"The knight-piner is dead," the voice said.
The world halted. I skidded through its stillness, frightened and off balance. My throat ached. I heard my heart beating in my chest.
"How?" My voice was calm.
"He was killed in the line of duty."
"Who did it?"
"The matter is still under investigation. Look, if I could just get your name..."
I pushed the disconnect button and lowered the receiver in its place. I looked at the empty chair across from me. Two weeks ago Greg had sat in this chair, stirring his coffee. His spoon had made small precise circles, never touching the sides of the mug. For a moment I could actually see him right there, while the memory played in my mind.
Greg was looking at me with dark brown eyes, mournful, like the eyes of an icon. "Please, Kate. Suspend your dislike of me for a few moments and listen to what I have to say. It makes sense."
"I don't dislike you. It's an oversimplification."
He nodded, wearing that very patient expression that drove women mad. "Of course. I didn't intend to slight or simplify your feelings. I merely wish us to concentrate on the substance of what I have to say. Could you please listen?"
I leaned back and crossed my arms. "I'm listening."
He reached inside his leather jacket and produced a rolled-up scroll. He placed the scroll on the table and unrolled it slowly, holding it taut with the tips of his fingers. "This is the invitation from the Order."
I threw my hands in the air. "That's it, I'm done."
"Allow me to finish," he said. He didn't look angry. He didn't tell me that I was acting like a child, although I knew that I was. It made me madder.
"Very well," I said.
"In a few weeks you'll turn twenty-five. While in itself that means very little, in terms of readmission into the Order it carries a certain weight. It's much harder to gain entrance once you turn twenty-five. Not impossible. Just harder."
"I know," I said. "They've sent me brochures." He let go of the scroll and leaned back, lacing his long fingers. The scroll remained open even though every law of physics dictated that it should snap back into a roll. Greg forgot about physics sometimes.
"In that case, you're aware of the age penalties." It wasn't a question, but I answered it anyway. "Yes." He sighed. It was a small movement, only noticeable to those who knew him well. I could tell by the way he sat, very still, craning his neck slightly, that he had guessed at my decision.
"I wish you would reconsider," he said.
"I don't think so." For a moment I could see the frustration in his eyes. We both knew what was left unsaid: the Order promised protection, and protection to someone of my lineage was paramount.
"Can I ask why?" he said.
"It's not for me, Greg. I can't deal with hierarchy." For him the Order was a place of refuge and security, a place of power. Its members committed themselves to the values of the Order completely, serving with such dedication that the organization itself no longer seemed a gathering of inpiduals, but an entity in itself, thinking, rationalizing, and incredibly powerful. Greg embraced it and it nurtured him. I fought it and almost lost.
"Every moment I spent there, I felt as if there was less of me," I said. "As if I was shrinking. Dwindling away. I had to get out and I won't go back."
Greg looked at me, his dark eyes terribly sad. In this dim light, in my small kitchen, his beauty was startling. In some perverse way I was happy that my stubbornness forced him to visit and now he sat in a chair less than a foot away, like an ageless elven prince, elegant and sorrowful. God, how much I hated myself for this little girl fantasy.
"If you'll excuse me," I said.
He blinked, startled by my formality and then rose smoothly. "Of course. Thank you for the coffee."
I saw him to the door. The outside had turned dark, and the bright light of the moon enameled the grass on my lawn with silver. By the porch, white Rose of Sharon flowers glowed against the shrubs like a scattering of stars.
I watched Greg descend down the three concrete steps, into the yard.
"Yes?" He turned. His magic flared about him like a mantle.
"Nothing." I closed the door.
My last memory of him, poised against the moonlight-drenched lawn and clothed in his magic.
I cradled myself with my arms, wanting to cry. The tears would not come. My mouth had gone dry. My last link to my family severed. Nobody was left. I had no mother, no father, and now no Greg. I clenched my teeth and went to pack.
THE MAGIC HAD HIT WHILE I WAS PACKING THE essentials into my bag and I had to take Karmelion instead of my regular car. A beat-up rusted truck, bile green in color and missing the left headlight assembly, Karmelion had only one advantage - it ran on water infused with magic and could be driven during a magic wave. Unlike normal cars, the truck did not rumble or murmur or produce any sound one would expect an engine to make. Instead it growled, whined, snarled, and emitted deafening peals of thunder with depressing regularity. Who named it Karmelion, and why, I had no idea. I bought it at a junkyard with the name scrawled on the windshield.
Lucky for me, on a regular day Karmelion had to travel only thirty miles to Savannah. Today I forced it into the ley line, which in itself wasn't bad for it, since the ley line dragged it almost all the way to Atlanta, but the trek across the city didn't do it much good. Now the truck was cooling off in the parking lot behind me, dripping water and sweating magic. It would take me a good fifteen minutes to warm the generator back up, but that was alright. I planned to be here for a while.
I hated Atlanta. I hated cities, period.
I stood on the sidewalk and surveyed the small shabby office building that supposedly contained the Atlanta Chapter of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. The Order made efforts to conceal its true size and power, but in this case they had gone overboard. The building, a concrete box three stories high, stuck out like a sore thumb among the stately brick houses flanking it on both sides. The walls sported orange rust stains made by rainwater dripping from the metal roof through the holes in the gutters. Thick metal grates secured small windows, blocked by pale Venetian blinds behind dusty glass.
There had to be another facility in the city. A place where the support staff worked while the field agents put on a nice modest front for the public. It would have a large, state of the art armory, and a computer network, and a database of files on anyone of power - magic or mundane. Somewhere in that database my name sat in its own little niche, the name of a reject, undisciplined and worthless. Just the way I liked it.