Back in Malaysia, Aikiko was trying to figure out how to approach the Shadow Masters. There were at least three in the area right now, setting up for the tournament – but she didn’t want to be disrespectful. She’d seen some movies with Ancient Masters – but most of them were kind of silly really! She didn’t have time to sit on their doorstep talking about how unworthy she was for a month, or to find an archenemy of theirs to be defeated by and come to them for training, or to go on some weird quest, and she didn’t know if any of them had a daughter captured by bandits to rescue single-handedly (that one only seemed to be for male heroes anyway). She wasn’t even sure if they had cars to wash or houses to paint!
But she had to talk to them sometime!
Oh, wait! She could just follow some of the other entrants and take her cues from them!
The other entrants proved easy enough to pick out; they were the young ones in more modern outfits – although she got the feeling that a few of the older ones might have tried this before.
It looked like the tournament was normally held inside a temple carved into one of the hills here. The area was quite heavily warded for privacy – and it was warded against Dragon-Bloods, Aspected, and Lunars – although not against Solars.
Well, they hadn’t been back for long – and it was hard to ward against people you’d never seen!
Actually making the approach… turned out to be terribly simple; there were a couple of traditional priests who were basically checking people in and giving them “rooms” in a small maze of sleeping nooks that more-or-less resembled train compartments. Evidently no one was expected to be there for very long.
Actually getting a better room involved impressing the priests – and thus clearing for a final entry into the true tournament. They had some areas set up for training, formal and informal bouts, and general showing off. Not too surprisingly, most of the would-be entrants were trying to impress the priests with bouts and martial demonstrations. A few were being more esoteric – going for philosophical discussions or physical feats – but few of the martial artists who were competitive enough to enter such a tournament were willing to pass up the chance to spar with other experts.
Aikiko left the Behemoth Cloak with Wenjioth – it wasn’t allowed in the tournament of course, it didn’t really boost her martial skills, and it wouldn’t be fair anyway – and went looking for some sparring partners.
There were plenty of would-be entrants who were willing to spar – but a lot of them wanted to know what styles she practiced!
She really should have seen THAT coming. Well, all things considered, since no one around here knew about Solars and it was an accurate enough description… She old them it was the “Dawn Hammer Style”. You never knew; somebody around the place just might have encountered a Solar.
And – of course – they were not familiar with that style, and wanted to know who taught it. Worse, it was fairly obvious that “I just started doing it one day!” wasn’t going to fly unless there were some REALLY esoteric means of enlightenment around.
Well… she wasn’t getting enmeshed in a web of likes, and the worst they could do was to toss her out, or try to kill her!
(Aikiko) “I just started doing it one day! That’s why I entered this tournament, actually! I figured somebody here could help me find an explanation and improve my technique!”
That produced a general, and somewhat embarrassed silence before one older man spoke up.
(Daniel Imoto) “Uhm… Ms… Aikiko was it? Are you sure you want to enter a tournament like this to test your… self-developed spontaneous style? It’s fairly likely that it has some vulnerabilities that you may not have recognized!”
It took a moment for Aikiko to mentally translate that as “Are you out of your mind? If someone tries a throat strike or something expecting you to block – and you haven’t got a block for that – you might get yourself killed!”.
Oh dear. A teacher – and someone kind enough to be concerned about a young woman who was a complete stranger.
(Aikiko, thinking fast.) “Well… I’ve also studied Karate and Judo, so I’ll be using those too! I’m mostly curious about the Dawn Hammer.”
That was true enough! Her parents had tried to enroll her in martial arts classes to teach her some discipline! It didn’t work that well, unless you counted her being able to run from security faster.
There was some relief, and rather more interest. They still obviously doubted that she’s really all that good – if only because she didn’t seem to have serious doubts about “Dawn Hammer” – but she would at least know the basics, and it looked like her reflexes were very good, which could make up for a lot. Daniel was willing to do a little sparring – although he obviously intended to go easy at least to start.
For a moment she had an impulse to do something essence-powered and incredibly spectacular – but that would be counterproductive, horribly unfair, and a REALLY unworthy response to a man who was… trying to make sure that she didn’t get hurt. She wouldn’t hold much back on the mortal level, but if she needed to do more than pull a die or two out of an excellency she’d better reconsider anyway! Besides… they were mortals after all, and total humiliation – or injuries beyond a few bruises – would never do!
At least she could conceal her Excellency with her Anima power and make it clear that she knew what she was doing…
Daniel Imoto was a Crane and Tiger Stylist, Dex 4, Skill 5, Str 4, 3 Speciality Dice, 3B soak (thanks to toughening exercises), Ess 2 (but no active pool), Mortal “Charms”/Walkaway II and Fortune’s Favor I (Martial Arts) – and was starting off fighting quite defensively. Aikiko was better – but only by a single die, higher essence, her higher natural soak – and her lack of the mortal stunt die penalty.
Aikiko flashed forward, kicking up the dust from the earth into small vortexes as she passed in a burst of lightning speed to take a straight punch at Daniels chest… It wasn’t good enough though; Daniel slipped to one side, taking the blow on his blocking hand and using it’s force to spin himself faster as he dropped into a couch, braced the other hand against the floor and lashed out with a leg sweep.
Aikiko dodged that – but just barely! He was good! Still, as his leg came in to take her down, she timed a hop just as his foot was about to hit hers – letting his leg arc beneath her feet and landing without so much as disturbing the dust on the floor as Daniel completed his spin back into position – mildly surprised at missing and definitely somewhat impressed with Aikiko’s speed!
Aikiko transitioned from the jump to a knee strike, the speed of her blow making the cloth of her pants ripple – and connected solidly, although Daniel managed to roll with the kick. In fact, he rolled with it back to the wall and kicked off from there to send himself into the air – the wind blowing through his sleeves like wings as he swooped in in Crane Takes Flight (one of his advanced maneuvers) to attempt a stunning kick to Aikiko’s head.
That was actually pretty impressive! But Aikiko smiled, leaned back, and tumbled backwards and slightly to the left, taking advantage of the wind he was whipping up with his maneuver to further boost her speed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough… Daniel (with a remarkably lucky roll) connected solidly and sent her stumbling back, trying to shake off the stunning (2B) impact.
The man was good! He was obviously burning resources (and luck) faster than she was – but then these were the best of the mortal best. Aikiko turned her backwards stumble into a kickoff from the wall – and a leaping flip that ended in her performing what she was calling the “Dawn Hammer Strikes the Anvil” maneuver as she connects both hands for a hammershot to Deniel’s face – and the luck abruptly swung her way, as she hammered Daniel (for 2B) and sent him rolling back. He landed rather heavily, although – a bit dazed or not – he automatically rolled back to his feet with fair agility.
The priests shortly called a time-out; they apparently didn’t want to see anyone seriously hurt – or at least not yet.
Aikiko bowed to her opponent gracefully. After all, he had hit her! That hadn’t happened for a while!
Daniel too bowed. Aikiko was… far more formidable than he had expected! Especially for someone so young!
(Aikiko) “It was an honor to spar with someone at your level, sir.”
That was true enough! She hadn’t actually fought that many Exalted – or even mortal masters. She was going to have to step things up! Although… apparently the Exaltation had put her pretty much at the peak of human potential and toughness, even without using any charms. To think that she could take on a man who was a master with decades of experience when she had only been Exalted for two years! Sure, she had shattered a mountainside – but that was using an artifact and essence, not just more or less mundane skill.
That was cool – but it was also sort of… sad… to miss out on the development. She’d never really considered that before! She wasn’t normally especially contemplative!
(Daniel) “And an honor to spar with you as well! Your new style seems to be a natural mastery; you are to be congratulated! Such things are extraordinarily rare!”
Daniel retired to recover a bit (although he’d be glad to discuss the arts a bit with such a rare talent later on) – and Aikiko took stock… It looked like the priests had probably noticed her – and it looked like a fair number of lesser-skilled applicants had already been eliminated.
Oops! There was another problem! Customarily, styles were taught. She might have to come up with a mortal-level “Dawn Hammer Style” now! Otherwise people would start asking questions!
Plus, those knacks were much less risky than opening up a mortal’s Essence channels directly. While they were terribly weak by the standards of the Exalted, they made for some very competent humans – as Mr Imoto had demonstrated! With a little more luck, he could have seriously harmed her!
Admittedly, that was only as long as she’d fought without charms –
The ability to teach quasi-mortal styles based on Exalted charms is – of course – another charm, with the Training keyword. Characters using Unhatched Spirit Meditation can teach mortal knacks and arts based on cut-down versions the user’s selection of Charms.
The priests were only a short time healing Daniel – but she took the time to ask them about that terrorist attack.
(Priest) “What you of the west call “Islamic Extremists”! Some of the fools who say that all the old ways are Blasphemy against Allah and works of “Shaitain”. They attempt to use fear and terror to turn the people away from their traditions and their gods. This “Allah” must be weak indeed – to be called simply “god”, claiming no name of his own, and to so rarely come to the assistance of those who would promote his worship. In the name of truth, love, and justice they bring concealment, hatred, and the deaths of the helpless. Our gods bring us peace, prosperity, and protection – and do not claim to be the sole powers of creation, but merely those concerned with us. Fortunately, the Great Masters do not suffer such foolishness gladly.”
(Aikiko) “So I’ve heard. Is there anything I can do to help?”
(Priest) “The Masters have had little trouble so far – and I would suspect will have less as more of them gather to observe the Tournament and greet the next group of Masters who will rise to join them – although I suppose it is possible that the fools will launch some major attack once many masters are gathered. If you stand with the winners at the tourney’s end, you shall share in the Ri’kienthi – and, being young and vigorous, perhaps you will trace these fools to their source with that power. Until then… Your skills are superb, but guns, grenades, and rockets care little for honorable skill in battle! You are our guest, and we would not see you unnecessarily harmed!”
(Aikiko) “Understood! I will do my best at the tournament, then!”
Well, with the Behemoth Cloak… she wasn’t so sure about rockets, but she could definitely handle a bullet, and probably a grenade. Charles… if Charles said it was good armor, it might well be able to take an anti-tank weapon. He was GOOD at what he did.
Now, what the “Ri’kienthi” was was another matter…
(Aikiko) “Can you tell me any more about the Ri’Kienthi”, or will have to wait until later?
(Priest) “One of the current Shadow Masters will be speaking of the Ri’kienthi after the entrants are selected.”
Well, she’d have to be content with that! Aikiko headed off to get her own injuries seen to – and to talk to her worthy opponent after he was healed!
By the time she found him Daniel was fine – and, at the moment, was watching another entrant do a breaking technique demonstration with his hands, feet, elbows, and head. He was smashing oaken boards, concrete blocks, and – for the climax – a massive sandstone slab. It wasn’t at all bad – but the actual applications were kind of limited (unless, of course, you were making kindling). Still, it was mildly interesting. She’d never seen anyone break concrete or sandstone in class – and she’d only tried smashing stone with essence and an artifact. It had to take a lot of work to learn to actually do it with mere mortal skill and power!
The priests seemed… perhaps a bit amused.
The performer was currently flexing with no shirt, and WAS impressively muscled. Shaved head too – the better to be smashing his skull into concrete blocks. Clearly out to impress, the peacock. Still… while SHE could probably do that with an application of Sledgehammer Fist Punch in no time at all, that would clearly mark her as more than mortal. Besides, she wanted to demonstrate her fighting prowess, not her demolition skills!
(Aikiko) “Hey, can you do that to people too?”
The Peacock seemed most annoyed at the priest being inscrutable…
(Peacock) “Of course I can!”
(Aikiko) “Well, if you can connect with me, I’m game!”
She might have to mask her use of Charms with her anima power, but it would be SO worth it to knock this guy down a couple of pegs!
The “Peacock” WAS very good at smashing (Str 5, +3 Speciality +2 “Mutations”) and he was as tough as nails (7B/1L Soak) – but he only had eight dice for his base attack; unless Aikiko let him connect with one of his massive blows, his chances of doing so were very poor. He was, however, very good at being annoying – and promptly tried to get Aikiko to stand still and demonstrate whether she was tough enough to take a blow – tapping her Valor with a stunt of flexing and obliterating a chunk of concrete to show the strength that “she dared not meet!” (He scored six successes on his taunting – and Aikiko only got two…).
(Aikiko) “Hah! I may be little, but I’m tough! Bring it!”
She still had the sense to activate her Solar Hero Form, even if it did cost twice as much to make it non-Obvious. She wouldn’t be using the damage-enhancement though; she wanted to humble the fellow, not kill him!
The peacock hammered her with a mighty blow, albeit only going for bashing damage…. and it was indeed impressive for a mortal! Even with her enhanced (10B/7L) durability, he managed to hammer through (6B left) for three health levels – leaving Aikiko still standing, if a bit staggered!
(Aikiko) “Oof! You ARE pretty good at that!”
That would have flattened a normal human with one shot! That really WAS good for a punch! She’d been putting it off, but she really OUGHT to learn some Ox-Body Technique outside of the armor…
(Aikiko) “So, you look pretty tough! Since I was nice enough to stand still for you, it’s only fair that you let me get in a shot!”
Mr “peacock” was a bit shaken by the fact that she was still standing, but was far too egotistical to deny her her shot!
(Peacock) “You are far stronger than you appear! Take your shot, and I too shall still stand!”
Aikiko… did use some enhancements – but not too many. His strength really was impressive, and he’d obviously worked very hard indeed over many years to develop it – and he had, with his little show, neatly manipulated HER into letting him try to impress the priests with it. She’d have to thank him later… far better to learn that lesson when sparring with a normal human than to learn it when she was up against some monstrosity.
Her hammerblow… was slightly more impressive, her accuracy making up for her lesser strength. It could have been slightly more damaging – but luck dictated otherwise. It still staggered him more than a bit (2B).
The watching priest sighed…
(Priest) “Young man? Your ability to smash things is indeed impressive – but more is required for victory here than a powerful fist.”
The peacock was looking at Aikiko with a great deal of respect – but responded to the priest.
(Peacock) “If your blows are too weak to harm your opponents, of what use are they?”
The priest just shook his head.
(Priest) “I do not wish to see you harmed youngster – and if you persist in provoking your opponents so, you might well be seriously injured; there are other ways than strength. Observe”
The priest reached out and ran a finger across a massive granite slab. A few moments after he drew his hand back it broke in two. Moments later it broke into four, and soon crumbled into a pile of dust while the priest watched calmly.
(Priest) “All things are flawed young man. The bones of the Earth, the bodies of men, and all things of this world alike. Nothing endures forever.”
Aikiko was fascinated by the display. That was really neat – and definitely beyond most mortal capabilities!
(Priest) “Strength is not so important as knowing where to use it.”
The young man was considerably shaken; as far as he knew… that was quite impossible.
(Peacock) “How… Ripping a stone apart that way – even exploiting it’s flaws – would require a great deal of energy! Far more than a simple touch could convey… You are saying… Ki powers actually exist?”
(Priest) “It is the Vhendal’ithe – the sussuration of destruction. Your strength is great – and might be enough to make you one of the victors against your opponents – but you should be prepared to stand against opponents who’s talents may surpass the physical. Few or none will have so potent a technique – but there are many MANY lesser ones!… It is not your strength that I find impressive however – it is the dedication that has led you to develop it to such an extreme. That driving will is one of the factors that may help bring true victory. (The priest turned his attention to Aikiko) “As for you young lady… I would say that you have considerable hidden reserves – and your Ki is strong indeed. We have not seen anything approaching the limits of your talents have we?”
(Aikiko, staring at the pile of dust) “Maybe, but not even I can do THAT!”
(Priest) “Such abilities follow many paths… I shall be looking forward to seeing more of yours.”
To break a slab like that silently… her methods were MUCH noisier than that.
(Aikiko) “I will be glad to display my skills, sir!”
(Priest) “In the meantime… perhaps a poultice for each of you? That was an impressive exchange of blows… What is called an “Irish Showdown” I think?”
(Aikiko) “I wouldn’t mind one!”
The priest cheerily assisted with that… It was only Herbalism and Healing thaumaturgy, but he was very very good at it for a mortal.
And the “peacock” turned out to be much more bearable when he wasn’t showing off. Aikiko got his contact information; he could be really useful for strength training!
For his part, he was genuinely impressed by the fact that Aikiko was still standing – although his current guess was that some Ki effect had something to do with it.
Aikiko went ahead and asked; she’d never seen anyone that tough before – or at least not anyone mortal. He described… standing under pounding waterfalls to do kata to build up his resistance to impact, training with whirling spoked wooden pillars, massages with special oils, learning to take blows… (basically building up End 5, Large, Tough Skin, and Exalted Soak – for 4L/7B).
(Aikiko) “Well, that’s one form of ki development, to be sure!”
He, honestly, had never believed much in Ki; he’d focused on raw physical strength and durability – but inquired after Aikiko’s training regimen.
(Aikiko) “Oh, long-distance running, a lot of parkour, and taking a lot of falls from high places, mostly!”
That was true enough! The trespassing and tagging in high places was very good for that and might have influenced the Sun to give her a Night Exaltation instead of a Dawn…
Aikiko tried some thaumaturgic Essence senses, with a quiet casting. The young man did have some potential. Like many of the expert martial artists he had essence 2, but no active pool. There were a few around with active essence pools though; the few who actually knew supernatural martial arts needed it of course – as were the most likely candidates to get to bypass the initial exhibitions. Most of the normal types were likely doomed to disappointment – at least this time around – but they would get an introduction to the supernatural side of things, which was probably worth it.
She looked at the priests too; she was quite curious as to how mortals would get such power. Was it something in the temple?
The two priests… were strange. They definitely had active pools – and a fairly high amount of essence. Both were very different though. the one who was speaking to her and the peacock… the sensation was of thunder shaking her body, the scent was of ozone and deep water, the sound was of steel and stone being sheared apart by mighty forces, and his image rippled as if reflected in water. The other priest… The sensation was the sharp pop of a whip cracking, the scent was of wet iron, the tone wes authoritative and commanding, and his image was that of a mighty crown of fire.
The Temple was buried behind privacy wards, but there was definitely a lot of essence flowing there! It was easy enough to tell at this range.
Hmm! A Water Aspect, or son of the terrace god? The other might be a Fire Aspect. And either a manse or a concentrated essence-pocket. All those wards made it really hard to tell – and there was more concealment magic behind them. Layers of thaumaturgy being powered by the water and dragon lines flowing in patterns through the agricultural terraces on top. Underneath that, around the temple in the hill, there were further layers of wards – against the Terrestrials, and Lunars, and others, and lots of privacy wards, and behind that… privacy magic of some other kind. It was almost impossible to tell through all that mess!
Interesting though… Last time it had been Demien with his Mental Demesnes. The time before that, it was Charles. This… probably wasn’t a new essence type; it was just that it was like trying to look through ten layers of stained glass window to see what’s underneath. Charles might be able to untangle that mess – but it would be a lot simpler to simply wait to get inside!
Still, she seemed to have impressed the priests sufficiently – and had no other challengers at the moment. It was time to take a look at what turned out to be a reasonably comfortable, if small and monastic, room – and to relax, and to offer a prayer to the local gods (after all, the one she’d met seemed decent enough) – and some to Gri Fel and Terapishim.
Due to the local scrambling all Gri Fel and Terapishim would get was some unintelligible muttering. Still, unless you were an actual priest, a lot of prayers were like that!
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