This scene contains violence.
48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way
Wordlessly, the battle began.
Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.
Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.
Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.
Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.
E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.
It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.
Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.
It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.
Something frighteningly like an instinct.
“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.
Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”
She needled her.
Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.
Water started to rise once more.
She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.
Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.
She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.
Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.
“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”
Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.
“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.
“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”
She had some kind of armor on her body.
Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.
Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–
As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.
“You’re not the only one with tricks!”
Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.
In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.
Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.
Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.
Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways. When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.
Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.
Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.
Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.
It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.
Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.
“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”
At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.
She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.
Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.
Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.
Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.
“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”
She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.
Or she was an idiot who talked too much.
Madiha pushed again — on herself.
She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.
Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.
For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.
Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.
Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.
She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.
“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”
Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.
She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.
“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”
Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.
Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.
Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.
Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.
She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.
She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.
“Use your inside voice–!”
Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.
She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.
Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.
Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.
Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.
For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.
Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.
Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.
She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.
Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.
She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.
Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.
Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”
She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.
That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.
“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”
Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?
Or was it just low-key misogyny?
Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.
It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.
Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.
There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.
Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.
Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.
All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.
Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.
There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.
But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.
She realized that she could take something else.
“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”
Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.
Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.
She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.
Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.
Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.
“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”
Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.
Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.
She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.
“No, no, no, no, no–”
Aatto grit her teeth.
“No! Stop it!”
She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.
Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.
Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.
Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.
Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.
Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.
Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.
She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.
She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.
Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.
Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.
Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.
Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.
She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.
“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”
She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.
Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.
She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.
Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.
“What the hell–?”
Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.
Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her. She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.
Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.
“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.