by Rebys J Hynes
I have been writing prose and fantasy for a few years and it has become instrumental in me realising that I am non-binary and exploring so much about myself. I wanted to write an action romp that featured a non-binary protagonist and was set in my home city of Liverpool. I had this image of a hero with a magical skirt and it went from there. As trans people, we deserve more fantasy heroes.
‘You don’t have to do this. We can wait.’
‘No. Another year of this…it’s got to be today.’
Leaf didn’t reply but the popping bubbles of their helmet had a tinny ring to them. It was almost cute enough to offset Aatiq’s stomach curling like an anxious ouroboros.
‘I love you,’ said Aatiq.
‘I love you too.’
Aatiq perched on the Liverpool Museum of Arcane Advancements, the perfect place to study the crowd filtering through Church Street. Most of them were standard worshippers: men and women with black cloaks and shaved heads in mimicry of their idols. A few carried copies of the Aquanomicon. There wasn’t a piece of technology in sight. Aatiq’s grandad used to speak of the days of mobile phones and traffic lights and electric razors with the wistfulness of a storyteller weaving tales of knights and dragons.
A gaggle of bald teenagers practiced rudimentary water spells – they yanked the moisture out of plants and threw it around. The manic grins on their faces told Aatiq that, in that moment, these kids felt like gods. And why wouldn’t they? This day was all about telling them that’s exactly what they were.
With a thought, the living metal around Aatiq’s body morphed from a skin-tight reflective bodysuit to a flowing black Monk’s apparel. They activated the invisibility pulse and – in the five seconds it gave them – dropped from the Museum onto the ground below. They stood up just as the invisibility faltered and then slipped into the crowd.
Aatiq forced themselves forward as quickly as possible. Living metal was versatile but if they were caught next to someone tuned into Riverkin runes, it wouldn’t take them long to work out that they were in the presence of technology.
The flow led straight to the Albert Dock. Aatiq had to struggle to catch a glimpse of the bright blue of the River Mersey. Around a campfire one night – shortly after Aatiq absconded from the city – Akela Cybis had told them that the Mersey had not always been this clear. Once you could spot plastic bottles bobbing in the grey murk. Akela had even once spotted a shopping trolley. Now the water was always blue.
In front of the Mersey dock stood a podium guarded by burly, bald men. Mayor Qadir had yet to arrive. There were more bodyguards than Aatiq expected. They could still take them, though. They had to be able to take them.
Aatiq’s earpiece buzzed, four times. Their shared code for it will be okay. Aatiq buzzed back four times.
Suddenly, a bulky figure bumped into them. Aatiq went to shout their objection but stopped - no point in drawing pointless attention to themselves. The figure ushered their family forward and for a moment, Aatiq thought they had succeeded in not drawing attention to themselves.
But then the figure turned. Aatiq was surprised to see that they were Riverkin. Gills and green skin and glassy eyes that seemed to gaze at everything and nothing. Whereas most Riverkin boasted bushy verdant locks of seaweed hair, this Riverkin had shaved it all off.
What hope did a revolution have when the Riverkin themselves were giving in and joining their oppressors?
The Riverkin focused their eyes on Aatiq, eyebrows furrowing. Riverkin were better tuned to the abnormalities of this world and could sniff out technology far faster than your average human. The Riverkin’s face flashed with recognition and Aatiq knew they had to do something.
‘Please,’ they mouthed. ‘Don’t.’
The Riverkin’s face didn’t change. Why would they help a revolutionary like Aatiq when they and their family were safe under the Monks’ rule? Aatiq prepared their body suit, ready to spring into action. But if they did now, the whole plan would fall apart.
The Riverkin turned around and ushered their family forward. Aatiq loosened their mental grip on the metal.
A cheer erupted around them. The crowd began to push forward and Aatiq let themselves get swept up in the enthusiastic wave. It was becoming harder and harder to see, but they knew that if they waited, they would just have to follow his voice.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ boomed the authoritative voice. ‘Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to the Day of Emancipation.’
A fresh wave of cheers. Fortunately, the push of the crowd was slowing and Aatiq was able to right themselves. Finally, they could see their target.
Mayor Qadir wore his finest navy suit lined with glowing light blue Sigils. The air around him bent out of reality, almost moving like the soft waves of an ocean lapping against the beach. He looked and acted more like a game show presenter than a politician. With his signature smile and flawless brown skin and hair styled to perfection, he was everything Aatiq had been told to be when they grew up.
Today, he was going to be the thing Aatiq destroyed.
‘Forty-five years ago, to this day… well, I can’t remember it too well, I was only a little lad!’ Qadir left a beat for the crowd to chuckle in and they did, obediently. Even the Riverkin family. ‘But this world, this city, was in ruin. The generations before us handed us a planet crumbling in their hands and told us it was good enough. They tore apart the land until there was nothing left but dirt and ash, all so they could have information a fingerprint away. They sacrificed the world they walked on just so they could find out about it.’
The crowd booed. It is good to know, thought Aatiq, that billions died so people today could act like it was a pantomime.
‘But fortunately for us, there were better people out there,’ said Qadir. ‘The Arcane Academics, geniuses shunned by society. Their discovery of the Pool of Life helped cities around the world – just like our Liverpool – weather the storms of the old world and steer our ship into the new world.’
The crowd cheered. Aatiq’s sweaty hands played with their robes; the longer Qadir spoke, the longer Aatiq stayed in place, the more chance someone else would sniff out their tech.
‘Our arcane ancestors summoned the energy to heal this world from our great and plentiful River Mersey. What was once a mess of pollution and a gateway through which slaves were marched became our ticket to accessing the Aquapolis and its bountiful power.’
Qadir was conveniently forgetting that the Aquacropolis was home to the Riverkin and that their lives and magic were tied to the power source that the people of Earth drained once a year. That every time a mayor performed the ‘Rites of Emancipation’ on the Mersey, hundreds of half-dead Riverkin washed up in the human realm and were forced to adjust to a world built on their ruin. That every time the Mayor sucked at the Pool of Life, he risked wiping out an entire species. The Mersey was no longer grey, but it now ran red.
The Mayor continued his speech, but Aatiq had stopped paying attention. A Monk was looking at them funny, from a few metres away. He had Sigils inscribed into his skin; this was more than your average worshipper.
Aatiq snapped their head back to the podium. The Mayor was still preaching, making a show of every second.
Come on, thought Aatiq. Hurry up.
And then a torrent of water slammed into them.
Aatiq didn’t have time to realise they were in mid-air before the Monk slapped them back down onto the ground. How many Sigils did this man have? Blue steam radiated off his hulking body. Monks like these must have been scattered through the crowd, all with heightened senses, waiting for the inevitable revolutionary strike.
The mob parted for the Monk. Some pushed themselves into the thick of the crowd. Most stayed to watch. There was always an audience for a public execution.
The veins in the Monk’s hands bulged as he lifted his fists. As he thrust them down, Aatiq’s mind connected with their metal, and it shifted from robes into their battle attire. The top half tightened into a t-shirt emblazed with the red and gold triangular symbol of the revolution. The bottom half morphed into a dark maxiskirt. The hood peeled back to reveal Aatiq. The Monk’s face dropped.
The skirt swung upwards and wrapped itself around the Monk’s hands. Just as he was about to strike, it held him firmly in place. The back of the skirt pushed Aatiq onto their feet and they used the momentum to swing a punch into their enemy’s face. It collided with a crack.
The Monk stumbled back, freeing himself from the skirt, but Aatiq did not waste their opponent’s disorientation and propelled themselves forward into another punch. It collided, but the Monk rightened himself quickly and his Sigils began to pulsate.
Would he actually detonate in the middle of a crowd? That would take members of the congregation with them. Surely that would turn the people against them.
It wouldn’t, of course. The Emancipation gave these people comfort, a life, and a future. They wouldn’t care how many bodies piled up, even if some of them looked just like them.
Aatiq had to act quick. They thrust their skirt at the Monk. It began to stretch out, becoming a metal blanket that latched onto their opponent and wrapped itself around his body like bandages. He screamed out just before it covered his mouth.
There was a muffled explosion. Some of the crowd whimpered. The silken metal blanket slipped to the floor and rolled back into a skirt. There was no sign of the Monk, bar a faint blue smoke.
Aatiq had no time to feel grateful. Some of the Mayor’s bodyguards had detached from the platform and were heading their way.
Mayor Qadir turned towards the ocean. A Riverkin servant knelt, holding above her head a frayed and blood-stained tome. The original Aquanomicon.
The Emancipation had begun.
Aatiq only had a minute to pull off the assassination of the most powerful man on the planet.
A pale-skinned Monk pulled out a gun, glowing blue, and fired. Aatiq shifted to the side, and the bullet went flying into the crowd. It would hit a worshipper.
One of the people who not only stood by and let this massacre happen but dressed like the people who did it.
But Akela had told them once, as the sun set over the camp, that it was never their job to kill the people just getting by. It was their duty to show people another way.
Aatiq closed their eyes and let the metal find its way backwards. Their skirt stretched further and faster than it ever had, reaching out like metal fingers – and –
Snatched the bullet.
In doing so, Aatiq failed to notice a spindly Monk barrelling towards them. They collided, and the Monk’s limbs wrapped around them again and again – his body was made of water! They had never seen this kind of magic before. If he got into their lungs, there wasn’t much tech that would stop them from drowning on dry land.
The pale Monk raised his gun once again.
Quickly, Aatiq raised the heat on their suit. It scalded their skin but, more importantly, it evaporated the lanky Monk. He pulled back, his hands disappearing into the air. Aatiq had exactly what they wanted. The steam covered them, disorienting the gun-toting Monk for just long enough. Aatiq leapt through the smoke and knocked him to the ground.
Their skirt propelled them further upwards, over the crowd and onto the podium. They threw two electric grenades at the guards who went down likes swatted flies.
Mayor Qadir continued the spell - at least until Aatiq’s skirt grabbed him by the legs and smacked him onto the floor. They dragged him closer and flipped him over.
A few weeks ago, Aatiq had dragged Leaf away from Akela’s camp for a few stolen moments. They didn’t have to feel like revolutionaries or warriors all the time. They could just be two teenagers in love.
Aatiq and Leaf returned to the last embers of a smouldered fire. Akela’s body was one of the last things still burning. Standing over their brave leader was a man Aatiq had believed would never get his hands dirty.
And on that day, Aatiq Qadir swore they would bring their father to justice.
‘My child,’ said Qadir. ‘If you had the guts to strike me down, you would have done it in my sleep years ago.’
Aatiq didn’t say anything. With a thought, a slither of their skirt rose above the Mayor, shifting into a thick and sharp blade.
‘I thought you would actually grow up,’ said Qadir. ‘How stupid of me. Do you actually want this planet to go back to the before times? Billions died, my child. Powerful men assaulted this planet for the pleasures of the immediacy and my father’s generation let them. We have done something about it. We have saved this world.’
‘At the cheap price of murder and slaves.’
Qadir laughed. ‘This is a city built on slaves! Everyone here benefits from that past. In the end, all you can do is choose what side of the stick you are on.’
‘No, Dad. That is never all you can do.’
‘See?’ said Qadir. ‘You will never grow up. You ran off with him and began to believe in impossible things. To defy order.’ He glared at their skirt. ‘To defy reality.’ He stood up and Aatiq let him. ‘Now, I need to save this world.’
‘Killing you was always a personal thing,’ said Aatiq. ‘My true mission was to keep you distracted long enough for him to do his thing.’
Because Qadir was facing away from Aatiq, they never got to see his grin plumet.
Leaf rose from the Mersey on the crest of a Kraken’s head. He wore the flowing verdant apparel of a Riverkin soldier, and he clutched a water scythe favoured by the working men of his people. He was not alone; he was flanked by his brothers and sisters and siblings, riding ghost-dolphins and octo-sharks and standing together in arms with Nyads and cyclopes and some kinspeople that Aatiq had never seen before. The ocean had risen together. An army of Riverkin.
‘You see, the spell always sapped their energy before they could safely enter this dimension,’ said Aatiq. ‘So, if you didn’t finish the spell within a minute and they were prepared for this annual slaughter, it would be extremely easy to raise an army.’
Qadir thrust his hands up but, despite being surrounded by a river - a pathway into a dimension full of water - he could not summon a droplet.
Aatiq turned. The congregation had descended onto their knees. Men who moments ago believed they were gods prayed to something higher. The Monk soldiers and bodyguards tried to summon something, anything, but the only water they could conjure were tears. The family of converted Riverkin had taken off their robes. Aatiq smiled.
With the flick of Leaf’s hand, one of the Kraken’s tentacles drifted down to the podium. Aatiq stepped onto it.
Qadir whimpered. ‘You will always be my- ‘
‘No,’ said Aatiq. ‘Nothing about me will ever be yours.’
The tentacle took them away from the Mayor and the fallen worshipers and the city and towards their boyfriend, their army, their revolution.