Akemi put the situation together swiftly in her mind, in those few precious moments it took her to see everything and call upon her blade. Surrounded and ambushed, in the thick of the woods. The moon was high in the sky, still the middle of the night, its light so very meager. Clark leapt out of his own tent, Steel Shooter in hand. Jia, already on her feet, looked to her with horror in those eyes. Of course.
Of course they would attack during Jia’s watch, when she scarcely had the awareness to feel a warrior of nobility in their midst. Of course they would use an ambush, instead of a challenge. Of course they would bring backup, enough forces to actually slow them down and keep them vulnerable. Of course one, more, thing, had somehow managed to go wrong for her.
Of. Damned. Course.
It would have been easy to rage. Satisfying to leap into the woods, to start striking at the summoned forces and try to chew through them all. She had no doubt that she could, too. But no. No, she needed control. She needed focus. She needed to bring that rage into a honed edge, not a blunt club.
Jia, looking all around as she too spotted the shapes of figures in the trees, began to shudder in fright. “I…I-I’m sorry! I didn’t, didn’t know there was…”
“Don’t be sorry. Be ready to fight,” Akemi said, her voice so cold the air came from her lips as fog. Focused. Controlled. Weaponized. Wild wrath would get her, and both of them, killed. She would keep it contained, keep it harnessed, and use it very carefully to make this man-shaped trash bleed.
She turned her attention upwards and forward, to where that chain had been yanked towards. “SHOW YOURSELF, you honorless dog! If you intend to try and kill me, at least make the attempt with some dignity!”
Silence, from her attacker. Just the sound of her campfire slowly working through the embers, the wind through the trees, the growls and shifting forms of the small army all around. Akemi’s ears strained, her grip tightening on the hilt of her sword. She needed something. A sign. A hint. Some concept of where her foe would strike from next and there!
Muscle memory pushed her through it before conscious thought could take over. In later days, looking over it, she would be able to assemble the pieces into a logical whole; a tiny flicker of light, the slightest rattle of chains, and then that blade was coming at her from a firmly different angle, at least halfway to her side.
In the moment, though, all she knew was the aftermath of that single instant. Her own body ducking, letting the attack sail over her head and bury itself into the ground. Her scabbard wrapped around and into the chain, locking it down in her grasp so her attacker couldn’t just yank it away. And finally, both hands gripping the sheathed sword, wrenching with all of her might.
The figure hit dirt in a crouch, whipping their arm to send a wave of physics down the length of the chain. It was enough to unhook the first loop of her wrapping, the part she’d been straining against to hold it in her control. A single sharp tug started the rest sliding, and it came back to the figure in a rush, drawn deep into some hidden holster.
But, they were exposed. In the open. Akemi stared them down, and they stared back, not returning to the hidden safety of the trees. She heard Clark raise his weapon, aiming right for the figure’s chest. Even Jia moved into a fighting stance, the girl trying to hide her fear in the strength of a good fistfighter’s pose.
Akemi held her wrath, her fury, and kept it ready. There were pieces that needed to be played out, elements she needed by unspoken rules of nobility. “Give me your name.” No request, no asking. It was a command, an order to return things to the way of duels, all brought with the ice-cold weight of her status. Even here, even with everything that happened, that still meant something.
“…Gerulf of the House of the Wolf,” he said at last, his voice deep and gruff. For all he’d come at her with stealth, he stood tall and broad as he rose, built of thick muscle and ferocious power. Had they both been ordinary, mere peasants and mortals, he certainly would have been menacing. Even from here, she could see he would loom over her, and she was not a petite woman.
But they were not peasants. They had training both, war and duels in their past and in their hearts. A mountain of a man did not scare her, and his army, the forces surrounding them? “Clark. Jia. Crowd control. Gerulf is mine.” More fog from her mouth as she spoke, her control focused and intense. She needed everything held in hand, everything ready, for the singular moment it could be unleashed. She heard the two acknowledge her, ready to fight, but paid them no further mind. She had given them jobs. They would accomplish them. That was the only possibility.
Gerulf let out a laugh, a deep weighty thing that shook the air like the beating of a drum. “Confident, for a heretic.”
That was what they were calling her now, was it? Heretic? Traitor? When they were willing to send assassins to strike in the dead of night, with no honor or humanity to be found?
So be it. She would give him no kindness. Akemi marched forth, blade in her hand, daring him to strike. To try and make the first blow in the duel.
When that chain inevitably rocketed for her, she smacked it away in the drawing of her sword. “By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked for death!” And before he could even draw it back, before Gerulf had a chance to react, she sprinted for him as fast as her body dared move. She was on him in an eye blink, metal of her sword clashing with a bracer on his free arm. Wind whipped past them both as it caught up to her, coming off in broad whirls in the echo of her follow-up strikes.
All around her, the silence turned to chaos. The summoned forces moved in, a cacophony without the order of a properly commanded group. She saw one for just a moment, in the corner of her eye; wood bundled and lashed together in brown-grey vines, everything from broad strips of bark to thin kindling forming a mockery of musculature. Made of the forest, with little more than their bare hands grasping for all they could get.
But she was not their target. They would aim for those not already embroiled in battle, Clark and Jia both. Already, she heard the sound of Clark loosing energetic bolts into the masses as they came for him, and even the heavy impacts of Jia’s strikes. Rough just from the sound of them, not in proper form or timing…But there was force behind the blows. Strength that shattered the wood, that broke those summoned forces.
“Keep your eyes on ME, heretic!” Gerulf brought both fists down, knives at the end of chains gripped in each hand. The pair came down in a flash, with Akemi only just leaping out of their way before she was split open like a fish. She couldn’t afford to lose her focus. If Clark and Jia needed her, they would cry out. Nothing less could be allowed to distract her.
So Akemi brought her blade forward again, pulled her will to a razor’s edge, and moved. No hesitation. No delay. No damned mercy, not in the thick. She came into his guard as fast as she’d left his reach, and she attacked with all the ferocity she had in her. A swing to force him to block high, a grapple of his attempted counterattack, a broad swipe down his arm with the Blade’s length.
All she cut against was chain and hardened leather, but it was enough. It put some fear into him. He kicked at her with a heavy boot, trying to move back and force her away in the same motion.
It didn’t work. She stuck on him. She stuck on him, and she kept fighting. It meant staying too tight in his guard to use the Blade, so she just dropped it, slamming his jaw with the heel of her palm until she heard something pop. She’d been teaching Jia everything the girl knew about how to fight, but it did not include all that Akemi knew. The things her former instructor had shown her, how to break a body and a spirit without the aid of your chosen weapon. The tools of an Executioner, intended to be wielded against heretics.
There was some irony there. She ignored it, focusing only on what she could get. Gerulf wore heavy leathers, solid armor against most weapons. But it didn’t have the locking frames of plate; Had she been in her own armor, it would have been impossible to break her arm without first shattering the entire elbow joint. It simply did not bend far enough.
The leather and furs he wore, had no such system. So when she applied the overwhelming strength of her training, there was nothing to stop her. His elbow went rather unlike his jaw, in that she got a crack of bone over the pop of a joint. But the scream was the same. The swipe from his good arm, trying to cut her throat, was fast. But it was also clumsy, and when she sidestepped it, he left himself open a moment too long.
It went like that. Once the honor fell away, once the kindness and dignity of a proper match was no longer on the table, Akemi was using things that Gerulf simply didn’t have the training to counter. For all he put on the show of being a massive and brutal warrior, he had been trained in the formal battles, the declarations of intent and the flow of an honorable duel.
She had been trained, rather ferociously, to exploit every gap and flaw that sort of mentality had. Intimidation did nothing without the rough and tumble skills to back it up, and Gerulf didn’t have them. Which was how she finally threw him through one tree and into the next, one arm broken and one leg ripped out of its socket. The oak fell to one side as she called upon her Blade, letting the hilt reach her hand. “I will give you one chance, Gerulf of the House of the Wolf.”
He popped his jaw back into place, gritting through the pain, as he glared at her. Blood dripped from his mouth from the culmination of it all, and he had to spit some out to talk clearly. “Go fuck yourself, heretic.”
Her grip tightened on her hilt. “One, chance, to live. Mercy for mercy. My life, and by extension those in my care, for yours. Take the chance to survive, you damned fool.” The one bit of honor she wasn’t going to drop. Fighting the way she had, wouldn’t start a war. Killing a man without his fair chance? That could.
So the offer. This time, it was a genuine thing. The one way he would walk out of this alive. It wasn’t like Arc, when it was the way out of the fight neither of them wanted to have. No, this was truly his last shot.
But instead, he looked her right in the eye, and spat another mouthful of blood hard enough to spray it against her chest. “I said go fuck your—“
His head left his shoulders before he could finish the sentence.
It hit the ground several seconds before the tree his corpse rested against, the Blade of the Executioner having split the trunk near enough in half for gravity to finish the job.
Akemi turned, not looking at the blood squirting from a stump, not looking at the body. She would not be giving him the honor of a burial, would not be giving his people and kin the grace of not worrying about his restless spirit. Not with the summoned forces, the wooden men, already beginning to shift. Order was falling, instinct taking over, without a will to guide them.
So Akemi gave her sword a single flick of the wrist to loose the blood from it, and with a fresh cry, charged once more into the fray.