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“Thank you for your time, Miss Holt,” Ray said politely, and was rewarded by the door shutting in his face.

“So that’s it?” Felicia asked.

“According to Langley’s list, that’s all the fae in town.” It was a short list. “And I haven’t sensed anything else while we’ve been driving around.” Ray frowned. “GAR doesn’t have any records of any mages living out here either. Or dragonblooded, obviously.”

“So we’re out of leads. Except that Chase weirdo,” Felicia pointed out. “He can’t be mundane and be immune to my suggestions.”

“Just because he’s mundane doesn’t mean he has no protections,” Ray cautioned. “Especially in a shifter town. He may not even be aware of it.” It did happen. Heirlooms passing from generation to generation sometimes fell out of supernatural hands, and if it was just some minor enchanted object nobody would care enough to go looking for it.

“But he’s the most suspicious character we’ve run across,” Felicia protested. “I mean, I actually tried and he just ignored me. Plus he lives right down the road from one of the mundanes the vamps got. That can’t be coincidence. I mean, what if the vamps tried him first and ran into his protector instead?”

“Hm.” Ray considered. It was rather far-fetched, especially since he hadn’t sensed any energies of any type near the guy at all. If he had someone actively watching over him, some supernatural relative or another, there should have been some traces. That left some sort of enchanted item, which was why Ray hadn’t really looked for because he frankly hadn’t thought of it. “Well, it’s not like we have any other leads. Unless we get someone in here to do truth compulsions on everyone in town, and Alpha Chester would have my head if we did that.”

It was actually terribly frustrating. And also weird, that there was no magic trace left behind. Or mundane trace, at that. Normally Felicia’s ability to sense what had happened to the recently dead was enough to put them on a useful trail, but in this case the best that she’d gotten was that someone had fired a gun. Which they already knew from the corpses.

“We’ll do that, then go back and see about scanning the rest of the dead,” Ray decided. “If not who killed them, what was going on in that hotel. There had to be some reason someone decided to kill everyone.” That was still the most baffling part. The vampires insisted there was nothing special about that particular nest, but Ray was skeptical. The inclusion of the crest especially made him sure there was something else going on. Like there was someone they’d pissed off that had followed the vamps out to Winut.

The two of them got back in the truck and headed through the small town back to the wooded lane where Chase Hall’s house was. Ray wasn’t really expecting to get much, and when he saw that the car was gone, he knew he could expect nothing. It was possible that Hall had gone into town for something, but Ray had a hunch that wasn’t the case.

“Nobody’s home,” Felicia observed. “Let’s snoop.”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. His pushed out his air senses and found there was nobody in the house or the yard, so he hopped out of the truck, helping Felicia down, and headed up to the front door. He mentally rifled through his focus until he found the standard lockpick spell, and pushed mana through it while pointing it at the door. It swung open and the two of them stepped inside.

It was empty. It was clean. It was, in fact, too clean and too empty. There weren’t any mementos or pictures, and not even enough random trash and discarded books. No electronics, either. Ray had to admit that he probably should have listened to Felicia, because there was definitely something screwy about Chase Hall.

“Wow, it’s like he never moved in.” Felicia wandered into the kitchen, looking, but touching nothing. She knew to wait for him to ensure there were no traps, magical or mundane.

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. “One second.” He closed his eyes and pushed out his air senses to the maximum, combing the house from top to bottom. It was completely empty. There were appliances and pots and pans and a few relics of someone living there, but that was it. Except for one thing.

Ray held out his hand as he sent a gust of wind whipping around under the couch, rolling a small metal bead across the hardwood floor. He reached down and picked it up, not at all worried about the tiniest hint of energy he could sense in it. Even if it was incredibly deadly, the amount of vis involved wouldn’t be able to push through his shields, and judging from what he could sense whatever it was had decayed almost completely.

“What did you find?”

“I’m not sure,” Ray admitted. “It’s a weird and crude enchantment on a piece of steel. It’s nearly gone. I’ll try, but I don’t think I can get a signature from it. But it definitely shows that Mister Hall knew a mage. Or a mage knew him. Steel degrades after about a day so this is recent.”

“Doesn’t sound like he’s coming home,” Felicia observed.

“No. Someone made him disappear and cleaned up their tracks almost perfectly.” He smiled grimly at the steel bead. “Almost. We’ll write this up and put it out to the other agents. See if anyone knows what this might be or if it’s been seen before.” Or, if it was new, they’d know to look for it in the future. It was so bizarre it almost had to be unique to whoever had been involved.

“I’ll put out a stop and search on the car,” Felicia said, flipping open her phone. She must have gotten a picture of it when they had first talked to him. She really didn’t like that a mundane had ignored her glamour suggestion.

“And then we’ll go talk to Alpha Langley about Mister Hall. See if this new development will loosen his tongue.”

***

Callum wasn’t sure how long it’d be safe to drive the car. At some point it’d be noticed he was gone, and at some point they’d send out a bulletin to keep an eye out for it. That was why he got off the interstate after the first hour and stuck to smaller roads. It wasn’t like they were any less straight.

Pushing his spatial sense to the limits he could drive pretty much as fast as he wanted to, since he could always slow down before he passed another car or got near an animal wandering about the road. So he actually managed to push eighty most of the way, which was about as far as he trusted the used coupe. Callum had never been a speed demon anyway, so that was as far as he trusted himself.

He ended up ditching the car after seeing a truck for sale out front of a home that didn’t look to be in too bad a shape. He paid cash for the pickup, transferred his bags over, and then consulted a map and drove his car to one of the many lakes around the state. Just abandoning it would have been easier, but that might have drawn attention and he didn’t want anyone on his trail.

Callum’s idea was just to levitate it in. He’d never done anything that large before, and the strain went up with volume. It wasn’t mass, since he wasn’t actually moving the matter inside the spatial bubble, but a car had thousands of times the volume of things like brooms and boards. Actually trying it, it felt like he nearly sprained something in the few seconds it took to go from lakeshore to the middle of the water.

He had to sit down and breathe deeply while water bubbled and burbled as the car sank into the lake. Before actually sinking it, he had checked it was deep enough to hide the car because it would have been embarrassing to put in all that effort and wind up with something more obvious than a simple abandoned car. By the time it vanished from sight he was up to teleporting back, in stages, dropping a siphon bearing at the lake site and by his last teleport nearest the truck.

All of that was merely temporary camouflage. He needed to get yet another new ID, a more permanent vehicle, and put together some kind of plan other than running away to a different city and staying quiet. Between the looted cash and the gold he was set for a long time, possibly even for life if he decided to go homestead in Alaska or something, but he wanted to know more about magic.

Point of fact, he needed to know more about magic. He still didn’t know why it was that he didn’t see glamours, or how he could learn to either turn that bit off or figure them out from their magic. That meant his mundane act had limited utility unless he swore off interacting with magic and supernaturals entirely and hid.

Which he wasn’t prepared to do. While some, like Sen, were fairly awful, the Langleys had been nice people and Clara had seemed like any normal teenager. It seemed likely he’d run into the supernatural at some point unless he wanted to be a hermit, and that didn’t appeal to him.

Some of it was because he genuinely wanted to know more about what he could do, but some of it was what was called sheer cussedness by the people Callum grew up with. The better he understood the supernatural world and how things worked, the firmer the foundation he could build for himself regardless of what he wanted to do. He wasn’t going to let the magical authorities control his life.

He resumed his journey in the pickup, taking time out to cover the various duffles and bags with a tarp as storms rolled in. The headlights were so anemic that he was doubly glad that he had spatial sense, else would have needed to stop for the night, especially as the rain intensified and the windshield wiper became inadequate.

Hours and miles later, it was still raining, but he could see again by the glare of city streetlights. He found a cheap motel, paid in cash and, after a look at the room, slept in his truck. Then once again he went surveying for a fake ID, using his spatial senses to make the search easier.

Going through a city with his magical sense active was far different than being out in the country, and not just because of the physical surroundings. There were tracks and traces of magic everywhere, entire buildings with magic nets around them, and even active magic users, though not many of those. The entire time he was driving he only caught one, and it nearly made him jerk off the road.

Obviously he’d been spoiled by the peace and quiet of Winut, at least up until the vampire incident. All the magical mess implied he could hide in plain sight in a city simply by virtue of there being enough ambient noise to hide his use, but he hated cities so that was out. It did make him feel less exposed, though, if everyone left magical tracks everywhere. It also made businesses that catered to the supernatural easy to locate.

Considering his last experience, he restricted himself to paranormal-run pawn shops and gold-fencers, and simply colored in the spot on his tattoo where he was supposed to have a pip for his magic with a pen. Unlike that experience, he actually wanted to register as supernatural to the proprietor. Which meant he had to leave his siphon ball bearings in the truck, and he frankly felt naked without them.

He wasn’t really sure what to do to project the smell of magic, either, other than teleporting a bunch and that would be too noticeable. He wanted to hide his exact caster type even if he was admitting he was a mage. His solution was just make a large spatial bubble around himself but not do anything with it. That was actually enough of a strain that he made a note to add it to his exercises.

His impromptu magical projection seemed to work well enough, and the man in the gold-buying shop actually gave him a nice questionnaire for a new ID. It seemed to be somewhat more upscale an operation than the ogre’s, with a commensurate price increase, but that was fine with him. Hopefully this one would last longer.

From there, he went to several secondhand stores to get the disguise together for his new persona of Denver Brown, retired geometry professor. He ditched the hairpiece but got some greying dye for his stubble, which would eventually be a beard. A tweed suit and a crumpled hat emphasized the look, and some zero-prescription bifocals completed it. He kept the cane, since he’d found he liked the prop, but he changed to a new one that was more clearly vanity.

Without a specific destination in mind, he decided to ditch the entire idea of a destination and bought a Winnebago. It was surprisingly expensive, far costlier than the house in Winut had been, but with the largesse from the vampires he could afford it. Though he’d have to exchange some of the gold plates in the next city if he also wanted to keep eating and have enough fuel.

The pickup was discarded by the simple expedient of driving it into the bad part of town and leaving it unlocked. He expanded his senses to make sure nobody was watching as he rounded a corner and teleported back, a couple hundred yards at a time, until he was back inside his motorhome. Then he drove off again, heading for another city. It was probably overly cautious, but he didn’t want to make all his purchases in one place.

Once again he went to a paranormal-owned shop to get his business done. Partly because the source of the gold was paranormal and a mundane shop might give him grief, and partly because he was hoping that they’d have more than just supernatural-compatible laptops and phones.

“Anywhere you would recommend if I’m looking for some books on magic, for apprentices?” Callum asked as the man counted out money, coming up with a cover story on the spot. He was pretty sure the guy was a shifter, since he looked entirely human.

“You can try Pearson’s Used Books, over on fifth and main,” the proprietor said doubtfully. “But I haven’t heard of many out there.” That didn’t surprise Callum. It was obvious that supernatural society didn’t believe in freedom of information, even if they did have their own version of the internet.

“Thanks,” Callum told him, taking the bundled money. He planned on visiting later, but a quick look on his phone showed him that it was already closed, so it would have to wait for the next day.

Before he left entirely, he had an idea, and spent a while chewing it over while looking for holes. He felt a little bad about leaving without so much as a word to the Langleys, who had been more than accommodating. Even though Arthur Langley had clearly suspected something from the beginning, he hadn’t pressed. Neither had Jessica or Clara, and Callum genuinely regretted that he’d had to leave Winut. It had reminded him a lot of Tanner, and the people there had respect for privacy.

He took time out for dinner and waited until the gold buyer was closing, casting out his sense as the proprietor locked up and headed out. Callum made a tiny portal nearby, linking it to one just behind the proprietor, and spoke.

“Can you get a message to the Midwest Alpha? Alpha Chester?”

The man whirled around, instantly shifting to beast-man form, and Callum was glad that he was far away. He had the portal angled so he wasn’t visible, flush against the brick of the restaurant he was by, while the other side was similarly hidden against the outside of the proprietor’s shop.

The beast-man sniffed, ears swiveling as he stared in the direction of the portal, as if he could intimidate it into giving him answers. After a few moments, though, he nodded curtly.

“Please tell him that Clara’s friend is safe.” Callum judged that to be circumspect enough. It wasn’t stating Callum’s old identity, and it wasn’t given the shifter even a glimpse of Callum’s face, disguised or not. The only thing better would have been to use a different shifter, but Callum wasn’t going to trawl the city for someone who could do the job. Once he had magical reading material, he was leaving.

***

“That’s all he asked me to say, Alpha,” Keith reported. Chester frowned at his phone, but didn’t let any of it creep into his voice or along the pack bonds. Some shifters were more sensitive than others and they’d know if Chester was frustrated if he weren’t careful.

“Thank you,” he told Keith. “And no, don’t go looking for him. That is an incredibly dangerous man. Even to a shifter.”

“Yes, Alpha,” Keith said, in a tone that implied he had never held such thoughts in the first place. Chester knew better. He could feel Keith’s hunting instincts singing through the pack bonds, even though he wasn’t Keith’s direct Alpha. He closed the connection and dialed up Arthur Langley instead.

“Alpha?”

“Hello, Arthur. I just got an interesting message from one of Alpha Martin’s subordinates. Someone told them that Clara’s friend is safe. I assume the very friend himself, considering that the voice came from a wall, apparently.”

“That is good news!” Arthur’s voice was cheery. “Not that I thought anything would happen, but these damn agents have been harping on about him being kidnapped and us telling them what we know. Thankfully, Black wasn’t able to get a read on Clara being there from the corpses, though she did know that someone was prisoner. Guess what their current theory is.”

“They had Clara’s friend there, and an unknown benefactor took exception?”

“I encouraged it,” Arthur agreed. “They’re back at GAR now, apparently doing some more research.”

“And what of your own research?” Chester inquired. The mysterious friend was proving quite a strange beast. Most people wouldn’t simply vanish when confronted by GAR agents, guilty or not, and those that did wouldn’t get away with it. Mages left relics of their casting behind, shifters had pack bonds, and fae had their odd little kingdoms.

“Well, there’s absolutely nothing connected to the name he gave me. Not surprising, really. The only real bit of history I could find was the title transfer for his car, which was just before he arrived.”

“It’s not much,” he said, though he wasn’t much surprised. “Anything useful?”

“He didn’t bring anything with him and he basically never moved into the house. There’s absolutely nothing that ties him to a past at all. The agents were nice enough to share some of their file requests with me and there’s nothing that exactly matches what happened in the motel, either. There have been some cases where a few people were instantly killed from behind, but so many with a gun in so short a time? And through the temple? He must have trained out on one of the portal worlds.”

“That was my thought, too,” Chester said. Ignorant indeed was the supernatural who didn’t know of the portal worlds, considering that they were the source of magic and of every supernatural race. Even shifters needed to travel to the Deep Wilds, unimaginatively labeled Portal World Number 2 by GAR, if they wanted to turn a human.

While GAR theoretically protected earth from the dangers of the portal worlds, such as they were, they also kept training facilities there. Some of the more deadly agents were trained in the officially-nonexistent sites, where magic was dense and lethal tactics could be practiced against people and things nobody on earth would care about.

If one of those agents had gone rogue, GAR certainly had a problem. And it was GAR’s problem, not his. For Chester, it might well be an opportunity, if he treated it right. The man wasn’t a psychopath, but he could be terrifyingly effective, so there was probably some deal he could work out. He genuinely owed the man for saving his grand-niece, but he’d already turned down any offers of payment.

“If you find out anything else, tell me. Although I doubt you will.”

“Agreed.”

Chester once again hung up and closed his eyes, reaching through his pack bonds to tug lightly on two members of the Wolfpack, his own private enforcers. Two of them had, quite coincidentally, been present when the man had arrived, and that was the pair he wanted now. It didn’t take them long to enter the huge living room of the pack compound, making their way over to him.

“Roy, John,” he greeted them. “The man you saw in the basement before he took care of Arthur’s vampire problem ⁠— would you recognize his scent?”

“Of course,” John rumbled, almost offended at his Alpha questioning his prowess.

“Great. He was probably in or around this address in Lincoln,” Chester said, texting Keith’s business to them. “I want you over there as fast as you can manage and see if you can track him down. If you can find him, don’t approach him. Call me first.” He eyed the pair. “I’ll admit, I’m not sure if it’s possible. I don’t have any more information than that, but if anyone can track him, you two can.”

“Right away, Alpha,” Roy said, and the two of them hurried out.

***

Callum was more than a little nervous as he approached Pearson’s Used Books. It was one of those tiny old shops that wound up in the middle of a more modern segment of the city simply by being there first. It was also run by a mage.

He couldn’t tell what kind of mage, or even if it was possible to tell remotely with his spatial sense, but they definitely had a bubble of vis around them. Actually, studying that bubble closely was a help, because it wasn’t a structured and contained thing like Callum had been trying to make. It was just a local saturation, not very strong, like the mage was purposely leaking mana.

It seemed stupid to Callum, but there was probably a reason. Possibly even a good reason. Either way, he took a while to get the same effect with his own mana, pushing some out and then sort of tensing up as to not pull it back in. It’d take practice to hold it for lengthy periods of time, but he didn’t want to stand out too much.

Finally he pushed the door open, walking into a close and crowded space made of old and polished wood. At the front were the normal fare of any used bookstore, but there was a little bit of magic around a section at the back, probably a glamour. It was a good thing that he’d stayed most of his life in a relatively quiet and out-of-the-way town, or else he would probably have given himself away before by wandering into an obviously restricted section.

As it was he had no trouble stepping into the back section, where the mage he had sensed was sitting in an armchair reading. He glanced at Callum but said nothing, just flipping a page. The book he was reading was titled Investigations on Portal World Resonance, which was pretty blatantly supernatural. So at least Callum was in the right place.

Unfortunately for Callum, well over half the books were fiction. Supernatural fiction. He wasn’t entirely certain why they needed to be separate from the mundane fantasy section, but maybe there was too much truth in there to allow it out in general circulation. The other half seemed to be mostly histories and political writings, which was actually fine. It was definitely stuff he should read. It just wasn’t magical instruction.

None of the books had an imprint or serial number, and every last one had a leather cover rather than anything seen on normal commercial books. The price tags all started at three figures, too, meaning that as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t afford to just get a stack. He stopped at Arcane Defenses: A Treatise On Shielding and pulled it out, flipping it open to a random page. The jargon was relatively dense and the diagram on the opposite page didn’t make any sense, but at least there was jargon and diagrams.

“The glamour won’t let you read it without paying,” the mage said in a bored tone. Callum glanced at the page again, saw nothing different, and closed it, tucking it under his arm.

“Do you by chance have anything appropriate to the beginner mage? Like someone who is about to start apprenticeship?” Callum figured that was about the complexity he was at. He really would have liked to inquire after spatial magic books specifically, but that might be giving away too much.

“You seem a little old to be an apprentice,” the mage replied, still in the bored tone of voice, but flipped his book closed and floated it to a side table. Callum caught that the magic didn’t come directly from the mage or his bubble, but from the pocket-watch the mage had in his breast pocket. Or mostly from it, at least. It didn’t last long enough for him to study in detail.

“I am,” Callum agreed. “It’s not for me.”

“Hmph.” The mage waved his hand vaguely and more vis leapt from the pocket-watch, a complicated chain that wrapped around various books at the mage’s direction. What that looked like was three tomes floating off the shelves and over to Callum, who took them with ordinary hands. He didn’t know what type or aspect that levitation spell was, if any, and it was so far different from what he did that he didn’t want to look weird by using it.

The three books were Your First Focus, Mosu’s Encyclopedia of Mage Houses, and Portal Worlds Primer. The first one seemed the most interesting, but he wasn’t going to turn down anything might give him a better insight into what was going on. Though the three together totaled over a thousand dollars, and the shielding treatise doubled that.

“Thank you,” he said, and kept looking at titles. A lot of them looked intriguing, but between the expense and simply not wanting to look too suspicious he only settled on one other, a history detailing the establishment of GAR. That was more for his own curiosity than any driving need.

The mage had gone back to reading, and when Callum took out his money clip the mage just glanced at the books and took the hundreds Callum peeled off for him without comment. And also without making an attempt to give Callum any change. Since he didn’t want to raise a fuss, Callum just thanked him again and left.

As soon as he was out of sense range of the mage Callum let out a long breath and leaned against the wall, sucking the bubble of vis back in. Now that he was out of there, his hands were almost trembling from relief. He’d been prepared with so many lies, and filled in his broken mage tattoo carefully with the right color ink, but the other mage hadn’t even cared.

Apparently, even for the supernatural, retail was boring.

Callum teleported into his motorhome as soon as he was in range, and despite a burning desire to read the books, he started the engine and left. Now that he could sense magic, and knew that there even were such things as magic book stores, it would be easier to find unrestricted knowledge. Though judging by what had been on display, nothing approaching a complete curriculum.

He wanted to get some distance from the city and start experimenting. While magic would get lost in a city more than it would in the middle of nowhere, at the same time his fumbling around trying to learn things would be obvious. A mage of his age failing to show even beginner-level magic, outside his portals and teleports, would be suspicious.

If the books had anything useful at all he could train on the go, and the next time he approached a city or another mage, he wouldn’t be as blatantly ignorant. Every interaction was a danger, but if the mage in the bookstore was anything to go by, not a major one. So long as he didn’t act suspicious, he was just another patron. So long as he paid cash and kept to his persona, he wasn’t remarkable.

Eventually he wouldn’t be able to hide anymore, but eventually was the future. In the present, he had work to do.

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