In the beginning there was nothing but the Being, and the Being was everything. It was current and void, force and silence. The Being was will, and all existed for that was its will...
Pink sunlight crept over the horizon, illuminating the edge of the Orsand Empire. In an abandoned armoury upon a deserted forest island, a girl with pale red hair sat cross-legged atop an empty barrel. Her name was Liss Legra, and she would one day destroy the universe.
For now, this fate was far from her mind. She watched the sun rise through the knife-thin gaps in the walls, running her thumb across the dents in a rose apple. Rays pierced through broken ceiling, filtering through sawdust, stirring the sleepy gathering at her feet. Her shadow shifted across them as she took a bite out of the fruit.
One of her companions lifted her head from a pillow made from a tunic and rubbed her eyes. “Liss? Up already?”
“Noma. Tell me something.” Liss' eyes returned to their preoccupation of tracing the gaps in the wall. “What do you think causes all things to happen?”
“What do I think causes...what?”
Liss cocked her head to a side. “Well, a ball does not start rolling unless you push it, and you wouldn't push the ball unless you had some reason to. Say, you wished to start a game with a friend. And you and your friend must have had a reason to want to do that, too. And so on and so forth, until we reach the start of the chain.”
“What are you rambling on about?”
This time it was Lacar who groaned the question, pulling a threadbare blanket over his head to shade his eyes from the dawning sun. Water was dripping, somewhere, and the place smelled damp.
“A lot of people say there’s what they call...a first cause. Something that started the whole universe moving. And you know what else they say? That the thing that gave the universe its first push was intelligent. One who was always there. A being just like one of us.”
“The Being, you mean? The One who is existence itself?”
“Maybe.” Liss stroked her chin. “Maybe the Being, maybe something else. I’ve been thinking.”
“You think a lot for a child,” said Lacar.
She scrunched up her face. “I am only a child in years lived, and not even that!” She turned to stare at the warehouse door, which hung half open to the whispering breeze. Here, the only intruders one need worry about were the centipedes. “Every great conquest, every great monument, is just someone’s dreams and desires given shape. I could do anything I pleased—if only I wanted it enough. Perhaps even create an entire universe of my own, and give it its first push.”
She chuckled to herself, and the rest glanced at each other.
“Is this what those transcriptions from the ruin were about?” asked Noma, propping her chin up. “Why do you care about the carvings of a nomad?”
Liss shook her head and lifted the fruit to her mouth, teeth crunching into it. “It’s everything I needed to know,” she replied while she chewed. “You’ll understand soon.”
Liss Legra was born on Henkor, where one was never far from the sea.
Henkor lay at the end of the archipelago of Doganir, a volcanic island from whose earth lived a town of two hundred. The land ascended to a dormant peak, fringed by forested slopes, and at its foot the people made their own lives. They shared their means and their goods, trading amongst themselves and with Dokor, the next island in the archipelago—catch for produce for nets, mill, machines.
Its people had a history of oceanic battle, and several warriors' grave-trees to show for it—but it had been generations yet since the last warriors had lain down their spells and chosen to settle where the earth was rich. Now they were ruled, or so it was said, by a lineage of Doganir princes, whose most recent successor was a man named Cerris. But the princely fleet had not been seen in these waters in a decade, and nowadays his name brought nothing but scoffs from the elders.
“Who let him have Henkor then?” she asked Boka, the weaver woman down the street, as she sat trimming the elder's hair.
“Only the Being knows,” growled the lady with a shrug of her shoulders. “Elge says someone over on Dokor reckons one of the prince’s ancestors bought our island with fifty barrels of coal. I reckon they did, too! It'd be just like those Doga royalty, to buy us and then discard us.”
Liss was left pondering whether such things could be—whether whole islands could simply change hands like that—and on who might have owned Henkor before the Doganir throne, whoever it was who had sold it to them. She wondered if there was more history to it than the old grave-trees of people she had never seen.
The children of Henkor knew most every mile of the island on this side of the peak. Any one of them could have walked the market square and its surrounding paths blind, except for Noma Nekala, who lived in the mining village on the slopes, half a mile from the town centre.
The far side of the island, however, was a mystery to them. The adults said there was nothing remarkable there, only more of the same: forest and beach and black volcanic rock. Half a day's walk was enough to deter anyone, and none of the children were allowed on the boats yet. As much as their curiosity bade them, none never ventured far enough to see it.
The elders often told stories of the past, of times before living memory when the island peak had been but an underwater vent, the drake god Henkor at its core melting and spewing lava onto the seabed until enough had accrued around it that it peeked through the surface. Although the drake no longer melted the rock, nor did smoke ever issue from the peak again, the monument to its colossal effort ever stood, giving life to the small town on its fringe.
In some ways the legend of Henkor exemplified the tenacity that its people saw as their own greatest virtue. The children learned from their parents, who sailed thunderstorms all the time and who swam out to Trader’s Refuge to harpoon sharks in the deep waters, that the Henkora people did not fear even the most horrific reaches of the unknown.
While the children sometimes picked up fistfighting tricks in scuffles on the streets, the art of spellfolding—of channeling the Being’s power through strips of cloth dipped in the resin of aroca trees and folded into various knot-forms—was the true art of battle.
Though Henkor's days of warring were long past, these forms found use in all places and contexts. The kindling knot-form, which threw sparks, was often used to ignite furnaces. The fulminant form, which crackled with lightning, was of great use in hunting, but had to be wielded on the end of a staff. The incendiary form exploded the objects it touched.
Liss studied spellfolding as diligently as any of her classmates—but it was not for this reason she quickly became the most efficient fighter among them. By a fluke of her birth, or perhaps the will of some higher being, she possessed a singular unique talent: she could cast the incendiary spell without knotwork.
Indeed, all she need do was touch an object in order to explode it. Stone, water, anything with mass or form to it, became her weapon when she laid hands on it. It rather displeased her various spellfolding tutors to have a student cast spells without even trying, thinking she set a bad precedent for the other learners. The elder townsfolk, however, were thrilled, and called it a gift from the sleeping drake-god in the heart of the island.
Just as paper burned better than stone, some materials exploded better than others. Dirt and wood barely smoked when Liss tried to detonate them; natural minerals were more agreeable. But the best results came with coins and iron, as she’d learned the day she had wrecked a market stall and half its wares in a fit.
As Liss grew into her talent, so did she grow into the certainty that there must be a reason she had been gifted so. But in the absence of a discernible cause, she turned it to more mundane uses. On good days, she could project her influence far enough to set off exploding rotten egg traps from across the street. This skill served her well in manoeuvreing around her friends' childish power plays, and during her short stint with a knotting teacher whose cruelty demanded repayment in kind. Her relentless torment, with exploding eggs and hornet nests, eventually resulted in the woman's permanent departure for Dokor.
Some ways off the path from the mining village to the mine, there stood a waterfall as tall as three huts. Loud enough to be heard from the far end of the village, it poured into a whitewater stream that wound down the slopes and through the village, before eventually emptying into the sea. The fall from the top would almost definitely break a few bones—if the faller landed poorly—and the ravenous whirlpool at the bottom would probably drown the rest.
As children would, the Henkora children invented a dare that concerned this very waterfall. “Anyone who leaps, from the top to the bottom,” Etiss announced above the din of the water on the day it was concocted, “will be the new prince of Doganir! We don’t need some good-for-nothing prince who can't do more than buy us for black rock. We need a proper prince! A true chief and leader who has earned the right!”
For the two weeks that followed, none of the others even came come close to trying, not even Etiss himself. Liss, however, was her own breed of person, and her household lacked any authority that could deter her. She woke up early one morning to scale the slopes, and called upon the two children of the rock miner village, her best friend Noma and the mouse-hearted Hassa, to witness her.
There was much protest from the ground as Liss climbed the overgrown slope to the top of the waterfall. “If you break anything, Mother will ground me for letting you do it!” was one of several warnings Noma yelled at her friend from below, the coarse dark tangles of her hair blowing in the wind. But even as she shouted, she stood eagerly watching, as did Hassa, crouched nervously beside her.
Rising on her feet at the top, Liss stretched up and let the wind wash over her. She splashed through the frigid water with her arms spread wide, tiptoeing across unsteady stones till she stood, shin-deep, a foot from the edge of the waterfall. From here, she saw nothing but the forest and the grey-blue sea, a dizzying distance away.
Breathing in deeply, she stepped off the last jutting rock and into the mist.
The plunge lasted barely a second. Hitting the cold water back-first, she screamed and yelled as the water snatched her and whirled her around, surging up around her, spray drenching her face and hair. She gasped and kicked and flailed, pulling up towards the surface. “I’m alive!” she shouted at her trembling friends on the bank, swinging her arms about. Then she was seized by a blazing wave of triumph, and yelled again, “I won the dare! I’m the new prince of the island!”
She laughed—and laughed still as the whirlpool sucked her towards its mouth, even as Noma and Hassa began scrambling for branches and extending them towards her.
Liss had only a second to notice that her feet were being tugged downward, and to gasp, before the bubbling current yanked her into the water and her friends’ shouts turned to screams. She pinched her nose shut and closed her eyes as the roaring water dragged her down through a yawning mouth in the rock, into a place where there was no light.
Almost at once, Liss was spat out into an inclined tunnel. She bobbed to the surface, blind in the dark, emerging in the head’s room of air above the gushing water. Kicking and gasping, she was tossed and flung through the darkness, the spot of light through which she had been swallowed growing smaller until it was completely obscured. Her thrill had only barely turned to terror, but as the slope and the current grew gentle her hunger for adventure reignited in her chest.
She swam with purpose, feet and knees sometimes bumping against the bed of the stream, but the current did most of the work, channeling her through unseen caverns that smelled of ancient grime.
At times her mind wandered to the friends she had left on the hillside, but she spent most of it pondering her location: she must be inside the volcano, where the lava had once flowed, where countless layers of rock hard cooled and hardened time and again. She could almost feel the weight of the towering hollowness above, bearing down upon her as she kicked and paddled in the dark.
It was almost almost half an hour before light finally slit the darkness downstream, the crack’s reflection rippling in the water. Merely floating till then, Liss began to kick and paddle with renewed vigour. Eventually a glow seeped into the air, and the crack grew, until it was large enough to engulf her.
The burble of water became a gush. Out she tumbled, into the blazing light of day, and into the scent of forest and salty sea, everything she knew except untouched by the stain of humanity. This second, smaller waterfall sent her freefalling through the air before she once again met the current in a huge splash.
Down the blue river she bobbed, beneath the brightening sky, the water carving a deep path down the deserted side of the mountain. It was easier to ride than to swim, so she rode the river down the coast where it fanned out over the beach.
Before she could reach the shallow estuary, Liss kicked to the edge of the stream and rolled onto the sand. For a while, she lay there, panting, while the water puddled around her. Then she crawled to her feet to take in her new surroundings: a crescent-shaped coast overlooking an empty stretch of blue sea, much like the town beach on the other side, but devoid of industry.
This, she thought as she looked upon it, was her principality, lush, grand and bounteous. This was the island that Cerris couldn’t spare half a thought for.
Following the coast in her squelching shoes, and wading where the bluffs were steep or the undergrowth grew thick, took her back to town right as the sun was setting. By the time she arrived in the harbour, her clothes stank of sweat, so she bathed in the river before showing up at home, lest her mother nag her about the stench.
When Noma and Kassa presented their eyewitness account of Liss’ feat, the other children were unimpressed, certain that the two were lying for her. None of them honoured the terms of the dare, and Etiss later admitted he wasn’t sure what a prince's duties encompassed anyway.
From then, Liss would resent and torment them, with traps and tricks, until even that anger she lost in the shadow of what was to come.
Liss was there when the Prince of Doganir finally remembered the little island of Henkor and made his presence felt again.
From the part of the horizon beyond which Dokor lay, they saw a dozen ships emerge and grow from specks, coursing towards and into the harbour waters of Henkor. People hurried through the streets to the marketplace to watch, and the fishermen leapt out of their boats as the ships lowered anchor half a mile from shore, forming two loose lines across the bay. Liss joined the commotion, though her mother refused to lay eyes on the new arrivals.
Soon rowboats began to depart from the larger vessels, carrying sailors who bore on their chests the embroidered ribbons of the prince who had left this island for lost. When the first boat touched the coast, a man disembarked without a stumble, the golden thread woven into his collar marking him as their admiral. “Greetings from His Highness, Cerris Cagna, the Grand and Golden,” he announced.
For months before, whisperings of the growing Orsandin terror had swept the island, rumours that navies had taken the Great Isles and seized every route towards the Doganir archipelago.
Some elders of the village had sniffed, as they always had, at the very suggestion that Emperor Milaston would turn his attentions to their island. But today, the sailors told them of a great Orsand fleet that was bearing down upon Doganir from the north, and that these two dozen ships were the archipelago principality’s only hope of eluding capture.
This news was uttered with lowered eyes, and Liss read the island’s fate from the admiral’s face.
Liss was there when Henkor fell to the Orsandin.
She watched as warships bearing the violet flags of Orsand broke across every mile of the glittering horizon in the first flaming rays of morning, and the sailors of the Doganir ships roused at their posts, raising their anchors and cannons while the alarm began to ring. She watched the ships form a vanguard, cutting through the bay waters to meet the hopelessly vast fleet.
Within minutes, the first columns of smoke ascended, dark bastions over the sea.
Tragedy had a tendency to stain the mind irreversibly. Liss remembered meaningless details of that day: how she kicked a ceramic pot to the ground, watching it shatter on the steps as she leapt over it to flee down the terraces. How she left the path and scrambled through thickets to dodge the screaming crowd, only to find herself at an old farming terrace, with only the coastline and the sea ahead, and stopped, transfixed by the scene.
She stared on as the purple-bearing ships tore through the defenders’ smoking line, as a fresh wave of Orsandin vessels emerged from northeast and southwest. As the Doganir ships began to sink, a small army of reckless souls surged to the harbour, spells folded, but a cannonball smashed the docks on which they stood, and then the crossbow bolts began to rain on their heads.
For a while Liss drifted in the vision as if she were witnessing a dream with a vague ache in her throat—the smoke, the cries, the tolling bell—until a shout awakened her to her senses.
Two armoured officers were yelling out at her from downslope, swinging batons at her in threat. As one took her wrist in a crushing grip and dragged her down dirt paths, she gritted her teeth and contemplated struggle—but one glance at the smouldering sea told her that now was not the time.
There was blood on the streets as she was marched to the market square, where the stands had already been mangled to wood skeletons and shreds of cloth and the rest of the town, it seemed, was already gathered. A figure in a three-horned helmet stood upon a wooden stage in their midst, raising a purple standard bearing a black hook above them.
“You are Orsandin now!” she bellowed. “Declare the name of your new emperor! Long live Emperor Milaston!”
Her fingers curled when her people answered. The halting cry of “long live Emperor Milaston!” rose from the footpaths of Henkor, and she joined with gritted teeth.
Within days, the Orsandin soldiers had set up a counterspell around the perimeter of the island, strips of cloth strung up on cords between towering poles, and at once every strip of spell cloth on Henkor was rendered stiff and useless for folding.
The laws changed faster than any could reckon with them, and the wooden signage changed to match, hammered into the earth on street corners. Suddenly nets and poultry were banned, and seized. Then trade boats could no longer enter their harbour. Pots and bowls larger than a head were to be smashed. Each household was afforded the ownership of a single rain urn, but all garden produce was to be uprooted before the first inspection.
That first afternoon and every seven afternoons thereafter, the authorities came rapping on their doors with metal batons. Every week the Legra household opened their cupboards and cases for the inspectors, showing them into the barren grain cellar, overturning bowls and cups over the drain to empty them of leftover material.
They starved for two days. On the third, the authority once again gathered them in the marketplace, where they were told there was only one thing they could do to earn sustenance: work. Liss’ mother, even if she were any less self-serving, would have been too frail for labour. Liss was given no choice.
On the fields, they chained her ankle to her neighbour’s, a different one each day, and gave her an axe. In the daytime, they picked away at the forests, clearing acre-sized plots and then tilling the earth uncovered. In the night they ate. On some days she was directed to strip the aroca trees of their bright golden seeds and collect them in large crates. Almost as soon as each field was tilled, it was planted.
Some days, Liss and her companions were led to empty the storehouses and erect barbed steel barricades around the perimeter. Then came the machines—the pulleys, tables and winches of unknown purpose, all wheeled into the empty houses.
During that time, Liss barely met the other children of the village: only Etiss worked the fields from the start, and even he, she did not exchange more than a few words with. The number of children grew by one or two with each season that passed, and soon they were joined by Kule, and then by Noma, who followed her parents.
The first riot broke out two weeks into their occupation. The members of the Kanela and Adsa households gathered one day in the marketplace and stormed the guardhouse with broken poles and abandoned gardening implements. No one had expected a riot staged with shovels and pitchforks to last long against crossbows and cannons, but it was so decisively quelled that all Liss heard of it was in the warning that followed.
“For the foul betrayal of the Kanela and Adsa, all workers are to receive half rations for a week,” they said. “You are all culpable! All of you! While they answer for their crimes in the storehouses, you also answer for them, for allowing them to proceed with wrongdoing unhindered.”
It was known later that the two families’ houses had burned down in the night, and their residents, while still alive, now lived in a makeshift house under tighter scrutiny.
Over the next two years, Doganir gradually ceased to exist. The archipelago that had once been Doganir became a tiny corner of Orsand, another shred sewn onto that bloody patchwork. That fateful day on the marketplace sand, before the stinging heat of battle and torches had died, Liss had found herself learning new laws, answering to new leaders.
Whisperings of rebellion were common in the first months—counterspell sabotages, attempted escapes—spates of news, sparks here and there. But attempt after failed attempt began to dampen their fire, until not one person on the island dared even speak incendiary words.
Watching their anger smoulder out to shame—watching the Orsandin raise the black-and-purple banners over her homeland soil—roused a hatred deep in her core, a drake-god of her own, housed in her soul and filling her with fire.
Hatred was a dangerous thing to feel in these times. It tempted one to reckless acts. But Liss did not quell it, for she knew it would serve her someday. And every crunch of a baton against a Henkora slave’s back, and every Orsand officer’s grin, stoked it.
Liss came to know one thing: they were all guilty, every Orsandin soldier. Every last one.
Liss had to give grudging credit where it was due: the Orsandin expansion, five years in progress now, had been excessively successful for a nation just three islands large.
Their civilian programme, rumoured of in the months before their occupation, she watched sink its hooks into her town. Children learned the Orsandin language in nurseries, and adults toiled on the plantations for food, singing their captors’ songs.
She saw them all, dead eyes, put-on smiles, exclamations of “it’s not as terrible as I thought it’d be!” and leers of “don’t ruin this for us”. The red-hot rage stirred in her belly, but she knew it was not yet time to let it take hold of her. Soon, flourishing green aroca plantations girt the town on all sides, and the gendarmerie officers with crossbows slung over their shoulders reminded them that they would find nothing but pain on the other side of resistance.
The rains made puddles of slurried mud in the earthen roads, and small weeds grew on the wayside where the cartwheels did not crush them. By the fields, carts were loaded daily with barrels of aroca resin and rolled in tonnes to the harbour: she watched their procession as she walked home.
The third year of their occupation dawned, and with it a shift in the law. Liss was fourteen, just in time for the Orsand governance to decree that a hundred individuals between fourteen and thirty-five were to be selected to become a part of the machine that had destroyed their home.
When the recruiter came knocking on the Legra household door with the promise of free rations and battlebound glory, Liss knew better than to refuse. She let them march her to the barracks, standing upon the ash-darkened earth where the Kanela and Adsa houses had stood, to lay the sash upon her shoulder. There among the shelters that had sprouted upon the ruins of her old town, the trainers barked orders in harsh Orsandin syllables, words that would never again be scrubbed from their memories.
She bowed her head before the rolling of drums, sweat racing down her face in the blaze of the sun. She spat blood on sand when she was pummelled in the jaw, and hid her loathing behind a guise of zeal. She ground her teeth and proclaimed her faith to Emperor Milaston with her fellows, and she bowed to the ground before visiting generals. The anger in her roared, and roared, screaming to erupt, to spread its ragged wings and breathe fire on all it saw, but she knew, even now, it was too soon.
In these endless, formless days of marches and patrols her only friend was Noma, who joined the division and once again stood by her, the only one with whom she would ever speak.
Being in the army offered the small comfort of a private space: one of many locked drawers in the hall, small and shallow enough that only two sets of clothes could be stored inside it. The space, meagre as it was, became a refuge for her mind, and it was while pondering its contents or returning her belongings to it that a plot began to appear in her mind.
Though she hid it well, Liss had not forgotten how to destroy with a touch. A more prideful individual, or one of weaker will, might have fallen to the temptation of showing off. But she fought without it, or only when she could conceal it. On the testing ground, she raised the heads of several superiors when she hid a rusted hook at the base of the tower of stones, then swung at it with her baton and sent it tumbling with the help of a hidden explosion.
Born with the blood of the volcano, the townsfolk had said. The Orsandin usurpers simply called her “better”. In three months’ time she graduated from basic training at the top of the class. At the vocational ceremony they slit her palm with a toxin-laced knife, and a tear raced down her cheek from her right eye, marking her for combat. Others were sorted into administration or physicianship. She grinned as they tattooed her achievements below her right eye, to be seen by all who saw her.
Then, as she began the transition from a trainee to a full-fledged soldier, she began to ponder and plan.
In the days before the occupation, sailors often dropped Doganir coins in the shallow parts of riverbeds. Liss’ patrols took her occasionally past the harbour, where she would inch up to the bank with permission from her patrol partner and dip her hands into the muck, to find the bits of currency right where they had been left. She took only the coins that were untarnished, and slid them into her tunic pocket.
In the evenings, she would slip them under her folded uniform in her drawer and feel their edges with her thumb. How could these ever be enough? Orsand had taken Henkor so long that it was beginning to stain her memory of home. How would these coins return this island, and this archipelago, to what they had been before?
Idling in a watchtower by the bay between shifts, gazing down at the strange ships in the harbour she barely recognised, Liss felt it again in her blood, the building pressure of rage. Something would change. Something must.
On the day the officers announced to the warriors on the square that they would be staging the inaugural Anniversary Parade on fourth anniversary of their capture, Liss caught the first tang of hope on the breeze.
On this day the people would be allowed out of their houses to watch the parade, presided over by Ylcor, the general of the Doganir division. A pyrotechnic display would conclude the evening, and the once-Henkora warriors would stand at attention for the audience. It was to be the island’s rite of passage into permanent Orsandin membership.
At once, as if a great tension were being released, Liss seemed to feel the island’s heart beat again, ancient layers of rock cracking to reveal red veins of heat. Perhaps it was but the inevitable playing out, when they decided to put her in charge of the pyrotechnics.
There were three rehearsals. Liss watched faces pass her at each one, none quite sticking in her memory. Their eyes held nothing but hardened apathy and purpose. They marched together across the remains of the market square—the old earth given new and sinister purpose—and then she left her contingent at sunset for her position at the fireworks. She climbed the rickety wooden stairs to the makeshift platform, and pounded firepowder into the cannon before igniting it with tinder, firing an empty rocket, then two more, into the cloudy sky.
There was lifeless cheering from the ground below, and she stared up at the inky sky as the rockets caught fire and scattered as ash in the wind.
Liss had not so much as laid eyes on Noma ever since the two had been separated into their respective vocations. Two evenings before the parade, as if by the will of the Being, she found her in the corridor to the drawer room, silhouetted in the light of the far windows.
“Noma,” said Liss, startling her friend with a hand to the shoulder. “I have a plan.”
Their eyes met in the purpling light. “What?” Noma was pulling her hair into a cloth band. Hearing the words, she let go of her hair, eyes darting left and right. “Quick, what is it?”
“On the day of the parade. Where will you be?”
“Up in a watchtower.”
“I want you to leave early—right before the fireworks display—”
The parade day arrived. Though Liss prided herself in maintaining her calm, her heart raced dizzyingly that day. Her blood burned hot. Her will was buckling under the heat and pressure. But she held fast. She did not speak. She did not hurry.
General Ylcor arrived in a ship with pristine purple sails and carved balusters, his dark hair in a topknot, generous sleeves hanging from his muscled arms with spells on the ribbons of his hems. The horns sent up a bright fanfare as he strode down the aisle and took his seat among the Orsandin commanders, on a platform apart from the crowd. The haggard Henkora people thronged the sand streets behind wooden barricades, but there was a hush upon them, a placidity to their gazes, unlike any crowd Liss had ever seen in this marketplace before.
Marches, salute and fanfare proceeded for the fourth time, and this time to moderate cheer. Her pulse drummed louder than the patter of their applause. As the sun sank through the sky, she signaled the transition with a gesture, and climbed once more to the top of the pyrotechnics platform, before a thousand eyes, and picked the tinderbox up from where it sat on the railing.
She met Ylcor’s eye as she pounded fire-powder into the powder chute, and found that he was watching her as closely as she was watching him. As she pushed the first rocket into the cannon’s mouth, she slid a hand into her tunic pocket and retrieved a small thing—an old Doganir copper—and palmed it into the cannon’s barrel.
Again as rehearsed, she struck flint on steel, hot bright sparks igniting where the coarse surfaces met, the tail of the fuse blazing. When the sparks lit her eyes, she clenched her jaw. There would be no changing her mind, now.
It was time to erupt. To kindle disaster. To shatter everything.
Wrenching the cannon's lever in a surging of her pulse, Liss swivelled the barrel and pointed it at Ylcor.
Few things were audible over the magma roar of her blood in those seconds: a chaos of unintelligible shouts—some lunging out of the way, some towards her.
The rocket sailed through the darkness in a trail of bright violet sparks, making an arcing line towards wide-eyed Ylcor’s seat as he made to leap from it. He lunged to the ground so that the firework hit the back of his chair instead, and like an emperor—or a prince perhaps—Liss lifted a hand in command, and the last she saw of the commanders were their faces lit purple.
For an eternity all was fire. The fury of four long years, shattering its prison at last, a volcano ruptured by the pressure of its magma, giving life but giving death.
A white-hot explosion tore the stage and every row of wooden benches upon it to sinews, blowing the flaming pieces into the air. She saw the glittering aftermath: bodies sprawled across the square, among blazing shards of wood, some bleeding out from wounds gashed by the shrapnel.
All at once, the strained silence of four years snapped. The Henkora people surged forth like the many-toothed sea, all screams and bellows, ripping the wooden barricades to pieces, and circular ranks soldiers came clanging in their boots, closing in on them.
Without a moment’s pause, Liss leapt from the top of the platform and rolled, then sprinted away through the chaos, detonating jewellery on necks and fingers, sending heads soaring into the air. Each explosion left her more breathless, left more cuts from the shrapnel. A lightning bolt of pain clove her head, and she reeled, but even in her momentary blindness she shoved and sprinted through tangles of limbs and torsos.
“She’s moving northward!” came an Orsandin shout, joined by others. Out of the crowd—into the darkness—she plunged, dodging around patches of lamplight, up towards the first plantation. She glared at the brass lock on the first gate she came upon until a fiery boom tore the tiny lock apart and threw the gate clean off its hinges. More shouts echoed across the compound.
Up the slopes and away from the noise wove Liss, and never before had she felt so alone, a girl with nothing but her talent left. She dodged through rustling ranks and files of trees, and at the upslope fence she reached out to touch the barbed metal, eyes squeezed shut: for three arms’ length on either side of her, the wires exploded with heat and flame, and stinging shards of metal raked her face. Through the gap she leapt, and shot away, between ravaged trees, through thickening forest, clambering up loose boulders. She followed childhood footpaths through the trunks, and turned back every minute to see if the shadows and lights were getting farther.
At the Nekala hut, she rounded the back. There among the shrubs between the back door and a sheer cliff face crouched Noma, where Liss had told her to wait, eyes glittering in what little milky moonlight reached the shadow behind her house.
The distant crunching of footsteps startled the girl out of her crouch. “Hide here!” she whispered, waving Liss over.
“No, no, follow me,” Liss muttered in reply.
Without waiting to see if her friend would do as told, she continued to run, eyes on the barren path through the grass and dead leaves. A minute later, Noma’s footsteps caught up to her, as did her panting and confused whispers of “why?”.
Liss did not turn when she answered. “Do you want to be free or not?”
The waterfall was audible before it was visible, the last shade of dusk glittering pink on its droplets. Liss slowed to a stop upon a rock at the water’s edge, where the hungry churning and sucking of the whirlpool joined the roar of cascading water. She felt the first sheet of droplets hit her arm, and turned around, to find Noma bursting through into the clearing, her face almost no longer a silhouette.
“Remember last time?” said Liss. “I won the dare here. But no one let me be the prince. I was dumb. I could have been the prince if I’d just wanted to. If I’d acted like it.”
Noma was too busy glaring at the waterfall. “I can’t do this!” she hissed, wild-haired and wide-eyed. But the distant crunch of branches in the undergrowth cut her short.
Without a word, Liss stepped off the bank and into the current, which tugged on her at once, almost urgently. Lowering her body into the water, she drew in a breath as her clothes soaked it up and the cold enveloped her. Water misted her face. She crouched ever lower on the slippery, stony riverbed so that only her head bobbed above the surface, and began kicking towards the whirlpool. As she did, the last light faded from the sky.
Now the waterfall mist was thick enough to drown in, and she was surrounded by the noise of the spiralling water, draining into the depths below. She closed her eyes to the terror, and felt the Being course in her, through her, through the bed of the river beneath her, through the water and the volcano and the eternal heat that lay beneath. She gulped in a deep breath, and let the current dragged her down into the icy gullet and back inside the dead volcano.
The journey seemed longer in this impenetrable darkness. Liss only knew Noma was behind her because of the erratic splashes that sometimes broke through the gushing of the underground stream: her friend was doing a good job of not making her terror heard. She held the tunic pocket shut with a hand and paddled with the other, using her feet to kick off the rocks and propel herself forward. Her clothes dragged in the water.
“Please, please, make it stop!” gasped Noma through chattering teeth as she splashed up towards Liss.
The routes she traversed in the dark were faintly familiar. How long they were swimming and floating she couldn’t say, it could have been the entire morning and she would not have known. Today the pinprick marking the exit was all but invisible, and Noma’s pleading grew more sporadic until she was overcome by shivers.
Then, out they tumbled, as Liss had before, tossed and rolled by the rapids as the vivid cold of the night snatching them. They were channeled down the same whitewater stretch as before, and down through the bay, the open sea glittering in the moon.
At the edge of the estuary, Liss snatched the bank and gave a kick, rolled out onto the sand. She began to cough and pant, shivering and wet and smelling faintly of salt. Some ways upstream Noma shrieked out Liss’ name and reached out a trembling arm—rising on her feet, Liss snatched the proffered wrist and swung backwards, dragging her friend out of the water.
“You’re crazy!” shrieked Noma as she stumbled in the sand, clothes and hair dripping.
“If I’d stopped and let the officers catch us, then I’d be crazy,” she answered. “Get on the ground, we’ll be harder to spot.”
Liss dropped to her knees, dragging Noma down with her. Flattening herself to the ground, she glanced at the shadowy outcrop of rock where the shimmering stream disappeared, almost expecting a chorus of shouts to come echoing through the gap, and then a full phalanx of officers. But there was not a sound, besides the whisper of tree leaves over the rush of the ocean.
She turned her attention to the dark blue beach, and saw for the first time a long line of towering poles, following the contour of the shore and vanishing around its next curve. Suspended from the tops of the poles and linking them together was a thick cord, and at foot-long intervals along that cord, hundreds of knotted cloth strips: the counterspell.
Liss flipped onto her back and rubbed her temple, slowly drinking in the sight of the sky and the peak piercing it. For the first time in five years, no one knew where she was. For the first time they could choose to move irrevocably out of Orsandin reach.
There they lay, shivering in the wind beneath all these stars they had missed, Liss charting in her mind the next leg of their journey. Destroying the counterspell would not get them far, if past attempts were to go by. The Orsandin would surely know their location at once if the perimeter were breached, or at least locate them much sooner.
“We’ll swim,” she said at last, eyes on the horizon of black and blue. “The next patrol boat won’t pass for an hour yet. We’ll swim to Trader’s Refuge. We’ll have time—”
“I can't swim!” answered Noma in a frantic whisper.
“Do you want to escape or not?” Liss snapped.
“What about—what about everyone else?”
Liss turned to Noma and fixed her with a glare. “This chance isn’t going to last forever!” she whispered harshly.
“No, no, that’s not fair to them—”
“Look here. It’s better that the two of us took this chance to escape, than that we wasted it trying to free everyone.”
There was an exchange of stares; Noma eventually turned away. “Promise we’ll come back and free them.”
Liss’ companion froze.
“Freeing Henkor won’t ever be enough. There will always be another island. Dokor. The rest of Doganir. Then the rest of the Peaceful Sea. The Great Isles. Whatever lies beyond. There’s no freedom there! There’s no freedom in small scuffles. They’ll just send another fleet and take it back.”
Liss’ gaze was set. Perhaps Noma did not understand it, the scale of all this. But Liss knew. She knew nothing short of a god could end Orsandin rule forever.
That god would have to be she.
“No, we need to obliterate them.”
Noma shook her head. “You are crazy.”
From the moment they slipped under the cord boundary of the counterspell and dove into the water, Liss and Noma were not to see Henkor again.
They would land on Trader’s Refuge, an islet just large enough for a village of ten. There they would live from the trees, crafting a raft on which to buoy this hopeless thrust for freedom. It was not much, at the end of three days: two hollow logs connected by several smaller ones, with a rudder jutting through the middle and oars on either side.
Wading in the shallows, they pushed it off into the clear waters off the northern coast and clambered aboard. Dipping a hand into the lapping water behind the vessel, Liss exploded the suspended sand, the shockwave clouding the shallows and propelling them forward. Noma yanked on the oar-rudder so that the raft made an arc, pointing them in the rough direction of the Great Isles with the sun on the right.
With just a net of wild fruit, two wooden spears, and a pocketful of Doganir coins, Liss and Noma made off into the morning, threading their course between sea and sky.