Once the boys have wrangled the tent into assembly, ignoring all of Aino’s help even though she knows better than they do, we settle around the fire Aino made. Samu looks genuinely amazed at the reaching flames. Aino rolls her eyes and gives me a tiny shake of her head. I don’t think they’ll still be together come Juhannus. But by midsummer, none of our lives might be the same, not with anti-Ethereal sentiment ramping up and the current administration painting their genocidal intentions a patriotic white and blue.
Sausages sizzle, skewered on sticks we plucked off the beach. Logs pop, sending up the occasional cinder. The threat of violence feels so far away, the growing animosity between Ethereals and humans a distant thrum we left behind in the city. Out here, the only blood being shed comes courtesy of the mosquitoes who brave the smoke to bite us.
“Happy birthday.” Samu raises the bottle of home-made sima left over from May Day. Sixteen is still 26 hours away, but I take the bottle and sip the fizzy, honeyed liquid. The raisins bobbing at the bottom look a little moldy.
“Do you know what you’re getting for your birthday?” Aino asks.
“Nothing I want,” I say. My father is too busy campaigning for the annihilation of Ethereals and my mom is too dutiful to do anything other than support his dreams of mass extermination. They accept my apathy toward their politics as teenage petulance. I don’t think it’s ever crossed their minds I might have both feet planted firmly on the opposing side.
Thankfully, my friends let the subject drop as we continue to sip at Samu’s mead, suppressing grimaces with every swallow.
I flip up my hood, scanning the forest where it sweeps down to the shore, studying the shadows for the flit of gossamer wings and the flash of red eyes. She’ll come at the darkest part of the night, which is still a few hours away. It’s not ideal. The moon is waxing, leaving her vulnerable to full-blooded rahkot, but with the deteriorating situation, we’re running out of time. Besides, it’s easier to meet out here. Her Ethereal blood, diluted as it is, is still tethered to the wild places on the outskirts of the city and, out here, she won’t have to strap down her wings. I’ve seen the bruises on her shoulders. I know how much it hurts her.
After we’ve licked the last traces of sausage fat from our fingers and wiped grilled pineapple juice from our lips, Samu brings out his guitar. He starts to sing over plucked chords and Aino shuffles closer, suddenly starry-eyed. Niko edges closer to me too, carefully, every movement a question. I answer by draping the blanket over both our shoulders.
It’s nearly midnight now, the cloudless sky streaked lime with the afterimage of the summer sun, but it’s only early June and the evenings can still bite with chilly teeth. I’m grateful for Niko’s warmth, for his understanding, for being the only one who knows. Aino and Samu know I kiss girls, but only Niko knows the girl I’m kissing right now is a rahko, a moon darkener and one of the few Ethereal species deemed so dangerous there’s an official kill-on-sight ordinance for her kind, even for half-bloods.
Servants of death, they’re called. They’re nocturnal, omnivorous hunters, eking out a living in the shadows, using their magic to calm their prey and ease the suffering of forest creatures they find in distress. Contrary to popular opinion they don’t actually carry around a bucket of pine tar to black out light sources.
That recent human policies have made them seek the protection of Louhi—the formidable Ethereal queen of the north, known for her savage tactics and penchant for violence—doesn’t make rahkot evil, but it’s easier to soothe a human conscience by convincing them what they’re killing doesn’t deserve to live.
Samu starts singing Päivänsäde ja Menninkäinen, a song about a pixie who fell in love with a sunbeam and Niko coughs beside me, pulling ever so slightly away.
It’s not the same, I want to say. Instead, I grit my teeth and knot my fingers into the blanket, pulling it closer to me and off his shoulders.
At the end of the song, Niko yawns, stretches, and announces he’s going to bed. Darkness is creeping closer, another hour or so and she’ll come.
Aino yawns too and rubs her eyes. Samu kicks sand over the coals and offers her his hand which she accepts, still dazed by his singing and the dexterity of his fingers.
“I’ll be there soon,” I say. “Just want to enjoy the quiet a little more.”
Samu raises an eyebrow, gaze already on the tent and the sleeping bag he no doubt thinks he’ll share with Aino. Knowing her, she’ll be asleep before he can steal a single kiss. Niko pauses, watching me with that v between his brows again.
“I’ll be fine, seriously,” I say and he gives me a tight little nod, square jaw set grim and blond hair flopping into his eyes. No wonder girls, and boys, fall for him. Not that he seems interested in any of them, not with the conscription he’ll have to serve in the autumn and the likelihood of going to war against Ethereals. They’ll wield magic, armored in bullet proof feathers and scales, while Niko will only have his uniform and rifle.
That’s why I’m here. We can stop this, if only we can show people—the government, the warmongers like my father—that no one has to die. Most Ethereals aren’t nearly as different from us as people want to believe. We all want to survive, to live our lives. Why is that so difficult to understand?
The others disappear into the tent and I’m alone with the dying embers of the fire, watching the water. A loon cries across the lake, a haunting ululation all longing and loneliness.
There’s a rustling in the trees to my right and the shadows coalesce, melding into form as Ilta steps out of the forest. Her hair is a platinum waterfall where mine is chopped blunt in line with my jaw. Translucent whisps escape from the hollow of her hood. Her eyes burn an electric red, sparking silver as she opens her arms to me.
I’m in them in an instant, inhaling the tree-sap scent of her. I kiss her, a desperate crush of my chapped lips against hers, sticky with magic as it flares beneath her skin at our contact. I know what she can do, I know the power in her veins is already sinking into mine and slithering up to my brain where her will might overtake my own. This is why the rahkot are so dangerous, how easily they can manipulate and bend the thoughts of others, but not tonight—not when the moon is waxing and the tide of her magic ebbs out of reach.
We would never meet on a new moon.
“Happy birthday,” she whispers, her breath warm against my ear. She presses a pendant into my hand, a river stone carved with interlocking lines in the symbol of the rahkot. She’s drawn it for me before and has it inked above her heart. I slip the leather thong over my head, letting the stone settle in the hollow of my throat.
She kisses the tip of my nose. “I’ll make sure we won’t be disturbed,” she says with a curl of her fingers. I nod and hold back the flap of the tent so it won’t catch her furled wings as she reaches into the gloom. She touches each of them in turn and I watch as her hand glows, as that glow sinks into Samu’s skin, then Aino’s, and finally Niko’s, like a radioactive minnow. They were all already asleep, this only ensures they stay that way until dawn.
After, we sit beside the dying fire. Her wings snap open, unsheathed through slits cut into the shoulders of her jacket. The wings are delicate and shaped like a dragonfly’s, sheer black stitched with silver. I reach with a tentative finger to touch the nearest edge and she shivers before catching my hand and drawing me closer.
She kisses me again, slower this time, a kiss that says so much more than words ever could. A kiss that is equal parts apology and promise, hope and desperation.
I pull back a moment, breathless and tipsy—not from the sima, but from her and her magic. Even when she doesn’t mean to affect me like this, it’s inevitable, her nature, and when she kisses me she smothers me, a delightful suffocation all joy and release, desire and delight. And this is when she’s weaker. The thought of her true power leaves me dizzy.
“Do it,” she says, kissing me again, and this time I resist her. We’ve been doing this for six months, developing techniques to combat the influence of the rahkot magic, ever since I found her pressed into the back row at a Youth for Peace meeting.
It took more than a month of casual conversation, and a shy kiss, before she told me what she was. She’d come, she said, to see if she could help. To see if she could provide insights and answers, if there was a way for her to save her people, to save the parents who’d defied law and logic to bring her into a world not yet ready for her existence. It had been a premature gesture, her parents naive in their belief a generation of half-bloods would neutralize all hostilities.
Now her dad sits in jail and her mom... the rahkot weren’t pleased to find one of their own fraternizing with the enemy. The Ethereals could be as brutal as humans imagined, but it’s not like human history isn’t soaked in blood either.
She told me how Louhi plans to use the rahkot guerilla-style, infiltrating and turning powerful human leaders, to pepper their infantry with younger rahkot who’ll swoop into battle convincing human soldiers to fire on their own with a single touch of their fingers. Perhaps Louhi is Death made manifest.
And yes, the rahkot are dangerous, but so is the kindest dog when it’s backed into a corner. This is why we need to do this. If I can learn how to fight against her magic, then we can teach others, and becoming immune to one kind of magic might just open up the possibility of finding other, non-lethal means of combatting all types of magic.
So I concentrate even as her hair tangles in my fingers silky soft, as all I want to do is peel away her clothes and trace the silver threaded through her skin. I focus and push back, imagine snipping the tendrils snaring my mind, imagine donning mental sunglasses to dim the invading glow.
She steps up her assault and I flood my thoughts with nonsense: counting, repetitive phrases, anything that insulates my mind. I latch onto the words of Samu’s song earlier, about the pixie doomed to love something it can never have, and I let the opening lines play in a loop, focusing on every syllable until I blink, suddenly aware of a stark emptiness behind my eyes. It worked, I’ve repelled her.
I look at her burning eyes, still flickering with silver like tiny bolts of lightning, and my smile widens.
“You did it,” she says, her lips trembling as she speaks. “You can teach them how.”
“Why are you crying?” I wipe a tear away with my thumb.
“Because—” She stands, knocking my hand away, her wings whipped straight as razors, her body quivering as she turns her head toward the trees.
Another pair of red eyes and shadows dripping into formation. A full-blooded rahko has smudged edges, the borders of the creature hard to see when you’re looking at it straight on. I see it better when I turn my head, a tall gangly thing with a human face but ears curved like a bat’s and a body that is equal parts mist and muscle, pale skin sheened indigo and glittering with veins of silver.
“Like mother like daughter,” it—he, perhaps, the voice like the crush of frozen snow beneath a boot heel. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted.”
“Myrsky, please. It’s not what it looks like,” Ilta says, stepping away from me. I know she’s only doing it to protect me, but it hurts, a sting right in the center of my chest. “Go, get into the tent.” Ilta grabs my arm and gives me a shove.
“Mari!” Her red eyes become molten mercury and her magic floods me, the silver sousing my brain with thoughts of tent and sleep. I fight it, pressing back the way she taught me.
“Please,” she whispers and her quiet plea cleaves through my defiance more cleanly than her magic ever could. I slip into the tent, stumbling over Niko’s body as I collapse into my sleeping bag.
I sit there, trying to fight the tears burning in my eyes and my fists from fidgeting as I listen to their argument. They’ve switched into their own language, the tongue of starlight and deadfall, of spring blossoms and first frosts. I can’t understand the words, but I feel the intensity of their argument, the hurt and anger in Myrsky’s voice, the strength in Ilta’s.
Shadows move across the tent, lit by the coming dawn. The rahkot are fighting now, snarls and teeth, hands turned into claws. Ilta will be no match for the full-blood. Their magic crackles through the air, leaving white traceries burning across my vision even inside the tent. And this is when they’re weaker.
There’s a tearing sound and Ilta screams. Her wings! She falls, sobbing, and I want to move, I need to, my tears blinding as I clamber over Niko toward the opening.
The shadow broadens against the opposite side of the tent, a consuming darkness, before there’s a flash of silver and a spray of red.
They’re dead before they know they’ve been stabbed, before they can see the rahko slam its fists against their skulls, its eyes full of fire. I know I’m going to die, but all I can think about is Ilta and her wings and how close we were to finding a different way.
The rahko comes for us next. Niko, barely awake, sprawls in front of me, taking a blow to the face. I hear his jaw crunch. He lies unmoving and the rahko stabs him with claws like blades, once—twice, through the canvas siding of the tent.
Get up, the thought sears my brain as I watch the blood bloom across Niko’s back. Get up, please don’t be dead. Please. This is all my fault. You can’t be dead. I refuse to look over at Aino, at the ruin that was Samu.
But then the claws are coming for me in a whirlwind of fury, snagging on bone and severing sinews as the rahko tries to tear me apart. I am left to die atop the remains of the tent, left alive enough to watch as the rahko hurls Ilta’s wings onto the smoldering coals. The gossamer ignites and withers in a shower of silver like falling stars. Myrsky reaches for my throat and I think he means to sever my neck. Instead he snatches the pendant making disgusted grunts at the back of his throat as Ilta’s gift to me disappears into folds of darkness.
He makes sure I’m watching as he scoops her up, Ilta’s body broken and bleeding moonlight. He snaps open his own wings, disappearing into the retreating shadows as dawn swells like a bruise across the sky.
Niko gasps, groans, reaches a searching hand toward me. He’s alive!
“You can’t tell them,” I say, the words making my chest burn as copper fills my mouth. “If you tell them who did this, it’ll be... my father... extermination.” It’s all I can manage and I hope it’s enough, I hope Niko understands why this is a secret he has to take to the grave.
Someone will find us. They’ll come for a swim, or maybe it’ll be fishermen or birdwatchers—someone will stumble upon us and wonder what happened and they must never ever know. They’ll save Niko and question him, maybe even suspect him, but if we want to save our world from war, no one must ever find out it was moon darkeners who spilled our blood on Bodom’s shore.