It's really sort of ingenious, in its own way. That way, unfortunately, is a cruel and merciless way, and has other problems besides that. But I can't say that it's not clever.

We start with the individual who's sponsoring this tournament, whose best-known alias can be translated into English as 'Thunder Dragon'. He's ruled the nation of Bhutan for twenty-three years, now. A whole generation of the Bhutanese have known no other life than his rule. There has never been any serious opposition to that rule, no rebellions or coup attempts. But there is well-hidden dissatisfaction with the fact that the nation is ruled by someone who makes no pretense of respect for those over whom he reigns. But the dissatisfaction is not so well-hidden as to completely escape Thunder Dragon's notice and is something he must deal with in some way.

The way he chooses to deal with it is to sponsor a tournament of martial arts, whose victor is given the chance to fight Thunder Dragon himself. The champion doesn't even have to defeat the ruler of Bhutan, merely strike him a meaningful blow. If they accomplish this, Thunder Dragon will grant them any one wish that lies within his power. And he has quietly and subtly made it known that one such wish that might be granted would be for him to abandon the throne and leave Earth again.

The dissatisfaction I mentioned? It turns into hope, specifically hope that someone can manage this deed and that the current circumstances of Bhutan can change. Whether that change is a reversion to the monarchy that existed before Thunder Dragon usurped the throne, to a Western-style democracy, or to some other form of dictatorship, that all depends on the character of the person who hopes. Hope, unfortunately, is not the absolute positive that some people think.

But there's even more to the situation than what I've said. First, not just anyone is allowed to walk in off the street and take part in this Tournament, named after a similar exhibition in a Japanese comic book that Thunder Dragon apparently enjoyed reading. There is the question of an entrance fee. I'm honestly not sure how much he demands from those who want to take part, but it's enough that most of them needed to obtain corporate sponsorship in order to pay it. All that money – or nearly all – will be funneled into Bhutan's development, rather than being used for Thunder Dragon's vanity. He does have some admirable qualities, I'll admit.

The same is true, to a degree, of all the money that's coming in from those who've come to spectate, or who are purchasing the streaming rights to this event. This alone is probably enough to cover the expenses of the construction of the arena where this is all taking place, even though it covers six hectares and has some decidedly super-technological improvements that no other venue in the world possesses, like the force field dome that I'm looking through right now, about five miles below my present altitude. I think even those who admire Thunder Dragon will have to admit that this constitutes a vanity project.

Right now, the ruler is standing in his (also force field protected) box and addressing the crowds who have gathered to watch the start of these 'festivities', and he looks very pleased with himself. (I can't hear what he's saying, of course, but then most of his audience can't do so either. What they're hearing are translations piped in through their earbuds.) He's stripped to the waist, as he usually is, wearing only his pants and forearm bracers, with a pair of sandals for footwear.

As it happens, he is not alone in the box. Seated in a chair only slightly less ostentatious than his own throne-like seat, to his left, is one Shaitan Topaz, whom he placed under his protection earlier this year. She doesn't look anywhere nearly as happy as he does, dressed as she is in a blue blouse and red skirt, completely unlike the black garments that she's usually been seen wearing. I'd probably feel sorrier for her if I didn't know that she's the agent of a regime that makes Thunder Dragon's rule over Bhutan seem enlightened and merciful.

Well, if I'm reading his lips right, he's coming to the end of his oration, and it's time for me to make my move. I move downward, towards the force dome, keeping up that speed even when it looks like I'm about to smash into its surface. Fortunately, the technical specifications we were able to obtain aren't misleading, and the instant before I would strike the dome, a hole wide enough to admit me opens within it, and I'm able to slow down enough so that I only land with a moderately loud noise on the ground floor of the arena, lifting my face and looking up at Thunder Dragon as I do. Now that I'm in hearing range, I can hear all the many ways that my name is said by the people gathered in the seats surrounding the arena. I won't deny that there's something thrilling about that sort of recognition. But I'm only concerned with the reaction of one individual, who's stopped orating and is glaring down at me.

"Paragon," he says, in perfect English.

"Thunder Dragon," I reply.

"The deadline for admissions was some time ago," he says, with a calm that he clearly doesn't feel. "Should you wish to hold a brief exhibition match before the Tournament begins, I would be more than happy to –"

"No," I interrupt. "That's not why I'm here. I haven't come to participate in this … sport of yours, nor have I come to put a stop to it. Whatever my personal opinions of them, I accept that these things are going to happen." I pause, to let that sink in and let the translators express it for the rest of the audience. "But if that is so, then they're going to happen with some slight oversight to prevent them from becoming a complete bloodbath."

"And what exactly –" he starts to ask.

Before he can finish the sentence, I fish the tiny star-shaped device out of my belt pouch and toss it on the floor in front of me. It's one of Donna's devices, so I can't claim to understand the theory behind it. What I do understand is the effect it has. A moment after it leaves my hand, a teleportal lasting about a second or so opens, and someone steps out of it, moving from the Argo's current position to here in a flash of light. She stands in front of me, in a suit almost as red as my own, and looks around with an expression on her face that shows an even greater level of disgust than I'm feeling right now.

"I am the Lancet," she says after a moment. "And no one is going to die here. I realize that may interfere with your enjoyment of these proceedings. I would express my regrets for that if I felt any. No one is going to die here," she repeats. "You may take whatever sick pleasure you wish in the fact that my treatment might make them wish for death. I would express my regrets, for that, as well."

With that, she falls silent, and we both look up at Thunder Dragon. I'm honestly not sure what he's going to do, now. Well, if he decides that he doesn't want this, we're going to have that exhibition match regardless of what I said earlier, and I think he knows that. We've fought seven times, and only twice did results reach an actual conclusion. In neither of those instances did he come out the winner, and I wonder whether he wants to see what will happen if we fight somewhere that some of my advantages don't apply. I look up at him, and he looks down at me. In as much as the roar of the crowd permits, silence descends.

"Very well," he says, after a moment. "I judge this to be an admirable addition to these events. Thank you."

He doesn't look very thankful, but he's agreed, and we are on our way. The Lancet looks back towards me and offers a polite nod before she starts walking towards one of the arena floor's exits. I prepare to depart as well.

"But on reflection," Thunder Dragon continues after a moment, stopping me before I lift off, "I think that there is another admirable addition to be made. Yes … yes, now that I have had the opportunity to consider, it seems to me that it is hardly just that I will be the only one made to pay a penalty for my defeat, should it happen that I lose the ultimate match of this tournament. Therefore, I now declare that at the end of each of these conflicts, the victor of each match may demand a boon from the vanquished, which must be granted if it is within their power to do so. " His voice goes lower, colder. "And should the loser refuse this demand, they will face my immediate displeasure."

This is both unexpected and greatly unpleasant. It's bad enough that four people I know and like, as well as others I haven't had the pleasure of meeting but have heard good things about, are putting their bodies at risk in this monstrous fiasco, but now they could have demands made of them that are potentially even more contemptible. What I want is to put a stop to this, immediately. And of course, what will come of that is exactly what Thunder Dragon wants, right now.

He's gotten a lot more cunning than he was the first time we clashed.

I take a deep breath. "My best wishes to all who participate in this event," I say, lying through my teeth. And with that remark, I fly up and away from this game of deceit -- if not of death, as the Lancet has promised.

And with that, the Strongest Under Heaven Martial Arts Tournament is officially under way.

The Contenders
The Avatar
Ibuki Kruger
Li Zuwen
Logan Stormstrider
Luis Almeida
Rocco Christopher
Sheng Long
Sun Wukong
Tarmund the Hunter

Side ASide B
Round 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 3Round 2Round 1
Match 1:
Prydwen vs.
Match 1:
Ibuki vs.
TalanteMatch I:
Match I:
Match 2:
Almeida vs.
vs.A Side Semifinal:
Winner, Match I
B Side Semifinal
Winner, Match I
vs.Match 2:
Tarmund vs.
Side A vs. Side B.
Match 3:
Logan vs.
Winner, Match IIWinner Fights
Thunder Dragon
Winner, Match IIMatch 3:
Fuego vs.
Sun WukongMatch II:
Match II:
Winner, Match 3
Match 4:
Zuwen vs.
vs.vs.Match 4:
Sheng Long vs.
RoccoWinner, Match 4Winner, Match 4The Avatar
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House Rules in Effect.

* Any Feint or Demoralize maneuver can be performed as a move action instead of a standard one if the character accepts a -5 penalty to their check.

* Only one attack bonus adjusting maneuver (Accurate Attack, All-Out Attack, Defensive Attack, or Power Attack) can be used on any given attack.

* Initiative is rerolled every round, and a natural 20 on an Initiative roll allows the character to make a Surprise Attack on the subsequent round of combat. (In the unlikely event of two natural 20s on Initiative, the character with the higher total gets a Surprise Attack; if it's tied, nobody does.)

* If a Hero Point reroll on an attack roll produces a 20, even if it is not a natural 20, it still counts as a threat.

* If using the Defend maneuver, and a natural 20 is rolled on the Defend check, a character can make an additional standard action, usually used for an immediate counterattack on whoever just attacked you (sometimes called a Riposte). Note that a roll of 10 (adding 10 as usual for a Defend action) does not count as a natural 20 for these purposes, unless a Hero Point is spent before the roll, also allowing a reroll.

* The DC for any resistance check is 15+effect rank, rather than 10+effect value. The DC to overcome a condition is still 10+effect rank, but overcoming a condition requires the afflicted character to take a Recover action, unless the condition has an Instant Recovery flaw. (Exception: Conditions that have a built-in automatic recovery, such as those resulting from Feints, Demoralizes or Damage, work the same as they did before.)

* A character does not get an automatic check to overcome conditions at the end of their turn, but you can spend a Hero Point to get an additional Recovery action in a conflict, in addition to a Hero Point automatically removing dazed, fatigued and stunned or converting exhausted into fatigued.

* A Damage effect with the Alternate Resistance extra inflicts a -1 cumulative penalty to all subsequent resistance checks of that type on a failure, not to Toughness resistance checks, and it is therefore always a +1 per rank extra for those effects.

* (Specific to the tournament.) All competitors start out with 1 Hero Point, plus 1 additional Hero Point per PL their opponent has over them. Additional Hero Points may be triggered by Complications as usual. Unspent Hero Points do not transfer to subsequent fights.


A few minutes after Paragon has quit the scene, the first match of the tournament is ready to begin. Television displays across the stadium inform the audience about the contenders for this match. In one corner of the octagonal shaped arena stands Prydwen, British vigilante and recent addition to the ranks of the Powerhouse, a shield-wielding superheroine -- sponsored by a donor who preferred to remain anonymous. In the other, the mystery woman Talante, supposedly a renegade from the hidden city of Hespera, who had apparently paid her own entry fee.

"You and your girlfriends reaaaalllly owe me one for this, playboy," says Isekai no Miko, the Warpwitch, as she fans herself while watching all this from the box she received as a complimentary offer following her underwriting of a certain entry fee. (The fanning is unnecessary, as the box is air conditioned, but she has a fan, and doesn't feel moved to smack anyone with it just yet.)

Ordinarily, Nick Grey would offer a polite demurral to that identification, but at the moment, he's too concerned about the potential injury and humiliation that one of his closest friends might potentially suffer to really pay much heed to what he's hearing. He closes his eyes, reminds himself to believe in someone who has, so many times already, believed in him against all odd, and forces himself to calm. With that battle against himself completed, he feels able to turn and regard her, preparatory to answering her comment, but what he sees there makes him hesitate. "Um ... do you not like the chairs that are being provided?" he asks her.

"I like this chair," she answers firmly, as she sits, one leg crossed over the other, atop the back of a young man about the same age as Nick, and with a similar taste in wardrobe, who is on his hands and knees on the box's floor. This does not seem to be his choice of entertainment, exactly.

"Okay, then," says Nick, who has seen much weirder things in his time on Earth.

Below, the two combatants have slowly walked towards each other, one dressed in casual clothes and holding a spear of a bronze-colored metal in two thick hands, the other carrying a shield larger than she herself strapped to one arm.

"I have heard of you," says Talante after a moment, while the timer clicks down to the official start of the match.

"And I of you," replies Prydwen.

"Neither of us belongs in this world and time," says the former queen. "I suppose there's much else we have in common."

"No," says the Lioness of Britain. "I don't think we could possibly be any more different."

In the closing seconds of the count, Talante actually manages a smile. "Thank you for that honesty," she says through clenched teeth.

"You're welcome," says Prydwen under the sound of the buzzer that starts the match, and in the next second, she slams her massive shield forward as though it weighed as little as a boxing glove, smashing into Talante's unguarded side and knocking her back several steps.

"So much for chivalry!" snaps Talante as she recovers enough to drive her spear point forward towards Prydwen in a series of jabs, meant less to hurt than to judge how swiftly her opponent can shift the shield to intercept each of them.

"That concept belongs to a later era than mine," her opponent replies, blocking each thrust easily. The answer seems to be, swiftly enough.

Talante shifts stances, now swinging her spear like a knife attached to a lengthy hilt. "I have heard of your choice of companions, as well," she growls. "Can you shield them as well as you do yourself? At all hours?"

Prydwen flinches at that threat, touching as it does on the one thing she truly fears. The flinch proves nearly deadly, for one swing of the spear slips past her shield's edge to pierce through her armor, and spoiling her aim as she tries to answer the blow with another strike of her shield. Seizing the moment, Talante drives a second thrust home along the same angle, with Pyrdwen barely managing to avoid being impaled on the point of the spear.

She turtles, then, stepping completely behind the shield's barrier, making it as impossible for Talante to strike past it as it would be to strike through it. But her words can still strike blows. "That's what always comes of the strong trying to shelter the weak," Talante sneers. "They drag you down with them when they inevitably fall."

Behind the shield, Prydwen feels her body work to heal the cuts she's just taken, and takes a deep breath -- much like she's seen someone else do, so many times -- before a smile settles on her face. "I was right. We couldn't be any more different."

And with that remark, she slams the shield's lower edge to the ground and uses it as a pole to vault upwards, making Talante think that she'll come down atop her head so that the fallen queen tries to stab upwards, then landing on the arena floor before her. With a twist of the shield, she strikes upwards at the forearms holding the spear aloft, knocking it out of Talante's hands. Then she drives a punch upwards towards her opponent's chin.

Talante reels with the blow, but her eyes are still focused and alert, even after Prydwen follows up with another shield strike to Talante's no-longer guarded side. She rolls with the blow, letting it carry her to where the spear has fallen, so that she can snatch it up once more and make it ready for another attack. Shifting her stance so that Prydwen's next attempt at a shield bash misses widely, she finds another opening in her guard to strike at her still-wounded foe.

Prydwen grimly considers her options. Taking the spear away again might work, but it's a move that she'll be expecting. Therefore, strike at a different target. And with that, she launches a kick at Talante's legs, hoping to put her off her feet long enough to settle this. She suppresses a curse when Talante practically bounces back to a standing position, with that stifled protest turning into a sharp gasp of pain as her opponent manages to strike a telling blow.

It comes to her that she's not going to win this fight, and she focuses on defense, tries to let herself heal again -- but Talante follows up that successful strike with another one that slams past the shield and into her chest. She's falling and is out before she hits the ground.

Talante stares at her fallen adversary, hands still clenching the spear in a way that suggests that she intends to finish this.

"Enough," says a voice from behind her.

She doesn't look back, but does lower her spear.

"Congratulations on your victory," says the voice of Thunder Dragon, echoing through the arena. "What boon would you claim?"

"Nothing," says Talante of the Serpent Soul. "I want nothing she has to give me." And with that, she walks away from the scene of this fight, with queenly stride.

Side A, Match 1: Prydwen vs Talante

Prydwen: Initiative +11, Unarmed +11 (Damage DC 21), Sword +11 (Damage DC 24, Crit 19-20), Shield +12 (Damage DC 23), Dodge 11 (21), Parry 11 (21), Fortitude 10, Toughness 9, Will 10, Acrobatics +13, Insight +12, Intimidation +10.
Hero Points: 3
All, Agile Feint, Improved Defense, Improved Disarm, Improved Trip

Talante: Initiative +8, Unarmed +13 (Damage DC 23), Spear +13 (Damage DC 26, Crit 19-20), Dodge 10 (20), Parry 12 (22), Fortitude 11, Toughness 11/9, Will 10, Acrobatics +9, Deception +10, Insight +8, Intimidation +11.
Hero Points: 1
All, Improved Defense, Skill Mastery (Intimidation)

Turn 1: Prydwen 31, Talante 12

Prydwen makes a Surprise Attack with her shield, using -2/+2 Power Attack.
Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=20 vs. Parry DC 16; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+9=19 vs. Damage DC 25; Bruised, Dazed.

Talante is Dazed, but makes a +2/-2 Accurate Attack with her Spear.
Attack Roll 1d20+13+2=26 vs. Parry DC 22; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+9=23 vs. Damage DC 22; Unharmed.

Turn 2: Prydwen 17, Talante 24

Talante attempts to Demoralize as a Move Action, making a +2/-2 All-out Attack with her Spear.
Intimidation 1d20+11-5=23 vs Insight DC 22; Impaired.
Attack Roll 1d20+13+2=33 vs. Parry DC 22; Hit
Toughness 1d20+9=10; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+9=10+10=20 vs. Damage DC 26; Bruised, Dazed.

Prydwen is Dazed, but makes a +2/-2 All-out Attack with her Shield.
Attack Roll 1d20+12+2-2=15 vs. Parry DC 20; Miss.

Turn 3: Prydwen 13, Talante 26

Talante makes a +5/-5 Power Attack with her Spear.
Attack Roll 1d10+13-5=25 vs. Parry DC 19; Hit
Toughness 1d20+9-2=10; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+9-2=13+10=23 vs. Damage DC 31; Bruised 2, Dazed.

Prydwen uses a Free Action to assume her Defensive Stance, and Recovers, eliminating 1 Bruised condition.

Turn 4: Prydwen 18, Talante 17

Prydwen delays.

Talante attempts to Demoralize as a Standard Action.
Inimidation 1d20+11=18 vs. Insight DC 22; Unaffected.

Prydwen Feints as a Move Action using Acrobatics, then makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack to Disarm Prydwen of her Spear.
Acrobatics 1d20+13-5=22 vs. Acrobatics DC 18; Vulnerable.
Attack Roll 1d20+12+5=24 vs. Parry DC 16; Disarmed.

Prydwen uses Extra Effort to make a +5/-5 Unarmed Power Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+11-5=17 vs. Parry DC 16; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+9-1-28 vs. Damage DC 26; Unharmed

Turn 5: Prydwen 24, Talante 18

Prydwen makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with her Shield.

Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=14; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=30 vs. Parry DC 22; Crit.
Toughness 1d20+11-1=14; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+11-1=25 vs. Damage DC 30; Bruised 2, Dazed

Talante uses her Standard Action to recover her spear.

Turn 6: Prydwen 27, Talante 12

Prydwen makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with her Shield.

Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=16 vs. Parry DC 22; Miss

Talante makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack with her Spear.

Attack Roll 1d20+13+5=24 vs. Parry DC 21; Hit
Toughness 1d20+9-1=22] vs. Damage DC 26; Bruised 2

Turn 7: Prydwen 18, Talante 14

Prydwen makes a Trip Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+11=24 vs. Parry DC 22; Hit.
Prydwen's Athletics 1d20+14=32
Talante's Acrobatics 1d20+9=29; Talante is Prone.

Talante makes an attempt at an Instant Stand.

Acrobatics 1d20+9=23; Success.

She stands as a Free Action, Feints as a Move Action, and makes a +5/-5 Power Attack with her Spear.

Deception 1d20+10-5=20 vs. Insight DC 22; Failure.
Attack Roll 1d20+13-5=26 vs. Parry DC 21; Hit
Toughness 1d20+9-2=18 vs. Damage DC 31; Bruised 3, Staggered.

Turn 8: Prydwen 17, Talante 13

Prydwen's Regeneration removes one Bruised penalty, and she makes a +2/-2 Defensive Attack with her Shield.

Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=19 vs. Parry DC 22; Miss.

Talante makes a +5/-5 All-Out Attack with her Spear.

Attack Roll 1d20+13+5=34 vs. Parry DC 23; Hit
Toughness 1d20+9-2=15 vs. Damage DC 26; Bruised 3, Staggered 2=Incapacitated.




She awakens to agony greater than that which sent her spiraling down into the darkness; for a few moments, the notion of returning there is a most seductive option. Then the steely will that has carried Siwan ferch Art -- Johanna to her friends, Prydwen to everyone else -- through battles unnumbered reasserts itself, and her eyes blink open. "Blech," is her first choice of words.

"Welcome back," says the Lancet, inspecting her injuries carefully.

"That really is a very painful method you have there," Prydwen says after a moment. "Have you considered dosing your patients with analgesics before employing it?"

"No. I have not," says the medic. Very precisely.


Silence reigns for a moment, allowing Prydwen to examine her surroundings -- a table -- more of a bench, really -- within a grey room, with unadorned walls through which she can hear the sounds of running water. Close to the arena's physical plant, she expects. Useful if they have to take this place down. Then the Lancet completes her examination and steps away, allowing Nick to approach.

"I lost," she says, before he can say anything. "Do not try to mitigate that."

"I won't," he answers calmly.

"I should have kept the spear when I took it away from her," she continues. "I had a free hand, and keeping it away from her would have been the better course. Next time."

"Next time," he answers calmly.

Silence reigns again, as Prydwen gently drums a clenched fist against the top of the table where she's still resting. Not hard enough to make much noise, much less to inflict injury on herself. Her anger at herself is not self-destructive. Not yet. "I would not refuse a hug," she says at last.

She is given one.


"Is this seat taken?"

The woman called Scathach looks up and to the side. "Oh," she says. "It's you."

Baron Khan blinks at her tone, or more accurately the lack of one. "Have we a quarrel, madam?"

She returns her gaze to the arena, currently being cleaned and prepared for the next conflict. "No," she says at last. "I suppose not. Those who tried to assault my castle during that ugly little war were sent by others, though I expect you told their masters where to look. The seat is not taken."

He neither confirms nor denies her expectation as he takes the seat.

"Your presence here is surprising," Scathach adds a moment later. "I had heard you were in America."

"Until an hour or so ago, I was," he replies cordially. "But one might say that I have a rather substantial wager riding on the outcome of these games."

She eyes the so-called Baron when he says that, but does not press further. That would be rude, and though she expects she's going to have to kill him eventually, rudeness would never do.

Elsewhere yet.

Jigme Lhaden is an air traffic controller; therefore, he speaks English. It is for that reason that he has been called down from his post in the tower at Taro International Airport to assist security, since the person with whom they are dealing speaks no language that they do, but is clearly European, so they're assuming she speaks English.

There's just one problem. "That's not English," he informs the bruised looking men who are holding the young woman down. "I think it's German. Let me try. Hello?" he says in English, speaking very slowly. "Do ... you ... speak ... English?"

"Yes!" she snaps. "What is going on here? I was just off my plane when someone jumped me and knocked me out and then I wake up and these goons are trying --"

"Who are you?"

"My name is Ibuki, and I'm supposed to be fighting someone in like five minutes!"
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This, thinks Trijata, is unfair. It is, unusually for such considerations, not thought in anger, but in regret and sorrow.

She knows of the young woman in a tanktop and blue jeans who stands across the octagon from where she herself presently stands. After learning of all those who are meant to compete in this affair, she took the time to learn as much about each of them as possible, so that she would be somewhat prepared for whoever she was told to fight. And what she has learned of her opponent saddens her.

They are demanding that she fight a child who plays at being a superhero -- a tag-along, really -- and one whose superpower status has never truly been established. She seemed competent in the handful of videos Trijata was able to watch, but not truly extraordinary. And now she is here, caught up in this nonsense, sponsored by a Russian billionaire, of all things. This is someone's idea of a very cruel joke. It must be.

Well, what must be, must be. With that thought in mind, she walks out to the center of the octagon as the countdown enters its final seconds, matching the pace of the young woman she's about to hurt badly. At last, they stand a few feet apart. Trijata feels no urge for the pre-fight banter she witnessed in the first match, but something must be said. "I will make this as painless as possible," she promises.

The girl blinks. "Oh, are you surrendering, then?"

Ah, youth. She shakes her head as the count reaches one.

"O-K," Ibuki says as it reaches zero.

Because of Trijata's speed and grace, she is in the unique position of being able to perceive what happens next, despite being unable to react to it. In the instant that the buzzer sounds, the young woman before her makes a standing high jump of perhaps two meters in height, twisting as her descent begins so that her right leg slams into Trijata's left shoulder, knocking her opponent to her knees, before summersaulting backwards and landing as lightly as a feather, then dropping into a defensive stance, all in the space of an eyeblink. Trijata, thrown far off balance, retaliates with a crouching leg sweep that barely manages to graze her opponent's shin.

Nothing in what she's seen would lead Trijata to think that this person was capable of any of that, much less of the perfectly executed fake right that covers a left-handed uppercut to Trijata's jaw that follws it up. One thought echoes in Trijata's mind as she considers this.

This is not a human being.

In which case, mercy is misplaced. Therefore, she shifts the illusion surrounding herself so that her claws and teeth cut through it, and swipes downward like the tigress in her soul. To no avail, for the enemy dances out of reach like an apsara, though doing so means that she's overextended when next her high kick strikes against Trijata's breast -- there is no force behind it.

And Trijata knows this dance as well, and gambols past the enemy to strike in passing, and feel the satisfaction of a well-placed strike against an enemy that she hasn't allowed herself to enjoy in far too long. The smirk on the girl's face is gone, now, replaced by -- Where is the fear? Trijata abruptly asks herself, seeing annoyance in its place.

She lashes out with both hands, leaving herself wide open, and Ibuki's new wound leaves her unable to expoit that opening well. Yet a suspicion begins to emerge in Trijata's mind, and with that, she commits to an attack she would never normally voluntarily attempt against any opponent, human or not, lashing out at the young woman's face.

The act betrays her, for her opponent can see it coming, and knows -- must know -- what it means. With all the strength in her body, she answers with an elbow to the side of Trijata's face, and a knee blow to her chest in the next moment.

Again, in the fading moments of Trijata's consciousness, her thought is, This is unfair. There is still no anger. There is no energy for that.

Breathing heavily, Ibuki Kruger stands over her fallen opponent, listening to the declaration of her victory. When Thunder Dragon asks, she answers, "I will ask my boon privately, so as not to embarrass a worthy opponent." And hoping -- there is no room for prayer in what she hopes is her soul -- that the touch of Trijata's claw on her face has not damaged the latex too much.

Side B, Match 1: Ibuki Kruger vs. Trijata

"Ibuki": Initiative +14, Unarmed +15/+10 (Damage DC 22, Crit 18-20), Dodge 14 (24), Parry 14 (24), Fortitude 9, Toughness 8/6, Will 9, Acrobatics +12, Deception +13, Insight +10, Intimidation +8.
Hero Points: 1
All-out Attack, Power Attack.

Trijata: Initiative +14, Unarmed +9/+7 (Damage DC 22), Claws +9/7 (Damage 24, Crit 18-20), Dodge 8 (18), Parry 10 (20), Fortitude 9, Toughness 8, Will 9, Acrobatics +12, Insight +13.
Hero Points: 3
Agile Feint, All-out attack, Fearless, Power Attack.

Turn 1: Ibuki 34, Trijata 18

"Ibuki" makes a +5/-5 Power Attack as a Surprise Attack.
Attack Roll 1d20+15-5=20 vs. Parry DC 15; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+8=23 vs. Damage DC 27; Bruised 1.

Trijata makes a +2/-2 All-out Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+7+2=12; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+7+2=18+10=28 vs. Parry DC 24
Toughness 1d20+8=25 vs. Damage DC 22; Unharmed

Turn 2: Ibuki 26, Trijata 23

"Ibuki" makes a Feint as a Move Action, then a +2/-2 All-out Attack.

Deception 1d20+13-5=20; Reroll
Deception 1d20+13-5=17+10=27 vs. Insight DC 23; Vulnerable.
Attack Roll 1d20+15+2=27 vs. Parry DC 14; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+8-1=14 ca. Damage DC 22; Bruised 2, Dazed.

Trijata's Regeneration removes one Bruised Condition, and she makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with her Claws.

Attack Roll 1d20+7-2=19 vs Parry DC 22; Miss

Turn 3: Ibuki 33, Trijata 22

"Ibuki" makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+15+5=33 vs. Parry DC 20; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+8-1=11; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+8-1=14+10=24 vs. Toughness DC 22; Unharmed.

Trijata's Regneration removes one Bruised Condition, she Feints with Acrobatics as a move action, and makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with her Claws.

Acrobatics 1d20+12-5=22 vs Acrobatics DC 22; Vulnerable.
Attack Roll 1d20+7-2=13; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+7-2=22 vs. Parry DC 17; Hit
Toughness 1d20+6=20 vs Damage DC 26; Bruised, Dazed.

Turn 4: Ibuki 27, Trijata 28

Trijata makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack with her Claws.

Attack Roll 1d20+9+5=34 vs. Parry DC 24; Crit.
Toughness 1d20+8-1=26 vs. Damage DC 29; Bruised 2.

"Ibuki" makes a +5/-5 Power Attack

Attack Roll 1d20+15-5=12 vs. Parry DC 15; Miss.

Turn 5: Ibuki 24, Trijata 25

Trijata attempts to Disarm something she's started to suspect.

Attack Roll 1d20+9-2=12; Reroll.
Attack Roll 1d20+9-2=9+10=19 vs. Parry DC 24; Miss.

"Ibuki" makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+15+5=30 vs. Parry DC 20; Hit
Toughness 1d20+8-1=15 vs. Toughness 22; Dazed, Bruised 2

"Ibuki" uses Extra Effort to make a +5/-5 Power Attack.

Attack roll 1d20+15-5=21 vs. Parry DC 20; HIT
Toughness 1d20+8-1=11 vs. Toughness DC 27; Incapacitated.

Victor: "Ibuki".

Seems someone's been telling untruths.



When her eyes clear once more, Trijata needs to use all the mindfulness she's ever studied to contain her urge to start shouting at the person whom she can clearly see standing just behind the Lancet. There are many things she wants to say to this person, and, honestly, things she wants to say about them to anyone within earshot.

Before she can do so, though, the person wearing Ibuki's face speaks up. "Can I speak to her alone, please?" Expressed so diffidently, with such a winsome expression on her face. All the same, the Lancet regards her skeptically for a moment, before nodding sharply and heading out through the room's door.

Trijata opens her mouth.

"I am presently known as Baba Yaga," says the false Ibuki, speaking without a trace of diffidence or winsomeness. "I infiltrated this tournament to support efforts to have Thunder Dragon removed from power. If you believe your motives are more worthy, by all means, expose me."

Trijata closes her mouth, and lets out a long exhalation. "Where is the person you're imitating?" she asks after some consideration.

Is she imagining a slight softening in the expression of the mask this woman wears? "At the airport, trying to convince security that she's neither a lunatic nor an impostor. Uncomfortable, but not as painful as she would have found a fight with you." An unspoken question hangs in the air after she finishes speaking.

"I have heard of you," Trijata says. "Do you think you can win this?"

"The future's not ours to see," Baba Yaga answers. "But I can try."

Trijata lets her human semblance slip completely, and sees the complete absence of surprise on her former opponent's face. "And that's the boon you want to ask? My silence?"

The other woman nods.

"Agreed," Trijata says at last, looking away.

With a nod, the spy turns to go.

"Are you a rakshasi?" Trijata asks on an impulse no amount of mindfulness can withstand.

Baba Yaga pauses at the doorway. "I doubt it," she replies after a moment of her own, without looking back. "It wouldn't be the strangest notion. But I think I'm more of a noppera-bō." And with that confusing statement, she departs.


The armor slows him down, Luis Almeida thinks as he spends the moments before the buzzer rings studying his opponent. But it protects him, and it doesn't slow him as much as I'd expect. And even with it, he's better on the attack than I can hope to be. And I think he knows it.

He only knows the mercenary known as Bravo by reputation. Their paths have never crossed before this. And yet that reputation seems richly deserved at the moment, even if it led him to expect someone taller. Luis has met Bravo's most notorious opponent, recently and in the not so recent past, and this person is no more than a few centimeters taller than Trouble, even with the armor.

Luis has a reputation, too. He considers some repartee before the action starts, but decides that it would be wasted on this opponent. Instead, he offers Bravo a polite nod -- which goes unreturned -- and waits down to the last seccond. However much the armor slows Bravo down, it clearly doesn't stop the other fighter from striking first in the opening salvo. Bravo drops and rolls into a handstand that permits a sharp kick upwards at Luis' jaw, an unorthodox move that sends Luis reeling back and keeps his own corkscrew punch from striking.

But the tempo of the battle swings back towards Luis, and he launches his recently developed Hit Secreto -- the punch that defies the laws of physics, lashing out and retracting faster than the eye can see. Whatever enhancements Bravo's vision might possess, they aren't enough to see or block that blow. Unfortunately, Luis can't quite place it as he'd like, so the armor soaks up almost all of the impact, and --

Something about the way the other fighter is standing shifts.

The kick that comes around at Luis' side is almost as fast as the Hit Secreto, and perhaps better placed. As is the deceptive low blow that follows it up a moment later, making stars dance in Luis' perception. He can't take many more of those. He lashes out with what he prays is a Hit Secreto that will strike a vulnerable spot --

-- and sees Bravo block it with an arm, but cannot bring himself to believe the sight. The arm seems to move more slowly afterwards, but that was a technique that could not be blocked. And no matter how slowly it moves, the armored arm is able to strike down at Luis' leading hip, slowing him enough that his own attempt to feint and deliver a telling blow is foiled.

And in the instant after Luis senses another shift in his opponent's stance, he sees, but again cannot believe that he is seeing, Bravo's uninjured arm fold up in the way that he recognizes from all the times he practiced the move before a mirror, the way that his own arm moves as the Hit Secreto is about to be delivered.

It is delivered, striking Luis in the sternum, and followed up by a roundhouse that sends him to the arena floor.

Somewhat to his own amazement, Luis is not completely out. He is in too much pain to move, of course, but he still holds on to shreds of self-awareness. And so he can hear Thunder Dragon's voice asking what boon Bravo would ask, and even dimly see the other fighter leaning over him.

And he hears, lightly muted, a synthesized voice declaring, "Your next movie will be filmed on location in the glorious Empire of Korea."

That is what he carries with him, down into the darkness.

Side A, Match 2: Luis Almeida vs. Bravo

Luis Almeida: Initiative +11, Unarmed +15 (Close Damage DC18), Hit Secreto -- (Close Damage 20), Dodge 15 (25), Parry 14 (24), Fortitude 6, Toughness 5/3, Will 8, Acrobatics +14, Athletics +13, Insight +11, Intimidation +10.
Hero Points: 2
Agile Feint, Assessment, Defensive Attack, Fearless, Improved Disarm, Instant Up, Power Attack.

Bravo: Initiative +10, Unarmed +16 (Close Damage DC20, Crit 19-20), Dodge 12 (22), Parry 13 (23), Fortitude 9, Toughness 9/7, Will 9, Acrobatics +14, Athletics +12, Deception +12, Insight +12, Intimidation +14.
Hero Points: 1
All, Agile Feint, Assessment.

Turn 1: Almeida 13, Bravo 14

Bravo Assesses, learning Almeida's Attack, Dodge and Parry bonuses. Bravo then Feints with Acrobatics as a Move Action, and makes a +2/-2 Power Attack.

Insight 1d20+12=28 vs. Presence 1d20+2=13.
Acrobatics 1d20+14-5=27 vs. Acrobatics DC24; Vulnerable.
Attack Roll 1d20+16-2=16; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+16-2=29 vs. Parry DC 17; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+3=9; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+2=5+10=15 vs. Damage DC 22; Dazed, Bruised.

Luis Assesses, learning that Bravo's attack bonus is higher than his, and his defense bonuses are lower. He makes a +3/-3 Power Attack.

Insight 1d20+11=20 vs. Deception 1d20+12=18
Attack Roll 1d20+14-3=20 vs. Parry DC 23; Miss.

Turn 2: Almeida 16, Bravo 15

Almeida uses Hit Secreto on Bravo; as Bravo has never seen this move before, it is a Surprise Attack.

Toughness 1d20+7=26 vs. Damage DC 20; Unharmed.

As a Free Action, Bravo adjusts Martial Arts Abilities to the following.

Storm Warning Dash: Enhanced Advantages 4 (Close Attack 2, Improved Initiative 2), Close Attack is only enhanced against opponents with a lower Initiative total; Enhanced Defenses 6 (Dodge 3, Parry 3); Quickness 1 - 10 points

Bravo then makes a +2/-2 Power Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+16-2=28 vs. Parry DC 24; Hit
Toughness 1d20+5-1=23 vs. Damage DC 20; Bruised 2.

Turn 3: Almeida 15, Bravo 28

Bravo Feints with Deception, then makes a +2/-2 Power Attack.

Deception 1d20+12-5=24 vs. Insight DC 21; Vulnerable
Attack Roll 1d20+18-2=26 vs. Parry DC 17; Hit.
Toughness 1d20+3-1=8; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+3-1=10+10 vs. Damage DC 20; Bruised 2.

Almeida uses Hit Secreto again, but this time Bravo is able to intercept it.

Attack Roll 1d20+15=29 vs. Parry DC 25; Hit
Toughness 1d20+7=11 vs. Damage DC 20; Bruised 1, Dazed.

Turn 4: Almeida 17, Bravo 23

Bravo makes a +2/-2 Power Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+18=25 vs. Parry DC 24; Hit
Toughness 1d20+7-2=19 vs. Damage DC 18; Bruised 2.

Almeida Feints with Acrobatics as a move action, then makes a +2/-2 Defensive Attack

Acrobatics 1d20+14-5=11; Reroll
Acrobatics 1d20+14-5=22 vs. Acrobatics DC 24; Unaffected.
Unarmed Attack 1d20+15-2=13 vs. Parry DC 25; Miss.

Turn 5: Almeida 26, Bravo 30

Bravo alters Martial Arts Abilities to the following --

Swift Hit: Perception Range Damage 5, Limitation (functions as a Close Attack, resolved as a Close Attack against targets with Quickness), Subtle (detected by rapid vision or Quickness) - 10 points

-- then uses it on Almeida, as a Surprise Attack --

Toughness 1d20+3-2=6 vs. Toughness DC 20; Bruised 3, Staggered.

-- then uses Extra Effort to make a second Standard Action, a +2/-2 Power Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+18-2=26 vs. Parry DC 24; Hit
Toughness 1d20+5-3=7 vs. Toughness DC 20; Bruised 4, Staggered 2=Incapacitated.

Victor: Bravo.



By the finale of the third match, Shaitan Topaz has reached the limits of her patience -- which has never really numbered among her qualities, in any event. "I need to use the lavatory," she says, rising from her chair.

"There's one at the back of the box," Thunder Dragon says in return, not taking his eyes off the screen he's observing, which presents a replay of that last bout in slow motion.

She holds back from expressing her frustration verbally. "And having used that, I need to get some fresh air."

Now the monster who has declared her to be under his protection looks up. "I am truly curious -- do hostages normally get to ask for fresh air, in the Imperium?" he asks, something like a grin animating his features.

Shaitan simply glares at him in silence.

"Please yourself," he says with a shrug, returning to his studies. "I take no responsibility if your wanderings through my arena inspire one or another of our guests to attempt to make you their hostage."

"I am not without resources," she says, hand going to the hilt attached to her skirt's waistline. He'd returned it to her when they arrived, said it would be expected that she have it. She hasn't tested it for functionality yet. If it has been sabotaged, she doesn't really want to know.

Regardless, he doesn't answer her last words, and she turns to walk out of the box's rear entry. Despite what he said, the passages beyond are largely empty, with only a few people passing through on the sort of errand in which she is supposedly engaged, often in small groups who babble animatedly about the wonders that they've seen. None of them approach her.

"Hello," says a voice from behind her. It is distinctive in that it addresses her in a proper language.

None who are sane, she amends her earlier thought, and turns to regard her nemesis. Logan Stormstrider, ironically, has changed his usual white toga and trousers for a black blouse and pants. She doesn't answer his greeting, just glares at him.

"Are you all right?" he asks.

"Dispense with such pleasantries, caitiff," she says at last. "Why are you here?"

"Everyone has to be somewhere."

"I am not making philosophical inquiries, dolt," says Shaitan, finally raising her voice a bit. "Why are you taking part in this absurdity? No, on second thought, let me save you the trouble of answering. You plan to ask him to make me your prisoner, instead of his, or instead of that deserter Marine's."

"No," he says, patiently. "If I manage to win this, I'm going to ask him to give you your freedom."

She stares at him, then lets out what she fears might sound a bit like hysterical laughter. "You ... you utter varlet," she says when she calms down slightly. "Lest you forget, 'Stormstrider', I have seen your notions of 'freedom'. I have walked through the ruins of Gelesh." She sees him flinch, and takes pleasure in the sight. "None of your supposed friends know about that, do they? None know that their dear compatriot helped to author the death of thirty thousand civilians --" She plans to give the full litany.

Logan interrupts. "Six thousand," he says. "Six thousand, one hundred and forty-seven civilians on Gelesh."

She stares at him in silence. "What nonsense and tomfoolery are you spouting?" she finally asks.

"That's the number we weren't able to save," he says. "The rest we got out of the city before the reactor exploded. We even broadcast, on all frequencies, that it was going to explode, so any military assets who stayed there chose to do so."

"You're lying," she says. "You would say anything --"

"You are a mind reader," he says, raising his own voice. "Read my mind and tell me if I speak the truth."

Shaitan starts to back away, not really realizing that's what she does. "I won't be tricked like this. I won't. Even if you are revealing some sort of truth, it doesn't matter, saving them from a disaster you helped to cause, you killed my master --"

"The Grand Inquisitor set the reactor to go critical."

Words fail her. In an instant, she seizes his mind and rips through it, preparing to tear it to shreds when she's done. And in that instant, she knows all that is Logan Williams.

"You are not lying," she says, when she can speak.

"No," he says. "I am not." He takes a step towards her.

"Stay away from me!" Shaitan shrieks, and flees.

"What the frack are you doing?" demands someone from behind Logan. He turns to regard Khezar Lansam, who has also adopted Bhutanese dress as disguise, and is staring at him in stupefaction.

"I'm glad you like that TV show, but could you maybe think twice about adopting its idioms?" he asks, mildly. It doesn't help matters that she looks quite a bit like its heroine.

She ignores that. "You just told the Insurgency's biggest secret to one of its worst enemies! What are you thinking -- no, with what are you thinking?"

"I think this is what the Source wants me to do," he says, still mildly.

"The Source doesn't want things! That's not how the Source works! If you really think that the Source is talking to you, boyo, you've got bigger problems than a crazy woman you want to help for whatever stupid --"

"Probably," says Logan, nodding sadly. "Probably."

Both of them are focused enough on their own conversation that they do not notice that they are being observed by another party.

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