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.