Atlas [ Chapter 8 ]
“It is true, I can feel the efficient economy of motion when I move like this and a wholeness of body and mind as I practice my breathing.
But still, no matter how efficiently I use my body, how could I possibly use this to prevail against magic? You know better than anyone what true power looks like, Plâton. You told me you saw the old man split the mountain. Can this protect me against that?” It was a fair question, Atlas thought.
Truth be told, he liked this training. It was odd, but it filled him with an unusual sense of control over his own body and balance – or better put a sense for the lack thereof. He could definitely see the benefits of these martial arts and the room for improvement they presented, and judging from Plâton’s elegant and efficient movements, he might indeed be capable of defeating an armed man bare-handed, using nothing but technique - technique rooted in body-gyrometrics and balance. But Atlas as he was now had been forged between a hammer and an anvil made of terrifying might and knew too well that no movement of the body, no matter how efficient, would protect him if he faced that hell again.
“True enough,” Plâton said, “but the art itself only readies your body. - Perhaps a demonstration might put things into perspective. Hm. But I will postpone that for just a minute to see if I cannot offer some wisdom that doesn’t revolve around punching.” He raised his hand, motioning Atlas to stop the set of movements he had been drilling. “Now, do you know the teachings of the three truths and the five paths?”
Atlas sat down, catching his breath as his heart was still pounding heavily. “Very vaguely. I know that there are five gates inside of me. I know them very well.”
“Then you know a thing very well that many people have sought to know their entire lives.” Plâton noted. “The three truths are such: Reality, origin, and existence. As for the five paths, well, I’ll speak of those later. Now, perhaps you are unsure what really comprises reality, but for the sake of a little thought experiment, I will say that it is the sum and result of all the natural forces and laws that have established themselves throughout the universe as far as we know. Though, I would wager our resident technocrat here knows more about those than I do. Still, here the thought experiment begins: There is a mountain spring, and water ever flows out of it. At the foot of that side of the mountain is a small valley, a basin of sorts. Where will the water go?”
Atlas furled his brow. “Into the basin.” It seemed like a pretty stupid question to him.
“And why would it do that?” Plâton continued.
Now Atlas had to think a little. “Because… water flows downhill?”
“And why does it flow downhill?”
“Uh… It just… well, everything is always being pulled down, right? If I jump, the ground pulls me back, and it also pulls the water down the hillside,” Atlas finally said, his concentration slowly building.
“Technocrats call that pulling force ‘gravity’.” Plâton explained. “And if you came to that mountain, seeing the stream of that spring flowing down into the basin, now a little lake, would you look up and think: the water cannot climb back up, it must always flow down?”
“I… I’m not sure I would actually come up with that thought for no apparent reason, but I suppose it isn’t impossible that I might think that,” Atlas said evasively.
“Might it also not be impossible for you to say that you yourself could never climb the mountain? After all, everything is being pulled down all the time.”
“Yes… no…” Atlas worked himself through the double negative that Plâton was now wielding against him. “I wouldn’t say that, because I probably could climb the mountain.”
“Why can you climb the mountain, but the water can’t?”
“Because I have legs…”
“No, because you have agency, Atlas. Because you have the ability to want to go up that mountain. Water does not have this power. It does not have existence. It could move up the mountain, if a mage imbued it with his soul, but on its own, it is shackled to the laws of reality.”
“Just a note here,” Ayveron interjected, “But at some point that water is probably going to evaporate and rise back up.”
“Don’t undermine my metaphor, Ayveron, I am trying to teach here!”
Ayveron went back to sanding a copper tube he had taken out from his backpack.
Atlas thought about what Plâton had said. “But there is more?” He now wanted to know.
“Now, people have found the basin and they live in a town close-by. They want the water, and there is a basin large enough to hold it at the town proper. The town does not lie downhill and thus the water will not go there on its own. What would be the fastest, easiest way to bring it there?”
Atlas looked up at the sky, thinking about what Ayveron had said about it evaporating. But in the end he said: “Well, that would be magic, right? A water magus could move the water over into the new basin, and an earth magus could raise the old basin, perhaps form some sort of channel.”
“Quite so. In imbuing the water or its surroundings with soul, they can give it the agency to move where they need it to be, even though the laws of reality would usually constrain it to stay in its basin, the water cycle notwithstanding. But what if the people had no mages amongst each other?”
“They could still get water with buckets. Maybe they could even transport all of it if they had enough buckets and people and time.”
“And where would the agency be in that? In the water, or in the people?” Plâton now eyed him closely, as if waiting for a certain reply.
This just made Atlas swallow his immediate reply and think on it more diligently. Finally he spoke: “I suppose it would be in either. When the people take the water with them, they share their agency with the thing they want to move.”
Plâton had the look of someone about to drive home a laborious point now. “Yes. Yes! But it is no longer about simple motion. They don’t want to move something, or perhaps that is what they want, but what is it that they are actually doing when they take that water and put it somewhere else?”
Atlas stared at him blankly. Whatever Plâton wanted him to say now, it escaped him.
Finally Plâton found the mercy to say it himself: “They don’t share their agency with the thing they want to move, they share their agency with the thing they want to change. They are changing the world, moving things against the natural order, and all they needed to do so was a bucket. No magic. Hel’s tits, they could use the hollow of their hands, if they were determined enough.”
On this Atlas had to ponder for a while. “So existence is like a force that counteracts reality? And it’s not magic that can supersede it, but human endeavor?”
“In a way. But to be more precise: reality and existence are both mutually exclusive truths that impose themselves on the universe. They usually rest in an equilibrium that favors reality, but that equilibrium can be turned on its head by existence.”
“Alright. And martial arts?”
“In a minute. Now there is one more link in the chain. If the people use buckets or their hands, it will take them a long while to do the task compared to magic. But if we finally get to Ayveron’s problem, moving the water once with magic will require the process to be repeated later, because the water will evaporate and the spring is still on the mountain, filling up the old basin. Here the non-magical approach becomes more interesting, because there are ways to get the water flowing into the new basin perpetually. For example by building an aqueduct, a sloped stone channel that guides the water down a less steep but elongated path into the new basin. It may take a long while to build, but then it will stand for eons. Now the water follows the laws of reality and goes where the people wish it to go. My question this time is: where is the agency in that?”
This time Atlas could answer directly. He had gotten a bit more used to the way of thinking Plâton had pushed on him, and the answer seemed more obvious: “It was already spent on constructing the aqueduct.”
Plâton clapped. “And now you know the answer to your own question.”
“The art of the Great Impact is meant to train your body and your mind. If you can learn to understand and detect the agency in the things you face, you will be able to see the path to survival that yields the greatest result while requiring the least effort. If a magus attacks you with powerful elemental magic, he will have one of two choices: Concentrate his attack into a fine point, in which case you should dodge it, trading the energy of a tiny step for all the soul power he expends; or hit you with a broad blast that is difficult to avoid, in which case he will have to expend much energy of which only a tiny portion can hit you, becoming easier to block. My point is: Perception is far more useful than raw power if it is well-honed and correctly applied.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Atlas mused. “Though I don’t see how perception could have saved me if that old man had wanted to cut me in half together with the mountain. Speaking hypothetically of course, he was a nice old man.”
“Ah, but he did not cut himself in half as well, did he? There was definitely a point not within the reach of his attack, and do you think you would have needed power equal to his if all you wanted was to get to that point? Surely far less would have been sufficient.”
“I suppose I would just have to see where to go and be fast enough.” Atlas admitted.
“Good, so you are getting it. Now we can get to the punching part. If your mind is trained well enough, you may one day be able to obtain a body such as mine.” He looked around briefly and then eyed a large boulder of the kind that lay here on the edges of the Saltplains sometimes. It was a sizable chunk and several dozen feet away. He stretched his arms and shoulders briefly and then sprung up and down on his knees to loosen up.
What happened next happened so quickly that Atlas was not quite sure if he actually did perceive it at all. It seemed like Plâton leapt towards the rock, but it happened in no more than one or two seconds, the longest time of motion happening right when he started to move, making it seem as though Plâton suddenly stood next to it and the whole thing exploded into gravel and a few larger chunks. When the dust settled, Plâton stood there, his body tensed around shoulders and hips, his fist held out where the rock had stood, and his knuckles were slightly bloodied. Slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, he walked back.
“Incredible! How did you do that?” Ayveron asked flabbergasted.
Atlas too was shocked. “Is… is your hand alright?” he asked.
Plâton took a look at his fist. “Sure. The skin is the weakest and it breaks sometimes. But it will heal quickly. Look, the wound is almost gone,” he said.
“The real preserve us…” Ayveron mumbled faintly.
Plâton stretched his Fingers, clenching and unclenching his fist carefully. “Increased regeneration and dense muscles,” he explained, lifting some of Atlas’s ponderousness about the apparent unrealistic weight of his body. “These are side-effects of true Taishôgeki. By maximizing the human form with the help of your gates and martial arts, you may gain a power similar to that of the old Nordic gods. But where their might is fueled by the power of Wyrd, the well of destiny of which they drank long before the First Age, mine is truly mine and not even the mighty Null could take it away.”
Ayveron seemed more shocked by that than Atlas was, but in his defense, Atlas did not quite get several of those references. They sounded familiar, but he did not really take their meaning.
“The real preserve us…” Ayveron repeated, clearly shaken by what he had witnessed and heard here.
“It didn’t preserve that boulder over there,” Plâton noted with a hint of amusement while pointing at the pile of rubble behind him.
“Actually it did. The boulder is still all there, just in smaller pieces of itself,” Ayveron corrected absentmindedly, as if making pointed observations was second nature to him or some way to collect his calm.
“Oh,” exclaimed Plâton, seeming to think about it, before he started grinning from ear to ear, “Well, now I cannot decide whether you are just bright, or also a smart-arse.”
Ayveron seemed to have collected himself and returned the grin sheepishly: “So I am bright either way, eh? A man might feel flattered by such high praise.”
“I would consider wooing you, but alas my manhood is still keeping its head low in mourning over the death of my wife.
I fear it might never recover,” he added with a sigh.
What had apparently been intended as a humorous remark had taken a sour left turn before it had fully left his mouth. He turned back to Atlas: “Continue the movement set,” he commanded and Atlas began to move again, eager to rescue the died-down conversation. “The gogyôkata are the five basic forms that are inspired by the five elements and they can be evolved into any existing and non-existing martial art. That is why you must perform them daily, several times if you can, and whenever you have a few spare minutes. The more often you perform them the more they will become part of your body and your being, and your movement, balance, and self-control will improve accordingly. Now, do you know the basics of magic?” he inquired, as he observed Atlas’s performance and corrected him here and there with slight nudges.
Ayveron still didn’t participate, giving the two men some space. He instead unpacked more of his strange equipment and worked on an odd contraption, here and there consulting scrolls he drew from a case.
“I do not,” Atlas said, half eying Ayveron’s busywork.
Plâton nodded as he watched Atlas’s steps. “I have told you of the three truths and the duality of existence and reality now. Existence itself is comprised of five parts: Soul, willpower, natural power, instinct, and spirit. When we extend the reach of our soul into the real world, we create an environment of existence in which our control over what is and is not supersedes the ironclad hold of reality. By influencing the shape of that environment we change reality and that is called magic. Others could probably explain it better than me, I have not done much in the way of magic, never had the knack for it-”
“Keep telling us that!” Ayveron jeered from the sidelines, but Plâton graciously ignored him.
He paused briefly to correct Atlas on a misstep he had made, explaining how the nature of the involved element dictated the way he was supposed to move, before he continued his speech. “Well… where technocrats try to understand reality and make its laws work to their benefit, mages manipulate the line between what is real and what is not. The Taishôgeki, in its most powerful form, extends our soul to create such an environment in the confines of our body and manipulates its form. But the manipulation occurs in a way that afterwards conforms to the laws of reality and is adopted by it as real.
This happens much in the same way as a magus of water moving a puddle to a different place with magic: Even when the magic fades, the puddle does not return to its original place.”
Ayveron nodded from his off-position as if he indeed had some insight into that long-wound explanation. Atlas just took it as it was and kept on repeating the five forms Plâton had shown him, though he sensed the old man was leaving out a vital part of whatever he was trying to convey; a thought born out of Atlas’s unusual perception.
The rhythmic breathing and movement soon began to tear at Atlas’s stamina again, and as he started sweating, he began to fall out of the correct breathing pattern from time to time.
Still, the breathing part of the exercise actually seemed to oxygenize his body very well and so he went on, a bit light-headed, but filled with a strange vigor. Plâton seemed to be in no rush to stop the training, even though Atlas’s exhaustion was very visible now.
“How long will it be until we reach the Red Sands?” Ayveron inquired as he screwed a nut tighter on the long object he was tinkering around with.
“Hmm,” said Plâton, thinking on it. “At our current pace we should be there in about three more days. What will it be, Kvarsynodium?”
Ayveron shook his head, “Prickeltag. Kvarsnodium is today. The last week of the moon will have started then.”
Plâton grunted. “I should keep closer track of these things. Before I know it, the years will get the better of me.”
To that Ayveron smiled as he got back to sanding the copper tube. “They would have to catch you first, and at this pace I have my doubts they can.”