The magical energy flowed into Kai like sunshine, and he smiled dreamily, enjoying the sensation. In spite of the weather – cloudy as usual in his home town - the brass under his hands was warm to the touch and thrummed in synch with his heartbeat, slow and steady. Opening his inner barriers came easier and easier to him with practice, and the overwhelming feeling when he succeeded was worth the hours of meditation he needed before reaching the right mental state. Oh, it was so worth it! He could almost taste the inner light that healed his bruises, relaxed him and gave him new energy.
In a great mood now, he wasn’t even upset by the flock of young women – clearly tourists – waiting for him to leave while trying not to be too obvious about it. Smiling at them politely, Kai picked up his bag and stepped back. The magical foci placed at strategic positions in the park, disguised as ordinary sundials, were indeed quite decorative, he supposed – and they surely made a nice background for photos. So he was not surprised at all that as soon as he was back on the path, one of the girls immediately jumped on the sundial’s pedestal and started taking selfies, clearly completely unaware of the magical potential around her, while her friends giggled, clapped their hands and called out to her in a language Kai didn’t know.
Laughing, Kai shook his head. Exposure to a bit of light magic would not hurt the young ladies, it had a positive influence on most people even if they could not consciously perceive it, and he did not begrudge them their fun. Instead, he slowly made his way to the café in the middle of the park, pausing for a while at the outdoor chessboard to watch a match between two groups of middle-aged men in work coveralls. He was not surprised to see that despite the sheer amount of beer bottles present – empty ones littering the sides of the board, one or two also rolling around between people’s feet, full ones in the hands of the players – the level of the match was quite high. Most of the guys regularly hanging out in this corner of the park were experienced club players, and Kai, who occasionally played as a mental exercise, genuinely regretted having to turn down an offer to play from someone sitting at one of the small chess tables. Unfortunately, it was time to work now.
Meanwhile, in another park not all that far away, Shez sat on a bench, attentively watching the people around him. He esteemed the mid-day population of the Schanzenpark to consist of roughly one third drug dealers, one third customers, and one third badly disguised cops in civilian clothing. This last third was what he was interested in. Purely professionally, of course – it was essential in his trade to know the faces of plainclothes police officers. Fortunately, Shez had an excellent memory when it came to people.
The young family having a picnic on the lawn really stood out. Shez wasn’t sure whether mommy and daddy were that naïve or that jaded, but at least the children were having fun, playing soccer with an empty can they had found. He cheerfully smiled at a little boy who had just scored a goal, calling out his congratulations. Shez wasn’t too worried about possibly being controlled by the police – he had just the right amount of weed in his pocket. Of course he had no intention of ever smoking the stuff, he just kept a carefully calculated stash to be on the safe side, not enough to be arrested for – the courts in this city were notoriously understaffed, so nothing small-scale was ever persecuted, even if you didn’t have money or connections – but just enough to make his presence plausible to any overly curious cops, and to then be promptly forgotten. Business as usual. More importantly, it also kept him safe from the local gangs – harassing potential repeat customers was bad for business. He also carried a few knives, blades a few millimeters smaller than to count as a weapon officially – which never failed to amuse him; the natives of this city had a ridiculously rigid belief in bureaucracy – purely for safety reasons.
Shez became considerably less cheerful when he thought about his last heist. Oh, he was sure he had not left any obvious traces – he was smart enough to always wear a hairnet and gloves when working, and magical tracers somehow just bounced off him – but he hadn’t known the young lady whose jewelry he’d unsuccessfully tried to sell this afternoon had political connections. That was a problem, and Shez mentally kicked himself for being sloppy in the research of his target. Usually, Shez stuck to victims who either were unlikely to press charges – he had learned there were various reasons for that – or who would not be taken seriously when they did. In any other case, people would assume the young lady had just misplaced her ring, and there would be no serious investigation – but with connections in high places, all bets were off. Shez knew that as soon as anyone with true power looked at her safe, he was in trouble. Maybe it was time to skip town.
Then again, maybe not. Shez had arrived in Hamburg only three years ago but found he really loved the place, with its beauty, its rich history and its nonchalant attitude towards crime – even pride of its centuries old tradition, financial creativity since the foundation of the Hanse – and it had become a true home to him. He’d hate to be forced to leave this place behind. But then, he probably didn’t have to. There were only a handful of mages powerful enough to be a threat to him, and Shez had made it a point to carefully research their names and personal information even before he’d moved to the city.
Gernot Greve, 93, was living happily – at least Shez genuinely hoped so for his sake – in a retirement home in Bergedorf, apparently mainly talking to the fairies in his window box. Shez kept wondering whether those fairies were real. He would probably never find out. At least he could be quite sure the old man would not be approached to consult the police, no matter how powerful his connection to the earth energies was.
Annika Hinrichsen, 22, was rumored to be immensely powerful, but fortunately was taking a year abroad for her studies. Hamburg would become a considerably more dangerous place as soon as she came back, and Shez was naturally wary of necromancers in general – a prejudice, he knew; Ms. Hinrichsen might be a perfectly nice young woman, but still – he was glad he didn’t have to worry about her right now.
Merve Pamuk, 40, was a highly respected healer working in the University Medical Center Eppendorf – surely no career politician would pull the city’s only true healer out of the emergency room to chase after a rich woman’s baubles, not even for a very well connected rich woman. That kind of thing cost votes if it came out, even in this city – and votes were far more valuable than diamonds, of course. Shez was sure someone’s accountants had already made the exact calculations.
Marie-Sophie Bargum, 12, who had been tested positively for magic after accidentally setting her classroom on fire, would not be a threat for several years to come. Shez had actually winced when reading the report he had bought from an acquaintance dealing in information, feeling extremely sorry for her. Apparently, the poor girl really hated physics class, to the point of spontaneous incineration. Of course, her life would not have become easier now she was known as a fire mage. The only question was whether her classmates would dare to bully her or just quietly ignore her.
Kai Berger, 34, was the only potential threat left, but Shez had smirked after seeing the man’s address. Born and bred in Harvestehude, with an Abitur from one of the local buy-your-degree highschools, that guy had apparently never held a proper job – not that he needed to – and just occasionally worked as ‘private consultant’, whatever that was supposed to mean. That guy probably was an expert on designer clothes, cocaine and tax evasion, but any magical talent he might possess by birth was wasted on him. Shez almost felt sorry, and not just for the no doubt sad life of someone with the ability to channel sunlight being stuck in a city of perpetual drizzle.
Still, Shez would have to be careful. He would have to lie low for a while – after selling the big diamond, that would be financially acceptable. If he considered it a vacation, even his pride would be able to handle it. And he supposed he should look more closely into what Mr. Berger was currently doing. He had to admit to himself, he was curious how far the police would go in their investigation.
The café was the kind of place with cheap white plastic tables and chairs, selling overpriced schnitzel, fries and sad looking cake to retirees with nothing better to do than spending their days in the park. Surprisingly – or maybe not surprisingly, considering the age of the average customer – it was also one of the very few places left in the city that still sold real iced coffee, with vanilla ice cream instead of the crushed ice served in the American coffee chains popping up everywhere, and for that, Kai appreciated the place. It was nice to have an iced coffee that was not watered down. Carefully balancing his glass filled to the brim with ice cream and spray cream with only a tiny hint of coffee, exactly the way it should be, he sat down at the table furthest away from the elderly ladies loudly discussing the various health issues of their cats.
He pulled a stack of loose paper from his bag, spreading it on the table, only narrowly avoiding the puddle from his overflowing glass. Frowning, he looked at the assortment of reports from police stations in different parts of Hamburg. He read them all again, carefully, to make sure. Burglary and theft were a common occurrence, of course, and usually these cases would not end up on Kai’s desk – or park café table, as it was – at all, far beneath the notice of one of the city’s few true mages. In fact, initially, he had suspected the only reason he had been contacted was that one of the theft victims was the mayor’s wife’s niece who really wanted her engagement ring back, not that he could blame her, no matter whether it was about the sentimental value or the eight carats attached to that sentiment. But looking at the reports carefully, he had started to understand why the police thought the cases were connected.
Indeed, all these heists would have been extremely difficult to pull off. Not only had the perpetrator – or perpetrators – an uncanny sense of where to find lucrative targets unlikely to press charges. That could have been sheer luck, of course, or simple statistics when breaking into houses in the richest quarters. For all he knew, the targets had been chosen at random. What really stood out, though, was the manner in which the thefts were carried out.
There was the case of a huge stash of cash money missing from the office of a yachting club. Witnesses had given hugely disparate statements about the amount and the origin of said money, but the story boiled down to a black suitcase filled with banknotes that was there on the one evening, secured with wards keyed only to a handful of trustworthy club members, and gone the next morning. Everyone in that place vehemently denied that one of their reputable club mates could have taken it, and indeed, discreet phone calls to a few high-end escort services had confirmed everyone present that night had an alibi if this case ever made its way into court. Which was unlikely, Kai knew. The whole thing had only come to the attention of the police because someone had panicked and called without thinking it through.
There was the incident of a lawyer’s town villa overlooking the Inner Alster that had clearly been broken into. The lawyer’s neighbors had called the police when seeing a broken front window and glass on the lawn. Investigating the case was made difficult by the fact that the houseowner, when he came home, refused to answer the police’s questions about what – if anything – had been stolen. His claim the damage to his home had been caused by playing children was, of course, ludicrous. No one in Harvestehude let their kids play in the street without a nanny, and if they did, accidentally breaking a window on the third floor of someone’s house was still unlikely to say the least. Breaking a window without setting off any kind of alarm simply did not happen. Since the lawyer claimed to never having owned any kind of burglar alarm, and had not pressed charges either – which was an alarm sign in itself, because it also meant the insurance would not pay a thing – there was no official case. The report had made its way to Kai anyway.
And there was the case of the mayor’s wife’s niece – Kai had been told in no uncertain terms that solving this one had priority – who, she claimed, had kept her valuables in a special wall safe reinforced not only with thick steel plates but also with magical wards. The safe had not been damaged – not a single scratch – and picking the lock should have been entirely impossible. Kai frowned. Magical wards were insanely expensive, and impossible to sense by a person without magical talent of their own. He supposed the victim could have been ripped off by the company that had sold her the safe, but that was highly unlikely. Companies dealing in security had a reputation to protect, and indeed, he had already received several worried e-mails by the company’s lawyer. That made sense. If word got out one of their best, or at least most expensive, products was malfunctioning, they’d stand to lose even more than the unfortunate lady missing her engagement ring.
No. Kai would have to examine the safe in person to be sure, of course, but he didn’t think it had simply malfunctioned. Neither did he believe for one second that a lawyer so very reluctant to talk about just what he kept in his villa didn’t own a state of the art magically powered alarm system. He wasn’t sure about the ‘honorable’ yachting society but at least considered the possibility that they were telling the truth, at least about not having taken the money. What all this pointed to was a criminal with a substantial amount of magical talent. Kai smiled and finished his iced coffee. This hunt should be interesting.
It was surprisingly easy to find the mage’s home. He had a few wards in place – Shez was very careful to not accidentally touch and destroy them, since even a not very smart mage would surely be alarmed by such a violation of his home. But the guy actually lived in a rented apartment, on the ground floor, with his real name on the doorbell! Shez shook his head. That was incredibly careless. Sure, this was a fairly low-crime part of town – unless you counted financial, of course – but didn’t the guy know that anyone trying anything serious in this city would try to take the mages out first? Shez seriously hoped the other mages, especially little Marie-Sophie, had better protections in place. Sure, he had no way of telling how strong the wards were – at least not without simultaneously destroying them – but seriously… Even assuming very strong wards indeed, the mage had to be extremely confident or extremely stupid. Or both.
Of course Shez had no intention whatsoever to enter the man’s apartment. It was too dangerous. Not because of potential booby traps. He was quite sure Mr. Berger was not the type to even think of anything like that – Shez guessed that guy’s computer password was ‘123456’, too – but because he might accidentally damage spells or magical items he had no way of discreetly replacing. There was no reason to tip the guy off. Instead, entirely unsurprised the curtains weren’t drawn, he just glanced through the windows, amazed at how normal everything looked. Cozy, really.
The furniture was expensive but mismatched, no doubt to the neverending shock and disdain of the neighborhood – Shez idly wondered whether that sight from the street made the area’s rent index drop – and obviously picked for comfort, not as a statement of style or money. Piles of books cluttered the living room table as well as a surprisingly comfortable looking sofa – actually, that was the first time Shez had ever seen a real sofa instead of a stylish torture device in a wealthy person’s home, and he almost liked Mr. Berger for it – and every available surface was cluttered with… items. The place was not precisely messy, in fact it looked perfectly clean, but its occupant was clearly a believer in creative disorder. Shez smiled. He thought he had now a fairly good idea of what kind of person the mage he was looking for was, and where he’d soon show up. The hunt was on.
On his way to the address he’d taken from the police documents, Kai had the uncanny feeling he was being followed. The streets were deserted – not uncommon in a part of town where people took their status symbol cars even for short rides. He was the only pedestrian around. And yet… A flicker of movement not his own in a shop window, only seen from the corner of his eye. Once, the echo of his footsteps just slightly out of time. The magical probes he discreetly sent out in all directions all came back empty: no one here. And still he could not shake off the feeling of being watched.
Kai was glad when he reached his destination, a small house in Blankenese with an immaculate front garden surrounded by a thick hedge, currently being tended by two gardeners. Kai probed them, feeling slightly guilty doing so, but according to his magic, they were exactly what they seemed. Kai could sense the older man’s fatigue and his younger assistant’s aching hand. He knew his feeling of unease did not stem from these two.
After ringing the doorbell, he was ushered in immediately. The lady of the house, clearly unhappy about his presence although Kai hat taken care to dress in a way that would not stick out here or make the neighbors talk, led him to her living room and just pointed. Not very creatively, the wall safe had been hidden behind a painting, and Kai was inwardly amused to notice the large oil painting itself was valuable enough to be stolen – indeed, he was a bit surprised the thief, or thieves, in question had left it in place. He suspected it was worth more than the ring… But then, also more recognizable, and more difficult to transport. The thief, surely a professional, must have thought it too risky to take.
The safe itself stood wide open, and Kai stepped closer to examine it, expecting to feel the traces of the broken locking wards. If he could determine how they had been unraveled, it would give him precious information about the type of mage they were dealing with. At first glance, he could not see anything. So, carefully, he let his inner light flow over the safe’s steel, the physical sensation pleasant and fulfilling as always. And yet, nothing. He could not even pick up the faintest residual traces of broken wards. Kai frowned. Was something off with his magic today? Had he been too distracted during his meditation? He didn’t feel particularly off, discounting that feeling of having been followed – but that didn’t mean a thing, he knew.
He sat down on the floor and centered himself with a few deep breaths. Afterwards, he sent out small magical probes in all directions, picking up all kinds of spells and enchantments – durability enchantments on some old and probably priceless porcelain, some fairly standard anti-mold spell on the fridge, more interestingly an elaborate and quite beautiful spell network that made the chandelier’s thousands of faceted glass pieces float in the air without strings, a glamour hiding the houseowner’s first few wrinkles, not that he’d ever admit sensing that even when pressed – and could perceive those just fine. There was nothing wrong with his magic. Which could mean only one thing: the wards that were supposed to have been on the safe simply were not there.
Now this put Kai in a somewhat precarious position. If he wrote a report suggesting or even vaguely implying the safe had not been magically warded at all, he’d face a libel lawsuit from the company for sure. If, however, he implied he were not strong enough to sense broken wards, that would not just likely ruin his reputation permanently – he did not care much about that – but also make more of a target of him than he already was. Kai hadn’t yet forgotten the bruises he’d still been sporting this morning. He was under no illusions when it came to that: a mage appearing weak was usually a dead mage very soon.
So after leaving the house and its unwelcoming owner, when he received a message from his police contact asking for his preliminary findings, he was at a bit of a loss of what to type into his phone. He was not going to lie directly about finding wards on the safe, since that kind of thing could backfire badly in court when other magically gifted expert witnesses might be brought in. He could, however, phrase it in a way that would make the company lawyers happy – or at least happy enough to not go after him. So what he typed out slowly with his thumb, still unused to having a smartphone, was, “wards very thoroughly wiped, probably by magic nullifier”. That was complete nonsense, of course – the world’s only two known magic nullifiers lived in Canada and in Indonesia respectively, closely watched by their governments – but he trusted the police to read between the lines.
Tracking down the mage was just as easy as walking up to his apartment. Shez had been right in his guess that Mr. Berger would be sent to the home of his badly chosen burglary target, and indeed, the guy just walked up the street without a care in the world. Shez grinned. For the first time, he actually got to look at the mage, and he had to admit the guy actually looked quite good, if only in a nondescript way. With a face so average in all aspects it was almost ridiculous, and his hair that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to be wavy or straight, light brown or dark blonde, no one would ever call Kai Berger a legendary beauty – but still, the guy clearly kept fit, and Shez appreciated the sight wile following him quietly. The man was wearing a bright blue outdoor jacked of the ridiculously high quality that people who had any reason to spend time outdoors usually couldn’t afford, and jeans just tight enough to provide an interesting view.
Shez began to regret the fate that hat put Kai and himself on opposite sides of the law. He genuinely liked what he saw of the man – and that was not only the effect of those jeans. It was the way Kai – when had he started thinking of the guy as Kai? – smiled easily at anyone. The way he almost absentmindedly handed a slightly enchanted Euro coin to a girl begging at the bus stop, the money probably not helping much, but the magic at least brightening her day a bit. No, Shez was sure he could actually like that man.
Only after a while, and only because he was watching so closely, Shez noticed the slight movements of the mage’s hand. So he was casting? Shez was surprised. He could not quite recognize the shape of the tiny spells but assumed them to be magical probes of some kind. So, the guy knew – or at least suspected – he was being followed. That was interesting. Maybe he was smarter than he seemed? Intrigued, Shez trailed after him right up to the expensive Blankenese townhouse. He was glad now that he’d left the noise-cancelling enchantments on the bushes surrounding the front garden intact on his first visit to the place. He was not worried about the mage’s probes finding anything, of course. This was not the first time anyone had cast probes at him, and he was sure they’d just return the signal of thin air to the caster, as always. And indeed, since no more aggressive spells were following, he knew he had not been made.
Still, Shez knew he should turn back now. It was too risky to go back into the building that was, he knew, full of all kinds of superfluous and decadent spells. On his first visit, he had only very narrowly avoided certain death by bringing the giant chandelier down – while he was immune to the direct effects of magic, a few tons of sharp glass shards falling down on him were another matter entirely – and he had no desire to revisit that house. But somehow he could not stop watching Kai. He could not observe what exactly Kai did in the house, but it had not taken the mage long, and he soon stepped back out into the street. And like a moth to the flame, Shez could not stop himself sliding closer. He was standing close enough now to see the mage’s green eyes that were fortunately focused on his phone screen. Close enough to read the message he was writing…
Oh, fuck. His stomach dropped. Shez had been so sure he had not been made, had felt so safe, and yet, this mage knew exactly what he was – and it had taken him less than half an hour to find out, too. So Kai was smart after all – dangerously so, and under any other circumstances, Shez would have found that very attractive indeed. Still, time to leave town, and urgently. He had heard Munich was supposed to be nice this time of the year… But first, he had to do something about that horrible message before the mage pressed the send button. Shez was under no illusions of what would happen if word got out what he was, a rogue magic nullifier involved in multiple crimes. He would be hunted mercilessly, and locked up for the rest of his life. Having no intention to spend the rest of his days behind bars, Shez took the last option available to him. To at least buy some time, he jumped the mage, knocking the phone out of his hand and quickly stepping on it, shattering the device. And then, he ran.
What was that? Kai was caught completely by surprise. Oh, this was not the first time he’d been openly assaulted in the street. Far from it; mages were hardly universally popular. It was also, unfortunately, not the first time anyone got in a hit before Kai could raise his personal shields. And yet, somehow, this had to be simultaneously the most skillfully carried out and the least malicious attack he’d ever been a target of. He had not seen his assailant coming at all, had not even sensed his presence – and he had no doubt the stranger could have destroyed himself just as easily as the broken phone at his feet. Kai shuddered slightly, looking at the shattered piece of plastic and metal. He supposed he should feel very lucky this had not been an attempt on his person. Still, he could not make any sense of this, and so, spontaneously, he made the decision to follow the stranger. He was already running even before consciously finishing that thought.
The stranger was fast and moved gracefully. Kai had difficulties keeping up the tempo. He had, however, the advantage of knowing Blankenese’s Treppenviertel with its small and winding alleys on the steep slope of the river bank very well – he’d grown up playing here with friends from school, and not much had changed during the years. And so he soon had his assailant – or, rather, his phone’s assailant – backed into one of the ubiquitous dead ends.
Surprised, Kai looked at the most beautiful man he’d ever seen – golden skin, black hair slightly mussed from running, unforgettable green eyes that would haunt him for the rest of his life – snarling at him like a cornered animal. Kai supposed he could understand the man’s panic. After all, if that surprise assault had been planned, the guy probably knew who, and more importantly, what Kai was. Being hunted by a mage was no fun, and Kai genuinely regretted putting anyone in this situation, broken phone or no. As curious as he was, maybe he should just have let the matter rest, bought a new phone and finally put some permanent shielding spells on his jacket. He always forgot he meant to do that. Still, now that he was here, the least he could do was make sure the guy was all right.
“Hey”, he called out tentatively. “Are you okay? I just want to talk, promise!” It didn’t have any effect on the strange man’s demeanor, nor had he really expected it to, the way he was acting. Kai really hoped the other man had not injured himself while fleeing, and sent a tentative probe out to make sure. He got back – nothing at all, as if the man wasn’t standing right there in front of him. And then, finally, he understood.
Oh, double fuck. The situation had suddenly turned from bad to worse, now that the mage had not only found out what he was but also had had a clear view of his face. He had never intended to hurt the mage, but if he ever wanted to walk freely and without fear again… He didn’t have much of a choice. Trying to suppress his panic, he gripped one of his knives tightly. If only Kai weren’t so damn nice. If only he were throwing offensive spells at him instead of trying to make sure Shez wasn’t hurt. Maybe then it would be easier to stab a man in cold blood…
Maybe not. Probably not. Anyway, he would just have to get out of this alley, somehow, without killing the other man, even if that meant having to spend the rest of his life on the run. He didn’t bother responding to the mage’s words, instead waiting for a moment in which the other man drew a breath – and jumped, quickly pushing Kai against a wall and pressing his knife to Kai’s throat. “Don’t make me”, he said quietly.
The mage stared at him wordlessly, not even bothering with futile attempts to shield himself – smart man, indeed, not that it changed anything – and Shez felt horrible, knowing that Kai didn’t deserve any of this. Knives close up were no fun… “I don’t want to hurt you”, he added quickly. “I just want to…” Leave, he had been meaning to say, yet looking at Kai he wasn’t all that sure he actually wanted to. Have you right up this wall, would probably have been more truthful, yet hardly appropriate while threatening the man with his knife. Not his style at all. And that was when the mage began to laugh.
He hadn’t been feeling so alive since… Since a very long time, he had to admit to himself. Kai knew he should be scared, backed into a wall at knifepoint by the rarest and most dangerous kind of mage there was, a nullifier, one who could simply deflect any spell Kai tried, and reach through his shields as if they were mere soap bubbles. He was thoroughly defeated – his own fault, he supposed. And still, the other man made no move to hurt him, even while having clear motivation to do so. That probably meant he wasn’t actually planning to.
Instead, Kai saw panic in the man’s eyes, and resignation – and, if he wasn’t entirely wrong, quite a bit of arousal as well. Now wasn’t that funny? Kai started laughing, adrenaline and his own attraction to the stranger overriding his fear. He felt great. He pulled the raw power of sunlight into his hands, the sheer sensation adding to his giddiness, and aimed the ball of light – not at the stranger but at the balcony over their heads. “You are going to drop that knife”, he informed the other man cheerfully, “because if anything happens that causes me to lose control, that pile of rocks there will land on both of us. I can shield, if I’m still breathing at that point. Can you?” Not waiting for an answer, he pushed the hand holding the knife away from his throat, not meeting any resistance. “And now”, he said, “you can finally decide whether you’re going to fight or fuck me.”