“I am not happy.” Archmage Duvall scowled at Agent Jahn, who didn’t look happy either. “You’ve had a month, and my space mage is still missing.”
“I’m sorry, Archmage,” Jahn said. “We have the mundane authorities trying to find him, and I’ve distributed his signature to every local GAR office. I’ve even asked the vampire and shifter councils to keep an eye out for a renegade space mage, but you know how it is with them.” Serena’s scowl grew more ferocious for a moment. There was no love lost between supernatural groups.
“And the fae?” She asked, almost rhetorically.
“They very much don’t care. Unless he goes after one of theirs, of course, and why would he? How would he? Absolutely nobody has reported someone asking for apprenticeship, and how would he find them anyway? We’ve even tracked all the spatial magic questions on the online forums to existing students. Archmage, I suspect he’s either dead or has decided not to practice magic.”
“Nobody decides to not use their magic,” Duvall said scornfully. “No, he’s important somehow. What about his parents? Family? Who are they?”
“There is one oddity,” Jahn said after a moment. “His birth certificate says that he was born to Maria and Callum Wells. But they would have been almost sixty years old at the time. Not a problem for a mage, but impossible for mundanes.”
“And you haven’t brought the parents in yet?” Duvall asked dangerously.
“They’re dead. I was actually, by complete coincidence, at their funeral, tracking a gravehound. No, they were mundanes, who spent their last few years in hospice. I tried matching their genetics when that came to light, but like I said, I was tracking a gravehound. There weren’t any remains left in that graveyard.”
“That seems too coincidental,” Duvall turned to him. “Who set it loose? When? Why?”
“So far as I could tell, it had been there since before the Wells family moved there. If it was some fae pet, it was turned loose ages back.”
“That is an awful lot of excuses,” the Archmage said, narrowing her eyes at Jahn.
“It’s the reason I came to see you. We’ve hit a dead end, and we’ll have to wait until he makes a mistake. The moment he makes a single noise, we’ll get him, but if he’s holed up in the mountains somewhere, we can’t spare the resources to track him down.”
“He was supposed to be my apprentice,” Duvall growled.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to use your own resources,” Jahn said apologetically. “GAR has put the case in abeyance.”
“We shall see about that,” Duvall said, and vanished suddenly, teleporting as only a spatial mage could. Jahn let out a breath and shook his head. Archmages were temperamental at best, and Duvall was worse than average. He didn’t envy Callum when Serena caught up with him. She was a lot scarier than GAR.
“Hey, Clara.” Callum waved at the girl behind the counter. He definitely spent more time in town than before, but not that much more. Partly it was just an excuse to bike a few miles every day, partly it was because the people were genuinely nice, and partly he was curious about shifters.
He wouldn’t say so outright, of course. Beyond the fact that he was pretending to be mundane, he genuinely didn’t know the protocols that were supposed to exist. The magical internet had references to agreements between mages and shifters, but no details, and it wasn’t even clear if by mages people meant GAR or something else, like mage Houses or small guilds.
“Hello, Mister Hall! Your usual?”
“Eh, surprise me,” he told her, finding a small table and sitting down. While the past few weeks had been good for exercising his spatial sense and his magical stamina, he hadn’t really been able to figure out some of the more complicated tricks that were mentioned in the forum posts for mage students. Gravity, telekinesis, portals, and teleportation were really good and useful, but he knew it wasn’t enough. He needed good shields and wards and reactive spellwork, but he’d hit a wall in figuring out anything but the most brute-force approach.
The biggest breakthrough he’d had, if it could be called such, had to do with the siphons he’d made to clean up his distortion of the local mana. They kept pulling in his vis but didn’t do anything with it, eventually dissipating in four or five hours, vis returning back to mana. He could overload it, as he’d found out when the enchantment on one of the metal stakes failed. The stored vis blasted outward and polluted everything nearby, making a mess that was far worse than the one he was trying to clean up. It probably wouldn’t be any fun to be caught in either, so he was glad to know before the one on the ball bearing he kept in his pocket got too energetic.
If they held vis, it stood to reason that he could use them like a poor man’s vis batteries. Being very, very careful, he’d tried pulling in a little bit of the accumulated vis, and it did give him a little bit of a rush as he absorbed it into himself. So he could use it as a battery, but he would have to feed it himself and, given that the enchantment wasn’t stable over long periods, it was of very limited usefulness.
He had thought he might be able to use them to augment his ability to hold a shield, but the only thing he could come up with was incredibly hungry. It was basically just a thin wall of high gravity shear, and while it did deflect bullets, it sure didn’t stop them. Considering a real shield was supposed to have a low enough cost that it could be kept up semi-permanently, he knew he was doing it wrong, but something was better than nothing. Someday he’d get to see real spellwork and update his own accordingly. Someday.
Hanging out in the café, he did get to see shifters shifting more often than not. The expanded basement was clearly some kind of safehouse, and half the time when a shifter was down there, they were in a beast or halfway form. He felt a little guilty for playing voyeur, though the times when that would be more literal than not he definitely cut out the spatial sense. He was curious, but not that curious.
Annoyingly, he couldn’t use spatial sense to hear or to see color. He could sense the vibrations of people talking, if he really strained himself, but he couldn’t translate it. Yet. He wasn’t actually sure it was possible, but being able to eavesdrop by simply reaching out passively would be fantastic.
Another thing he didn’t know, since he didn’t have another mage to ask, was whether his use of spatial sense was perceptible or if it was some passive interpretation of the world’s normal ambient levels of energy. So far none of the shifters had seemed to notice, but that didn’t mean anything. It would be a mistake to think that shifters and mages saw magic the same way.
He followed Clara with his spatial sense as she brought out the steak he’d ordered, thanking her as she put it down on his table. She gave him a smile before beelining for where some other kids had come in the door, all about her age. Weirdly, they were all fairly respectful, too, or at least the ones who were shifters were. If anything, he could distinguish between shifter and mundane teens by which ones were moody, rude, and hormonal.
“She makes good steaks, doesn’t she?” Arthur Langley slid into the chair opposite Callum, holding his own version of what Callum had ordered. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to take over one day.”
Callum had been paying some attention to the people in the room, but he hadn’t realized the man approaching him was the Sheriff. He’d seen the car outside, but thought nothing of it. The man still made him twitchy, just a little, if only because Arthur Langley was a Sheriff and Callum was pretty sure that he was a wanted man in both supernatural and mundane worlds.
“They’re delicious,” Callum said after he swallowed the bite he was chewing on. “I think she’s distracted by more normal teenager things right now though.”
“Ha! Yes, I suppose she is.” Arthur glanced back at the group of chattering teens. “I don’t miss that age, you know?”
“In hindsight, it was mostly terrible,” Callum agreed with a little amusement. “Actually, kids around here seem better-adjusted than in most places I’ve been. So far as I can tell they don’t even cross through the woods in my yard.”
“We have a big emphasis on respecting territory here,” Arthur said, and Callum wondered how the shifters ever kept secrets with that kind of innuendo. Or maybe he was just hearing it because he already knew what they were.
“So what brings you over?” Callum asked, changing the topic. He very much doubted Arthur just wanted to say hello. The sheriff raised his eyebrows at Callum, then shrugged.
“Just that I’ve seen a few strange faces around here and there. If you run across anything unusual, call me right away, would you?” Callum blinked at Arthur. He had a decent handle on the subtext up to that point, or at least he thought he did, but he had no idea what Arthur might be trying to warn him about.
“I was a strange face once,” he mused instead. “Did you warn people about me?”
“Tell you the truth, I did a little,” Arthur said with a laugh. “But I could tell you weren’t from a big city, like the folk I’m talking about.”
“If something happens, you’ll be the first to know,” Callum promised, still completely in the dark about whatever Arthur was trying to say. He really wanted to press Arthur on the details but didn’t want to break their little détente of pretending they didn’t know about supernatural secrets.
The most charitable option was that someone, from the supernatural or mundane world, was poking around looking for Callum and Arthur was giving him a heads up. But it didn’t really sound like that. It almost seemed like Arthur was worried there might be general incidents, which could really be anything. The content available on the supernatural internet was heavily censored, so while he had a general idea of what kinds of things were out there, the specifics of the politics and factions were completely opaque to him. For all he knew, Arthur was warning him about shifter politics, and it was all internal.
Either way, it sounded like it’d be best to stay holed up in his house for a while. Even more than usual, that was. It would be a good excuse to go back over his notes and think of a different angle of attack for figuring out magical techniques, maybe dynamic ones like the siphon. He’d downloaded books on fluid dynamics and hydrodynamics and circuit theory to try and get reference material, but actually digging into it was proving rough going. Spaces and geometry was one thing, quaternions and differential equations were another.
He stopped by the grocery store and got supplies before biking back home, feeling an itch between his shoulder blades as he pedaled along the country roads. Callum stretched out with his senses but didn’t find anything. Considering he could reach a good hundred meters with his spatial senses by that point, he put down the itch to warning-induced paranoia and just closeted himself in his house.
For lack of anything better to do, he had a routine he went through with his spatial magic, juggling six glasses full of water through teleports around the house without spilling anything or making any sound. He was up to almost one hundred sequential teleports without running into any issues, and slowly pushing forward.
When it came to practicing with portals, he just blew bubbles on his porch and used moving portals to nest them inside each other without popping anything. His success rate was only middling, but he was pretty proud of how fast he could make and move them. He didn’t have any practical applications yet, but all the literature he could find harped on control, so he couldn’t go wrong with improving his.
Something woke him in the middle of the night, his spatial senses catching a quick movement out at his limits, but by the time he focused it was gone, leaving him with a thudding heart and an unexplained thrill of panic in his spine. It took him a long time to go to sleep after that, his spatial sense twitching at every random rabbit and mouse.
By lunchtime the next day he’d more or less forgotten it, buried in college-level textbooks and trying to teach himself things that might or might not have relevance to magic. At least, until a car out on the road slowed and turned into his driveway. Even though he couldn’t see the details of a car’s paint job with his spatial sense, he recognized the car itself. Even if he hadn’t recognized the car, there was no mistaking Arthur Langley at the wheel, now that he had fixed the man’s profile in his mind.
Callum frowned and glanced around, but nothing betrayed anything untoward, and while he’d been absently doing his teleportation exercises in the background, the siphon patterns he’d put in the ball bearings scattered all about the house swept things clean fairly quickly. He forced himself to wait until he could hear the crunch of gravel before standing up and going to the door, opening it to wait for the sheriff. Considering the man’s frown and the fact that he had a partner along for once, it wasn’t likely to be good news.
“Afternoon, sheriff.” Callum nodded to him, assuming it was official business. “What brings you by?”
“Duty, I’m afraid,” Arthur said. Behind him the deputy, Perdy by his nametag, got out a pad and a pencil. “Now, don’t get mad, I have to ask these questions. Where were you this morning at 3 AM?”
“Asleep. Did something happen?” It was a stupid question. Obviously something had, and Arthur wasn’t going to tell him immediately.
“And you don’t have any corroboration for that? A home security system, maybe?”
“Do I need a lawyer?” Callum asked, raising his eyebrows.
“No, no. You’re not really a suspect, under the circumstances. It’s just that it’d be nice to be able to tell certain people I’m completely certain, you know?”
“Ah,” Callum said. “I do have a home security system, as it happens, but it’s just door logs, not cameras.” Nor was it something he was going give up without a warrant. He hadn’t gone anywhere that early in the morning unless he had sleep-teleported, and that wouldn’t have shown up anyway.
“Right,” Arthur said, when it became clear Callum wasn’t volunteering anything further. “Well, what’s going on is there was a murder up the street. Someone broke into James Hardy’s house. I don’t suppose you saw anything?”
“What.” Callum didn’t really know James Hardy, just saw the man in the café occasionally. Still, it was a bizarre shock, especially coming after Arthur’s warning. “No, I didn’t,” he said, then thought of the thing that had startled him awake.
“Think of something, Mister Hall?” Arthur asked, noticing something even though Callum could have sworn he hadn’t changed his expression.
“Well, something woke me up last night, like a large animal or something. I wasn’t sure what it was, and I just went back to sleep afterward. I can’t tell you anything else, though. It was gone just as soon as I was out of bed.”
“Thank you, Mister Hall. That might be helpful,” Arthur said, which surprised him. Callum vaguely remembering something was not exactly damning evidence. “Got that, Perdy?”
“Yessir,” the deputy replied.
“Well, I’m glad I could be of some service,” Callum said, a trifle bewildered. It had to be some sort of weird supernatural thing, but he just couldn’t ask. Even if he was willing to break character, he didn’t have any way to cast a glamour spell and he didn’t know if Perdy was mundane or shifter.
“We may have more questions for you later, and don’t erase your security recordings,” Arthur warned. “I doubt we’ll need them, but if I do, I’ll be back with a warrant. Come on, Perdy.”
Perdy scurried after the sheriff, while Callum watched them go. He had the feeling trouble was brewing.
“You will not kill in my town,” Arthur snarled at the bulky man sitting across from him. “This is Winut pack territory, not yours.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mister Langley,” the vampire said in a bored tone. “If one of your pet mundanes had a tragic accident, that’s your issue.”
“He was killed by a vampire,” Arthur ground out. “They tried to make it look like something else, but I went myself and there’s no mistaking the scent.”
“I fail to see why that’s my issue. I’m not responsible for whatever strays you’ve foolishly let live here without remanding them to a proper nest.” The vampire was both bored and smug. “Unless you’re accusing one of my vampires without any evidence of the fact.”
“There were no vampires before you came along,” Arthur growled. “I know it was one of yours and I intend to bring them to account.”
“I’d like to see you try.” At least, the vampire showed a flicker of emotion. A feral gleam came and went in his slate-gray eyes. “If the Winut pack wants to challenge us, by all means, I will accept.”
Arthur really did want to. He wanted to drive the nest out of Winut, back to where they’d come from. Alpha Chester, who had dominion over the entire Midwest, had warned him that they’d hopped there from Minneapolis, having been supposedly kicked out of Sioux Falls a few days prior. The problem was the Winut pack was neither large nor old, and there were a dozen vampires in the nest. If it came to a proper fight, only Arthur could hold his own.
The vampire he was talking to, Victor, wasn’t even the leader of the nest. Just the face. Arthur was pretty sure he’d been chosen for maximum irritability, though the few times he’d met vampires they’d all been as condescending. It seemed to be a feature of the race.
“We will see,” he managed, and walked out of the room. The damn vamps had taken over the motel across from the café, buying the mundane owner out with some money and light mind control, and were flaunting the fact. Being so close to pack property was an absolute provocation.
If the vampires attacked the pack, they’d have to deal with Alpha Chester, given that there wasn’t any agreement about a nest in Winut. But if the vampires defended themselves, Alpha Chester would have to grit his teeth and take it. It was politics, and politics was the worst.
Arthur Langley walked past at least fifteen men with heavy armor and weaponry on his way out of the motel, the vampire’s assurance against intruders given their daylight lethargy. It would have been so much easier if they actually did burst into flames in the sun but, like many things, that weakness had been exaggerated. Their disregard for human and supernatural life had not.
He stalked across the way and into the café, giving Clara a tilt of his chin to have her keep serving while he went down to the saferoom. As soon as he closed the door he relaxed some of his iron self-control and slipped into his war form, stomping down the stairs as an eight-foot-tall beast man and growling. He stopped when he saw Jessica and Gerry waiting for him on the couch.
“No good?” Jessica asked rhetorically, and held up the phone she was holding. “Alpha Chester,” she said. He sighed and closed his eyes, forcing himself to shift back to human form, a swirl of magic pulling him back into the smaller, more manageable size before he stepped forward to take the phone.
“They’re obstructing,” Chester’s bass voice rumbled through the phone. “I’m going to be sending you a pair of troubleshooters anyway, but they can’t officially help in a challenge.”
“They killed one of the mundanes here in town!” Arthur snapped. “They’re just going to keep doing it, since we don’t have the numbers to stop them!”
“You think I don’t know that?” Chester’s growl doused Arthur’s rage in an instant. Of course Chester was just as infuriated as he was. “But without proof, GAR will side with them and then we’ll all be in trouble. I swear, this has the stink of something bigger than just a rogue nest, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what.”
“But why Winut? There’s literally nothing here. That’s why I established a pack here!”
“It’s not just Winut. There’s at least five other towns that are seeing similar issues, and that’s just the shifters. I’m still feeling out the fae, but they’ve dropped some hints.”
“What’s the point of the rules if they just come and do what they want anyway?”
“If you can catch them at it, we can destroy them,” Chester said, but he didn’t answer Arthur’s question. “Keep a sharp eye out, and keep safe.”
“I will,” he said, and handed the phone back to Jessica. She started chatting with her great-uncle again and Arthur looked at Gerry.
“Alpha Chester is sending two of the Wolfpack down here. Go make sure nobody bothers them when they arrive.”
“Yes, Alpha,” Gerry said, and leaned over to give Jessica a kiss on the head before mounting the steps to the café above. Arthur frowned and paced. He had people watching the motel, but that wasn’t enough. The nest wasn’t a bunch of weakling, newly-crossed vampires. They were powerful.
The question wasn’t whether they’d kill someone else tonight. The question was who.
Callum scoured the boards every morning for hints to shields or enchanting, but either the mods were very quick on the draw, or the students knew better than to discuss things in public. Since he refused to register any account, he couldn’t spark any discussion either, though considering nobody else did, any such post would stand out.
He had been hoping he could generate some income by using his spatial magic to make enchanted items and sell them, but there was nothing to be found on how to do that. The siphons he made counted as enchantments, barely, but they were weak and they faded fairly quickly. Anything useful and permanent was beyond him, so he worked out his frustration by going and doing some target shooting in his back yard.
Callum still had plenty of time before his funds ran out if things kept on as they did, but with the murder he was feeling twitchy and worried he’d have to abandon Winut soon enough. Considering how much of his money he’d sunk into the house, that wasn’t good. Maybe he shouldn’t have bought it, and just stayed at a hotel, but then he wouldn’t have had a place to practice.
At least with his spatial sense his shooting was improving. He didn’t even need to see to aim, though that was basically irrelevant, since he still needed to properly brace the gun to shoot. If for some reason he needed to use a gun in absolute darkness it might come in handy, and it might be a nice party trick if he wanted to shoot behind him, but in practical terms it wasn’t that great.
Though maybe that thought was just from his mood making him grumpy. It took him a good ten minutes to realize he’d just been stewing on the subject of the murder and trouble and potentially having to leave, and not actually doing any shooting. That made him shake his head and put away his firearms and targets. He was going to go stir-crazy if he just sat around and dwelled on things.
Instead, he decided to head into town to try and clear his head. Instead of biking he actually took his car, feeling slightly more protected, though he pushed his senses out to catch anything untoward. If he were willing to teleport, the bicycle would have made more sense. He could teleport himself and the bike easily enough, but a whole car might be too much.
Either way, he didn’t sense anything weird until he passed by the café, and noticed that the hotel was full up. Though, considering the murder, they could be reporters or law enforcement or something. He pondered going to the café for a moment, then decided he wasn’t actually hungry, merely nervous, then continued on to the hardware store. If nothing else, he could get some more supplies for testing things like his siphons.
He slipped inside and started browsing through their metal miscellany when he spotted Jessica and Clara Langley staring at mallets and hammers. He hadn’t really marked either of them as being the home-improvement type, but you never could tell. In smaller towns, people tended to be more handy.
“Going to take over the maintenance as well as the cooking?” Callum asked, heading their way. Jessica turned to look at him but Clara actually jumped, whipping around to look at him before letting out a breath.
“Don’t scare me like that, Mister Hall!” Clara scolded. Callum lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“You’re twitchy about the murder, too, huh?” He asked, after Clara gave a little nod of her head.
“Isn’t everyone? Poor Joan, she went to our church, you know?” Jessica shivered.
“Wait, Joan? I was talking about James Hardy.” Callum blinked. He’d been going to church himself, but hadn’t been doing so for long enough to know many people there.
“There was a second murder last night,” Clara confided in a low voice. “Miss Joan Gruber. You didn’t hear?”
“No, I’ve been at my house all morning.” Part of him wished that he’d stayed. One murder was bad enough, but two in two days sounded like a serial killer. Maybe even a supernatural serial killer, given his knowledge of the inhabitants of Winut. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Jessica said, clearly lying and not covering it particularly well. “But Arthur thinks it’s the same person who killed James.”
“Well, that’s terrible,” he said, and winced at how understated that sounded. It was horrendous. “Got any leads?”
“Maybe,” Jessica said.
“It’s police stuff,” Clara added. “We don’t get told these things.”
“We’re thinking of forting up, maybe even closing the café for a while.”
“That would be a shame. I’d understand, but it’d still be a shame.” Callum shook his head. “You know, if there’s anything I can do to help, just say the word.”
“Thank you, Mister Hall,” Jessica said after a moment.
“Sure, anytime,” he told her, and went back to his own browsing, though it was hard to keep his mind on it. If things were getting worse, chances were that he’d be forced to skip town sooner rather than later. On the other hand, something so blatant would probably be resolved quickly. He didn’t believe that two people could be killed in a small town like Winut without anyone knowing what was going on. Callum surely didn’t, but someone had to.
He paid cash for another box of ball bearings and some more nails, then got in his car and drove back home. Under the circumstances, he skipped the café. By the time he got home, he felt the need to burn off some nervous energy and got out his exercise equipment. He hadn’t been keeping up as religiously as he had previously, partly because there was no gym in a place as small as Winut, but he had a good excuse to work out his frustrations.
Once he’d managed to tire himself out, and probably make himself sore enough to regret it in the morning, Callum found he had no patience for reading the textbooks he’d downloaded, and defaulted to playing around with his magic. If nothing else, the wonder of being able to drag things through the air and teleport them around the house never really waned.
Eventually, he ended up reading an old scifi book he’d gotten in the used book section of Winut’s local bookstore, twitching every time he caught an animal pass through his spatial perceptions. Considering how far he’d gotten it to extend, it frayed his nerves something awful.
When dawn arrived, he was actually on the verge of dozing off when a car came barreling down the road and swerved into his driveway, sliding to a halt in a spray of gravel. That woke Callum up instantly, and he hastily threw on some pants and a shirt while Jessica got out of the car and ran to the door. He almost tripped going down the stairs as Jessica hammered on the door with more than normal strength, and had to teleport his cane into his hand at the last instant before he jerked it open.
“They’ve taken Clara,” she blurted before he could even begin to ask. “You have to help.”