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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

Today is a cliffhanger, and at the end of the month.  I didn't plan this, I swear.

Callum was somewhat regretful that he’d only meet with Gayle one more time. There just wasn’t any reasonable way or reason to stay in touch after she went off to the draft and did her own thing. Not that he had any designs on the girl, but it was nice to have some connection to normalcy in what was turning out to be an unreasonably stressful and isolated life.

He’d chosen to flout GAR with his eyes open, so he had no regrets about that. After seeing how they treated normal people, even going so far as to call them mundanes as if they were some lesser species, he was even more sure he’d made the right choice. Which didn’t mean it was the easy choice.

After chewing on it for a while, he decided to do something he really should have done ages ago. In retrospect, he’d been stupid to just chat with a young mage without knowing who he was interacting with, but he could only learn from his mistakes. Or, correct them, which he did with a call.

“What’s up, big man?” Lucy said, sounding chipper as ever.

“Hey Lucy,” he replied, stretching out in a recliner he’d installed in the motorhome. “How’s it going with GAR?”

“Oh man, they’re still annoyed they can’t find the vampire ghost, which is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard a lot. It’s hilarious how incompetent it makes them look especially when three faerie kings have actually stated outright that you aren’t one of theirs. It’s great entertainment.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear they haven’t caught on,” he admitted. It was nice to know that he hadn’t left anything particularly incriminating behind, though that was far and away much easier to do when he didn’t have to be at the actual site. Teleportation meant that he broke up all the patterns and trails needed to track people.

“There’s a lot of vamps hunkered down in various places in case you decide to visit, from what I hear,” Lucy told him. “But since nothing’s happened for a couple weeks it’s kind of dying down.”

“Well, that’s fine with me. Never really wanted attention to begin with.” He shook his head, glad that he’d apparently gotten away clean. “Anyway, got a question for you.”

"So soon? I can't even tell if you're down on one knee!"

Callum barked a laugh. He wasn’t exactly certain why Lucy was so flirtatious, but she had the trick of surprising him. It was nice.

“Just because I’ve given you gold doesn’t mean I’m ready to move on to diamonds,” he told her, and got a chuckle. “Seriously though, what can you tell me about House Hargrave?”

“Don’t tell me you’re involved with them?”

“I’ve met one,” he admitted. “Just a kid, honestly. Gayle Hargrave. Helped her out a bit but I’m pretty sure I won’t see her again, so I was a little curious who she really was.”

“Huh. Just a kid, you say.” There was the sound of typing from the other end of the line. “Looks like Gayle is twenty-two, hardly a child.”

“There’s twenty-two, and then there’s twenty-two, you know?” Callum told her, and she laughed.

“Yeah, sure. College kids are the same all over. What did you want to know?”

“The general score, I guess.”

“Hmm, well, I can send you a report but the long and short is that House Hargrave is one of the big old ones. Hargraves invented half of the offensive spellforms anyone uses, so they’re pretty martially inclined.”

“Gayle is a healer,” Callum noted.

“Yeah, and that’s weird. Looks like some blending of bloodlines. Houses are pretty obsessive about tracking that kind of thing, so I’m surprised you actually met her. Normally a new talent like that is under lock and key, buuuuut I guess with a family of action maybe not.”

“She was hanging out with the Larsons?” He wasn’t sure if that was relevant, but if Gayle was some powerful scion perhaps the elderly couple who ran that bookstore were more than they appeared. “I don’t know if that means anything to you.”

“Oof. Yeah they’re a couple of old warhorses. Don’t piss them off! If they’re around no wonder House Hargrave let her wander off on her own.”

“I have no intention to, that’s certain. I guess I should have figured that any mage that actually looks old is liable to be dangerous.”

“Maybe? The pictures I have don’t look very old.” Callum winced at Lucy’s reply. Apparently he’d seen past a glamour without realizing it again. It was a good thing he’d never mentioned anything about it. Someday he was going to get in major trouble from that, and he made himself a note to try to use his phone’s camera more often and hopefully sidestep some of the issues.

“Anyhow, I guess I could use the information on House Hargrave, but I doubt I’ll be interacting with them again. I was mostly curious about who it was I was helping out.”

“Probably someone you shouldn’t deal with, big man. There’s all kinds of powerful politics with the big Houses and you sure don’t need Archmages after you as well as the vamps.”

“Message received.” It meant that it was really for the best that he’d be cutting ties soon. Even positive attention could be dangerous, though he didn’t think that Gayle would suspect him of anything in particular. He just had to gracefully decline any invitation to meet anyone else.

Yet again he considered not showing up for the next meeting, but he also yet again decided against it. With only one meeting, probably one that was just going to be Gayle celebrating her new status. Or asking for help with something, but either way that would have to be the last meeting.

“So what I’m sending you is pretty much their own press statement stuff,” Lucy told him. “I’d have to dig a bit to find anything juicy.”

“I don’t need anything juicy,” Callum assured her.

“Aww, I was hoping to earn more of that gold.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a job for you soon enough.”

“Don’t keep me waiting, big man.”

“I know better than to keep a lady waiting.”

“Shame I’m not a lady, then.”

“Never been anything less with me,” Callum said with a grin. “Actually, now that I think about it, I probably am going to need to ditch this identity soon. I’d appreciate some steering on the best place to get a new one, and maybe some regions of the US where there’s very little supernatural presence.”

Running around in a motorhome absolutely muddied his trail, but it was also quite tiresome. Winut had been practically perfect for him save for the shifter and vampire politics, so if he could find something like that once again it would be nice. Through Lucy and Harry he could probably get more information on magic and try to build up a coherent understanding of modern magical theory. Something he realized he desperately needed after his discussion with Gayle.

“Boo. You could just ask me for a new one!”

“I could, but the logistics for that…” Callum shrugged, despite Lucy being on the phone and unable to see him. “I think that’d just put both of us at risk.”

“You make me very curious about who you think is after you, big man.”

“Aside from GAR?” He asked dryly.

“Oh sure, but they don’t know you are you, you know?”

“I know.” Callum shook his head. “Speaking of, and I hate to ask this because I know these types are trouble⁠—”

“Trouble like you?”

“Not like me, I hope,” he told her. “But do you have contact information for other people who might be operating outside of GAR’s laws?”

“Noooot so much,” Lucy said thoughtfully. “GAR tends to stamp on anyone that could be considered a rogue pretty hard. I know they’re out there, but usually what I see is one of the big agents reporting that they have them in custody or dead, you know? I don’t think there’s, I dunno, some kind of organized rogue syndicate or anything.”

“Not really any room for one when GAR is already kind of a criminal syndicate,” Callum muttered.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” Lucy said with amusement. “The truth is, if you want stuff outside of GAR’s laws you really need to hook up with an Archmage, a faerie king, a regional alpha, or a master vampire. They’ve all got a lot more leeway than the rank and file.”

“What about dragonblooded?” It didn’t surprise him that the rules didn’t really apply to the most powerful. They never did. He was curious why Lucy had left out the fifth type of supernatural, though.

“They’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Lucy replied promptly. “I haven’t heard of any actively breaking GAR rules but I’ve also only ever heard that you need to be careful around them.”

“Hmm. Fair enough. Well, if you run across some sort of black market information, I’d appreciate a heads-up.” Shahey was the only dragonblooded he’d ever seen, let alone met, and Callum couldn’t imagine him as being particularly threatening. Dangerous, yes, especially after he was attacked, but he’d just been playing an ordinary gym owner for years without a hint of trouble.

“Any specific items?” Lucy asked, not at all bothered by the illegality of the request. “It’s probably easier to get something through backchannels than try and pull it out of GAR’s confiscated stock.”

“Weird,” he said, but didn’t argue. She was the one who worked at GAR, be it ever so rank and file. “I’m looking for information on foci and enchanting, as well as any literature on the rare aspects for mages. Gravity, healing, time, space, that sort of thing.” He hoped that his phrasing and burying his real interest would obscure things. That was as close to a direct request for gravity instructional books as he dared make.

“Huh, gotta say, that’s going to be a lot harder than actual stuff. The Archmages and Houses are pretty damn protective of that kind of thing.”

“I figured it was a long shot,” Callum admitted. “I suppose I’ll just keep my ear to the ground.”

“Gonna cheat on me there, big man?” Lucy teased him.

“Never,” he assured her. “I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to be involved in some of the stuff I need anyway.”

“I’ll have you know I like getting down and dirty,” she said with a laugh. “When it’s fun, anyway.”

“Oh, so you don’t care what I do when it’s boring?”

“That’s right,” she agreed cheerfully. “Just give me the highlights.”

“I actually don’t have anything exciting going on right now,” he said. “Thank goodness.”

“A shame,” Lucy said. “It’s really fun to hear the scuttlebutt from the things you’ve done.”

“I’m sure,” he said dryly. “If I do things right, though, you won’t hear anything at all.”

“Boo! I can’t blame you, though. Some of these GAR people are scary.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen a few of them,” Callum agreed. That one fishlike fae agent still creeped him out a little bit. After a few more minutes of chatting Callum finally hung up and went to go take care of his daily practice. With Gayle as a reference he had a better idea of what to work toward, and even if he didn’t have a great regimen for training he still needed to put his nose to the grindstone.

The wonder of being able to juggle portals and teleports still hadn’t worn off, and probably never would, but dismissing and reforming the same ones over and over really did make it a chore. As did trying to hold a larger and larger spatial bubble, since the moment he overextended it hurt, rather like pulling a muscle but all over. His perception distance was great, but his ability to hold any spatial construct didn’t seem to be getting better very quickly. Something the size of a vehicle was about all he could manage for the moment.

Not that he needed anything larger, but it would have been nice to have the option.

He also set aside time to go poke around the locations of vampire nests and GAR offices he’d gotten from Lucy. It wasn’t particularly dangerous so long as he didn’t do anything, especially since he wasn’t going to actually walk inside the buildings in question. Ultimately he was going to have to do something, since he didn’t want to become a hermit, and eventually he’d run into them again.

The GAR locations varied pretty significantly in terms of their defenses and local mana, but generally the larger ones had more protection. The small offices that seemed to exist only to give GAR a teleport point basically had nothing more protecting them than a minor ward or glamour, but the ones where people actually worked had controlled entry. He thought that was pretty dumb since the teleport network being unguarded meant anyone could stroll right into GAR headquarters.

Then again, it was dependent on the tattoos. There was also clearly some manual control involved, so maybe it was better protected than it seemed. Plus, he hadn’t had a look the actual GAR offices after he’d developed his spatial sense. There might be truly obscene protections on the other side.

The vampire places, on the other hand, were defended more conventionally. That meant electronic security and men with guns staffing the halls and watching the doors. They all still had a mage in residence maintaining wards, but the defenses in question weren’t nearly as structured as the ones around the GAR buildings.

Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be nearly as many defenders as in the nests he’d removed, probably because those were pushed up right against shifters and were expected to engage in violence. Instead of twice as many thralls as vamps, there was something closer to parity and a number of those were obviously domestic servants.

Also, vampires tended to live in luxurious housing complexes. So that part of the stereotype was true, at least. He wasn’t sure if vampires were actually immortal, but there were hints they were as long-lived as mages, who could get into three or four centuries at least. While he knew it was almost impossible that any vampire would spot him or even recognize who and what he was if they did, he still wasn’t confident enough to keep a watch on the nests at night.

Plus, if he caught them killing people, he’d have to wipe them out on principle and he wasn’t ready for more attention. He wasn’t even sure he could manage it, not without a lot of preparation and buildup, but his brain went to figuring out options anyway. Callum was a little more confident since he had his escape option, but still aware he was incredibly vulnerable. He could run, but he couldn’t fight anyone who surprised him.

***

Agent Ray Danforth watched the black-uniformed squad spread out over the town of Kennecut, annoyed at not having any control over the situation but unable to do anything about it. He was not trained for a real rogue mage, let alone a rogue mage with restricted knowledge, but the Bureau of Secret Enforcement was.

Despite being with the Department of Arcane Investigation, he and Felicia rarely had anything to do with the BSE spooks. Even when clashes between different supernaturals spilled out into the mundane world, it was generally fairly easy to take care of. A few glamours, some deflecting official statement, and fines all around.

Where BSE came in was when something really serious was at stake. Something that couldn’t be covered up, or something major coming through a portal world. Mages who disseminated the really dangerous, restricted knowledge that GAR and the Archmages kept under lock and key to prevent catastrophe. Or, most relevant, rogues who may have once been part of BSE themselves, ex-colleagues who could do more damage than an entire pack of shifters or nest of vampires.

The Larsons had been quite cooperative, and even knew the man they were looking for. They’d provided a glamour representation of him for the BSE team to study before the agents went to take their places around Kennecut. The couple also talked to Archmage Hargrave, who was absolutely furious, something Ray wished them luck on. The Archmage was armored up for war, his force shielding and the winds floating him from place to place turning him into some faceless god rather than the wild-haired man he often appeared to be.

Apparently even BSE wasn’t about to tell an Archmage that he couldn’t take part. Not when the rogue mage in question had corrupted his great-great-great-granddaughter somehow. Ray didn’t quite get what exactly the problem was, since the woman in question was perfectly fine. He’d gotten a redacted transcript of the interrogation and nothing there was out of the ordinary, but grandparents could be quite protective.

“Comms check.” The voice of the BSE leader sounded over Ray’s earpiece. Not that either he or Felicia were going to be much involved with the apprehension of the renegade mage, but it was still taking place inside their assigned territory so they had to be there. Or, well, didn’t have to, but they did want to.

“Aleph Check.”

“Bet Check.”

Felicia poked him in the side, distracting him from what was actually fairly tedious setup. It was rather odd to hear the agents muttering to each other when there was an Archmage right there. Hargrave could level the entire town and everyone in it, so there didn’t seem to be much need for the BSE folks, but that was above his pay grade.

“No bet,” he told her, in response to her unasked question. They’d discussed it before coming and it seemed unlikely that their mysterious killer and a rogue mage coming from nowhere were unrelated. While the vampire massacres had no magical signature, that was the sort of thing rumors attributed to BSE agents anyway, so it wasn’t impossible.

“Coward,” she accused him in a whisper.

“I like to think I’ve learned my lesson,” he told her in reply. “Come on, let’s get up top.”

The BSE agent all had advanced foci that let them flit about as if they were masters of air vis, but even they couldn’t stay airborne forever. They’d marked out vantage points covering the approaches to the Larson’s bookshop from all angles and graciously allotted one to him and Felicia. The one that was of least concern, of course, but at least it was something.

His spell reached out to wrap them both in air and lift them up to the building roof, along with a small carry-case of supplies. Felicia, unfortunately, had to get fairly close to contribute anything useful, and that was assuming her voice could get past whatever shielding he had in place. According to Gayle he was a gravity mage, but the BSE folks seemed convinced he’d have more than a standard shield in place. Still, his primary role was to get Felicia over to the mage after BSE had put a magic-blocker on, just in case it would help.

The other thing he could do was fire a shieldbreaker. It wasn’t part of the Department of Arcane Investigation’s normal loadout, but he’d requested a set from the armory and had the request granted. Especially since he could use wind to guide the charged netting to the target, which would hopefully overload any shield construct the mage would be using.

“Taw, check,” he said into his own mic after everyone had checked in. Everyone but Archmage Hargrave, who was hardly going to bother with such things. There weren’t actually enough people to justify going all the way down the alphabet, but since they were outside of BSE’s command structure they got the end.

They didn’t actually expect to see the rogue mage for hours yet. BSE had already combed Kennecut for traces of the man and found nothing. Aside from the Larsons and the younger Hargrave, there wasn’t much in the way of vis, especially not the gravity aspect that their target supposedly had. That meant they couldn’t track the so-called Professor Brown back to wherever he was laired and had to wait.

The trick now was to make sure there was nothing to spook him, assuming he actually showed for his meeting. The younger Hargrave was already waiting with the Larsons, but if things went to any sort of plan their target wouldn’t get anywhere near the bookstore. Even with their shields clamped down tight any competent mage would notice the extra people around eventually, especially the Archmage.

They were covering all the roads into town, since according to Gayle the man came by bicycle. BSE was very interested in seeing where he came from, and actually had two of their number waiting at the travel link in case he was actually using the GAR system. If he was casually traveling through GAR without anyone noticing, a lot of people were going to be looking for new jobs.

Felicia offered him a bottle of water, and he accepted, taking a swig as he positioned his telescopic focus in front of both of them. At its narrowest it was like a normal spyglass, but he preferred the window that gave him a comfortably wide view of his target. Felicia did too, since it wasn’t like the fae could use any normal focus. They needed ones fueled by charged and stored vis or mana, which was fairly expensive. Roy himself charged the few that Felicia carried.

For a while nothing much happened. It was the same old stakeout problem; they knew when the target was supposed to be there, but he could arrive early or late and either way, they couldn’t afford to miss him. Aside from a few of the stranger fae, he didn’t know anyone who actually liked stakeouts.

Conversation was sparse, since they were both watching through the lens, and Ray was listening closely with his magic-enhanced hearing. Every car and pedestrian was suspect, and the only saving grace was that Kennecut wasn’t all that busy so they only needed to look at one or two people at a time. Even so, Felicia lost interest fairly quickly and gave only a desultory look through the focus once every few minutes. Ray didn’t really blame her for that, since this was not her specialty. If it weren’t for the chance of a link between this mage and the phantom they’d been chasing, they wouldn’t be there at all.

“Dalet here. Potential target. White male, riding a bicycle, brown suit, hat, bag. North on Kent Avenue, by Fourth Street.” The words crackled over the earpiece, and Ray took a moment to remember where those streets were located before sweeping the lens over in that direction. There were a couple buildings between them and the target, but Ray was an air mage, so that was no trouble.

It was a bit of an advanced technique, but bending air density to bounce light, mirage-like, was well within his capabilities. He set his wind mirror high up to get a better perspective at what Dalet was looking at, but didn’t see the man or the bicycle. Ray started to sweep the lens when the earpiece buzzed again.

“Lost contact.” Pause. “Regained contact, west Eleventh. He’s a space mage or has a short-range teleport focus.” Even Ray didn’t have access to short-range teleport foci, so if a random mage had one that was impressive. Or worrying. If he was a space mage though, they’d have to move quickly to keep him from getting away.

“Shieldbreaker and buzzer,” Aleph ordered. “Zayin and Yod, move to intercept.” The latter two were shifters, and when they decided to move they could really move. Ray swiveled his mirror around as he stood, wrapping both himself and Felicia in a cushion of air. He didn’t dare move until the mage was neutralized, but he wanted to get there as fast as possible afterward.

The mage had stopped and was looking around, frowning. Ray had to wonder if something had given them away, despite their precautions. He doubted that any normal mage would notice a BSE team, but perhaps the hovering Archmage Hargrave was too obvious, even if he was halfway across the city.

Before he could be properly spooked, there were a pair of flashes from Waw and Tet, the latter of whom was actually riding on an invisible floating platform high above. Unlike mundane guns, the proper mage weaponry they had made no noise when they spat their payloads. Ray squinted in anticipation of the flare of shield disruption, but no such thing came.

The mage looked startled for a brief moment as the magic-disrupting net smacked him hard enough to knock him off his bicycle. The buzzer hit him while he was still toppling, the disrupter dart punching into his shoulder rather than his chest. Ray gawked at the sight of someone without even the most basic of protections, then stopped worrying about the sight focus and the mirror and lifted himself and Felicia while Zayin and Yod moved.

Shimmering walls of force popped up as Hargrave walled off three whole blocks in an impenetrable dome. Ray slowed, but a small hole opened and allowed them through, demonstrating the sort of casual knowledge and finesse that made Archmages a genuine terror. By the time he touched down on the inside, two bulky shifters, both in war form, had the man trussed up and loaded down with magic-blocker cuffs and anklets. The buzzer seemed to have knocked him completely silly, the man clearly semiconscious, but that was what he got for having no shielding or a hardened personal sphere.

A moment after he dropped himself and Felicia to the ground, Archmage Hargrave arrived with considerably more flash and thunder. The man spat out enough stray vis that it triggered Ray’s own shields, little sparks of force bouncing off and pinging against the nearby buildings. For a moment Ray was afraid that the Archmage was going to kill their only lead before they could question him, but Aleph stepped between Hargrave and the target.

“BSE thanks you for your help,” he said, despite the fact that Hargrave hadn’t needed to do anything. “We will take it from here.”

“I want him,” Hargrave growled.

“Once BSE and the DAI have completed their investigations, we will see if he can be released to your custody,” Alfa said, unmoved by the angry Archmage. The two of them stared at each other, Alfa blank-faced and seemingly immune to Hargrave’s vis manifestations, and Hargrave visibly furious behind the force visor of his armor. Hargrave blinked first.

“Very well,” he said. “But keep me informed! I want to know everything the instant you do.”

He stepped back as Aleph turned to frisk the mage, also checking earlobes, teeth, and hands in a quick and impersonal inspection. Even if he didn’t know what Aleph was looking for, he had to admit the BSE man was credibly professional. One of the other members conjured up a slab of force as Aleph emptied the man’s pockets.

“Well, damn. I guess he is the killer.” Ray stared at the small handful of ball bearings that had been in the man’s suit. It was obvious they had vis attached to them, in what seemed to be a mana acceptor pattern, but it didn’t seem to be attached to anything. “Or at least knows who it is.”

He was still baffled by how easy it had been to subdue the man. They’d all expected a rogue BSE agent, maybe even one who could shrug off shieldbreakers. That was one of the major reasons that Hargrave had been involved. They already knew he had access to restricted knowledge, which included a lot of very nasty things and might require someone of Archmage caliber to take down. Now it seemed they had overprepared, which was just fine with Ray.

“Look at the mage mark,” Aleph said holding up the man’s right wrist.

“This just keeps getting weirder,” Ray said. The tattoo was a blank one, just the two outside bands, with no House or draft affiliation. On closer inspection, the aspect marker was gone, too, and the dot there was just ink on top of the skin. It was all very bewildering, but with the man still stunned it wasn’t any time to start an inquisition. That could wait until they got somewhere he could be properly contained.

He picked up the man’s wallet, which contained nothing but cash and a driver’s license in the name of Denver Brown. No credit cards, no old receipts, not even any loyalty or business cards that he might have picked up along the way. It was the wallet of a man who had something to hide. Or rather, of a man who didn’t really exist except as a name.

“Felicia, could you run this?” He asked her, while he studied the rest of the contents of both the pockets and the bag the so-called Denver Brown had been carrying. Most mages had all their focuses organized in a proper container, so they could use them with a minimum of fumbling, but apparently Brown only had one focus, a glamour focus attached to his keychain.

There were some brass plates that were enchanted as well, which fit in with the transcript they’d gotten. Though why he’d bother keeping such clunky versions of light or telekinesis foci after providing them to Gayle, Ray didn’t know. He just found himself more and more confused as he took in what might be considered evidence, and the man himself was just as odd.

Brown was compact, a touch too much flesh to be wiry, and sort of square. Square jaw, square face, square shoulders. The hands were soft rather than calloused, which wasn’t unusual for a mage, but they had more than a few marks and scars on them. Mages didn’t tend to accumulate scars, not like mundanes did, so that was another point toward oddity. It certainly didn’t help that he could swear that Brown’s face looked familiar.

Felicia tapped him on the shoulder. Not only had she run the man’s ID and discovered that that he owned a motorhome, which had to be nearby, but she’d searched through the GAR system to find out who he might be. As it turned out there was only one missing space mage who would have such a simplistic mark.

“Hmm.” Ray looked between the picture and the blearily blinking man that Yod was holding. The hair was different, but the jaw and the nose and the eyes were the same. “I think this is Callum Wells.”

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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