A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 11 – Crushing the Wolf

Akemi put the situation together swiftly in her mind, in those few precious moments it took her to see everything and call upon her blade. Surrounded and ambushed, in the thick of the woods. The moon was high in the sky, still the middle of the night, its light so very meager. Clark leapt out of his own tent, Steel Shooter in hand. Jia, already on her feet, looked to her with horror in those eyes. Of course.

Of course they would attack during Jia’s watch, when she scarcely had the awareness to feel a warrior of nobility in their midst. Of course they would use an ambush, instead of a challenge. Of course they would bring backup, enough forces to actually slow them down and keep them vulnerable. Of course one, more, thing, had somehow managed to go wrong for her.

Of. Damned. Course.

It would have been easy to rage. Satisfying to leap into the woods, to start striking at the summoned forces and try to chew through them all. She had no doubt that she could, too. But no. No, she needed control. She needed focus. She needed to bring that rage into a honed edge, not a blunt club.

Jia, looking all around as she too spotted the shapes of figures in the trees, began to shudder in fright. “I…I-I’m sorry! I didn’t, didn’t know there was…”

“Don’t be sorry. Be ready to fight,” Akemi said, her voice so cold the air came from her lips as fog. Focused. Controlled. Weaponized. Wild wrath would get her, and both of them, killed. She would keep it contained, keep it harnessed, and use it very carefully to make this man-shaped trash bleed.

She turned her attention upwards and forward, to where that chain had been yanked towards. “SHOW YOURSELF, you honorless dog! If you intend to try and kill me, at least make the attempt with some dignity!”

Silence, from her attacker. Just the sound of her campfire slowly working through the embers, the wind through the trees, the growls and shifting forms of the small army all around. Akemi’s ears strained, her grip tightening on the hilt of her sword. She needed something. A sign. A hint. Some concept of where her foe would strike from next and there!

Muscle memory pushed her through it before conscious thought could take over. In later days, looking over it, she would be able to assemble the pieces into a logical whole; a tiny flicker of light, the slightest rattle of chains, and then that blade was coming at her from a firmly different angle, at least halfway to her side.

In the moment, though, all she knew was the aftermath of that single instant. Her own body ducking, letting the attack sail over her head and bury itself into the ground. Her scabbard wrapped around and into the chain, locking it down in her grasp so her attacker couldn’t just yank it away. And finally, both hands gripping the sheathed sword, wrenching with all of her might.

The figure hit dirt in a crouch, whipping their arm to send a wave of physics down the length of the chain. It was enough to unhook the first loop of her wrapping, the part she’d been straining against to hold it in her control. A single sharp tug started the rest sliding, and it came back to the figure in a rush, drawn deep into some hidden holster.

But, they were exposed. In the open. Akemi stared them down, and they stared back, not returning to the hidden safety of the trees. She heard Clark raise his weapon, aiming right for the figure’s chest. Even Jia moved into a fighting stance, the girl trying to hide her fear in the strength of a good fistfighter’s pose.

Akemi held her wrath, her fury, and kept it ready. There were pieces that needed to be played out, elements she needed by unspoken rules of nobility. “Give me your name.” No request, no asking. It was a command, an order to return things to the way of duels, all brought with the ice-cold weight of her status. Even here, even with everything that happened, that still meant something.

“…Gerulf of the House of the Wolf,” he said at last, his voice deep and gruff. For all he’d come at her with stealth, he stood tall and broad as he rose, built of thick muscle and ferocious power. Had they both been ordinary, mere peasants and mortals, he certainly would have been menacing. Even from here, she could see he would loom over her, and she was not a petite woman.

But they were not peasants. They had training both, war and duels in their past and in their hearts. A mountain of a man did not scare her, and his army, the forces surrounding them? “Clark. Jia. Crowd control. Gerulf is mine.” More fog from her mouth as she spoke, her control focused and intense. She needed everything held in hand, everything ready, for the singular moment it could be unleashed. She heard the two acknowledge her, ready to fight, but paid them no further mind. She had given them jobs. They would accomplish them. That was the only possibility.

Gerulf let out a laugh, a deep weighty thing that shook the air like the beating of a drum. “Confident, for a heretic.”

That was what they were calling her now, was it? Heretic? Traitor? When they were willing to send assassins to strike in the dead of night, with no honor or humanity to be found?

So be it. She would give him no kindness. Akemi marched forth, blade in her hand, daring him to strike. To try and make the first blow in the duel.

When that chain inevitably rocketed for her, she smacked it away in the drawing of her sword. “By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked for death!” And before he could even draw it back, before Gerulf had a chance to react, she sprinted for him as fast as her body dared move. She was on him in an eye blink, metal of her sword clashing with a bracer on his free arm. Wind whipped past them both as it caught up to her, coming off in broad whirls in the echo of her follow-up strikes.

All around her, the silence turned to chaos. The summoned forces moved in, a cacophony without the order of a properly commanded group. She saw one for just a moment, in the corner of her eye; wood bundled and lashed together in brown-grey vines, everything from broad strips of bark to thin kindling forming a mockery of musculature. Made of the forest, with little more than their bare hands grasping for all they could get.

But she was not their target. They would aim for those not already embroiled in battle, Clark and Jia both. Already, she heard the sound of Clark loosing energetic bolts into the masses as they came for him, and even the heavy impacts of Jia’s strikes. Rough just from the sound of them, not in proper form or timing…But there was force behind the blows. Strength that shattered the wood, that broke those summoned forces.

“Keep your eyes on ME, heretic!” Gerulf brought both fists down, knives at the end of chains gripped in each hand. The pair came down in a flash, with Akemi only just leaping out of their way before she was split open like a fish. She couldn’t afford to lose her focus. If Clark and Jia needed her, they would cry out. Nothing less could be allowed to distract her.

So Akemi brought her blade forward again, pulled her will to a razor’s edge, and moved. No hesitation. No delay. No damned mercy, not in the thick. She came into his guard as fast as she’d left his reach, and she attacked with all the ferocity she had in her. A swing to force him to block high, a grapple of his attempted counterattack, a broad swipe down his arm with the Blade’s length.

All she cut against was chain and hardened leather, but it was enough. It put some fear into him. He kicked at her with a heavy boot, trying to move back and force her away in the same motion.

It didn’t work. She stuck on him. She stuck on him, and she kept fighting. It meant staying too tight in his guard to use the Blade, so she just dropped it, slamming his jaw with the heel of her palm until she heard something pop. She’d been teaching Jia everything the girl knew about how to fight, but it did not include all that Akemi knew. The things her former instructor had shown her, how to break a body and a spirit without the aid of your chosen weapon. The tools of an Executioner, intended to be wielded against heretics.

There was some irony there. She ignored it, focusing only on what she could get. Gerulf wore heavy leathers, solid armor against most weapons. But it didn’t have the locking frames of plate; Had she been in her own armor, it would have been impossible to break her arm without first shattering the entire elbow joint. It simply did not bend far enough.

The leather and furs he wore, had no such system. So when she applied the overwhelming strength of her training, there was nothing to stop her. His elbow went rather unlike his jaw, in that she got a crack of bone over the pop of a joint. But the scream was the same. The swipe from his good arm, trying to cut her throat, was fast. But it was also clumsy, and when she sidestepped it, he left himself open a moment too long.

It went like that. Once the honor fell away, once the kindness and dignity of a proper match was no longer on the table, Akemi was using things that Gerulf simply didn’t have the training to counter. For all he put on the show of being a massive and brutal warrior, he had been trained in the formal battles, the declarations of intent and the flow of an honorable duel.

She had been trained, rather ferociously, to exploit every gap and flaw that sort of mentality had. Intimidation did nothing without the rough and tumble skills to back it up, and Gerulf didn’t have them. Which was how she finally threw him through one tree and into the next, one arm broken and one leg ripped out of its socket. The oak fell to one side as she called upon her Blade, letting the hilt reach her hand. “I will give you one chance, Gerulf of the House of the Wolf.”

He popped his jaw back into place, gritting through the pain, as he glared at her. Blood dripped from his mouth from the culmination of it all, and he had to spit some out to talk clearly. “Go fuck yourself, heretic.”

Her grip tightened on her hilt. “One, chance, to live. Mercy for mercy. My life, and by extension those in my care, for yours. Take the chance to survive, you damned fool.” The one bit of honor she wasn’t going to drop. Fighting the way she had, wouldn’t start a war. Killing a man without his fair chance? That could.

So the offer. This time, it was a genuine thing. The one way he would walk out of this alive. It wasn’t like Arc, when it was the way out of the fight neither of them wanted to have. No, this was truly his last shot.

But instead, he looked her right in the eye, and spat another mouthful of blood hard enough to spray it against her chest. “I said go fuck your—“

His head left his shoulders before he could finish the sentence.

It hit the ground several seconds before the tree his corpse rested against, the Blade of the Executioner having split the trunk near enough in half for gravity to finish the job.

Akemi turned, not looking at the blood squirting from a stump, not looking at the body. She would not be giving him the honor of a burial, would not be giving his people and kin the grace of not worrying about his restless spirit. Not with the summoned forces, the wooden men, already beginning to shift. Order was falling, instinct taking over, without a will to guide them.

So Akemi gave her sword a single flick of the wrist to loose the blood from it, and with a fresh cry, charged once more into the fray.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 10 – The path from Iron to Wolf

There she stood, in some damn pub in some town in lands she wanted to avoid for a long, long time. A random place that she would most likely never see again, whose name wasn’t even worth mentioning.

Except, across the room sat the man who had ruined everything. Sable of no House and no Land, an accursed ronin with no loyalties to anything but his own damned skin. He’d sold her secrets, revealed Jia’s nature to the lord of the House of the Mantis. That had forced Arc to fight her. And when she’d defeated him, his father had sent his fastest scouts on their finest horses to inform Brenda. Even now, the woman was in turn no doubt getting word to the House of the Wolf in secret.

All, because, of Sable.

Had she killed him in that forest, she would have had everything in a position to pull strings and call in favors, to get everyone to look the other way. Had the House of the Mantis seen his head taken from his shoulders before he could offer up twisted versions of the facts on the ground, she never would have had to defend Jia’s life.

Everything that had gone wrong in the last few weeks could be blamed on this waste of a soul. And while some of it was a stretch, not a single piece of that blame would be wrong.

So it was a matter of great will, of overwhelming self control, that kept Akemi from sprinting forward, grabbing him by the neck, and crushing his windpipe. She could feel the raw fire of hate behind her, the way Clark was straining to avoid doing the same; his willpower alone wasn’t enough, it was only his loyalty to her that kept his hands away from his weapon. And Jia…There was fear, certainly. Akemi could taste it. But there was a heat there, too. Even this peaceful girl saw reason to dislike the man in front of her, saw the same ways he was the reason behind so much trouble in their lives.

And all of that, made the words out of Akemi’s mouth feel like dragging leaden weights. “Sable. Give me one reason to let you walk out of here alive.

The people started to look and stare. Let them. They weren’t her concern. Nobody would intervene in a clash between nobles, not if they valued their lives. Even the pub owner would just resign himself to costly repairs, and pray to a kind god that the victor would consider paying for some of the inevitable damage…Even if said money came off the corpse of the defeated.

Sable, too, stared, those eyes wide. Golden eyes that had been full of easy confidence the last time she saw him, now there was a genuine concern of what was to come. “Now, love, there’s no need to be like that…You wouldn’t want to start trouble in this lovely place, would you?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady and his smile easy. But nothing could hide what was in those eyes.

“That isn’t much of a reason.” She took the last step to the ground floor, boots giving a firm thump on glossy hardwood. Some part of her was enjoying watching him squirm, seeing the way he was so desperate to avoid a stand-up fight against her. “Try again, Sable. My patience runs thin.”

He worked his way to his feet, keeping his hands up in front of his face. Trying to draw a weapon might get him a few seconds’ edge, but it would be precious few indeed. “Listen, whatever it is you’ve heard, love, I’m sure I can explain…”

“You sold me out to save your own hide, you ronin piece of shit!” she spat out, putting some fury into it as she marched forward. The people around here didn’t know the word, of course; to them, he would’ve been a mercenary, a sellsword. But it all meant the same thing; a man who had power without the right to wield it. And such men brought nothing good.

Sable’s gaze flicked to either side, to her companions, and past them. He was looking for ways out, for shadows to leap into. If he could just make his way to the door. “Now, now, I assure—“

“Trying to escape, Sable?” Akemi asked, interrupting him. She reached the table he stood behind, bringing down a gauntlet-covered hand firm against the oak. The sound resonated across the pub, keeping everyone locked. Nobody dared move, to try to flee and risk earning their wrath. Akemi leaned in, easily matching his height, and glared right into his eyes. There was none of the icy control she’d held before to hold the line; right now, she was riding the wicked fire deep in her core. “I don’t think I’ll be letting you go that easily.”

“Surely you would have done the same in my place…”

“Tried to see an innocent girl killed for my own life? I think not!”

Sable gave a wince, exaggerated as all of his constant showmanship was. “You make it sound as if I walked in and offered her to the hounds, love. What should I have done, let them take my head from my shoulders and kick it around for sport?”

“You shouldn’t have wronged me, you worm,” Akemi growled out, now scarcely a foot from the man’s face. She could have headbutted him right then, even. He was right there, caught between all the ways that damn fool mind worked; the desire to flee and be safe, the desire to put on a show for the people, and no doubt, the desire to try and take her in an unfair fight.

But what would killing him now get her? What would she accomplish by spilling his entrails in this sad little town, where it would be the only noteworthy thing to happen for a generation? Certainly, she would be satisfied…But would that satisfaction be useful?

No. Not useful like having a debt hanging over that purple-haired head. She leaned in even closer, so close she could practically kiss the bastard, and held his gaze. Fire turned to ice, as she finally grasped her own intense control and wielded it. “By my authority as Executioner, I could have killed you here and now for your crime of existing as a ronin. Your life belongs to me now, Sable. I will find you, and I will make use of that life. But now, you are going to leave. You will go far away from the House of the Wolf, or the House of the Wasp…Because make no mistake. If I find out you interfered in my business again, the mercy ends.”

Sable, his body quivering under the sudden force of will she presented against him, gave a hesitant nod. He gulped, nearly every part of him wanting to just up and flee, yet his legs were rooted to the spot. “I must say, love, you’ve changed since you took that girl on—“

“My name is Akemi. The nicknames stop. From this day forth, you serve me, and I am your Lady. Do I make myself clear?”

He just gave a nod, unwilling to risk talking.

“Good. Pay for your meal, and leave. My patience is spent, and you do not have long to live in my presence.”

This time, Sable didn’t need to be told twice.

Nobody dared bring up what had happened over breakfast. Not the locals, who pointedly returned to their drinks and their meals. Certainly not the handful of other travelers. And of course, neither Clark or Jia said anything about it, unwilling to breach the subject so close to the event that had happened.

No, it wasn’t until they had left, making their way out of the town, that either of them finally decided to speak. “Um, Akemi…” Jia started, trying to find the right words to speak.

Akemi sighed, knowing this was coming. “Yes?”

“Why…Er, t-that is, why did…”

“Why did you let him walk away?” Clark asked, finding those words more decisively.

Akemi stilled, briefly. Some part of her was genuinely surprised to hear Clark speak up like that, so willing to be genuinely questioning her decision. It wasn’t something she had seen from him in years, and yet now here he was, ready to call her out.

She didn’t get angry, not with him. She needed a comrade, not a sycophant. That was what she had to remind herself, as she pushed back that desire to enforce her will. That…

That was Brenda’s way. And that simple fact, first and foremost, was what got her to push it down hard. “Because, killing him now won’t fix what he did. It won’t undo having to fight Arc. It won’t make Brenda more willing to respect me. His blood spilled changes nothing…But his life is useful still.”

Both of them stared at her for just a moment, processing that answer. But it was Jia who spoke up first, confusion in her voice. “Use, useful for what?

“…I don’t know, not yet,” Akemi responded. “But useful for something. What matters is he owes me a debt, and that debt is more valuable than a corpse.” She glanced upwards, saw the way the sun was already nearing its apex in the sky. Morning would soon cease to be, and they had much ground to cover still. “We need to keep moving. If you have questions, I will answer them. If you have concerns, I will try to show you why I thought this the right way. But we speak in motion.”

With that, she began to march again, letting the both of her companions fall in behind her. They began to move steadily once again, their path pointing for the edge of the lands of Iron and into those of the Wolf.

But if either Clark or Jia had further questions, they spoke none of them.

The lands of the Wolf were not so different from the lands of the Mantis, or how the lands of Iron had once been. Woodlands and grasslands interwoven, producing something rather green. The trees were different, of course, rather more like the oak they had seen in use in Iron. They were in colder turf, as well, more of a chill in the air. But at a glance, one would be forgiven for seeing little difference in the land itself.

No, the difference came in the people. Leaner, but stronger. Peasants everywhere did hard work, but here, the ground had a way of hardening up, forcing tougher work to plant hardier crops that could endure a harsh winter or punch deeper into the rough ground. Had things gone a little differently, Akemi would have enjoyed much of the time here. There would have been a certain pleasure in showing Jia the things and people she knew from previous passings-through, seeing the way the girl would have marveled at all the little differences that stacked up to a very different feeling place.

It would have been, dare she say it, fun. Yet, that would have required things to have gone differently. Now, there was no time for such things, and no warmth and trust to be offered. Akemi marched in her armor, with her sword at her hip. The question was not if she would have to fight, the question was who would she face.

The temporary shift into towns and pub houses was over. They marched in woods, slept in encampments, and always, always kept watch cycles. Jia’s continued modest training, enough to make her look the part of at least a minor noble, was done in near silence. They had none of the luxuries of time or accommodations that either of their previous locales had offered. All that mattered now was to be as quick, and quiet, as they possibly could. The simple hope that they might get through this without another battle, manage to sneak on by, was the only thing they had to hold onto.

It was ripped away most suddenly, in the dead of night.

Akemi was already off her bedroll, instincts and extended awareness moving her body, before she properly came awake. Her own feet touching the ground in a low crouch was what brought her to alertness, eyes snapping open to see a dagger at the end of a chain stabbed through where she had been sleeping a moment ago. Adrenaline hit her blood before the concept of ambush could formulate into something as slow as language.

Her tent and bedroll both came flying away, yanked back with the weapon, before she even had her blade in her hand. Which left her most able to see the figures skulking in the trees, summoned forces set to hide in the darkness of night. All directions, an utter battalion that hadn’t been there hours, perhaps minutes ago.

They were completely surrounded.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 09 – The roadside ronin

Things had changed, since the encounter with Brenda. That was the only way to describe it. There was a fire that burned deep in Akemi’s chest, a raging flame of hate and willpower. Facing Brenda, seeing the wrath in her fighting and the fear in her eyes, had clinched it; nobody would let them pass through, would let Jia pass through, without raw and bloody force. The only way to keep her alive was to claw her life from those who would take it, to force them to weigh it against their own.

And if that was what it came to, then so be it. Akemi would not let the girl die on her watch. Which meant, as they traveled and as she healed, she was preparing for their journey to the lands of the Wolf. The journey, the fight. They wouldn’t waste a second soul on her, but that just meant that whoever she had to face would be potent, someone talented enough to be tasked with holding the line.

The towns and cities of the lands of Iron were inescapable, with hardly enough land between them to pitch a tent, let alone hide. Stealth utterly ceased to be an option. Instead, they traveled openly, brazenly even. But above all, they traveled swiftly. Pushing as deep as they could each day, and well into the night, before finally entering the smallest town they could for a few precious hours of rest. Towns too small to have any nobles properly stationed there, anyone who would issue a challenge before any rumors of Brenda’s ignoble defeat could reach their ears.

No, in these little towns, nobody dared question the movement of the Executioner of the House of the Wasp, or her two companions. That wasn’t how it worked. The nobility could do as they pleased, and the common folk knew it. If one from an allied House chose to move through the smaller towns, they could do little more than hope there was no trouble following in her wake.

It was in that context that Akemi paid handsomely for a corner room, large and with only two beds, in some pub house whose name she didn’t care to remember. All that mattered was that it was quiet, out of the way, and unlikely to go advertising that she was there. She insisted upon taking the first watch, treating the room the same as if they camping in the wilds of enemy lands. Nothing and no one was to be trusted, not anymore.

But eventually, the first watch had to end, and Akemi had to sleep. And Clark’s time at the second watch, too, came to an end, with little more than quiet contemplation and maintenance of their most important things.

Jia’s watch came, with her being gently shook by Clark until she came around. “Nnnn…’m awake, I’m awake…” she mumbled, proper alertness coming only gradually. A few more shakes could have snapped her out of it, but nothing of the sort was needed. Not when it would have simply put her into a panic, ready to expect an attack coming upon them.

Clark gave a smile when the girl finally opened her eyes, still managing to look easygoing despite everything. “Well that’s good to know. Ready for your turn at watch?”

She forced herself to sit up, unable to suppress the yawn that came out of her when she did. “Mmhm…think so,” she said, only half the sentence actually getting past her lips.

He passed her a cup of water. “You’ll be fine. Drink up, you’ve got a quiet couple hours ahead of you before we get moving again.”

“I know,” she said, and took a drink from the cup. The cool water wasn’t anything special, nothing mixed in that could’ve kicked her awake, but it did enough to help her actually pull out of the thick web of sleep. Jia looked around, properly taking in the room for the first time; she’d been so tired after the entire day of marching without end, that she’d just passed out as soon as she’d seen a bed.

It was, well, a room. But even so, it had a sense of not-quite-right for Jia, as one of the few she’d actually been in since they’d left the lands of Fire. Made of wood and iron and stone all together, it all looked strongly different than the places she had been in before this journey. Even the wood alone wasn’t right, a different hue and texture than the lumber available in the place she had called home for so long.

But, of course, it could be said she looked not-quite-right herself. Her clothes were looser on her frame now, everything tightening up and smoothing itself under the rigorous demands of not only Akemi training her, but the journey itself. She had run more in the days since the battle with that woman Brenda, than she normally would in an entire month. And while it was more extreme than things had been before, it certainly had not been easy up until this point.

And those changes all came from a single source. Akemi was pushing up the training, asking that they move faster. That battle had done something, something very different than the one Jia had seen before. She bit her lip, trying to pull herself back to a point of center like she’d been taught. She had important questions to ask, and being a stuttering mess wouldn’t help.

“What’s wrong?” Clark asked, before she could reach that center.

Jia practically let out a mouse’s squeak, her efforts just about falling apart. “I-I, um, it’s…It’s just…” she started, trying and failing to find where to even start.

He held up his hand, stopping her from saying anything further. “Easy. Take a breath, calm down, try again.”

She managed a nod, and took that breath. She even took another drink of the water, until she could calm herself. “Okay…It’s just…What happened to, to Akemi? With that woman, I mean, with the armor…”

“You mean Brenda.” When she nodded again, Clark sighed, running a hand through his hair. “The three of us have…history. Brenda is my sister, by blood…Until I was traded to the House of the Wasp as collateral. Something my mother was, apparently, quite fond of.”

“T-That’s horrible!” Jia said, her voice nearly raising up before she caught herself. She dared to glance towards Akemi, who thankfully still slept. “How could she do that?” she asked, forcing herself to be quieter.

Clark could only give a shrug. “If I knew, I’d tell you…But it worked. The Houses are closely knit. When I ended up in a side branch of the House of the Wasp, Akemi and I were…It’s…She’s my Lady,” he said, struggling to find the right words. “There’s nothing like this in the kind of life you lived. The point is, we always stuck together.”

“But…What happened?”

“I’m getting to that.” Clark grabbed a chair from the table in the corner, settling in. “There were political meetings. A lot of meetings. And if it wasn’t the Queen of Iron bringing her eldest daughter and heir, it was the King of the Wasp bringing the collateral he’d gotten stuck with…And I couldn’t go much of anywhere without Akemi by me. It was part of the deal…But we were all just pawns. The adults would show off us kids, then send us into the other room to be quiet.

“Akemi’s had this honor in her, as long as I’ve known her,” Clark continued. “Even when she was a kid, she was the kind of one who’d give you the shirt off her back. Brenda…Brenda was raised to take over the House of Iron. She got taught that not only did she deserve her shirt, but you not having one of your own was proof enough of why she should be able to order you around.”

Jia just stared, her morals and sensibilities left in conflict. Her sense of right and wrong, her sense of good and bad, the things she’d been taught about how nobility was and how she was supposed to be…All of it was telling her to react to this in very different ways. “I…That’s…”

Clark nodded. “I don’t think they ever got along…And Brenda definitely hated having to basically babysit us instead of getting to be in there with the adults, once she was a few years older. Then, by the time she’s old enough that she’s getting to sit in on everything and get groomed…Well, Akemi was old enough to be making waves. She started pushing to take the title of Executioner, and that meant the both of us were in those meetings too. Some teenager that should’ve been on the track to being a two-bit paper pusher, and the brat who should’ve been a glorified serving-boy.”

Jia managed a nod, as the pieces came together. It all had a certain familiarity to it, like the family spats she’d seen growing up…But the scale, the stakes, were scarcely fathomable. “And…Brenda didn’t like that, did she?”

He let out a chuckle, just a bit of weariness to it. “Oh, she hated it. They took it to fists at least three times…I tried to jump in the first time, and got clocked in the head for my trouble.” Clark ran a hand through his hair again, this time letting Jia see a scar there. “Ended up with that when she hit me with a statue of our ancestor King Anthony.”

She was silent for a time, as she processed all of this. The kind of world she’d found herself in, all these politics, these petty grudges, these clashes of personality and morality and everything else deciding so much…It was so much to take in, and here she was in the deep end of it. “Is…Everything going to be okay? A-Am I…?”

“You’re going to be fine. I promise you.” Clark let the humor fall out of his voice, trying to take on a more gentle tone. “Look, I’m not as good at this as Akemi is, but…She’s not going to let you down. It doesn’t matter who we deal with. We’re gonna find you somewhere you can call home, and we’ll get you there safely. We just have to get through one more country, and we’re home free…And then we can all calm down and take a deep breath. I mean it.”

Clark scarcely finished his statement before a yawn slipped out from him, forcing him to cover his mouth to be somewhat polite. “But listen, I need those couple hours of sleep before I’m ready to get moving…Think you’ll be okay?”

Jia nodded, doing her best to put on a brave face. “I-I’ll be fine.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.” He got up from his chair, stretching briefly. “Alright, out of the bed. If you get bored, I picked up something to read when we got to town. It’s just a coin biter, but it’ll get your mind off of things.”

Jia’s watch, as the others, went quietly. Nobody was coming for them, no one wanted their heads. That would have required Brenda to acknowledge what had happened, to admit she had been beaten. And Akemi, despite her more paranoid moments, knew it. The battle would not go mentioned, their presence now would not be advertised. The most she might do would be to pass word of their arrival to someone in the House of the Wolf, as she no doubt had been informed by someone of Mantis heritage.

So despite the focus, despite feeling completely on edge, Akemi managed to take her time when the watch came to an end. She dressed herself almost leisurely, spending some actual time making sure her underlay was smooth and comfortable before she began to work her armor on. It was the first time since her fight, and she wanted to do this right. Piece by piece linked together as she went, all freshly cleaned and gleaming white once again. The only sign that it hadn’t come straight from the forge, that it had seen a battle, was the marks in the shoulder.

Akemi hesitated, for just a moment. Her arm still felt off, new musculature forced to grow rapidly. She’d never felt pain like that. No amount of training, sparring, had come close. The times under surgical knives, with nothing but a strap of leather to bite through and stones she crushed in her hands, hadn’t even reached the agony that single blow had imparted.

Some part of her, the tiniest bit, still felt fear at the thought of experiencing it again. She pulled back her collar, seeing the exposed flesh. It wasn’t a scar, precisely, because scars came from meat that couldn’t knit together properly. This was, instead, skin too new, still too pale and a little pink. It would take time to blend in, and likely never would be completely gone.

“Um…I-Is everything okay?” Jia asked, sitting there with their packs.

Akemi took a deep breath, bringing herself back to center. “…No. No, it isn’t. But I’ll be past it, given time.” She settled the pauldron into place, bringing straps together to lock it to the breastplate, and continued on. She had an entire arm and both legs that still needed protection.

When all was settled, and everyone ready, Akemi led the way out of their room. It was the same process they had done a few times now, in these last few days; she would play the slightly haughty noble, forced to be impressed with the quality of the accommodations despite her expectations. The owners would be caught between being offended and proud, she would tip them a good sum of coins for this area as if it were a pittance, and they’d be too caught up in it all to get a single bit of important information if anyone came looking.

It was a simple plan, and one she had used to some excellent effect. Walking out in her armor, even when she’d had to have her one arm uncovered and in a sling, had only heightened the effect of being from a lifestyle so different it might as well have been on another world.

On any other day, in any other inn, it would have worked. Had they slept in for an hour longer, everything would have been fine. Nothing would have gone wrong. She would have been able to leave, play the little show that went exactly to these people’s expectations, and it would have all gone smooth as silk.

But instead, as she marched down the steps, Akemi took in the morning crowd, just in case. She saw some of the same faces who had been there the night before, travelers and merchants catching a hot meal before they moved on. There were some others, locals by the ease and familiarity they moved with. Importantly, there was nobody who seemed to take notice of her as a specific entity, no one who might have been sent to track her do—

She caught his eyes, the moment he caught hers. His widened first, as he sat there. No shirt, abs exposed to the world, a pair of leather gloves cut back to his palms and stretched up to his elbows. Pants tight, and riding boots despite the lack of any horse. That face that could have been attractive, had she not wanted to break every last part of it, was swiftly contorted into a wince.

Sable. He calmed his expression almost as quickly as he’d let it slip, putting on a smile that would have melted the heart of any local village girl he aimed it at. “Well, what do we have here? Akemi of the House of the Wasp, if I do recall. What brings you all this way out here, love?”

The only thing keeping her from ripping her sword from its scabbard was that it sat in her pack. That single separation, that single extra step to demand it come to her hand, was the singular point that let her will overcome her immediate wrath. “…Sable. Give me one reason to let you walk out of here alive.

That got the people really staring.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 08 – Loyalty in the House of Iron

Clark wished he could be running as fast as his legs would carry him. But with soldiers at their heels, he didn’t have anywhere near enough time to pick Jia up, and she simply couldn’t keep up if he went all out. Already he could hear her starting to breathe more heavily, only minutes after they had taken off from the battle.

A gunshot cracked against the edge of a building, weakened stone shattering into so much dust. Jia let out a scream as they were both covered in it, trying to duck her head low. Even with some actual training in her, with some energy flowing through her body, she still felt so very frail. It took a very specific sort of experience to be able to face a firing line, and not flinch at the lead flying.

Clark shook his head, trying to think and gather information. He didn’t have the gift of his Lady’s keen mind, her way of rapidly pulling together data to form a whole picture, but he was more than cunning enough. There were only so many soldiers following after them, and they were only so organized. His sister was focused on fighting Akemi, trying to force her to yield and let the law of the land ride.

He couldn’t abandon her. Couldn’t leave her to face Brenda alone. The thought refused to yield in his mind, refused to let him be. He had to go back…But keeping Jia safe was paramount, his Lady’s orders. He could make it back on his own, certainly, but then she would be at the mercy of the iron soldiers. So that was unacceptable.

Which meant it came down to only one option. “Jia! We’re going to stand and fight, get ready to get behind me!” he shouted, forcing himself to be heard over the pounding of feet and sounding of guns.

“W-What?!” was all Jia gave as a response, eyes wide as she looked to him. He couldn’t be serious, could he? They had guns, so many guns, not like a sword that could be held back…It seemed utterly impossible.

And yet, Clark was already in the midst of whirling around, spinning her behind him with one hand. With the other, he snatched that massive crossbow of his, bringing it forward to bear.

The first shot put a phantom bolt into the closest soldier, forcing it to stagger back. Oil sprayed out of the wound, the thing whirling around as its body struggled to stay upright. Oil. Thick, viscous, flammable oil.

Nobody else was around. The actual people here had been evacuated, though whether it was out of the city or just into the factories, Clark didn’t know. What mattered was he wouldn’t hurt anyone else with the Steel Shooter, as he grabbed the slide and wrenched it back. His strength, his will, his fire poured into the weapon as he shifted the ammunition. He needed blazing bolts to cut into the crowd.

And blazing bolts were what he fired. Scarlet and casting thin streamers of flame in their wake, they did exactly what they were intended to do. That oil burned. What was in the air or across the ground turned to open fire, while that which was still inside the iron soldiers made a marvelous explosion when he pierced the armor of one. An explosion that opened things to a whole new level of chaos.

He had work to do.

Akemi fought with everything she had, that much was certainly true. She did not buckle, did not yield. But there was a simple fact in the air, as she leapt away from a broad swing of the Steel Icon’s gleaming fist.

Brenda, in her current state, was a stronger opponent than Akemi could deal with alone. Too much actual physical power, too much armor, just too much. She’d escaped actual serious injury only through sheer luck and speed, and hadn’t managed the kind of solid blows she needed. Plenty of those summoned troops lay in pieces, the ground shimmering slick with dark oil.

That was the other problem. As she reached the ground again, Akemi struggled with finding purchase, boots pressing hard against wetted cobblestones. That single moment, she was vulnerable.

Unlike the last time, unlike with Arc, Brenda didn’t hesitate. A partially fueled cannon slammed into her with a punch, raw energy racking her body with pain as she flew back. Akemi slid, skipped, nearly rolled, before she came to hit another damned building.

And then Brenda grabbed up one of her soldier’s rifles, and threw it like a dart. It stuck hard into Akemi’s shoulder, in, through, and out. Whether it had been a precision shot, or sheer luck, that had gotten it between the plates of armor and let it fully stab through under-layers and flesh, was a most valid question.

It was also the furthest thing from Akemi’s mind at the exact moment, as a raw and ragged scream left her throat. A kind of agony she’d never known tore through her, the first serious piercing of flesh she had faced on a battlefield.

Right then, Akemi felt something she hadn’t felt since she was a child, her eyes wide and a shudder running down her spine. Raw, palpable fear hit her, fear of failure, of defeat, of her death…or worse, Jia’s. The girl she’d swept up into this to try and keep her safe, dying because of her failure. The idea was…

It was infuriating, was what it was. Fury. Anger. Rage. Harness fury. Hold it, control it, never let it control you. That was what she’d been taught, at her most wild and ferocious. And harness it was what she did. Akemi narrowed her eyes, a deep, low growl just barely coming from her throat like something from some vicious animal.

If Brenda heard it, she didn’t acknowledge it, staring Akemi down. “You stupid, goddamned, brat. You never did get it, did you, Akemi?! There’s a reason we don’t let them train, there’s a reason we do things the way we do! All of this, it hangs on a thread, and you’re going to bring it all crashing down!”

Let her talk. Let her rant. Let her be so damned self-assured. Akemi pushed the fear down, smothered it in her rage until it stopped breathing. She grappled the pain, the horrid sensation in her shoulder, and made it all be still. A moment was all she needed to rip this pathetic rifle out of her shoulder, and even with one arm, she would finish this. She always finished the fight. A single moment. Look away, Brenda. Turn around. TURN!

But Brenda didn’t turn.

No, she staggered. A step took her to one side, a scarlet explosion spraying off her midsection. It didn’t breach that armor, but it pushed her, as blazing blue bolts slammed home to follow. Her gaze went to that side, looking up to where the shots came from. “Clark! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

And atop a relatively low roof, Clark did indeed stand. He clutched the Steel Shooter in his hand, his breath coming fast and hard. His hands were clammy, stress hitting him in waves. But he stood his ground, and put the stock of his caster back to his shoulder, aiming it for his own blood sister. “I…I cannot, will not, let anyone hurt my Lady. No exceptions.”

“Stand DOWN, you idiotic child! This isn’t your fight!” Brenda roared, her metal fist clenched tight.

Akemi didn’t waste the chance. She wrenched that bayonet out of her shoulder, refusing to scream. Screaming was for the weak. For mortal man. She rose, her arm limp, but already there was a pale haze coming off the blood. Power. Power would gather, would knit the wound together. A mere peasant would lose their arm for life after a blow like that, if it could even stay attached, but she would bounce back.

No time to wait for that to happen. Her sword came to her off-hand, ambidextrous training coming to her in flashes. She didn’t shout, didn’t roar, not until she was already charging in. Not until it was too late for Brenda to do anything. She just poured her will into the Blade of the Executioner, let it hum and glow in borrowed wrath, and went for that forward arm with its fist.

Brenda turned, a moment too late, when she felt the rush of power. She avoided the worst, kept the Steel Icon’s arm attached to the rest of it. But a deep gash took out an entire section of the armor, and sheared half the hand clean off.

There, at the end of the blow, stood Akemi. “Don’t you dare to order him around…Not when you THREW HIM AWAY! BY THE BLADE OF THE EXECUTIONER, YOU ARE MARKED FOR DEATH!” She brought that blade up, its edge hungry, and swung it down with all the strength she could bring with one arm. Brenda blocked, let a shield unfurl from her own forearm, and yet the blade still bit in deep to the reinforced metal.

The battle was turning against Brenda. She was effectively outnumbered, even with a fair number of soldiers still on the field. There was no time to get them proper orders, to call up more. They fell to shots from Clark’s crossbow in the chaos, those shots that didn’t ping off her own armor. And Akemi had just stopped fooling around. There was killing intent in that sword now, an ocean of it, and the Blade of the Executioner had always been forged to thrive on killing intent.

What she needed was range. Brenda poured her will into the Steel Icon’s cannon, bringing fire to it. One blast would push Akemi back, scorch that armor, hopefully put enough to knock some sense into her…At the very least, it would be enough to get room to figure out a plan, and get through the fight. Akemi saw the light in her cannon, the flames gathering, but it was too late. Even as she wrenched that blade out of Brenda’s shield, Brenda herself was bringing the cannon forward. A clench of her fist unleashed it, pouring fire in its tight beam.

Yet what was supposed to happen, didn’t. Akemi was supposed to be hit square in the chest, and then be flung back by the raw force of it. She had only one arm to work with. She should have been too late to stop it.

And she was too late to stop it, certainly. The first of the roaring blue beam hit Akemi square in the chest, as planned. But the woman planted her feet, somehow stayed in place, and put her sword into the beam. It split again, as it had before. And she endured, even with the steam still rising off her breastplate. She, who’d never seen a real honor duel. She, who her family had made an Executioner just to get her out of the way. She, who should have crumpled in the face of a real challenge.

She who stepped forward, and with a roar, cut Brenda’s cannon in half. The beam faltered, the fires spilled out to the side in a useless spray. Brenda stepped back, halting the flow of power. She was losing options rapidly, she needed—

Akemi didn’t stop. She cut again, splitting the cannon entirely open. She followed Brenda’s retreat, and cut the entire metal fist off of the other hand. The next step faltered, when Akemi cut the leg open so deeply that Brenda’s actual own limb was exposed from within the armor. That executioner’s sword, that weapon without the ability to stab or with any guard with which to block or duel or hold the line, was simply chewing through Brenda’s armor.

It didn’t stop when Brenda was disarmed. It didn’t stop, when the legs stopped working. Akemi cut two more vicious times, a broad criss-cross into the chest that split it open entirely. Light spilled into it, Brenda’s body so very vulnerable. And Akemi threw the Blade of the Executioner down, letting it sink nearly hilt-deep into the asphalt.

And then, with her still-working hand, she leapt upon the Steel Icon. She ripped the reinforced metal open as if it was made of fabric, and grabbed at the flesh and clothes within. In a flash, the tiniest moment, the Steel Icon was nothing but useless metal. Useless metal that wasn’t covering Brenda at all.

Akemi had her in the air. Pale of skin, even paler than Clark, her own blonde hair cropped to hang only to her chin. And in those eyes, those stern green stones, Akemi saw genuine fear. Brenda was helpless, shorter than her and without any of the tools she used to fight. She had her in the air, gripping her formal clothes in a single hand to hold her upright. The soldiers stopped. Even Clark stared, frozen by a hundred emotions and a thousand impulses.

All the power was in Akemi’s hands. She could have killed her then and there, by the very terms of war. It was what Brenda would do to any enemy she’d faced. It was something she very well might have done to Akemi, if the situation had turned. It would have been her authority, her right as Queen of the Lands of Iron to end a threat to her House and her people.

Akemi, was not, Brenda. She slammed the woman into the nearest wall, pressed her against it, and glared into those fucking eyes with all the rage she could muster. She wouldn’t kill her. But she had one hell of a point to make. “IT IS NOT YOUR DAMNED AUTHORITY THAT SAVED YOUR LIFE!”

Brenda didn’t dare respond, hands around Akemi’s own to try and rip her way free. But Akemi just tightened her grip. “YOUR ARMY IS NOTHING TO ME! YOUR ARMOR LIES IN PIECES! NOTHING YOU BUILT, NOTHING YOU COMMANDED, COULD KEEP ME AT BAY!” She yelled it at the top of her lungs, made sure it was heard far and wide. If there was a single person still in this town? She wanted them to know.

But, she leaned in closer, still staring into those eyes, as she finally lowered her voice. “Do you know why you’ll survive this day, Brenda of the House of Iron? It is no love for you that stills my hand…It is only a kindness I give to the flesh and blood you abandoned! To the brother you cast away! Raise a hand against me again, force me to defend an innocent against you, and I will take that kindness back. Never forget that!”

Brenda narrowed her eyes, trying — and failing — to hold onto some strength and control of the situation. “You can’t do this…Your own House will never accept it,” she said, the pressure on her ribcage keeping her voice from raising above a whisper.

“Just watch me.” And with that, Akemi threw Brenda to one side, letting the woman sail through the air. She bounced upon her first impact with the ground, bounced again on her second, and finally rolled to a stop after the third. But by that point, Akemi had already turned away, the battle won. Brenda would not throw herself into the fray again, not while her armor was in tatters and her pride was destroyed.

Instead, her attention turned to Clark, who finally leapt down from his rooftop position. He took everything in with wide, stunned eyes, scarcely able to believe what had happened before him as he walked towards Akemi. “My Lady, that was…Are you su–”

She interrupted him, hugging him firm with her one still working arm. “I’m sure,” she whispered. Then, her legs nearly gave out, her weight pressed down upon him. Akemi held back the gasp that welled up in her throat, her body yearning to sleep for a damn week, and just focused on maintaining composure. “Now hold me up, I can’t look weak now…Where is Jia? Is she safe?”

“Of course, my Lady,” Clark said, loyalty overtaking surprise once again. He hefted her as best he could, keeping her upright without it looking too obvious. “Jia is safe, she was right behind me until I had to climb…”

The sound of panting, and an exhausted run, caught both their ears. Jia herself managed to make it to them before she had to stop, both hands on her knees as she tried to suck in enough air to function. “I, I-I’m sorry, I know you said, to hide, but I…” she trailed off, looking up properly as she saw just what mechanical carnage was around them. “Is, is it over…?”

“This one is,” Akemi said, trying to put more of her own weight on her legs. They soon buckled, leaving her leaning on Clark once again for the moment. “We’re leaving. Do me a favor and grab my pack, Jia?” she asked, managing to push the anger out of her voice. Wouldn’t do to scare the girl after everything.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 07 – The changing heart in Iron

The spot of ground between the edge of the Land of the Mantis, and the Land of Iron, was one of stark division. The very air shifted, taking on a heavier and slightly sooty quality as they stepped through an unseen dividing line. The forces that authority called upon, that gave the strength to shape the land itself, met there as two opposing walls, keeping the natures of the two Lands from ever intermingling.

Jia had been boggling at the difference, the distant wisps of smoke and the tall spires she could see from entire days travel away, since they had first exited the tree line enough for them to be visible. But now, as she entered the Land of Iron, her breath caught in her lungs, her body opposed to the sudden scent and grit that it encountered. It took her an entire coughing fit to calm down, to be able to actually breathe, as each breath only started the process over again until her body was forced to accept that this was air. “Wh, what is this?” she managed, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“A whole lot of burning,” Clark said. “Comes from the factories. You’ll adjust soon enough.” Yet, despite that claim, he made a point of stepping beside Akemi, whispering to her. “My Lady, perhaps we should slow down…She shouldn’t force herself to run her first day here.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Akemi whispered right back. She looked to Jia, raising her voice enough to carry. “Jia! Things work a bit different around here. You need to stay close, keep your eyes open, and above all, be careful. We’re not going to be able to move as quickly through this area. The cities are too tightly packed and too common. The House of Iron goes for full industrialization, and that means density. Understand?”

Jia gave a nod, once she had settled her breathing and stopped the coughing. “I-I think so.”

“Good.” Akemi turned, shifting her pack as she started to walk. The straps sat firm against her armor, worn underneath loose traveling clothes. After what had happened with Arc, as much as she doubted she would face Brenda…She refused to be caught on the backstep again. She got lucky once. The second time, she would be making her own luck. She glanced back towards Jia, talking as they moved. “We’ll be avoiding Hearth City, the capital, this time. I know Queen Brenda well enough to explain things if it comes to it, but I’d rather not deal with the hassle.”

Clark kept up easily, a simple cloak over his war clothes. The Steel Shooter hung by his hip, leaving room for his own pack. “We shouldn’t have too much trouble. Just be sure to keep your things close to you, Jia. Once you get enough people in a small enough place, pickpockets start springing up like weeds in a garden.”

“I’ll, try,” Jia said, doing her best to keep up with the both of them. Her body simply didn’t have the training and power that they had, the lifetime of being connected and taking on the strength that that brought. But she managed as best she could, eyes open and ready for anything.

Jia might have thought she was ready, but these cities were nothing like anything she’d seen before. The capital of the Lands of Fire had been somewhat industrialized, and fairly dense, but nothing like the sooty place she found herself in now. The streets were twisting narrow things, with workers racing through them on foot or atop crisp bicycles. Bicycles, Jia realized, whose frames were made entirely of well-used steel, not wood. The buildings around them, too, looming tall, used far more metal than she could have possibly expected.

Clark walked next to her, seeing the shock in her eyes. “The Lands of Iron got their name for a reason. There’s masses of metal deposits underground, and my sister mines aggressively. It’s not the most pure metal around, but there’s so much of it that scale covers the gap.”

“And it’s a major export. One of the reasons my family has a trade alliance with her is access to an actual quantity of steel,” Akemi said. But for all that she kept an easygoing tone, her eyes were watching everyone. There were quite a few men mulling around these for this time of day, when most would be toiling away in a factory or racing off to handle some task or another. And while even a small city in the Lands of Iron could house countless lives, she somehow doubted there would be quite so many people down a side street in a city as comparatively small as Smelter Bay.

Clark, at least, had the experience to catch onto her unease. “…Should we stop and get lunch?” he asked, avoiding the actual question on both their minds.

“Yes. Yes, we should stop and get lunch,” Akemi echoed right back. They were on the same page. By now, Clark had noticed the crowds too. He’d no doubt realized something wasn’t right. They really did need to convene somewhere more private, some back table in a coffee house, and figure out a plan to get out of whatever surveillance net was being laid here.

It was a fine plan. Excellent, even. Its only flaw was that it relied strictly on the data they had on hand. The one thing that could truly ruin it, was if the situation completely changed.

As it did, when a sound caught Akemi’s ears. She dared to look up, disbelieving in what she heard…But it was accurate. A huge figure, wrapped in metal that gleamed so much it was nearly a mirror, was coming in from the air.

Queen Brenda of the House of Iron, wrapped in her personal weapon, the Steel Icon, had come. And she had come for them personally.

Flames roared from the Steel Icon’s boots as it came down, raw energy and will channeled through technological refinement. The figure, with Brenda within, stood nearly seven feet tall, towering over every one of them by at least a head. “Akemi of the House of the Wasp. Explain yourself at once!” Brenda bellowed, her voice deep and booming from behind all that metal.

Akemi stared, childhood fears bubbling up her spine. She’d seen Brenda angry, when she and a young Clark were simply playmates shirking their noble duties instead of adoptive family. Brenda had only been a princess, still in her teens, and yet she’d been furious at their nearly interrupting important political discussions. All that fear, seeing the anger in those eyes looking down upon her, threatened to come up and affect her.

She had Jia to worry about now. And she wasn’t a child looking at a terrifying angry teenager. She was a warrior, she was Executioner, and she was doing what was necessary. Akemi steeled herself, staring into the eyes of that helmet. Light glowed from them, an ethereal fire through which she knew the woman could see. “Brenda. We can discuss this like rational adults. There’s no need for weapons.”

“Do you think I don’t know what you’ve brought into my Lands, Akemi?!”

“…Jia is under my protection, as Executioner. She is a person, who I will see live. It is my right as representative of the House of the Was—“

“You DARE to speak of rights to me?!” Brenda interrupted, stepping forward. She already loomed over Akemi within that armor, the other woman only coming up to the Steel Icon’s breastplate. “You overstep your role, Executioner! The girl is a threat to everything we have built, and you would give her protection?!

That child deep in Akemi wanted to run. Wanted to hide.

The rebellious teenager who’d just started growing her hair out, just started insisting people call her Akemi, and still tried to avoid the politics right when she was supposed to be part of them, wanted to punch Brenda right in the damned throat.

But the adult, the woman who had carved a place for herself, just stood firm. Jia and Clark were behind her. She could feel Jia’s utter terror like the heat of a campfire, and it had to be calmed. Akemi took a deep breath, letting only a single fist clench, and held Brenda’s gaze. “I will not be intimidated. Not by you, not by your summoned forces, and not by idle threats. Will you talk to me as I have earned, Queen Brenda of the House of Iron?”

“You’re mad, Akemi. You should have left that rebel to die!”

“You should remember who keeps your precious borders safe.

“You, accomplish, NOTHING!” Brenda brought an arm back on the Steel Icon, but the limb ended not in a fist. It was a deep void, like the barrel of a cannon. Yet very much unlike a cannon, a furious light welled up in its depths, blue-white as the fire that was the Steel Icon’s eyes. And a raging torrent of power bellowed from those depths, a lancing beam that would scorch the flesh from a mortal’s bones in the blink of an eye.

In that same blink, as she saw the light first come, Akemi reacted. The Blade of the Executioner found its way into her hand, and more on instinct than thought, she brought it to bear. The flames of power that came for her split upon her sword’s edge, spilling out to either side to burn into the earth. Its very edges managed to catch her traveling clothes, hot enough to set them alight.

When the beam ended, what Brenda saw was not the burned absence of a longtime ally, or a defeated woman kept alive by her own power. What she saw was Akemi standing strong, clad openly in her stark white armor. “You…You came ready to fight me.” Her words came almost hesitantly, yet tinged with rage.

Akemi ignored them utterly, looking behind her. “Clark, RUN! Get her out of here!” There was no questioning her, and Clark didn’t. His own fears and worries melted into his obedience, and he only lasted long enough to grab Jia’s hand and pull her with him.

No, this was between Akemi and Brenda, and them alone. Akemi’s pack fell to the ground, her helmet in her free hand. She tugged it down onto her head, its skull-like visage completing her image. With no time to bundle up her hair and fit it underneath, she simply let it flow freely out from it, spilling down her back. “One chance, Brenda. We can talk this through—“

One of the Steel Icon’s arms ended in a cannon. The other was a simple oversized fist. And that fist hit Akemi hard enough to send her rocketing back at an angle, to hit a building hard enough to shatter the stone and bend the iron girders that held it together. “Still your tongue! This is an act of war, you idiot child…And I’ll knock that into your head one way or another! SOLDIERS, ARMS!”

Coats and jackets flew into the air in a flurry, all around Brenda. The lingering men through the crowded street were not men of flesh and soul at all, but soldiers, just as Akemi had suspected. Their bodies forged of dark steel, they stood with rifles mounted to spearheads. Those rifles were raised in near-unison, a staccato of metal on metal as they came to aim entirely at Akemi.

For her part, she fell from the crater her impact had made, landing in a crouch upon the ground. Akemi allowed herself to gasp in a single breath before she settled herself, and brought everything back to center. “…I gave you a chance, Brenda. You can’t ever say I didn’t,” she whispered to herself, tightening her grip on the Blade of the Executioner.

Brenda, if she heard it, most certainly wasn’t listening. “FIRE!” she roared, her command reaching the soldiers she had made and set down in the city. Metal fingers tightened on metal triggers, gunpowder exploding in a cacophony made of fire, smoke, and murderous intent.

The resulting rounds, balls of hot lead, failed to hit home. Akemi leapt in that same moment, sailing overhead as the hail of gunfire crashed into the space she had occupied an eye blink before. For just an eye blink more, the soldiers hesitated, confused, their simple patterns unable to handle a figure that could avoid being shot.

Akemi carried none of their hesitation. “By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked for death!” she cried, as she came furiously back down to earth. Her blade hummed with force, and then steel screamed as she forced that edge to split the first soldier in twain.

But it held, it obeyed, it refused to dull upon these mere creatures of manifest authority. She was the Executioner, it was the Blade of the Executioner, and so they would execute. Oil sprayed in a wave, black and viscous, as it was forced out of pressurized tubes like lifeblood. Yet before a single drop could land on her, Akemi had already begun to move.

The second fell behind the first, the third and fourth to their side, Akemi swinging broad and fierce. Mechanical carnage fell in her wake, the ground swiftly slick with the life of these summoned things. Her path through them did not aim to clear the swarm, for there would be time for that, but to reach Brenda. She brought that sword down as hard as she could, power clashing against power when Brenda brought the Steel Icon’s arm up to block. “I won’t let anyone take her, not even you!”

“You have no authority here, brat!” Brenda threw her arm out wide, flinging Akemi back, and bringing her cannon forward to fire. Yet Akemi twisted, turned in the air, and dove into the crowd of soldiers. Their presence wouldn’t save her, she knew that much.

But when Brenda fired, when that stark blue stream came howling for her, it only hit where she had been. As she moved, sprinting, she outran the blast and its lapping flames. A jump took her into the air, a turn put her boots on a lamp post, and a push sent her arcing right over the Steel Icon’s helm to land behind it.

She couldn’t beat Brenda in that armor on strength alone. But that just meant she’d have to outpace the thing and get in the small blows. And if she was going to do that, then it was time to get to work.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 06 – Decisions made under under a full moon

The path past Sickle Point was nothing like the path towards it. The calm, the focus and control, all of it was gone. Akemi couldn’t pretend that she had this in her grasp, that simple negotiation and leaning on her name and House would be enough to sway others. She had taken on an impossible task, and her own code of honor meant she could not abandon it.

Could not, would not. Jia was in her care, now. The girl had nowhere else safe. If she chose to leave, perhaps Akemi couldn’t stop her, but she would not ask it of her. No, that was the one thing that was off the table. To fight, to war? To throw herself into battle? She would do it, and she would regret nothing. But to cast her away, for Akemi’s own sake, was…unthinkable.

So instead, with only one option on the table, they ran. The woods surrounded them on all sides, the nearest villages and towns miles away. This was raw wild land, only held by the House of the Mantis because it was between the points they actually cared about.

But they could only run so much, so far. For all that her modest and unintentional training had given her, Jia was still only able to handle a fraction of what Akemi and Clark could. And while they could carry her a ways, keeping her relatively calm was as important as anything else. So with the sun already low in the sky, Akemi finally jogged her way to a stop, looking to the pair coming up behind her. “Are you both alright?”

“I…” Jia started, as she staggered her way to stopping. Both hands went onto her knees, the young woman doubling over and trying to suck in enough air to make her lungs stop burning and her legs quit throbbing. “I-I’m…Okay,” she managed. It was a lie, of course. Fear still gripped her deeply, clutched at her very soul. But she had seen the worry in Akemi’s eyes, the noblewoman who had made it her quest to see her receive a safe home. Adding to that worry, was something Jia could not allow herself to do.

Clark slowed down more easily, a hand going to his weapon just in case. “I’ll be better when we aren’t caught in the dark, my Lady.”

“I know.” Akemi took a timepiece from her pocket, checking the time reflexively. Jia had lasted nearly another minute. The girl’s shape was improving rapidly under the conditions they had been forced into, something that would be of actual use. The less time they had to rest, the faster this would be behind them all…both metaphorically, and quite literally. Satisfied, she flipped it over, checking the compass built into the back. Its needle pointed firmly to the Land of the Wasp, to the very capital she called home. “What I would give for a landmark on the map…”

“We’ve been going for three days. There can’t be much more of Mantis lands left,” Clark said. “Do we try to push through, or shall I set up camp, my Lady?”

She pocketed the watch once again, pulling her pack off her shoulders. “I’ll help you set up camp. Jia, once you’ve caught your breath, clear some space for a fire. We should get some light going while we still have sun to see by.”

The work went smoothly, once it got going. The tents were pitched, the fire prepared, enough wood to get by for the night gathered and roughly chopped. When it was all done, Akemi sat upon her still-bound bedroll, eating a bowl of simple rabbit stew. It was humble food, basic food, but it put energy into her. Energy she desperately needed.

Her gaze turned to Jia, the young woman forcing down a second bowl’s worth of the stew. Jia had been a bit on the chubby side when Akemi had found her, though not so much the weight she saw on the lazier nobles who had the money to eat well. No, Jia didn’t have the abundance of sugars and fine meats that came with that sort of weight; she simply had lived on starchy staples, rice and grains that her village farmed.

But that weight was starting to come off of her. She’d tapped into power before Akemi had met her, and now under these constant tests of her endurance, her body was responding. It was, on some level, a fascinating transformation; already there was a visible change, a shift in how Jia’s body looked and moved. Akemi doubted the girl had even noticed it yet herself, it was so gradual.

Yet on the other level, it was a stark reminder of why something like the rebellion she had been swept up into, could be so dangerous. Enough training to start the wheels turning, and a few weeks of heavy running, were already doing this much. An entire village could be turned into a small army in the time between a lax noble’s inspections.

All the more reason to do right by them, Akemi supposed. A satisfied people did not rebel. Whatever the situation within the House of Fire had been, it had been enough to turn a man against them, and for a man to turn a people. They had made some error, though what it was, Akemi couldn’t say.

And all this philosophizing of it, ignored the heart of the issue. What she was going to do with Jia, the example sitting right on the other side of the fire. The single actual person she was trying to help, not the hypothetical and theoretical people of her lessons and learnings. “Jia. I have something to ask you.”

Jia looked up from her food, swallowing a mouthful of stew. “Is… everything okay? Do, do we need more firewood?” She glanced to the pile, perhaps hoping it had somehow shrunk considerably since the last time they had added more fuel to the flame.

“No, that isn’t it. I want you to make a decision, Jia. You’ve had some training in the art already.”

Jia winced at the very mention of it. Her gaze darted to Clark, but he offered no help, leaving her to confront the statement alone. “T-That’s right…”

“I can protect you. I can keep fighting for you. But I want to offer to finish the training you started.”

“W-What?!” Jia stuttered, eyes wide.

Even Clark looked up, stunned. “My Lady! That, that would be…”

Akemi gave him a brief look, just enough to quiet his protests. “That would be necessary, Clark, if I’m to pass her off as anything other than a peasant.” She turned her attention back to Jia, looking her in the eye. “Jia…Make no mistake. If you don’t want this, I won’t force you…But if you can fight for yourself, your odds will be better. And we can present you in a different light, when we reach my homeland.”

“Wh…A diff, different light?” Jia stared right back into those dark eyes, confusion written all over her face.

“A minor noble from the House of Fire who was lucky enough to survive a people’s rebellion. Too low on the totem pole for any of my family to have heard of her, with some modest self defense. Of course I’d bring such a noble back with me, and perhaps some sparring along the way would explain anyone noticing her picking up elements of my own style…Head hunting isn’t part of my formal task, but nobody would think to protest my bringing more power to the House.”

“But, I’d be…?”

“Jia of the House of Fire. It has a nice sound to it, don’t you think?” Akemi asked, continuing to meet the girl’s gaze. “This is a decision you have to make. If you want to be Jia the peasant girl, I’ll continue to do everything in my power to protect you. But if you want to have a hand in staying alive, if you want to own what’s already in you…”

Jia nearly froze on the spot, looking like she wanted to…to something, anything. Run, hide, cower, something to escape the decision before her.

To turn away from what had happened, what she’d inadvertently taken the first step into.

Or to stare it down, and see where that path led.

To be a normal peasant girl, or to be…someone, something, more.

Jia, with no family name to call her own? Or Jia of the House of Fire, to become Jia of the House of the Wasp?

There was no home to go back to, even if she stayed just plain Jia. Her village was drained and dying, her family gone. She had let Akemi take her away from those lands for a reason, one beyond her fear of the rebellion.

But this meant turning her back on everything she was, completely. She’d never have the option of being just plain Jia, ever again.

It was the hardest decision she’d ever had to make in her life, just sprung on her like that. But a decision had to be made. And no matter which way Jia tried to turn it around in her head, there was that one simple fact. The life of just plain Jia was…It was already gone.

So the question wasn’t about the life already behind her. It was what she’d have to put together when she reached this distant place Akemi was taking her to. A land she could scarcely conceive of, as she sat further from her birthplace than she’d been in her entire life.

And there was only one answer that meant she could protect herself. Only one answer that would give her any options, any tools to use, if anyone came looking for her.

Jia took a deep breath, a little shaky, even as she knew it was the only real option on the table. “I…I’ll do it…”

Akemi paused, just long enough to let Jia take it back. But the girl didn’t, just looking to her for a response. “Alright then. We’ll start your training tomorrow, Jia. Have another bowl of stew, and then get your rest…You’re going to need both.”

The sun had scarcely peeked over the horizon, only the earliest beams managing to reach into the woods around them, when Akemi awoke her new student. Minutes later, she had Jia sitting cross-legged on the cold ground, a simple meditative position. “The first thing you have to master,” Akemi said, “is to center yourself, and kindle the fire in yourself. I’m assuming your former teacher started with this, as well.”

“R-Right,” Jia said, not opening her eyes. She tried to ignore the chill creeping up her legs, the stiffness in her limbs, the way her body protested this effort so soon after being awoken too early…

“Not surprising. It’s the simplest place to start, the foundation of everything else…I’m going to stop talking, in a moment. Steady your breath, steady your mind, and focus on that inner fire. That sensation, wherever it first bloomed in you, that connects you to all things…Find it, and take it gently in hand,” Akemi said, and indeed went silent. She calmed her own breathing, and with scarcely a single sound, moved towards Jia.

Jia, who tried to breathe, to keep everything steady and calm, and to find that thing in her that had started this all…And just when she had it, it flared up bright, a sudden surge of panic coming at her from straight ahead. Jia yelped, flinched away physically, and only dared open her eyes several seconds later. Nothing had hit her, she was unharmed.

But she found Akemi’s fist, scarcely an inch from where her face had been. “Well, well, it seems you’re further along than you realized,” Akemi said, giving a smile. “You felt my own presence, and the oncoming strike, with just your core. We can work with that…And get you onto using that core.” She opened her hand, holding it out to offer Jia help up to her feet.

“I-Is that…Good?” Jia managed to ask, as she accepted the help up.

“It will be, when you’re through the other side. But you’re going to be very sore for a few days.”

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 05 – The Battle of Sickle Point

Akemi snatched the scabbard from the air, her hand wrenching her sword free. “By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked!” Her gaze focused, her will came to a razor point, and she made her first strike. In a single flash of motion, she took the head of the forward-most beast clean off its body, the solid stone cut flawlessly through. Bright green moss sprayed out like lifeblood, spilling upon the ground and latching onto the grass. This thing’s destruction would bring new growth, a point of beauty in a battle.

But she wouldn’t get an opportunity like that again. And she knew it. Arc’s fingers ran across the strings of his sitar, the man’s own will infused into his summoned creatures. He had not simply learned to fight with his own two hands, as she had; he had been taught to command, to make them greater. With mere orders, the things would have been no better than the castoffs she had torn through in the lands of Fire. They would have scarcely slowed her down, and she would have been upon Arc in the blink of an eye.

With his will throughout them, with his music imparting awareness they would not otherwise have, it was a very different story. Raw ingrained muscle memory was all that moved Akemi and got her to spin around, scabbard in hand, and not a moment too soon. She caught a set of rock claws upon the scabbard, only its infusion keeping the wood from shattering like glass blown too thin. As it was, she had to hold against as much weight as three men, all pressing down on her from above. The soil beneath her feet began to yield, sinking her down slowly but surely as it compressed downward.

What concerned her far more, were the other beasts. Not the ones surrounding her, waiting for her to break from the one pressing down with a silent howl, teeth gnashing and grinding to have her for lunch as instinct drove it beyond Arc’s command. No, her concern were the ones racing for Clark and Jia, the ones aiming at Arc’s actual objective. After all, it wasn’t Akemi, the mighty Executioner, who needed to fall. It was an effectively powerless girl.

Not an option. “CLARK! CROWD CONTROL!”

That was all it took. Clark’s loyalty was nearly too great; he might have acted without her approval, might have chosen to throw into the fight. But the conflict would have made him hesitate, possibly too long. The instant she gave the word, Clark swung that caster forward, the weapon nearly aglow as he poured his fire into it. “Yes, my Lady!” He wrenched the bowstring back, took aim at the nearest of the beasts, and pulled the trigger, in scarcely more than the blink of an eye.

That first shot echoed as it was loosed from the Steel Shooter, Clark putting more force into it than was perhaps necessary. The core ammunition, a thin bolt made of naught but his will, was engulfed in blue fire. It didn’t so much strike the first beast as it drilled into it, boring it clear through with a wide and gaping chasm through its entire body.

The thing collapsed to rubble in mid-stride, rubble that its followers already bounded over to leap at Clark and Jia both. But Akemi could not watch any longer, her time too precious in the heat of the battle. Already she heard the sound of the earth splitting, of Arc calling more beasts to his side.

She needed room to work, room to get to Arc and settle this. And there was only one way to get it. She planted her boot into the stone beast, pushing it just that bit back. Its claws were forced off of her scabbard, pushed into the air for a split second. That split second was all she needed to give the thing a true and proper kick, a flipping thing that thrust both of her feet into its chin.

As the beast fell onto its back, stunned into briefly losing its animate nature, she landed back on those same feet. The others moved, ready for their pound of flesh.

And so too, did she. Akemi leapt over one, sliced open the jaw of the next, forcing the great hounds to turn and try to chase her. To get over each other, their mimicry of pack animal instincts focused entirely on her. Turning them to the objective, to try and overwhelm Clark instead, would take a precious moment that Arc didn’t have.

For nearly as soon as she was out of the pack, Akemi was upon Arc. She brought her blade down, its edge meeting his sitar with a deeply resonant crash of metal upon its strings. The two were left struggling, each trying to overpower the other. “Tell me your orders, Arc! You owe me that much!”

The man planted his feet, gritting his teeth. A wind swept up between them, the raw weight of their power clashing, that swept a shock of metallic silver hair back on his head. “To kill her, defeat you, bring you back to your senses…”

“Defeat? You’re to leave me alive, then, is that it?” She pushed harder upon the Blade of the Executioner, trying to get past Arc’s own grip upon the Battlecry.

“You think my father would throw away our alliance for a peasant? Just walk away, Akemi!”

“I gave her my word, you empty-headed bard!” She couldn’t let up, not even for a moment. If he could pluck those strings, give new orders to the beasts, Clark would be overwhelmed. But she could hear their pounding footsteps, coming closer now that they’d untangled themselves from eachother. They’d be on her any second.

Yet still, she smiled. She only needed to force her friend to admit defeat. He could say he had done his best, say it honestly, and none would need to die. To cast Arc to death because Akemi acted upon her word and her honor, would stain their alliance just as readily as if Arc struck her down himself. The old man would never do it, as simple as that.

And so, Akemi let one hand free of the Blade, reaching past it and Arc’s own weapon to snatch the young man’s shirt. She planted her feet firm, and with a cry, tossed him into the pack of stone beasts in the instant before they could set upon her. They would not harm their master, but the confusion would give her the moment she needed, to start her work in earnest.

She struck as she reached the pack, each slice of her blade cutting deep into the stone. Infused with power, the blade endured, and her raw strength saw the rock split clean and smooth. The creatures could not stop her in the moment, her speed and strength simply too great without proper orders. Fresh green hit the ground in waves, engulfing the grass and soil as she broke the summoned beasts.

But Arc, Arc was different. The instant she saw him in the midst of the pack where she had thrown him, already on his feet, she saw the key mistake she’d made.

He had gotten a chance to get his fingers on those strings. He strummed the Battlecry, a spread of notes that leapt out as not only sound, but physical force. A wave shimmered and rippled as it spread out from the instrument of war, crashing into her chest before she could prepare herself for it. She was thrust back, sailing into the air.

For just a moment, she could see the battlefield in all. She could see Clark fighting, the other hounds trying to get around him to strike at Jia, but unable to complete the circle. He chewed into them with the fire from his caster, searing blue bolts sticking deep into the rock flesh, yet more were coming up as fast as he could strike them down. Arc’s will wasn’t focused on the fight, but on trying to overwhelm Clark.

That had to change.

Akemi landed on her feet, sliding back nearly a full foot before she came to a stop. She brought the Blade of the Executioner in front of her, staring Arc down as the pack around him properly disentangled themselves at last. She had to get into his head, force him to focus on her alone. “Is that how it is, then? Are you too scared to face me directly? To focus on me properly?!”

Arc bit back an entire array of curses, clutching his sitar as he stood there amidst the pack. “Akemi, why do you have to make this so difficult?!

“You know why.” She shifted her feet, brought her weight forward, ready to charge. “You and me, Arc. Make it a duel! Fight me with some honor, instead of all of this!”

He stared her down, sitar in hand and ready. The pack didn’t move around him, and even the ones facing Clark started to pace, watching him, waiting. The battlefield was, for just a moment, still as a painting.

And then, at last, Arc yielded. His fingers ran down the strings, a succession of notes echoed through the hillside. The beasts crumbled around him, as he demanded their spirits return to the earth below. He let his eyes close, allowed himself a single deep, smooth breath.

Then he roared, and came at Akemi too fast for a mere peasant’s eyes to track. A thin wave of force preceded him, the raw strength of his will and his training channeled through the Battlecry, and slammed into Akemi’s own blocking blade. Again and again they clashed, Arc even swinging the instrument itself as a weapon when no other option came to him in the moment. But neither could gain ground, not with the experience both had. They had sparred many times, had learned each other’s styles and quirks inside and out.

Had they simply been sparring, it might have stayed that way for minutes, even hours. Two well-matched warriors, each trying to force the other to slip up and make a single mistake to be capitalized upon. But sparring was the furthest thing from either’s mind. This was duty, honor, all the things they built their very selves around, coming to a head.

And with it all, it was Akemi who drove herself the further. She didn’t have regrets, painful orders to honor despite herself. She had her word, her pride, and the duty she took up by her own hand. So it was on that pride, for the sake of that duty, did she take a risk. For a single second, she let her guard slip. Just enough, that Arc could drive home a solid strike, could take advantage, if he was truly driven.

The man hesitated. He nearly flinched, instincts pushing in the opposite direction from orders. His hand upon the sitar couldn’t bring the phantom strikes home upon the music, not for that single moment in time.

It was all Akemi needed. The flat of her blade plunged into the space between Arc’s arm and his torso, her scabbard in hand whipped to the opposite side. She put her weight to it before he could pull back, could get free, and she flipped him straight onto his back at her feet. One such foot slammed onto his chest, pinning the sitar between the two.

The Blade of the Executioner, humming with its own might, came to have its rounded tip aimed for his throat. “Sir Arc of the House of Mantis! I trade mercy for mercy. You keep your life, your weapon, and your honor, and we walk away. These are my terms. Will you accept them?”

Arc just stared, as he processed what had happened. One moment, he had been trying to force himself to finish the job, to put Akemi in the very opposite of this situation. To make her take the offer of her life in trade for Jia’s, to live and let a peasant die. The next, after only the slimmest flash of hesitation, he found himself staring down that damn blade of hers.

All he could do, when he caught himself up to the moment, was laugh. It came slow, with shallow breath, from the weight of her boot still on his chest. “You damn madwoman. You’re really doing this… You’re really, fucking, doing this. I accept, on the House of the Mantis! Mercy for mercy…Now would you get off of me?”

“Gladly.” She lifted her foot, planted it on the ground once again, and offered an empty hand. “Let me help you up.”

He took the hand, let her lift him to his feet. “You know I can’t protect you for long…You need to get out of these lands.”

“That was always the plan…You stay in touch, Arc. Don’t let this hurt things.” She turned her gaze to Clark and Jia, the two of them eyeing the crumbled beasts of stone warily. No time for congratulations, for checking injuries, or even properly gathering their things. This close to the capital, there were too many people who could be sent out to finish what Arc couldn’t. “Come on, both of you! We need to move!”