This chapter contains violence and strong language.
Ayvarta, Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way, Eerie Cloud
It is as true that I can win this contest as it is true that I cannot.
Everything in the world could be understood and analyzed.
Yanyu Zhuge knew this to be true. Theirs was a world of contradictions and struggles, but everything in it could be understood by human minds if they made a human effort.
Anything that couldn’t be understood now could be understood later.
Any obstacle could be surmounted; all it took was to escalate the effort to surmount.
These guiding principles allowed Yanyu to face the roaring enemy with a calm face.
“Fuck! Another one then? Well, if you’re interfering, then it’s your funeral!”
Aatto was shouting so loud that her voice was breaking.
Tired of being toyed with by Yanyu, the dog-eared woman from Loupland practically glowed with energy, encased in an aura that hissed with steam and cracked like ice.
She leaped back to her feet from the ground and charged at Yanyu without restraint.
As if viewing a beast raging from behind protective glass, Yanyu did not waver.
Minutes ago, a little bird had told Yanyu that Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather was volatile, stubborn, and a believer in the doctrine of overwhelming force. Yanyu heeded the bird.
“A gentle hand,”
Though the irate hound swung with a fist that could tear neck from head on impact, Yanyu did not give up even a step in her protected direction. She moved into the attack as Aatto closed on her, and she swept with one hand in front of her, and in a fluid motion she caught and turned away Aatto’s punch with nothing but the back of her hand.
“–guides a solid fist!”
In the next instant Yanyu countered. Just as Aatto realized that she had failed to connect, Yanyu moved, swinging against Aatto’s momentum and putting her fist like an iron wall right in the woman’s way. She connected with paralyzing force, crushing Aatto’s rib and causing the woman to stagger back, her feet shaking, her mouth drooling, eyes popping. Aatto swayed and shook as if standing amid an earthquake, and like a breeze blowing away a stack of paper, Yanyu flowed from her punching stance into a two-handed push, and blew the hound a dozen meters with a powerful gust of air, sending her tumbling.
Aatto hit the ground screaming and raging with a voice that needed no air to howl.
Despite the sound and the fury, Yanyu merely shifted back to her earlier, relaxed stance. She held her hands out in front of her, but they were not tensed, nor ready to grip. She was fluid, open, gentle. She had a confident expression, neither grin nor grimace.
Behind her, Madiha Nakar lay on her knees, shaking in place, bloody and disoriented.
Her mind was still taxed from her exertions. Yanyu couldn’t even be sure she was conscious. She had gotten too bold, and she was not used to being bold with fire.
Yanyu was used to struggling with the air; Aatto was an expert at intimidating water.
Whatever the old stories said, their power did not come from nature. Nature was in fact quite inimical to their manipulations. Yanyu did not control the wind. She struggled with it. Wind was an authority, a power, an oppressor, a thing older and greater than her in every way, and she fought it for every scrap it would give. Aatto was not loved by the water, but it feared her. She tormented it with the icy cold of her heart and home and made it her own. Meanwhile, Madiha’s relationship to fire was confused. Fire itself was apathetic to her; but she hated it. Such a relationship was erratic and it caused her grief.
“General, Chairwoman Tsung once said, ‘War can only be abolished through war’. I wanted to say those words to you because I greatly admire you, and I want you to heed them. That is all: this lowly girl will hold her tongue until you desire it henceforth.”
A little bird had told her she should say that to General Madiha Nakar.
Fulfilling missives that little birds brought her was one of Yanyu’s objectives in life.
She thought she saw a gleam of recognition in Madiha’s eyes after that, but the General was still stunned and barely breathing and could not possibly move nor respond.
There was a scream from farther down the bridge.
“You think you’re cleverer than me? Listen, bitch, I’ve seen the wind work on glaciers–”
Yanyu spotted water flying in from the sides of the bridge, gathering over the head of an Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather who had stood back up from a devastating attack as if mostly unharmed, barely panting from lost breath. Aatto forged a sphere of water the size of an outhouse, and in a flash, she froze the fluid solid and dense, holding it psionically.
“–and you don’t have years to push this one away!”
Aatto screamed and swung her arms, and as if thrown from them like a bowling ball, the sphere of ice struck the ground and slid at mounting speed toward Yanyu and Madiha.
As the missile hurtled toward her, Yanyu felt a thrill of nervous excitement and fear.
She was human and flawed just like anyone. She could only project calm, not own it.
Yanyu straightened the fingers in one hand and held the other close to her chest.
She fought with the air, she insulted it, she besmirched its honor, and it grew turbulent.
Though by outward appearances she was a polite, respectable girl, Yanyu was very rude.
Her target, however, could speak to no one but her, and was not so inclined.
As it was goaded, so did it react. Yanyu stirred the chaotic air around herself.
She saw the boulder and moved faster than her breath.
In one perfect chopping motion, she brought down her arm.
So powerful was the chop that the cloud around them also split in half down the center, creating an eye within the storm. It had the force of air itself, air primeval. It was psionic.
A crack several meters long formed along the bridge and the boulder split into two.
Both halves of the orb flowed perfectly past her and past Madiha.
Knocked off their course, the projectiles burst through the walls on either side of the bridge and went down into the river. Two massive pillars of water rose where the missiles struck, as if live ordnance had fallen in the river in place of the ice. Water sprayed and splashed over them all, as if it was raining suddenly. Yanyu teased the air, and it kept her immaculate amid the tidal waves, and Madiha, too, was protected.
Aatto closed her fists and drew in a deep breath.
Several smaller projectiles, like stalactites hanging in the air, appeared around her.
“There’s so much more where that came from! Just step aside!” She shouted.
Yanyu Zhuge knew she struggled against a hopeless situation, defending the precious general Madiha Nakar, the child of fire, from the depredations of the volatile Aatto Stormyweather of the waters. She had the sense that she could not accomplish the objective of “killing” Aatto Stormyweather. A little bird had told her as much.
Aatto had been killed before, many times. She defied conventional death.
So long as there was water, she would be back on her feet.
However, there was more to defeat in war than death.
Sometimes death was merciful.
In response to Aatto’s shout, Yanyu merely took up her stance once more.
In perfectly fluid Nochtish she replied, “Reactionaries are paper tigers.”
Frustrated, Aatto unleashed her projectiles in rapid succession.
Yanyu left Madiha’s side and leaped into the air.
She sailed clear over the icy spikes and they crashed into the ground where her feet had laid. She swept under herself with one hand, blowing a gust of wind that scattered the shrapnel away from Madiha, and propelling herself higher. She shot into the sky, and seemingly converting all her momentum she snapped suddenly toward the ground.
Aatto braced herself for an attack, but found Yanyu instead breezing a step past her.
She found herself seized by the belt, and lifted off the ground, and spun in the air.
Yanyu twisted Aatto several times as if preparing a sling and then hoisted her up.
Pushing on herself and on the air around them, agitating the wind and lessening its resistance, collecting strength in her arms and in the fluid motions of her swing, Yanyu spun Aatto a dozen times and launched her like a bola into the sky and toward the desert. She threw her at the velocity and arc that a gun might launch a shell.
Aatto went flying without resistance. She soared toward heaven with no control.
Out in the desert Aatto would have no allies and no water. She’d live; but harmlessly.
Her forces would retreat, defeated first by Madiha militarily and now again in spirit.
They would live and regroup and return because Yanyu knew she was not going to conclusively defeat Aatto this day. But she was going to protect Madiha. She would win–
Yanyu followed Aatto’s body through the parting cloud.
She felt a jolt of fear and her eyes drew wide at an inexplicable sight.
Far overhead, Aatto’s body burst like a popped bubble, disappearing instantly.
Just then a little bird brought a missive to Yanyu.
Yanyu’s entire body shook, her eyes burned with the grudging passion of the air.
You underestimated Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, said the little bird, she is no savage, she is not a brute, you lost your humility, you fell to pride, she tricked you, she ambushed you.
Yanyu had thought she felt little to no undue emotion for the past several minutes.
But overwhelmingly, she knew she had felt pride. She had felt superiority.
She expressed her pride in her every motion, in every rehearsed step she took.
Yanyu had the power to tell many things ahead of when they would occur.
She had manipulated the air with pride and she in turn, was manipulated by pride.
All around her, there was water.
When she turned away Aatto’s attack, water had gone everywhere.
Now Aatto rose suddenly from behind her, right out of the water.
She trained a zwitscherer pistol at Madiha’s temple, taking her hostage.
“Oh, what’s wrong? Got taken advantage of by a fur-tailed savage?”
Yanyu stared, speechless, her jaw shaking, her eyes so wide they were tearing up.
Aatto laughed at her. “I was a bandit in Loupland for years! I did nothing but set up ambushes on people who thought me some lowly beast! How’s it feel to be just like the Noctish you so despise, communist? Both in your ignorance and in your desperation.”
Aatto psionically pulled back the bolt and prepared the gun to fire.
“You two have made me really irate! I am still shaking mad. And I have all the power here, because you care about this girl a lot, don’t you? Madiha Nakar. So you’ll do what I say, or else she’ll even more literally brain-dead than she looks right now. Got that?”
She turned the gun against the stunned Madiha’s head as if twisting a knife.
Yanyu’s mind was racing.
She was not ready for this turn; everything had changed suddenly.
Back home, she had always acted so methodically. To a point, she was always ready.
And when things changed, it wasn’t so dramatic.
Then again, she had never met someone like herself before.
Someone who made events change dramatically. Someone who fought history.
Sometimes for better.
Often for the worse.
“Don’t do it.”
Madiha Nakar had a miserable, resigned look in her face.
“We do not bow to the wishes of the imperialist. Yanyu Zhuge, kill her.”
“Shut up! I’ll shoot you!”
There was no fear in her eyes. There was fire again. Passion. Misguided passion.
“So be it! Yanyu Zhuge, split her in pieces and split the pieces after that. Crush every bone, cut every sinew, splatter her brain! Let’s see her reform herself from that!”
Aatto and Madiha struggled and Yanyu sighed, frustrated, exhausted.
There was Madiha Nakar’s relationship to fire once more.
Self-hatred and a death wish paired with a grudging excitement toward violence.