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. No weak points. No sign that it was even habitable, except for the balcony. Invisible from the street unless you climbed another building, it 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 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.”
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 some 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 spilled from the roofs and broken windows, dotted with white flowers. 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. Hundreds 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 ghouls 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.”