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Serena Duvall ignored her scry-com’s chime. No, she was focused on locking down the last corner of House Janry’s new estate in Faerie. Spatial stabilization was the task that consumed the most of her time — no one else had the talent or the vis reserves to do it. Everyone needed her to do it, since every mage habitation in the portal worlds needed to be adjusted back to something similar to Earth.

The native space of the portal worlds made casting difficult. And odd. Fine under some circumstances but not for daily life. More pragmatically, it interfered with her delicate teleportation enchantments — and nobody who was anybody would go without her network. Too useful. The sheer demand for them overwhelmed her apprentices, few of them that she had.

House Duvall had a ten-year backlog at this point.

The most important part of the spatial tuning was preventing the corruption of humans. Corruption into other things, like the fae and with shifters. Portal worlds were fantastic, for mana. Less fantastic, for living. Given a few generations, the portal worlds would twist mages into something else — unless she twisted it first.

It was better than the other supernaturals. Some couldn’t even enter other portal worlds without losing their talents. Or dying. Mages could cast no matter the portal world — living there was another matter.

One last shove locked the space into alignment. She pulled in her vis and sent a trickle through the scry-com — not without reservations. There had been so many interruptions of late, and she was getting tired of it. Her work was wearing enough without people whining at her. Wanting her to hold their hands and clean up after their messes ⁠— she’d gotten tired of that two hundred years ago with her own children.

“What?” She snapped, just knowing that, whoever was calling, she wasn’t getting home on time. That she’d be running short of sleep — again.

“We’ve had another sighting of Callum Wells,” the voice on the other end said. One of the BSE people.

“So you didn’t catch him, then,” she said.

“Technically, we didn’t even see him. It’s just that he freed two mundanes we were holding as witnesses, and the techniques match his operation.”

“So why are you calling me then?”

“There may be some residue of what he was doing left about. We still don’t know how he manages to slip past wards and since he’s a space mage we need an expert analysis.”

Duvall growled. She didn’t want to have to deal with these things — but no one else qualified. And she wanted Wells caught, too. If there were a bunch of spatial mages somewhere, they were a threat to her House — and a monumental waste of talent! If it was just Wells, he was clearly competent enough to be of use — if he was finally brought to heel.

“He also sabotaged the teleporter and feeder portal,” the man continued. “So we need replacements.”

“Then submit a request for them!” Duvall snapped. She was the one who approved emergency replacements, and the process existed for a reason — no chance she was going back to being hounded in person by the others. Not to mention half of GAR.

“Yes, Archmage,” he said.

“Well?” She demanded when he didn’t continue. Her patience was wearing thin. “Where is this?”

“Miami, Archmage.”

“Fine,” she said, and dropped the scry-com’s construct. Her vis pulsed outward, and she tied into House Janry’s teleport pad. Even she couldn’t transport herself directly to a target location without some kind of anchor — so she’d made sure there were anchors all over the place.

She popped into one of the GAR facilities and sent out another pulse, locating the teleportation switchboards and moving herself there. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the anchor locations — it was her network, after all. Far better than the original, now. That had just been a long hallway with plaques labeling the destinations.

Duvall ignored the operators, searching for the Tampa anchor in the wall of them at the back. Then she linked in and transferred herself. Such was impossible for most, needing to link their vis in through their tattoos. Archmages could do better, of course.

The moment she was in Tampa she teleported up and out, riding her flight focus through the night, south and east. Space stretched around her, making her journey shorter as she soared through the skies. She had been to every anchor location — and space mages always knew where they had been. One of the first things she taught.

She could see the residue of a large fae working when she neared the city. Probably from the King of Miami. It had left a mess, as usual — fae magic didn’t have the structure or control of real magic. One reason she didn’t like Faerie, even if all the other houses did.

Duvall punched through the remnant spatial distortion and landed down at the GAR office. Some shifter dregs moved to intercept her, but when they saw her Archmage emblem, they stopped — as they should. She ignored them and transported herself inside, not even needing to worry about the wards. They were down.

The most powerful mage on site besides herself was in the maintenance room, and he jumped when she appeared. Showed he wasn’t paying attention — he should have noticed her vis from active sensing. It was some BSE person, but not one of the ones she recognized.

“Well?”

“Archmage Duvall, thank you for coming. As you can see there is damage to multiple sections of the teleportation framework, and we think he delivered something with his spatial magic. There’s water residue so we’ve asked Grand Magus⁠—”

“Out!” Duvall pointed to the door. She was tired of the man’s yammering on about things she could see with her own eyes — things that didn’t matter. Besides, if they wanted her to find out something about Wells’ magic, she needed to have no others obscuring it.

There was no point in using active senses — they’d just drown out whatever residue was left. Passive sensing was the only way. Duvall redirected some of her vis from her shell into her body, then directed a trickle into her own mind, the surroundings billowing into existence in her head. She stopped at ten feet, since there was little point in going further. There was too much information, and it was a dangerous and vis-hungry thing.

Such internal reflection was limited to Archmages ⁠— and was one of the criteria to become such. For Archmages, the entirety of their vis and the metabolization was in the shell, with any vis inside their body being structured completely for reinforcement or augmentation. For any other mage, feeding vis inward would cause a loop, as the vis tried to drain into itself. Like a hole in a dam, locking their entire power into themselves. It took a powerful healing mage to interrupt the process — and not incidentally, it took total vis externalization to protect against healing. Another thing only Archmages could do ⁠— more shell than flesh.

She traced the faint echoes of vis, easily noticing the remnants of spatial vis — of course. They were faded and distorted, pulled in a direction. Her kinesis focus plucked a fragment of metal from the ground and she frowned at the tiniest hint of a lingering enchantment. Mundane metal couldn’t handle much, but she had read the reports. Something to clean up his vis.

The framework remnants were oddly fragile. She would say it was crude yet fine —accurate, but sloppy. Too much power, and barely enough. Woven gossamer instead of a properly solid framework. He was working through finesse tools, but she had no idea why. They were useful for close work, but had no range or real power — maybe to hide his normal magical signature.

Not that she needed his normal threads to see his style. Clearly not someone she had trained. She’d never stand for such terrible spellwork. Terrible, but it obviously worked well enough. Even if it was underpowered.

A teleportation framework — yes. Inside that, some dense mass that might indicate expanded space. Might. It wasn’t how she would go about it, clearly. Yet — she did recognize some of the shapes and features. With the fragments of metal strewn over the room it was clear what had been done.

It was appalling — a transgression of everything spatial magic was. The reason she restricted expanded spatial spaces to the portal worlds was their danger if they were disrupted — danger to everyone. Turning the precision and wonder of expanding space into a crude tool of disruption was absolutely unconscionable.

He definitely needed to be found — for everyone’s safety. She would certainly recognize his magic if she ran across it again, but she couldn’t even connect the teleport to the other end — too degraded. Deliberately.

“One is always mystified by the harbinger of the cycle.” The voice made her jump, because she hadn’t sensed another mage enter the room. But there he was, the spooky bastard — Huitzilin.

“Archmage Wizzy,” she said, not bothering to keep the disapproval from her voice. He insisted that everyone call him by that ridiculous nickname unless they could pronounce his real name properly. Which nobody could.

“Archmage Duvall,” he returned, in his weird accent that he refused to change.

“I didn’t know they called you to analyze the water magic,” she said.

“They did not.” Huitzilin seemed smug. “I came to see if the sparks and smoldering I heard of were beginning to catch or not.”

“Speak plainly!” She didn’t have time for his nonsense.

“The thorn in your paw,” Huitzilin said. “The Wells issue. One is merely curious about their provenance and their role.” He tilted his head slightly, and a shadow slipped through the doorway to take its place where it belonged. His shadow, which whispered to him in a sibilant language nobody else living understood.

It wasn’t something a mage should have. Something a mage should do. But that was just Huitzilin — creepy. And strange. Too close to the fae, even if he predated them. Predated everyone, if he could be believed. They found him when the first mages reached the new world, already there, already old.

“Well, he’s a damn nuisance.” Duvall brushed past him. Of them all, Huitzilin didn’t maintain a proper shell ⁠— now called a sphere of authority by young jumped-up mages far too impressed with themselves. Not that he was any less powerful or dangerous. He just didn’t come from a proper background, and it was bizarre to see someone with an Archmage pin with no vis aura.

“One suspects he is long overdue,” Huitzilin said. Duvall whirled on him.

“Are you supporting him?” She gathered the vis within her sphere. Space magic might well not be able to harm directly, but there were many indirect methods to deal with someone. Even another Archmage.

“One has never met the man. Perhaps one should, but he has not yet passed within one’s sight.” Duvall scowled, but figured he was telling the truth. Of them all, Huitzilin was the least political. Never showed up to meetings. Didn’t even have a House.

“Then go back to guarding your temple,” she said, and left. The teleport enchantments would have to be replaced entirely. The sabotage was very targeted — he’d known where to look.

Aside from the transport array and the ward nexus, there were traces of Wells’ vis in one other place — the cells. That was just a simple teleport residue, even if it was in Wells’ bizarre style. Duvall turned to the man who had been shadowing her. From a safe distance.

“Who was in here?”

“A pair of mundanes who were witnesses to the fae disappearance Wells was implicated in,” he told her.

“Did they know anything?”

“No, they didn’t even see him.”

“Then why did he take them? Why did we even have them here?”

“It’s standard procedure for the Department of Acquisitions to⁠—”

“Oh, Constance,” Duvall said scornfully. “She’s not an Archmage. Why did she have them and not us?”

“The Department of Acquisitions⁠—”

“You know what, I don’t care. Find them again, figure out why he took them. Maybe he’ll come after them again.”

***

“The fae have them,” Jahn reported. “Some kind of obscuring working. All their names are gone from our paperwork, or rather, replaced, with Prospero and Sycorax.”

“Fae,” Hargrave said in disgust. “Of course, we already knew Wells was working with the fae. Someone there, anyway. What did the King of Miami have to say?”

“Oh, he practically rubbed my nose in it. Miami is his territory, I already knew it had to be his intervention. But the mundanes were fae responsibility under the accords and so on. You know how much a stickler for rules they are when they want to be.” Jahn sighed, sorting through his notes.

“They won’t even admit they have them, not out loud, unless we can specifically name them and why they’re needed. Which of course we can’t now. And apparently there was some deal made. I sent some feelers out and a number of the other kings back him up, so, well. It’s a political thing now.”

“Mmm. At least we know he can be enticed out of whatever hidey-hole he has,” Hargrave pointed out. “We can use that. Perhaps not with those mundanes, if they are indeed that well protected, but there are others. Anyone he’s come in contact with.”

“That’s a little bit difficult. Most of the people we can confirm are either in Tanner, and under Scaletooth’s protection—”

“Damned dragonblooded.”

“Indeed. The others are in Winut, so they’re Alpha Chester’s people. That is perhaps somewhat easier to deal with, but rather more politically awkward.” Jahn set the notes aside. “But there’s an angle here. How did Wells know? Not many people got the report about their whereabouts, or that they were even detained. There’s a leak somewhere.”

“You already did an investigation,” Hargrave pointed out.

“Sure, but we know Wells’ group uses mundane stuff all the time. I’m going to get in some Feds to go over that chain of communication, figure out where the leak was,” Jahn said, giving Hargrave a level look. “Maybe we didn’t find anything with magic because there wasn’t anything to find.”

“You’re the one in charge,” Hargrave grunted. “I never really approved of all this mixing GAR does but that hardly matters at this point. Do what you have to.”

***

Somehow, the trip gave Callum a cold. Even though he had extra clothing in his stash, the temperature shock, coughing up seawater, and general stress meant that he still picked up some kind of ick. At first he had thought it was just the normal nausea of his imperfect homebond, but once it progressed into sneezing he knew it was more than that. The misery of runny noses and coughing and sneezing was at least not out of place in the weather, since Montana had snow even if it wasn’t Thanksgiving yet.

He moved the shed-stash while he was at it, even if there was no evidence that anyone could track down the destination of his homebond. It was just for peace of mind that he wasn’t using the same place twice. Fortunately, being sick didn’t seem to impair his ability to manipulate magic, so he could use gravitykinesis and teleports to get everything situated a hundred miles away, with a trail of old rusty metal scrap to suck up all the vis.

Unfortunately his knee was stiffer than ever after the chill, though that might just have been psychosomatic. He was glad he’d left a cane in his cache, though, since he couldn’t use teleporting when it came to getting taxis or rideshares or hitchhiking. If he could find a usable flight focus, that would make everything he was doing so much easier.

He couldn’t even call Lucy until he’d gotten himself back to civilization and got himself a new phone or two. Even if he was already in the habit of buying disposable low-end phones to make calls, the smartphone he used for pocket navigation and wifi access was out of commission, maybe permanently ruined, and that was irritating. Not a huge expenditure in the grand scheme of things, especially if he had a significant payday coming in from the sale of the teleport pad, but he still didn’t exactly have a stable income.

“Big man!” Lucy said when he finally rang her number. “Heard you really made some waves down there!”

“I imagine so. The Connors’ are safe?”

“Oh man. Now that’s a trip. Nobody even knows who they are. You just told me their names and it just slipped right out of my head. The fae did something and kinda made them unmemorable? I dunno, fae magic is weird.”

“So long as it works,” Callum decided. He did wonder exactly why he was immune to that kind of alteration, since he was demonstrably not immune to all fae magic. Unless he was specifically excluded, or it was a glamour on an enormously grand scale.

“They’re all stirred up beyond that, but I’ve been trying to keep a low profile, so I can’t give you details.”

“No, it’s fine,” Callum assured her. “I just don’t want to do that kind of thing again. Too many things can go wrong. I really don’t like the idea that anyone might be held hostage on my account.”

“Yeah, yeah I hear you big man,” Lucy said, after just a moment of silence. “Better to stay outta sight.”

“I’d say I was doing my best, but I’m obviously not,” Callum sighed. “After this, I absolutely intend to bunker down and stay out of things. I have so much work to do.”

“I can just imagine,” Lucy said sympathetically. “Speaking of work! Our mutual friend tested your merchandise and it works just fine, so he’s going to be paying out when you’re ready.”

“Any time is fine. Just so long as it’s in a nicely crowded location.” He was on fairly good terms with Alpha Chester, but he still wouldn’t put it past the man to have some observers out at the drop-off point. He’d tracked Callum down once before, and he might try to do so again. Not out of malice, just out of caution.

“Crowded, huh? I thought you’d want remote.”

“Kind of hard to be anonymous if I’m the only one around,” Callum said.

“Ooh, right you are, big man.” He heard the tapping of a keyboard over the phone. “I’ll make sure he knows. Probably will have a place for you in the next day or so.”

“Great,” Callum told her. That would give him time to get all the way down to where he’d left his pickup and actually have proper wheels. They might well put the dropoff somewhere near where he’d left the teleportation plates, but they might not. He didn’t much care either way, so long as he didn’t have to keep paying for a car to move him from one point to another.

“One more thing,” he told her. “Once I get that I may be out of touch for a while, doing some busywork. If you don’t hear from me for a week or so, don’t worry.”

“I’m touched that you’re thinking of little ol’ me,” Lucy teased him. “I’ll be sighing and pining at the phone until it rings.”

Callum felt himself relax a little as he chatted with Lucy, who seemed to be the only person he could actually talk with. Which he realized was probably a dangerous position to be in, but he’d go insane if he didn’t have anyone that he shared some kind of connection with. Even back in Winut when he closeted himself up, the townsfolk were friendly when he went out to get supplies. It had helped.

When he hung up he focused back on the task of going south. Fortunately, he could alternate taking taxis and teleporting between his destinations, which both broke up his trail and vastly sped up his progress. While he was in no way capable of chain-teleporting the thousand-plus miles from Montana to Texas in one go, he could cross spates of fifty or sixty miles, accounting for the lower mana in the States.

He napped in the car or truck or whatever vehicle he was in at the time. Continuous casting really took it out of him, and he felt like he was some geriatric having to sleep all the time. At some point he’d have to ask Lucy, or maybe Harry, if regular mages had such issues.

Overall it took him three days to make it down to where his pickup was parked, pay the bill, and liberate it from the lot. By that time he had a dead drop location from Lucy, on the roof A/C unit of a restaurant located in a small town outside Wichita. It made his commute a bit longer, but he couldn’t complain. Not when he was getting paid so much for it.

When he drove through the streets near the restaurant, he did indeed spot a few shifters around, though it was difficult to tell if that was incidental or they were surveillance. It was the territory of some pack, after all, so presumably they had legitimate jobs and errands in the area. At least there was nobody on the roof where the package was supposed to be, and the package itself was easy enough to find. It was just a small case placed inside the housing of the A/C unit, and so far as he could tell it didn’t have any trackers.

Callum teleported it onto the seat beside him and continued driving, heading out of town. After an hour’s driving he turned on the phone and texted Lucy that he’d picked up the package. She replied with a thumbs-up and he turned the phone off before continuing on.

It was just as well he wasn’t at home, since he had to exchange more gold for cash, and he could only do that one plate at a time. A few thousand dollars a pop. Which meant just one or at most two different places per town or city, and since he had a long way back home he might as well stop off on the way.

The first stop was Dallas, to see if the consultation review was done for his plans. If it had been for certification he’d be waiting for a long time yet, but for just a review and sanity check, a week might be reasonable. It wasn’t like anything he was doing was groundbreaking and he knew exactly where to look online to crib proper plumbing and wiring.

For once he was in luck, and their resident engineers had gone through the plans and made corrections. With, of course, the understanding that it would still have to go through the appropriate process if he wanted to actually build it. Which he did, but not in the United States.

Callum took the packet and went back home. Not that the trailer house was much of a home, but it was better than nothing. Mostly he just assured himself that everything was still functional, it hadn’t been broken into, and nobody was trying to evict him. He’d paid rent of course, but given that he’d done so more or less on the sly it was a worry the landlord would try to cheat him. All that was different, though, was a mailbox full of flyers and advertisements.

He idled around for about half a day, doing laundry and cleaning his guns, before realizing he didn’t actually have any reason to stay there. While he did want to put together more enchantment infrastructure, he also wanted to get the ball rolling on his bunker, so after making sure he was ready and resupplied, he headed south. It was time to go back across the border.

There were two good reasons. One was that if he was closer to the South American portal world, he’d have more mana to work with, and the other was that it was a lot easier to stay anonymous in a place that wasn’t the US. Not that he was abandoning the States, but it was a sad truth that he couldn’t operate as freely as he liked with GAR arrayed against him.

Especially since they seemed to have some sway over the normal government.

From the GAR literature Lucy had provided, Portal World Six wasn’t actually in South America, since it was located in the vicinity of historical San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. It was an amusing bit of sloppiness from his introductory literature, and it was good that Lucy had given him something more concrete because otherwise he’d have been planning on heading to Brazil or something.

Pragmatically, he couldn’t hitchhike or rideshare through Mexico like he could the US, for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, he had a pickup, and he could teleport, so getting across the border was exceedingly easy. It wouldn’t be rapid progress, but it was better to have the pickup anyway since his target was far away from any cities.

The Oaxaca region of Mexico had plenty of empty land, full of greenery, and most importantly: that land was for sale. Or could be bought, anyway. He really didn’t need much, just a place that was remote enough that nobody would bother him while being close enough he could actually get it built. There wasn’t even a need for power or internet access, since he’d designed the bunker to be completely off the grid and he could supplement things with magic.

If he had enough local mana to form permanent portal enchantments, there were a number of obvious ways to generate unlimited power. For internet, he could rent a business incubator office or something and feed a signal through a tiny portal. He was sure Lucy would have some good ideas there, but the point was he didn’t even have to have the access in the US.

They were all grandiose ideas, but first he had to find some property. He could probably pay directly with gold, and it would go a lot further than it would have in the US. With such thoughts on his mind, he wrapped a glamour around his truck and headed past the border, driving through portals as he headed into Mexico.

***

Lucy sipped at her rum-and-coke and brooded. She didn’t really go in for alcohol that much but it had seemed more appropriate of late. There was the mess at work, which was still ongoing, making every day tedious and depressing as every single thing everyone did was scrutinized. Then there was the mess with the big man.

She hadn’t needed to tell him about the couple that GAR was holding in Florida. He had made it clear that he would need to deal with it if it came up, so she knew exactly what would happen when she had given him the information. At the time she’d seen it as a great way to get GAR’s goat, but in hindsight, it had been an awful shitty thing to do. Sending him off to something that could have been terribly dangerous, just because she was piqued, was about the worst thing she could have done to him.

He wanted to know, yes, and wanted to take care of it, but she could have waited to tell him. At least until there was an easier way to get at them. Something, anyway. Even if he didn’t seem too worried about what had happened, the rumors she’d overheard had a lot of salacious detail. The Fae King had gone so far as to put up a barrier to prevent any supernaturals from leaving, though given the big man’s homebond that was never going to be much of a problem.

Even at the best of times, the big man talked to her only intermittently, and now he was going to be gone for a while. It made her feel that he was upset with her and didn’t want to talk her, even though she knew that was silly. But it still hurt, even if she only knew him as a voice on the phone.

Just a voice on the phone, but a friendly one. One who actually laughed at her jokes rather than taking them with a sort of amused tolerance like the shifters. Also a mage that didn’t think of her as a second-class citizen at best. She’d barely talked to her family in years, and now she was afraid she’d messed up one of the few normal relationships she had.

The fact that she’d gotten a lot of extra money, enough to make a decent retirement fund, ought to have been a salve but it really wasn’t. GAR never lacked for money and her pay was fine anyhow, so the minor fortune was less of a real benefit than it had seemed at first. If anything it made her feel more guilty, even though it was completely unconnected.

The sudden tones of the ominous music she’d selected for the big man’s call startled her enough that she spilled rum and coke all over her shirt, and she hastily put it aside to pull up her telecom program. By this point she’d made it automatic to track where he was calling from, and even put it on a map for herself. It wasn’t exactly a slick design, but it was neat to see anyway.

“Big man!” She said, forcing cheer into her voice. “Mexico, this time? Didn’t travel as far for vacation, I guess.”

“Hey, Lucy! Just a short trip, yeah,” he said. He certainly didn’t sound upset with her. “Calling a bit earlier than I figured because I realized I forgot something. Do you think you could set me up with a supernatural map around the isthmus?”

“I can do my best, big man.” She made a note about the request so she could charge it properly and started sorting through the databases she’d built up over the years. “I already know there isn’t too much out there, though.”

“Yeah, most of them seemed to be in Europe?”

“Europe, US, China, and the portal worlds,” Lucy agreed. “Where the money is and where they originated.”

“I have to say, I was a little surprised to find out there was a fae king of Miami, of all places. Didn’t really strike me as a faerie spot. I figured more trees and toadstools for that kind of thing.”

“Haha! Yeah, there’s a few that like the urban spots. Miami, Las Vegas, Paris, a few others.” She poked at the computer, waiting for her database to process. She didn’t have access to a huge server farm so it took time.

“Huh. I guess it wasn’t coincidence the couple were being held in Miami then?”

“Nah, the biggest GAR offices are where other supernaturals are anyway, usually. Or the other way around, I guess. It depends.”

“That does make sense,” the big man said thoughtfully. “I think I heard something like that before.”

“Yeah probably. It’s kinda funny, the different types of supernaturals don’t really get along that well but still like clustering up.”

“That explains GAR, I guess,” he said idly. “Hey, Lucy? I don’t remember if I said this before but thanks for telling me about those two. I’m working on exposing things less, but, they were my responsibility and you let me take care of it.”

For a moment Lucy thought that he’d read her mind, or that she’d said something, but she reminded herself that he didn’t actually have that capability. Probably. He was a bit of a mystery but even the fae couldn’t pull your thoughts from your head over the phone. Then she corrected herself; he’d probably been brooding over it the same as her, since they hadn’t talked that long about anything of consequence when he’d first gotten back.

“Hey, you’re welcome,” she said, still feeling a little guilty but not sure how to express it. Or if she even should. “I thought you would’ve wanted to know, so…” She wasn’t quite sure how to finish that thought.

“I did,” he said firmly. “I can’t do everything, but I can do some things. If you’re ever in trouble with supernatural stuff⁠—” He paused a moment. “Yeah. If you’re ever in trouble with supernatural stuff, you tell me, okay? You’re important to me, so if there’s ever any trouble I want to be there to fix it.”

“Oh,” she said, her cheeks heating a little. “Well, thank you, big man. I will.”

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