Reading about a mage’s focus was equal parts enlightening and irritating. It filled in a massive gap that Callum had sort of felt with his use of magic, but hadn’t really been able to articulate. It also explained some of the things he’d heard and sensed about magic tools, like the compact he’d found or the pocket watch he’d seen.
It seemed that mages used foci to cast most of their spells rather than manipulating their vis manually. They were something between a physical tool and a computer program, though the book he read didn’t use that term, instead relying on jargon. A huge number of spells, though Callum was wary of that term, were so complex that forming them from scratch was considered a tedious waste of time. Instead, their basic structures were inscribed in a material so that the mage could simply push mana or vis through it and have a nearly complete spell pattern, needing only direction. Normally that material was a metal from one of the portal worlds, as mundane materials couldn’t hold enchantment permanently.
It sounded to him like it filled out everything but a few variables, but given that said variables were things like targets and widths, it wasn’t something that could be easily filled in by the rigid structure of a focus. Nor was he a programming expert, to be able to easily translate the concepts into any particular language, basic or advanced. Part of him wondered if there was something like a magical computer anywhere, but considering that a focus needed a physical structure for the mana, that sounded like it’d be a difficult prospect.
Unfortunately for him, the First Focus book only had a pattern for one spell. That spell was the most basic spell of any mage’s repertoire: telekinesis, which used raw mana rather than any particular aspect. It wasn’t even a generalized version of telekinesis, since the book explained that it could lift a maximum of eight pounds, and had a very limited distance. Which sounded suspiciously like a certain cantrip, and probably was the origin of it. Though he had to admit, having telekinesis on demand would be useful.
The book also gave him an insight on the vortex mana cleaner he was using. It was basically a terrible but more intense version of the mana acceptor, unable to hold mana and dissipating it into the ambient over time. His version had some severe handicaps for normal enchanting use, since it would only pull in his vis, but that was fine. If anything, he would rather have some way to disperse vis back to mana faster, but the text didn’t cover anything like that.
While the book showed the enchantment, it didn’t show the structure of the magic the enchantment would make when he added energy to it. Even so, he would lay odds the chain-looking magic he saw the mage in the bookstore use was a version of it. First Focus mentioned that most mages purchased more complex focus plates eventually, and even made their own. Exactly where they were purchased or how they were made was not covered, even though it was stated very clearly that one had to be a full mage to do anything with them. Apprentices or unlettered types such as himself need not apply.
It was rather like reading a book on what could be done with a computer, but having no computer at hand or any place to get one. Tantalizing, but out of reach. It did at least explain what the magic supplies he’d found in Winut were and what they did. The mage had made her own foci for the wards, meaning she didn’t have to pay much attention to the structure, so far as he understood. Unfortunately, he hadn’t brought that stuff with him, so he couldn’t experiment.
The Encyclopedia and Portal World Primer both proved to be dry recitations of facts that were not particularly interesting or relevant, aside from informing him that a number of mage houses had been around a long time and had a lot of power. The Primer was clearly propaganda, considering the descriptions didn’t jibe with Sen’s stories. It also stated that the sixth portal world was just empty, which really made Callum wonder what they were hiding.
The only real notable information was the location of the actual entrances to said portal worlds, four of which were in Europe and Asia. The fifth was off the coast of Australia, and the sixth was in South America. He wasn’t planning to go to any of them, but at least he knew. It was also interesting to him that there were none in North America, China, or Antarctica. At least, so far as anyone knew.
That left only the Treatise, which was fascinating and incomprehensible. It assumed a great deal more knowledge than Callum actually had, but the diagrams and what bits he could puzzle out implied that most mages actually carried some degree of shielding near-constantly, and a good shield could be reactive. All fantastic ideas that he loved, but had no idea how to implement. Especially since the examples were elemental — air, fire, water, and earth.
He already knew spatial magic didn’t work like those, and if the standard projectile exercise was any guide, standard shields would be equally useless. So all in all, he’d spent over two thousand dollars to very little effect. After he got over the annoyance by drumming uselessly on the steering wheel of his motorhome for a while, Callum stopped off to get a burner phone and laptop and planned a road trip along used book stores.
Most of them wouldn’t be supernatural, but any that were bore investigating, and maybe he could even ask about where to get enchanting materials. Or even premade focuses, to let him do glamours. If he was really lucky he could find something, anything, on spatial mages. Annoyingly, most notes just referred back to Archmage Duvall, who seemed to be the sole authority on spatial magic, but there were a few hints here and there. So far as he gathered they were extremely rare, and diverged quite a bit from the standard elemental types. Of course.
John Wilton sniffed carefully around the interior of the shop. His target’s scent was faint, but there, and he exchanged a nod with his brother, Roy. Between them they could track down anyone, or at least, that was the idea. They exited the shop, John in beast form and Roy on two legs, tracing the scent and not finding it easy.
Whatever magic the man used didn’t leave any residue for them to follow, but it did wash out his tracks for large areas, forcing them to circle around and pick it up again by brute force. At the very least, he kept mostly a straight line, rather than winding through the city or looping back on himself. Any lesser trackers probably couldn’t have found the trail at all, not after almost a full day, but supernatural senses made it possible.
Even with that advantage it was a long and tedious process, with the trail finally ending at the far end of a vast parking lot. John sniffed at the asphalt, finding whiffs of diesel and chemicals and rubber, as would be expected in any parking lot, but he focused his senses and matched the ages of the scents as he explored where the man had been parked.
It was not, surprisingly, an ordinary car. It had been parked crosswise, taking up a number of parking spots, and much larger than even a pickup. John sneezed and shifted back to human, the magic flowing through him as it adjusted flesh, bones, and sinew, then finally reformed his clothes around him.
“Some sort of van,” he reported, looking around at the parking lot. It didn’t take him long to spot the surveillance cameras, nearly invisible to the mundane eye but clear enough to shifter vision. “We’ll have to get the footage.”
“I’ll call Lucy.” Lucile Harper was only a semi-official member of the Wolfpack, their technical support when it came to dealing with the mundane world. While she wasn’t quite as adept a hacker as the fictional version of the same, she had qualified for access to GAR’s databases, and GAR could certainly get anything it wanted. The magic was in getting it from GAR without someone getting suspicious.
John and Roy weren’t just scent trackers. They had, in times past, been private investigators and could work the mundane side of tracing a person just as well as the supernatural. Admittedly, their target wasn’t making it easy on them. Even if they could get a clear view of what he was driving, that didn’t mean that they would be able to find out where he was going.
Even Lucy wouldn’t be able to get them access to every traffic camera in every location within a day’s travel, let alone trawl that enormous amount of footage for a specific vehicle. They’d have to use a more old-fashioned method of investigation, figuring out where he was going and why.
If they were lucky, they’d find somewhere else he went other than the gold exchange. If they were even luckier, they’d get a usable image from the surveillance cameras. Though, Alpha Chester had emphasized being cautious. Considering what the man was capable of, asking questions indiscreetly might well cause trouble they couldn’t handle.
Outside of major cities and shifter towns like Winut, supernaturals seemed rather thin on the ground. It made some kind of sense, since vampires would need people to prey upon, mages had their own society, and shifters seemed to actually have packs. But he didn’t know why he didn’t spot more fae and dragonblooded, and if GAR had teleport circles like the one he’d seen back home there was no reason to use cities.
No matter the reason, the course he plotted along used bookstores heading south found very little in the way of either supernatural activity or offerings. There was one store in the middle of nowhere that catered to fae, with crystals and herbs and other such things, but they had nothing for mages. There was a faint aura of magic that he couldn’t quite pin down around the items on the shelves, apparently all direct from Portal World 3, also known as Faerie. It was interesting, and odd to him that they had an entirely different magic from human mages, but not something he could pursue.
Callum at least had higher hopes for the medium-sized town ahead, considering that he could sense some magical traces along the roads. Judging from the location of the trails they were probably made by people driving in cars, and he shuddered at the idea of leaving behind such obvious trails in the local mana field. Part of him wanted to go clean it up with one of his siphon bearings, but since they only cleaned up his own vis it wouldn’t work. Not to mention it’d be obvious and possibly even rude. For all he knew there was a bit of territorial marking to the display.
He steered to the RV campground, one of the things that had made him decide on that town in particular, and attended to the necessaries before taking his bike out to head into town. While he did enjoy biking, actually using it as his primary method of transportation to get around a city would have been a pain, so he was glad he could teleport. Of course he had to make sure each teleport was unobserved, as he lacked any kind of glamour, and he kept a hefty supply of screws and ball bearings to form a safe trail from one point to another.
Even in places where magic was common, he didn’t want to be known as a spatial mage.
For a while he was tempted to follow the magical signatures and see where they were going instead of heading to the bookstore, but after a minute of thought he decided there was no telling how far out of his way he’d have to go, or how old the signatures were. Tracking a mage down to their home would probably be an exceedingly bad idea, even if they did leave a glaring arrow pointing right at it.
He displaced himself along the streets, wheeling his bike out of a handy church courtyard and pedaling the next few blocks to the store. When it came within range of his perceptions he had to stop for a moment from the sudden jolt of anxiety because there was not just one mage there, some proprietor or another, but three. One of them was probably a match for one of the trails he’d seen before, though he couldn’t swear it.
When his heartbeat settled again he continued on. He just had to keep in mind that nobody expected him to be a rogue mage, and to act like he was just visiting. Even if he acted a little weird, that was probably normal. According to the book on Mage Houses, there were mages from five and six hundred years ago still knocking about, so surely eccentricity was common.
He didn’t bother to lock his bike, merely leaning it up against the front of the store, but he did wish that he had that concealment glamour focus. It wasn’t likely anyone would steal his bike, and he could always teleport it back in place if they did, but it was just one more thing to keep track of. Callum suppressed a sigh and stepped into the store.
Only the shallow frontage was visible to the public, the telltale wall of a glamour hiding the rest of it. None of the mages reacted as he crossed into the supernatural area, just as they hadn’t reacted to his perception in the first place. He was starting to think that it was passive, like looking or listening, and so long as he didn’t spend any vis on it, nobody would notice. Not that he was willing to bet any significant amount of money on that.
Taking it in at a glance, two of the mages were a husband and wife, both looking old and wrinkled, holding hands and reading in the far corner. The third was a college-aged girl, or maybe a recent graduate, off in a secluded nook he couldn’t actually see thanks to the bookshelves. He doffed his cap, shoving it in his pocket as he walked forward, cane tapping lightly on the floor. It actually seemed to be a far more friendly store than the last one, if the books weren’t glamoured, an impression confirmed by the male half of the pair in the back looking up and raising a hand in greeting.
Callum nodded to him and walked over toward the bookshelves, finding many familiar titles. Eventually he reached the far end of the store and the study nook, finding the woman scowling fiercely at the book she had open atop the others. He took a moment to look at the title of the book, then he laughed. It was the Arcane Defenses book, and he knew exactly how she felt.
“Yeah, I found that one impenetrable as well,” he told her. He could pretend to be a lot of things, but rude wasn’t one of them. Where he came from, people wouldn’t just pass by someone like that if they could help, and she seemed so affronted by the book that he just had to speak up. “I’m not sure who the audience is, but I’m pretty sure they made half those words up.” She blinked up at him when he started talking, but by the end of his second sentence she was laughing.
“And I thought it was me!” She smiled. “I’ve been trying to figure out this stupid book all day.”
“I wish I could help,” Callum said sympathetically. “I’ve been looking for literature appropriate for the beginner mage and let me tell you. This is not it.” The girl looked at him more closely, taking in his greying beard, glasses, cane, and expensive-looking suit.
“Are you taking on an apprentice?” She made a pretty good guess, and the kind he was trying to elicit.
“Not exactly,” he said. “But close enough. I’m guessing you are an apprentice?”
“No.” She scowled. “I’m looking to skip apprenticeship. Archmage Fane keeps trying to get me and I don’t like him.”
“Can you even do that?” He asked, raising his eyebrows. “Skip apprenticeship?”
“If you get your draft done with,” she said, lifting her hand to show off the mage tattoo and a pearl-white dot to represent her magic type. “It’s easier for healers but we still need basic things like shields.”
“You have no idea how hard it is for someone without apprenticeship resources to find out about things like a proper shield,” Callum agreed. “Or maybe you do.” He considered the woman and the way she glumly flipped pages on the shielding book. “Professor Denver Brown,” he said, offering her his hand. Introducing himself as professor kept things impersonal.
“Oh, Gayle Hargrave,” she said, clasping it with something he didn’t consider a standard handshake. Despite the fairly out-of-the-way town, the girl clearly had some sort of upper-class mage upbringing. “Did you come to see the Larsons, too?”
“No, I’ve been poking around, looking at what literature there is available.” Callum considered, tapping his cane against the floor. Gayle seemed harmless enough, and she probably knew more than he did about a lot of things. Besides, they both wanted some of the same information.
“Maybe we could collaborate some? I’ve done some research work in my time, writing things up. I’m not sure how much time you have.”
“Oh, ages and ages. Nobody’s going to make a healer do anything,” Gayle said, dismissive of the entire awful architecture of GAR and its draft. She was probably right, though. Rules didn’t apply to the really powerful.
“I did find some things. If you have a list of what they want you to learn I can check my reference materials.”
“Oh, um.” She shoved around the stack of papers and books on the table until she came out with an obviously thrice-photocopied checklist. Callum was a little surprised she didn’t have it marked down on a phone app, but with mages having such long lifespans it made sense that some of them would still be behind the times when it came to technology.
“Great, I’ll be right back.” He just took a snapshot of it and headed back out to his bike, which had remained unmolested. Even if that list was all he got, it had been worth striking up a conversation with Gayle. That she was looking for the same sort of information he was seemed like a tremendous stroke of luck, but he’d probably found some kind of researcher eventually, hitting up mage bookstores.
The list was partly specialized for a healer, since obviously not every mage would have various flavors of healing, but it had a number of mainstays: telekinesis, glamour, simple enchantment, movement spells, shields, attacks, light and communication. Callum amused himself by ticking off the ones he could kind-of sort-of do, which was actually quite a few.
It didn’t take him long to grab the focus book from his motorhome and head back the bookstore, where Gayle had given up on Arcane Defenses and was taking notes on something else. Callum placed Your First Focus in front of her and pulled up a seat.
“I’ll trade you,” he suggested. “If you have a place to get the stuff for enchanting, you can at least make a kinesis focus.”
“Huh,” she said, dropping the book she had to pick the one he offered. “I’ve only got glamour on mine. I don’t know about enchanting. I’ll ask Miss Larson.” She stood up and strode in the direction of the husband and wife pair, while Callum drifted back to the bookshelves and listened while he browsed.
“Arcanist Larson, would you have enchanting materials available?” Gayle asked, with an accent that he couldn’t quite place.
“You know the rules, dear,” Miss Larson said absently. “Full mages only.” Callum did recall something like that, but he hadn’t been sure how strictly it was enforced and he didn’t want to push it. Like buying someone underage a beer, you could get away with it, maybe, but certainly not right after Gayle had asked. It did provide a neat Catch-22, that an apprentice couldn’t get the materials to opt out of apprenticeship, which didn’t surprise him one bit
“What about making a temporary one?” Callum suggested after Gayle returned and reported. “It won’t last long but I’ve been able to stick vis into steel.”
“You can make temporary ones?” Gayle blinked at him.
“Sure,” he said cheerfully. “They’re terrible and can’t handle much vis but if nothing else it’s practice for the real thing.”
“Huh.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re not a metal mage or something are you? ‘Cause if so that isn’t going to be useful to me.” In reply he held up his hand to show off the false color of blue-black there.
“No, gravity,” he told her.
“Oh, that’s neat! You’re almost as rare as I am!” Gayle said cheerfully. “But that means you can already do kinesis. I guess?”
“Sure, but you can do that with mana. I don’t know that you can do healing that way.”
“I guess not.” Gayle shrugged. “So, what, you just get an iron plate and push mana at it?”
“I’m sure there’s better materials but—” He stopped as she bounded up again to ask Arcanist Larson.
“Arcanist Larson says brass is the best mundane material. I don’t think this is brass though?” Gayle fiddled with her bracelet. Callum swept his senses over it, finding one of the plates on it to be mostly opaque to his senses, save for the mana input.
“It’s probably all made from portal world materials,” Callum said. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Well, be careful, my parents gave it to me,” Gayle cautioned, slipping the bracelet off.
“I won’t do anything but look,” he promised, lifting the bracelet and peering at it through his bifocals. The focus pattern for glamours was really complex, and he had no doubt the bracelet was expensive considering how thin and precise the enchantment channels were. Considering that the plate itself was a clearly non-mundane material it had to be a portal world metal, but he couldn’t guess what beyond that.
It was also far too complicated to memorize. He’d have to try and duplicate it later, if Gayle was going to be sticking around. After scrutinizing it for a few seconds, he handed it back.
“Yeah, we definitely can’t make anything like that, but it’s worth trying anyway.” He glanced at the checklist. “What about an attack spell? I don’t have any enchantments for that offhand, but surely healing has some really potent attacks.”
“What?” Gayle scowled mightily. “It’s healing, not harming!”
“But that depends on how you apply it, doesn’t it? I expect you went to college for medicine?” Callum asked, and Gayle gave him a look.
“College? No, I’ve had a magic education, not a mundane one.” Callum barely kept from rolling his eyes, and Gayle’s look turned into a full pout. “My parents put me through the best academy! I know it’s old-fashioned one, but all the important families attend.”
Callum could translate that one easily enough. Gayle had gone to a magic prep school for the rich and famous, learning networking rather than useful topics. Probably so she’d be able to handle an apprenticeship, since he imagined that healing would be in immensely high demand. He knew not every mage was stupid enough to discard scientific knowledge, otherwise there wouldn’t be supernatural internet or magic-friendly phones or computers.
“We’ll skip that one for now,” he said. “But for next time, get yourself a laptop and look up the clotting cascade and neurochemicals. I don’t know how your magic works, obviously, but if you can just target one thing and boost it, you could knock everything else off balance.”
“Huh. I’ll take your word for it.” Gayle wrote that down on her scratchpad. “What next?”
They spent a good few hours going through ideas and scouring the stock of books, and while it wasn’t a complete waste of time they didn’t get as much done as either of them would have liked. Most of what was interesting to Callum was incidental; things like brass being the better mundane enchanting material, or the list of what a brand new mage was supposed to be able to do.
Gayle seemed pretty encouraged though, and she agreed to meet him back at Larson’s Academe on Friday. He didn’t ask for, nor was asked for, a phone number. Which was fine with him, since even if he was taking a risk by sticking around to chat with a mage of high society, it didn’t seem too much of a risk if she couldn’t track him. Or ask someone else to.
He recorded everything he could remember, including sketching what he could study of Gayle’s glamour focus, and in the morning he went shopping. While he liked his steel vortexes, and really didn’t want them to be better, a few brass plates and other miscellaneous metalwork would serve as testbeds for enchanting. He really, really wanted to find an enchanting encyclopedia or something similar, because foci seemed to be the gateway to every single cantrip he could ever want and easier spellcasting besides.
Afterward, he continued his road trip. He might yet find books that were useful to either him or to Gayle, and he needed to find a larger city to exchange another one of the gold plates in. While his cash reserves were still fine, technically, it was still a bit disconcerting how much he’d spent of late, when normally he barely spent any money at all.
Part of him really missed his career in architecture. It hadn’t been a calling of incredible passion but he’d been damned good at it and met a lot of great people. It had also provided him with more money than he needed very quickly, which was nice. Not that he’d trade his magic for anything, but it still infuriated him that he’d been forced to ditch his business because some supernational supernatural entity thought it had what amounted to a slave claim to him.
He also hadn’t ever seriously entertained the notion of killing someone. Not that he’d call himself a murderer at this point, not when his victims were anything but innocent, but vigilante might not be too strong a term. Though he didn’t have any intention of repeating the act, he’d also be hard-pressed to look away if he caught more supernatural predations. Or maybe even mundane ones, now that he’d crossed the line once, which was another reason to stay away from the cities.
As he drove along, he kept pushing his spatial sense out further and further. If it really was passive, then he wanted it to be as high in fidelity and long in range as it was possible to get. He wasn’t quite sure if it worked like a muscle or if he was slowly adjusting to a static sense that was always there, like an eyeball, but either way he needed to train it. If he strained too much, vis started to be involved, which meant it was definitely detectable, no longer passive, and he was trying too hard.
Once again, most of the bookstores he went to were just mundane types, though Callum went to look half the time regardless. Partly to make sure his spatial sense wasn’t missing anything, and partly because he just liked browsing old books. He was quite a reader when he had time for it, and if there was a deathly lack of useful mage books he’d probably have time for it.
It was Wednesday evening by the time he neared an actual supernatural business, with magical residue in and around the building but no mage inside. Which made it easier to pass as a mage, since any sense of magic at all would work and he could keep his vis properly contained so he didn’t leave a trail. So far as he knew nobody suspected he was around so nobody was looking for him, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
He entered the bookstore, waving at the person in the glamoured part of the shop, who looked human and so was probably shifter, and browsed. It seemed that he was pretty close to exhausting the standard selection of nonfiction, because he kept seeing the same titles over and over. The fiction section, on the other hand, never seemed to repeat itself.
Callum did end up buying a few things, and the cashier bagged them up for him, but the way she looked at him was odd. He felt uncomfortable as he hurried out and he didn’t wait long to teleport away, making his way back to the motorhome in a roundabout way. While he knew he was probably being overly paranoid, he kept his senses stretched out for any suspicious activity while he pulled out his books. Tucked in the top of one was a business card, blank but for three lines.
Alpha Chester, it read, with a phone number only appropriate to supernatural phones. Call me was handwritten below in ink.