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I led the way through the web of streets, shoulders hunched against the November wind. The city of HelsInc might’ve become a mega sprawl—all flash and neon, with a skyline punctuated by dozens of spires, as if the whole damn city had a perpetual hard-on—but it still had scars. Some were gossamer-thin threads, suturing up shattered pieces of the capital with delicate cosmetic precision. The ones in this hood were more what a grit like me would earn: gnarled, ugly, and still painful.
Ethereals had lived here once, tucked in a couple of red-brick blocks known as the Abattoir. Sadly, it had lived up to its name. After the war, our benevolent overlords had tried to burn away any congealed puddles of magic. When that’d failed, they’d tried to cut it out like a tumor, leaving the ruins for the city’s poorest to inhabit. Now they were simply paving over the memories with no regard for that beautiful, old architecture crumbling beneath their heels. As if the spilled blood wasn’t going to seep up through the new foundations anyway.
“Hey, Omyn! Watch it!” Ruu grabbed my arm and tugged me away from the blistered lip of a crater right in the middle of the street. Fuck, I needed to pay more attention. The double espresso I’d had at work around midnight clearly wasn’t hitting the spot anymore.
With Ruu in front, we ignored the construction cones and demarcation tape, carefully skirted the security cameras, and clambered over the rubble until we reached a swath of a mostly intact wall.
It’s a good thing I always wore combat boots.
“This it?” I asked.
“Just as promised.” Ruu dragged a finger across a shadow blasted into the masonry, barely visible in the sterile glow of the streetlamps over on the next block where gentrification was well under way. Everything was a box there, built for energy efficiency and for maximizing square meterage. It was soulless—all glass facades and painted exteriors with LED lighting determined to sear away the history of HelsInc.
I traced the silhouette of the creature’s death burned into the concrete. The memory of a haltija perhaps, the limbs disproportionately long and the ears pointed like most Ethereals’.
“Did haltijat have wings?” I asked quietly. I couldn’t remember, despite the hours I’d spent killing them in video games.
“Nah, this must’ve been one of those pixie things.”
“Keiju,” I said, and Ruu shrugged a maybe under their black trench.
Info on Ethereals was sketchy at best, and any searches on the subject could get you flagged by HelsInc, banned from the web, or, even worse—axed from Gamespace. Not worth the risk. When I was a kid, my dad used to game with me. Our favorite game was this ARPG, where we were bounty hunters bagging and tagging Ethereals from all over the world. It’s how I learned most of what I know about magic. I bit my lip hard, not wanting to let any bitterness sink its claws into me.
“Let’s do this.” Ruu flicked on the headlight worn over their beanie.
I glanced up and down the street. Even with what was going to go down later today, we weren’t likely to be disturbed at 4 AM in a neighborhood housing crumpled eviction notices. I cast a wary look at the sky, half-expecting to hear the whir of PD drones. I definitely didn’t need to add this to my rap sheet.
All was quiet.
I retrieved a can of paint from my backpack and gave it a shake, trying to muffle the sound against my leather jacket. Might as well have dropped a grenade.
My fingers drifted to my neck, ready to activate my ’ware. The nanites in my veins lay ready and waiting for the protocol that would juice me up for fight or flight. Given all the hours I’d spent in a dojo as a kid, I rarely opted for the latter.
“We’re good,” Ruu said when nothing but the icy wind sloshed off the sea, bringing with it the signature eau de toilette of the city, a bouquet that was equal parts brine, hot garbage, and sickly sweet citrus. “Pigs are busy with the protests. They won’t be patrolling here.” Ruu shook their own can.
Pulling my scarf over my nose to cancel out the fumes, I got to spraying.
We worked quickly, using the blurred wings to create a subtle silhouette over a human figure. Ridiculous as it was, I wished we could free the creature before it got bulldozed into oblivion, but paint was all we had.
We pulled out more cans and continued to spray the wall until every shadow and smear was a vibrant fuck you. It would’ve been a stronger message if we were spraying one of the city’s brand-new buildings, but those came with state-of-the-art security, and I didn’t want to join my mom behind bars.
Ruu checked their phone, showing it to me so that we got the slogan right. If we wanted to be taken seriously, we couldn’t afford to mess it up. The Legion didn’t want us to half-ass it, especially when we were giving giant middle fingers to the establishment.
In under four hours, city officials would be gearing up for a press conference. A bunch of brown-noses would be here to sing President Rajala’s praises on camera as the city bull-dozed old homes to make way for a new CryptoClean Clinic. It promised bleeding-edge gene therapy to those who could afford it. Rajala was determined to erase every last trace of Ethereals—even the crumbs of mutated DNA in people — and build a future entirely human. Or so Rajala liked to say while flanked by android security guards.
Sometimes I wondered if the president wasn’t a bot himself. The man was always cool and calm, with an irritatingly charming smile plastered on his too-perfect face.
“I think we’re done,” Ruu said.
I took a few careful steps back to get a better look at our work. “Yeah, it’s good.” It looked badass. Suck on that every uni professor who dismissed street art as inferior. If I ever got the opportunity, I’d shove a picture of VankilaNorth across their desk and ask them to explain how that happened in the name of art and architecture! The human figure was on their knees, hands upraised, clearly begging, while the haltija shadow splayed the hint of wings from the human’s shoulders. And beneath it, we’d written PEOPLE≫PROFITS!
Would it make a difference?
Would any of the reporters have the guts to post footage of this and actually get our message out to the public?
Would we have been better off rioting?
Who knows, but we had to do something.
The new mandate making gene therapy compulsory was bullshit! These days pretty much everyone had a few mutated base pairs. Not our fault the dead magic polluting the city twisted human cytosine into Ethereal cryptomine. And why the hell should we be made to pay for that gene therapy when those mutations tipped into double digits? If Rajala wanted us scrubbed so badly, he should’ve coughed up. Now it’s on us. Get cleaned at a Crypto Clinic or risk losing your job, your home—even your status as a human being.
Ruu smiled, lip rings glinting, as they signed our work with an ornate ‘L’ in the bottom right corner of the mural. Under their scarf, I knew the same L was inked on the right side of their neck, designating them a true believer in the Legion’s cause. Of course, they still had their chip. Going chipless was a whole other level of hardcore.
I had ink too, but not an L. Not yet. I’d been thinking about leveling up, committing to the Legion, and all that, but then Mom got locked up, and my life took a swan dive.
My HelsInc-issued IpseChip tingled behind my ear, as if it were already analyzing my base pairs. How long till my nites declared me a danger to society? Not that I needed magic-mutated DNA to be that.
I was tempted to sign my usual slashed O alongside the L, but it was probably better not to tie myself to this particular bit of vandalism. Besides, it was getting late.
Pulling out my phone, I checked the time. I had less than an hour to make it home. Shit. I’d have to book it. “Hey, Ruu. I’ve got to bounce.”
“That’s cool.” Ruu offered me their hand for the parting shake routine. They nodded toward the mural and cracked a smile. “You’re doing good, Myn.”
If only that were true.
Fifty-two minutes later, I raced, sweating, into my apartment building, where I was greeted by the stink of stale urine and spilled beer—the sweet smell of home in the Piles. I dashed up the stairs two at a time. It wasn’t worth risking the elevator. The hunk of junk rattled and chugged and often got stuck between floors on good days. On bad ones, it randomly fell multiple stories, occasionally killing its occupants. That was life in the Piles, the bleeding ass of the city.
Luna opened the door before I could turn the key.
“You’re late,” she said, her sigh full of disappointment and resignation.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered as I sucked in mouthfuls of air. Could’ve used my ’ware to get me up the twelve flights faster, but that would’ve exhausted me beyond the healing powers of caffeine, and I had a day planned.
“Club closed at two. Where were you?”
I was still coming up with an excuse when she pointed at my thigh and the smudge of red paint above my knee. She pursed her lips and arched her right eyebrow. Dammit.
“You’re still running with those Ls?” Now she was frowning, her mouth curled down in disappointment.
“You really think Terhi Laine died of natural causes?” I asked, with only a twinge of guilt at how I was deflecting—like always...
“Of course not.” Luna smoothed her hand over her hair, pulled tight in the immaculate ponytail the hospital required. “But this isn’t your fight.”
“It’s everyone’s fight,” I said. With Terhi Laine, the former health minister recently and conveniently six feet under, there’d be no one brave enough to oppose Rajala. Now we were all one update away from mandatory gene therapy that less than half of us could afford.
“Your brother needs you.” Luna slipped into her coat, then pulled on her shoes. “He’ll have no one if you—”
“I know,” I said, too tired to act on the anger fizzing through my blood. Luna always did know how to press my buttons, and breaking up hadn’t seemed to dull her skill at it.
“He’s a good kid. This isn’t his fault.” She held my gaze, daring me to argue.
I clamped my teeth on my inner cheek, determined not to respond with something I’d only regret. I squeezed past her, shedding my scarf and jacket.
“Our shuttle leaves at eight.” I tugged my fingers through the jagged points of my hair, looking everywhere but at her.
“This isn’t your fault either. You know that, right?” Her fingers gripped my wrist and my breath tangled in my chest, burning as words turned to ashes on my tongue.
“Give your mom my love.” Her hand dropped away, taking all her warmth with it. Gods, I missed her hands, her mouth, her body spooned around mine, her hair in my face, and the taste of her skin. But it was over, and I was the one who’d wanted it that way.
She shut the door, and I kicked off my boots. Stalking through the apartment, I checked on Bracken first, still asleep and curled up in our mother’s bed, before heading to the kitchen to make enough coffee to revive a corpse.
Haltija (Hull-tee-yah) is an guardian evil spirit, gnome, or elf-like creature that helps and protects something or somebody of death. There are many different kinds of haltijat, for example, guardians of water, the forest, or even graveyards. Human settlements are also said to have guardian haltijat who take care of homesteads and villages. Hatlijat are known to prey on hapless humans who come too close to their territory. They have potent magical powers that make humans ill. Hatijat dislike fire and can be defeated with iron weapons.
Edits for the Bestiary, Kalevala Online
Original text: Suomalainen Muinaisusko (Finnish Antiquity) by Minna Lönnrot
“Ethereals’ tits, it’s cold,” I bit out through the ratty layers of my scarf.
“Another reason to make this quick,” Ruu said, all business as usual.
Sticking to the shadows, we strode away from our rendezvous point near the harbor. The sludge-thick Baltic lapped against piers abandoned to the freeze. Usually, the boardwalks were packed with gaggles of intoxicated teenagers, but those not participating in the riots raging across the city tonight were probably safe and warm indoors—like I should’ve been….
I glared across the bay at the uppity ’burbs drenched in the surgical glow of LEDs. It didn’t matter that a single month’s rent there was more than a grit could make in a lifetime. The wind shoved the stink of rotting magic up their sky-high noses all the same.