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One by one, I set off car alarms.

I walked along the curb and methodically gave each parked car a gentle kick, just hard enough to trigger the siren. Behind me, a dozen violated vehicles already blared out of tune.

The prospect hung back, sullen and quiet. He was having a tough week, and my erratic behavior wasn’t helping his mood any. With each siren adding its voice to the cacophony, the prospect got a little twitchier. To his credit, he hadn’t cut and run. Yet.

“Philippine Energy Beetles are nasty critters,” I lectured him as we walked, straining to be heard over the noise. “They nest by the power lines and feed off the electricity. Those flickering lights the power company says are caused by faulty wiring are often caused by an infestation.”

Having finished with the cars, I fumbled with the lock on the front door of a vacant house.

“This place is lousy with beetles,” I explained. “We’re gonna have to fumigate.”

“That’s just great,” said the prospect. “I can’t stand bugs. Now you tell me the Watch is in the exterminator business? This couldn’t possibly get any worse.”

But, of course, it could. He hadn’t seen the beetles up close yet. The prospect’s problem with insects was part of the reason I had brought him to this place. I needed to know, when push came to shove, that he’d be able to handle himself. I needed him to overcome whatever phobias and preconceived notions he’d been living with, before he learned about any of the really bad things that are out there.

“Relax,” I told him. “There’s some good news. These critters hate loud noise.”

The lock finally surrendered to my ministrations and the door was forced open by the pressure from the inside. Hundreds of fully grown beetles burst out of the house. Each of them was two to three feet long and stood at least a foot tall. The entire swarm rushed past us and toward the sewer, trying to get as far away from the roar of the sirens as they could. The prospect turned white as a sheet, but he didn’t run. This one just might be a keeper.

“They are . . .” the prospect gulped, “enormous.”

“This is New York,” I told him. “We don’t sweat the small stuff. You should see the size of the troll under the Verrazano Bridge. Come on.” I took a careful step inside.

“Shouldn’t we go after them?” the prospect called after me. “That brood will infest half the city.”

“The beetles we’ve scared off can’t reproduce on their own and won’t last a week outside of the nest,” I said while examining the foyer. “The root of the problem is in here.”The house was a mess — foul smelling and covered with greenish goo. Dozens of semi-translucent eggs, each the size of a golf ball, hung from the walls and ceiling like ornaments, cradled in the slime. You could almost see the larva gestating inside.

“Do we crack them open?” asked the prospect.

“No need,” I replied. “I’ve come prepared.” I pulled a small antique lantern out of my backpack, and lit the candle inside with a match. The special candle, blessed by the Panchen Lama himself, activated the lantern’s magic. Wherever its light shone, the eggs shriveled and died, as though they’d been doused in DDT.

We proceeded through the house, using the lantern to illuminate every corner and nook. The queen would not have abandoned the nest as easily as the other beetles, so I tread very carefully. The prospect opened the door to one of the bedrooms and there she was—three times larger than the drones we’ve chased off—guarding a pile of eggs at the back of the room. The queen trilled in warning and turned toward us.

“Blast her,” I told the prospect.

Frazzled by the sight of the huge bug, the prospect mumbled the incantation, getting half of it wrong. Instead of a powerful blast of energy, he only managed to unleash a spray of sparks, hurled in the general direction of the queen. The insect charged, and the prospect stumbled back, desperately trying to cast another spell. With the queen almost upon him, he managed a shield spell. The queen bounced off it as though it were bulletproof glass, momentarily stunned by the force of the collision.

The prospect began another spell, fighting hard to keep his concentration as the queen got back up and scraped against his weakening shield. Casting several combat spells in a row isn’t easy even for an experienced mage, let alone a rookie. The prospect’s apparent fear of bugs inspired him to dig extra deep within his energy reserves. With a belligerent bug inches away and held off only by an invisible barrier, the prospect spoke the words of power in a trembling voice. It was close, but he managed to finish the incantation before the shield collapsed. The queen was enveloped in a ball of fire for several seconds. When the flames disappeared, a charred chitinous shell was all that remained.

The prospect was practically hyperventilating. “I could have used some help,” he said.

“You have to rely on your own magic,” I told him. “You wouldn’t have been in trouble if you hadn’t screwed up the energy bolt. Avoid the distractions and concentrate on your spells, just like you were taught. Do better next time.”

I walked past him into the room and used the lantern to take care of the last batch of eggs. The prospect took another look at the singed bug remains on the floor, and threw up.

The first time I met the prospect was several weeks ago, when I sprung him from a loony bin

This wasn’t unusual, as such things go. When people first begin to See, their mind wants badly to reject the truth, to pretend that the world is still safe and normal. They convince themselves, or those around them, that they are losing their marbles. Some try to drown out the new Sight with pills or liquor. A few get themselves committed. They don’t typically go as far as to burn their house down.

Back when the prospect went by the name of George Gartner, his Sight began to awaken, slowly. He began to notice things, things that regular people are blissfully unaware of. Mostly he noticed a particularly nasty ghost that’s been haunting his house since the early fifties.

The only one more surprised by this development than George was the ghost. You would think that the old spook might have appreciated having someone to talk to. Being stuck in that house for over half a century with no one but the cats even remotely aware of your existence couldn’t have been fun. Instead, the ghost unleashed fifty years of pent up frustration and anger on poor George. Every day George’s Sight became clearer, and the ghost’s cursing louder. It followed him around the house, wailing, nagging, and shouting abuse the entire time. It got so bad, George could no longer remain in his own home.

He went through the usual stages. Denial, self-medication, and trying to share what he could See with the world. He even tried to get a priest to perform an exorcism, but the church won’t battle what they can’t See. Eventually, George couldn’t take it anymore. He bought a container of gasoline, poured it all over the house and set it on fire.

Lucky for George, he’d been seeing a shrink, and his claims of ghosts and otherworldly creatures had been duly documented. Because of this, when the cops and firefighters sorted things out, he got sent to the nuthouse rather than prison.

The head physician at Bellevue’s mental ward owed the Watch a few favors, and he knew to call us any time someone like George would turn up. After a couple of weeks, it was easy as pie for him to declare George no longer a danger to himself or others, and release him into our custody.

I swaggered into George’s hospital room like I owned the place. I’ve learned how to make a good entrance over the years. Perception is as important as reality sometimes, and it’s crucial to immediately establish who’s in charge.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” I told George in lieu of a hello. “The good news is: you aren’t crazy. The doctor said so, so it must be true. You can pack your toothbrush and get out of here whenever you please.”

George gaped at me, trying to puzzle out whether I was legit or just a fellow patient.

“The bad news: that ghost was real. So are all the other weird things you’ve been noticing out of the corner of your eye. You can see them now, but more importantly—they can see you.”

I told him about the real world—beings and things that only one out of every thirty thousand people can See. A world the rest of humanity catches glimpses of through fairy tales and scary campfire stories. Not a nice place at all.

I told him about the Watch—a group of people with Sight who do their best to protect humanity. I gave him a choice. He could join us or go out into the night and deal with whatever’s out there on his own. Few people ever turn us down, when the situation is laid out for them like that. Then it becomes a matter of making sure they’ve got what it takes to join.

The first order of business was to ditch his name. Real names have power and one shouldn’t casually volunteer them to every stranger one meets. Stripped of his name, George became a prospect. If found worthy, he would choose a new name for himself, a name that’s safe to share with others. Mine’s Conrad Brent and I’ve been wearing it proudly since the nineties.

After we finished taking care of beetle eggs, our next stop was to visit the oracle of Eighty-Sixth Street.

She had sent word that she wanted to see me, and the oracle isn’t someone I like to keep waiting. She might get annoyed and predict something unpleasant in my future, like an ingrown toenail. The oracle’s predictions came true much more often than not, and no one was entirely sure whether she merely Sees the future or influences it. The whole cause and effect thing gives me a headache, so I try not to think about it. Much.

I left the prospect in the car. He wasn’t advanced enough in his training to be meeting the major players. Besides, I suspected that the oracle knew things about me, things that the prospect had no business learning.

The oracle operated out of a one bedroom apartment above a Korean nail salon in a rundown building. She could do far better, for what she charged. One time I asked her about that. She smiled cryptically as she surveyed the peeling wall paint and leaky ceiling and said that she was exactly where she was meant to be.

“Conrad Brent.” She got up from the loveseat to greet me, her voice strong and even in contrast with her small, wrinkled form. “Your future is fire. I see difficult decisions and you’ll make the wrong ones. A flame wave will burn the buildings, char the churches, scorch the schools, and strafe the streets. Yours is a dark destiny of challenging choices and tragic tribulations . . .”

“Cut the crap, Agnes,” I interjected. “I am not a customer. Surely you didn’t call me here just to reiterate the same doom and gloom scenario you’ve been scaring me with for years?”

“Philistine.” She sniffed. “Some people pay good money for the kind of insight I share with you free of charge. A day will come when you’ll wish you listened more attentively. Fine, then. Let’s tend to a more immediate problem. There is a charlatan in Williamsburg who calls himself the Crimson Prophet. He’s been swindling the unwary and besmirching the good name of honest clairvoyants. A thorn in my side, he is, and I would like for you to remove him.”

“Really, Agnes,” I said, “this isn’t like you. There are dozens of phonies out there taking advantage of the ungifted, and they are hardly a threat to someone of your considerable and real talents. You can’t expect the Watch to act as your muscle, leaning on some two-bit fortune teller who happens to irritate you.”

“Those were my sentiments exactly,” the oracle replied, “until a few days ago, when this upstart somehow got his hands on an Atlantean shard.”

I should have known the oracle had a serious difficulty when she contacted the Watch. Her own resources are substantial enough to handle lesser issues. A shard showing up in New York wasn’t just a problem for her; it was trouble for all of us.

Three thousand years ago, Atlantis was the first global superpower. While most of humanity was muddling its way through the Bronze Age, Atlantis had skyscrapers, a public transportation system, and a power grid. Powering it all was a giant crystal, fused with science and magic more advanced than anything another human culture had accomplished, then or since.

One day a crack appeared in the crystal. Some say it was an accident; others blame the Atlanteans themselves, who put too much strain on the crystal, greedily drawing ever more power. Their best alchemists tried feverishly to seal the crack even as other Atlanteans fled the island. Ultimately they failed and the resulting explosion annihilated their culture. The crystal itself was broken into thousands of shards, the smallest of which are still very potent and incredibly dangerous. A decent-sized shard is capable of increasing a magic user’s power hundredfold, which often doesn’t end well for anyone, most especially the hapless mage who dared to use it. A minor personage like this Crimson Prophet character getting his grubby little hands on a shard was even worse. It was like letting a child play with a suitcase nuke.

I jotted down the Crimson Prophet’s address and said my goodbyes. The Oracle of Eighty-Sixth Street would get the help she had asked for. This had just become the Watch’s problem.

I had to give the Crimson Prophet some credit—he knew how to live well. A stately brownstone in the nicest part of Williamsburg was a stark contrast to the oracle’s decrepit abode. I was ushered in through a series of posh rooms by a pair of elegantly dressed men. A trained eye could catch their holsters, hidden under expensively tailored suits. These guys were muscle, but not the cheap, thuggish type. They were the up-market variety, the sort that could handle themselves in a hoity-toity setting like this, but hadn’t forgotten how to break kneecaps out back when necessary.

The Crimson Prophet waited for me in the middle of a tastefully decorated study. The rare paintings and antique furniture served to make the rich feel right at home, and to intimidate the rest. I did my best to appear unimpressed, bordering on slightly put off, on general principle. The prophet himself was a tall, skinny man in his thirties. He wore a three-piece suit with a red velvet robe draped around his shoulders. All he was missing was a top hat and a handlebar mustache and he’d be ready to perform in a play as some sort of a Victorian villain.

“Welcome.” The prophet flashed a blinding smile at me. “I must say, I was quite surprised when my men told me about a stranger showing up at the doorstep and demanding an appointment. My reputation must be spreading among the populace faster than I’d anticipated. You do, however, have me at a disadvantage. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“My name is Brent. Conrad Brent.” I could not resist the James Bond bit. “I’m with the Watch.”

A blank stare was followed by several seconds of uncomfortable silence. Could it be possible that the Crimson Prophet did not know about the Watch?

“We’re a group of mages who protect the world from supernatural threats. We keep the Fae in line, and rein in any rogue humans who might choose to take advantage of the ungifted.”

“Arcane cops.” The Crimson Prophet’s smile got even wider. “How delightful,” he added with a barest hint of disdain.

“We aren’t cops,” I said. “The Watch is a law unto itself. We recognize no greater authority, and those we take an interest in are most certainly not presumed innocent until proven otherwise.”

“I see,” said the prophet. “And what can I do for your illustrious group? If you’re looking for insightful and stunningly accurate divinations, you’ve come to the right place.”

“No thanks,” I said, thinking of the oracle’s fiery foretelling. “I’m trying to cut down.”

The Crimson Prophet indicated disappointment in an it’s-your-loss-not-mine kind of way. “Something else, then?”

“It has recently come to my attention that you own an artifact that is of interest to the Watch,” I said. “It’s a small chunk of incandescent crystal. I was hoping to see it.”

“I did recently acquire such a trinket,” said the prophet. He rummaged through a desk drawer to produce a leather carrying case. “It was a gift from a grateful patron, in acknowledgement of the fine work I’ve been doing.”

He opened the case and there it was, a piece of Atlantean crystal the size of an iPhone, glowing warmly like a dimmed light bulb. He tapped it with his index finger and shimmers of energy spread across the surface like ripples from a rock thrown into a still pond. It was the largest Atlantean shard I had ever seen.

“This is it, precisely.” I kept my voice level to hide the excitement. “The Watch has been working to recover this, and several other items, stolen from a friend we owe a few favors to.” I was making up the lie on the spot. “Would you be amenable to perhaps selling it to us?”

The Crimson Prophet extended his hand, inviting me to take another look around. “As you can tell, I am not in need of cash at the moment.”

“A trade, then?” I persisted. “We have access to a wide range of rare objects that could be very useful in your line of work. I can get you something flashy and clearly magical, to impress your clients. A phoenix feather, perhaps, or a caged fairy. Plus, the Watch would owe you a favor, which is a valuable commodity in its own right.”

“Those are some interesting possibilities.” The Crimson Prophet got up to indicate that our meeting was at an end. “I will consider your offer, but not until I’ve made further inquiries as to the crystal’s value. You understand, I’m sure.”

I thanked him and headed out. I didn’t really expect my offer to tempt him. While the prophet was a dilettante when it came to magic, he clearly understood money and power. He would not relinquish the crystal voluntarily. Fortunately, this wasn’t going to be an issue. I’d staked out his home, and there were no magical wards or other supernatural defenses in place. I’d be back at night to liberate the crystal.

A fool and his shard are easily parted.

Lacking arcane protections, The Crimson Prophet would have to rely on mundane security. Non-magical problems are best solved via non-magical means, and there existed no better non-magical solution than Petya.

At six-foot-four, Peter “Petya” Kuznetsov stood an entire head taller than me, and was at least twice as wide. He moved with the easy grace of a ballet dancer, which he wasn’t, and the precision and purpose of a killing machine, which he totally was. Peter was trained by the Spetsnaz and had worked for the Pennant, the Russian government’s most elite special ops unit. Some say he had gone rogue after a series of unjustified kills, others claim he was planted in New York City as a Pennant sleeper agent on some sort of a long-term mission. Either way, Petya was the best operative money could buy.

At around four in the morning, Petya disabled the security system at the Crimson Prophet’s brownstone. The lock on the front door barely slowed him down. He slipped inside, motioning for the prospect and I to wait.

Two minutes later, Petya emerged and waved us in. The three of us quietly traversed the dark hallways. We passed by one of the goons I met the day before. His unconscious form slouched in a chair, his gun still in its holster. Another sentry lay sprawled on the floor of the next room, a small trickle of blood congealing at the corner of his mouth—a recipient of Petya’s tender mercies.

Unlike the rest of the house, the lights were still on in the study. Petya paused by the door to disable yet another security widget, then we were inside. I reached into the drawer from which the prophet had produced the case earlier, but now it was empty. As I looked up from the desk, a searing pain shot through my body and brought me to my knees.

It was an arcane attack of immense power. My various charms and amulets had absorbed the brunt of it, yet I still felt like I’d just been Tasered. Absent my protections, Petya and the prospect were not so lucky. Petya was out cold, his ungifted body defenseless against the hostile magic. The prospect fared only a little better; he moaned in pain by the door.

“Welcome back, Mr. Brent.” The Crimson Prophet towered over me, the shard gripped in his right hand. “And yes, in case you are wondering, Atlantean crystal is everything it is said to be, and more.”

I tried for something witty, but was only able to produce a pained grunt. Enhanced by the shard’s power, the prophet’s magic was too much for me to handle.

“How monumentally arrogant of you,” said the prophet, “yet so predictable. You presumed me powerless, and therefore felt justified in stealing my property. The Watch pays lip service to protecting ordinary people from the wielders of magic, yet here you are, breaking into my home like a petty burglar. Just as I expected.”

The effects of the arcane blast were beginning to recede. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the prospect trying and failing to get up. I had to buy time—keep the Crimson Prophet talking. So I tried again, and this time I was able to groan an actual word. “Why?”

The prophet smirked. “Because I don’t like competition. Now that I’ve settled here, I intend to be the one and true power in this borough, able to do whatever I please. Others are mere nuisances, but the infamous Conrad Brent of the Watch, you were always going to be a problem. I could find and kill you, but then the Watch would send other mages to avenge you, and the war would never stop until I got them all.”

He leaned in closer. “I pretended to be a mere fortune teller, and set events in motion that would inevitably lead to this very moment. Lesser intellects are so easy to manipulate. Now I get to have everything I want, on my terms. Even the Watch recognizes self defense. You invaded my home, and were accidentally killed in the struggle. Your superiors will understand. Plus, once I’ve taken your magic and added it to mine, I will become so powerful that the Watch bigwigs will be only too glad to let matters rest.”

The Crimson Prophet grabbed me by the front of my shirt with his free hand, and lifted me up to his eye level. He then touched the shard to his forehead and began an incantation. The shard flared, as guttural words spoken in a dead language hung in the air with an almost physical presence. The Crimson Prophet was casting a spell that would rip the magic right out of me, a spell so difficult and dangerous that even the most talented mage would be foolish to attempt it. A spell that he could manage now, thanks to the power of the shard. In moments, he was going to drain all of my arcane powers and claim them as his own.

Little did he know.

He struggled to finish the incantation, barely able to contain and direct the dark magic even with the power of the shard. As the last words were spoken, a great jolt shot through my body, an unstoppable invasive force seeking to collect every shred of my magic and bestow it on the prophet.

Nothing happened.

The Crimson Prophet still held me up at eye level. I could see his pupils widen with surprise, a realization that something had gone wrong. Then I made a fist and punched him hard in the face. There was a satisfying crunch, and the prophet staggered back as blood poured from his broken nose. I went after him, pummeling him to keep him off balance. He whimpered as he tried to scamper away from me. I grabbed his hand and pried his fingers open. I clenched the shard, but it grew dim in my hand, like a useless chunk of glass.

The Crimson Prophet reasserted himself and lunged at me, trying to regain the crystal. Even with the broken nose, he was a fair match for me after I had been worked over by his spells. As he reached for me, I turned around and threw the shard.

The shard slid across the floor, landing near the prospect. He grabbed for it with both hands, then cupped the crystal to his chest. The Crimson Prophet went after him, but before he could cross the room the prospect fired off a beam of energy.

The air smelled of ozone and singed hair. The Crimson Prophet stopped and stared with disbelief at his chest. In it, there was a fist sized hole burned cleanly through. Wordlessly, he crumpled onto the floor.

“Now that,” I told the prospect, who appeared shocked by the intensity of his own spell, “this is how you cast an energy bolt.”

The prophet’s plan was nearly perfect. He couldn’t have known that I was the only member of the Watch without magic. Almost no one knew, not even others at the Watch itself. I was an accident, a freak of nature, capable of Seeing the arcane, but with no powers of my own.

When I became a prospect, my mentor could not figure out why I failed to cast even the simplest spells. He was not obtuse; it’s just that there has never been anyone like me before. If you could See magic, you could cast it, simple as that. Well, I couldn’t.

I learned to get by. My weapons were bluster, information, and an array of enchanted tools and magical charms that could make Batman’s utility belt turn green with envy. I performed my duties for the Watch, and used their authority and resources to quietly look for clues, hints of what was wrong with me and how to cure it.

One day I would find a way to do magic. A way to repair whatever broken link had crippled me. I was glad that day had not yet come before I met the Crimson Prophet.

I extended my hand wordlessly, and the prospect handed over the shard without hesitation. I smiled at him. To experience such power and give it up voluntarily is no small thing. Yes, this one definitely had a future within the Watch.

First, we had to tend to Petya. Then I’d tell the prospect the good news, so he could spend a few happy hours picking out his new name.

This story originally appeared in Buzzy Magazine and was reprinted several times in anthologies.

“Shard” is the kind of urban fantasy I love to read, and enjoy writing a lot. After at least a dozen people told me how much Conrad Brent reminds them of Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, I finally read my first Jim Butcher book. The resemblance is definitely there, though the inspiration for the Brent stories was Sergey Lukianenko’s Night Watch series. I named Brent’s organization “The Watch” as homage to those books.

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