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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?"
And in the process, setting the stage for the defection of a very high ranking Imperium operative to the Resistance. Geez Khezar, look at the long game...

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"So I hear you're a bounty hunter," says Amari, gazing up at the giant she's expected to fight.

She's not really sure why Hodan Yasin approached her about participating in this event, which required her to take a months-long boat trip and a weeks-long bus trip just to get here. (Not for the first time, Amari regrets the way that she messes up airplane instrumentation.) But now that she is here, and has learned the nature of what she's meant to fight, she accepts it with the same light heart she accepts most everything else.

"That's right," says Tarmund the Hunter, smirking down at what he thinks of as easy prey.

"Hm. Not a fan. So, maybe you could make this a little more fair, and not use that big axe of yours?" she asks.

The smirk goes away, turning into a scowl. "I'm doing all of you enough of a favor by not wearing my body armor, Earthling."

"That's not really doing me any favors. Some of the boys and girls in the audience, sure, but not me, sorry. But okay," she says as the timer counts down the final seconds. "You had a chance, though."

And when the buzzer sounds, as Tarmund brings up the axe he refused to surrender, Amari drops down and punches the floor of the arena with all of her might. The ground rumbles, throwing Tarmund off his stance. "Tremor?" he asks. "You think I'm scared of tremors, little girl? I marched with those who shatter worlds!"

"Then I guess I better take you real serious," Amari answers. She leaves herself wide open as she bounds up to grab hold of that section of the axe's hilt that her opponent's hands don't cover and yanks it out of his hands, making gravity her ally as the weapon slides out of his hands, then grabbing it so that it's held firmly in her own.

Tarmund's eyes go wide. "Give that back this instant, girl, and I might not k--"

She doesn't bother to listen to the threat, lashing out with a swing of the axe that would have cut him wide open had he not ducked back at the last moment. "I told you," she says aloud. "You had a chance."

The hunter furiously tries to knock it out of her hands, as she did to him, but her grip is just that much stronger or his angle of attack is just that much worse. Regardless, she maintains her hold of the axe, and almost laughs at his attempt to set up another such try while cutting at his arms for the affront. She's shaken him, mentally and physically, and though she thinks this still won't be easy, the battlefield tilts in her favor.

He lashes out with a punch; she cuts him. He tries to wrestle her; she cuts him. At last, she cuts him one time too often, and the pain makes him collapse. That's good, for her own arms are starting to ache from the stress of wielding this unfamiliar weapon, and she lets it fall.

"What boon do you ask?" calls Thunder Dragon's voice, as the Lancet and her newly-recruited orderlies come out to stop the bleeding.

She's smiling as she says it, staring up at him. "Get off my planet," she says.

And in the stands above, Baron Khan smiles coldly. "It seems I've won that bet."

Side B, Match 2: Amari vs. Tarmund

Tarmund the Hunter: Initiative +10, Unarmed +8 (Damage DC 22), Starforged Axe +14 (Damage DC 25, Crit 16-20), Dodge 10 (DC 20), Parry 12 (DC 22), Fortitude 13, Toughness 10/8, Will 8, Acrobatics +12, Athletics +13, Insight +8, Intimidation +11.
Hero Points: 1
Agile Feint, All-out Attack, Fearless 2, Power Attack, Ultimate Toughness

Amari: Initiative +16, Unarmed +10 (Damage DC 23), Bullet Throw +8 (Damage DC 19), Shockwave (Burst Area Dodge DC 23), Dodge 8 (DC 18), Parry 8 (DC 18), Fortitude 10, Toughness 12, Will 8, Acrobatics +9, Athletics +10, Insight +7.
Hero Points: 3
Extraordinary Effort, Power Attack.

Round 1: Amari 27, Tarmund 15

Amari uses her Shockwave.

Dodge 1d20+10=17 vs. Dodge DC 23; Full Effect
Dodge 1d20+10=18 vs. Dodge DC 23; Dazed and Vulnerable

Tarmund attempts to Demoralize.

Intimidation 1d20+11=23 vs. Will DC 18; Impaired.

Round 2: Tarmund 15, Amari 35

Amari makes a +2/-2 All-out Attack as she attempts to Disarm.

Attack Roll 1d20+8-2-2+2=22 vs. Parry DC 16; Hit
Strength 1d20+8=26 vs. Strength DC 17; Disarmed.

She uses a Free Action to take the Axe and wield it. She isn't proficient, and so has a -2 penalty to any attacks made with the Axe. Amari uses Extra Effort to take an additional standard action, and makes a +5/-5 Power Attack with the Axe.

Attack Roll 1d20+10-4-5=7; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+10-4-5=9+10=19 vs. Parry DC 16; Crit.
Toughness 1d20+8=10; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+8=26 vs. Damage DC 36; Bruised 1, Staggered.

Tarmund attempts to Disarm right back.

Attack Roll 1d20+8-2=24 vs. Parry DC 22; Hit
Strength Roll 1d20+7=12 vs. Strength DC 18; No effect.

Round 3: Tarmund 27, Amari 21

Tarmund feints with Acrobatics.

Acrobatics 1d20+12-5=13 vs. Acrobatics DC 19; No effect.

Amari makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with the Axe.

Attack Roll 1d20+10-2-2=21 vs. Parry DC 16; Crit
Toughness 1d20+8-1=23 vs. Damage DC 28; Bruised 2, Dazed

Round 4: Tarmund 28, Amari 30

Amari makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with the Axe.

Attack Roll 1d20+10-2-2=16 vs. Parry DC 16; Hit
Toughness 1d20+8-2=20 vs Damage DC 28; Bruised 3, Dazed.

Tarmund makes a +5/-5 Power Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+8-5=11 vs. Parry DC 18; Miss.

Round 5: Tarmund 29, Amari 17

Tarmund attempts a Grab.

Attack Roll 1d20+8=27 vs. Parry DC 18; Hit
Strength 1d20+7 vs. Dodge DC 20; No effect.

Amari makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with the Axe.

Axe Attack 1d20+10-2-2=20 vs. Parry DC 16; Hit
Toughness 1d20+8-3=22 vs. Damage DC 23; Bruised 4.

Round 6: Amari 33, Tarmund 26

Amari makes a +5/-5 Power Attack with the Axe.

Axe Attack 1d20+10-2-5=13; Reroll
Axe Attack 1d20+10-2-5=22 vs. Parry DC 16; Crit
Toughness 1d20+8-4=22 vs. Damage DC 36; Bruised 5, Staggered 2=Incapacitated




In a room set aside for sparring, Lonnie Lawson takes a deep breath and steps back out of stance. "Okay," he says. "I think we've gotten in all the practice that'll be useful before your match. Are you sure you want to do things this way?"

The entity known as the Avatar nods calmly. "I am. This is the best way for me to learn, I think. I am not sure of my chances, but that is itself an experience that presents a number of points of interest. Thank you, Lonnie."

Lonnie marvels for a moment at how much this strange being from another reality has already changed and grown in the few years that he's been walking up and down on the Earth. At the start of their time together, he never would have said things like 'thank you'.

"What do you think of my chances, Lonnie?" The question is asked not with any apprehension, but with simple curiosity. "You have seen more encounters than I, and are, I think, a better judge."

Lonnie lets out a sigh. "I dunno, Av," he says, not really noting the way that his companion has stopped looking in his direction and is watching something enter the room from the far door, and approach them silently. "I mean, like I said, I've given you the best that I got, but you're going to be up against some really serious opposition, here. I mean, Trouble alone is probably the best fighter in the world --"

"Not so, there are many better," says a voice he recognizes from behind him.

Lonnie makes a choking noise before he slowly turns.

"Hello, Lonnie," says Trouble. "You look well."

For a dizzying moment, he wonders whether she always wears that particular plaid skirt, or whether this is a new one that looks just like the one she wore when he knew her. "Uh, hi," he manages to say.

"And you must be the Avatar," she says, looking past him.

"Hello," says the Avatar. "We've met before."

"... I don't really think of that as a meeting."

He considers. "I think I see your point."

"Hm. Well, I'd say that I'm looking forward to having a match with you, but the prospect of fighting someone with the power to alter molecular structure with a thought is honestly a bit daunting," says Trouble.

"I will not be using those powers in this series of events," says the Avatar.

Trouble blinks, and Lonnie knows her well enough to recognize the sheer shock that subtle gesture reveals. "Excuse me?" she says.

"I will not be using those powers in this series of events," he says again. "This is, I think, a test of the strength of the body, and it would make no sense to employ talents that derive from my consciousness. That would be, I think, a form of cheating." This is added in a somewhat lower tone, as a confidence.

"I see," says Trouble, sounding a bit dazed. "Normally, I would be inclined to argue against such a division of body and mind, but -- no, that's not important. You understand that others may not be as scrupulous about employing such talents?"

The Avatar shrugs. "I cannot control what others do, only what I myself do. Is this not one of the fundamental tenets of the philosophy that informs your heroism?" He doesn't wait for an answer. "Please excuse me, I need to perform a private biological function."

"So that's him," says Lonnie as he watches Trouble watching the Avatar stroll off towards the rest room. "I dunno what to tell you."

"You've taught him how to fight?" she asks.

"A few things, yeah."

Trouble looks at him with obvious amazement. "You taught a being with Paragon's physique the skills you learned from Darkwing, and you think he's going to have difficulties in this fight?"

Now Lonnie blinks. "Well, I mean, when you put it like that --"


Near to the start of their time together, old Eflas had told him that, despite what most in the Imperium believed, there were such things as gods. But he'd added that they were only people whose journey had brought them nearer to the Source than others, and should be respected but not revered, for however closer they might have already come, there was still always further to go. Despite that, Logan had never truly imagined that his own journey might bring him face to face with such a being.

And yet here he was, standing across an octagon from the Monkey King, complete with Compliant Gold-hooped Rod. This, he said to himself, as he often did, was not a good idea.

Yet when the time came, he walked steadily towards his opponent, who matched his course. The Monkey was smiling at him in what Logan thought was a friendly manner, though he couldn't read the other well enough to judge if that was genuine or not. "I am prepared," he said.

"As am I," said Sun Wukong, in American-sounding English. His smile grew wider when Logan blinked in surprise at that, but he offered nothing further. No banter, no attempt at intimidation. Logan could tell that none of that was needed.

As the last seconds counted down, Logan lifted the hilt of his blade to a guard position, and ignited her with a flick of her switch. Greenish-blue light streaked forth, shining brighter than the lights of the arena. He drew in a breath as the count reached zero -- then struck forward with a fleche maneuver. To his amazement, he managed to sneak past the Monkey King's own guard, with the coruscating blade streaking across his opponent's unarmored left shoulder.

"Hah!" cried Wukong, jerking away from the blow. The reflexive retreat, if that was what it was, turned into a spin, slow enough to add no real force to the strike from the rod, yet making its course that much harder to avoid. Yet Logan's stance allowed him to back-step out of its path, though he could almost feel the air being driven before its blow.

Thus, when his opponent further shifted his spinning motion into a series of what looked like cartwheels, Logan found himself enough off balance to step into the path of that air, pushing him further onto his backfoot and wincing at the pain. He retained enough awareness to assume the ultimate defensive form that he'd been taught at the start of his journey, while still launching a half-hearted cut at the Monkey's leading leg.

It hit, and yet, just as with the shoulder, there was no sign of any damage at all. A vague memory that the Monkey King was made of stone came to him. But I can cut through stone, he thought. So then --

Again, Wukong swung his staff like a flag-waver in a parade might swing their banner. Again, Logan avoided it, and drove his blade full force towards his opponents' side.

"Ah!" cried Wukong, dancing away again.

He'd struck. He knew that he'd struck. And he knew more than that.

As he watched the Monkey begin to wind up for yet another blow, Logan sighed ... then flipped her switch to its closed position. With what he hoped was a face of serene acceptance and not a pout, he dropped to a seated position on the arena floor. "I surrender," he said clearly.

Wukong was moving into what would have been a wondrous acrobatic display, and so the declaration caught him quite off-guard. "You what?" he said, golden eyes wide, his voice almost but not quite drowned out by the cat-calls and similar complaints from the audience.

"Who can fight the storm? Who can fight the mountain?" Logan asked, quoting his master. "To continue to battle when there is no reasonable chance of success is not the act of the sage, but of the madman. I've done all I can, and nothing I've done has affected you in any way. So this fight was over before it began."

"But surely you will not give up your wish so readily!" said Wukong. "Surely --"

"It cannot be helped," he said quietly. "I cannot beat you -- even though you were going easy on me." That was almost added in a whisper.

The Monkey seemed to slump. "It may be as you say."

"What will you ask as your --" Thunder Dragon began to say, high above them both.

"Become my student," said Wukong.

Logan jolted. "What?"

"That is what I ask of you. Become my student, and grow stronger. So that when you next face an opponent who seems unbeatable, you find the strength to carry on and conquer. Can you do this?" The Monkey raised a bushy eyebrow.

"Yes," Logan said after a moment. "But --"

Now Wukong spoke quietly. "Your enemy, up there, is not the only one who has seen all that is Logan Stormstrider," he said. "You are much better than you fear yourself to be, young man."

A long silence ensued, before Logan nodded once. He rose, and bowed to his new master. "Thank you, xiānshēng."

"Thank me after I've made you work off this humiliation," said Wukong, now frowning. "But of that, more later."

They walked out of the arena together. Logan could not bring himself to look up where Shaitan Topaz was doubtless watching all this. And yet as the doors closed behind them, he wished that he had ...

Round 1, Match 3: Logan Stormstrider vs. Sun Wukong

Logan Stormstrider: Initiative +9, Unarmed +8 (Close Damage DC 18), Laser Sword +12 (Close Damage DC 21), Dodge 12 (22), Parry 12 (22), Fortitude 5, Toughness 5/3, Will 11 (Impervious 6), Acrobatics +13, Athletics +11, Insight +12
Hero Points: 3
Defensive Attack, Power Attack, Precise Attack (Close/Concealment)

Sun Wukong: Initiative +10, Unarmed +10 (Close Damage DC 23), Staff +12 (Close Damage DC 25, Crit 19-20), Dodge 8 (18), Parry 9 (19), Fortitude 11, Toughness 13 (Impervious 13), Will 11, Acrobatics +9, Athletics +11, Insight +10, Intimidation +8.
Hero Points: 1
Agile Feint, All-out Attack, Fearless, Power Attack.

Turn 1: Logan 23, Wukong 21

Logan makes a +2/-2 Defensive Attack with his Laser Sword. Its Penetrating extra reduces Wukong's Impervious to 7 ranks, allowing it to harm him.

Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=27 vs. Parry DC 19; Hit.
Wukong 1d20+13=24 vs. Damage DC 21; No effect.

Wukong makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack with his Rod.

Attack Roll 1d20+12+5=15 vs. Parry DC 24; Miss.

Turn 2: Wukong 29, Logan 20

Wukong Feints with Acrobatics as a Move Action, then makes a +2/-2 Power Attack with his Rod.

Acrobatics 1d20+9-5=24 vs. Acrobatics DC 23; Vulnerable.
Attack Roll 1d20+12-2=23 vs. Parry DC 17; Hit
Toughness 1d20+3=21 vs. Damage DC 27; Dazed, Bruised.

Logan makes a +5/-5 Defensive attack with his Laser Sword.

Attack Roll1d20+12-5=25 vs. Parry DC 19; Hit
Toughness 1d20+13=23 vs. Damage DC 21; No effect.

Turn 3: Wukong 14, Logan 11

Wukong makes a +2/-2 All-out Attack with his Rod.

Attack Roll 1d20+12+2=4 vs. Parry DC 27; Miss.

Logan makes a +5/-5 Power Attack with his Laser Sword.

Attack Roll 1d20+12-5=23 vs. Parry DC 14; Hit
Toughness 1d20+13=30 vs. Damage DC 26; No effect.

Logan surrenders.

Victor: Sun Wukong.



Normally -- in as much as there could ever be anything normal about her circumstances -- she would have chosen to remain in the arena, even after being done for the day, so that she could observe those she was supposed to fight later and learn from them. By the time that the first day of this business was heading into the evening, however, her internal odds calculator suggested that it was very unlikely that she'd be fighting any of these people, and so she felt free to excuse herself. Besides, she had to place a phone call on the secure line she'd arranged.

So she left, wearing a disguise over her disguise, and walked away from the arena, initially heading for the youth hostel where her stay had been arranged, but steering away from that destination as she realized that someone was following her. She headed towards a somewhat rougher part of town, deliberately looking for places that would be bad locations in which to be ambushed. Having at last found the requisite blind alley, she paused, then turned to look back the way she'd come. "Show yourselves, please," she said, calmly.

When they did, she felt a touch of surprise -- there were five of them, and she'd only identified four. Five young women, Japanese, and the one with blue hair was the first one to speak. "We had an agreement," said Kosugi Mizuki in Japanese.

She didn't really have the capacity for panic, so she didn't experience any right then. She did experience confusion -- as far as her research had indicated, Ibuki Kruger had never had any contact with active members of the Shadow School. "I'm sorry, have we met?" she asked, in a way that could be taken as sincere confusion or sarcasm.

"Allow me to clarify," the ninja continued. "We had an agreement with your father. He was allowed to teach you the discipline if you both stayed out of Asia."

As the real Ibuki had been excited to come here, it did not seem likely -- "Dad never said anything about that to me," she said, bluffing calmly.

"That's as may be," said Mizuki, unfazed by the bluff. "However, in exchange for overlooking this trespass, we will require a favor of sorts." She looked to her side, at the rather pale young woman who was standing there.

"If you should fight Bravo," said Yamaji Manami, in a voice so soft that she would have had to strain to hear it, without her enhancements. "If you manage to win. Ask of him the following boon: 'remove your helmet.'"

She blinked. That was a relatively minor favor to be asked of someone by a group of spies and assass-- and then a thought came to her which would probably not have come to the real Ibuki. "All right, then," she said. "Simple enough." She'd just have to save the mercenary's life when these so-called Tenshi took their shot.

It wouldn't come to that though. Extreme long-shot.


"Thank you so much for this," said Ibuki as she sat in the cab's back seat. "I've just been having such a terrible day, but a complimentary cab ride to the arena makes up for all of it!"

"No problem," said the driver. That was the only English phrase that he spoke, though he could understand much more. The driver, who was from Hong Kong originally, spoke much better Cantonese, and it had been in that language that he'd negotiated a deal to pick up a certain individual from the airport and keep her as far away from Thimpu and the arena as possible.

While Ibuki was happy, something was nagging at her, and after a moment, she realized what it was. Para was west of Thimpu, according to the map she'd seen. If they were driving east, shouldn't the setting sun that was coming through the cab's windscreen be behind them?

Meh, it was probably just one of those twisty roads.


Music for this scene: Ultra, by KMFDM.

Truth be told, Esteban had been waiting a long time for this. From the first time he'd seen that cyber-schoolgirl staring at him with an unimpressed look on her face -- man, had it really been almost twenty years since then? -- when her gang of jerks had shown up to graciously offer to let him in the clubhouse, he'd known that this chick and he were never going to get along. They'd crossed paths a few times after that, both when he was a sucker and after he'd wised up, but never had they gotten to go at it like this. So this was going to be fun, and the bonus that Kingfisher had promised him if he managed to grill a member of the Powerhouse would be more than welcome.

So Fuego strolled over to the center of the Octagon, where Trouble was already standing patiently, with the biggest possible grin on his face. "Hello, bea-uti-ful!" he said, drawing the word out. "How's it going?"

She didn't answer, didn't even raise an eyebrow.

"Y'know, I'm in really great mood, here, so whatever we've been through in the past, I just wanna have a nice clean match." He extended a hand towards her, as the count entered its final seconds. "So let's shake on --"

"I'm not falling for that again," she said.

He let the hand hang in the air, then drew it back and shrugged. "Okay, have it your way." And as the buzzer sounded, he unleashed his fiery wings and soared up, far out of Trouble's reach. With a roar, Fuego flung all his fury down at her, letting the flames surge forth from both hands and turning the arena floor into an incendiary ocean. Listening to the screams from the audience, he exulted in their panic and the faint scent of burning flesh. Maybe that screwy super-nurse would be able to fix her up, but she would know that she'd been burned. "Oh, yeah! How do you like that, huh? How do you like that!"

"I don't," said a voice from below.

Before he could react, a greenish beam shot up from the flames below, striking against his force field. He jerked back as cracks seemed to spread across the surface of his defensive barrier, and felt the weird sensation of it going down against his will. Wait, how -- he wanted to cry out.

"I've almost forgotten what these sorts of things are like," said the voice. "It's been so long since I was in one of them. Thank you for reminding me, Fuego. Thank you for bringing back the Concrete Angel." And then the flames below him parted, and he saw a very different figure standing there, for just a moment.

She looked something like this --


-- but he didn't really get a good look at her, for when that moment passed, she was flying up at him, as fast as he himself had flown, with two mighty arms streaking towards his now unprotected chest. When she hit, both forearms at once, it nearly sent him flying backwards into the force field dome, and she followed up with a knee strike to his chin. His last thought before darkness claimed him was that he was going to be in serious trouble with the Combination if he wound up surviving the fall.

As it happened, there was no fall, for the Concrete Angel caught him the collar of his shirt and brought him slowly to the ground with her, while sembling back into her usual form. As Thunder Dragon's voice asked his usual question, she answered silently -- four fingers of the hand that wasn't holding Fuego's unconscious form, and then one lowered. With no word spoken, Trouble proceeded to carry her enemy to where the Lancet was waiting to receive him.

One down, three to go.

Side B, Match 3: Trouble vs. Fuego

Trouble: Initiative +13, Unarmed +14 (Close Damage DC 21, Crit 18-20), Dodge 12 (22), Parry 12 (22), Fortitude 8, Toughness 10/5, Will 9, Acrobatics +11, Athletics +12, Insight +12, Intimidation +9.
Hero Points: 1
Agile Feint, All-out Attack, Assessment, Evasion, Fearless 2, Power Attack.

Fuego: Initiative +6, Unarmed +4 (Close Damage DC 16), Flame Blast +7 (Ranged Damage DC 30), Flame Burst -- (Ranged Burst Area Damage DC 25), Flame Flare (Ranged Burst Area Affliction DC 25, Resisted by Dodge), Dodge 9 (19), Parry 7 (17), Fortitude 6, Toughness 13/3, Will 9, Acrobatics +8, Deception +11, Insight +9, Intimidation +10.
Hero Points: 1
All-out Attack, Fearless, Power Attack, Taunt.

Before the match, Fuego blatantly cheats and Taunts!

Deception 1d20+11=16 vs. Insight DC 22; Failure.

His cheating does not prosper, but it does go unnoticed.

Round 1: Trouble 16, Fuego 18

Fuego uses his move action to fly up to the top of the area, and releases his Flame Burst on the ground below.

Dodge 1d20+14=18; Reroll
Dodge 1d20+14=22+10=32 vs. Dodge DC 25; Half Effect
Toughness 1d20+10=16 vs. Damage DC 20; Bruised.

Trouble uses a free action to alter her Technomorph as follows:

Screenripper: Nullify Force Field 11, Accurate 3; Protection 4; Senses 6 (Accurate Hearing, Analytical and Extended Vision, Danger Sense, Infravision) - 24 points.

She then makes a Ranged Attack with her Nullify Force Field against Fuego.

Ranged Attack 1d20+11=24 vs. Dodge DC 19; Hit
Nullify 1d20+11=24 vs. Protection DC 20; Nullified.

Round 2: Trouble 30, Fuego 15

Trouble uses a free action to alter her Technomorph as follows:

Concrete Angel: Strength-based Damage 6; Enhanced Advantages 8 (Close Attack 2, Improved Critical [unarmed], Improved Initiative 3), Quirk (Close Attack is only enhanced against targets with a lower Initiative Total); Flight 8 (250 MPH); Protection 6 - 35 points

She then Charges Fuego using her Flight, making a +5/-5 Power Attack.

Unarmed Attack 1d20+12-5-2=18 vs. Parry DC 17; hit.
Toughness 1d20+3=17 vs. Damage DC 29; Bruised, Dazed, Staggered.

She uses Extra Effort to make another +5/-5 Power Attack.

Unarmed Attack 1d20+12-5=22 vs. Parry DC 17; hit.
Toughness 1d20+3-1=6; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+3-1=17 vs. Damage DC 29; Bruised 2, Dazed, Staggered 2=Incapacitated.




"And what is the phrase that should be constantly on your mind in the following business?" asks Dame Beatrice Barrowman, for perhaps the sixth time. Possibly even the seventh.

"'Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men,'" says Rocco Christopher, rolling his eyes (since he's facing away from her) while getting in some last minute shadowboxing in one of the arena's training areas.

"Except for the tone, that was adequate," his boss says after a moment. "The tone, as usual, could use some work."

"Just one thing, though," says Rocco, pausing in the middle of one particularly difficult lunging kick, and looking back at her. "He's not bald. So should I only act a bit incautiously?"

She stares at him.

"So that's a no, then?"

"Do not make this into a joke, Rocco," she says, quietly, clearly. "This is the most difficult and dangerous assignment that I have ever given you."

"More than the --"


"You didn't let me --"

"I don't need to."

He shakes his head and completes the kick, then drops out of the stance. "I won't act incautiously, little mother," he says, and not until he does so does he realize that (a) he has said something out loud that he never has before, and (b) he has acted rather incautiously.

Silence falls in the gymnasium. Slowly, hesitantly, Rocco turns to regard his patron, and then really wishes that he had not done so.

"'Little mother'?" she says.

"Um, I, uh, not sure where that came from --"

"Hm." She nods. "I see. Well, then. You may go, now." She points towards the door with one steady finger.

Grateful for the reprieve while knowing that it is at best momentary and that they will have words about this later, Rocco exits, stage left.

He does not see Beatrice watching the door he has exited for several moments after he has passed out of sight. He definitely does not see the look on her face as she does so.

It is sort of a pity that he does not.


Owing to all of that, Rocco elects to keep his big mouth shut while he's waiting for his match to begin. By not saying anything, he makes it impossible for the old man to make any response that will get under his skin and reduce his effectiveness further. Of course, if the old man says anything like that unprompted, the whole plan would fall apart, but that's the biz. Fortunately, his opponent isn't doing that, just studying him patiently, with a critical eye, looking for weaknesses.

Rocco is sure that he won't find any. Yes, Zuwen has been doing martial arts since before he was a gleam in his sperm donor's eye. Yes, he's good at this -- Rocco has seen at least two of his students in action, and they were impressive. But for the past quarter of a century, Rocco has been out there, in the world, testing his skills against threats that the old man, secure in his kwoon, could never even imagine. And while Rocco might have to use more than one punch to win a fight, he has always been able to end a fight with a single blow.

The buzzer sounds, and Rocco strikes first with a sharp kick to Zuwen's thigh. The old man's face twists in a scowl of pain and disapproval, and he steps back, one hand held behind his hip and the other held forth to defend, moving steadily in the air before him. Rocco recognizes the move, though, and knows that guard is going to be all but impossible to get past.

It can't be incautious to take the step needed to overcome such a defense, so Rocco launches a series of jabs with both hands. Most of them are caught by the old man's steady blocking, but enough get through to make him slow down enough that he should be able to completely turn this thing around when he --

-- why can't he move? And why is he lying face down on the arena floor?

The blow came without any hint, striking at the nerve cluster just under his arm. It was only a tap, and yet it's left him completely helpless.

"I believe my foe cannot continue," says the old man's reedy voice.

"... let us call this a TKO, then," says the voice of Thunder Dragon. "I declare you the victor. What boon would you --"

"I would discuss that in private," says Zuwen.

... the boss is never going to let me live this down, is she? thinks Rocco as he starts to recover from the paralysis.

Side A, Match 4: Rocco Christopher vs. Li Zuwen

Rocco Christopher: Initiative +10, Unarmed +15 (Close Damage DC 18, Crit 19-20), The One Punch +6 (Close Damage DC 30), Dodge 12 (22), Parry 12 (22), Fortitude 7, Toughness 6/4, Will 11, Acrobatics +14, Athletics +13, Insight +12.
Hero Points: 1
Agile Feint, All-out Attack, Assessment, Defensive Attack, Improved Disarm, Power Attack

Li Zuwen: Initiative +7, Unarmed +12 (Close Damage DC 20/16), Nerve Strike +12 (Close Fortitude 21), Style Analysis (Perception Range Will DC 24), Dodge 9 (19), Parry 11 (21), Fortitude 5/3, Toughness 7/5/2/0, Will 11, Acrobatics +8, Athletics +10/+6, Insight +11, Intimidation +11.
Hero Points: 3
Agile Feint, Assessment, Defensive Attack, Improved Defense, Improved Disarm, Improved Trip.

Before the match begins, Zuwen cheats and uses Style Analysis on Rocco.

Will 1d20+11=20 vs. Effect DC 24; Vulnerable

He also activates his Vitality Boost as a free action.

Round 1: Zuwen 8, Rocco 15

Rocco Assesses as a free action, and discovers Li Zuwen's Parry bonus, also learning that his Attack bonus and Dodge bonus is lower than his own. (However, because of the Insidious effect afflicting him, he's mistaken about the latter.) He makes a +2/-2 All-out Attack.

Insight 1d20+11=17 vs. Deception 1d20+3=8
Attack Roll 1d20+15+2=36 vs. Parry DC 21; Crit
Toughness 1d20+7=19 vs. Damage DC 23; Dazed, Bruised.

Zuwen uses Defend. Receiving a critical success while doing so, he could make an attack, but chooses not to do so.

Parry 1d20+11+2=23+10=33

Round 2: Zuwen 27, Rocco 20

Zuwen Delays the Surprise Attack he just received.

Rocco makes a +5/-5 All-out Attack.

Attack Roll 1d20+15+5=23; Reroll
Attack Roll 1d20+15+5=40 vs. Parry DC 33; Crit
Toughness 1d20+7-1=10; Reroll
Toughness 1d20+7-1=11+10=21 vs. Damage DC 23; Bruised 2

Combining the Vulnerable condition imposed by Style Analysis with the Vulnerable condition of a Surpise Attack leaves Rocco Defenseless. Zuwen uses his Nerve Strike as a Finishing Attack, receiving an automatic critical hit on a success.

Attack Roll 1d20+12=26 vs. Parry DC 10; Crit
Fortitude 1d20+7=10 vs. Effect DC 26; Paralyzed

Victor: Zuwen.

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