Britney Miller chewed on her bottom lip. She was about ten years older than me, in her mid-thirties, pale, with dark hair and round glasses, and she stared at the house in front of us with what could only be described as trepidation. I couldn’t really blame her.
Built at the turn of the 20th century, the house used to be a massive antebellum mansion, three stories tall, with gleaming white walls, a wide wraparound porch, and towering ionic columns holding up its gabled roof. Before the Shift, its twenty thousand square feet of living space had been subdivided into eight apartments, each with a separate entrance and balcony. After I bought it two years ago, the separate stairways and balconies were the first to go. I’d made other modifications, too, and Britney Miller had acted as my agent, overseeing the construction. Or rather the deconstruction.
A year ago, a team of masons and carpenters led by a structural engineer and an architect went into the house. They reinforced the structure, reconfigured the floor plan according to my instructions, carving out a rectangular living space of about six thousand square feet inside the house, and then very carefully collapsed the outer walls, piling additional chunks of concrete and wood from the fallen high rises nearby.
From the outside, the house looked like a ruin, a heap of rubble topped with a roof, some columns scattered, some still standing, buried in debris. A narrow path led to the entrance, guarded by an old door smeared with dirt. No windows, except for the small one located to the right of the door and guarded by a metal grate. No weak points. No sign that it was even habitable, except for the balcony. Invisible from the street unless you climbed another building, the balcony sat recessed under the roof, shielded by thick steel and silver bars that ran all the way down to the cement foundation. I had already seen the inside of the house and it was everything I wanted it to be.
Britney had come to decision. “Ms. Ryder…”
“I realize that you’ve spent a great deal of money on this house, but you can’t really put a price on human life.”
“Yes, I can.” I had, more than once.
She blinked, knocked off balance for a second, but recovered. “What I mean to say is, this isn’t a safe neighborhood.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Britney turned on her heel and waved in the direction opposite the front door. “That.”
I looked in the direction of her wave. A narrow street that used to be Peachtree Circle ran north to south parallel to the house. Only about fifty yards of it remained, the rest choked off by detritus at both ends. Directly in front of us, the once impressive 17th NE Street crossed the Peachtree Circle and rolled down the hill. Before the Shift, this was a neighborhood of stately homes and large yards, cushioned in greenery, with views of Midtown’s office towers and price tags to match. The 17th meandered through it until it reached Midtown, tripled in size, crossed the tangle of I-75 and I-85, and finally ran into Howard Mill Road by the Number One Reservoir.
Midtown was no more. Jagged corpses of skyscrapers jutted from the sea of rubble, dark and ominous against the bright morning sky. Abandoned husks of office buildings stared at the world with broken windows. Strange lichens sheathed their walls, bright green, turquoise, and neon blue, with splashes of red and orange. Some glowed with lemon yellow; some splayed out, their emerald ridges coiling on the brick and stucco like ancient fossil shells; others drooped down in long narrow strands that moved and shivered without any wind. Once mundane hedges grew foot-long thorns, their leaves sharp enough to slice skin to ribbons. Otherworldly vines, dotted with flowers, spilled from the roofs and broken windows. If you stopped next to them, the flowers would rain pollen that tranquilized you. When you woke up – if you woke up at all – you’d be cocooned in vines feeding on your blood and lymph.
“It’s called the Unicorn Lane,” Britney said. “It happened after the first magic wave. There is magic here even during tech. It cuts all the way through Midtown and it keeps growing. That’s why the new roads had to be built to go around it. Nobody lives here.”
As we watched, a pack of small russet-furred beasts somewhere on the crossroads of squirrels and mongoose dashed across the street, vanishing into a crevasse in the wall of a pale building to the left. The thing that chased them had no name. About the size of a large rottweiler, it scrambled over the refuse on six legs. Its fur was a forest of hair-thin black needles that sheathed it so completely, it looked like a sea urchin, except for its head. Long, with narrow jaws studded with a forest of teeth that would’ve made a dinosaur proud, it was just a single huge mouth. The beast dashed after the pseudo squirrels, slipped, and slammed into an abandoned car, wrapped in orange moss.
The moss turned bright red from the impact. The beast staggered away, swayed, and collapsed, its side awash with crimson. The needles drooped, liquifying. A thick puddle of brown blood spread from the creature. Dozens of critters no bigger than a rat streamed out of the ruins like a blue grey tide to drink it.
“It’s not safe here,” Britney said. “There are other houses.”
But none like mine. I had found it ten years ago. I was coming home after killing a manticore. It clawed my leg before it died, deep almost to the bone. I was tired, dirty, and bleeding, so I took a shortcut, strayed too close to the Unicorn Lane, and a pack of feral ghouls chased me to this house. Back then a pack of six ghouls was a problem. I sat on the roof and watched the sun slowly set behind the Unicorn Lane until Derek found me. He chased the gh0uls off, tracked down my horse, and then lectured me on the benefits of not taking stupid shortcuts all the way home. The memory of it was vivid in my head. Me, on my horse, and him, walking next to me through the deserted night streets, chewing me out in his raspy voice.
That was long ago. Derek had left Atlanta two years after I did. Nobody had seen him since.
I looked back to the Unicorn Lane. The Shift had stabbed Atlanta just above its heart and the wound bled magic into the world to this day. Nothing was what it seemed here, and all of it could kill you. A perfect place for someone like me.
I reached into my bag and held out a stack of bills held together with a paper band. “Thank you for your help, Ms. Miller. I love it.”
I smiled at her. “Don’t worry. I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Ms. Miller finally left. I sat on a large chunk of concrete and watched the Unicorn Lane for another ten minutes, giving her plenty of time to clear the area. Tulip shifted from hoof to hoof next to me, impatient.
A shadow passed over us. I stood up, pulled the reinforced glove from my saddle bag, slid it on my left arm, and raised it, bracing myself. A dark shape fell from the sky and swooped into a curve, flying low. Huge black wings opened wide, and Abra landed on my glove, all eighteen pounds of him. Yellow feet gripped my forearm with black talons. The Steller’s Sea Eagle shifted his weight, wings fanning my head, and stared at me with his golden eyes.
“Is the nice lady gone?” I asked.
The eagle tilted his head. When you looked in the eyes of a raptor, you never knew if he was waiting for a command or considering jabbing your eyes out because they looked delicious.
Abra opened his huge yellow beak and made a short noise. The coast was clear.
I pulled a plastic bag with a chunk of dead rabbit from my saddle bag and held the meat out to him. The eagle clamped the treat in his beak. The massive wings fanned me, and he was off, to the roof above me.
Tulip bumped me with her head.
“You too?” I untacked her. “One hour. No more. We have things to do, and this isn’t a nice place, so don’t go deep.”
Tulip tossed her head and took off down the street, a splash of white. Her mother was a blue roan, but she got her coloring from her father. He was one of a kind.
I picked up my saddle bag, walked to the front door, and stuck the key into the lock. The well-oiled pins slid smoothly, and I opened the door and stepped inside, into the gloom. It took me a second to find the switch on the wall. I flicked it and the cheap ceiling light came on, emanating buttery yellow glow. Good. I had specified the importance of having functional wiring.
The front door led straight into the living room, with a grimy wooden-burning fireplace on the left. The inside of the house, about eight hundred of so square feet, looked like nothing special: old wooden floor, swept clean; battered walls that had seen better days; shabby, threadbare sofa facing the fireplace. On the right, a tiny square kitchen waited, with a derelict breakfast table and two chairs. A small fridge hummed in the corner. Straight ahead, at the other end of the living room, a short hallway led to a bedroom on the left and a bathroom on the right.
It seemed so familiar.
I hadn’t realized it until now, but I had subconsciously recreated my first house, the one where I lived with my biological parents. It wasn’t an exact copy, but it had that the same vibe of working too hard for too little money and stubborn refusal to admit to poverty. All that was missing were empty bottles of Tito’s and Wild Irish Rose in the sink.
I walked into the kitchen and looked at the sink. Empty.
My birth father was a carpenter. He died while building a bridge when I was eight or nine. A chunk of a crumbling overpass fell on him, crushing him instantly. It was too heavy to move, and they never recovered his body. We had to bury an empty coffin with some of his favorite things in it. I couldn’t even recall my birth father’s face. My most vivid memory of him was the vacation at Hilton Head, which we took just before he died. I remembered running on the beach and swimming, and my father being there, against the backdrop of a blue sky and sparkling water, but he was just a vague man-shaped blur, his face featureless.
I remembered my birth mother a little better. She was thin, bird-boned, with big brown eyes and blonde hair. I used to look just like her. Her name was Jessica Olsen, and in my memories, she was always tired.
When my birth father was alive, we did okay. I had clothes, food, toys, even a skateboard. His death destroyed us. Shortly after the funeral, a man had come to the house trying to convince my mother to sell father’s tools. She kept them and apprenticed to a carpenter instead.
Money became scarce. During the week, my mother worked long shifts. She wasn’t really cut out for dragging heavy beams around, but she did it anyway. The weekends were the worst. There was nothing to do except remember that my birth father wasn’t there. One weekend she started drinking and didn’t stop until Monday. Next weekend she did it again. Then she started drinking after work.
All people struggle with a loss of someone they love. My mother wasn’t a bad person. She just struggled more than most. She never meant to abandon me. She only tried to escape her misery, and somehow, she forgot I existed. I went hungry a lot. I wore torn clothes. Occasionally she would have a moment of clarity, see me, and then there would be food on the table and clean, mended T-shirts. But then she slipped away again.
I’d abandoned her, too, in my own way. I took off every chance I got. It didn’t matter where, as long as it was outside, into the city, away from her and the gloomy house. I became a street kid. I starved, I stole, I took my beatings, and I learned that human predators were much worse than anything the magic wave could throw at me. I was so desperate for someone to love me, I thought street kids were my friends even when they beat me and stole from me.
Then one day Jessica Olsen went missing, and that’s when Mom found me.
She wasn’t my Mom at first. When we started, she was just Kate. She promised me she would find my birth mother, but she never said she’d find her alive. Kate didn’t promise things she couldn’t deliver.
Before Kate could find Jessica, the sea demons found me. My best friend, my boyfriend, had betrayed me. The sea demons crucified me. I had to watch as they devoured the corpse of a woman who had given birth to me.
Kate saved me.
She took me in, she loved me, and she never asked for anything in return. She became Mom.
Later, Kate fell in love with Curran. From the moment he and Kate became a couple, he treated me like his own daughter. He became Dad. I missed both of them so much, it hurt.
I left the kitchen and walked back to the hallway. The wall was in a bad shape, all plaster and old wallpaper, marked with holes where pictures must’ve once hung. I followed the hallway to where it made an L-turn just before the bathroom and stopped before the grimiest spot. They did a good job hiding the door. That’s why the hallway had no light and turning on the lamp in the bathroom required you to close the bathroom door, blocking the hallway from view.
I chose a big metal key from the key ring Ms. Miller left for me, inserted it into a nondescript looking hole in the plaster about three feet off the ground and turned. A section of the wall gave way, as the heavy door swung inward. I stepped through it.
A large space spread before me, glowing in the flood of sunlight streaming through enormous skylight above. Four gypsum columns soared to the skylight, a pale soothing cream, their finish slightly rough. The floor was limestone tile, the same sandy color as the columns and the walls. A foot-wide channel filled with clear water ran from front door to the back wall, dividing the house in two.
On the left three steps led to a raised platform, supporting a massive wooden desk. Past it a metal cauldron sat sunken in the floor, four feet in diameter, large enough for a small bonfire. Rows of shelves built into the walls offered endless storage space and some of my supplies had already been delivered: bundles of different split wood, bags of dried herbs and minerals, and crates of glass and plastic jars and bottles waiting to be sorted. Behind them, by the blank wall, rested two long crates. My weapons.
On the right a kitchen was built against the wall, with a large island, and a gas stove, a dining table large enough to seat eight, and a grouping of plush divans upholstered in green and blue. The shelves on this side of the room would hold books and pantry ingredients.
Here and there, small tables and plush cushions offered spots to sit under green diaphanous canopies embroidered with gold and scarlet. Plants thrived in huge ceramic pots and vines dripped from the walls. Metal statues rested between the flowers, some delicate, some fierce. Beautiful glass fey lanterns and electric lamps dotted the walls.
Walking through the arched doorway at back of the room would lead me to the bedroom and the bath with a luxurious shower and a square dipping pool, six feet by six, sunken into the floor.
Home… Well, almost.
The tension that sat between my shoulders eased and fled. It wasn’t the Kursat, the palace my grandmother had resurrected in her memories where I had lived while I hovered between life and death as my body tried to overcome the alien magic I’d forced on it. It wasn’t Dasari, her California palace and the center of the New Shinar that I called home now, either. But it would do.
I walked to the desk on the platform and took out a bundle of soft cotton. I unrolled it and took out a slender vase of seafoam color. The second bundle followed. I pried the cotton layers apart gently, holding my breath. A metal rose waited on the cloth.
Phew. It survived the trip.
I slid it into the vase. There. Now it was home.
I shrugged, stretching my shoulders. I wanted out of my clothes. I would’ve loved nothing more than to heat up the water and float in the warm pool for an hour. But floating would have to wait.
As much as Mom loved me and sacrificed for my sake, there was one thing she could never cure – my paranoia. Kate lived on the edge of her sword. She was never not in danger. She’s understood this and tried to mitigate it the best she could by sending me to a boarding school. It didn’t work. I would come home for the holidays, and she would have a new scar. One time I returned to find her limping. She couldn’t get out of a bathtub by herself for two months and had to rely on a cane for three. Another time she’d used powerful magic against an ifrit, and it backfired and gave her a stroke. I’d rushed into the hospital and heard her trying her best to shape the words with an unresponsive mouth because she wanted to die at home.
I would go back to school, and then the nightmares would start. Sea demons eating Kate. Kate falling off a cliff. Kate being torn apart. They built and built, until I’d panic and run home. I’d gotten creative at escapes. Lying, forging documents, mailing myself, walking on foot through the wilderness for miles. I would do anything to get back home, because as long as I was there, Mom wouldn’t die. I wasn’t there when my biological father died. I wasn’t there when Jessica Olsen’s life was snuffed out. I had to be there with Kate. I was there for years, until I grew up and realized that unless I left, I would never be my own person.
I’d been gone for eight years, and with each month coming back felt harder and harder. But this time the nightmare was real. Death was stalking Mom, and I ran back to Atlanta, just like I did all those years ago. I wouldn’t let her get hurt. Not while I was still breathing.
To stop Mom from being murdered, I had to move through city, investigating and questioning people. I needed the authority of a law enforcement officer without the oversight of a law enforcement agency. The Order of Merciful Aid was a perfect fit. The knights were a proven commodity. Everyone knew what they were about, and if I blended in, nobody would question my presence. Now I just had to convince them to give me a badge.