Callum ate takeout while he browsed the catalogues of the nearest used motorcycle places as well as the online classifieds. The classifieds were actually his preference for purchase, but too many of them were suspect, not working, or actually terrible bikes. In fact, most bikes were what he considered terrible bikes, at least for his purposes. He needed something fast, reliable, light, and not flashy.
It took him a lot longer than he liked to settle on an option, and even then he had to make another hours-long trip to get another piece of gold exchanged, but eventually he had his auxiliary transportation. Since he already had the books and materials for when he was supposed to meet Gayle, he could spend the time doing reconnaissance. And practicing his gravitykinesis.
Simply knowing that his ability to manipulate vis was not as good as he had initially thought helped him focus on what improvements he still had to make, but grappling with the more ephemeral filler between threads was not easy. It helped to have something to compare himself, but at the same time, he was clearly not very good at making crisp and clean vis constructs like Gayle. It was still an intensely nauseating and exhausting experience to try and lift himself, so self-flight was off the table for a while.
Given that he was already putting in long hours, he didn’t let a little thing like being tired get him down. He drove his motorcycle toward the first target, using his teleport when he could. While it wasn’t nearly as fast as it might have been if he had a longer range or could do it more often, he probably doubled his overall speed.
He’d done some math on practicing his self teleport, and he could go tremendously quickly if he was willing to spend all his vis. Even if he had an effective range of five hundred yards, it didn’t take but a second for him to reorient and teleport again, so he could go a full mile in about four seconds. Not that he could keep that up for long, so it was impractical for cross-country trips.
When he arrived at the first, nearest town that had vampire problems, he circled far around the target address. While Chester had given him contact information for the local Alphas – and it had not escaped Callum’s attention that the Alphas all lived in or near the vampire locations – he considered it a trap. The less he was known, the less likely it was someone could give him away.
It was one of the ones without a mage, but apparently that didn’t mean it was without magical protections. There was a ward up, but it was static, probably powered by mana in some way. It wouldn’t be too hard for Callum to push past and he could probably wreck the source fairly easily. Though upon further thought, it was better if he didn’t.
It seemed weird to him that the wards were so permeable, but his best guess was that they were not meant to keep mages out. There was absolutely no way a shifter or a human or even a vampire could just waltz onto the grounds of the big old pseudo-mansion they’d taken over without triggering them. Callum wasn’t sure what happened if someone did, or how the personnel managed to bypass the ward, but the only reason he could push through was that all he needed was a single thread of mana. The size of the grid didn’t matter since really any grid was useless.
Since it was daytime, it was easy enough to find the vampires. They were the ones sleeping, though he could tell the differences from human if he looked close enough. Different ears, different jaw shape, weirdly slow and deep breathing pattern, bizarrely little difference between them. They could have all been related. He wished he could really see them.
Then he realized that seeing them with his naked eyes would mean that a vampire was awake and aware and nearby and revised his thought. Seeing them with spatial sense was enough. Once he was done poking about, he got out his paper notepad again to take notes, though the layout was straightforward enough. Once that was done, he stowed his stuff in the saddlebags and took off to the second target.
It was extremely late by the time he reached it, late enough that only three of the ten vampires were actually in the movie theatre they’d taken over. That was enough to make the back of his neck itch, and he was incredibly twitchy while he took notes on the defenses.
That one had an earth type mage defending, and the entire structure and the grounds around it were permeated with spells. It was significantly stronger than the other defenses he’d seen, but at the same time didn’t extend into the air at all. Which meant for him the entire thing might as well not exist, except for around the mage.
Like all mages he’d seen so far, the earth mage had a bubble around him, but unlike the others, it was dense enough that it did a fair job of obscuring his details as well as having complex threads woven throughout it. Clearly he had personal shields up, and Callum would have to put a lot more effort into neutralizing him than anyone else he’d run into so far.
The defensive shield meant that Callum couldn’t put a portal within five feet of the guy, and probably couldn’t open portals nearby at all without him noticing. He really didn’t want to just shoot the guy, not if he didn’t absolutely have to, and while the target mage was technically aiding and abetting Callum wasn’t really feeling like he could actually murder the man in cold blood.
At least until one of the vampires returned with a body.
The vampire couldn’t, or at least didn’t, fly, but it did move shockingly fast. One second it wasn’t there at all, and the next it had traversed the entire range of Callum’s perception and entered the house. For all his straining Callum couldn’t hear what was said, but the vamp tossed the body on the ground in front of the mage and moved deeper into the house. All the mage did was make a notation of some sort on a notepad.
Magic flashed and the mage shoved the body down into the ground, past the foundation and into the earth some thirty feet below the building’s floor. It was one thing to know that they were helping the vamps, and it was another to see them do so without any hesitation or revulsion. He still found it hard to believe that GAR actively aided the vampires in their depredations, but it wasn’t like mages actually cared much about or for what they called mundanes.
He grit his teeth against a hot flush of anger and considered the situation again, burning the emotion on a determination to take out the vampires’ defender. He couldn’t use a gun, but the little he had gleaned from the literature on shields told him there were limits on what it could handle at a time. While he didn’t have any experience with proper magical attacks, enough brute force would work.
With half of his targets surveilled, Callum drove home, brainstorming approaches on the way. He had to be fast, he had to be accurate, and it had to be something that he could get away with doing in broad daylight. If he could get that glamour focus done he’d have some leeway, but not much. He assumed that any vampire or halfway competent mage would be able to utterly wreck him if he didn’t annihilate them with a first strike, so he had to make his first strikes count.
Fortunately for him, he didn’t need to meet with Gayle until after lunch, because he got back late and was exhausted enough to sleep until nearly noon. He thought he’d feel terrible when he got up, but he actually felt fairly normal. College had been the last time he’d been able to pull those hours and not feel like he’d fallen down a staircase, so he wasn’t sure what to attribute his newfound resilience to.
He wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, though, and packed up his books and brass and drove, then biked, back to the used book store. Not on his motorcycle, though that would have been easier. Callum also stuck to a small carrier bag appropriate to a professor, rather than a more useful backpack or suitcase. In hindsight, his assumed identity could have been better crafted.
The same couple was around, but they were upstairs in the apartments rather than down in the main part of the store with Gayle. Callum had no idea why that was the case, but then, he had no idea what normal mage behavior was. Maybe they didn’t care because he wasn’t a stranger anymore.
No matter the reason, Gayle was sitting at the same nook, with a different set of books. When Callum rounded the corner, he was glad to see none of them were duplicates of the few he’d been able to find. It made him feel less bad about how ignorant he was.
“Miss Hargrave,” he greeted her, setting down a stack of blank, polished brass plates with a clunk.
“Professor Brown,” she said, eyeing the brass. “Don’t you think that’s too much?”
“I’m assuming we’re going to mess up the first few times we try enchanting these,” he said, putting down his pair of books on the table. “Maybe we can wipe them, but I’d rather just start with a new one.”
“Oh, good idea.” He could tell Gayle was fresh out of college. College kids never seemed adequately prepared for failure.
“I also got a couple more books that might be useful, one of which talks about light spells.” He tapped the book in question. “Now, I don’t have fire or lightning magic, but supposedly you can make it from just ordinary mana if all you want is some light. I’m hoping between us we can figure it out.”
“Wouldn’t you know already?” Gayle cast him a sideways look.
“Ah, but to construct one without a focus or references?” Callum asked her, and she pursed her lips and nodded. He almost felt bad about misleading her, but she was benefitting as much as he was. More, if she actually could use it to skip an apprenticeship with someone she didn’t like.
“Oh, right, so,” Gayle said, shifting topics without a clutch. “I went and looked at the stuff you suggested and it’s kind of horrific! I’m not sure I can use my magic that way.”
“Hmm,” Callum said, not really sure how to address that. Offensive spells were one of the absolute requirements, so she was going to have to learn it whether she liked it or not. Instead of pointing that out, he tried to be more diplomatic about it. “You aren’t going to be using it against people. Imagine if you’re in one of the portal worlds healing people and something like a giant cockroach sneaks into your room to try and eat one of your patients. Would you feel so bad about killing one of them?” Gayle had blanched at the phrase giant cockroach, as well she might, and nibbled her lower lip in thought.
“I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “But how am I supposed to practice it?”
“I couldn’t say,” Callum responded offhand, dividing up the brass plates between them. “Get a bucket of feeder crickets from a pet store?”
“You can do that?” Gayle blinked at him. He considered her a moment, and realized that it was pretty likely that she’d never had a pet reptile or amphibian. She didn’t seem the type.
“Sure. Mice and stuff too, depending on how adventurous you feel. I definitely wouldn’t suggest testing it on people.” He eyed her. “Did you start with people for normal healing?”
“Well, yes,” Gayle said, in a tone that implied it was obvious. For some reason Callum wasn’t surprised. If early healing had been instinctual she probably healed her own scraped knees or whatever, but he thought they would have started her out on animals for more deliberate training. Then again, he didn’t know what healing was like for her. Maybe it was something she really couldn’t mess up. His own portals weren’t infinitely sharp ruptures like they could have been, so perhaps healing didn’t arbitrarily interrupt functional biochemistry.
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about magical healing,” he said. “I’ve had it done to me but that doesn’t mean I know what it’s like on your end.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “It’s actually very easy. My healing vis reacts with a mage’s own vis, for the most part. It makes it easy to target.”
“What about healing mundanes?” Callum pressed, though he hated using the term.
“Why, I’ve never tried it,” she told him. Considering all the hospital-bound people in the world that seemed wrong. Even if it was just for practice, he would have thought she’d have had the experience.
“You probably should. If it’s different, then you’ll know more about healing magic than you do. I’m assuming that you can just visit a hospital and do it, but you might have to be careful not to raise any suspicions.” There were occasional tales of miraculous recoveries from various diseases, so it wasn’t like it would be completely unheard of.
“I’ll ask mom and dad,” Gayle decided, and turned her attention to the brass plates. “So how do you even start enchanting? I’ve never done it before.”
It wasn’t like Callum really knew what he was doing, but he’d still done a lot. Enchanting was condensing threads inside a material and holding them in place until they stuck. It required certain geometries, curves an intersections, relative positions, and the like, and they didn’t simply mimic the form of the spell frameworks. It was more like the enchantment was the integral of the spell form, some arcane topological translation that he didn’t know the rules to create.
Of course, most enchanting was supposed to be done with mana rather than vis. Different types of vis did different things, such as Gayle’s healing actually working with someone else’s vis. Even simple things like the mana acceptor functioned differently when made with mana or vis. In that case, it changed what it pulled in, so building a mana acceptor with mana would use mana, while building one with vis used vis. There were supposedly ways to transform one into the other even inside an enchantment, though at an extreme loss, but he didn’t know the details.
Callum could see how that was useful for a mage’s personal library of spells, especially if the focus obfuscated what was going on in some way. The problem was he didn’t have the beginning of an idea of how to translate magic to enchanting. Not that he’d seen many mage spells other than the ones he’d made for himself from the spatial primer, but there were a lot of different architectural flourishes to represent.
Gayle’s glamour bracelet, for example, was insanely complex. It only made sense, since the term really encompassed some kind of mental or perceptual screening effect that made people not notice supernatural goings-on as well as, he presumed, some kind of shielding from recording devices. Neither effect was straightforward, and he wouldn’t have any idea how to go about doing it himself, so he was mostly blindly copying hers and hoping that it worked.
Constructing the telekinesis spell focus was a different kind of difficult. For the glamour, no matter how complex it was, it was all out there in the open. It was a two-dimensional setup and he could see every line and curve of the enchantment. The telekinesis spell, they had to go by the frankly terrible instructions in the book and hope they got things right.
It was just as well he’d set aside the entire day for it because it was not easy work. The actual enchanting was fine, but figuring out what was needed in the first place was not. Unsurprisingly, Gayle was far and away better at controlling energy than Callum was. While her education had been clearly lacking in many respects, in terms of actual magical finesse she showed the difference between someone who had a few months of experience and someone with years of professional training.
It especially showed in her ability to manipulate mana. Callum had more or less stopped touching it after he figured out how to pull out his own spatial vis and make it do stuff. It had been a lot harder to grab much of the ambient mana and he didn’t have anything he could really do with it so he hadn’t bothered. Gayle, though, could control it with an alacrity and precision that he didn’t even manage for his vis. He also took notes on what her magical building blocks looked like, which were rather thicker and more energetic than his.
On the other hand, at least he could draw. His years of drafting meant that it was easy enough for him to sketch out the paths of the enchantment they were planning before trying to actually commit it to the brass. It also meant he could copy down the shape of the glamour enchantment in fairly short order, with annotations for flourishes in width or density that were hard to capture with simple lines.
Frankly, the ability to draw straight lines and accurate angles was his biggest contribution to their collaboration, not his ability with magic. Without that, the slog of putting together a simple telekinesis focus would have become hopelessly mired. As it was, it took hours for what was, in the end, probably about five minutes of work. He didn’t even have time to try and put together his own version of the glamor enchantment, but he had multiple pages of notes on it and a sketch he’d rechecked five times so that might be something he could do on his own.
“Yes!” Gayle exulted as she grabbed mana and pushed it through the enchanted plate, directing the resulting construct to pick up books from the table. She watched as they floated through the air, and pumped her fist. “Ha! Take that, Archmage Fane!”
“It’s a step,” Callum agreed with amusement. “There’s a lot more to go, though.”
“Oh, don’t be such a wet blanket,” Gayle said. Callum wasn’t sure that any normal college graduate would use such a term, but he really wasn’t surprised that Gayle was a few decades behind in her slang. Even her manner of dress was somewhat more formal than he would expect for a causal visit to the bookstore. The dress didn’t look completely out of place, but it was rather fancy.
“I suppose you’re right,” he conceded. “Now’s a good place to stop anyway. It’s getting fairly late.”
“Yeah, it is,” Gayle said, peering over at the clock in the wall. “Thanks for the help, Professor Brown!”
“Absolutely,” he told her. “Same time next week?”
“Sure!” She made a face. “Not looking forward to touching crickets but I guess it’s worth a try.”
“That’s the spirit,” he encouraged her. Gayle left first, and Callum watched with his spatial sense, unsurprised that the car she drove looked like it was made in the sixties and had been heavily enchanted. If he had to guess what kind of car a mage would drive, it would be that type.
He collected the remainder of the brass plates and his notes, tidied up the table, and left himself. The Larsons hadn’t moved from upstairs, though his perception had caught them moving about and having dinner while he and Gayle had worked. Callum assumed they had some degree of the same perception of him, which was why he made sure he was well out of range before he dropped his bubble and began teleporting his way back to his motorhome to start in on his own enchanting project.
Considering his visualization capabilities he was tempted to put in the entire glamour enchantment at the same time. If that worked it’d save a lot of effort and tedium on his part, but if it didn’t he would have to check every bit individually and probably miss something. It was better to do it one line at a time, double and triple checking, especially since his mana control was so shaky. Getting the right widths and angles was irritating.
It was just as well he did. He had a stack of a dozen plates to start, and the first seven he screwed up before he was halfway done. At that point, he went ahead and called it a night. The only benefit of exhausting himself so quickly was that it helped him get back onto a normal sleep schedule.
In the morning he resumed his attempts, and with the benefit of a rested mind it only took him three more until he got it. The first two he actually finished and found they didn’t work, the mana going through and stopping at junctions where he’d not properly fitted the parts of the enchantment together. It was only with the third that everything functioned smoothly and he was able to cast a glamour by grabbing mana and forcing it into the acceptor on the enchantment.
The result was incredibly interesting, at least to his sensibilities. The mana stream turned into some neutral pseudo-vis and solidified into a sort of bubble that was tethered to his focus. Beyond that there were techniques implied there that he had no idea existed. For example, instead of constantly needing energy to sustain itself, much of the initial investment went into a sort of loop that maintained the spell. Which meant that despite mana being so much less efficient than vis, it was still easy to maintain.
Callum wasn’t sure if the relatively low cost of operation was due to the efficiency of the spell construction or the type of spell it was. He could well believe his portals and teleports weren’t efficient, but they were so simple in many respects that he didn’t know how they could be improved. His only guess was that if there were a more efficient way of doing things, it was linked with how they did long-distance teleports. Maybe once he found out how they did those, he’d be able to improve his own work.
Either way it was good enough for the moment. One thing Callum did notice about the glamour spell was that it left an awful lot of residue behind, which really confirmed that it had nothing to do with any kind of energy efficiency. If anything, it seemed to be linked to how targeted the spell was. His teleports and portals did exactly one thing, and affected only what he wanted them to effect. The same with his gravitykinesis. But the glamour was a vague, undirected, and complicated spell so of course it left quite an impression.
Just playing around with it he found that the spell was very clever, actually. He found the feedback from the spell made the available controls clear and obvious, like size, shape, and location. Plus full invisibility or just masking. It was frankly more responsive than his manual building of spells, which just went to show how terrible he was with them, but the effect was static. Besides which, he didn’t really understand everything it was doing and that made him extremely uncomfortable, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Experimenting with his steel vortex ball bearings, they couldn’t clean up after the glamour at all, presumably because it was mana and not his vis. The residue of teleports and portals was gone after maybe ten minutes or so, if he dropped one nearby, but the glamour would need a different approach. He’d need stronger cleaners, made from mana instead of vis and probably enchanted in brass, but those themselves would be easier for people to spot. Yet, glamours were so common for mages that maybe it wasn’t even worth trying to hide the use.
It was a damned difficult problem, to balance being unseen by the world at large and leaving no trace for the supernatural hounds. Callum knew he would err in one direction or the other, but hopefully he could be careful enough that such mistakes weren’t fatal. If anything he’d rather get spotted doing something supernatural by normal people, because they’d be willing to ascribe it to inattention or publicity stunts. The supernaturals would hunt him down.
Now that he had the glamour done, he needed to go check out the other pair of targets. With obfuscation in place he could teleport or use gravitykinesis without normal people noticing. Not that he was good enough to kinesis himself without exceeding discomfort, but it had occurred to him that he could just ride his motorcycle. If he divided up his spatial bubble and gave just the motorcycle enough negative gravity, it should be able to lift his weight just fine, and then he could spatially drag them both.
Assuming he could hold the spatial construct that long. A motorcycle with a rider didn’t take up nearly as much volume as a car, but it was still considerably more than what he moved around for his usual tasks. Though the real question was how fast he could go. It was moving space, not moving through space, so in theory there was no upper limit. Hell, it wasn’t far from an Alcubierre drive, so if he was really good he could exceed the speed of light, though he very much doubted that would be true in practice.
He changed from his suit into more motorcycle-appropriate attire, happy that the helmet obscured his identity, and tucked the glamour focus plate into the inside pocket of his leather jacket. The whole getup made him feel a little bit ridiculous and very much like he was experiencing a midlife crisis, but it worked. Besides, if he did take a spill he really did not want to tear off a few layers of skin, even if he could theoretically get Gayle to heal him up again.
After driving sufficiently far away from the motorhome, Callum pulled off the road into a field and pushed mana into the glamour focus. Attaching the resulting bubble of obfuscation to himself, he molded it so it fit just him and the motorcycle, then tried his gravitykinesis idea, giving extra negative gravity to just the motorcycle body. Inevitably, he overshot the first time, the bike jerking upward and making him drop the magic as he clutched his groin.
The next time he was far more careful, the bike wobbling a bit as it rose into the air with him aboard, rising until he turned the reverse gravity back down. It was pretty obviously unstable, and if he wanted to make a habit of it he’d need something he could dangle from, but at least for testing it seemed to work. It also drained him a lot more rapidly than he liked, but that might not matter, depending on how fast he could go. Plus, he could store some vis in the brass he’d gotten, just in case.
With the gravity doing its job and letting him float, he tried dragging the space forward and things got very weird. There was no sense of movement, but things blurred. The slightest twitch of his manual control sent the landscape careening about, which just made things even worse and he found himself pressed into the ground in short order. Fortunately, because he wasn’t actually moving, it wasn’t like he actually crashed, more like he just lay down in an awkward position.
Scrambling to his feet, he looked around and had no idea where he was. He powered on his phone long enough to get coordinates and found that in about thirty seconds of so-called flight he’d managed about one hundred miles. Which was damn good, but it was not at all sustainable or controllable. He was one hundred miles east northeast, when he had intended to go due north.
The good part was that moving space meant that the residue given off by the glamour didn’t leave a two-hundred-mile long track smeared behind him. It stayed contained in the area around him, since technically he’d never left it. Callum righted his bike and tried again, this time being far, far, far more careful about how he applied his vectors.
It became obvious what had happened when he tried barely moving himself the next time. He wasn’t moving, space was, so when he tried to move space relative to himself, the frames of reference added up. His moving self moved himself more, and his velocity relative to the real world compounded at absurd speeds. For better or worse, that also meant that if he dropped the space drag everything stopped instantly, so there didn’t seem to be any middle ground between insane acceleration and nothing.
Kind of terrifying when one potential option was accelerating into space.
Still, if he kept things low he could just take short jaunts of a few seconds even if he did move very, very fast. Which fit the vis cost anyway. Going that fast absolutely decimated his energy stores, so it wasn’t like he could actually reach infinite speed before he ran out of juice, but it was a very uncomfortable method of transportation regardless.
Callum compromised by dragging himself for five or six seconds at a time before stopping to reorient himself and sometimes teleport himself down to the ground. It definitely wasn’t fun, but it was far faster than driving. The only trouble was that it was very easy to get lost, considering the lack of landmarks and the fact that he wasn’t following the roads. Still and all, he turned five hours of travel into one, which absolutely wasn’t worth complaining about.
The next address on his list was in the middle of a decent-sized town, a motel like the one in Winut. There was no handy café across the way, though, and while he could probably find the hideouts of the local shifters if he looked, that wasn’t his aim. The dossier said that the mage protecting the location had fire and water talents, and it did not escape his notice that the motel lawn sprinklers had absolutely soaked the surrounding grounds.
Like the earth mage, the water-fire mage had some form of shield up, which made him wonder why the air mage hadn’t. Possibly the air mage had been less competent, or maybe the only reason those mages were shielding themselves was because of what happened in Winut. It was hardly a secret in the supernatural community.
Either way, he needed the ability to take out the mage and then the vampires that were sleeping in the motel beds. Vamps sleeping on beds like normal people amused him, for some reason, but it did make it harder to see what his targets were, since there were some ordinary humans mixed in. Still, he managed to square his count with the number on his list, as well as sketch out the layout and take a few other notes, before driving onward.
The last place on the list actually did have a mage, in contradiction to the information he’d been given. It made him glad he’d taken the time to survey of his own accord, because being unprepared for an active defense would be bad. From what he could see it was another earth mage, which made him wonder exactly how rare something like spatial was. He’d only seen elemental and healing, not gravity or metal or time or light or shadow or whatever else was out there.
The primer had mentioned a number of those, but only in the vaguest terms. Lacking any kind of census data meant that there was nothing to tell him if rare meant one in fifty, or one in fifty million. It was just another thing to take a note on, sigh, and move on with what he needed to do. Like shopping.
He had a few ideas on how to approach the issues he’d seen, but dealing with the shielded mages was going to be the hardest part. From Arcane Defenses he’d gathered that he’d need damn good magic to punch through a shield that way, but since he didn’t have any offensive spatial spells that was fine. The sticking point was that the appropriate elements and their opposites tended to be fairly ineffective.
If he wanted to kill an earth mage, he couldn’t throw a rock at them, even one going very fast. Even a bullet might not quite work, as earth was related to metal. That said, he didn’t really want to use guns for these if he couldn’t get the portal right up close like last time, since he didn’t trust himself not to miss and he’d only have one shot.
According to the timeline Chester had provided, he had three days before things became really critical, which was rushing a bit, but with enough work he could get things done. The major issue was transporting his materials to the towns and caching them somewhere, since he wanted to move as quickly as he could on the day of.
A few visits to a number of hardware stores, scrapyards, and lumber yards netted him everything he needed. That, and some browsing of the internet to make sure he had his facts and figures right. Then it was just heads-down, manual labor for the most part. There was some testing involved, just to make sure he had everything right, but eventually he had it all ready.