Tough as Blades



Master Hydra sighed. The scream arrived as it did every night. Crawmaster’s nightmares had not helped his loss of ability. For that matter, Crawmaster’s screams didn’t help any of the other students’ abilities. Every night they woke up.

The green thyvae tapped the computer keyboard with black arms as thin and flexible as spaghetti noodles. The computer screen and nearby desk lamp offered the only light in the dark room. Below the cold metal desk, legs like the arms tapped the hard carpet. Master Hydra wore the white, sleeveless robe he’d worn that day, green, ruffled adornments along the edges, his cube-like head poking out from the top of the robe. It was another late night working on business.

Master Hydra shut his beady, black eyes and slumped his spongy block of a body into the padded office chair, the edges and corners squashed against the soft chair. His slit of a mouth sighed once more, and he smoothed his black mustache, no longer than his eyes and as thin as his appendages.

Something had to be done.

Four months ago Master Hydra’s star pupil, a crawber who had taken the name Crawmaster, was at the top of his game. He had defeated all students in the dojo and all challengers. No one could match his strength, size, or defense. He stood at twice the height of anyone else, incredible for a species that usually stood at half the height of anyone else. No one could push him. A single swipe of a pincer claw could knock them out of the arena.

Then she showed up.

Master Hydra gave a short laugh mixed with a sigh and, if he was honest, a little bit of a sob. Anyone he would have told that line to would immediately get ideas, but it was nothing like that. This had been a challenger no one saw coming. Some slube from some nowhere village on some nowhere island trained by some nobody martial arts teacher in some nowhere city. Crawmaster should have beaten the sluggy contender with ease, but she slipped past his defenses. He’d gotten overconfident. He’d lost.

Overconfidence was better than no confidence. After his defeat Crawmaster spiraled into despair. He panicked at the merest touch. He lost all the control Master Hydra had taught him. His star pupil lost to everyone. Students Crawmaster once batted away now defeated him every time.

Well, it didn’t help that they’d found a weakness. Hit Crawmaster from below when his guard was down, and he’d topple like an old tree. He could surely overcome such a weakness, but he no longer had any vigor, any energy, any strength. His talent, his ability; these things had left him. He was a wailing child, worse than when Master Hydra had first met him.

It was bad enough that Crawmaster had lost all will to fight, but without this the dojo was in dire straits. Master Hydra resumed typing on the computer. Their finances would hold up for a little while if they remained frugal, but without Crawmaster’s incredible victories their funds could dry up. Master Hydra would have to focus on his other strong pupils to bring in cash, but it wouldn’t be nearly what Crawmaster had brought in. Frishu and Spencer were talented, but they couldn’t draw crowds or get sponsorships in tournaments like Crawmaster had.

Besides, that wasn’t the main problem. Crawmaster had to get his spirit back. Master Hydra couldn’t let him slump into obscurity. He had to help Crawmaster find his strength and energy again.

Yet the dojo master worried that such a feat would require a miracle.


Crawmaster stood on a rubber arena several feet above the floor. It was true that he stood at twice the height of most, but being a crawber, this gave him the general shape of a dumpster, so his width could be even more imposing. A craggy red shell covered him. Two pincer claws the size of Master Hydra slowly waved in the air over his opponent. His mouth stretched across his torso and hung open like a cave, pointy protrusions covering the edges, black eyes half-open like soggy raisins. Master Hydra watched the crawber’s listless movement, his six pointed legs wobbling back and forth.

His opponent moved with much more grace, hopping back and forth on legs twice as long as the torso that merged with the slightly bigger head. This green floggle, Frishu, held out his arms in a defensive stance, these just as long as his legs. He stared at Crawmaster with bulging eyes between the top and sides of his head. His round mouth, stretching across his face, gasped as Crawmaster swung a giant claw.

Frishu jumped aside and kicked Crawmaster straight-on from below. The giant crawber flailed and screamed, and he tumbled out of the arena.

“Is that really it?” Frishu asked, smoothing out the white robe that covered only the first quarter of his appendages. Once he had been the second-best student of the dojo, but now he stood at the top, a spot Master Hydra knew he was uncomfortable with. The floggle was talented but too jittery to consider himself worthy of number one.

Master Hydra sighed and walked over to Crawmaster. “Come now, Crawmaster. There once was a time you could defeat even Frishu with ease.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Frishu said, “it’s not like I miss being smashed into the wall, but you can do better than that. I should know; I’ve been on the business end of it.”

Crawmaster stood up, mumbling incoherently in his usually-incoherent roar of a voice. He walked away with his head down, or at least as down as one whose head and body were combined could have it.

Master Hydra shook his head. “I do not know what I will do with him. Ever since his defeat at the tail of Miss Cherry, he has lost all talent, all will, all… everything.”

“Losing a perfect track record like that must’ve been hard on him,” Frishu said. “Before that, I didn’t even know he had a psyche. Now it seems broken.”

“Yes. We must find some way to get Crawmaster’s spirit back, for only then can he once more–”

A crash rattled in the dojo’s front. The lights glinted off an object that smashed through the front door. A table split in two, and a gash cut through the wall as a flat object zipped through the dojo. It slashed through the drywall and wooden furniture like cloth. Grinding and tearing sounds echoed through the dojo like a falling tree. A trail of dust and shrapnel followed the object as it ripped through the room. Students dove or leapt away as the destruction passed. Finally it crashed into Crawmaster and careened off him to the floor.

Master Hydra and the white-robed students crept to the destructive object. A buzz saw blade half Master Hydra’s height lay on the floor, each spike looking as sharp as a sword.

Who would dare throw a buzz saw into his dojo? Whether an accident or intentional attack, someone would answer for this.

The buzz saw lifted onto its edge. The students jumped back as it rose into the air. Master Hydra never took his eyes off it. Two glowing red spots appeared on half of one side like eyes.

The students muttered: What is that? A saw blade? It’s looking at us. Don’t be ridiculous.

Some sort of buzz saw-inspired drone or other such flying machine. “This is no ordinary saw blade,” Master Hydra said.

“Oh yeah, you got that right, skinny.”

Everyone turned silent and stared at the buzz saw. Did it just talk?

Master Hydra stepped towards the buzz saw. Clearly someone had installed a speaker on this machine, as well. “I am the master of the dojo, Master Hydra. Who are you? Why have you sent this machine in here?”

“Hey, the name’s Sawn,” said the buzz saw, or at least a voice emanating from it. “You wanna know what I’m here for? The drywall. The wood. I’ve been flying around this city looking for something to do, but you know what I find? Metal! Brick! All these buildings are made of stuff I can’t do nothing to. I’m a buzz saw. I need stuff to wreck.” Sawn flew back in a spin. The buzz saw tore straight through a rubber fighting arena, cleaving it in two and scattering dust as a terrible splitting sound shuddered through Master Hydra’s body. Most everyone stumbled back.

Master Hydra ran after Sawn. Was this more than just a drone? Perhaps it really was a robotic buzz saw. “I know not what technology you are, but I must insist that you leave this dojo.”

“Hey, just try to make me, dojo-dude,” Sawn said. “One hi-ya outta you and you’re gonna be half off.”

Master Hydra lifted his arms forward, legs bent. “You underestimate us. My students and I shall force you out.”

“Hah! You just try it,” Sawn said, wobbling side-to-side. “I’ll bring this place to the ground before you even get started.”

“Wait, wait, hold it.” A brown-feathered stroo student, wings outstretched, shambled between Sawn and Master Hydra. “We can’t just start going all out fighting each other like some video game. We gotta do it right.”

One of Sawn’s eyes drooped half-closed. “What the hex are you talking about?”

The plump stroo, standing at Master Hydra’s height with orange legs that made up half his stature, rubbed his orange beak with a thin wing-finger. “Everyone knows that in order to defend our dojo, orphanage, ice cream shoppe, et cetera, we must be given time to prepare and raise money, fight, or otherwise have a chance to save our institution. In the case of a dojo, one of the dojo students fights one-on-one against the bad guy. It’s how all after-school specials work.”

Sawn stared at them. The buzz saw stared at them entirely too long, as if finding the stroo’s words unbelievably ridiculous. Master Hydra tensed up, ready to stop the buzz saw at risk of limb as soon as the destruction resumed.

Then Sawn said, “All right, fine. I’ll be back tomorrow to turn this place into my own playground.”

Master Hydra exhaled. The buzz saw took the deal. Wait, tomorrow? He looked at his mobile phone. “Hm. Tomorrow is no good. I have an important meeting to be at. What about in four days?”

“I’m off this rock and heading to another then. What about the day after tomorrow?”

“No good. My daughter’s class is going on a field trip, and I offered to chaperone.”

“Can’t you cancel or something?”

“What about in three days?” the stroo suggested.

“Fine, in three days I’m back to turn this place into lumber. Got it?”

“You may return then, but you will be on the side of defeat,” Master Hydra said.

“Wrong, you will.” Sawn flew out before losing the last word, smashing through the outer wall again.

“Gil,” Master Hydra said to the stroo, “gather everyone. Tell them to come to the meeting room immediately.” They had three days to prepare for a defense against destruction. They needed a plan.


Every student in Master Hydra’s dojo—nearly thirty in all—gathered in a white-walled room big enough to be a private auditorium. Master Hydra stood on a marble platform at the front, while Frishu stood next to him, arms clasped behind his back, both watching the students.

Master Hydra called for attention and briefed the students on the events of the morning. One of the students had to face the buzz saw in combat to prevent the dojo’s destruction. Master Hydra turned. “Frishu.”

The floggle opened his eyes. “What?”

“As the top student, I believe this task should be set upon you.”

Frishu threw out his arms. “What are you, crazy? My limbs’ll get hacked right off!” He immediately bowed. “No disrespect, master.”

Master Hydra stared at him. “Very well.” He turned to a smarmel. “Spencer. You shall defend our dojo.”

The tan-skinned smarmel leaned the stiff hump on his back against the wall. “My apologies, master,” he said, pausing on most words, “but I must be somewhere on that day.” He scratched an eyelid, ever-closed like all smarmel.

Master Hydra held his arms out. “Is anyone going to fight this blade, or must we allow it to demolish our dojo?”

The students muttered excuses and admitted that they were uneasy about fighting an opponent that could slice them into lunch meat.

“Why don’t we just call the police?” Frishu asked.

“They would never believe a buzz saw attacked us,” Master Hydra said.

“They would believe the destruction in the main room,” Frishu said.

“Probably say that we did that,” Spencer said.

“Yes, this is something we must do for ourselves,” Master Hydra. “Who of us will defend our dojo?”

“Do I gotta spell out everything for you guys?” Gil said. “Send Crawmaster! That blade careened off him like nothing.”

Everyone looked at Crawmaster, who sat in the corner. “Crawmaster,” said Master Hydra, stepping towards him.

“NO!” Crawmaster cried, holding his claws over his face.

“Crawmaster, my son,” Master Hydra said, putting his arms about halfway around him.

Crawmaster looked down. “I’M YOUR SON?”

“No, it’s a term of endearment. Listen to me: you have been defeated, yes, but that is no reason to lose your spirit, lose your will, your nerve, your talent!” He lifted up an arm. “You cannot give up after a single loss. Do you not recall that you have lost before?”


“You have. You lost to me, remember?”

Crawmaster stared at his dojo master, mouth agape.

“You had potential, but not the training,” Master Hydra said. He gripped Crawmaster’s head. “You are now in a state worse than when I met you. I defeat you, and you gain the spirit to grow stronger. Some slube girl defeats you, and you lose all will to fight? I refuse to believe this.” He leaned up to be level with Crawmaster’s eyes. “It is time to again train you so that you are once more at the top. For the sake of our dojo, all of us, our very way of life, you must take on this saw blade. This fight, Crawmaster, you can win, you must win, and you will win.”

Crawmaster lifted his claws and shouted a drawn-out, “GO!”

“Goal!” Gil said, lifting his wings into the air.

“Yes,” Master Hydra said, walking backwards. “It is time, Crawmaster, for your training to begin anew.”


One night three years ago, an unusual chill fell over the island city of Interpolis. It was the sort of chill that suggested trouble, the sort that pressured cleeple to stay indoors where it remained warm and familiar.

Master Hydra held no truck with that sort of thinking. To be fair, any trouble he encountered could be fought off with his martial arts, but a mere chill didn’t portend signs of trouble. It portended signs of weather and climate.

The thyvae locked up his dojo. In those days he only had five students and not nearly a big enough dojo to house them, but the students he trained showed promise. Enough prestige and he could move forward. Still, as it was now he often worked late to make sure the finances would hold up. He looked forward to returning home to his wife, though his daughter would already be asleep. Master Hydra walked down the stone sidewalk past the tall buildings. With his house only a few blocks away, he’d be home in minutes.

Gray metal filled Master Hydra’s sight for a second as a trash can flew by from an alley ahead. He immediately pulled back. The trash can crashed to the other side of the street. What was that? Master Hydra heard clangs and groans from the alley, and he peered around the corner—slowly, just in case another trash can flew out.

In the shadows of the alley stood someone nearly as big as the dumpster. They appeared to be foraging in the garbage. Some poor soul without a stable income or home, no doubt. The thyvae hurried past the alley before–

“WHO’S THERE?” shouted a voice from the alley. Master Hydra nearly fell backwards. The figure in the alley marched to the thyvae and into the light. Master Hydra stared, mouth agape, at a towering crawber twice his height who spanned nearly the width of the alley. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.

“IT’S IMPOLITE TO STARE,” the giant said.

Master Hydra shook his head. “My apologies, I have just never seen a crawber so big.”

“ARE YOU CALLING ME FAT?” the crawber asked.

“No, no, nothing of the sort,” Master Hydra said, waving his arms. “I simply meant I have never seen a crawber of your remarkable size.”

“I’M TIRED OF CLEEPLE’S INSULTS,” the crawber yelled. He swung a claw sideways at Master Hydra. The dojo master grabbed it and swung around behind the crawber. He kicked him with both legs from behind. The crawber toppled forward.

Master Hydra jumped back twice to gain distance from the crawber. He bent his legs and held out his arms. The crawber stood up and turned around.

“I do not want to fight you,” Master Hydra said. “Let me leave in peace.”

The crawber shouted and charged down the alley. Master Hydra jumped aside. The crawber crashed into the dumpster, the clang echoing through the alley like a train as it shifted several feet. Master Hydra grabbed a claw and held it behind the crawber. The giant reached back with the other claw. The dojo master hurled the claw around the crawber and spun him. He crashed into a wall backwards, and Master Hydra kicked him in the face against the wall. The crawber slid to the ground.

The thyvae stood on the crawber’s face as he cried waterfalls. Master Hydra bent down.

“DON’T HURT ME,” the crawber cried between sobs.

This crawber wasn’t even a threat. He didn’t truly seem to mean harm, either. “Strange,” Master Hydra said. “It was I who was worried you would hurt me. You attacked me, after all.”

“I’M SORRY,” the crawber said. “I’M JUST TIRED OF THE ABUSE.”

“You’ll only get more fighting like that,” Master Hydra said. What was this crawber’s story? Possibilities sparked in the dojo master’s mind. “You do have strength, though. What is your name?”


“Well, Carm, do you have a home? Do you live out here?”


Master Hydra stepped off of Carm and asked him to stand up. Wobbling, the crawber did so. “Carm, I have a proposition for you. An offer. I can give you a home, food, and prestige, or esteem—regard and status, that is, if you are willing.”

Carm’s sobbing ceased as he looked around. He slowly turned back to Master Hydra. “WHAT IS THE PROPOSITION?”

“Right now you are strong, but you have no polish to your fighting. You fight like a battering ram. I’m sure you noticed the grace with which I moved. I am the owner of a martial arts dojo not far from here.” He held up an arm. “Let me train you and help you use your strength skillfully instead of wildly. Let me awaken the inner talent I’m sure you have within you to engage in combat like a master, and cleeple the world over will honor your name as one of the greats.

“They will not mock you for your size. They will praise you for your size. I can turn your life around if you let me.”

“WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?” Carm asked.

“To be the trainer, the founder of the world’s greatest fighter would mean stature for me and my dojo, as well,” Master Hydra said. “We can become the world’s greats. To show the world that I can combine your natural strength with teachings of grace would bring prestige to both of us. What do you say?”


Master Hydra grasped Carm’s claw. “Excellent. This, I’m sure, is the beginning of a wonderful beginning.”


“Yes, I suppose. When they write our story, we’ll have them think of something better.”


Crawmaster stood on a fighting arena in the splendor of the present-day dojo that a flying piece of metal wished to take from them. Master Hydra stood on the arena across from Crawmaster and watched him.

“We shall begin by seeing where it is you must focus, Crawmaster. Come at me with your best shot.”

Crawmaster nodded. He lifted his claws and shouted a battle cry, charging at Master Hydra. After two steps the arena buckled and collapsed, still sliced in half from Sawn’s assault. Crawmaster crashed to the floor, covered in shrapnel and dust.

Master Hydra coughed and backed away from the dust. “It seems we have much to work on.”

Frishu watched from the side. “Yeah, like this arena.”

They moved to another arena where Master Hydra pitted Crawmaster against his worst student. The smarmel, Sweak, had thin and knobbly appendages like most smarmels, but his looked lanky, even though he was short, and his stance suggested he was about to trip over himself. His wide mouth mumbled, and he repeatedly rubbed his bald head.

“Now then, Crawmaster,” said Master Hydra, “you must start from the bottom before you return to the top. As Sweak is the bottom, you must first fight him. Go!”

Sweak yelled and charged forward. Crawmaster held the end of a claw against Sweak’s head to block him. The smarmel flailed his fists, still charging.

They remained in stalemate for about a minute.

Crawmaster shouted, and he slammed a claw onto the arena. Sweak shrieked and clung onto Crawmaster’s head. Crawmaster screamed and flailed his claws. He stumbled back, and he fell off the arena with a great rumble, Sweak on top of him.

Silence filled the room. Sweak looked around. “What just happened?”

Crawmaster!” shouted Master Hydra. “You cannot allow yourself to lose control at the slightest touch like a housewife covered in ants. You must learn to control yourself, to swiftly flick each ant off you.”

“Are you calling me an ant?” Sweak asked.

In the next fight, Crawmaster retained his composure and knocked Sweak out of the arena. It was still a personal best for Sweak: a one-win streak.

Crawmaster was not yet at his best, though. He fought each of Master Hydra’s students (or most of them; it just so happened Gil was absent), often losing. Smarmels blocked his strength, floggles stretched out of his range, thyvaes slid past his heavy attacks, and stroos leapt over his reach.

With each fight, Crawmaster’s combat improved. He snuck past the smarmels’ defenses, he deftly charged into reach of the floggles, he chased the thyvaes with quicker attacks, and he kept the stroos down to his level. Crawmaster’s spirit and talent returned, and he racked up a series of wins.

Upon knocking Spencer off the arena he shouted to the ceiling, “I’M GONNA MAKE IT AFTER ALL!”

“You are not done yet, Crawmaster,” said Master Hydra. “Frishu.”

Frishu stood at the side of the room licking an ice cream cone. “Huh?”

“It is time for you to fight Crawmaster once again.”

Frishu smiled. “So the King of Claw is back? All right, let’s do it.”

Frishu and Crawmaster faced each other in the arena and bowed.

Crawmaster thrust his claws at Frishu. Frishu hopped side-to-side to avoid the strikes. Master Hydra imagined it was like trying to smack a small bird with a steel beam: excessive to the point of difficulty. Crawmaster usually had too much strength and needed to control it to use it right. If he let the strength overtake him he would be unable to stop it, leaving him predictable.

For a moment Crawmaster stopped the attacks. In the opening Frishu kicked the big crawber’s face. Crawmaster remained standing and slammed Frishu down with a claw. Master Hydra nodded. Crawmaster could once more take a hit without losing his nerve.

Frishu crouched under the claw and sprang up. The claw smacked Crawmaster’s face. He stumbled back and screamed, and Crawmaster toppled backwards out of the arena. Master Hydra cleared his throat. Still, Crawmaster had to look out for surprises like that. At least now he was unlikely to break down like he had before.

Crawmaster bellowed and sobbed like a giant who stubbed his toe. He ran to the corner and huddled against the wall.

Crawmaster!” Master Hydra shouted. He walked to the crying crawber. “You cannot let one single defeat engulf you again.” Crawmaster turned to look at the dojo master. “Down the road of life, there are rises, and there are dips. The rises take time to ascend, while the dips are sudden and rapid. If you learn from the dips, then you can use their speed to ascend a rise—but this is only if you learn from your mistakes.” Master Hydra pointed to the arena. “You will fight Frishu again. With every defeat, learn from it to gain momentum for your eventual victory.”

Crawmaster lifted his claws up. “I’VE GOT IT.” He returned to the arena for a second fight. Crawmaster lost again. This time, though, he didn’t break down; he came back for more. More losing. But finally, in the fourth fight, Crawmaster slammed Frishu head-first into the wall like in the old days.

“Congratulations, Crawmaster,” Master Hydra said, “you have won.”


“Not yet,” Master Hydra said, “your training is not yet done. One victory is all you have. You must fight Frishu again and again until we are sure that you are ready.”

Frishu pushed his head out of the wall and screamed, “What?”

Frishu would end up back in the wall many more times. Although he won some fights, Crawmaster won with increasing frequency. Soon the tally between them was like their body sizes: Crawmaster was winning in a big way.


On the day of the fight with Sawn, Crawmaster sparred with Frishu one more time in preparation. It ended with Crawmaster slamming Frishu with such force that the floggle’s head smashed through the outer wall.

Frishu groaned. He then screamed as a pointy blade of death flew straight at him. He wiggled in the wall, but before he escaped Sawn sliced through the wall mere inches from him.

“All right, I’ve waited long enough,” Sawn said. “Time to start some destruction.”

“You will do no such thing,” Master Hydra said. “We have a challenger for you.”

“Oh, right, that crap. Fine. Who do I fight?”

Master Hydra led Sawn to an empty arena. “To make this dojo your own, you must defeat my star pupil. Crawmaster.” With a quaking thud, Crawmaster jumped onto the rubber arena, four times Sawn’s height, each claw bigger than the buzz saw.

“THIS DOJO IS MY HOME!” Crawmaster screamed, claws up.

Sawn stared at him. “Wow, you’re big. Hey, you weren’t hit with that Gene Splicer a few months ago, were you?”

Crawmaster cocked his head (and body). “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.”

“Never mind. Let’s just get to the crawber-cutting.”

Master Hydra called for the match to begin. Sawn spun against Crawmaster. A gravelly grinding sound rumbled as the crawber blocked with his claws. For all the buzz saw’s sharpness Crawmaster’s shell held firm.

Crawmaster grabbed Sawn with a claw. The buzz saw blinked. “Wait. Uh. This isn’t supposed to happen.” Crawmaster threw the buzz saw forward. They boomeranged back around. Crawmaster swung a claw down and slammed Sawn against the arena. The buzz saw shuddered like a flipped coin.

“Is that it?” Frishu asked. Sawn lay on the arena facedown, evenly flat. They looked knocked out.

Sawn moved, sliding underneath Crawmaster.

“Crawmaster. Look out!” shouted Master Hydra. Sawn flipped up like a trapdoor. Crawmaster staggered backwards. His legs teetered to the edge of the arena.

“NOOOOOO!” Crawmaster flailed his claws forward. With a quick swing down he dug his claws into the rubber arena. He pulled himself forward onto stable footing.

“When I’m through with you, you’re gonna be fishcake!” Sawn flew straight at the crawber’s eyes. He grabbed the buzz saw in a claw inches before they hit.

“YOU’RE NOT WELCOME,” Crawmaster roared. He hurled Sawn out of the arena and planted the buzz saw several inches into the wall.

“Crawmaster is the winner,” Master Hydra proclaimed. Crawmaster pumped his claws into the air as the students rushed to him with congratulations.

Frishu walked up to Master Hydra. “If he lost to Cherry again, do you think he would fall back into depression?”

“I do not believe so,” said Master Hydra. “I think he has learned a lesson not to give in.”

“Yeah, I’ve learned that too,” Sawn shouted—everyone turned to the floating buzz saw—“so I ain’t gonna let this stupid fight stop me from making this place a splinter hazard.”

Sawn flew at the arena. Crawmaster shouted and slammed the buzz saw with a claw. With a scream Sawn crashed through the wall and out of the dojo.

“Congratulations, my pupil,” said Master Hydra, bowing to him. Crawmaster did the same. He then turned to the students, claws up.



Wally_Plotch: Okay, I think all that shouting blew out the speakers.

Duth_Olec: Shoot. Okay, we’ll get it fixed before the next story.