It turned out Sen did know what a bank was, but didn’t care what Callum was doing there. It was obvious that he mostly put Callum in the mundane category, and the fact that Callum hadn’t been practicing magic didn’t help. Without the aura of vis about him, or the ability to pick up on the entire spectrum that Sen cared about, Callum might well have been another species.
“Got any word on when I’m supposed to report, and where?” Callum asked, nodding at the small tablet Sen barely ever put down. From the few glimpses Callum had gotten from it, the mage was generally messaging someone or someones, but he could have sworn he saw the guy playing a game on the tablet once.
“Yeah, I’ll take you back to the eastern headquarters tomorrow afternoon, so make sure you have everything wrapped up.”
“I will,” Callum lied.
“Great. Can’t wait to get out of here.” Sen went back to fiddling with his tablet. Callum suppressed a snort. Although Sen had been quite voluble when he was talking about his own exploits, he’d lapsed back to doing his best to ignore Callum once the topic was exhausted. Personally, Callum thought Sen had simply remembered he was supposed to be Callum’s warrant officer, and was trying to be aloof for that reason.
Callum made a show of packing, though he doubted Sen really noticed. The mage spent most of his time in the guest room, fiddling with the tablet. Callum really did pack, adding a duffel to his bug-out bag. Mostly his firearms and survival tools, along with his backup hard drives. Not the computer itself, of course, since that would be traceable and was easily replaced.
The one major hole he had in his escape plan was that he didn’t have any alternate identification at hand. It had never occurred to him that he might need to pretend to be someone else. But he had enough cash that he could probably make do. In fact, if he were lucky he’d be able to find someone who made IDs for members of the arcane, since that had to be something that was done fairly often given the ages he’d seen in his primers. Whether or not he’d be able to find such people without undue problems was another question entirely.
He waited until just after two in the morning, going over it again and again in his head, so stressed that he could taste the adrenaline in his own saliva. It was one thing to contemplate what he was about to do, but it was another to actually commit to it. He frankly doubted he’d have been willing to make the leap without the casualty figures he’d seen.
Finally he opened his window, creeping out onto the roof on the opposite side of the house from the guest room. Getting to ground level was a simple matter of leaning out to grab the birch tree in the yard and shimmying down, making him glad he had gloves. Then he was on the ground and running.
Callum kept waiting to hear some sign of alarm behind him, but it was a quiet night as he jogged along the sidewalk. So far as he could tell, he’d gotten away clean, though that would last only so long. Eventually Sen would notice, and people would come after him. He intended to be long gone when they did.
He continued jogging until he reached the nearest gas station, before calling a rideshare to a twenty-four-hour superstore almost twenty miles away. They’d be able to track that, but he needed to get further away before dawn came. At least, he assumed they’d be able to track that. The truth was that he didn’t know their capabilities, but it was better to be paranoid than get caught.
The sleepy driver dropped him off, and Callum meandered through the nearly-empty store, picking up the items on his mental list. Clothes, wig, prepaid phone, electric razor, makeup kit and makeup markers, bicycle. He borrowed the bathroom and shaved himself bald, using the markers to give himself a fake tattoo of just some abstract lines on the side of his neck. The makeup went on his wrist, hiding the real tattoo by simply covering it with flesh tones, and a wig changed his hair color from brown to blonde.
That was where he ditched his old phone, smashing it in the parking lot after reserving a flight out of the country he never intended to keep. He tossed the remnants in the dumpster, then took off on the bicycle. Not that biking was a great way to go long distances, but it was better than walking to his next destination.
While he didn’t intend to fly commercial, he still intended to fly. There were small airfields everywhere, with pilots who had tiny puddle-jumpers and which didn’t need him to check his luggage. Or show his ID. He’d taken rides with his friends when they dusted crops on occasion, which was technically illegal but nobody cared.
There weren’t many cars on the road at that hour, but he still veered off into the woods every time he spotted headlights, managing to get to the airfields pretty much unseen by the time the sky started to lighten. Callum ditched the bike out in the woods and walked the rest of the way. Since it was a small airfield, there was just a security guy who nodded as Callum walked in. All the stuff he’d read suggested that anyone who used the front door wasn’t really suspicious.
Most of the pilots headed out around dawn, especially the farm craft, so even early as it was, there was already someone fueling up their single-prop craft. Callum headed out as if he belonged there, despite feeling the need to spit to get rid of the taste of anxiety in his mouth. Looking confident was the best way to bluff.
“Hey, man,” Callum called, waving at the guy. “You ready to head out?”
“Yessir.” The gentleman was on the older side, and he squinted at Callum and his bags. “I’m guessing you want to deadhead along?”
“Hey now, I’m not that rude.” Callum reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash, peeling off a few hundreds. “Planes are expensive, and repairing them is more expensive.”
“I hear that,” the pilot said, taking Callum’s implicit explanation at face value. Along with his money. “You know I’m only headed over to Ayres. Gonna see my grandson.”
“Hey, that’s fine with me,” Callum told him. “Better to go partway than not at all.”
“Jason Jones,” the pilot said, extending one hand while stuffing the cash into his jeans with the other.
“Mason Sutherland,” Callum said, having already invented the name on his way over. It was a good alias in his opinion; not so generic that it sounded fake, but not so memorable it’d stick. “Thanks for letting me ride.” It wasn’t exactly allowed for small planes to take passengers as such, but it wasn’t like Callum was leaving records.
He climbed into the passenger seat of the plane, restricting his gawking as Jason clambered in and started preflight checks. Callum wasn’t really sure who Jason was clearing the flight with, but he didn’t mention his passenger, claiming he was taking a solo flight to Ayers. Wherever Ayers was.
The noise of the prop was loud enough, even through the headset, that Jason didn’t spend much time chatting. Which was fine with Callum, since he didn’t have much to say. Instead he spent his time reading through the pictures he’d taken of the magical exercises and the literature on spatial mages, taking notes by hand as the prop plane went west.
After they landed in Ayers, he asked Jason if he could introduce Callum to someone else for another hop, and two hours later he was on a second plane, headed to Cooperville. Another place he’d never heard of, but he didn’t actually care exactly where he ended up, just that it wasn’t easy for someone to figure out where he’d gone.
He didn’t have a specific destination in mind, other than a small town in the Midwest, preferably up north somewhere. Property was cheap there and he could buy a house outright while leaving enough to live on for a while. Long enough to figure out a new income stream, anyway.
After the second hop, he got a ride into town and got another bike, heading to a trucker stop. It was easy enough to hitch a ride there, easier than with the planes, and far cheaper. They even let him bring his bike along, and he got the chance to nap while the truck traveled the interstate.
Three states later, he bid farewell to his last driver and biked to a hotel, paying for an overnight stay. Then he went and picked up the last bits of his disguise. He got the weakest reading glasses he could find and a vanity cane, washing the temporary tattoo off. It would take time for the beard stubble to grow, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. He kept his head shaved, but bought a few more hairpieces to help him change his appearance. Just in case.
That accomplished, he went hunting for a fake ID. Cities had concentrations of everything, including crime and corruption, which was why he normally avoided them. In this case, though, that would be useful. Walking through the city streets, there were considerably more nonhumans than he’d seen in his hometown, though they tended to stick together rather than mingle.
The third super pawn shop he stopped at was staffed by someone seven feet tall and with blue-green skin and tusks. Despite the man’s size, he still managed to come off as seedy, which was basically what Callum wanted. He took a moment to wipe the makeup off his wrist to expose the mage tattoo and headed in.
The ogre or whatever it was eyed him as he made his way to the front and lifted his hand in greeting. The oversized eyes flicked to his wrist and then back to Callum, looking wary.
“Yes, sir?” He asked, maybe a bit more politely than he would have greeted a normal customer.
“I need a mundane ID,” Callum said, not bothering to be more subtle since there was nobody else in the shop.
“I don’t do that,” the ogre said. Callum got out his money roll and peeled off a few hundreds. He was going to end up spending a few thousand on bribe money, but he’d been making a good wage before he’d had to run. He could afford it.
“No, really, I don’t,” the ogre said, eyeing the money. “But my friend does. I can call him and have it done in an hour.”
“How much does he charge?”
“Two thousand for a new mundane ID,” the ogre said. Callum raised his eyebrows, betting that was vastly overestimating the cost.
“Fifteen hundred,” the ogre admitted after a moment. Callum chuckled and counted out two thousand, pushing it at the ogre.
“So long as it just takes an hour, and it stands up.”
“It will,” the ogre said, and leaned forward a little, sniffing. “You know, you don’t smell like magic.”
“Exactly,” Callum told him, squashing the panic that statement created. He had to stay confident. The ogre nodded thoughtfully and turned to the phone.
An hour later he had a brand new ID under the name of Chase Hall, and a used arcane laptop. He was over twenty-four hours overdue to wherever he was supposed to be going, and there was probably a bulletin out for him, but he was pretty sure that it’d be difficult for anyone to track him down. Not that he was going to stay in the same city that he’d gotten the ID in.
He shelled out more money for a regular laptop and some prepaid debit cards so he had safe access to the internet. It took him a few hours of searching to find an area that met his criteria, and had low enough prices for him to buy something outright. Eventually he settled on a five-acre square with a house, on the outskirts of a small town in South Dakota, and sent a message to the seller asking for a meeting in a few days. It could have been sooner if he was willing to fly commercial, but he still had his guns with him and that would have caused issues.
It’d leave a record, if nothing else. There was no way that GAR didn’t cooperate with normal authority, even if he found it unlikely that they outright controlled it, so he had to assume anything that could identify him to the government would bring in GAR. No, he would buy a used car and drive.
He showered, changed, had to remind himself not to shave the stubble but to keep his head bald, and tried to sleep in the tiny motel room. It was some low-quality independent thing, which he didn’t much like but had to lump. Callum was still on edge, every thump and door slam and footstep making him twitch. Some part of him was expecting tactical mages or the Arcane Bureau of Investigation or whatever they called themselves to break down his door. He’d done the best that he could to anonymize himself, but it wasn’t like he had experience. For all he knew, he’d forgotten something obvious and GAR had known where he was the whole time.
“How did he get out without tripping your wards?” Therin frowned at Sen. The man was a scion of a powerful House, so there wasn’t much in the way of punishment Therin could levy. In fact, Sen’s assignment to Callum was sort of punishment in and of itself, after he’d burned down half a block the last time he’d been let out into the mundane world.
“I don’t know.” Sen shrugged. “My guess is that he wasn’t as naïve as you thought. We were only going to be there two days so I just spelled the doors. That’s policy for mundanes, which Callum was.” Sen said challengingly, and Therin scowled. All signs had pointed at Callum just being a strange sort of cripple, but apparently not. Nobody fled for no reason.
“Fine, write up a report and I’ll send it onward.” Therin didn’t have much hope for Sen’s report to be useful. In fact, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Sen was lying about setting up wards properly, though he had to admit he wouldn’t have pegged Callum as a flight risk either. He sent Sen out and then summoned Agent Jahn in.
“Well?” He asked as Jahn settled into the chair.
“No magical residue.” Jahn shook his head. “I brought in the mundane authorities and they found he reserved a ticket for Laos, but I screened that flight myself. Only mundanes aboard. That was the last contact he had with his bank, too. Everything just cuts off there.”
“I thought they had enough surveillance that they could find anyone.” Therin said, irked. “Blood tracking?”
“Got Sooz to do it. He’s definitely not close enough to get a fix.”
“Which leaves just the whole wide world.” Therin sighed. They didn’t get many rogue mages, and those that they did get were the ones who decided they were too powerful for GAR to control. GAR proved them wrong, every time. “We have to find him.”
“I agree,” Jahn said. “But he caught us all off-guard. We’ll keep an eye out for spatial mages, since there aren’t many, but Sen said that he didn’t have any magical resonance at all. It’s possible he just doesn’t want to be a mage. Which is ridiculous, but might well mean he’ll never appear again.”
“Archmage Duvall is not going to accept that. She was ready to start tutoring him tomorrow.”
“If he’d known that, running away wouldn’t surprise me,” Jahn said dryly. Therin shot him a look, and Jahn shrugged. He wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t something agents were supposed to say out loud.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if she came here to complain. I’ll be sure to make sure you’re here to help explain how a complete novice mage vanished.”
“I’m sure I’ll have duties keeping me busy,” Jahn demurred. Therin glared.
“Find him,” Therin demanded. “Surely we have enough contact with the mundane authorities for that.”
“Yes sir,” Jahn said, completely serious. “He’s wanted for questioning in connection with a terrorist incident that burned down a local business,” he said, making a vague gesture with one hand to indicate the cover story. “Which means that basically every authority will get his picture. If he shows up, it’ll be mage-flagged and we’ll know right away.”
The fake ID worked as advertised, and Callum had no trouble paying the eight grand in cash for a small two-door coupe, an older model but one without too much milage. It wasn’t great, but it really only needed to last him on the interstate. He made sure to drive slowly, or at least slower than he normally did, mostly sticking to the right lane and tensing up every time he saw a police car.
Time wasn’t doing anything to make him more confident. If anything, it felt like he was getting closer to the other shoe dropping. The one time he did see police lights he nearly swerved off the road, but he wasn’t the target. The patrol car zipped right by him and disappeared up ahead, leaving him to get his heart rate back under control.
Traffic thinned out as he got further out into the country, and he finally felt almost relaxed by the time he reached the interstate exit. The country was flat and bland, but the sheer lack of civilization actually helped. It didn’t really feel like anyone was watching him when there was nobody else around.
He had to stay overnight in another motel, but he did sleep marginally better and managed to make it to the property by the middle of the next day, following the GPS of his pay-ahead phone. It was a little run-down, but snooping around the property showed it had plenty of privacy and no obvious holes or leaks. To its credit, it did have an internet connection, despite being on the outskirts of the small town of Winut.
Callum ended up waiting on the porch for the seller, whose car crunched on the gravel drive about an hour after he’d gotten there. At least, he thought it was the seller, but when he looked up from his laptop the car was actually the sheriff’s. He had to shove down the instinctive panic, and instead got up to greet the man. The sheriff rolled down the window and squinted at him.
“You here about the property?”
“Yes, I sent a message a couple days ago.” Callum leaned on his cane, squinting at the sheriff. “Is it yours?”
“My daughter’s,” he said, opening the door and getting out before offering his hand. “Sheriff Langley.” Langley was heroically built, taller than Callum and twice as bulky without any hint of softness.
“Chase Hall,” Callum replied, transferring the cane and taking the hand. He noticed that Langley’s eyes flicked to his right wrist for a moment, where makeup covered up the tattoo he’d never asked for, and it was all he could do not to twitch. It might have been an overactive imagination, but he thought that Langley was in the know.
“So what do you think, Mister Hall? Interested?”
“Oh, definitely, definitely. It seems nice and quiet and maybe I could use something to keep me occupied, fixing it up here and there.”
“You seem rather young to be retired,” Langley noted.
“Oh, I’m not retired,” Callum demurred. “I’m just taking a break for health reasons.”
“Well, this is certainly a quiet enough town. You’ll be fine, so long as you steer clear of the local wildlife.” Callum had to wonder if that was a veiled reference to something supernatural or not. Before he’d been exposed to the arcane, he wouldn’t have thought twice about the warning.
“I’m no hunter,” Callum said, thumping his cane against the ground. “Just planning to maybe do some repairs, work on some of my own projects.”
“Sounds good. Why don’t I call Jessica – that’s my daughter – and get her down here? If you’re ready to close the sale.”
“Sure,” Callum said, though he really didn’t want to spend any more time under Langley’s gaze. “I mean, we’ll still want an inspector to look at it and all that, but we can start the process rolling.”
“Fantastic. She’s been trying to sell this property for a while. Ever since she got married, you know. But there aren’t too many buyers out this way.”
“All the better for me,” Callum told him. Langley chuckled good-naturedly and took out his phone.
“Hey, sweetie. Yeah, your buyer is here already. Says he’ll take it. No, I don’t think there will be any problems.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s a mage of some kind,” Arthur Langley said.
“He didn’t smell like a mage to me,” Jessica told her father. “Plus, no tattoo.”
“You need to look closer. You could smell the makeup, right?”
“Yes…” Jessica drew out the word, considering. “Was he covering his mage mark? That wouldn’t mean anything though, we’d still be able to smell the magic on him.”
“He noticed me checking for it, and he didn’t say anything, but he was definitely a lot more stressed than he acted. So, I ran his ID.”
“Well, it had to be clean if you only think he’s a mage.”
“Yes, it was incredibly sparse. I’d say manufactured, but usually those are included in the GAR database too. His wasn’t.”
“Hmm.” Jessica held her plate out, and Arthur transferred a steak from the grill. “Is it really an issue? He’s acting like he’s a mundane, and it’s not like he’s anywhere near the pack grounds.”
“Maybe not, but I’ll have someone keep an eye on him. We don’t want any GAR interest here.”
“No.” Jessica sighed. The pack had enough problems without bringing mages in to pick over their secrets and, knowing mages, publish them to the world. One mage was bad enough, even if he seemed to be incognito.
“The alternative is that he is here for the reasons he said,” Arthur suggested, handing out another steak to Jessica’s cousin. He growled and carried the plate off to savage the steak — with a fork, at least. He still had the bad habit of wanting to shift for food, but he was only six. “He didn’t smell of magic, and if he’s here for his mental health then of course he’d be stressed.”
“But you don’t believe that.”
“But I don’t believe that,” Arthur affirmed.
“You could just send a message to GAR. Ask them what a mage is doing out here.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’d like that,” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Not even through the shifter council, not even for an emergency. Just, tell us about this random mage that’s old enough to have his own House.” Jessica felt a chill.
“Wait, you think he’s an archmage?” Then she shook her head. “He’d have to be, if he can block his magic signature that well.” She shivered. “I’m not sure I like the idea that I was shaking hands with an archmage.”
“He’s pretty good at the mundane thing, too. I’m not sure who it could be; normally they don’t have any truck with the mundane world or even other supernaturals.” Arthur worked the grill, fat hissing as it dripped into the flames.
“We can pretend he’s mundane, too, then. That’s no problem. Not that anyone should be hunting across a mage’s yard either. Gerry.”
“It was just the one time!” Jessica’s husband protested. “They didn’t even notice!”
“Says you,” Jessica grinned, elbowing him. “That you came to join with our pack says otherwise.”
“I just got tired of the city,” Gerry grumbled.
“Maybe this Chase did, too,” Jessica suggested.
“What’s a mage going to do out here?” Gerry asked, rhetorically.
Jessica just shrugged.