Jan 23, 2021
17 mins read
“This is your chance to do something. After years of hopelessness and feeling helpless, now you have a chance. Even if it’s just for one girl—one dead girl—now we have a chance.”
What brought Romy Zingel and Lian Zhen to this place: murder.
Autumn Ridge had sprouted from the ground practically on its own; a wellspring of magic ran beneath its roots, drawing spirits, witches, mages, and metahumans like Romy Zingel: geokinetic, furry fox ears, pointy teeth. Caught in a perpetual state of fall, apple festivals dominated a large portion of the community calendars. The town, tucked into a little valley at the foot of old, old mountains wearing old, old trees like a knit sweater, had a strange habit of veering into winter or summer only for a few days at a time sporadically. The leaves shivered off the trees and crumbled to nothing as snow buried them, just to pop back into vibrant-green existence with summer-sweet grasses perfuming the air for a few days before they all burst back into the fiery canopies more familiar to its residents.
Autumn Ridge itself had grown around The Grey Towers, a graystone castle that had been the founding family’s home; rumors said its very foundation was stained with old magic, echoes of rituals using…unsavory spellwork, and that it was cursed. But Romy had never felt anything sinister when she curled on the couches in the student lounge, sipping coffee by the crackling fire; she’d never felt anything more antagonistic than finals week or upcoming meetings with her thesis advisor.
When the murder had been happening in the fog-blanketed, grave-dark cemetery nestled in the second-oldest parts of Autumn Ridge, the layered hills lined with sugar maples, red oaks, and a few richly purple-leaved dogwoods, Romy had been busy with her face nestled between another girl’s thighs. She had plenty to be working on other than getting that girl to tighten her fingers in Romy’s hair and to stop quoting old white poets for once, but that’s what she had been doing as the student had died. Later, Romy would wonder if one of the old white poets her date couldn’t stop talking about would find that Parnassian—le petite mort paired with the big sleep.
So Romy didn’t find out about the dead girl until she was in Expresso Espresso, the café in the ground-level downtown surrounding the immediate grounds of the castle. The news had trickled down the levels of Arbor Hills like storm runoff, taking with it the stability of the whole village. She had been lost in the warm smells of earthy coffee, fresh baked goods, and Kendall, the permanently roast-scented barista who used to sling coffee at Starbucks but now just wanted to bring back real coffee, man; the sleepless night threatened to punish her for neglecting her work, exhaustion settling over her like a warm blanket made of autumn leaves in the air dancing with cinnamon and nutmeg that clung to the harvest apples she baked with her mother as a sprout—just for Kendall to bring her the next hit of direct caffeine injection and oatmeal with nuts and berries.
The constant flow of notifs from her gc did better to keep her awake than any of Kendall’s specially crafted brews, no matter how elaborate their flavor profiles. She sat with her back against her favorite spot, the bench in the corner that had been rescued from the train station at the end of the street, who had rescued it from a church before that. She scrolled through, reading the texts and Discord messages in turn.
“It’s murder,” most of them agreed.
“I heard it was really gnarly.”
“I heard it was suicide.”
“I heard she didn’t have a face anymore 😱”
“I heard they were in a gang or something!!!”
Expresso Espresso had taken over a building in a beautiful alley that had once been the home of the artisans and tradespeople when the town settled, all cobblestones and bright red-orange brick; a few of the row homes had kept, held by the descendants of those artisans and tradespeople, but more had turned into the kind of shops that tourists called charming and said had character. The Secret Garden, a succulent/flower shop where Romy had worked before she started grad school and her cam career, had taken the building on the right. Romy still collected succulent babies regularly to decorate the Second Empire-style home (“just call it Victorian,” she constantly said) that she rented with Lian. This wasn’t a place for murder.
Murders didn’t happen here.
In the years Romy had lived here, there had been plenty of drugs (mostly weed, some more magical), some drunken fools getting into trouble (mostly freshman whose new freedom hadn’t yet butted up against the wisdom of experience), and white-collar crimes (mostly on Restaurant Row on Magnolia, the moat that separated the village proper from old Arbor Hills, where the restaurants set tables out on their sidewalks every Wednesday evening for dining during Night Under the Stars), but a violent crime like this?
And not just a regular, run-of-the-mill murder, if her group chats were to be believed. A brutal, ritualized killing really had no place in a village that loved its apple festivals.
Romy’s caffeine-addled brain couldn’t make it make sense.
She looked towards Magnolia now, the river of commerce and charming churches and apple groves, and wondered what else it had kept at bay up there on the hill. The Grey Towers might have been the cork in the wellspring, absorbing and holding back the magic jealously, but ritual murders were happening up there? Looming over them all? The graveyard cut into the hill, spilling down from the second layer down to the fourth; the few estates at the top of the hill belonged to the oldest families that hadn’t been living in the castle—the hierarchy trickled down until you got to the base. It had become its own neighborhood, proudly standing above all but the Towers, but even those had been reduced to a collection of classrooms and meeting halls. How deep did the graves go on Arbor Hill?
“They’re launching an investigation.”
Romy jumped, a punch of breath slamming through her teeth. She hadn’t heard or even felt Lian approach; she wasn’t the quietest walker, disconnected as she was sometimes from her own body, using it through the filter of the Arcane spirit living inside of her. Romy looked at her phone. She had been staring at the mausoleums cut into the face of the hill visible from this head-on angle for fifteen minutes.
“Classes will be closed for a few days while they interview people, I think,” Lian continued. Her softly glowing eyes had glossed over more pink than their normally warm near-black, unreadable as they always were when Lian was hiding her stress. Those were the moments when she gave in to the Arcane spirit possessing her a little more fully, just to take away the smallest sliver of her capacity to feel.
Romy drank five gallons of doubleshots until she could see the world through the vibrations in the earth, her geokinesis in overdrive; Lian sank deeper into herself to give over to the Arcane spirit Leshuwyth.
They had their own ways of coping.
“Save that for when you find out who it is,” Lian said. “Someone will have leaked it by the end of the day.”
It took two hours. If the initial news was the first crash of a tidal wave, this was the backwash, sucking everything out to sea and leaving ruin in its wake; Arbor Hills would keep the Autumn Grove that was deep in its heart, deep down with those unknown graves.
“Chloe King,” Lian read.
She and Romy had holed back up in Expresso Espresso; it felt more…appropriate to be out here in public, accessible to and drawing from others.
“You knew her, didn’t you?” Lian asked. The glow in her eyes had recessed, the glittering black of her eyes shining brightly in the natural light pouring in through the windows. “I know I’ve heard you say her name before.” She was slipping back into place through Lushuwyth. Even if she weren’t making that direct eye contact, Romy recognized the way she touched her lips or tapped her fingertips together. They’d been together since undergrad; she should know the signs of her best friend versus Lushuwyth by now.
“I have her number in my phone,” Romy said. The gut-punch of hearing Chloe’s name lingered. “We had a couple classes together. Mixed undergrad and graduates…she was smart. Sweet as hell. She was really murdered?”
“There’s no official announcement yet,” Lian said, scrolling through her phone and biting her nail. “But details about her being found have started to spread.”
Autumn Ridge was tight-knit enough and tucked away into the thick forests of the northeast enough that rumors and gossip spread like wildfire; Romy knew about people’s business without knowing them personally, just because she shared a hairdresser with them or because she heard their friends chatting away in The Secret Garden. So she didn’t doubt for a second that people had started the telephone game, adding more and more gruesome details with each new addition to the party line.
“What are they saying?” she asked.
“Most people seem to agree on it being a stabbing. They know where in the graveyard she was found, but the details are… Either she was just stabbed and fell where she stood, or she was laid out on a tomb with her chest—” Lian closed her mouth with a snap, her wide eyes searching Romy’s face. “Should you hear this?”
Romy tapped her fingernails on her cup. If she stopped drinking her coffee, she’d have just crashed. But she didn’t want to be lying down in her comfortable bed with her warm blankets and the leftover smells of last night’s dark, floral perfume cocooning her when a girl she’d spent a few semesters knowing had been laying in a graveyard, her skin cooling as her blood pooled.
Romy could picture Chloe: her long, pretty brunette hair spilled around her in soft waves, a halo and her own mourning veil all at once; her lively, bright eyes clouded over as the fog of the Veil pressed down on her. What had she glimpsed through it before her spirit left? Chloe’s skin had always had such a healthy glow from her dedication to pilates and her skincare routine, but now it would be as pale as the limestone sarcophagus they found her on.
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Nothing Lian could say could beat what Romy’s brain had already branded on the back of her eyelids.
Lian hesitated anyway. “They say her chest was open and her heart cut out.”
Romy nodded. At least they had a free couple of days to think about their life choices, which Romy would absolutely be doing. She knew Chloe. Knew her well enough to picture those awful things in the graveyard; she knew the sound of Chloe’s laugh and what it looked like when she was concentrating on working through a challenge to her ideas in class.
“What if we did something?” Romy blinked. She hadn’t realized the words were going to leave her until they were already there, floating around their table. “Right?”
Lian chewed the knuckle of her index finger rather than taking her nails down even further. “I’m not—”
“This is your chance to do something. After years of hopelessness and feeling helpless, now you have a chance. Even if it’s just for one girl—one dead girl—now we have a chance.”
Romy had always dreamed of being a hero. She saw the commercials for the Watchtower teams as a little girl in Philadelphia and felt the siren call of Autumn Ridge even then, and she’d pledged her dedication to hero training for her bat mitzvah. But then she got distracted by dance, and by her friends, and by the daunting reality of being classified and actually being judged.
She could take it for dance—that was just something she could make her body do. Her geokinesis was her. She felt the vibrations through the very earth itself, an extension of the root systems weaving through it. She was the magma rivers; she was the earthquakes. She felt them all like extra limbs. She could burrow in her mama’s garden and soak in the healing energy; when she did a tree pose, she could actually take energy from the earth like the ancient pines on the mountains that rolled softly into Arbor Hills and surrounded the valley like lovers.
She had spent so long fantasizing about the destination that the journey terrified her. Watchtower agents would come in and dissect her abilities, classifying her from 1 (almost impossibly good) to 5 (you can do some parlor tricks to amuse your friends), and knowing exactly how mediocre she probably was?
It was easier to just… not do that.
And Lian? After Lushuwyth took residence inside her as a little girl when she touched her archaeologist mother’s newest trinket before it was even fully unearthed, he filled her brain with all his memories of thousands of years of human experience from the greatest triumphs to the most brutal betrayals, Lian had been scrambling to get it all back. It had been too much for her little mortal brain to handle, and it had locked away, but she was determined to find the keys.
Romy couldn’t imagine having all that projected right into her mind, experiencing living in Interesting Times and mundane ones equally, the memories and the feelings and day-to-day lives of people that Lushuwyth had witnessed first hand, just to lose her tenuous grasp on those memories. Lian had spent the years of her life since her possession devouring every history book and documentary and now majored in history with a focus in ancient cultures because it was the only thing that helped her remember.
People thought Lian was distant and cold, but Romy knew the truth, which was this: Lian had once been connected to millions of people simultaneously, experiencing their lives as her own, and then found herself all at once trapped inside her own little body with an extra passenger granting her magical powers that she didn’t understand. Lian was stuffed with the remnants of those lives, was trying to sort and make sense of them, and sometimes for a little lost in the pursuit. She was one body filled with millions of souls wrapped up in a neat package called Lushuwyth. Sometimes she forgot she had to connect with the people in front of her, and not just the ones inside her textbooks.
“You have a chance to take the world and mold it for historians in the future. You can be one of the people Lushuwyth saw who did great things,” Romy said, brushing her thumb over Lian’s knuckles. Why couldn’t this be one of those moments in history that stood out?
Lian’s jaw tightened, her lips rolling in on each other. “I—”
That’s the moment when Ezra Clarke decided to collapse in the pew next to Romy. Again, she jumped. Again, she felt deeply frazzled by not having sensed him. Smelled him. Heard him. Caught the cadence of his familiar gait. She was so locked in holding Lian’s hand and impressing on her—
“Ezra,” Romy said. “Help me convince Lian to help me do something about the murder.”
Ezra’s rich-cream complexion had turned corpse-gray. He shook his head. “Come on. That’s shitty to joke about,” he said. He sounded tired. Heavy.
Romy sat back and Ezra rested his cheek on her shoulder. “I mean it. She deserves better than being a cold case for—for god knows how long, right?”
Ezra didn’t lift his head but he did tilt to look at Romy. His funny gray-hazel eyes stormed even harder than usual. How ironic that he looked and felt like the overcast wetlands of Ireland when he was full of pyrokinetic heat.
“I’m serious. We can figure this out and…and do something.”
“Do what, Romy?” Lian asked. She wasn’t frowning, but the tilt of her soft lips was trending downward. “What do you want us to do?”
“What do heroes do?”
Romy met Lian’s eyes directly, holding them. The Watchtower ran ad campaigns a few years ago featuring all their top-earning heroes doing things like…picking up litter, saving cats from trees, and helping little old ladies across the street. And then it showed all the heroes again, but they had been replaced by children as this message crossed the screen: “You don’t have to be a meta to be a hero.”
At the time, Romy hated them. “Sure, but if you hero without us giving you permission? One million years dungeon.” That’s what she would say. Knowing that allowing anyone with powers—natural, spirit-gifted, or gained through study—to run around and hero without any oversight, training, or consequence was dangerous? That was one thing. But now it was someone Romy knew; people without powers in the world did things every day that changed things for the better with or without regulation. Secret things happened all the time.
And she knew Chloe King.
She couldn’t just sit back and pretend to have some moral high ground. Chloe had been murdered; whatever ground she held would still be higher than that.
So this is what she said to Lian and Ezra: “We can find who did it. We can figure out who has to pay for this shit, even if we’re not the ones who collect.”
Lian made a little face at her metaphor, but tapped her nails on her mug, a step below knuckle-chewing in her anxious tics. “So we find them, and then?”
“And then we drag them kicking and screaming to the Watchtower.” Romy paused. “Or the cops, or something.”
“I’m not sure that’s how the police collect evidence,” Lian said, in a tone that implied she knew full well that’s not how the police collected anything.
“So bounty hunters can get series on TV and get turned into sick characters in procedurals, but we can’t do this?”
Romy looked down at Ezra. Some of the flame had returned to his cheeks, smoldering embers stoked by a careful hand. “Yeah, see?” She looked back at Lian. “I know you’ve seen heinous shit. I know you have. But this is something…it’s different. This time, you can do something about it. It’s not happening a century in the past. This is real. It happened today.” She touched her fingertips to Lian’s wrist on the slender bone and then moved to her strong forearm, built up from years of alchemy and weightlifting. “You don’t have to be looking back all the time; you can influence history. It doesn’t have to be something you record for future generations. You can put yourself in the narrative. All the things you want for the future because of the history you remember, you’ll have a chance to make it real. The three of us, yeah?”
Lian shook her head, her chin dipping.
Romy’s ears tipped back; okay, if Lian wasn’t in, then she and Ezra could do it. Fire and earth; that was a plenty-potent combination.
When Lian looked back at her, the pink glow had nearly completely dissipated. “Let’s do it.”