I hate making these kinds of posts

So by now you’ve probably noticed the lack of a new story. That’s no accident. Well, not on your part, at any rate.

Short version, between a thick school semester with multiple creative classes, a deep frustration with self promotion, and about half of a novella that was nowhere near up to par…

I’m just burnt out right now. I need to pull myself back to center, make sure I’m doing the thing I should be doing, and then execute on it with a confidence that can enable me to actually try to push my work and get others to read it.

So…I hope I come back, basically. But right now if I try to force it, I’ll make it even less likely that I ever do.

Hope to see you soon.


A Land of House and Warriors: Legend EPILOGUE – Akemi

In the retrospect, in times after, Akemi would piece together what had happened. The fact that having Clark and Jia both following her, fighting in her name, had crossed the line to real authority. That having that authority, had given her the command enough to draw forth soldiers of her own. That training Jia properly had changed the script for them all, had turned the three of them from the arm of the House of the Wasp, into something new.

But in that moment, all Akemi cared about was finishing this. If there was no home for Jia here, if there was none for her anymore, then all that mattered was leaving in one piece. So she punched Miyako, her cousin by blood and little else, with enough force to break a normal person’s jaw right open.

As it was, all it did was manage to make Miyako stumble back, but it was enough. Enough of an opening, with her focus caught between the two battles more than Akemi’s own, to be leapt upon. And leap upon it, leap upon her, was exactly what Akemi did. More bone soldiers came up around her, either pushing back Miyako’s forces or joining in the raw attack. Any one of them would have been child’s play for Miyako to stop. But all of them, at once, with Akemi at the head? That was something different.

Strike after strike rained down, Akemi swinging the Blade of the Executioner with all her training and all of her strength. The New Moon screamed under the assault, the metal forced to endure all that force put upon it again and again. She could feel the edge yielding, the damage she was doing to the weapon. And she knew Miyako could feel it too.

That armor fared little better, when her blows got through the princess’s guard. It was strong, reinforced with authority and ordered to protect its wearer, but strength could only do so much. Akemi had cut through worse, had poured her hate through the Blade of the Executioner more than once. If Brenda had told them what had happened, it would have come with a warning. Miyako would know. Would know what Akemi had done to the Steel Icon, a weapon and armor bound as one.

It was that certain knowledge, and the raw fear that came with it, that forced Miyako’s hand. She managed to catch the Blade of the Executioner a second time in the fight, grappling both of Akemi’s hands to try and keep it under control. The raw force of her will pushed out, and the bone soldiers staggered, unable to maintain their fight without their leader’s momentum. “TO ME!” she cried, pulling what was left of her forces. She needed backup. She needed more targets for Akemi’s wrath, needed to at least try for something, anything.

And then Akemi let the Blade of the Executioner go. She let it fall into ink-stained grass, as she instead fought Miyako’s grapple. Her grip on the princess’s wrist forced the New Moon from her hand in turn. A kick into the side of Miyako’s knee got around the built-up armor joint almost entirely, twisting the one of flesh underneath. A dirty blow, the kind of thing her teacher, her predecessor, had kept from the rest of the House. Never assume anyone can be trusted until they’re sworn to you. Not blood, not friends, not kings. We are on the edge of everything the others build, and that makes us dangerous.

Maybe all that bitterness had been for a solid reason.

But that was a thought for later. A thought Akemi would reflect on, in the days to come. In the moment, she threw her screaming cousin to the ground, let her land on the bad leg as the soldiers descended upon her. In one hand, she called up the Blade of the Executioner. In the other, she scooped the New Moon off the ground, that steel wailing in a resonant hum, trying to leap from her hand. It rejected her authority, would not fight for her, would not cut flesh in her name.

She didn’t need it to. She needed it gone. Akemi simply threw the thing as hard as she could into the wall, through the wood, into the stone, embedded to the guard. A flash of motion from the Blade of the Executioner, from her sword, carved open three of the soldiers. Another strike took two more. A whirling kick, sent one into a pair of its comrades, let her see the exhaustion and wounds on her own people. Clark and Jia, on their feet, but ready to keel over, just staring at what was left of the fight. Her own bone soldiers couldn’t even get in to help, their instincts overridden by a base yearning to not fall.

Miyako’s forces, focused entirely on Akemi, lasted seconds. When it was over, when ink spilled onto the ground so thick the green of grass could not be seen, when Miyako struggled to get to her feet, to call her blade with enough will to draw it from its resting place…

That was when Akemi finally planted her boot onto her cousin’s breastplate, and pinned her to the ground. The Blade of the Executioner sank into the grass, needing no point to drive through the soil, as she brought it down a hand’s width from Miyako’s head. “We’re done.”

Miyako stared, eyes wide, beyond fear. All the way into terror, a raw panic at what she’d unleashed. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“Mercy for mercy,” Akemi said. “Our lives, for yours. A good bargain, and you will take it. Or I will decide your other leg is no longer part of the deal…Now, you will let us leave. And then you will do three things for me, as a final favor to your own blood.”

“…What?” Miyako managed. Confusion? Acceptance? Not even she knew, not after the shift. Not after the agony running through her leg, not after the cry of her sword unable to help her.

Akemi raised a finger. “You will tell my father I am sorry, that I wanted to see him one more time, and I hope to one day see him again.” The second finger. “You will tell my blood brother that I will welcome him with open arms, when I have settled my affairs. We both know he will end up with my title, and the freedom to do so.” And the third finger. “And you will tell your father, that they are off limits. You want me? You come for me. Or I will break him the way I broke you, and keep them safe by the sword.”

She stood, pulled her sword from the dirt and glanced behind her. The New Moon quivered in the wall, trying and failing to be wrenched free by Miyako’s feeble order. Without giving it a second look, Akemi walked from the site of battle, ignored the weight of fatigue in her limbs, and hefted her pack in one hand. “Do not be a fool and force me to throw your life away, Miyako.”

She walked, and didn’t stop, as she approached Clark and Jia both. “I must ask you both to walk again, or else cast me away.”

They left, all three of them, with a stunned Princess Miyako of the House of the Wasp in their wake.

“I know you can hear me, Sable! Show yourself!” Akemi bellowed into the night sky, away from the protection of the campfire. She stood without her armor, body still nursing some bruises from the fight, and alone. It was the third night she had done this since they had begun their travels outward, the third night she took the risk upon herself to try and get a better plan than simply going back the way they’d came.

Their journey outward from the Lands of the Wasp was only just keeping up with the pace of their journey into it, from the more extensive wounds Jia and Clark had sustained. They had been pushed to their edge; Clark’s arm still needed to be in a sling, and Jia had been nursing a limp. Things were improving, but simply not fast enough if something were to go wrong.

All the more reason to make this work, to limit how much further they had to travel to get to somewhere that wouldn’t be actively hunting them down. Akemi waited, but when only silence greeted her, she finally planted her feet, and took a deep breath. To hell with it. Who would they send, if they found her? Who would have the jewels to come at her after the stories Miyako would tell? “SABLE! NOW, you thrice-damned coward!” she cried, at the top of her lungs, with enough force and volume to damn near command the dead.

For the third time, Akemi stood there alone, and waited. That ronin would not go far, not with a debt hanging over his head…And not with the interest he had shown, no doubt wanting something like this to happen to her. For her to be as much a ronin as he. He wouldn’t deny himself the perverse thrill, not for long. That much, she knew.

It took nearly a minute for a shape to step out of the darkness, and several more seconds for that shape to be Sable. Shirtless as ever, flaunting his good looks and his supposed lack of need for any genuine protection. Yet he had those knives of his hooked to his belt, one hand resting on a hilt. She had him scared, and fighting not to show it. “Well well, lo—Akemi,” he corrected himself, “I never expected to see this. What happened to your little friends, hmm?”

“You want out of your debt to me, Sable.” It wasn’t a question. It didn’t need to be.

He paused. “Calling in a favor already, are we? I suppose I can guess…Ferry somewhere, is that it?”

She gave a nod. “Unclaimed territory. Not the former Lands of Fire, it’s too obvious. Somewhere else to stake a claim.”

That got Sable to raise an eyebrow. “Not planning to sell yourself to some other lord or lady, I take it? Finally seeing things my way?”

Wisps of frozen mist left Akemi’s lips, despite the warmth of night this time of year. Focus, center, control. She needed that damned head attached to his shoulders, no matter how much she wanted to rip his tongue out and feed it to him. “I’d be right to blame you for the entire lot of this, Sable. Give all of us ferry, or I will find something more dangerous to use your life on.”

“More dangerous than a midnight ride through countless pieces of territory, with a second ronin, the heretic girl and the blonde? Surely you can’t be serious.” He saw the shift in her, the active effort to avoid lashing out, and it was enough to get him to take a step back.

“Don’t tempt me…Now swear on your life, you will do this favor. You’ve seen me fight. You’ve seen the aftermath. Don’t think you could get away with a betrayal.”

Sable winced, putting both hands up in front of him. “Easy, easy. I’m many things, but I’m not a traitor, I’ll have you know…But fine. We’ll have to move quickly. This is always a little dangerous, and that’s with me all by my lonesome.”

Three days, it had taken to force Sable to appear before her. Three more were used up on the escape. Flitting from shadow to shadow, the ronin dragging them along. They moved as fast as horses and as silent as phantoms, from sundown to sunup, in nearly a straight line through whatever they had to go through. No fights, no slowing down more than they had to.

It took them through forests and grasslands, through rocks and through sand, to an unloved and unwanted coast. Their last exit took them out of the shadow of a rock at sunset, the sound of lapping water reaching Akemi’s ears before her eyes came back on. She gripped Clark’s hand firm, pulling him out of the shadows behind her. “What is this place?”

“What you asked for. Unclaimed territory.” Sable, through first of them all as their guide, swept his arms out wide. “This beach is the best I can do on such short notice, loves. It’s not much, but the House of Sky to your North are fairly peaceful, and the House of Stone down that way have some good-sized cities to disappear into. If you want better, you need to give a man time to find it…”

Jia dropped herself into the sand almost as soon as she had her bearings, and realized she wouldn’t be hitting anything too painful in the process. “What good is it, then?” she asked, sucking in air. Her stamina was miles beyond what it had been, but she could still only take so much, and it was rather less than her more experienced comrades. “We’re just hiding in the open, here, aren’t we?”

“No.” Akemi, of no House and no Land, set her pack down. “We’re not hiding. Ronins hide, sellswords hide, whatever you call them, they’re all hiding the same,” she said, refusing to look at Sable. “I will not be a ronin.”

Clark put things together first. “My Lady, are you sure…And here? I mean…”

“Find me a better place, and I will change my mind.” She pulled open the pack, looking through what she had left. Their rations were long gone, of course, consumed and then some just to get them this far. First out came her sword. Then, her tools to maintain her equipment, to forge metal. Much would need to change. “Your debt is paid, Sable. Leave with your life your own, and do not darken my doorstep again.”

The ronin paused, his hair caught aflow by the ocean breeze. “You’re serious. You’re actually doing to do this…I thought you wanted somewhere to keep your head low, not…”

“Not what?” Jia asked. “What is this plan, what are you supposed to change your mind about?” The scared peasant girl was long gone. Now there was just a restless warrior without much cause, and with far fewer answers than she liked.

Akemi laid out her things, drawing the Blade of the Executioner from its scabbard. “If no House will take us, and if a ronin is a warrior with no House to call her own, then we make a House. This land is ours to claim, and we will forge something upon it. We will fight, we will war, until we have our place or die.”

“…What? That’s, we, we can’t…”

“That’s how this works. We do this, and have a chance. We act as ronin, it is simply fight until we die, no other option.” Akemi took her sword, her last real link to the House of the Wasp, and gripped it tight as she stood. When Sable stepped back from her, putting some solid space between the two of them, she paid it no mind. Her focus was only on a point in the distance, where the sun met the horizon.

And, staring at that setting sun, she began to speak. “Heavens above, earth below, LISTEN WELL! I am Akemi of the House of the Wasp, she who claimed her title of Executioner! I relinquish the title, I cast off my House, my allegiance! The Blade of the Executioner is my own, loyal only to my very soul! I stand alone but for those loyal to me, and claim their loyalty as my authority! Those who would follow me into the lone wilds, are proof of my right to command! Acknowledge that right, grant me that authority firm, or so help me, I will take it!” She pointed the Blade of the Executioner to that sun, its rounded end aimed right for the heart of the orb, and waited.

There was nothing. No protest, no strike upon her for reaching beyond her grasp. The only sign of anything at all, was perhaps the most simple; the sigil of the wasp, cast onto the base of her hilt as solid metal, cracked like thin clay. A brush of her thumb took it aside in crumbles and shimmering dust, and left nothing. No sign of who she had once been.

Sable stared, his heart pounding a mile a minute. “You actually did it. You *lived *through that.”

Jia’s own mouth hung open. “That…What was that…?”

Clark took a deep breath, knowing what this meant. There was no going back, ever, now. Not for any of them. “What’s next, my Lady?”

“This, was clearing the slate. And now we put something better upon it.” Akemi looked to the edges of this unclaimed territory, and then to the sword in her hand. Both needed new definition. Both needed a lot of work.

But Akemi of the House of the Wind, certainly had a pleasant ring to it.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 13 – A home apart

Princess Miyako of the House of the Wasp. Second heir to the throne, behind only her older brother, and only so long as he could continue bettering her in spars. Not as tall as Akemi, but of a slim build herself, one that belied her own strength. Her formal armor, dark with gold trim in the style of their House sigil, stood in a ferocious contrast to Akemi’s.

She stood alone, the warrior princess through and through. “Explain what she is doing here, cousin.” Miyako did not need any grand gestures of demand, or any threats. Her words would be obeyed.

Akemi felt a flicker of tension run through her own body, a single glance confirming Clark and Jia were the same way. She was nearly clutching at his arm, clearly having to fight her instincts just to try and stand confidently.

This would have to work. They’d come too far. Akemi took a breath, looking her cousin firm in the eye. “The House of Fire is gone, Miyako. The rumors we’d heard were more than we could imagine. A dissident had whipped up opposition in the peasantry, and stoked a rebellion.” She gestured to Jia with a wave of her hand. “Jia of the House of Fire, was the only survivor I could find in the wreckage.”

“And what do you intend to do with her? Have her adopted into the family?”

“A branch family. Jia was of minor nobility when the House of Fire still stood. She could do well minding the tribute from one of our towns,” Akemi said.

“I see…” Miyako stepped forward. “Keep her out of trouble, away from anything important, hmm?” she asked, walking past Akemi, to where Clark and Jia both stood. And then, when she was just a few feet from them both, she lunged forward that last step, grasping for a sword that wasn’t there.

Clark stood stiff, refusing to jump at the surprise.

Jia, was another story. First she flinched, old instincts flaring up. Then she brought her fists up in a fighting position, shifting her feet to try and get some real stability, as newer instincts tried to smother those old ones.

When she finally came to conscious thought, an eye blink later, it was with her staring down Miyako with knuckles raised. “I…T-That is…”

“…Cousin. Would you care to explain why a noble from a completely different House has the same unarmed stance you do?” Miyako asked, refusing to take her own eyes off of the girl.

Clark and Jia both froze, eyes wide. It was enough for Miyako to give just a hint of a smile, watching them both. “It seems I’ve hit on something sensitive.”

Akemi squashed down her own reaction, forced her control and brought herself to the point of ice-cold focus. “Jia was only a minor noble, she barely had any real knowledge in an art. I had to give her proper training to defend herself while we traveled.”

“You had to, is that it? And what exactly would she have to defend herself from, might I ask?”

“You know as well as I that the roads are dangerous. It’s why I get sent out in the first place,” Akemi said, bits of fog leaving her lips with every breath.

“Mm, yes, so you do.” Miyako turned around, eyeing Akemi. “And somehow, cousin, you find the only noble of the House of Fire that this peasant rebellion missed…That’s certainly lucky.

“If you are accusing me of something, Miyako, do it openly. I am in no mood for games after this journey.”

She paused, for just a moment, caught between her own control and an indignant rage. But that fury settled, brought under Miyako’s own command. “Always so direct, cousin…Very well. Tell me why you trained a peasant in combat, a rebellious peasant no less, and you at least might live.”

Frost formed on Akemi’s gauntlets, clenched into fists. “You accuse me of crimes with no evidence, you threaten the lives of me and mine…Explain yourself at once, Miyako.”

“Evidence? What more evidence do I need?” Miyako asked, letting out a laugh. “Queen Brenda of the House of Iron herself sent a messenger pigeon with word of what you did, cousin! Or did you think you would somehow get away with it? Not face any consequences for assaulting a precious ally of the House of the Wasp? No…Had you begged, you might have paid for your life with these two accomplices…But now I see you’re as stubborn as ever, even in the face of death.”

Akemi spared herself the slightest flickers of eye movement. The guards were gone, to one side. To the other, Clark was tense, ready to call up the Steel Shooter. And poor Jia was having her hopes and dreams ripped out from under her. The promise of a peaceful return was gone.

There were a few people Akemi could have blamed, in that moment. Herself, perhaps? Brenda, never letting that grudge go from adolescence? Twice-damned Sable, whose saving his own skin started all of this? All of them were excellent options.

But as her gaze came back to Miyako, she had no time for any of that. The princess ripped her own formal cape off her shoulder with one hand, as the other called out the blade that she’d been hiding beneath it. The weapon spiraled around to her grasp, and in a single eye blink, she’d whipped it out of the scabbard and brought it down upon Akemi. “Fade away in the gaze of the New Moon!” she cried, her blade humming in recognition of its name.

Her blade, that had not split Akemi’s skull open as it should have. Akemi gripped it between her hands, eyes wide. So, reasoning was gone, then. Only one thing was still to come. “CLARK! JIA! STAY ALIVE!” She couldn’t let herself worry about them. Couldn’t bear to focus on them. This wasn’t a fight she’d won before. Miyako was her better, in all those sparring matches and formal duels.

But those also had rules. Akemi slammed her boot into the princess’s stomach, forcing her back. Metal screamed against metal as the New Moon sword slid out of her gauntleted grasp, wisps of vapor coming off from the friction. The frost was already fading, Akemi letting those emotions loose. The anger, the stubborn will, all the things she’d need to survive the next five minutes.

Her thumbs hooked the straps of her pack, and she simply ripped the fine leatherwork open with a pair of jolts. The thing fell to the ground, her own blade already whirling out of its depths. She caught the hilt, swinging hard enough to force the scabbard off, and pointed the rounded end firmly at her cousin. “Princess Miyako of the House of the Wasp…By the Blade of the Executioner, you are marked for death!”

And with everything upon the line, her every scrap of will burning bright, Akemi charged yet again into the fray.

A dueling ground had turned into a battlefield in moments. Jet-black swordsmen, more iconographic than true representations, swarmed upon her comrades in droves. Miyako didn’t bother to give them proper orders, to put some sense of command into them; she simply imparted her hate and her wrath, and let them act as animals.

There was no time to do anything more. Again and again, the New Moon struck against the Blade of the Executioner, two metals ringing out. The wind whipped up around Miyako and Akemi at the points of conflict, the moments when they simply resorted to wild swings to try and get through each other’s guards. Yet those moments simply left the most minor of wounds, scrapes on armor and scratches on faces. Sheer will, fury and desperation all had each of the two moving as fast as the other, neither able to get any kind of decisive blow.

The sounds of the other battle rang in Akemi’s ears, even as she forced herself to pay them no mind. The glimpses, the tiniest flickers she could catch in the midst of going against her own cousin, were a bloodbath; soldiers fell one after the other, if not from Clark’s shooting, then from Jia’s fists. The raw need to survive put decisive force into the girl’s blows, letting her strike with the ferocity to shatter the summonings, to spill their ink on the ground and break them down. With every one they brought low, with every errant one Akemi slew by the simple happenstance of her own strikes, that was one more bit of effort Miyako had to put forth to replace it.

And even with all of that, all Akemi could manage to do was hold steady. She needed a way to change the script…She couldn’t get in close enough to any of her alternatives, to shatter bones and all the things she’d been taught to do in a situation like this.

Which left getting into Miyako’s head. She caught a swing of the New Moon against her own blade, perilously holding it without a proper guard to speak of. “Admit it, this is how you’ve always wanted things to end!”

Miyako hesitated, for the tiniest of moments, as she brought her sword back for a fresh strike. “I take no pleasure in this, cousin—“

“LIAR!” Akemi swung to meet the weapon earlier than Miyako had planned for, metal ringing against metal. “You’ve always wanted me out of the way, you’ve always resented my going against things!” She needed to push, physically and mentally. She had to keep Miyako off-balance. It was the only way to get anywhere. She stepped forward with her next strike, going entirely for speed. She didn’t need to push past the princess’s defenses, she just needed to push the princess back.

And Miyako was forced to take that step back, in turn. This sudden fury was not the way of a proper duel, the context she’d been taught in, and she could only just manage to keep herself properly in the fight. “You had a place, you fool, somewhere to make yourself useful!

It was all far from how things were supposed to go, farther than Miyako could have imagined. She shouldn’t be struggling against a woman who spent all her time fighting mindless remnants of battles, and executing peasants just like that girl she’d taken under her damned wing!

That girl. Akemi was fighting out of desperation to keep her alive. She’d buckle once the girl was gone. It seemed so simple, so obvious, when Miyako looked at it that way. So she caught another strike against the New Moon, letting that damned head-chopper slide into the guard of her own blade. It would only hold for a moment, but a moment was all she needed, as she pushed the Blade of the Executioner down…And reached out.

Not for Akemi, but for Clark and the girl. Miyako reached out with one hand, and poured all the will she had out, reaching to all the ink already spilled. She brought her focus to a singular point, to that sole command over the domain that she held as its potential heir. Her authority, her force, her strength, all demanded it be acknowledged, and obeyed.

They came swiftly, as they always did. Her own soldiers, the army of her authority, rising up from the ink that their fallen kin left in their wake. She needed only enough to give them a singular order, to pull as many as she possibly could into the world. Not to simply fight, or to war, but to kill that girl, above all else. Their lives, false as they were, didn’t matter. Clark didn’t matter. Akemi didn’t matter. That, damned, peasant, had to die. That was all that mattered. “GO FORTH!” she cried, the one proper command she would speak. It was all she would need.

It caught them all, snatched the attentions of all three. Akemi, Clark, the girl all stared at the force Miyako had summoned, the small army she had brought into being in those few key seconds she had bought herself. A raw desperation play, but one that might just work. Miyako glared right at Akemi, catching the woman’s eyes with her own fiery gaze. “I’ll, I’ll kill her myself if they don’t finish the job!” She wasn’t used to doing this, the way Akemi apparently was, but it didn’t matter. The threat would work.

Akemi glared at her with a raw hate that Miyako had never seen, a raw fury, as she forcefully wrenched her blade free. But Akemi knew she couldn’t fight both battles. She couldn’t, and she couldn’t even see Clark and Jia through the swarm already upon them both…She…She couldn’t let them down. She wouldn’t. Not on her own name, on the name Akemi!

Something clicked. Something shifted. A thing Akemi couldn’t quite describe, something beyond her will, stretching beyond her own power. If her awareness of her strength, the force granted by her training was to be described as a sense like hearing…Then this was like a shout. A roar.

An order! There came flashes of white, through the swarm of ink-black. A slice through the mass, one that caught even Miyako’s attention.

Because when the ink spilled, when they both could see through it, they did not only see soldiers of black armor, Miyako’s creations. And they did not just see Clark and Jia, fighting to the last.

They saw soldiers of white armor, as stark as bleached bone. Only a tiny handful, nothing like the army they faced…But enough. Enough to hold back blades, to keep the pair from being alone.

Miyako stared, everything she knew seeming wrong. “What did you do—“

And then Akemi punched her, square in the chin.

A Land of Houses and Warriors: Legend 12 – A Home Returned

Once again, Akemi could feel the shift in her group. It was not the first time she’d felt it, not even the first with Clark and Jia by her side. But it was a definite shift. In their time together, while Jia had certainly seen Akemi strike down summoned forces, she had not seen the taking of a human life. It was all that the girl had no doubt heard about Executioners, their role in a House, their purpose.

But if there were doubts, fear, Jia didn’t express them. If anything, what Akemi saw as they marched through the Lands of the Wolf, was a honing of the girl. A refinement of her will, in the face of an act none of them could walk back from. They could only push forward, could only seek safety in the Land of the Wasp, after what had happened.

They saw no pursuit, of course; That was what Gerulf had been sent for, and he had died for it. Something that Akemi knew she would be paying for. If not in actual coin, then in some additional conflict down the line. A single member of a House taking a single peasant girl with some training, however it might have been fluffed up, wasn’t worth sending an entire squad after…Not yet, at least.

The division between Lands always came stark and sharp, and this one was no exception when they came to it at last. A shift in the air, a change in the plantlife and local animals, came within a mere few feet as they crossed the borders. Trees and wintry woods stopped cold, opening to mild grasslands that were unfathomably more familiar. It was like a deep, heavy weight came off of Akemi’s shoulders almost as soon as they were across, and all she could do was finally stop, and breathe.

Being back to her home Lands always meant much for Akemi, but after what she’d been through, the slog that it had been to bring an innocent girl here, the shift was palpable. Her limbs relaxed, her stance softened, her hand fell from resting on her blade’s hilt. Everything about her loosened up, until it was nearly like seeing a different woman in the same body.

Jia watched for a moment. “Um, are we…?”

“…Home. We’re in the Land of the Wasp now.” Akemi allowed herself a smile, turning back to face them both. “No one will be pursuing us here. We can take our time, move for comfort for once.”

That got Jia to pause, downright contemplative. “Is that,” she hesitated, bringing her thoughts and voice back together before she continued, “really a good idea?”

“Jia. I promise you. That line?” Akemi gestured to the point between the territories, the spot where the very grass shifted color in a single step from one breed to another. “No one will cross that line for us, and risk what will come from it. We’ve won. Not a single group, not a single force, has what it would take to cross that border and hunt for me in my own Land.”

“You’re sure?” It was easily the most questioning Jia had been, since this journey started. But the idea of suddenly slowing down, after they had been going so quickly for weeks and weeks, was a worrying one.

So Akemi put her hand on Jia’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. A squeeze that, just those weeks ago, would have hit soft flesh with just a bit of tone; the body of someone who knew more hardship than incredibly hard work. But now, the young woman’s frame was firm, having melted into stockiness that had a real strength to it. Jia’s old life was long gone, but the one Akemi could get for her, would be one worth having. “I’m certain of it.”

She held like that, for a few lingering seconds. Then, when she had some confidence that Jia would be alright, she opened up her focus to take in the both of them. “Now then, we should get moving. We’ll take a day to actually relax, and stay at an inn by choice.

Clark gave a nod, shifting his pack’s straps to better sit upon his shoulders. “Will we be staying in Waypoint as usual, my Lady?”

“Well of course. After everything that’s happened, I need that little teahouse’s brew more than I need air to breathe.”

The very same little teahouse, a place so small it didn’t have a formal name, had welcomed them with open arms. A fresh pot had been put on the fire as soon as Akemi, finally able to wear traveling clothes in the light of day once again, had walked in through the curtain that passed for a door. A quiet table in a corner was swiftly set up for the noblewoman who graced them with her presence. While Akemi would have politely refused the special treatment on any other day, after everything, she was just grateful to have a comfortable seat with a solid wall behind her back.

Clark had seen it all before, but it was Jia who watched it happen in awe. It was a very different reaction than what she’d seen before, in the few places they’d stopped to stay; people in the Lands of Iron had given Akemi a wide berth, had tried to avoid getting caught up in anything a noble could be up to. That, she was used to. It was how she and so many others had acted, back in the Lands of Fire, when a noble would ‘grace’ their home. But this was… “It’s like they worship you,” she whispered, when they’d finally sat down.

Clark saw the look on Akemi’s face, that way she was caught between reactions, and so he leaned in for his Lady. “It’s mostly that they know us here,” he said, keeping his voice down enough to not bother the other customers. “We’ve been stopping here on the way back home ever since Akemi first became Executioner.”

Akemi settled and centered herself once again, once she had the time. “I try to do right by them, and they do me the same courtesy. It’s how things are supposed to work, whether you’re dealing with peasants or nobility.”

The tea arrived soon enough, fresh and steaming. Akemi gave a thanks, taking the pot and tray herself, and poured three cups. The liquid within smelled potent, yet had a sweet, even floral note to its scent, and sat nearly indigo in hue. It was certainly tea, but unlike any blend that Jia had seen before.

Yet she certainly could not refuse it. So, after she saw Akemi and Clark both drink heartily of it, Jia picked up her own cup, sipping at it carefully. The taste came as foreign as the scent, but it was pleasant. The floral sweetness carried through, enough to make Jia smile.

A smile that Akemi saw. “What do you think?”


“I thought you’d like it. It’s a local specialty, brewed with some extra herbs to get that flavor.” Akemi finished her cup, but soon poured herself another. “Go on and have as much as you like. Oh, are you hungry yet, by the way? They do this thing here with nuts that you just have to try…”

It was like that for almost every leg of the journey, now that they were inside the Land of the Wasp. Akemi would move with confidence, not needing to check any map, and march them to a new town. And in that town they would know her personally in at least some business or another, where she would make a point of showing off some local delicacy or treat to Jia. Then they would sleep in a local inn, actually get to scrub off in the baths, and move on again.

Everything was so different from how it had been before, the frantic journeying, that Jia almost didn’t know what to make of it. In a few short weeks she’d become downright used to the chaos, and had known Akemi as a stern, powerful woman, one who was always ready to fight. But now there was all this comfort, and calmness, and Akemi was…

Was like the time she had been sent to live with a cousin in a proper town for a year or two. And her cousin had spent that first week just taking her around the place, getting her to eat the delicacies of a different vendor each day, introducing her to more people than her home village had even housed, and just seeming to delight in being able to share the land with a new face. Akemi was doing the same thing, simply on a grander scale.

By the third or fourth town, Jia had realized something else, too; Akemi was asking her what she thought of places, how she liked views at different points. She wasn’t just pointing out the delightful little craftsman who Akemi had commissioned to make a woven necklace overnight, one that Jia now had around her collar. She was pointing out the empty house around the corner, the place that needed someone to move in now that the old owner was gone. Akemi was trying to find the place where, once this was all over, she would be helping Jia to settle into under her new life as a minor noble.

That simple realization, made all of it that much more…immediate. It wasn’t just an idea, a far-off thing in some proposed end to the chaos. It was something that was very real. That ‘little’ house being pointed out, larger than any she’d called home, could very possibly become hers and hers alone. All of it took some getting used to, of course; Jia didn’t sleep entirely well for a few nights after that, all the concepts keeping her up and thinking.

But by the time they were packing up their things in the town of Passage, the last stop until the capital, Jia was calmer. She was even starting to look forward to it, a bit of a smile on her face as she loaded her pack. Her pack, proper; Akemi had purchased her one, and had her name embroidered on the inside of a flap. The things inside it were no longer simply borrowed supplies, or loaned necessities, but her property. Possibly more property than she’d ever had before.

The whole thing was downright exciting in its own way, now that she didn’t have to keep looking over her shoulder quite so much. That strange sensation of expecting to have to run any moment, of watching for weapons or fists more and more…That wasn’t gone, but having something concrete in her future, something that wasn’t expectation of battle or memories of loss, helped keep it all at bay.

So it was with a real bit of happiness, and with a hot meal already in her belly, that Jia hefted her pack and settled the straps firmly on. It was time to go to the final stop of their journey, to the capital; the city of Nest, the place that Akemi herself had come from. There, all the complex paperwork and politics would be handled. Akemi would see Jia given safe haven, and then the only thing to do would be to pick the place where she could build a real new life.

Jia felt the weight of her pack, knowing how much heavier it was than what they’d asked her to carry at the start of this. A single look down at one of her own fists, showed the kind of power that was now in them. She was…She wouldn’t have even recognized what she’d seen in the reflection of a pond, if her as she was now had been shown to that terrified girl that Akemi had pulled out of the rubble. She was stronger. She was more capable. Sure, she was nowhere near Akemi, or even Clark, but there was something there, a real potential. Something she could do something with.

That confidence, that feel of a real future, was what really kept the dark things under control. And what let her walk out of her inn room, bright-eyed and ready to see what the day brought for one of the first times in months.

The gates surrounding Nest stood far higher than any walls Jia had seen before. They had been visible for much of the last leg of their journey, looming for the long walk, even if only now could she start to see details in the design. Ornate painted woods, two massive dramatized doors, with walls to either side…All of Nest was encapsulated in this circle, a very real and physical barrier to keep out the unworthy and the opposition.

Akemi had explained it that the Lands of the Wasp had been claimed in the middle of wartime, a remnant of a fallen House forming something new. The walls had originally been put up, hauled from the earth in a display of power, to make Nest a fortress; it was only generations later that they had wood over the stone, and were ornate and symbolic instead of a necessity of battle.

That gate now stood well over them, as they were finally mere footsteps from it. Close enough to look upon the guards standing at either side of the massive doors, guards who stared them down in turn. Akemi was first up, wearing her armor formally; a cape draped over her sword-arm, leaving the opposite point at her hip free of any scabbard, and with her helmet in hand. “Good day to you both!” she called, stepping forward. “Akemi of the House of the Wasp has returned!”

The guard on the left hesitated, uncertain about breaching this topic. But it was his sacred duty, and so he had no choice. “Lady Akemi, was it not only you and your second, when you left?”

“I was. Circumstances required me to save the life of one Jia of the House of Fire. You can request my report from my uncle if the details fascinate you so much, good sir. Now, I seek entry.”

“Of, of course. Allow me to retrieve the door for you, Lady Akemi.” The guard quickly nodded to his companion, the two of them both turning to grasp the handles and haul the thing open.

Except, the door groaned, all that oak forced to move by the sheer force placed on it from the other side. Force brought by a single figure, a single hand, pushing it open enough to allow that figure through. “That will not be necessary, soldier,” came a woman’s voice, as that woman stepped out.

Princess Miyako of the House of the Wasp stood firm, her own formal armor shining in the sun. “Cousin. It seems we have something that must be discussed.”

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

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

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

Of. Damned. Course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All, because, of Sable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He just gave a nod, unwilling to risk talking.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why…Er, t-that is, why did…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were completely surrounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That got the people really staring.