It was seven minutes after eleven PM, and Dustin Kropp’s cousin was dead.
She lay sprawled on the ground, her skin tight and ashen. Unblinking brown eyes stared up at the sky, glazed over as if she were simply lost in a daydream. Dustin could almost make himself believe that was the case, that any second now she would snap back to reality and ask Dustin how long she’d been staring off into space for. But then his eyes traveled to the gaping wound that had just been delivered to her stomach, and he knew that his cousin was gone.
As he bit his lip in a futile attempt to keep himself from crying, he looked up from her body and towards her killer, a man standing overhead, a mask around his nose and mouth and a hood pulled up over his forehead. The man could have attacked Dustin- he had plenty of time. But for some bizarre reason, the masked man refrained from even attempting to strike him.
“I hope you’re happy.” Dustin spat as tears welling up in his eyes and his throat began to sting. He tried to stop the tears, to not give this man the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
Though most of the man’s expression was unreadable due to the mask, Dustin could see his eyes- brown, with surprising emotion inside them.
Dustin couldn’t see the man’s mouth, so it almost appeared as though there was a third person when he, surprisingly, replied to Dustin’s question.
Earlier that day...
“And more mysterious deaths have been occurring around the province, causing extra police officers to be stationed around the city at night. Investigators note that there are still no leads in the case, and that if any citizens out there have evidence or tips, send them in at the anonymous hotline provided on the Ilta Police website. Now, on to Janis Sarkisian with sports.”
“Thanks, Damien. Now, our local basketball team, the Wolves, played the Adar Tigers last night and won with a score of thirty-seven to eighteen...”
Dustin reached out and turned the radio dial down, muting the voices of the news anchors. He didn’t care much about basketball scores, but the first part of the broadcast worried him. And not just the part about the mysterious deaths.
As he pulled into the driveway of his cousin’s house, the newscast still gnawed at the back of his mind. However, he put on a smile as he rang the doorbell, not wanting to worry his niece or cousin-in-law.
“Dustin!” A little girl around six years old opened the door. She looked so much like her mother- tawny beige skin, angular brown eyes, short black hair.
“Hey, Harmony.” Dustin grinned. “How’ve you been?”
“Awesome.” Harmony responded. “Last week we had a field trip to the nature center, and Ms. MacNamara taught us how to make leaf rubbings! Wanna see?”
“Sure.” Dustin said, and Harmony grabbed his wrist and dragged him through the front door. After pausing to shut the door behind him, Dustin turned and followed Harmony into the living room.
She led him to the coffee table, which had pieces of paper strewn all over it, as well as crayons and various leaves. “You just take the leaf and put it under the paper, and then you draw on top of it with a crayon and you can see the leaf on top of the paper!” Harmony smiled, showing her missing front tooth, as she demonstrated the process, holding up the finished product for Dustin to see when she was done. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Definitely cool.” Dustin said, and when he saw Harmony smile, he just had to smile himself.
“The lady at the nature center had earth magic, Dustin, and it was so cool! She bent the trees down so we could grab the good leaves off the branches, because all the leaves on the ground had holes. But she told us not to do that very often, because it hurts the trees if you do it too much.” Harmony gestured to the various leaves on the coffee table. “I grabbed all of these off of the ground.”
“Pretty smart.” Dustin nodded when he saw the leaves.
“Have you ever seen someone with earth magic?” Harmony asked, her brown eyes wide with curiosity.
“Oh yeah. Plenty of times. I’ve seen people with fire magic, too. And air magic, and water magic...”
“What about light magic?” Harmony interrupted.
Dustin tried not to let the worry show on his face as he answered, “Light magic users don’t exist anymore, Harmony. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” Harmony said, looking mildly disappointed, but that quickly disappeared as she returned to her leaf rubbings.
“Dustin! I didn’t know you’d come in.”
Dustin turned around to see his cousin, Christine Canigula, a pencil tucked behind her ear and a smile on her face.
“Hey, Christie. Harmony was just showing me her leaf rubbings.” Dustin stood up.
“Oh yeah. She’s been making a lot of them since that field trip.” Christine smiled at Harmony, who looked up.
“They’re so cool!” Harmony chirped, holding up another piece of paper with the imprint a maple leaf in pink crayon.
“Yeah, they are.” Christine said. “Hey, Harmony, could you move your coloring into the playroom for a bit? Me and Dustin have to talk about boring adult stuff for a little bit.”
“Like what?” Harmony asked.
“Oh, you know, taxes. Jobs. Homeownership.” Christine counted off the items on her hand as she spoke, giving Dustin an almost imperceptible wink.
Harmony wrinkled her nose. “Boring.” She gathered up the paper, crayons, and leaves into her arms and began walking down the hallway towards the playroom.
“Thank you, sweetie.” Christine called after Harmony, but as soon as the door to the playroom shut, she turned back to Dustin, her expression suddenly severe. “I’m assuming you didn’t come here just to chat.”
Dustin shook his head. “Did you see the news?”
“I haven’t been able to. I didn’t want Harmony to freak out.” Christine bit her lip, “Is it bad?”
“More ‘mysterious deaths’ have been popping up around the city. And they still can’t figure out who did it. All those deaths, and not so much as a lead.”
“You’re saying that it’s suspicious.” Christine’s eyebrows raised the slightest bit.
“It’s strange.” Dustin said.
“So you want us to...” Christine paused and looked around, almost as if scanning for invisible eavesdroppers. “...meet up tonight?”
Dustin nodded. “Same place, same time. Michael’s working tonight, so I’ll be able to leave and come back like nothing ever happened.”
“I’ll tell Harmony and Jeremy I have a meeting with a potential client.” Christine said.
“All right. So it’s agreed.”
Christine gave a short nod. “Agreed.”
“I’ll see you tonight.” Dustin smiled and pulled Christine into a hug, which was returned.
“You could stay for dinner, you know.” Christine said.
“No, I’ll say bye to Michael before he leaves for work.” Dustin replied.
“Okay. See you tonight.”
When Dustin stepped out onto the front porch, he paused for a second. After looking around carefully to make sure there was absolutely no one observing him, he opened his palm and let a small amount of magical energy loose from his veins, hoping that the magic in the atmosphere would meet it. To his relief, it did.
Using his magic felt like finally taking in air after holding his breath for an absurdly long time. He didn’t get to do this often- even doing it now was a risk. Still, he savored the small moment, watching the energy dance around in his palm. Before he closed his fingers to snuff out the small spark of magic, he took in the whole sight- the golden light, the warm feeling, and the sheer power of the light magic that he was carrying.
Being a light magic user had never been easy in this world, but especially not in Ilta. Dustin had the unfortunate luck to be born a light magic user in the very province that hated light magic the most, and from a young age he had learned to reign in his power. To shove it down. He was constantly having to fight the urge for that magical energy to escape, because doing so would result in him becoming another ‘mysterious’ death on the nightly news.
Both him and Christine learned to convince people they were powerless- a rare ailment, something looked down upon by society, but not nearly as much so as being a light magic user. Sure, Dustin and Christine had more trouble compared to people who could use their magic openly, but it was better than being dead. Small moments alone were the only time Dustin risked letting his power go, and it felt incredible. When he performed magic after keeping it hidden for so long, it was like he had been keeping all of his muscles tensed and then suddenly relaxed them all at once. It felt freeing. Powerful. He almost never wanted to reign in his power again.
But he had to. He’d seen too many of his family members die from not keeping their powers a secret. It wasn’t worth the risk of death for just a few precious moments of freedom.
Still hanging on to that feeling from the magic he performed on Christine’s porch, Dustin parked his car in the spot outside his apartment building. Some kids had drawn on the sidewalk with chalk, and though the kids weren’t around, Dustin stepped over the drawings- one of a pink and yellow butterfly and one of a red flower.
He got into the elevator- an absolute piece of shit that Dustin was amazed he hadn’t died in yet- and pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator began to creak upwards, the single light flickering from the sudden movement, and Dustin contemplated for the third time that month if he should send the landlord a letter. On the walls, someone had carved out an obscene message to someone named Stephen, and clearly nobody had bothered to paint over it.
The elevator door opened up at the third floor, and Dustin exited while saying a small prayer of thanks for the fact that the elevator hadn’t broken down while he was in it. He walked up to the third door on his left, taking in the chipped paint and the splinters, then put his key in the lock and opened the door. Or more accurately, jammed the key into the lock and spent several minutes trying to get the damn thing to turn already.
He opened the door and entered the apartment, letting the familiar feeling wash over him. This place might have been a dump with a death trap elevator, but it was home.
“Dustin!” Dustin’s boyfriend Michael Mell sat up when he saw Dustin come in.
“Hey, babe.” Dustin smiled as he leaned down and gave Michael a short kiss. Michael was dressed in his work clothes- a white button-down shirt and black pants. He had night shift at the tech company he worked at, so he usually left for work around dinnertime.
“Cecil missed you.” Michael said, and as if on cue, the small black cat on the coffee table rolled over and meowed.
“I was gone for, like, an hour.” Dustin rolled his eyes, but reached down and scratched Cecil behind the ears. “What’d you do while I was gone?”
“Played some video games. The usual.” Michael said. Gaming was one of his hobbies, and he never seemed to get tired of it.
“Anything interesting happen?” Dustin asked.
Michael pretended to think, then responded, “The fan broke.”
Dustin had to laugh. The fan had been broken for a week now. “We should really call someone about that.”
“Good idea.” Michael nodded. “You should do it while I’m gone.”
“That’s funny. As far as I recall, you don’t have to leave for another...” Dustin looked down to check his watch. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Well, I’ll be busy during those fifteen minutes.” Michael said.
“This.” Michael leaned in and gave Dustin another kiss, the rims of his glasses pressing up against Dustin’s face. Dustin leaned into the kiss, not able to suppress the small smile that crept up on him.
“You’re a real jerk.” Dustin scoffed, but he still smiled.
“Yeah, I love you too.”
The kiss grew a little more passionate, a little more hungry. Michael even nipped slightly at Dustin’s bottom lip, which made Dustin shiver just a little at the amazing feeling it gave him. That feeling was the closest thing to magic he could get and still be safe. The warmth of being pressed up against Michael, the feeling of closeness, the knowledge that both of them were fully and wholeheartedly there...
Scratch that, it was better than magic.
The tips of Dustin’s fingers found the waistband of Michael’s pants, but he stopped there. Michael did have work soon... it was probably best if he didn’t get distracted any more than he already was.
When the two finally pulled apart, Michael was smiling and Dustin could feel himself doing the same.
“Remind me to do that more often.” Michael said.
“Do that more often.” Dustin responded, and Michael chuckled.
“I need to get going.” After pressing one last soft kiss to Dustin’s lips, Michael stood up. “See you in the morning.”
“Love you.” Dustin gave Michael a small wave as his boyfriend exited the apartment and shut the door behind him.
Despite the amazing feeling Dustin got from kissing Michael, there was a small part of him that felt guilty. Not even Michael knew he was a light magic user- only Christine knew, just like he was the only one that knew about her. Michael still thought Dustin was a Powerless- he’d thought that from the day they’d met, and he still didn’t love Dustin any less because of it. Dustin wanted to tell Michael... longed to tell him. But that small part of him, the part that he’d trusted since childhood to guide him, was holding him back. Michael was a night magic user, after all, and though he’d never once expressed negative feelings towards light magic users, Dustin still didn’t know the risk. Maybe Michael would keep his secret. There was a very large chance that he would, in fact. But then there was that small chance, that sliver of doubt... that was the part that could cost Dustin his life.
He felt horrible distrusting Michael like that, but it was the only way for him to stay alive.
The only way for him to stay with Michael was to lie to him.
That night, after eating dinner alone in the apartment and filling Cecil’s food bowl, Dustin put on a grey hooded sweatshirt and tied a bandanna over his nose and mouth. He didn’t take the front door- that carried too much risk of being spotted. Instead, he opened the window and climbed out onto the fire escape attached to the side of the building. Shutting the window behind him and leaving it open just a smidge, Dustin made his way down the fire escape and into the city.
He walked through the back alleys, with his head down and his eyes and ears open. He traveled further and further through the city, with no maps to go off of, just his own familiarity with this route, until he finally came to the spot he was supposed to meet Christine at. Right between two tall office buildings, which were now empty of workers. An iron ladder ran up the wall of one building: Dustin’s route up. He set one foot on the first rung to test it, and when it held, he lifted his other foot off the ground and onto the second rung. The metal creaked ominously, but held fast as Dustin made his way up and onto the roof of the office building.
Once on the roof, it didn’t take long for him to find Christine, crouched near the edge and staring down at the streets below. She was dressed in nearly the same way that he was- her nose and mouth obscured, a hood pulled up over her hair.
“Christine.” Dustin said, crouching down next to her.
“Hey, Dustin.” Christine responded.
“It’s a beautiful night.” Dustin looked out at the city, and Christine’s shoulders relaxed. That was their code phrase they had in place- it let the other person know that they were safe up there. If there was some sort of danger Christine couldn’t see, like if Dustin was being followed or a security drone was filming them, Dustin could signal the danger by saying “It’s not the best night to be up here.”
“Did you see anything on your way here?” Christine asked.
Dustin shook his head. “Nope. Just a stray cat that hissed at me and ran off.”
Christine chuckled. “I think it’s safe to say that’s not our guy.”
“I don’t know, he looked very suspicious to me.” Dustin joked, and for a moment, the tense atmosphere dissolved.
“I haven’t seen anything either.” Christine reached up and rested her cheek on her knuckles.
“Do you think we will?” Dustin asked.
“With all those ‘mysterious deaths’?” Christine raised her eyebrows. “I’d bet money on it.”
“You’d probably win that bet.” A third voice sounded out from behind them, and both cousins immediately turned around and stood up, steeling themselves for a fight.
The figure that had spoken was a man, dressed in all black, with a hood pulled up over his forehead and a tight purple cloth pulled over his nose and mouth. Something glowed in his hands... night magic.
“Little late for a midnight stroll.” The figure said, raising a hand. The trail of magic followed his movement, glowing an eerie purple against the backdrop of the dark sky. His voice was almost unnaturally deep- he must have been using some kind of voice changer.
“Funny you mentioned that.” Christine said, opening her hand. A glowing ball of light energy formed in the palm of her hand, illuminating her angry face. “We were just leaving.”
Christine wound her hand back and threw the ball of light magic at the mysterious man, who countered it with a ray of night magic. The two beams of energy collided in midair, sending out a wave of energy that Dustin had to use all of his strength to avoid. Almost instantly, the man primed up another charge of night magic to launch at the two of them.
“That shouldn’t be possible.” Dustin said through gritted teeth as he conjured up a shield just in time to deflect the blow. The ray of night energy bounced off the shield and up into the night sky, glowing like a comet.
“He’s trying to force us to the edges.” Christine said, summoning another ball of energy in her palm. “Get back.”
Dustin did as she said and jumped backward as Christine flung the energy towards the user, who dodged it and sent a bolt of energy back in her direction. Christine dropped to the ground, the magic sailing over her head and down towards the street. A scream went up, but Dustin didn’t dare look back to see who made it. He focused on the masked man only.
“Hey, jackass.” Dustin summoned up a ball of light magic energy and chucked it at the man. “Chew on this!”
This time, Dustin got lucky. He landed a hit on the man’s lower back, which caused him to yell out in pain and turn around to face Dustin, fury in his eyes. The man took something off of his belt- a knife with a serrated blade. He raised the knife, and before Dustin could do anything-
He brought it down.
The point of the knife scratched against Dustin’s left eye, sending a white-hot spike of pain through his head. Dustin gasped and fell to the ground, clutching his eye and feeling something warm drip onto his hand... he didn’t even want to think about what it could be.
He couldn’t see out of the eye that the man had scratched, but through the tears of pain blurring his one good eye, he could see the man raise his knife to strike again.
“No!” Christine yelled, and a shield went up between Dustin and the man, sending Dustin backwards a few feet. He panted for breath, still clutching his injured eye with one hand and rubbing his good eye frantically with the other to try and get the tears out so he could see.
After managing to clear his good eye, Dustin turned to face the man, who was now gearing up a bolt of energy to throw at Christine. Christine was backing up, obviously contemplating her options- she didn’t have enough magic to make a shield. Dustin looked down and saw that Christine was standing close to the edge, dangerously close, and before he could consider what else to do, he called out.
“Christine! The edge!”
“What?!” Christine broke her gaze away from the man and looked at Dustin, and that was when the bolt of night energy hit her in the stomach. She clutched her abdomen, her eyes wide, almost as if she was in shock. Then, without another word, she stumbled backward and over the edge of the building.
“Christine!” Dustin yelled, scrambling to the edge of the roof. Far below, he saw her limp form, and something welled up inside of him... anger.
“No!” He yelled, and something inside him snapped.
A wave of energy unlike anything Dustin had ever released before poured out from him, and he somehow managed to ride this wave of energy down to the ground until it deposited him next to Christine.
“Christie...” He gasped... taking in the horrible gaping wound on her abdomen, the blood staining her clothing- Oh God, there’s so much blood.
“D-Dustin?” Christine coughed, dark blood coming out of her mouth.
“Christie, you’re gonna be okay, I’ll get you some help, I promise...”
“Dustin, take care of Harmony.” Christine’s voice was shaking, but strangely calm. “And tell Jeremy...” She gasped, as if the very effort of speaking strained her. “Tell Jeremy how much I love him.”
“No. I won’t have to tell them that, because you’re not going to die, Christie-“ Dustin felt his own words get interrupted by a sob escaping his mouth.
“I love you, Dustin. Don’t stop fighting. No matter what, don’t stop fighting.”
And with that, Christine’s head rolled back, her eyes becoming strange and lifeless, like those of a porcelain doll. Her skin lost its color, becoming ashy and tight.
Dustin couldn’t suppress the sob that escaped his mouth, but once he heard footsteps behind him, that sob turned into a growl of rage. He turned around and, with his one good eye, saw Christine’s killer standing over him, his brown eyes strangely emotional.
“I hope you’re happy.” Dustin growled.
And with that, the man was gone, with only the sound of police sirens filling the silence in the night.
“I’m so, so sorry, Christie.” Dustin let out another sob as he stood up and ran down the alleyway, leaving his cousin’s body behind.
Everything seemed so confusing as he ran, and he didn’t even notice the pain in his eye. It felt like the buildings around him were tumbling down, burying him beneath bricks and mortar.
Christine is dead. She’s dead. She’s not coming back, she’s dead. She’s dead.
Like a broken record, his mind could only repeat those two words as he ran, stumbling up the fire escape and through the window, into the kitchen. He pulled a drawer open with a clatter, tearing out the first aid kit that he and Michael kept there. As Dustin’s fist tightened around a roll of bandages, a familiar voice, filled with concern, rang out from behind him.
Dustin turned around to see Michael, who had his hand over his mouth, his eyes traveling from what was left of Dustin’s eye to Dustin’s face.
“So,” Dustin sighed, “I guess you’re wondering what happened to my left eye.”