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!”

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 04 – Clash at Sickle Point

It took several more days of walking, marching really, before Akemi was forced to approach civilization. In that time, she had learned some things; she now knew that Jia slept quite poorly when she was particularly unnerved. And that the concern about being watched by a certain shadow-walking ronin was particularly unnerving for the poor girl.

She had also learned that Jia did not like the taste of wild rabbit. Which was, on reflection, perhaps less important information, but no less useful for ensuring a smooth trip. But now, they could begin an effort to receive some proper hospitality in the days to come. There was no good that could come from trying to avoid the capital, after all.

And so Akemi stood alone, making her way into the town of Vigilance. A somewhat dramatic name, but one they had earned with their hilltop position and their constant lookouts. She had been spotted from at least a mile away, that much she knew, and there were guards ready by the time she reached the gate. She gave the duo a nod as she approached, wearing her formal robes and leaving her war equipment at the camp. “I am Lady Akemi of the House of the Wasp. I seek peaceful entry into your town for daylight, nothing more.”

The two, a man and woman, gave each other a glance. It lasted only a moment before they nodded, hands leaving their weapons. “We would be honored to have you, Lady Akemi,” the man said, sounding as pleasant as he could manage. He stepped to one side, clearing the path to the gate.

“Will there be any others joining you, Lady?” the woman asked, stepping to one side as well.

Akemi shook her head. “My party is watching over our camp, and we have to return to our lands as quickly as time allows. I merely need to conduct business before I leave.”

“Of course.” The woman gave a nod, having clearly done this dozens of times. Vigilance was one of the major secondary checkpoints in the land of the Mantis, and there were quite a few nobles who passed through much like Akemi was about to.

But such was a thought that was slowing her down. She gave the woman a nod in return, and stepped forth to the gate proper. The heavy doors parted before her, and she stepped into the town sparing only a brief look around to ensure nothing had changed since her last time here. She found a few changes in the last year, true, but none that were relevant. Because the building she wanted was still in place.

Akemi stepped into the courier’s office, letting her calm keep her looking quietly confident. If there was one thing Vigilance had to it in these lands besides their lookouts, it was the couriers. Trained perhaps even better than the ones in the capital of Sickle Point, they were more than enough to get a message passed on.

It took little time to reach the counter, and face a little man behind the divide. He looked as though he would be a bit short standing, and the seat underneath him did him no favor. Neither did the glasses hanging low upon his nose, which he had to look over to see her. “How can I help you today, miss?” he asked, saying it in the same way he did to every other soul who came through this building.

“I need to send a message on to Sickle Point.”

“Of course…And who might it be going to there?”

“The House. Arc, if you need a specific man to have it handed to,” she said.

The man paused, adjusting his glasses when he heard that. “I see…” he trailed off, getting a sheet of parchment to lay out on the countertop, “I’m sure you understand, but I’ll need to see some proof of your standing before I can simply send a message on to a member of the Hou—“

Akemi drew her personal mark before the man even finished speaking, a stamp that marked her position in the House of the Wasp. One quick motion dipped the business end into a shallow dish of dye, the next flicked the excess onto a well-stained towel, and the third brought a firm imprint down upon the parchment. “Now, can we do business, or do you have more hurdles I must clear to prove myself?”

He sucked in air as he saw her raise the stamp, and did indeed see the seal she had left upon the sheet. Though he did not have personal knowledge of every individual noble’s seal any more than he could identify every noble’s handwriting, it was all the proof he needed; to carry such a mark was as much a privilege of the nobility as their practicing of the art. “Of, of course. My apologies, Lady. Just say your message, and I’ll be sure it is delivered swiftly.”

She gave a bit of a smile, enough to relax the poor man after that scare, as she wiped her mark of any remaining dye and returned it to safe keeping. “Thank you. I merely need to inform the House that I, Lady Akemi of the House of the Wasp, will be arriving at the House of the Mantis in the next few days. I am humbly requesting a night’s lodgings while I record my passage through the lands of the Mantis.”

The man wrote swiftly, yet with a practiced hand, producing neat and crisp script. He kept up with Akemi’s speech with ease, writing them down word-for-word even with the necessity of a dip pen to put it down in a proper ink. It was mere moments after she finished speaking when he turned the sheet around, allowing her to take a look upon it. “Is everything to your liking?”

Akemi looked over the writing briefly, just enough to confirm it matched what she had said. “Excellent work. I look forward to this arriving in the proper hands.”

She returned to the camp as swiftly as she could without raising any undue attention. Her every action was, on some level, calculated. The right amount of show in the courier’s office. The proper amount of extra pay for the trouble, and to get the letter moved swiftly. A planned amount of hurry, making her way out and away from the town of Vigilance. Not someone with mysteries, merely a minor noble trying to return to her homeland as swiftly and easily as possible. The people would see what they wanted to see, so long as she gave them no reason to see anything else.

So it was with an easygoing, casual gait that she reached her camp, sparing only the briefest glance to ensure there was nobody following. There wouldn’t be, of course, but the whole situation with Sable several days ago had her…somewhat on edge. “I trust everything went well here?” she asked, once she was able to settle back into her proper mannerisms.

Clark gave a nod, sitting by and tending to a small campfire. “Food in our bellies, and no trouble this far from town. How were things for you, my Lady?”

“As planned. We’ll be fine, at least as far as the capital.” Akemi looked to Jia. “And how are you feeling? I know this has not been an easy journey for you, so far.”

“I-I’m fine,” Jia said, keeping her eyes on the campfire. But every so often, a sound of nature, an animal’s cry or a rustle of wind in trees, would cause her to swiftly look to where it had come from.

A child could have noticed it. And Akemi was most certainly more observant than a child. “You are clearly not. Now, we’ve done this dance before, and I would rather skip to the part where you are honest with me, Jia. Is it about that ronin Sable?” she asked. And she caught Clark’s wince, enough confirmation to know she’d touched a nerve he was aware of.

But Jia, even though she bit her lip, finally shook her head. “Nno. It’s not him, it’s…The capital,” she said, trying to focus and keep her words under her control.

“What about it worries you?”

“They’ll…” she paused, forced herself to take a breath, “they’ll see, through me. L-Like you did.”

“Ah, is that your concern…” Akemi lowered herself down onto an overturned log, one of the impromptu seats they had located for their temporary camp. “I suppose your would-be master would have no reason to teach you to connect with the world as a practitioner does…How Clark and I do.”

When she saw Jia shake her head, just a bit confused, she continued. “It isn’t as simple or direct as sight. I cannot look at you and see the power of the art, the way I can see the color of your hair or the shape of your face. It’s closer to a sensation, something felt in the chest. A sort of…resonance, where you feel your connection to the earth that gave you power, and feel when others have that same connection.”

Clark looked over, eyebrows raised. “You feel it in your chest, my Lady? I was taught to feel it down my spine.”

“Yes, yes, everyone learns a bit differently,” Akemi said. “What’s important, is I could only feel it because you and I were alone when I found you, Jia. Amidst the sensations of countless other lives, in a House full of other practitioners…Your own small connection, quite honestly, won’t be noticed. It would be like trying to find a white pebble amidst a bowl of rice. Does that help ease your mind at all?”

Jia gave a hesitant nod. “It, it helps.”

“Good. Now, I won’t rush you, but we do have to get moving relatively soon. I want the messenger to have just enough of a lead that the House is ready to accept us. I have friends there, and could hardly stop when I was headed this way…Having them looking forward to our presence will make the discussion much simpler, and better for us all,” Akemi said. “Both of you gather your things at your own paces…I’m going to change out of this pageantry and find a pair of genuine pants.”

The journey to Sickle Point, capital city of the lands of Mantis, nearly went off without a hitch. Much of the path was clear, and even the diversions into untamed forest went without trouble. Akemi had kept the mood up, and Clark had helped hunt enough fresh meat to easily compensate for the extra drain on their rations. Everything was going exactly as planned.

Until, the city itself was in sight. Built atop a large hill, even higher than Vigilance, Akemi could see it tower over the surrounding woodlands. And yet she found no other travelers on the path, no merchants moving supply to or from the city gates. No, as she reached the base of the hill, there was only one man there.

Arc of the House of the Manis sat alone upon the hill, a sitar laid across his lap. The many-stringed instrument gleamed in the light, polished to a near mirror sheen and kept in immaculate condition. He opened his eyes the very moment Akemi’s trio stepped out into the open, and as he saw the young woman with her, he let out a sigh. “Damn it all,” he muttered to himself, as he arose.

Akemi frowned to herself. This was not right, and ‘not right’ could not mean anything good in this situation. She held out her hand, just a touch, to stop Clark and Jia behind her. “Both of you stay here. Clark…Be ready for anything.”

She didn’t await a response, didn’t need one, before she stepped forward on her own. Clad in her more comfortable traveler’s clothes, with her sword and armor stowed away in a pack, she presented none of the powerful and deadly imagery she might have. It would have taken a trained eye to see the reinforcement and special weavings in her clothes that made them still reasonably protective, and it would take personal experience to know how little distance truly separated her from the blade to which she was bound.

Reinforcement that she saw in her friend’s own clothing. And there was no distance separating him from his weapon, not a single inch. He still had the edge, if it came to it. “Arc!” she called, waving, “What brings you out here? I did not expect a welcoming party.” Perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding, and her paranoia was just that.

Arc held his sitar in hand as he looked down towards her. “…Does she have power, Akemi?” he asked, his voice carrying with ease.

She winced. Well, there went that hope. “Jia is under my protection, Arc! I’ve given her my word, upon my House and my title. We can discuss this rationally. Let me make an offer. Some coin for passage.”

“She was part of a peasant’s rebellion! You know my father will not allow her to live, now that she has entered his lands!”

“Who told you that?” She knew, of course. There was only one soul who could have. But she had to confirm it.

Arc let out another sigh. “A ronin, who traded her life for his. You know this wasn’t my choice, Akemi…But I’ve been given orders. I won’t ask you to stand down…I just ask that you’ll forgive me when this is all over.”

Akemi clenched a fist, a thousand curses running through her mind, with every last one of them aimed at that damned oaf that was the head of the House. “I won’t need to.”

A sad, wilting chuckle left Arc’s lips. “We’ll see, won’t we…” He plucked upon the sitar’s strings. Its sound resonated, echoed with far more force than any ordinary instrument could conjure up, as power ran through what was not only a thing of song, but his weapon. The Battlecry. “Creatures of stone, heed your master’s call! ARISE!”

They came in an instant, rising from the ground below. Beasts, shaped like some great hound at the size of a bear, made of grey stone and covered in pale fresh moss. At least half a dozen pulled themselves from the dirt, shaking off the excess as they arose, surrounding Akemi in a broad semicircle. To get to Arc, she would have to face the beasts.

And so she held out her hand, called upon the Blade of the Executioner, and leapt into the fray.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 03 – Encounter in the woods of the Mantis

There are laws to the world, as raw and simple as gravity. If you wish to get stronger, you must train. If you train, and keep training, you will keep getting stronger. Practice makes perfect, and perfection is only so far away. A child can understand this innately, from before they can even express it; after all, what is walking, but the result of well-trained crawling?

And then there are the laws of man. The laws written not in the fabric of the world, but in tomes wielded against those who would go against them. Laws that say what you are allowed to train in. For if training is the path to power, and if any soul can walk that path, what will separate a lord from the peasant they rule over? What would, even more immediately, separate that lord, from any trained warriors who could unleash a coup at a moment’s notice?

There is a reason power is held ever tightly by the ones who have it. It is not a law of the world, the way water must spread until it can go no further. But for many, it is a law as equally insurmountable. To train in the martial arts, to claim power, is something that is left only to a precious few. The nobility, the blood of those in charge, who are perhaps more trustworthy than the peasants.

But even they must never be given authority, command. Power alone is a risk to the ones in command. Power, and authority, the keys to controlling the land itself? The sole thing that holds back any given soul from calling up forces from nothing but raw will and the ethereal ties between us? That is a challenge, and so it must be kept under lock and key.

Akemi knew all of this. She had learned it a thousand times, the laws of man and the reasons they were as they were. And yet, as she walked at the head of her trio, she knew she was directly going against much of it. Jia was, in many ways, a textbook case of a lawbreaker. A heretic, even. Had Akemi’s teacher been in her place, the young woman would be dead, burned, and her ashes buried in a minimum of three separate soils to break apart the ravenous shadows left in her wake.

Which left Akemi all the more certain that it was for the best that she was here, and not that old and bitter man. She clenched the hilt of her sword at the mere thought of how things could have gone, the infused material uniquely holding strong against her strength.

Days had passed, with them walking as much as they could and only resting when they could go no further. Akemi had spent that time learning of her new charge, of the woman she’d made a vow to get to safety. Little of what she learned was surprising, in the strictest sense, but it all filled out a picture of a person who deserved better. Someone who had gotten little from life, little kindness and fewer resources.

It was no wonder Jia had accepted that wandering man’s offer of help, had wanted a way to clear her mind, to focus on something other than the constant struggle. And had things gone a different way, she would have lost her life for it.

That was no longer on the table. Akemi was going to keep this girl safe, no matter what it took. She would lean on whatever alliances she had to, to reach her homelands safely with Jia in tow. It was the only option that she could actually accept.

Akemi’s thoughts came to a shuddering halt, her ears almost perking up at the hint of a sound. She held up a fist, signaling to Clark and Jia behind her, as she stopped. Something wasn’t right.

They were surrounded on all sides by woodland, thick trees and bountiful shrubbery, with only a narrow path cut through and kept as bare as the local villages could manage. Wildlife should have sounded in all directions, from birdsong to howls of hunting packs. It had been, mere minutes ago. But now, all she heard was a thin rustle of leaves, and not from the wind.

They weren’t alone. Akemi breathed a slow, deep breath. Inhale, hold, exhale. She forced her heart rate down, instilled a sense of calm. Focus, survive. Panic, die. “Come out now, and I will not harm you.”

A laugh echoed through the woods, seeming to come from all sides. “It isn’t your promise that keeps you from harming me, love,” came a voice. A man’s, playful and amused. Akemi was starkly reminded of the tone she heard from some of her relatives, talking about the idle games they would play with the admirers and hangers-on they cultivated out of their lessers.

This man was, figuratively and perhaps literally, looking down upon her. She kept her hand from her blade, let her blood chill as the deepest seas. “You speak confidently, for a man who won’t dare show his face.”

“Oh, where are my manners.” The man’s voice came vastly more distinct, now back and to one side. Akemi’s instincts slammed over the calm, and she whirled, hand ready to draw steel.

And she saw him. Pale of skin, and dressed in well-polished leather. He didn’t bother with a scrap of actual armor, his chest exposed and his limbs wrapped more decoratively over a dancer’s frame than anything protective. Deep purple hair fell to his neck, shimmering despite the minimal light from where he stood.

It was his feet that made things click. Not his feet themselves, per se, but the shadows that surrounded them. They were as dark as ink under his riding boots, sucking up all light, and running to the shaded side of the tree he stood by. The very ideal of a shadow hung beneath him, the example from which all lesser shadows were ultimately born. “Careful, love, keep staring and you might offend someone…Not me, of course, but your boyfriend there might get sad.”

Akemi held back any counter remarks. She gave the slightest gesture with her free hand, a brief flash of a signal to Clark; her companion moved behind her, keeping his own frame between this man and Jia. Nothing, no one, could be allowed to hurt the woman. “I will ask you once. Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked, keeping the emotion from raising into her voice. Calm, controlled. That was the way.

“Now now, isn’t that impolite,” the man said. He began to walk in a wide circle around them, his perfect shadow following him. Yet while the core shape followed his movements, its edges lurched out, trying to connect to any other sizable shadow within reach. “One should never ask a name before offering their own, you know. Didn’t they ever teach you that bit of etiquette, love? Or is it just that you enjoy a stern talking-to?”

“…My name is Akemi. I am Executioner of the House of the Wasp, and I will not ask a third time. Who are you and what do you want?” She turned to keep her gaze on him, keeping Clark and Jia behind her. Her grip tightened on her blade’s hilt, cold eyes never leaving the man for even a moment. He had power, and power within shadow. In an empty field, it wouldn’t be much, but in thick woods like this…he had an edge. An edge she didn’t like.

He gave a laugh, carefree and easy. “An Executioner, my, someone’s come far. But oh, don’t draw that nasty sword yet, I do follow my own rules, love. You gave me your name, so I’ll give you mine. You can call me Sable. Just Sable, if you please.”

Akemi’s breath nearly caught in her throat.

No House. No House, no master or nobility, no link to his definite power.

There were only a handful of reasons for that, and every single one of them was very, very bad. “And the second part of my question.”

“Ooh, technical, are you? Not asking it a third time after all…All I want is a bit of amusement from a kindred spirit,” he said, all smiles.

“There are no kindred spirits of yours here, ronin,” Clark said. He spat the word out like a curse, glaring fiercely at Sable. He had his caster firm in hand, and it was only the lack of word from his Lady that kept him from taking a shot then and there. The slightest gesture, the single sign that she was ready to take this to a fight, and he would bring on the opening salvo.

That got Sable to stop, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, blondie. Each and every one of you is very much a kindred spirit of mine.”

Akemi held her hand out, silencing Clark’s response. She wanted Sable’s focus solely on her, and without getting the ire up of her companions. “And yet you seem far from eager to explain why.

“Oh, it should be obvious, shouldn’t it, love? Who do you have in your little party…” he trailed off for just a moment, lifting up his hand with a single finger raised, “a girl caught up in a people’s rebellion that took her homeland’s House apart, from the way I saw it.”

Jia flinched, hiding herself behind Clark and clinging to the back of his robes. Guilt pulsed through her like poison, guilt and shame that nearly had her to tears.

A second finger went up, and Sable continued on. “A boy who clearly isn’t from the same lands as either of you…What did happen, blondie? Were you traded away like a pawn to protect a more important piece on the board? Or did you get tossed out so a peasant family would have one less mouth to feed?” he asked, his smile turning venomous.

Clark was already in the middle of raising his caster, raw fury coursing through his veins, when Akemi grabbed the thing in her own grip and held it still. She gave her companion a single look, and a shake of her head, forcing her own blood to stay as ice. Now, was not, the time. A shudder ran through Clark’s body, he glared at his Lady for just a moment…but loyalty, and self control, won out.

Akemi pressed the caster down, and turned her gaze back to Sable. “Which brings us to me, doesn’t it. Go on, then. Finish your tale.”

“Oh-ho, strong one, aren’t you love…And that’s what makes us the most alike of all,” Sable said, his lips returning to that smile, “all that power, and yet you aren’t even allowed to use it…I know how things are for the Executioner. Power without authority, just a sword for your family to point at problems. Oh, sure, they might say you’re noble, they might let you be who you want to be, they might even tell you you’re doing the right thing…But let me ask you this. When you go back home, do you have a home to yourself? Have you ‘earned’ that much?”

She hadn’t.

Yet she refused to let it show. She pushed her focus all the more, until her gaze was like a pair of icicles aimed for Sable’s own eyes. “If you are kindly done, I will be on my way. I have no time, nor desire, to play games with a ronin.”

He gave a theatrical wince, stepping back. “Oh, your words hurt, love. You haven’t even given me the good grace of asking where I’ve come fr—“

“The House of the Spider, or else you learned your power from one that was cast out themselves. You are not the first I’ve met with your tricks. Now, I will be on my way.” Akemi’s hand settled once again on her blade’s hilt, the implicit threat quite apparent. She would fight her way through if it came to it.

That earned a more genuine wince from the man, his mystery dissolved. “Tch…I suppose the fun is over for now, then, love. Alas, I’ll let you go for today…But I assure you, we’ll be meeting again, and soon.” Sable stepped back, into the dark side of a tree. The shadows swallowed up his body with ease, as if they were an open passage cut into the very world.

And then, before she could even react, he was gone, sweeping himself into the shadows. The darkness softened as soon as he was gone, turning to normal shade.

Akemi only breathed, only began to calm from her icy focus, several seconds later. She let out a long, slow breath that came out as frost, her body taking its sweet time in warming up. “Are you both alright?” she finally asked, looking to her companions behind her.

Jia managed a nod, only now looking out from behind Clark. “W-Who was he…?”

“Nobody important, and nobody worth our time…Come. The sooner we’re out of these woods, the less likely it is that he’ll find us again.” Akemi beckoned, marching forward. She wanted out of these woods, and she wanted far away from anywhere so barren that a ronin would be willing to enter. And most importantly, she wanted both of those things very, very quickly.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 02 – Escape to the Land of the Wasp

“Please don’t hurt me!” the woman cried out, already trying to get away from Akemi. She scrambled back, off the bedroll, and nearly took the thick canvas of the tent entirely down. “I didn’t have anything to do with it, I swear!” Her eyes darted back and forth, looking for any sign of others who might strike, any chance of escape, any and all information she could acquire.

Akemi took a deep breath, kneeling down with hands out and open. This was not what she expected, but it wasn’t the first time she’d had to cut through such fear. “Calm down, calm down…Nobody is going to hurt you,” she said, trying to keep her voice as soothing as she could. “You’re safe now.”

The woman sucked in air frantically, near to hyperventilating. Her heart must have been pounding in her chest, unable to slow down. “I-I…But…How can I trust you…?” she said, still not looking in any one direction for longer than she had to.

“I give you my word, on the House of the Wasp. I will not do anything to hurt you.” Akemi thumped her fist against her chest, right into the ribs, for emphasis. Her word carried weight, real weight, if she put it against her House like that.

And that got the woman to pause, finally letting her eyes actually settle on Akemi. She took in the figure kneeling before her from head to toe, her breath beginning to calm as she was forced to actually think. “The House of…Wh, who are you? What happened?”

Akemi had to suppress a wince. She hadn’t expected to get all the answers from this woman, but she’d hoped for more openness than that. “That was something I was hoping you could tell me…I’m Lady Akemi, of the House of the Wasp. I was sent here to investigate the fate of the House of Fire, when I found you unconscious. Do you remember your name?”

She nodded automatically, even as the wheels in her mind began to turn. “My name is Jia,” she started, only to trail off. She looked down, thoughtful, before it came to her. She looked to Akemi with new recognition, eyes wide and fearful. “Investigate…Y-You’re an Executioner.” Jia shrank away again, even with the vow she’d been given. An Executioner only came to do one thing, after all.

This time, Akemi couldn’t stop the wince from reaching her face. “…Yes, I am. I am Executioner to the House of the Wasp, and my task was to deal with anything left that could harm the local populace. Castoffs, or any other abandoned tools of war that could be dangerous, nothing else. You’re safe here.”

Akemi fully sat down, crossing her legs. “I came here alone, except for a companion who is off retrieving the things I left in the battlefield as we speak. My weapon is across the camp. If you don’t trust me, you don’t trust me, but I am the one who hauled you out of the rubble in Ember City and saw your unconscious body brought away from a ravenous army. And yes, I slew that army. I did it to protect you, to protect the villages that still stand in this region. Now, I’ve been honest with you…I’d like you to be honest with me.”

That last sentence stopped Jia cold. “What?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“When you were panicking, you said you ‘didn’t have anything to do with it’.” Akemi rested her chin on one fist, elbow on her knee, as she looked Jia right in the eye. “Whatever ‘it’ is, you wouldn’t try to separate yourself from it if you didn’t know about it. So, given you already have my word that I won’t harm you, and any authority who would actually care is either dead or long since run away…I’ll say again, that I was hoping you could tell me what happened. What actually happened, not the version where you’re a naive little village girl who never saw a thing, please.”

Jia went silent, looking down at her hands. Emotions played across her face, back and forth; thoughtful, guilty, afraid, over and over again. The seconds of silence stretched out, drawing a thick and potent tension into the room. Akemi began to consider adding more leverage, perhaps an offer of protection contingent on her honesty…

But just before she could speak, Jia finally looked up. “Okay,” she said, so very uncertain. “I’ll tell you…everything.”

She took a deep breath, just a bit ragged, before she began. “I, I don’t know how long everything was going on, honest…But there was this old man who’d come by the villages. He worked for the House, I think, but he never said. He would teach some of us who worked out in the fields these, what he called relaxation techniques…”

“Martial arts. Proper martial arts, I’m guessing,” Akemi said. “He slowed down the forms and called it meditation, is that right?”

“I didn’t know that then!” Jia snapped, a bit of that fear creeping into her voice before she caught herself. “I, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

Akemi just gave a nod. “Keep going.”

Jia took just a moment, to calm herself. “You’re right…He was teaching martial arts forms. I swear, I never would have done it if I’d known, I know the laws as well as anyone—“

Akemi held up her hand. “Nobody is here to punish you, Jia. The House of Fire is dead, or escaped. I don’t need to know all the ways you’re not at fault, because it no longer matters. I need to know what events led to an entire House collapsing in on itself, apparently without an invasion from one of the surrounding lands. Now, can we reach that part?”

“I…Of course. The o-old man was teaching people in every village the basics. But he’d, take some people aside, especially the men who were all pent up, and he’d teach them more. I never saw any of it, but…”


“But, I think he was teaching them real martial arts. Not slowing it down. And they’d come back even more pent up, and frustrated with things, and…”

“And angry at the House and the way things are?” Akemi asked.

“…How did you know?”

She let out a sigh. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening…They just typically get discovered before they can get very far. So, I’m guessing at some point, he gathered everyone up, and made them march on the House?”

Jia bit her lip, but finally nodded. “That’s right.”

“Do you know if this old man is alive?”

“He’s…dead,” Jia said. “I s, saw it happen. Sir Bei beheaded him.”

Akemi raised a single eyebrow. “And now we get to the other side of this…You haven’t told me why I found you in the wreckage of Ember City, instead of some farming village miles away. So why were you there, Jia?”

“I wanted to stop them! I, I thought, if I could…I don’t know, I just had to do something…I kept trying to catch up, trying to talk to them…The ones from my village would just try to make me leave, the others would threaten me, and…” Jia trailed off, a shudder running through her as she held herself.

And Akemi couldn’t leave her like that. She wrapped her own arms around Jia, holding the young woman close. “…You tried. That’s more than many would have done.” It was the most comforting thing she could offer, this situation completely out of her wheelhouse. She had to say something else, didn’t she? She couldn’t just let that be all she said. “Cry if you feel you must. Let it out. Nobody will judge you here.”

So cry Jia did. The emotions came pouring out, as fear and anger and frustration and resentment and sorrow all melted into teardrops. Crying became sobbing, and Jia finally just grasped Akemi back, holding tight so that her source of comfort couldn’t disappear on her.

They stayed that way, until Jia finally had no more tears to shed over what had transpired. She sniffled as it all came to an end, trying to suck everything back into her body and spirit. “I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean…I…”

Akemi just shook her head. “Can you return home? Will you be welcomed back if you do?”

“N, no…Not after what happened…”

“Do you have anywhere you could go? Any family in another town or village, or another land even, who would take you in?”

Jia’s silence spoke volumes.

Which left Akemi with only the one option, if she was going to do anything better than leave this girl to die. She had no authority here, no power to put Jia somewhere safe in a land now bereft of its leadership. There was only one place where she had that, at least to some extent. “I want you to come with us,” she said.

“What?” Jia shrank away at that, looking ever more uncertain.

So Akemi let go of her, letting the woman pull back. No good would come of forcing her. “If there’s nowhere for you to go that will take you in, then there’s no one to protect you. You already carry signs of power, Jia, but not enough to be anything more than a target. If you come with me, I can take you back to the land of the Wasp, find you somewhere safe. It won’t turn back the hands of time, but…It’s what I can offer you.”

“But…Why would you…?”

“Because I saved your life once, and I will not leave you to die after that.” Akemi stood up, brushing a bit of dirt off her pant legs. Actual pants, not robes or a dress or anything else a woman would wear if she were not a warrior of nobility. “Your choice is your own, but unless you have somewhere else to go…Now, whatever your decision, I have to discuss things with my comrade. Will you be alright?”

Jia stayed silent, at first, not sure which answer to give. But she finally nodded, and that was enough, at least for now.

In another tent entirely, one with more of an actual structure to make it into a good-sized room, the two stood at opposite ends of a table with a map laid out upon it. Clark frowned, uncertain and conflicted. “Are you sure about this, my Lady? If she really does have training, enough to give her power…”

“Then letting her leave on her own is a death sentence. You know it, I know it. A villager from the lands of a dead House, with the art? A House that died because of a people’s rebellion, no less? The first representative who finds her is going to take her head off her shoulders as soon as they see what she has in her!” Akemi said.

Clark winced. He knew she was right. “Even if we take her under our protection, it’s bound to be noticed…We already attract attention. And unless we try to skip the official channels…”

She shook her head. “Too much risk there. We go through the capitals, hit the checkpoints honestly, and I can lean on my House. If we get discovered trying to avoid it…No alliances will keep us from a fight, the sort with very poor odds.”

“I’m not sure advertising the presence of someone like her is going to be much better…”

“It’s the best option I have.” Akemi leaned over the map, freshly updated from their excursion out this way. The territories of the different local Houses, all laid out in clean geometric shapes. Every major city between here and her home town were all labeled cleanly, leaving only the countless little villages off. “However, we’ll keep her away from the secondary cities…All we have to pass through for our purposes is the capitals. I trust the heads of the Houses a lot more than I trust some two-coin noble barely allowed his own sword.”

He sighed. There wasn’t much else they could do, really, and they both knew it. “Passing through the same lands as before, then?”

She gave a nod. “Of course. Mantis, Wolf, Iron, we at least have some proper agreements with…Can you imagine what would happen if we tried to take her through Cloud territory? We’d be lucky if any of us even survived to become prisoners.”

“I just hope Brenda will see it that way…”

“Look at me.” Akemi gestured, and got Clark’s gaze to meet her own. “We’ve had a trade alliance with your sister since the both of us were children. There was a ceasefire in place since your mother’s time. The House of Iron is the one I’m least worried about, by far. Now, how long will it take us to pack up camp and be on our way?”

“At least a day, with just my work. If we make her help, all work as fast as we can, and leave the tents for last, maybe by sunrise with a few hours sleep to get by,” Clark said, letting the previous subject go.

She nodded. “We’ll aim for the afternoon, then. Get a proper night’s sleep and keep her from having to work herself too hard. I’ll take first watch tonight. You’ve been up and down the battlefield today, you deserve the extra rest.”

“Thank you, my Lady.”

“We shall see if you’re thanking me when I force you up for your watch.” Akemi gave him a grin, rolling up the map to pack it away. “But first, we all need a hot meal. Let’s see what we have that can stretch to feed another belly, shall we?”

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 01 – Attack on the remnants of Fire

Blood soaked the ground until it made crimson mud, pouring from countless bodies and pieces thereof.

Not the bodies of men, human men, those born to a mother and raised from childhood. These were things with flesh of clay, in the shape of men but little else. They bled, yes. They bled readily. But their minds were little greater than that of an ant, with nothing but an order and a mission to rattle around in that terra cotta skull.

These clay soldiers, wrapped in armor the same pale orange as their flesh, had been a small army. Now they were mere corpses, who would return to the earth in a matter of days. There was one sole figure who stood among them, a stark contrast. Soaked in blood, from top to bottom.

A river flowed swiftly through this place, a bit shallow, but enough. The blood that had been spilled into it had already been carried away, leaving it flowing clear once again. The figure peeled armor off piece by piece, setting them on the ground, until at the end a helmet came free. Jet-black hair flowed out, and that helmet was promptly used as a bucket. In the water, it rinsed clean rapidly, leaving it a stark white.

Up, and turn. The water fell, washing away so much blood, so much crimson that had seeped underneath the plating. No new scarlet fluid flowed forth.

There were no wounds from which it could escape its intended task. Freed of the thick coating of death, there stood a woman that had been underneath it all. Tall and slim, she bore no scars of battle; not a single warrior’s blade had breached her armor yet. Only the scalpels of surgeons had ever touched upon her body, to set things right.

She dipped the helmet into the water once again, pouring it over her frame for the second time. In this place that had seen so much chaos and battle, her actions were smooth, peaceful. Graceful, even, in the way that only one well trained in controlling her body’s every movement could be.

The woman checked herself over, once the poured water spilled upon the ground. She looked all over for more blood from the clay soldiers, or more dirt that had gotten under the armor. More things worth washing away, to return to cleanliness.

Only when she was satisfied did she set her helmet down, and pick up the first plate of her armor. The metal rinsed clean easily on the smoother plates and panels, exposing more of that white sheen with each piece. It was the more complex ones, the joints that interlocked to keep her mobile, that required scrubbing. She resorted to taking the shirt she wore under the armor, turning it into a makeshift rag to work the metal to its proper state.

It wasn’t glamorous, that much was true. Any of her cousins would have had a page, a squire, or just an outright servant do it. But she needed her companion doing something far more immediate, no matter how necessary the cleaning was.

Lady Akemi of the House of the Wasp stood upright, not caring who saw her, as she briefly looked over a piece of her armor. It gleamed when she lifted it up to the sun, water still dripping from it, with hardly a speck of dirt, blood or clay showing inside or out. She allowed herself a smile, setting the piece down with the others, before she turned her attention to a distant hill. “Clark!” she called, her voice carrying across the battlefield far stronger than mere vocal cords could manage, “What do you see?”

“More on their way!” his voice came back to respond. She saw him, little more than a speck upon the hill, turn and begin to move. She had some amount of time, but not much. Not enough to finish her armor, or strap it on once again. Akemi gave a single sigh, holding her shirt in her hand, and wrung it out as best she could. On went the still-damp fabric, the warm breeze coming cool through the material.

It was perhaps another minute before Clark, swift as he was, made his way across the battlefield to her. He was far less bloodied than she had been, but certainly more than she now was. “My Lady,” he started, scarcely even out of breath, “there’s at least another combat squad of the castoffs still alive. They started coming this way as soon as one of them spotted me.”

She nodded. “Of course they did. No specific numbers, then?”

“They were too distant to be sure…At least a dozen, maybe twice that.”

“I see.” Akemi allowed herself the briefest moment to look at her companion, nearly a servant on paper. Clark of the House of Iron. The angular features from his homeland were growing onto him now, as he entered his 20s, and were set off by his golden hair. Had he not been sworn to her, and adopted family on top of it, she would have found him quite striking indeed.

It said much, perhaps, that the blood still on his reinforced clothes were not one of the things to cut off such thoughts. She glanced from where he had come, then to their camp away from the battlefield. Distant, but there was the risk… ”Return to the camp for now. Check on our guest, and make sure she remains unharmed.”

“Is there anything else I can do to help?” he asked, the only way he knew how. He wanted to worry, despite knowing full well there was no need. And that just left him with an anxious desire to somehow be useful for more than speeding up the process.

Akemi gave a small smile, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you. But the most important thing is that she stay safe. Hold the fort, so that I may worry about the front and not be looking over my shoulder.”

Clark hesitated, for just a moment. Loyalty to her, the desire to carry weight, the training to follow orders, all struggled for dominance across his psyche. But there was only one answer that could win, one thing he could allow himself to say. “Okay. I’ll keep her safe.” He stepped back, a hand on the strap that held his own weapon, before he turned. His fit legs began to move, and he slid into a swift run towards the camp.

Which left Akemi alone once again. With the air too foul to breathe deep, thick with the stench of blood, she had to focus her mind through the rest of her body. Wide stance, arms at her sides, smooth and easy. Stand tall, stand strong, be a beacon upon the battlefield. That was the teaching she followed, the one that had been shown to her since she was but a child.

She was steady, and prepared, by the time they crested the hill. Castoffs were their name, now. The same things she had slain an army of already, their bodies already beginning to sink into the earth. Crafted soldiers with no master and no rallying call, they ran on half-remembered orders and raw instinct. If they were allowed to wander, they would inevitably raid some village as if it were an enemy camp, slay women and children like they were warriors.

Which was why they had to be stamped out. Why she was here. Why she existed, why she fought. Her duty, her privilege, and her noble task, all wrapped up in one. Akemi watched them briefly, gauged distance, and began to move.

She was not as fast as Clark, perhaps, as she ran. But that man was a born sprinter whose training had focused on raw speed and stamina, who could keep pace with a horse being treated kindly if he went all out. No, she merely moved at her own pace, a swift run by any civilian’s standards to be sure, as she prepared to meet the mass.

Her hand lashed out, before she reached them. And her sword, scabbard and all, leapt from where her armor rested upon her silent command. It spun through the air in a flash, the scabbard as bright as the rest of her armor, until it met its mistress’s grasp. Her weapon, the one thing that she held the true authority to command.

And the title that came with it. “By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked for death!” she bellowed, the full force of her power in those words. There was no time to play around, not this time. No, she gripped the hilt of her sword tight, the leather creaking under her strength, and she swung with all her might.

Fully three of the castoffs, the clay soldiers of the House of Fire, had their heads separated from their bodies. Blood spewed out in a spray of mock-gore, already staining her blade. Long and broad, with a flattened top, it was forged and infused with one task; the death of those who could not be allowed to live. Not a blade to face an equal down with in a duel, but a weapon to use on someone helpless to end them in a single swing.

It was that blade that she wielded, as she pushed into the thick of the squad. When one swung at her with sword high, she moved low and split its torso open. When another tried to stab, she simply twisted around the blade, and kicked it back hard enough that the soldier broke on impact.

The castoffs were slow, compared to a trained warrior. They were dumb, compared to a duelist. Their one advantage was numbers, and that they were never meant to face someone like her. Akemi had been trained for this, to be the executioner. And it was a title that did not come lightly.

One, two, three fell in quick succession. Another pair took a single broad slash that went from the shoulder of one, to the hip of its twin. She fought, she warred, as a woman on a mission. A mission that demanded nothing less than total eradication.

How long did it take? A minute? Two? Perhaps five, if she was generous. She had left her timepiece with her other things, and could not say. All she knew for sure was that it was over swiftly, and once again she was covered in blood not her own. A fresh set of clay bodies lay in pieces around her, another reminder of a fallen House returned to the earth.

She swung her blade out once, and then again in the opposite direction. Blood was flung from each side of the weapon with immense force, the pressure of each strike cutting a gouge into the ground that the fluid sprayed into an instant later. Akemi turned away from the resulting pattern, the same one she left on many battlefields, and returned the sword to its scabbard.

The camp still awaited. She looked at it in the distance, watching for any sign that anything might be wrong. Only when she was satisfied that nothing was amiss, did she begin to move once again. There might have been more castoffs still around, more of the land’s clay soldiers, but not a one remained that was seeking a fight. She would scour the region for another several days, normally, to clear out any caches that had been hidden away.

But this time, all that would depend on the woman she discovered. Akemi contemplated what she would do, what she would say, as she made her way to the camp. She would need a careful, delicate hand, to handle this as kindly as possible. And depending on what the woman knew…Well, that could change a great many things.

She slowed to a walk when she at last reached the camp, entering its gates with arms out wide. A modest basecamp stood before her, originally built as a forward location for forces of the House of Fire and left in the wake of their fall. “I have returned,” she said, firmly announcing her presence. The last thing she needed was Clark firing a bolt from his caster before he could see it was her.

And indeed, there he was, eyes still on the gate. He let out a sigh of relief, hefting the crossbow-like thing onto his shoulder. “An easy battle, then?” he asked, grabbing a modest barrel of water with his free hand. He hefted it up, bringing it over to his lady.

“Of course. A small handful, nothing more.” She poured some of the water over herself, just enough to wash the blood away. The rest they needed for drinking, at least until they could reach town. “Any change from our guest?”

He shook his head. “None. Breathing, but she’s still unconscious. Do you think something happened to her…?”

“Perhaps…Hold things while I check on her.” Akemi passed him her blade, letting her body simply drip-dry, as she made her way to the spare tent they had prepared. When she opened the flap and peered inside, there was the woman, just as she’d left her.

Akemi looked her over once she’d stepped in, looking for the slightest hint of any injury. This young woman was not much of a warrior, if one at all; slightly chubby, no obvious scars, and while her hands had callouses, they were the sort you built up with simple labor; a far cry from the ones on Akemi’s own hands, made from years sparring and earning the right to wield a weapon.

Whoever she was, Akemi doubted she was more than a villager, a civilian. Some poor thing caught up in whatever battle had taken this land’s leaders. She sighed, finally kneeling down next to the bedroll. She wasn’t getting answers, not like this. Yet still she knelt for a time, with no better option but to wait.

A time later, by which point Akemi had resorted to retrieving a book from her personal supplies, the woman finally opened her eyes. She let out a groan, one that caught Akemi’s attention. Setting the book down, she put her hand upon the woman’s shoulder. “Careful, careful, don’t try to move…” she started, ready to do all the sorts of things she might normally do when finding wounded like this.

But when the woman turned, and got one look at Akemi’s face, she let out a scream of raw terror the likes of which Akemi had never heard before in her life.