Scabbed City

by Xan van Rooyen

The city is bleeding.

Its foundations are steeped in burgundy. Capillaries reach from the earth like roots growing in reverse, vines closing a strangle hold on brick and mortar, throttling every building with the last remnants of magic.

They thought they could eradicate us, my people, Ethereals they call us as if we are all one in the same. We have our own names that warp and twist on human tongues, leaving their lips blistered by the power carried even in our words.

Tonight, the wind blows off the Baltic, slathering the streets in the putrescent perfume of decay. The hemoglobin run-off congeals in rainbow swirls like oily lily pads atop the sea. All my kin, slaughtered and reduced to stains on concrete. Our memories seep from the bedrock, fingers groping at the humans who paved over their genocide, thinking we were gone.

That we’d forget.

I breathe deep, savoring the taste of my ancestors in the biting wind before I pull my scarf over my nose like the humans. They retch and gag at the stench, their delicate noses run red and their eyes weep as rotting magic stings their senses. It’s the least of what they deserve.

Away from the shore now, Helsinki closes around me like the petals of a corpse flower, devouring me whole as I make the trek along ice-slicked sidewalks. I melt into the human throngs, let their tide pull me downtown into a district laced with exotic eateries and strip joints, with bars and nightclubs offering every form of titillation. I stuff my hands into my pockets, fingers curling around the bag of phials. Each is a careful product of titration, the active ingredient extracted from my veins, distilled and filtered until safe enough for human consumption.

The Shadows find me, drifting from club queues or greasy food strands, each bearing my mark inked on their face or neck. Some even wear it on the backs of their hands. To humans, the interlocking lines look more like the blade of a scythe than a crescent moon. I have the same symbol inked above my heart, a reminder that I am rahko, a moon-darkener, and that the humans were right to fear us.

My Shadows and I wade through the crowd, until streets become alleys and we reach the obscured entrance to an abandoned metro station. Once, the trains ran along a forked artery beneath the city, but my people—more than a generation ago now—bombed and burned the tunnels, a paltry attempt at retaliation for the way androids, armed with energy weapons and operating on human orders, had bombed and burned Ethereals. They razed our forests and poisoned our lakes, as if they could purge us from the land that birthed my ancestors millennia before humans set foot upon the soil.

We pick our way through the ruined depths where Ethereal blood has coagulated into puddles. It gloms on our heels and spatters our shins.

The humans already gathered, sway—cadaverous—to the bone-jarring hellektro pumping through the bowels of the city. I feel the music in my teeth, both the fangs I’ve dulled to human stumps and the atavistic second canines sitting dormant in my gums.

Bodies writhe on the pockmarked concrete that was once a platform, shoes soaked and skin peppered red. Lights spin a dizzy kaleidoscope across the dancers, across bodies pierced and scarred, inked and mottled where needles have punctured veins. Every swaying figure is a ’minehead, a junkie hooked on the magic extracted from my DNA.

Where humans have cytosine, cryptomine comprises more than half an Ethereal’s double helix. At least that’s what humans call it, as if it would aid them in unraveling the mystery of our heritage.

In an alcove, I divide the contents of my pocket and my Shadows disperse, oozing through the miasma of sweat and pheromones, distributing phials and hypodermics.

I join the DJ on her make-shift dais of moldering packing crates. The generator, spliced into the city’s power grid, hums a static counterpoint to the bass as it leaches electricity. The DJ offers me a grin, just wide enough to give me a glimpse of her fangs. She hasn’t filed hers down, my sister proud where I am cautious. I run my tongue along the rounded nubs of my teeth tasting bitter regret.

Briefly, I pull the shades from my eyes, long enough for her to catch the flicker of the silver flames trapped in my irises. She nods, the goggles on her face holding shattered reflections of the strobes.

And then it begins, a shift in the pulse as if the collective heart of the dancing humans stutters in shared arrhythmia. I can smell it, the magic now slithering in their veins, a scent like winter moonlight emanating from their pores and exhaled with every breath. My blood curdles theirs and I want to believe I can hear their DNA snapping apart, the slow grind of carbon molecules as cytosine mutates into cryptomine, as magic infects and turns human other.

They groan, their limbs jerking to the frenetic beat as my sister spins the tables, her mouth a rictus of silent laughter beneath screeching synthesizers.

I see it, the glide and simmer of silver in human skin, the magic leaving Lichtenberg trails as it permeates human cells, a parasitic invasion obliterating homeostasis.

It calls to me, a tingle in my fingers and down my spine. My bones thrum as I raise my arms. Hands wave above delirious heads and, as one, the humans turn to face me. Dozens of hungry gazes hold my own, every eye flecked with silver—my new forged puppets. Every dose sloughs away their cytosine, and their humanity, until—eventually—they will be entirely mine.

My army.

This is how we take back what’s ours. This is the blade I’ll wield to pry the scabs from a city still bruised and bleeding, to open their veins and paint the moon.

This is how we’ll win the war.

Climber, tattoo-enthusiast, peanut-butter addict and loyal shibe-minion,  Xan van Rooyen is a genderqueer, non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and–when not teaching–enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. You can find Xan’s short stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, and The Colored Lens. Xan hangs out on instagram, twitter, and facebook so feel free to say hi over there.


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