The Order of Merciful Aid occupied a compound on the intersection Centennial Park Drive and Andorf’s Avenue. The five-story building, half fort, half bunker, had all the bells and whistles that came with post-Shift construction: narrow windows protected by metal grates with silver in the bars, foot-thick stone walls, and a flat roof, guarded by the ballistae and M240 medium machine guns. A nine-foot-tall wall topped with razor wire and sporting guard towers wrapped around it all. Magic or tech, the knights would pulverize it.
I rode straight to the front gate and stopped before a squat guardhouse with reinforced walls and tinted windows secured by metal grates. A dark-skinned knight about my age with a scar on his neck and curly hair cut short came out. He carried a tactical sword on his hip.
“Purpose of visit?”
“I’m here to see Knight-Protector Nicholas Feldman.”
The knight eyed me. “Is he expecting you?”
“No. But he will see me.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I hold the Tower.”
The knight’s expression didn’t change. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
No, I’m a crazy person who’d come to spout random nonsense at your citadel of armed fanatics. “Why don’t you call it and find out?”
He went back to the guardhouse.
The Order originated in the chaos immediately following the Shift, right after that first wave of magic that dropped planes out of the sky and sapped all the energy out of the power grid. That wave raged for three days, birthing monsters and awakening powers at random. The apocalypse had come and shattered our technological civilization with one blow, like a cosmic hammer. During that wave, Jared Stone, a former Army Ranger, banded with a few of his neighbors to protect their houses from the magic nightmares ravaging their neighborhood and the Order was born.
Stone patterned his creation after the medieval knight orders, emphasizing strict discipline, education, and above all, competency, and gave it a simple mission – protect mankind from all things magic. The knights helped anyone who asked. Rich, poor, it didn’t matter. If you ran into a magic problem you couldn’t handle, the Order would accept your petition and solve your dilemma. On their terms.
Over the years, the Order grew. As the reach of the federal government weakened and the States gained power, the law enforcement came to rely on the knights more and more. They had chapters in all major cities, they were expert in disposing of magic hazmat, and they were deadly.
Unfortunately, the Order took its mission literally and the knights’ definition of human was rather narrow. Occasionally they would show their true colors, and society recoiled. The knights would adjust their policies, weather the storm of public opinion, and sooner or later the authorities would come knocking on their door. At least until the next massacre.
A white kid with tan skin and sandy hair, about sixteen or so, trotted out of the stables inside the walled perimeter. We nodded to each other.
The knight stepped out of the guardhouse. “You may go in. Peyton will take your horse.”
I dismounted and handed the reigns to Peyton. He smiled at me and looked at Tulip. The mare sighed.
“Behave,” I told her.
“Beautiful color,” Peyton told me.
I headed to the building.
“Ma’am,” Peyton called out.
“Your horse has blood on her chin.”
I turned around, pulled a rag out of my pocket, and wiped the bloody smear off Tulip’s face. “There you go. All good.”
Peyton gave me a suspicious look and him and Tulip walked off.
I loved my horse, but she always was a messy eater.
A young female knight met me at the gates of the Order. She was taller than me by six inches, brown-skinned, with a lean athletic build, light hazel eyes, and an intense, unblinking stare. Her dark brown hair, braided in cornrows, fell on her shoulders in four thick plaits. She walked me through the front hall and a long hallway to Nick’s office and pointed to the chair in front of his desk. “Sit. Wait.”
I sat and held my fists in front of me like paws. “Woof!”
“Perfect.” She turned, walked out of the office, and parked herself in the hallway by the open door.
The Order of Merciful Aid, the very soul of courtesy in this savage age.
I sat in the chair and studied the office. Plain desk, plain chairs, a row of bookshelves against one wall filled with an assortment of volumes, everything from forensic science volumes to bestiaries, a weapons rack against the opposite wall, holding three blades, a spear, a mace, a rifle, and a shotgun. A spartan, functional office for a spartan, functional man.
Steps echoed down the hallway. Nick Feldman entered and walked to his desk, and I almost fell out of my chair.
Nick had gone grey.
The last time I saw him had had brown hair he kept cropped. It was longer now, long enough to be brushed, but it was steel grey. He had aged.
Nick Feldman gave me a cold stare. His eyes were very pale, stark against the backdrop of his tan skin, and being on the receiving end of that look was like gazing into the barrel of a gun. I was probably expected to collapse to my knees and beg for mercy, but I was still grappling with the hair and the lines around his eyes, so I just stared back, my face blank.
How old was he now? Kate was… thirty-eight so he was forty-one. Is that what people looked like at forty-one?
He didn’t look weakened by the age. If anything, it made him harder. Tall and broad shouldered, his body conveyed harsh, sinewy strength. His cheekbones had grown more defined, he’d picked up a scar that crossed his left cheek, and his face radiated authority and stoic pessimism. If you catapulted him through time to the convoy of Crusaders with hollow eyes and worn out armor cutting their way across the Holy Land after years of fighting, he would fit right in.
He motioned top me with his hand. “Let’s see it.”
I pulled the Tower out of my pocket and placed it on his desk. It was a metal badge about the size of a playing card with an image of the tower engraved on one side. Nick turned it over. The other side was embossed with number 4. A signature ran underneath it, silvery and embedded in metal, as if someone had signed the badge with silver wire while the metal still cooled from the forge. Damian Angevin.
Nick picked up the badge and held it out. The female knight who escorted me in entered, took the Tower, and left.
Nick studied me with his pale eyes.
I had spent too much time with my grandmother. The Rose of Tigris didn’t age. She was centuries old, but she looked perpetually about forty and it was an awe-inspiring, regal forty. Nick was forty-one and he looked like he’d seen hell.
“Have you been well, Knight-Protector?” I shouldn’t have said that. It just slipped out.
Nick furrowed his eyebrows. “Do we know each other?”
Magic surged through the world, saturating it in a single breath-taking instant. Suddenly I was lighter, stronger, sharper. My sensate ability kicked in, and vivid color bloomed in my field of vision. Swirls of blue in every shade slid over the furniture and floor – traces of human magic from the visitors to Nick’s office. A smudge of green from a shapeshifter, a hint of purple, old and fading – the foul track of a vampire, and Nick himself, an amalgam of azure and sapphire streaked with bright, electric yellow. I blinked to turn it off.
In the hallway a woman bit of a curse. The Tower realized that the hand holding it didn’t belong to its owner and activated. Asking the female knight if she needed some aloe for that burn wouldn’t be prudent. She didn’t look like humor was among her virtues.
The female knight returned and deposited the badge wrapped in a rag on the desk. “It checked out.” She turned and went back to her post by the door.
I picked up the badge. A tingle of magic shot through my fingertips and vanished, recognizing me. I slid it back into my pocket. The Tower granted me the right to call on the Order for aid and gave me authority equivalent to a Knight-Captain, which meant I outranked everyone in the office, except for Nick.
The Knight-Protectors oversaw regional offices, individual chapters of the Order, and their position came with a lot of autonomy. Only Grand Master of the Order and the Knight-Seneschal ranked higher. Technically the Tower constituted a direct order from the Grand Master to render whatever assistance I required. Practically, trying to strongarm Nick would end in disaster. I needed his cooperation.
“To get a Tower you had to have performed a service of great value to the Order,” Nick said.
Nick waited. I kept my mouth shut.
“What’s your relationship with the Grand Master?” Nick asked.
“I’m not at liberty to answer.”
My grandmother liked to describe her relationship with the head of the Order as “complicated.” From my point of view, there was nothing complicated about it. Damian Angevin was desperately in love with my grandmother. After he granted her the first Tower, she gave it to me. He found out and presented her with another one, so she would have one of her own just in case. My grandmother liked him, however, her heart belonged to a man who died over two thousand years ago. Damian knew this but he was never one to back down from a challenge.
Nick leaned back into his chair, doing an excellent impression of a granite boulder. “I’ve never heard of you, Ms. Ryder.”
“I’m not famous.”
“There are only four Towers in existence,” Nick said.
Five, but who was counting?
“I know all four recipients of the Tower.”
Great. Just my luck.
“Your Tower is registered to you, which means that one of the four had granted you authority to use it. Who do you belong to, Ms. Ryder?”
I belonged to New Shinar and to my grandmother, the Plaguebringer, the City Eater, Rigmur Pana-Shinar – the Voice of the Old Kingdom. In the grand tradition of the royal line, I had earned my share of titles as well, the most famous of which was Dananu Edes-Shinar – the Strength of the New Shinar. Nick had actually heard of me. He just didn’t know it. Mentioning any of this nonsense was out of the question because Nick hated our whole family with the passion of a thousand suns. The Tower compelled the Knight-Protector to comply, but if he knew who I was, he would make things as difficult as he could.
This required tact. Of the four Tower recipients, Nick would likely view Hannah Salazar as the lesser evil. A former officer, she ran a small private army in New Mexico and her people had saved the local Order chapter during the last flare at great cost.
“I belong to someone who values discipline and accountability, Knight-Protector. I swore an oath to follow orders, and those orders require me to maintain confidentiality. I don’t enjoy the cloak-and-dagger act. I prefer simple missions where the enemy is clear, but this is the way my chain of command wants to play it, so I must do my best. I hope for your understanding.”
There you go, I am a mercenary with a military mindset. Don’t mind me. No deep dark secrets here.
Nick pondered me for a long moment. “Very well. What do you need?”
I leaned forward. “Three days ago, a man was murdered. I want to take over the investigation into his death.”
Nick sighed. “This is Atlanta, Ms. Ryder. Be more specific. Which of the seven murders on my desk would you like to play with?”
Nick thumbed through the stack of files on his desk, pulled one out, and offered it to me. “Fine. It’s all yours.”
Just like that. Huh.
Nick studied me. “Is something the matter?”
“I expected more resistance.”
“And you will have it. Just not from me. How much do you know about Atlanta?”
“Not as much as I’d like to.”
“Stay awhile and you’ll wish you knew less.”
Nick stood up and pulled at a cord hanging from a roll of plastic secured on the back wall. The plastic unrolled into a map of Atlanta with sections tinted with different colors.
“The lay of the land,” Nick said. “At least as of last week. Atlanta is less a city and more of a collection of territories claimed by different factions. There are three main roads, I-20 that runs east to west, I-85 that runs north to south and the Peach Loop, which is a new road that circles the city.”
He pointed to the north east where a grey icon depicted a stylized castle sitting in the middle of the area tinted with green. “The Keep, the headquarters of the Pack. Their territory extends almost to I-85.”
Nick tapped a white palace icon located in the north west, in the loop between I-85 and I-20, colored with red. “The Casino. It used to belong to the People, except now our particular People call themselves the Eastern Institute of Necromancy, also known as EIN. They’re still the same People. They still pilot vampires with their minds, finance their research with gambling, and think they’re better than everyone else and therefore are entitled to special treatment.”
Nick pointed to a grey section centered on a tower. “The Order’s territory. You are relatively safe here.”
He moved his finger south of I-20, to an area stained with so many colors, it looked like an overenthusiastic toddler with finger paints had gone wild after a serious sugar rush.
“The Pagans. The Covens are here, the Neo-Vikings over there, then we have the Druids, the Greeks, the Volhvs, the Egyptians, the devotees of the traditional African religions…”
His hand flicked over the map to south east. “The representatives of the Cherokee, Apalachee, Muscogee Creek, and other Tribes are here. Also, the major religions each have their own sphere of influence and center of power, with the Christians being the most numerous. Apocalypse or not, we’re still in the Bible Belt.”
Nick stepped back and waved his hand, encompassing the map.
“It’s about as fun as it looks. Occasionally, something gets them all united, but most of the time, they couldn’t agree on where the sun will rise tomorrow. They are like rocks in a sack, grinding against each other. They all want to expand, but there is only so much city to go around, so they watch each other, waiting for an opportunity.”
“What about that smaller blue green area in the south east?”
Nick grimaced. “That’s the Lennart-Daniels gated community.”
Really? “Gated community?”
“Yes. It’s very exclusive.”
“Stay out of there. Lennart once led the Pack, and Daniels has claimed – her word not mine – the entire city in the past. Now they spend most of their time up in Wilmington because their son attends a private school there, but they are in residence right now. That family is complicated. They have issues with the Pack and EIN, and they are not receptive to outsiders. The entire neighborhood consists of shapeshifter families that left the Pack with them. Imagine three streets full of werebears and former Pack heavy hitters fanatically loyal to Lennart and Daniels. If you trespass, I may not be able to get you out.”
That was a lie. Nick visited my family on a regular basis. My mother considered him her stepbrother. Conlan called him “Uncle.” If one of Nick’s knights accidentally happened to wander into their neighborhood and made a mess of things, they would absolutely return the poor lost lamb to Nick. Besides, as the Knight Protector, Nick could and would go anywhere in the city and all the big wigs whose territory he invaded would have to mind their manners when they politely asked him to leave.
“While you’re at it, keep clear of the Mercenary Guild.” Nick sank a truckload of derision into those two words. “Lennart and Daniels don’t run it anymore, but they still own a chunk of it, so don’t go in there looking for your people.”
Well, my ploy to pose as one of Hannah Salazar’s private soldiers worked. He thought I was a mercenary, clearly a profession he wasn’t fond of. That and my barging in and taking one of his cases likely meant that if I did get in trouble, the Knight Protector wouldn’t be in a rush to rescue me. Good thing I didn’t often require rescue.
“The murder of Pastor Nathan Haywood happened here.” Nick touched an area in the south east, close to the Peach Loop. “In no man’s land. You have the Warren to the east. It’s an impoverished area, full of the homeless and street gangs. The PAD doesn’t make many trips to the Warren. Pastor Haywood was a true Christian.
There was a saying people used to differentiate those of true faith from those who just paid lip service to their deities. “In name and in deed?”
“Yes. He lived simply, he was humble, and he worked miracles. This was a man who ministered to anyone in need, especially to the poor. He fed them, he healed them, and he spread the word of his God.”
“You knew him?”
“I saw him cure people. He wasn’t a fraud.”
Post-Shift, faith had power. If enough people believed in a god, the deity would grow in power and sometimes its priests gained magic abilities. Nobody quite knew if those abilities were the result of the deity imbuing its chosen with magic or if the faith of the congregation empowered the clergy directly, but their new abilities were a fact.
“Pastor Haywood never took any money or credit for what he did. His magic was faith-based, so it only worked on those who shared his beliefs, but when it worked, it was extraordinary. He was a good man, who thought he had no magic of his own and saw himself as an instrument of a higher power. Do you know how this kind miracle worker died?”
I knew exactly how he died, but extra information never hurt. “No.”
“Look in the file.”
I opened the file. A colored photograph stared back at me. A stump of a body sprawled in a puddle of blood on the floor. This picture hadn’t been in the paper. The head was missing, torn off, judging by the ragged shreds of skin around the neck. His chest was a gory mess. Something with vicious claws had ripped him open, breaking the ribs, and their shards jutted out of the red-smeared flesh. Thick dark blood pooled inside the chest cavity where vital organs used to be.
“It took his heart,” I murmured.
Nick sat back in his chair. “It’s too early to say if the culprit is an ‘it.’ The force and the claws required to open a human being like that could indicate a shapeshifter or a vampire or half a dozen magical beasts seen recently within the city limits. Your guess is as good as mine.”
He sounded bored. Nick didn’t know how to be apathetic about his job. He never phoned anything in, but here was a holy man, a pastor he personally knew and clearly admired, murdered in a horrifying way and Nick was pretending not to care. He wasn’t giving me any details either. Why so indifferent, Uncle? What are you hiding?
“Did he have any enemies? Do you have any leads or suspects?”
“No and no. Pastor Haywood was beloved by his congregation and respected by his peers. The murder was in the paper two days ago, and there are still hundreds of mourners standing vigil at the church where he was a Deacon.”
I studied the photograph. I’d been waiting for that newspaper article for a month. Sienna had warned me it was coming. One of the three witches who made up the Witch Oracle, Sienna saw the future. We had been friends for a long time. She had foreseen Mom’s death, witnessed it in gory detail years ago and it scarred her so much, she called me in the middle of the night screaming. Everything I did from that point on was to stop the prophecy from coming to pass.
She’d called me again several weeks ago, to tell me that the first in the chain of events was about to occur. She said a murder would happen in Atlanta, soon. Sienna didn’t know who would be murdered, only that the “death would shake the city.” So, I’d parked myself in Nashville, negotiating for ore and timber on Grandmother’s behalf meanwhile, and bided my time. I’d hoped Sienna’s prophecy was a mistake and this spring would pass quietly. But Sienna was never wrong, just maddeningly vague.
My grandmother’s people in Atlanta had orders to notify me about all significant murders, especially ones where magic was involved, and when Pastor Haywood died, one of them hopped onto a ley line and brought me the paper in person. Once I saw the crime scene photos, I knew that was it. It was the weirdest feeling. This murder was the opening shot in what would be a terrible war. I’d dreaded it but when it finally happened, I felt relief, because now I could do something about it instead of sitting on my hands, and guilt, because a man being ripped apart finally gave me my direction.
I slid the photograph back into the file gently. I had seen plenty of dead bodies. I had made some bodies dead, and sometimes my handiwork looked worse than this. But there was something profoundly sad about this priest’s murder. The brutality of it, the sheer savagery of it. He was a man with a kind heart, and someone had ripped it out. It left me hollow and I felt rage expanding to fill the void. He was a light in the world, and they snuffed it out. I’d make them pay.
I traced the body with my fingertips. You won’t be forgotten. I promise you I will find the one responsible and stop them from hurting anyone else.
I realized Nick was watching me and closed the file.
“The Order was asked by the Methodist Bishop of North Georgia to step in because the manner of death makes this case a political time bomb. The PAD was overjoyed to send it over. It landed on my desk this morning. Everything we know is in that file and now it’s yours.”
Nick opened a drawer in his desk, took out a form, wrote on it in indecipherable cursive, and held it out.
“For the purposes of this investigation, we’re going to make you a Knight Defender. Go down the hall, take a left, second door on the right, give them this paper, and they will make you your very own junior detective badge. While in possession of said badge, you represent the Order of Merciful Aid. Should you fuck up, you will find me less than merciful, and no matter what favor your superior thinks they’re owed, I’ll kick your ass right out of Atlanta. Understood?”
Right. That’s all he was going to give me. “Understood. Any advice?”
Nick grinned like a wolf baring his fangs. “Have fun, don’t offend anybody, and try not to die.”