator turn his head, clearly uncertain of what to do.

Reload! Fire, you idiots!

Someone screamed, and the ballista loaded a third time. The third bolt flew without confidence, no more Skills empowering it. And again, it seemed straight on, but when the cloud of dust blew away…he was still coming.

Only a fool would try again after that. So the commander kept screaming orders, and the ballista kept thumping. Six. Seven…

At last, the crew just stepped away, shaking their heads, unnerved. Each shot they’d placed perfectly, and still that figure walked on. So, General Thelican gave a curt order, and Orjin halted as the [Battlemages] got ready for combat.

Rows of [Riders] with nervous horses and camels were readying themselves; two companies of [Soldiers] and fortified ground led into the oasis.

The same terrain that had made it so difficult for Thelican to take Pomle would resist anyone trying to reclaim the home of the [Martial Artists], worthless as it was.

Yet one man…the [Soldiers] were nervous, and even the [Mages] began casting spells in preparation. But Thelican’s voice rose, high and angry.

“Enough! The reputation of Pomle has disgraced Nerrhavia’s Fallen too long! There is no nation in the world that exceeds our own! There is no class that we do not have mastery of. This day—we will prove it. [Martial Artists]—forwards!

Yisame’s breath caught. Then she saw a group striding into view.

Ten. Somehow, Thelican had scoured Nerrhavia’s Fallen and found ten experts. How not? The nation was vast, and there were [Monks] and experts of every kind, some of whom might have trained in Pomle itself.

They were all Stitch-folk, each one dressed in silk. Some had robes or flashy clothing like the Fury of Skies; others had more practical uniforms. One was as bare chested as Orjin save for a breastband.

“I recognize some of them. That one is Solekr the Spinning Fist. User of the [Spinning Way: Spiral Strikes of the Unicorn’s Horn] Skill.”

At least one of the [Martial Artists] was known. At least one, then, was definitely over Level 40. The other [Martial Artists]? None below Level 30 as Yisame read a list. Two more over Level 40.

Ten versus one, and Thelican had no intention of letting it be a one-on-one fight. So why—

Why did Yisame look at the distant man’s face, which she could almost make out the details of, and feel afraid?

She had met Orjin. But there was a blankness to his expression she felt from here. He halted as the [Martial Artists] slowly spread out, forming a wide semi-circle. They met him half a mile from Pomle, and now the sandstorm was blowing around them, but none of them moved. They were tensed, watching Orjin.




He stood there, unmoving, without taking a fighting pose. Slowly, Orjin’s head turned right and left.

As if searching each face. He was met with gazes that refused to waver, spirits grinding against his own. Auras clashing.

The [Martial Artists] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen pushed with their auras, for they were all masters, searching for his will to overpower and clash with it and overwhelm him.

But there was nothing there. Only a perfect nothingness, not even a void. The storm blew around Orjin, and his hair collected particles of sand as he breathed in and out.

Then he raised his hands and clasped his fist in his palm. They waited.

He did not bow.

The first [Martial Artist] crossed the distance with a kick out of a [Flash Step], a blow aimed straight at Orjin’s face. The Strongest caught the leg with one arm and brought down his elbow.

He snapped the femur, and the leg bent up as a scream choked in their throat. Orjin’s palm found the face and thrust it down into the dirt. He rose, and a figure lay embedded in the ground; he ducked a palm that slashed over his head like a razor. It severed one of his braids of hair, and he thrust a palm back.

The tip of his fingers pierced a throat, and a choking [Martial Artist] staggered back, clutching at the hole in their cloth flesh. Orjin took a blow from afar; a [Martial Artist] threw another punch that crossed two dozen feet. Orjin saw a flicker from the side. He tensed and ignored a blow to his face. The [Martial Artist] winced and checked his fist; Orjin dodged a twisting blow that passed over his face and tore the skin of one arm open from the passage.

The [Martial Artist of the Spinning Way] paused, and three more [Martial Artists] leapt forwards. One went for Orjin’s legs in a sweep while the second and third closed in from the sides.

The Strongest’s kick struck a chin and sent the [Grappler]’s head up, but the Stitch-woman absorbed the blow. He threw a punch that slowed the charge; she took the blow across one cheek and kept coming.

His fists moved faster, and he kept punching. The [Submission Expert] tried to grab for his legs, and Orjin’s hands kept flashing.

Two dozen blows. Three dozen—she collapsed, and Orjin’s arm spun. One of the leaping [Martial Artists] tried to dodge, and he brought his palm down.

Cloth and string fell apart. The [Martial Artist] tried to raise their left arm and saw it fall. They clutched at the blood running from their arm. Orjin turned the other way, and three blows struck him simultaneously. Crotch, leg, chest—[Dual Blow] and a kick.

His foot struck the ribs of the fifth [Martial Artist] and kept going. The figure fell without a word, and the remaining masters stopped their advance. The highest-level ones had been watching. Now—one of them halted uncertainly.

Which Skills was he using? A [Thunderpalm Martial Artist] locked eyes with another closing on Orjin from the rear, and they timed their attack.

Orjin deflected punches, twisting, head weaving away from the blows of the first master, taking the second on his other side at the same time. He could not block all the blows, and a palm struck his chest like the clap of lightning. He seized the arm and brought his elbow down, breaking it, then swung the elbow into a head, which snapped back.

Three strings along the seam of the neck exploded, and the [Martial Artist] fell. The other disciple of the Magic Fist school tried to back up; Orjin tackled the figure, and they grappled on the ground. Orjin had a knee on the back of his opponent as one of the other masters tried to attack him; he knelt on the first [Martial Artist]’s back and struck their head against the ground rapidly. Then he pivoted and took the second grappler onto the ground.

They threw him; he landed on his back, and the two were trying to lock each other’s joints. The master swung around Orjin, body like a snake, seized an arm; he reversed the grip, snapped a thumb off, and twisted an arm up. The other fist swung for his face, and he broke it as well.

The last two masters were waiting when he rose. The first leapt forward, exploding into combinations of kicks and punches, a neverending assault that forced Orjin backwards, blocking and deflecting the attacks as the [Martial Artist of the Spinning Way] stalked right.

Waiting to use [Spiral Strikes of the Unicorn’s Horn]. Orjin’s head turned, and the two exchanged one glance as blocking the first expert sent his feet skidding back in the sand. Then he found his opening, and his head crashed into the first master’s nose.


[Spiral Strikes of the Unicorn’s Horn]! The other master’s fists spun, and a lance of twisting flesh, an elongated blow, like twisters of a hurricane, swept at Orjin’s side. Each one could pierce steel plate armor—

Orjin’s fists glowed, and his hands struck four times.

[Dulav-ra: Tetrad of the Solar Aura]. 

A glowing fist met the twisting blow four times. Then—the [Martial Artist of the Spinning Way] stepped back, eyes wide. Orjin had used his own capstone Skill to defend himself.

Orjin lifted his fists as the last master hesitated, feet shifting on the sands. Then the expert of the Spinning Way burst into a frenzy of blows, twisting, deflecting a punch, spinning, exchanging punches and kicks, bursting out of a hold—

They fought for five minutes, the longest of the ten. When the final [Martial Artist] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen collapsed to one knee, not one finger of their hands had survived the exchange of blows that had torn them off.

Orjin stood there, panting, blood running from his wounds as his breath rose. He stood over the last master, and a bloody hand tried to jab at his throat. He struck the chest, punched the collarbone, the face, knelt down and kept throwing punches until he thought someone grabbed his shoulder.

When he spun, ready to strike—he saw no one. Then Orjin looked down and saw the mess of blood and the silent figure in front of him. Only then did he stop.

Somewhere else, there was sound. It returned to Orjin’s world of silence as he looked at his hands, covered in blood. Down at his foes.

He was a boy again, in his dream, looking at the opponent he had killed. He was Vandum, his eyes alight with battle. Refusing to surrender even with his arm torn off.

Is this Pomle?

Orjin lifted his eyes and wondered if he were dreaming.

He swore he saw Collos’ shadow waiting for him at Pomle’s entrance. The [Strongest of the Martial Age]. The first Strongest.

Someone was shouting, giving distant orders. Orjin was walking forwards, fists raised.


He saw arrows flying, saw [Riders] bursting from one entrance of Pomle, and in the distance, [Battlemages] were chanting. [Soldiers] were marching at him…and Orjin was not looking at them. Only at Collos.

A javelin flew at him, and he knocked it aside. Collos!

Orjin’s jaw was clenched. His every wound ached and burned. His body was burning.

And it was wrong.

Xil was dead. The First Strongest was waiting for him. But in his dream, Orjin had raised his fists just like this…

Orjin halted and stared to his side.

A javelin was lying on the ground. Orjin had lost his spear after the battle with the Siren. Yet the spear didn’t matter, or so Xil had ever taught.

Slowly, looking away from Collos, Orjin bent down and picked up the spear. He held it, feeling the heft of it, and without thinking, his palm chopped off the haft, balancing it better. Xil.

Xil, that master, had spent so much time lazing in Pomle, arguing with other masters, not training but simply talking. His last moments had been a warrior sacrificing himself for Pomle.

The [Peerless Spearmaster]. The Garuda giving Orjin advice, teaching children and experts as he pleased. Approving of Orjin taking in Tiqr’s folk.

What is Pomle? Which one was Xil?

Orjin raised his gaze, expecting to see the vision of Collos vanish, but the First Strongest was still there. That man, superimposed over the vision of [Mages] aiming spells at him, walls of magic guarding them, and the soldiers rushing towards him. The [Archers] were taking aim, arrayed on Pomle’s cliffs.

Collos was waiting. Orjin didn’t know what to do. Then—he looked at that dream of Collos. And he lowered his hands. Slowly, Orjin planted the spear in the ground in front of him. He raised one bloody fist and clasped it into his palm.

He bowed his body from the waist, feeling his breathing stabilize. The urge to kill replaced by something else in his veins. It was not his goal.

It never had been. Yet when he raised his head, his eyes fixed upon Nerrhavia Fallen’s warriors without wavering.

He met Collos’ eyes—and he thought he saw the First Strongest smile. Then he vanished.

And Orjin felt the storm around him change. He took one breath, then another. Controlled himself.




The Strongest of Pomle stood there, again, but the rage that had been in every line of him was…

Not gone.

But mastered. Controlled. When he bowed, even the [Mages] hesitated—but then they took aim, spells readied. Orjin’s head rose, bows snapped, and a flurry of arrows rose into the air. He plucked the spear out of the ground.

Then—as a shower of the steel-tipped arrows fell, Orjin raised both his arms and tensed. The moment before the volley struck him, his entire body flexed, and the arrows struck his flesh—and bounced off.

Stonebody Martial Arts. The [Archers] looked at each other, and a cry went up for them to hold—hold—

The [Riders] were coming. The [Mages] muttered as a stream of Stitch-folk on horseback whooped and slashed the air with sabres, riding down on Orjin. Then the [Martial Artist] untensed, lifted his spear, and leapt forwards.

The twisting figure slashed through the [Riders] racing past him, knocking figures off horseback, deflecting the swords—with a spear! He emerged through the first wave, planted the butt of the spear, and vaulted up.

As if he could fly. When he landed, kicking a [Captain] off a horse, he spun the spear and deflected a rain of arrows.

[Mages]! Spells—now!

Six [Battlemages], each one over Level 30, released Tier 4 magics. The first one simply shot [Extended Lightning Bolt] at Orjin. The lightning flashed across the distance, a power that few [Warriors] could match.

The Strongest saw it coming and leapt. The bolt of lightning struck him as he thrust the shaft of the spear down into the earth. The flash illuminated him—and he landed as the [Mage] blinked.

“What was—?”

The [Battlemage] had no idea what he’d done. She had never actually looked at a bolt of lightning in a storm and seen how it travelled or why it moved. To her, it was magic.

“[Fireball]! [Fire Orb]! [Flame Strike]!”

The second, a [Pyromancer], began hurling spells. The Strongest saw the roiling masses of fire, and his spear extended as the [Fireball] reached him. He stepped back as the spear touched the [Fireball], and it detonated. Orjin’s feet slid back, and he leaned under the flaming orb of fire and looked up.

Fire poured down from the heavens. Orjin flipped out of the way of the flames, and a gout of fire, the third spell, made him slash with the spear, parting the flames. The heat baked him as he strode forwards—but fire was a tempestuous thing. He had walked on burning coals and seen how the heat had to gather before he burned.

The earth rumbled, and Orjin looked down. He jumped—and a crevasse opened, then snapped shut. He gazed down, then hopped again—and when the spire of stone rose to impale him, he slid down the side, dodging a series of stalagmites erupting from the ground, walking through them as they burst next to his feet.

“How is he doing—”

[Hundredfold Arrows of Light]!

Another [Mage] just fired a wave of arrows, and Orjin planted his feet. He dropped his spear and began to punch, like Lemocles had once shown him to do. The arrows came in a stream, not one simultaneous attack; Orjin’s jabbing punches met each one as he walked backwards, leaving motes of sparkling light in the air.


A [Golem Artificer] pointed, and a huge mass of metal with a glowing head, a copy of Domehead, ran at Orjin. The [Strongest] looked up as it raised an arm covered in spikes to punch at him. He let the Golem extend the fist, walking with it, and seized the arm as it passed by his shoulder at full extension.

The [Mages] saw the giant creation of metal tilt. Then—rotate. Orjin threw the Golem over his shoulder and paused, panting, as the automaton lay there. It didn’t understand what had happened. It was not programmed to get up, so its feet kicked at the ground uselessly until it stopped.

The [Soldiers] marching towards Orjin had seen him evading each spell. They halted, forming that wall of shields and metal, and Orjin turned. When he raised his arms and advanced—he looked like Vandum and snapped through the first layer of pikes, hurling opponents aside with each blow before backing off, leaving them milling in confusion before back charging in.

He fought like Pomle. When one of the [Battlemages] hurled [Icy Lances] at him, Orjin kicked a stone into the path of the massive Tier 4 spell, and its trajectory missed him.

He was at the canyon walls, now, and the [Mages] inside the oasis saw him appear on top of the canyon, running up the steep cliffs as if they were stairs as the [Archers] screamed and scattered.

“General Thelican, we are pulling back to the carpet. We will destroy him from above and retreat if it is impossible to kill him after exhausting our mana reserves and potions.”

The [General] was screaming at them to stay on the ground while his troops reformed, but the [Mages] refused.

“[Mass Featherfall]. Alright, take it up.”

The [Golem Artificer] shot the carpet up as Orjin raced into Pomle. The pit of corrupted ground that was all that was left of the oasis was still there, the abandoned buildings that Tiqr’s people had bought converted into barracks.

But so much was the same, even the tiny shack that he had built, which no one had wanted. He looked around Pomle, and the [Mages] pointed down at him.

“[Valmira’s Comet].”

“[Muddy Ground].”

“[Silent Sickle].”


“[Light Arrows]!”

Five [Mages] saturated the ground as Orjin spun away, dodging a spell that should have been invisible as it cut through air—why did he look so calm? Calm, and eyes alight with adrenaline. Like no warrior the [Mages] had ever killed, who lived and breathed battle and the frenzy of the fight.

He aimed his spear up and hurled it—then punched the air, and the [Golem Artificer] dodged the shockwave—and swerved as the spear nicked the carpet’s center, shredding the tapestry and leaving a great hole in the center. But it bounced off a glowing shield one of the [Battlemages] had raised.

“That’s his best? Don’t let him hit the carpet, fool. Higher!”

Their leader snapped, and the [Golem Artificer] pulled up slightly to drive them higher. But then the carpet, two hundred feet up, began to slant down.

“No! He damaged it!”

“Damn. Let’s teleport out and put up wall spells—”

“We’re going down too fast!”

The [Mages] realized they were falling hard. One of them stared at the others.

“[Featherfall]. Why isn’t it working? [Featherf—]”

They had cast the spell! But they were descending faster than they should be falling. The carpet was nosediving, the magic ruined by the spear, and then one of them shrieked.

“The [Flight] spell! It’s pulling us down! Teleport! [T—”

One of the [Mages] shrieked the first letter of the spell before they hit the ground. Orjin had seen the carpet fall, and he stared at the figures on the ground, then bowed his head. Somewhere, Buler was weeping for another artifact lost and seeing the end of all who dared to fly like that.

Thus, carpet riders died. Orjin caught his breath at last and gazed around.

But he saw no more [Soldiers]. Just fleeing figures and an impotent, important, screaming [General]. Orjin walked over to a scrying orb and looked down. His hand crushed the crystal orb—and then exhaled, at last.

“I am home.”




One last trial awaited Orjin, and it was the hardest of all, at first. It was as the troops fled Nerrhavia’s Fallen, of not exacting vengeance.

Many of the higher-level ones had fled with magic or on horseback, but the sight of Pomle’s warriors and the [Druids] made the fleeing [Soldiers] throw down their weapons and surrender.

“Don’t kill us, Strongest. Please.”

The [Martial Artist] halted, his fists still covered in the blood of his foes, but he did not raise his hands. He looked down, and a [Captain] of Hemp bowed to him.

“You are enemy [Soldiers].”

“We have no will to fight. Please—let us return home.”

“Return home? After what you did?

One of the [Martial Artists] shouted, but Orjin looked at the man’s scars and his simple armor, gold and battered, revealing plain steel underneath the gold leaf.

“You are Hemp. Thelican ordered you to face me. I know that your people fight for Nerrhavia’s Fallen, sometimes against your will. But we are still enemies. If I let you go, will I see you once more on the battlefield?”

The [Captain] gritted his teeth as the few hundred [Soldiers] shivered. The [Druids] were staring at them with no more love than Pomle’s folk or the others.

“It may be so, Strongest. If so—I ask you let my people go. I am a Level 22 [Captain]. My people were conscripted. Surely you know Nerrhavia’s Fallen gives the Hemp little choice?”

Orjin did know. He had only been tempted a moment by dark thoughts. He let his hands relax and nodded. Buler was returning, and he had brought more than just Pomle’s warriors. As Orjin turned, he saw two unexpected figures with the others. He raised a hand to Salii—and stopped as a figure with a handsome travelling cloak as old as he was swung himself down.

Barelle the Bard. Of all the people…Orjin frowned, for the [Bard]’s smile and the way the air blew around him like a warning seemed at first as if Orjin had met a stranger in the desert who would either die or be his end.

However, when the [Bard] saw Orjin was not moving to strike the surrendered [Soldiers], that tension relaxed. And he bowed slightly, using the gesture of Pomle’s warriors.

“Bard Barelle. What are you doing here?”

For some reason, the Hemp [Soldiers] recognized him, with clear relief, and several of them shot Orjin glances. Barelle’s voice was deep and carried to the ears of all.

“I saw Reizue’s Dream in the distance. I feared it might lead to further bloodshed, so I beseeched the rider, Buler, to carry me here. I shall have to return to Great General Thelican soon, but perhaps my presence was unneeded. Orjin of Pomle. Please let these [Soldiers] go.”

“They are still my enemy. Even if they claim they had orders…”

“They would have been executed for fleeing. Many have been. You must surely know how bloody Thelican’s war against Pomle has been. He throws the commonfolk of Nerrhavia’s Fallen at his foes like a sea, without regard for us any more than he would have for the surf.”

“Yet they go.”

Orjin frowned at Barelle, whom even he had heard of. But the [Bard] just nodded at a second figure who swung herself down and bowed to him. Another Hemp warrior, this one wearing a commander’s plume.

“Our families would be slaughtered if we fled. We are not blind, Strongest. But many of us enlist on the promise of the gold we will receive—far more than we would earn any other way. Nerrhavia’s Fallen sings a sweet promise as they have for millennia: any Hemp [Soldier] may one day, by virtue of deed and level, become Cotton or even Silk. I myself would already be eligible for Cotton. But if Alked Fellbow has little loyalty for Nerrhavia’s Fallen, it tells you that one can change their stitching, but never their cloth in the eyes of others. I am Commander Viradectia, and I beg Pomle’s mercy even if I have no right to it.”

Orjin grew angrier for a second, though not at the Stitch-folk [Commander]. She was clearly not here under Theilcan’s orders. Families slaughtered? Orjin’s head turned from Barelle, to Viradectia, and then to a Drake, who strode forwards, pushing people out of the way.



He almost hugged her, but the [Secretary]’s first words were all business.

“Before you say anything—part of the reason the [Martial Artists] and I survived escaping Thelican was because it turned out the Stitch-folk were too busy running away! This [Commander] popped out of nowhere with Barelle the Bard!”

She gave the man an accusing look, and the [Bard] bowed. Then Orjin saw it.



Commander Viradectia corrected him with a tight smile. She nodded to the [Captain], who gave her a wan smile.

“Or at least, lost [Soldiers]. Thelican, that pompous donkey with a silk covering, is no fool. He executes any officer whose command deserts. But his war has been costly. He reports tens of thousands of dead [Soldiers] per battle, and he has killed as many hurling us against Pomle. But he cannot count. An army relies on its limbs.”

And if the limbs decided they were done…Orjin saw it. Even so, he imagined only a fraction would play dead or escape.

“Is this what Nerrhavia’s Fallen is like?”

“It was not always so. I have seen the empire differently, the time I have been here. I ask your forbearance, Strongest.”

Orjin looked into Barelle’s eyes, then at the other [Soldiers]. He sighed.

“Once again. If I meet Hemp [Soldiers] in battle, I may not have the right to show them any mercy. I am troubled.”

He stirred, and the soldiers of Nerrhavia’s Fallen tensed. Barelle’s hand rested on his harp, but Orjin just raised his hands and brushed at the blood drying there.

“The longer I travel, and the more I learn, the less enemies I find. The Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen is mine. But I cannot hate the [Soldiers], either.”

Even the other warriors of Pomle and Soloxenethn stared at Orjin in disbelief. But the [Commander] knelt and clasped her hands together.

“Thank you, Strongest. I regret it, this war. If I could have stopped it, I would have. I cannot speak for the citizens, or the people I do not know, but I have not felt any righteousness or confidence.”

She looked up, and he wondered if she had been there when Xil died. For a second, a great fury rose in Orjin—and the oasis of Pomle blew in a storm as if echoing his feelings. Barelle’s head rose, and he lifted his hand to shield his face from the whipping sand.

Yet like the wind, Orjin’s head lowered, and he exhaled.

“Why did you become a [Commander] in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Viradectia? Please. Tell me. I do not understand many things, but this, most of all, I feel I should know.”

The Stitch-woman raised her head, but it was the [Captain] who bowed.

“Strongest, I am Captain Metrizen. If it pleases you, I know the answer for my city.”

Orjin nodded, and the man gestured at the fallen [Mages]. His smile was—bleak.

“For a Hemp [Soldier], it would be worth it to take a single sword or pick up a fallen warrior’s blade. Of course, the punishment for looting a superior’s weapon is harsh, but it would be a fortune like they could never earn. We do level quickly. The dream of all is to one day become Cotton and that our children or grandchildren might make Silk. In other wars, it is worth the risk, for many. Not against Pomle.”

Commander Viradectia muttered.

“Nor the King of Destruction.”

She lifted her eyes, and Orjin stood there. When he replied, it was not merely with mercy in his heart. He was not that kind a man, nor could he put aside his grief and anger.

But it seemed to him that their deaths would only turn Pomle’s sands even redder and do nothing at all. So he hurled a spear back towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen as he met Barelle’s eyes.

“Go. If we meet in battle, Barelle the Bard…”

The man simply bowed and stepped back.

“If we meet, Orjin of Pomle, it will be for a reason neither you nor I can sway on. I hope that day will not come. Thank you.”

They left, and Orjin turned to the [Martial Artists]. Buler was panting from the swift flight, and Orjin crossed over to take his hand. Then he turned.


The [Grappler] clasped her hands, and he saw her bow. Orjin returned the bow, then took her hand.

“I am weary, Strongest. Salthorn told me to run.”

“I will find her.”

He promised her, and the Stitch-woman nodded. Without a word, Orjin turned from her to the others. He breathed in and out. He met Soloxenethn’s angry gaze as the man watched the Hemp [Soldiers] leaving, and he looked to the other angry [Martial Artists].

“The peace of Pomle.”

That was all Orjin said. And he saw a few turn away. But then one of the [Warriors] made a face, clasped his fist against his palm, and bowed slowly.

“As you say, Strongest. Welcome back.”

He smiled, and so did Orjin.




Orjin stood in Pomle, and it was not the same. He knew it was not and, perhaps, never could be.

The screaming in his heart, like the knowledge of Xil’s death, were like holes in his body that hurt far more than the wounds he had taken.

Just like when he had left Pomle, he felt the hole that the magic had caused. The oasis, which had turned black, the remaining water now a sludge so toxic that even Nerrhavia’s Fallen had shoveled in dirt to avoid the fumes from poisoning them.

How could anyone live here again? He did not know. And yet.

He was home. No matter how far he had gone and how welcome he had felt with Torreb and Itkisa, this was home.

He had been born here.

He had been raised here.

Orjin did not know, though, if he should die here.

That was not what Xil and the others would have wanted. That image of Collos that had flashed before his eyes had smiled when Orjin pulled back from the brink of madness. He had fought, and yes, he had killed. The [Mages] were dead, and he did not know if some of Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Soldiers] had died.

But he had not aimed to slaughter. He had fought as the Strongest of Pomle should, in his mind: a warrior without hesitation who neither sought death for his foes nor retreated when the moment came to fight.

Orjin was glad he had remembered himself. Would he have been lost forever if he had fought in hatred and wrath? No, perhaps not. Did it make men like Vandum inherently worse than Orjin? No, of course not.

But it was what he, Orjin, wanted out of his martial arts. Along with the power to undo this tragedy and never let it happen again.

In the minutes after his victory, many things happened quickly. Pomle’s people, those who had followed him, Soloxenethn, and the [Druids] came flooding into Pomle, shouting victory.

As well, Buler’s carpet flew in, bearing more weary [Martial Artists], and Orjin’s heart leapt as he saw one of them quietly dismounting.

Of course, that was when he had to speak to Barelle, and so the moment when he reunited with Salii and the others was delayed—and there were injuries to tend, explanations to be made, and people to count.

Spitty ran around in circles, sniffing the ground as if he were a hound; he had gone to the places the freed [Slaves] had been, as if to make sure they had gotten out.

Orjin, though, didn’t go to Salii or the others right away, for all they were gazing at him. He was standing and looking at the oasis, slightly…lost.

He had thought the moment he set foot in Pomle, he would come to some great understanding, like in the stories.

But all that he had been feeling since the day he left…was just more in his heart. Pain. Loss. Orjin had walked around, checking for [Assassins] or some final gambit by Thelican, and he had stopped by his hut.

It said something that not even a [Soldier] wanted to use it for shelter. Some had gone inside, though since the door was unlocked they hadn’t broken it down, and his belongings were scattered around, but nothing had been taken.

Again, because Orjin didn’t really have anything of value. He emerged with a few pots in hand, checking them over, and found the [Druid], Jvaile, standing outside his hut.



She paused a second, and this time, Orjin did not deny it. He stood there, battle-scarred, but healing, and he felt more of the Orjin who had left. Yet he had to admit…Orjin looked around the oasis.

“It is not the same. It cannot be the same. I know you are first of your [Druid] circle, Jvaile. Is there any hope for Pomle?”

The woman bowed her head, reluctant to answer right away.

“I…I shall be honest in respect to you, Strongest. I should like to lie and tell you nothing is beyond the power of nature to heal. And perhaps a Treant could undo this magic, but that spell was from the days of myth. When I beheld that filth in the oasis’ waters…I imagine one could gain an entirely new class there.”

Orjin raised his brows.

“…From the oasis?”

She shuddered.

“Yes. It reminds me of the filth that the truly mad or desperate would bathe in, a corruption so foul it would be of Rhir. Surely, it is that dangerous. The land is not merely just lacking water, Strongest.”

“It is corrupted. The poison has already worked its way into the plants and a hundred feet deep.”

The [Druid]’s head snapped up, and she blinked at Orjin.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Pomle is screaming. How could I not?”

Now he was here, he heard it again. That wail of the world—and Jvaile looked in astonishment at Orjin for one long moment.

“Yes, of course. I had no idea you could hear it.”

Orjin’s head turned, and he frowned at Jvaile.

“No one else can?”

The moment of clear confusion on the [Druid]’s face was his answer. He had heard that wail the day he left, and the pain of it had driven him to leave. Returning, he felt Jvaile’s words without her telling him.

Pomle was lost. That corruption was a poison so foul it would kill any who settled here, even if they did not drink the waters. It had to be removed, but if he touched it with his hands, he was sure he would suffer it.

“At the very least, we must try to remove it. Or else Pomle might birth horrors in time. Or simply be another death zone of poison.”

The [Druids] would do their best. Yet Orjin was still searching.

“Strongest! Vandum and the other masters are still out there, and Thelican’s army is closing upon them! They will be cornered by evening; they are clashing with the [Riders] trying to box them in.”

Soloxenethn’s urgent voice made the two turn and break away from the dire talk of Pomle’s future. Orjin called back.

“How? What about the storm?”

What storm?”

Orjin looked around, and the sandstorm that he had been fighting under…was gone. Of all the times for it to finally waste its energy! It might have let Vandum’s forces reach Pomle! At least here they would have the home ground.

“Wildspeaker, I must go.”

“Of course, Strongest.”

She bowed, and he went striding back to Pomle’s people. It did feel the same, corruption and scream of Pomle or not.

For there was a certain Drake organizing people and making lists.

“Wonderful. And you just upped and came with Orjin? That sounds like him. Right, you are Group 3, understand? If I say ‘Group 3’, you’re part of it. [Memorize That].”


The Drake glanced over as she tapped someone on the head with her clipboard. Orjin was, somehow, never more relieved to see it was battered but unbroken. Salii didn’t acknowledge him at first, just finished assigning groups to people. Then she slowly turned.

“Orjin, did you find your answer to your journey? Yes or no? I have two boxes here, and depending on the answer, you’re either going to do something incredibly stupid to defeat Thelican, or I need to organize an exit plan. I don’t know if I can save Vandum and the others, but maybe with Reizue’s Dream we can.”

Her voice was brisk, and she didn’t quite look at him as Orjin stood there.

“Salii, you told everyone I was coming. You paved the way for me, didn’t you?”

“Well, of course I did, Orjin. Technically, I’m working for Vandum, but he was concerned about you. Did you run into many patrols here?”


“Well, that’s the power of faking [Messages] for you. Soldiers really do obey most orders they’re given without question. At least, Thelican’s lot do. I guess they’re used to stupid orders. Is that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

Her quill raised, and she looked up at him. Orjin shook his head.

“I don’t have my answer yet.”

“Ah, well…I’ll work with Plan C, then. Let me know if it changes. I’d say we have one full hour before we need to put a rescue into operation or begin running for the hills. Let me speak with the leader of the [Druids], get one glass of clean water, wash my face, and then we’ll have an employee performance review, and we can do the death and glory bit.”

She briskly circled a few things on her clipboard, and Orjin spoke again.

“Salii. I’m glad you’re alive. Why did you go to war with Vandum?”

The Drake paused and sighed.

“…Okay, we’re doing the performance review now, then.”

Now it really felt like the old days. Orjin paused.

“What? I don’t know what that is.”

The [Secretary]’s roll of her eyes took in all of Chandrar.

“I know you don’t. It’s amazing how many non-Drake nations don’t have one. Orjin, I’m your employee. You’re the employer. Doesn’t it strike you as…logical to have a moment where we sit down and analyze what I’ve done wrong? Correct me in a formal way so I can reflect on mistakes? Drakes have it in our society.”

With Thelican’s gigantic army bearing down on them, at the end of his journey, Orjin was somehow learning about employee practices. He folded his arms.

“Why would I need to sit down with you to do that? And when is there an…employer…performance review?”

Salii’s flashed him a bright smile full of sharp teeth.

“Funny thing, Orjin. If you’re at the top, you don’t get one. That’s Drake culture for you. I agree it’s important, but who gets to boss the boss? At any rate, I think it’s valuable. For me. Listen…humor me.”

She brushed at her cheek, covered in ash, and he thought her claws were shaking.

“A thousand [Martial Artists] went to war with Vandum. Not all of them died, but our final count between those Buler got and Vandum’s forces is about a hundred and fifty-three. I think at least four hundred deserted rather than died, and there are prisoners of war who survived. But I got half of Pomle killed. I could have told them to just run, but Vandum wanted to counter-level.”

She gave him a too-bright stare.

“I helped him.”

“The war began because of me, Salii.”

The Drake held up a claw.

“Which I allowed. I could have stopped you, you know. I know your personality. I never gainsaid you, pulled you aside to say ‘this is going to result in war’.”

“I knew.”

“Shut up, Orjin, please. I didn’t tell you outright. Maybe if I had laid it out for you…on the plus side? I helped you get to Torreb. I take credit for helping Vandum outwit Nerrhavia’s Fallen this long; I’ll even mention that I gained [Proficiency: Martial Arts], and I have two other combat-Skills as a result of following Vandum.”


Salii was breathing too hard. She looked up at Orjin.

“Yes, well. I got all that as a result of enabling Pomle’s war, which has killed half its population. I did not stop the destruction of its only natural resource, and this war looks like the end of everything, miracles aside. Now, Orjin, this is the part where you tell me what I’ve done wrong and how I can improve from your perspective. Oh, and I didn’t do much with the Earth-children when I could have.”

She nodded vaguely at Iratze and the others. Then she waited. Orjin stared up, past Salii’s head. He thought for a long while.

“—I cannot think of anything I would ask you to do differently. I would recommend you to other employers if you would like a written…recommender.”

Salii’s clipboard slapped his arm, and Orjin winced; she’d hit a wound.


He met her furious gaze.

“Nothing you did strikes me as wrong, Salii. Vandum and I made our choices. You saved lives, even at the end.”

He looked at Mendi, who was hugging Iratze and Raul and the other Earthers. Salthorn’s disciple was alive thanks to Salii. But the Drake just shook her head. She closed her eyes, then stepped forwards and leaned her head on his chest.

“I’m so tired. I knew you wouldn’t be good at this. Orjin. Can’t you reprimand me? Once?”

“That is something you do best to yourself.”

She glanced up at him and exhaled.

“You’re a tougher boss than I thought. You…you know I came here to Pomle just to use you, right? I told you it was because this was the most miserable, unorganized place. But I knew it was full of potential. I didn’t care about you. I just wanted to use you or whoever was Strongest. When you left, I thought, ‘I’ll do the same with Vandum’. And look.”

Her gaze found the wounded [Martial Artists], some with severed limbs, others sitting without the will to fight. The pit in the center of the oasis.

“Yes. But isn’t that what [Secretaries] do? You helped us. Whether it was right or wrong, it was the definition of your class.”

Salii’s smile was bleak, and her tail left a faint trail through the sand. He realized she’d lost the tip of it. Didn’t Drakes think that was very bad?

“I used to think so. I came from Salazsar, Orjin. I’ve told you what the City of Gems is like—but maybe I never explained it. You work, you make money, and morality and feelings come into your business only if you want to be stupid. I thought that’s how it was. How it should be. A [Secretary] does her job; she might report corruption or incompetence, but…”

She stared past him.

“It didn’t feel good, working with Vandum. I had more fun in the Pomle that you thought was fine. Orjin. I feel like I might have wasted ten years of both your and my time, almost. I don’t think I made a difference.”

She gave him such a sad look that Orjin moved to put a hand on Salii’s shoulder. And he felt like this conversation mattered, because her words of guilt sparked something in his mind.

“Salii. But for you, Pomle would never have changed. You may have been what many warriors thought was radical, unnecessary, and against the spirit of Pomle. But upon my journey, I realized how important what we did was. Pomle was just a training ground; you turned it into a place that was growing. A sanctuary. In your way, you ever had more of the spirit of Pomle than anyone else.”

She looked at him, watery-eyed, and wiped at her face. Orjin’s voice had reached the others waiting for him, and they looked at her and him.

“So I did nothing wrong? This is the worst—I’ll do my own review later. Better. Go on, Orjin. Let’s do something productive instead.”

That was what she said, but she wiped her face on her sleeve—which only made it dirtier, then looked up at him with a smile.

And he returned it. Then Orjin really did feel like the Strongest of Pomle.




“I have returned home.”

That was how Orjin greeted the assembled people in front of him. They waited, and Salii covered her face with her clipboard, because Orjin hadn’t thought of anything else to say.

“…I have not found what I am looking for, yet. But it is here. I know Vandum and the other masters are being cornered by Thelican’s army.”

Buler had flown up a bit and said that Thelican had every intent to take Pomle, but Vandum would go first. The ballistae were setting up, and…Orjin stared into the distance.

The skies were annoyingly clear when they all could have used the cover of a storm, and orange light was matching a setting sun. Orjin turned.

“I will not ask you to come with me. In fact, I hope you will all stay behind and run.”

“Not all of us will. I have sworn to follow you, and so I shall!”

Soloxenethn leapt to his feet, and Orjin sighed.

“You, perhaps—”

“I must go after my master! Strongest, please, let me go!”

Mendi clasped her fist against her hand and bowed. Salthorn was out there. Orjin had a feeling about what was coming next.

“People, please! What the Strongest means is that most of you will need to stay behind. Nerrhavia’s Fallen will show no mercy to you. The [Druids] will pull back. I will make a shortlist of those going with Orjin. If we can, we’ll use Reizue’s Dream to flee. Go on, Strongest?”

He gave Salii a nod of gratitude. Orjin took a breath and stared north.

“I have no great will to throw myself into war, as Vandum did. You have called me the Strongest of Pomle all this way here, despite the fact that Pomle is gone. Yet here I stand.”

He paused and looked at them.

“If you call me that, I will try. For my people are there. The masters of Pomle are my comrades and friends and rivals. I cannot stay here. I do not know what comes next. But if you allow it, I will go one last time as Orjin, Strongest of Pomle. It is how I was always happiest and surest.”

He asked them, bowing deep, and they looked at each other before copying his gesture. Hundreds of heads bowed back, and Orjin raised his own head.

“Thank you.”

“You don’t have a Level 50 class and Skill, do you?”

Salii whispered to Orjin. He shook his head.

“Level 49.”

She exhaled.

“I hate gambling. But I guess I have to bet on you one last time. What do you need for your answer, Orjin?”

“I think I found it. But it’s silly. I don’t know what it means, but something Erin Solstice said…I have her answer. It won’t save us from those ballistae. But I will try to rescue the others.”

Salii’s brows rose.

“That woman reached out to you? Really? She’s getting as bad as Magnolia Reinhart. Good for her. What’s the answer?”

Orjin didn’t say. Salii jabbed him in the side with her clipboard, then narrowed her eyes. She stared past him, and he tried to block her vision.

“Oh, no. Really? That’s your answer?

“It’s…an answer to her question. The other answer came from Jvaile. From being here.”

Orjin bent down, scooped up the dirt and sand, and let it fall from his fingertips. He thought he was in the very earth. Collos was buried here. They were all sons and daughters of Pomle. He looked at Salii.

“A Djinni told me how to fight magic itself, but I just cheated this battle. It is all coming together in my head, Salii. But the answer?”

He gave her an embarrassed smile.

“I don’t have it yet.”

The Drake blew out her cheeks, about to say they’d work around it or something, but Orjin held up a hand. She waited, and he looked around. Pomle.

“It feels right. Fighting for my people and home. When I left, I said that I had failed everyone, and I meant it. Yet I was more lost after that. The reason I came back is because I needed this. I wanted to be Strongest.”

He said it as if it were a surprise, and Salii’s flat look echoed everyone else’s.

No kidding? 

Orjin smiled faintly and looked at them.

“—I have a vision of a Pomle that may never come again. One where there are more disciples than there ever were. When people come here, it is the Peace of Pomle they accept. Be it the lost, refugees, anyone. Safeguarding that vision is hard. Nor could I do it by simply letting Pomle be. While Tiqr fell into chaos, I did nothing. When I saw armies march past Pomle, I claimed Pomle was neutral. If I had travelled out from Pomle, the same people I met would surely have become my friends and allies. But I pretended I was blind.”

Orjin closed his eyes.

“Pomle should always have fought for the causes it believed in. Not as [Soldiers], but to causes we felt were right. Now?”

His head turned northward, as if he could see them drawing together as [Soldiers] by the thousand shook the earth. He heard a scream in his bones, and yet his skin chilled, and he felt strength despite it all.

“It feels as if Pomle itself pushes me forwards. General Thelican has destroyed Pomle, laid multiple nations to waste in war. From the animals to the land and his own people—I cannot sit here or flee. Even if it means my death, I wish to stop this once and for all. And if our deaths halt this madness, so be it. But I will always seek victory. My path is almost complete.”

He felt it in his bones, the understanding quietly shaking the earth around him. Even if no one could hear it, surely Soloxenethn felt the wind laughing at his back, the dying trees of Pomle trying to send him their last dregs of energy. He was unworthy.

Yet when Orjin stood, he was ready.

And Salii was smiling. She stepped back, and Buler was standing by his carpet. Then, Salii raised her voice as the Fury of Winds, Spitty, Mendi, Earthers, and even Jvaile, to Orjin’s surprise, waited there. The greatest [Secretary] smiled with all her teeth.

“Come, Strongest of Pomle. You have an appointment in fifteen minutes with Thelican, Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and a hundred thousand soldiers. Your destiny is scheduled for today, and we’ll move it up, and I’ll push back your meeting with death as long as I can.”

The Strongest of Pomle smiled, ducked his head, and after bending to pick up a few objects, he stepped aboard Reizue’s Dream. Then he was flying, and his heart was steady.

He was heading to his answer at last.




Great General Thelican of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had victory in his hand, but his own limbs would not stop shaking.

He didn’t know why. It could not just be Orjin of Pomle. He was one man.

Everything had aligned for his great day of triumph. Even pieces he hadn’t thought were in play.

The [Queen], Yisame herself, and the Court of Silks were watching his final battle with the masters of Pomle. He had been told this as part warning, but how could he lose?

They were surrounded again, a repeat of the last battle. But this time, barely thirty men and women were standing in the center of a great circle.

Nothing fancy. Thelican had pinned them down with arrow fire, sacrificing his riders to box them in while he formed a living wall of soldiers. Any way the [Martial Artists] ran, they’d be exposed, and the containment would reform.

But they couldn’t run; they were hunkered down behind some upturned ground churned up by one of their Skills and a few spell scrolls. But the volleys that reached them from over a thousand feet, well out of bowshot range, were the contemptuous power of real weapons of war, not idiots with fists.


If he’d had his Magic Throwers, Thelican would have ended them already. However, the ballistae had similar range, and one of the [Martial Artists], Jalte, he thought his notes said, had already fallen, unable to stop the deadly ballista bolts with his body.

What kind of idiot would do that anyways? Now, the [Martial Artists] were sheltering in the center of the battlefield, and if they ran in any direction, arrows would cut them down. The siege weapons were continuing to blow chunks of their cover away.

Perfect, contemptuous victory. Thelican had even unveiled himself and was sitting with a cup in hand, lounging rather like Fetohep of Khelt had. Demonstrating his sheer relaxation.

Why, then, was he watching the two figures fighting in the center of the battleground, so angry at the interruption—despite it being his doing—that he just wanted the ballistae to open fire and end this once and for all?

Vandum the Strongest of Pomle was locked in combat with a Djinni. A cat-man, dancing back, grinning despite the holes in his form, and the bloody Stitch-man, who refused to back down even when flames burned his very cloth.

That annoying Djinni had descended after failing to kill Orjin on a technicality. Thelican had allowed the battle, and the two were equally matched; if Vandum died, the [Martial Artists] would lose hope.

Of course, the Court of Silks was screaming at him about ‘war crimes’. As if he hadn’t already technically committed them. Thelican had told the Minister of War exactly why it was good to show this.

We have Djinni. Remind them of that. All our enemies. Yes, it’s illegal, but so what? Everyone knows that when we need to, we’ll reach for the best weapon. Thelican took another gulp of wine.

Remind the damn Hemp as well. He wasn’t blind. They all needed a lesson. No matter what, Nerrhavia’s Fallen won. When he came out on top, all the things he had to do to get there would be justified, the problems erased.

Thelican’s fist clenched harder on the goblet than he wanted, bending the soft gold, and he glanced over, teeth gritted.

He had better come up with a fantastic ode to Thelican. That arrogant [Bard].

There was Barelle the Bard, standing far apart from Thelican’s position. He was on a hilltop of stone, his harp in hand, watching Pomle’s end.

You see? Here was Great General Thelican ending a legend of Chandrar with Barelle the Bard watching. It had all the auspices of a great moment of stories.

Not just even Barelle the Bard! Thelican turned his head and forced a smile.

“It seems even a vaunted Djinni struggles against the Strongest of Pomle. While we wait, may I offer you any refreshments? Sir?”

He said ‘sir’ by accident and cursed inwardly. A Great General did not address anyone as ‘sir’. Yet there he sat, a man who drew so many eyes to him that Thelican felt envious, intimidated, and, he told himself, reassured.

Torreb the Undefeated, the greatest warrior of Chandrar, waved away a wine cup offered to him by a nervous [Slave]. His daughter, likewise.

Itkisa, Thelican thought her name was. The old warrior glanced at Thelican.

“The Djinni is losing. That Djinni isn’t very strong as they go. Vandum or whatever that one’s name is—he’s not bad.”

He grinned, his face lighting up as his gap-toothed smile and weathered skin gave him the look of a senile old man. But his club, Torreb’s Fist…

When he touched the handle, everyone in a thousand paces shivered. Torreb’s aura lit up the skies. Thelican was glad, very glad, the old man had asked to observe.

As…a backup card. Yes. His daughter had her hands folded, and she looked bored.

“Orjin is arriving soon, Father.”

Torreb had been yawning. But at the name, he sat upright, and his eyes opened wide. He had barely glanced at Thelican, but now he sat forwards, a hand clenching the club’s handle tighter.

“Yes. He hasn’t surpassed Collos yet. But I swore I sensed him fighting. I have to see it.

Thelican forced a laugh.

“You surely jest, Lady…Miss…Itkisa. Orjin of Pomle will not be able to do a thing, even if he makes it here. His people are surrounded.”

She gave him a cool look that unsettled Thelican terribly.

“He will come. My father wishes to see whether he has found his answer.”

Torreb’s jaw was set, and he made no reply to Itkisa. Thelican glanced at Itkisa and remembered that Torreb had drawn him aside with his offer to interfere if need be. As if he hadn’t wanted his daughter to hear.

Yes, that was it. Thelican saw a messenger running towards him with a report about a flying carpet sighted in the distance—but all the ballistae were trained on the [Martial Artists]—as he realized what the problem was.

The <Mythical Quest>. Torreb wanted it! Thelican’s eyes widened, and he kept his face neutral as he realized what the old man wanted. Rumor was that Torreb was close to another capstone.

Well…if it meant assuring victory, so be it! There was surely room in that <Quest> for both the [Great General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and the strongest warrior of Chandrar.

But it bothered Thelican greatly, because when you framed it like that.

Barelle the [Bard].

Torreb the Undefeated.

All these observers, this <Quest>—it was as if they had come not for Thelican, but for Orjin. And he would not make it here. He would not! This was not his stage. Thelican snarled as he gave an order.

Wherever he lands—stop him from breaking in! Guard the ballistae! There are thousands of soldiers! Do your jobs!

Then he leaned forwards as he felt the wind change. And all the eyes turned away from him as a laughing Djinni backed away from Vandum, clutching at his faltering magical body. He fled, and Thelican hammered a fist down on the wine cup.

Open fire! Kill the [Martial Artists]! Now!




Orjin leapt down from Reizue’s Dream before it had even landed. Salii was shouting.

“Orjin! They’ve pinned down the [Martial Artists]! Are you going for the ballistae?”

He couldn’t even see them that well among all the [Soldiers]. Orjin shook his head.

“I am going to join Vandum and the others. If we can break out from the center, we will.”

That’s not strategic—go!

Orjin saw the [Soldiers] closest to him turning and setting themselves as they saw him land. Terrified faces—but so many.

The same numbers that had killed Xil. Orjin was not immune to steel nor could he sweep them aside with a wave of his hand. Torreb could, perhaps.


As Orjin surveyed the army before him, his eyes locked on a distant figure sitting next to a distant palanquin of gold as if drawn to that speck like an iron filing was drawn to a magnetic stone. Even with the air trembling and the blare of horns and the roar of battle—

Orjin saw him first, then Barelle. Like lighthouses on a coast, or so he had heard them described to him. Blazing spirits.

Torreb the Undefeated, the greatest warrior of Chandrar, was not the same man who had offered Orjin his home and friendship. This man sat there, eyes clear of drink, and Orjin felt his skin prickle with the beginning of sweat.

Why was he here?

The Strongest knew in a moment. It was obvious. Torreb, the Stitch-man of the Lantern Lands, had told Orjin from the start. He had welcomed Orjin like a curiosity, helped him for the sake of Collos, wanting to see what Orjin discovered, because he was bored.

That terrified old man waiting to die who would never rise higher without changing. Torreb who could not change.

Would not. And would therefore never reach the next step. Unless…

The <Quest>. A loophole in the insurmountable obstacle facing Torreb. A gift that even he would grasp for.

Orjin could not make out the man’s face this far distant, but he doubted there would be any shame or regret in Torreb’s eyes. He was an adventurer, a warrior. He had found something worth grabbing, and he would take it if he could.

So be it. Orjin just hoped Itkisa was not here for the same reason.

He might never make it to Torreb. The ranks of [Soldiers] were pivoting to face him, and Orjin remembered the Hemp folk he had spared. He could not afford to show them mercy. There were too many between him and the masters in the center. Orjin would have to force his way through.

But as he prepared to charge, another figure landed lightly, on the tips of his shoes, and regarded the forces on the perimeter. Soloxenethn.

The Fury of Winds paused there, and he spotted Torreb at once. His head surveyed the gleaming army in front of him, and even he wavered a second. Orjin had fear in his heart too, but he saw his friend master it. When he turned, Soloxenethn’s voice was light and carrying.

“This is where we part, Strongest. There are merely thousands of [Soldiers] here. A fitting place for the Fury of Skies.”

Soloxenethn struck a pose, and the air gusted around him as he smiled. Orjin looked at the master of Windcaller’s Wrath.

“They have bows and spells. You can’t fight an army.”

“I can distract them long enough for you to reach the others. Go, Orjin. This is not a battle for you to waste energy on.”

Orjin hesitated—then he raised his fist and clasped it against his palm. Now, his heart was thundering.

I do not see a victory even if we fight together. If I die—let it be with the last masters of Pomle. 

“Thank you. Soloxenethn.”

He bowed, and the other man copied the gesture. His smile was as arrogant as it had been the day they met, but his bow was lower than Orjin’s, and when he rose—the wind began howling with him.

“I, too, wish to find the next step in my journey. If I follow you, Strongest, I might one day reach it. Today, let me clear the way.”

And with that, he was running down towards the [Soldiers], feet leaving a trail of dust behind him. Orjin watched, a pain in his stomach.

He would die. Even alone, this was madness. Arrows were already flying, and the Fury of Skies punched the air. The arrows snapped against the wind pressure. He did a flying kick that scattered sand around him like an explosion, and the [Soldiers] wavered as Soloxenethn shouted.

I am the Fury of Skies! Master of the Windcaller’s Wrath school! Warrior of Pomle! Stand aside or die!

He struck a pose, fearless, and a bolt of lightning touched the space where his chest was—but he was pivoting, dodging, and he landed light on his feet. The [Soldiers] were advancing, and Soloxenethn gave Orjin one last look.

He was afraid. Orjin saw it in his eyes, even as the Strongest prepared to dash through a break in the lines. Orjin wavered…

And then he felt the wind pick up. Orjin’s head turned, and he sensed a great gust blowing across the flatlands, wind whipping where it had not before. He generally knew when the weather would change, and this wasn’t something he had predicted. When he turned his head—a woman stood next to the surprised Fury of Skies.


A meddlesome woman, Salii had called her. A certain [Innkeeper], who, like the [Bard], liked to put her finger on the scales of each story. Yet when Orjin stared down at the figure who had joined Soloxenethn, who was laughing and bowing, he did not see Erin Solstice.

Ryoka Griffin gestured as the two figures moved their arms together, like the pattern of the wind, and a gale blew over the [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Armor began to rattle, and the sand whipped up into tornados as the advancing [Soldiers] slowed.

Then the Strongest smiled, and he bowed to her—and he was running. Running, as two figures channeled the wind itself, throwing [Soldiers] off their feet.




Vandum was bleeding and burned to his bones. He was leaning against a wall shuddering with the impacts of ballista bolts, gasping.

“We charge at the [General]. Kill him.”

“Vandum. It’s over. They have us pinned like rats. Enough.”

Salthorn knelt over Jalte. His partner, Sorron, the master of the Stonebody school of martial arts, looked up as the remaining warriors sat there.

I beat a Djinni. Four more levels. Four more! If I had enough time to rest—”

Vandum was raging. He was half-dead and still. Salthorn spoke to the others.

“This isn’t even a single chance in a million. Surrender.”

“Salthorn. What are you going to do?”

She was retying a belt around her waist; she’d changed bodies, taken one of the fallen warriors of Pomle who had told her to use their body. Now, she flexed one arm and looked at Vandum.

“Sorron. Will you come with us?”

Vandum stopped snarling. He looked at her with respect, and Sorron’s head rose.

“Someone take care of Jalte. I will.”

The three foremost masters of Pomle stopped, and then Vandum nodded.

“The ballistae have us tracked. Three will be as good as thirty. If we fall, fight on. A single one of us can kill that [General]. The survivors will lead Pomle to greatness. Rebuild it.”

“Perhaps. I saw Torreb the Undefeated with the [General].”

“Then we will slay a legend.”

Salthorn’s eyes were bleak. And despite his boasting, even Vandum paused a moment. He turned his back to the soldiers outside and clasped his fist against one palm.

“You, who have fought with me this far. We have kept Collos’ dream alive. It was a privilege to fight beside you.”

They copied the gesture slowly. Vandum looked at Sorron, and she was trying to rise—but Jalte’s hand was on her arm. She gently unprized his fingers, and the three of them turned.

The walls would cave in soon. Salthorn heard cheering from Nerrhavia Fallen’s army when they had been so silent after they had seen the cost of taking Pomle to the edge. No…was it cheering or the sound of battle? She tilted her head, and Sorron held up one palm.

“Hold. Are they charging?”

It made no sense, but Thelican might have ordered it. Everyone stirred—and then they heard the sounds of battle right on top of them. Vandum’s snarl returned, and he crouched, flicking a blade out of his gauntlets.

Salthorn closed her eyes, pivoted as she sensed someone outside the enclosure—and then halted, mid-grab.

Vandum’s throwing dagger did not. The enchanted blade spun through the air like a whisper—and Orjin caught it between two fingers.


The [Martial Artist] was breathing hard. Arrows pattered off the stone walls, and there were horns blowing wildly. The thump of ballista bolts intensified, and the [Martial Artists] shot to their feet.


The whisper came from Jalte. Vandum looked like he’d seen a ghost. Sorron’s face broke into a smile. The woman reached out, and she and Orjin clasped arms.

“How did you get here?”

“I ran.”

His voice was so calm—no, there was a note of tension in it, but it was Orjin. That joke was his deadpan one, so flat and serious you could mistake it even if you knew him.

Salthorn began grinning, but Vandum’s leap cut her off. The [Strongest of the Martial Age] jumped at Orjin, and the other man caught Vandum and arrested his momentum.

“Vandum! Stop!”

“You—it’s time to settle this. I knew you would return. Let’s finish this now.”

Vandum’s gaze was wild, and Salthorn couldn’t believe him. Their shelter was caving in and he wanted to fight to the death? She yanked him back, pinning him against the wall with Sorron, and then she saw his gaze.

Fear. For all he doubtless had five levels on Orjin at least—Vandum looked at Orjin as if he were an apprentice who had just spotted a master.

Or perhaps it was that sense Salthorn had. She gave Orjin a second look. He had changed. He looked calmer now. He was no less the Strongest who had beaten the Siren, but it seemed like he was on the cusp of something.

Two paths of Pomle met, and neither Vandum nor Orjin looked away until Orjin spoke.

“I am the Strongest of Pomle.”

Vandum said nothing, and Sorron and Salthorn tensed, but Orjin clasped his fist against his palm.

“Let me be it today, Vandum. Please. We shall settle anything after the battle. I have not yet found my own path. But I shall today or never.”

Vandum’s desperate stare and his taut, straining form relaxed abruptly. The panting Stitch-man, wounded and scarred from unceasing battle, looked at Orjin.

“I never took the title from you. I wish I had. Xil is dead.”

“I know. I have come to fight with you.”

“With an army?”

Salthorn’s hopeful voice was answered by a shake of the head.

“There is a carpet. Buler, the rider, rescued Salii and Mendi. But it cannot reach us.”

“Mendi is alive?”

Her heart leapt, but some of the will to die also fled Salthorn. She feared that, and Orjin nodded.

“The Fury of Winds allowed me to reach you, but there is no army. We must face Nerrhavia’s Fallen head on.”

The masters of Pomle stared at him in silence.

Oh. He was the Orjin that they remembered. Slowly, more got to their feet, but Orjin held up a hand.

“I will go alone with Vandum.”

“Not alone. I’ll go with you.”

“And I.”

Sorron and Salthorn stepped forwards. Orjin gave them both a nod. Vandum was calm now, as if he had found his own equilibrium. He reached out, and Orjin clasped hands with him.

“Then let us show them our abilities. They must come to us.”


Orjin was pulling something out of a bag of holding, and Salthorn recognized what he held.

“Please tell me that’s a secret weapon.”


He smiled at her.

“It’s just a silly thing.”

He opened the lid as Vandum peered at what was inside with Sorron. They looked at him, then at Salthorn. She recognized what it was: a mundane substance. Yet Orjin looked confused when they asked if it was magic. Because it did look like it.




The legends of Pomle walked out onto the sands, leaving the stone shelter studded with ballista bolts and magical scorch marks behind them.

The ballistae ceased firing for a second, and four masters of Pomle strode forwards and halted.

Vandum. Orjin. Salthorn. Sorron.

Whether they knew it or not, it echoed in the memories of those who remembered how Pomle had first begun.

A [Great General] snarled and told the ballista to take aim. The other three spread out as Orjin took some jars from his home, his only possessions, out and put them down on the ground. The army watched as ballistae snapped and giant projectiles sang through the air.

They curved up, up, and then fell, and the [Martial Artists] moved.

Vandum leapt into the air, dodging the ones aimed at him. One tracked him, homing, and he threw a punch that turned into a blazing fist that smashed into the bolt. He landed, pivoting, and he raised his vambraces to block another—

Sorron raised her arms and interposed herself between the bolt and Vandum. The impact sent her skidding back, and her body was stone. Yet not mere iron. The stone of mountains from which mithril was hewn. Veins of precious metal; a will stronger than even that. Two more bolts hit her, from the side, in the back—and she rocked.

But the bent tips of the bolts landed, and the master of the Stonebody school rose. Yet even stone could break. Blood ran from her side, and Vandum nodded to her.

Salthorn held still as a projectile flashed towards her. She was waiting, tenser than she had ever been in her life. Her hands were held out, and she faced the projectile square on. Her hands flashed

The ballista bolt jumped, curving over her head and crashing into the ground a hundred feet behind her. The Selphid staggered, then swiveled.

A second bolt—and those watching saw it jump again.

Had she thrown it? The greatest grappling expert in Pomle, the [Master of the Moving World], was panting. Her hands were shaking.

She had never done that before. Nor could she keep doing it. But the artillery crews had halted in astonishment again.

Was it useless? 


Thelican’s scream made them take aim again. And this time, one shot at Orjin of Pomle.

The Strongest had been bending over his pots as the projectiles streaked past him. He had known none were aimed at him. Now, he looked up, and like last time, he held perfectly still. Vandum spun.


He howled, and the bolt struck the ground and threw up dirt and debris. Vandum shielded his face and used [Evasive Dodge] to hurl himself out of the way of another bolt. When he saw the dust clear—Orjin was standing exactly where he had been.


Even the other three masters looked incredulous. Sorron had to take a knee as three more impacts sent her down, and Vandum and Salthorn covered her. Not even Sorron could block that! How was Orjin…?

Then Vandum saw something impossible. As he watched, able to see Orjin from the side and closer than anyone else, he realized something was wrong.

Orjin’s eyes were closed. He opened them after the dust had settled. As the ballistae cracked in the distance, he closed his eyes again. Vandum’s head spun—but they were aimed at Orjin this time.

The [Strongest of the Martial Age] watched as Orjin took one slow step left. The wind was blowing, and Vandum saw Orjin tense.

A ballista bolt passed straight over his shoulder, missing him by inches. Another hammered the ground next to him, and sand struck him, but he didn’t move. But the third one was dead on, and he…

Moved his palm and pushed the ballista bolt aside the moment before it hit him. 

Orjin vanished again as the trio of impacts threw up earth. But when he reappeared, he was standing in the same spot. Opening his eyes.

“How is he doing that? A Skill?”

“No. I’ve…have I heard of that?”

Salthorn, the oldest of the masters, was staring at Orjin in the same shock as the others, but she was trying to remember. Her eyes widened.

“That’s an aura technique.”

“Orjin doesn’t use his aura. He doesn’t have an aura.”

Vandum snapped back. It was one of Orjin’s few weaknesses! Yet he could not deny how Orjin had done that.

But to calculate the ballista bolts…they had been fired from a thousand feet away. Not even an [Emperor] inside of his lands could do that.

What was going on? Then Orjin opened his eyes.

“Arrows, next.”

The [Soldiers] were advancing. Now, Thelican intended to overwhelm the [Martial Artists]. Just as Vandum wanted.

“We have to charge.”

They were advancing into arrow-range and, except for Sorron, the arrows would kill them, and the enchanted ones would slay even her. Vandum began to stride forwards—and the first hail of arrows filled the sky. He looked up, activated an enchantment on his vambraces, and leapt back.


Salthorn took two arrows, though her Selphid body avoided them, and Sorron blocked the rest. There were so many that Vandum cursed.

Orjin hadn’t run forwards with the others; he had stepped back. He looked at the sea of arrows embedded in the sands.

“I can’t dodge that. I can knock one volley out of the air with my Skill.”


Vandum tasted death on his tongue as he stared at the vast distance between him and that Great General. But they had to get among the [Soldiers]…he saw Orjin lift a hand.

“Wait. Please. Let me try something. At the very least, I want to show someone what I promised. My magic in martial arts.”

Vandum hesitated. The [Archers] were advancing slowly, getting closer. But he nodded. He looked at the pots, and Orjin reached down into one and pulled something out:

Colored sand.




It was just colored sand. Orjin had been pleased to realize no one had wanted it. And hurt.

It looked as if someone had opened every pot and begun collecting it until they realized it really wasn’t magic, then tossed it back down. Salthorn had recognized it, and so would Xil.

But Vandum, Sorron, and the others had never known about Orjin’s particular hobby. Which was to gather up Pomle’s sand and sort it, grain by grain, into pots. And then…

He let a handful of blue dust blow from his hand through the air as a figure landed next to the other masters, and Vandum nearly killed the Fury of Winds.

Soloxenethn had an arrow in his shoulder and several cuts, but he had survived. He stared at Orjin.


The Fury of Winds was incredulous. He had fought through Nerrhavia Fallen’s army for this, thinking it was Orjin’s secret weapon.

But it was just blue sand. It swirled up into the air in a beautiful pattern, tracing the way only the wind could move. And Orjin had green sand, yellow sand, red sand…

They were blowing upwards as the Strongest opened the pots. It seemed like even the Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had completely stopped, wondering what was going on. The [Soldiers], [Archers]…stared at the sand.

A thousand [Detect Magic] spells crossed the air, and they found nothing.

It was sand.

Not a Skill either. Not poison.

Just sand.

Orjin tilted his head back and smiled. Are you watching, Erin Solstice? He let the blue sand billow out from between his fingers, the hard work of years, as he emptied the pot, then moved his hands, as he had taught himself to do in his hut. The sand swirled around him like a shimmering veil, and he parted it as sand like black diamonds formed a twisting snake between his careful movements.

It wasn’t normally possible to do this in the open.

“Thank you, Fury of Skies. The wind is beautiful today. Twice, now, it has given me power. The storm at Pomle, and now this.”

Soloxenethn opened his mouth as the Strongest of Pomle opened his eyes; he had been moving the sand around based on how he thought—no, he vaguely knew how it would flow. A stream of white sand formed a wavy line against the black sand as he swung his arms, tracing a pattern that faded into a rainbow of colors.

The wind wasn’t behaving normally. Salthorn, Vandum, and Sorron saw the colored sand blowing around Orjin and no one else, spiraling up into the sky. Orjin was smiling at Soloxenethn, and the Fury of Winds looked around for Ryoka Griffin.

“I—I am not doing that.”

Orjin gave the man a puzzled, suspicious look, as if wondering why the Fury of Skies was lying. Then he heard a shout—and everyone took cover.

“[Aeriform Punch].”

“[Howl of the Vortex]!”

“[Skysplitting Strike]!”

Orjin, Soloxenethn, and Vandum all struck, and the colored sand blew to bits. The volley of arrows exploded overhead. Their reprieve was over.

“We must use the shelter as a base. The other masters—”

“I will block one entrance.”

Sorron stepped back, and Orjin took a breath. This was it. Pomle would fight to the death after all. He just wished—

Orjin’s head turned, and he frowned. There it was again. Just as he was ready to fight—so it was her after all.

Ryoka Griffin. It had to be her, because a sandstorm was billowing in again, and Orjin was sure Thelican would have used weather spells to keep the air clear. It was breaking over the south side of Nerrhavia Fallen’s armies.

If only it were here, they’d have some cover from the arrows and ballista bolts. Orjin’s head snapped forward, and he dodged another projectile just as he thought that.

He had known it was coming. It was like…

He couldn’t explain it. It was just him knowing where the bolt was. He put it down to training. It reminded him of the scream of Pomle that no one, not even Xil or Salii, had said they heard. The Strongest closed his eyes tightly. Then sprang as fire touched the ground.

Magical fire. Not real flame. He landed, and his foot traced a circle in the sand as he spun. If only the storm were closer. If only he could pull it like the sand. Just like—

Orjin’s arms moved like they had in his games, as if he were pulling the wind with him. He almost felt resistance and a great weight. He swung his arms forwards, ready to strike the first [Soldiers] charging at him.

And then—sand was blowing across the back of his head. Orjin froze—and the storm was on top of him.




The [Soldiers] halted as a sandstorm billowed across their ranks, moving unnaturally fast. The wind buffeted their shields and forced them to halt.

Wind spells! Wind magic! What are you doing?

Thelican was howling, and the storm died down as [Mages] suppressed it. But when he screamed at a [Grand Mage], the man shouted back.

“We’re trying! We’ve been fighting the damned Courier and that Fury of Skies this entire time! They’re too strong!”

Two non-[Mages] can beat the pride of Nerrhavia Fallen?

Thelican screamed back, hammering on his palanquin. Then he halted.

The Strongest of Pomle was standing in the center of a cleared space, the colorful sand splashed around him. The other warriors of Pomle had turned, and even the flying carpet swooped dangerously close.

Orjin of Pomle was looking around. Then at his hands. His head rose. Why did Thelican feel such a panic?

Kill him! Kill him, kill him, kill—

The [Archers] loosed a volley, this time only on him. Enchanted arrows, [Piercing Shots]—and the Strongest of Pomle shifted. He pivoted and extended an arm. As if slashing…something to the side.

What was he doing? Then Thelican felt the wind howl—and the arrows blew in a sudden gust of wind, off-target, landing amidst the [Soldiers] on the right flank.

This time, the [Great General] connected Orjin’s actions with the wind along with everyone else.

“What…was that?”

Thelican licked his suddenly dry lips and hunted for a chalice of wine he couldn’t find. He turned—and Itkisa was on her feet. Torreb was blinking.

“That wasn’t magic.”

“No one cast a spell. That wasn’t—it wasn’t the Courier either, [General]. We’re suppressing the [Innkeeper]’s Skill with a linked circle of a dozen [Mages]!”

Thelican turned his head. But how? A Skill? He refused to believe…it didn’t look like a Skill. In such quick succession?

“How is he doing that?”

Now, Orjin was staring at the ground. He faced the [Soldiers] who had gathered their nerves for a charge. Slowly, Orjin took a step forwards. Nothing happened. So the Strongest—he bent and placed his palms on the ground.

As if feeling the very ground and earth. He straightened, then, and as the first [Soldiers] ran at him, stomped his foot as he brought both fists up and out, head bowed as if guarding himself.

Martial arts and something else.

Orjin’s foot struck the ground, and the earth in front of him shook. Stumbling [Soldiers] fell over, and when the Strongest’s head rose…Thelican dropped his winecup.




Back. Nerrhavia’s Fallen were scrambling back, despite their officers’ orders to attack him. The Strongest strode forwards as the warriors of Pomle stood, watching his back.

Orjin heard the ballistae firing again, supremely confident in their distance. The weakness of warriors. [Mages] ensconced behind glowing shields.

He felt it all. No aura. Even now, they couldn’t see it, the other masters. Orjin had never felt his either. He did not understand his aura.

But—he understood Pomle. He understood every inch of the canyon, the oasis, the very ground and trees. When the earth shifted, he had known what had changed almost before he saw it. Orjin felt like that.

As if the very air were his limbs, the ground connected to him by his feet. He saw the ballistae, firing from such a distance, and pivoted to avoid each bolt. The world seemed to tell him where they would land, though it was experience and awareness that kept him safe.

They were so far away from his body. But what if—

He reached out, and his tentative questing failed. So Orjin thought of how he would move the earth if rock were a part of him. Not like a hand. Think of it like the very stone itself. Like this—

He flicked his palm up as his body moved like the shifting of stone.

A thousand feet away—a reloading ballista trembled. The crews looked down, and a pillar of stone punched through the wooden weapon, splintering screws and wood and metal everywhere.

Orjin opened his eyes as a cry reached his ears from Buler’s carpet. He had done that. In disbelief, he paused—then pivoted in alarm.

Someone was shooting at the other warriors! Orjin pushed—and a wall of stone arose, rising upwards until the bolt slammed into it.

This time, it felt almost natural, but he had no control. No finesse. Orjin felt like a child practicing a punch for the first time.

It didn’t matter. When he turned, he stomped, and a shockwave hit another ballista. The Fury of Skies was looking at Orjin. The Strongest of Pomle slowly pivoted, as if gathering something up into his fist.

Soloxenethn thought he saw it. The Fury of Winds copied him and realized it was the other way around: Orjin was copying his martial arts. The two performed the same gesture—and a vortex of wind howled across the air, scattering the crews of a third ballista.

“How is he doing it? This is impossible.”

Vandum couldn’t understand what he was seeing. Was it magic? Orjin looked like a [Druid]—but no [Druid] that he had ever seen. Salthorn was looking at Orjin, and then she turned her head a moment before a third ballista exploded.

This time—a bolt of lightning came down from the skies. She looked up, and the sandstorm had changed into a storm in truth. Rain was beginning to fall, and the Selphid whispered.

There it is. That’s where his aura’s been the entire time.”

Sorron looked up and exhaled.

“Oh. Of course. He truly always was part of Pomle. No wonder he heard it scream.”

He wasn’t using his aura at all. The Strongest had no power to make the rain fall from the sky, even with the greatest aura. It was more like he was asking the rain to fall, or the ground to move, like a part of his body.

As if he had learned to punch with the sky’s wrath itself. And the [Soldiers] looked at the Strongest of Pomle as the other warriors strode forwards, watching him. Copying his movements like the Fury of Winds.

A flying carpet descended, and more disciples leapt down, a [Secretary], Earthers—the army of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was still there, but they could not stay away.

“What are you doing?”

Orjin snapped at Nevun, Mendi, Iratze, and the others. He couldn’t protect them all with this newfound power! But Mendi just shouted back.

“If we lost this knowledge, Pomle would be gone forever!”

More masters were racing forward from where they had been watching. They had to witness it and learn it. So Orjin turned and struck as hard and swiftly as he could, and a thunderclap flashed down behind him.

“I am the Strongest of Pomle! So long as I live, Pomle will never fall! Flee or face me!”

He no longer felt like he had nothing left to lose. He felt like he had it all—and he had never been more determined to fight. Orjin stared at the Hemp [Soldiers].

“I do not wish to kill you. But I will if I must.”

Slowly, he placed his fist in his palm and bowed one final time. He saw the weary men and women, who had fought against Pomle for so long, hesitate. They turned to look at the distant [General] and then at the [Martial Artist].

Who respected them more? And who did they fear more? Silently, a [Captain] threw down her mace. And the [Soldiers] began to turn and run.




“Turn and fight! Execute the first rank! Open fire! Open the emergency scrolls!

General Thelican was losing his mind. The ranks of Hemp were deserting, and Cotton and Silk too. A great panic had swept through the army, like a hivemind.

They could not fight the world itself. Fight Orjin? Fight a story?

For every company that held and attacked their own, nine more were in flight, and Pomle’s warriors were not idle. Desperate Silk warriors locked blades with Pomle’s warriors, and Vandum threw a knife through a [Mage]’s eye.

They were still fighting. Thelican was on his feet, but the tide of cloth was against him, and a great panic overtook him.

“Stay back! Stay—”

He drew his sword as his tent began to collapse, and the soldiers around his bodyguard began to fight, first for their lives, then with eyes on him.

An army beginning to rout. Yet the battle was not lost. Orjin had terrified Nerrhavia’s Fallen with what they did not understand, and Thelican was losing command. However, it was still a bluff.

He was one man, and Pomle was outnumbered. He had no control of his powers.

He could die.

He—had to die.

Torreb’s heart was thundering as he took hold of Torreb’s Fist. His hands shook like they had when he faced Collos and felt like there was no defeating him.

Not again. Not my legend. 

His body was screaming as his legs bent to first leap forwards and restore order. Then—his eyes locked with the Strongest as Orjin’s head turned, sensing the killing bloodlust. Vandum was whirling, making to defend Orjin, and Torreb began to roar his greatest Skill.

[Zeikhal Shakes Before My N—]

His arm rose halfway, and a hand gripped the handle of his club. Torreb’s body halted, and his head turned. A woman had hold of the weapon. Itkisa.

“Father. No.”

Her arm was straining, and her feet almost left the ground before they dug into the earth. Torreb snarled.

“Let go! Let go!

The officers around them had turned, and even the rebelling [Soldiers] backed away as Torreb the Undefeated howled at his daughter. But Itkisa refused to let go.

One hand on the hilt of his club, they wrestled silently. Torreb’s face was red with rage, then white with murder, his eyes rolling; Itkisa’s face reddened, and veins began to stand out across her temples and forearm with the effort.

The club wobbled forwards—halted—then back. Now, the ground was shaking, and Thelican was thrown from his palanquin. [Soldiers] were stumbling back.

A fissure was opening between the two. Torreb’s face was draining of color, yet he was pulling with more of his might.

“Stop. Stop. You promised. You stole that from me when you were born. You copied my greatness. You never earned it.”

“I know.

Itkisa’s eyes were glowing like a rising sun, the orange light reflecting the colors of a faded-storm in his eyes. She spoke, every word strained, as the world shook around the two of them. Fake and illusory dreams of people running and beholding the two.

Torreb. And his only real daughter. Itkisa whispered as Torreb’s arm shook, a piercing hiss.

“I have always loved you for your one gift you ever gave me. But when they remember Torreb’s daughter, remember it was my mother who took your power from you the day I was conceived. She bested you, who never even remembered her name.”

His mouth was open wide now, and he raised another hand to take hold of the club. But then his fingers loosened a second—and it tore from his grip.

The Named-rank adventurer recoiled, rocking back, a snarl of disbelief on his face and his body tensed. He looked at his child, and for the third time in their lives, Itkisa raised her hand against him.

Torreb’s lungs expanded, and a howl of rage rose from the core of his being to scare the Jaws of Zeikhal into the sands and send all of mortality fleeing.

And she met his eyes as her grip tightened on his club. Then Torreb the Undefeated looked in her eyes and saw she would not relent. Not this time. Never again.

Torreb was looking into a mirror of time, and the scream halted in his lungs. Torreb stumbled back and raised a hand. And his heart—

Itkisa drew the club back, waiting for a blow to split the firmament in half. Tensed, eyes flashing—and then her eyes stopped flashing. Her clenched hand let Torreb’s Fist fall.


The Named-rank adventurer, the greatest [Warrior] of Chandrar, never swung his fist. He was collapsed on his side, arm still raised, a look of horror on his face.

His eyes did not blink, but all the focus on the world around him had left them. They stared at a distant land, and his breath had halted. His soul had fled in fear, and the mightiest warrior’s heart had stopped. Just as promised.

Torreb’s daughter touched his shoulder. Then she gently reached out and closed his eyes. She held him in her arms as those who had seen it backed away.

Thence, a great cry arose, even amidst the chaos of the battlefield. And every head turned.

Torreb the Undefeated was dead. And his daughter bore his weapon. She strode down and joined the Strongest, and then even the bravest took to their heels.

Torreb’s Daughter had killed the greatest [Warrior] of Chandrar. The Strongest of Pomle had returned.





In the aftermath of the battle, there were a thousand and one accounts of how the Great General Thelican of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had fallen.

No one could agree on how he had died. Some claimed to have seen him run through by rebelling soldiers. Another said that an [Assassin] sent by the palace itself had slid a blade across his throat: punishment for so disastrous a failure.

Another claimed he had gotten on a flying carpet, which had crashed, overladen. A fourth said he had simply run off into the desert, shedding clothes and dignity and armor, gibbering mad.

No, it was the camel who had killed him, racing around, hurling phlegm and sending the Silk [Warriors] screaming back to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. A glob had landed in the man’s throat and choked him.

It did not truly matter. By the time night had fallen, the only [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen left were those who had surrendered. Never mind that Pomle was outnumbered even by the prisoners; a [Secretary] was making the surrendered Stitch-folk organize themselves.

“Ransom money. And the terms of Nerrhavia Fallen’s peace.”


Vandum shouted, but he fell silent as a man who stood at the center of everything nodded.

“If they will have it, this war is over. There is no point to more of it, Vandum. We may level in the fighting—but my path does not need it.”

He locked eyes with the [Strongest of the Martial Age], and Vandum clenched his fists. Then he looked away. As if uncertain his class would remain by the time dawn broke.

“What are your terms of peace? Nerrhavia’s Fallen may shake, but they are too mighty to be pushed over.”

Itkisa was curious. She held Torreb’s Fist, leaning on it as if she had held it all her days. She still wore the plain clothes of the woman who had taken care of Torreb’s household, but Orjin thought they were like paint flaking from an ornamental sword or toy object, cracking away and revealing the blade beneath.

Or like a great beast finding her fangs. Soon, he thought, she would look different. She regarded him with a curious look, and he nodded.

“They are. I will not be surprised if they refuse. Pomle will agree to peace—once the last [Soldier] has left Tiqr and Pomle and they have signed a magical contract to leave us in peace. At least ten years. I would prefer a hundred, but Salii claims no nation would sign that.”


The [Secretary] chimed in. Itkisa raised her brows.

“Tiqr and Pomle?”

“Our fates are linked. When Tiqr fell, it was Pomle who was party to it. We have taken in Tiqr’s folk; some have become [Martial Artists]. It was the Wildkeeper who came to try and heal Pomle. Now, we have no home. If there is one or any ally, it is the Empress of Beasts. She understands the same principles that my martial art does.”

The animals. The land. They were a part of Orjin’s understanding of his new path. How many styles had been developed by watching the movements of animals?

“Then you have a greater struggle ahead of you.”

Itkisa commented, and Orjin shrugged.

“Perhaps. But I will not be alone. At least, I have found my path. It took…a long time. Thank you for your patience.”

Her smile was a sad one, and she turned to where her father still lay. Itkisa frowned, searching for Torreb’s corpse; there was so much confusion, and she had run down to join Orjin…

“I took decades for this moment as well, Strongest. What do you mean, you won’t be alone?”

For answer, Orjin pointed, and Itkisa turned and sighed.

Soloxenethn was practicing, altering the moves he had seen Orjin using, surrounded by dubious [Martial Artists]. Salthorn gave Orjin an entreating look, but even Sorron and Jalte were listening. Though they would have doubtless liked to listen to Orjin himself.

Soon. They had to rebuild, and Orjin wondered if his powers could push the very earth out of Pomle, at least enough to cleanse the oasis. The water might not return, but at least it would be free of taint.

Perhaps, in time, whatever wondrous power this was, this attunement with the natural world, would result in the power to cleanse the world like a [Druid].

Or perhaps it was more subtle than that. Orjin didn’t know. He was excited to find out, like a child who had just learned his first step.

“I have reached the end of my path only to find that I am at the beginning of an even greater journey.”

That was what he said to everyone, and it was Vandum who offered him a smile that was both bitter and slightly respectful.

“If Collos had lived, I am sure he would have one day said that. Pomle cannot rise further without competition. I will watch how far you go, Orjin, and challenge you at every step.”

“I suppose you will.”

Orjin sighed. He was not looking forwards to that. Then he stood and looked around as Pomle’s warriors, children, friends and allies stood there. Even a waving [Innkeeper]. He nodded to her, and her eyes shone with wonder at his magic.

He was, he told them, repeatedly, afterwards, one man. And ‘Strongest’ was a title that had special meaning in Pomle. It didn’t always mean ‘the Strongest’. It was one battle. He was one [Martial Artist].

But even Orjin of Pomle would not deny that one event could change the world.



<Quest Reward: [Way of the Elements], class paths unlocked.>


[Conditions Met: Superior Martial Artist → Fist of the Living World!]

[Fist of the Living World class created.]

[Fist of the Living World Level 53!]

[Skill – Way of the Elements: Fury of Skies obtained!]

[Skill – Boundless Leap obtained!]

[Skill – Way of the Elements: Path of the Land created!]

[Skill – Torreb’s Step created!]

[Skill – Way of the Elements: Current of the Sea created!]

[Skill – Revine’s Jet created!]




So sang Barelle the [Bard] of the Strongest of Pomle. Orjin, first of a new kind of martial arts. On a long journey. But never alone.

[Fist of the Living World], Orjin of Pomle. And…

[Fist of the Empyrean Sky], the Fury of Winds, Soloxenethn. Already, more were arising, and more students joined their ranks.

[Disciples of the Wind]. [Students of Pomle]. Barelle sang of a foolish [General] who had thought himself capable of ending a story, as if you could kill an idea.

Of brave camels, flying carpets, wily Djinni, and a great warrior who was neither a simple killer nor reclusive hermit. A figure who stood with the peace of Pomle against armies wherever he found cause.

Of the death of Torreb, and his daughter, who had bested his strength, and how his soul had admitted defeat. And yes, of <Quests> and great battles and this ever-changing world.

“Is this what you wanted? Truly?”

A man with black eyes and white pupils asked a woman who stood smiling as she watched the battlefield. Her people, at least the descendants of the people that Nerrhavia had claimed, lay beaten or ran back the way they had come. Yet even though it was a puppet she used, the Immortal Tyrant seemed pleased.

“Archmage of Death, you know nothing of what it is to rule.”

Nerrhavia’s voice was light as she looked down on Orjin, and the wind blew around her, as if seeking to throw her off the continent itself. But she ignored it. The will of the land was lesser to hers. She turned her head, and the Necromancer’s eyes flashed.

But in this, he did listen, for her smile was contented. This was her home, and he had seldom seen her do anything for no reward. But he thought she might have this one time.

“Tell me.”

Az’kerash waited as Nerrhavia pointed down, and the Strongest’s head turned, as if sensing them. Nerrhavia lifted a hand in acknowledgement.

“Even in the era you think of as the rule of the world’s worst tyrant, there were men and women like him I sought. There must be law. And there must be a desire for righteousness.”

“In your empire?”

He turned, truly surprised, and she rolled her eyes.

“Who can live without justice or righteousness, Necromancer? What people can endure without a chance to rise or the fear of falling? Say what you will, but I understood that. This nation which feasts still on my bones has forgotten that. Hemp. It was not so when I was ruler. They replaced my injustices with another. At my end, I imagine I looked much like the rulers of now.”

She turned her head, and her gaze swept the horizon.

“The Strongest and Pomle will change my empire, as they must. Nothing stays forever; I knew that too. If he had died, he would be unworthy of the mantle I place on him. I do this for myself; do you think I hate men like him? Or even you?”

A finger prodded the Necromancer, and he blinked again. Nerrhavia turned to go and looked back once. Her eyes lingered on Orjin, and then she chuckled.


She threw her head back and gave Az’kerash an embarrassed look and lowered her voice.

“I am a daughter of Chandrar, in the end. I love stories.”

The wind blew and carried her laughter across that continent along with the tale of Pomle and the Strongest.





Author’s Note: I don’t know if I’ve said this because I am a private person, but at least three members of my family follow The Wandering Inn in some way. One with audiobooks, the other two reading each chapter like you do.

Father, uncle, grandfather. It matters to me that they read the story, especially given the time commitment, much less enjoy it. It is a funny feeling, but I’m sure every single person who creates something has said the same thing about having friends and family view their work.

Recently, I’ve been told that the pace of my writing is such that only my grandfather can keep up with everything, including Gravesong 2. Which just means he’s the coolest, and fastest reader and can keep up in his 90s. Where’s everyone else’s excuse?

Still, that is amazing if you think about how many tens of thousands of words I produce each week. But also, other readers who love the series have told me that they’re having trouble keeping up.

So perhaps it’s good that I am taking more breaks. Well, I need the time to edit Gravesong 2, and I thank you for your forbearance.

The truth is that I think, sometimes, I backslide in my writing quality. I get into trends; the latest of which is that I would undercut great moments in the worst of fashions by throwing in a joke. An example I have heard described is Marvel movies where a serious moment gets a quip and nothing is allowed to be.

(I would not know, I don’t watch the movies.) But I caught myself doing it, and I’ve tried to stop it. I tried to give this arc all the gravitas and weight it deserves. Every person is the main character of their story, and this would be a poor story if it was only about The Wandering Inn.

Even so, I’ve written so many words this chapter and I truly lost sleep, because I was so worried about it. Last night, I stayed up to midday…and I had woken up at about 7 PM the last day. Bad sleep. Also, a lawnmower made it impossible to sleep. I hate lawnmowers.

40,000+ words in two days. It burns me out, and I threw myself at the chapters, some of which I thought were good, like Bird’s, because I knew I’d take a longer break to edit and rest. But maybe I need to go back.

Write 4,000 word chapters because you can tell a good story in that amount of time. The one benefit the long chapters have is that, narratively, a lot of time passes with so many words, and that plugs a weakness of shorter-form content.

But the output might lower quality. It’s certainly left me stressed, and I will rest and doubtless recover, but that’s the tradeoff of web serials. You will never have a perfect chapter because there’s never enough time, and no writer can be both energized and inspired and keep perfect form for years on end like some kind of [Perfect Martial Artist].

All of this is fine. I’m sharing it because I want to and reflecting on this month. I was going to wait until the end of Volume 9 to recap some of what I think I’ve learned, but this is a good point. We’re always trying to get better, like Orjin, and sadly, I haven’t found the ability to call a storm by typing. Someday, maybe.

I hope the chapter’s good. I have a lot of guilt when I feel like I made a mistake I could have fixed, but I did my best, and I’ll see you in October. Thanks for reading, and if you read this far after September the 16th, 2023…I’m sure I kept going, and I hope I stayed on the path. Sometimes you trip, but everyone could use a nap once in a while.



Danger by Vescar!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/vescar


Bird Hunting and Buff Erin by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/buttsarts


Umbrella and Bird’s Best Gift by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe


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