“So what do you think?” Agent Ray Danforth asked the federal agents that Felicia had managed to secure for the investigation. They weren’t exactly in the know, but at the same time the loan of their services was somewhat legitimate. There were so many convolutions to the federal bureaucracy that a little bit of fae ensorcellment made it easy to get some off-the-books talent. So long as everyone got paid, nobody even thought to raise a fuss.
“The pattern is very concerning,” said Dave. He was also an agent, but for the moment they forewent the honorifics.
“Yeah?” Ray asked, leaning forward. “I thought it was a bit of a relief that he hadn’t been killing people.”
“It means that he’s finding out what the minimum necessary force is,” Dave explained. “The first one, he killed everyone. The next set, just the targets. When he didn’t kill anyone, that meant that there was nobody he considered a target at the site. So he didn’t start out as an experienced operator and is still learning.”
“If he wasn’t experienced, how did he manage to do everything he did?” Ray asked skeptically. None of what he saw was the work of a novice.
“He didn’t have wetwork training,” Dave clarified. “There are all kinds of expertise that can translate to real havoc, if someone is determined enough. What this means is that he’s getting more dangerous. If he were escalating, that’d actually be easier, because then he’d very quickly try something that was too much for him.”
“That is a worry,” Ray conceded, but for his own part, he was just glad Wells wasn’t running around slaughtering people in job lots. He wasn’t sure how much more dangerous the man could be than that. “But it mostly seems he’s reacting to threats against him or people close to him.”
“Well, you’re trying to find him, aren’t you?” Dave pointed out. “If I were you I’d worry about agents going missing or something if they get too near. Did you hear of anyone who had an unfortunate accident lately? Allergic reactions, maybe? If he’s learning finesse as he goes, you may be overlooking the more recent victims.”
“I don’t believe so,” Ray said. Admittedly, the disappearance of the fae was a big question mark. The assumption was that they were dead, but there was no telling what had happened. Jissarrell’s spell hadn’t revealed the destinations of the portals, only that they had existed. “But I will check.”
“Aside from that, there’s not much to go on for where he might be now. If he’s in the system for facial recognition he’ll pop up in an airport and a few other places, assuming he’s not using some kind of disguise.” Dave shrugged. “We’ll keep crunching data to see if we can find Wells, but there’s a lot of places in the US where you can stay out of sight.”
“Very well.” Ray suppressed a frown. He had hoped that they’d be more helpful, considering how difficult it’d been to track the man through magical means, but perhaps that was asking too much. “What about the other matter?”
“Ah, now that one, that one has meat.” Dave switched folders. “We’ve pulled all the logs and records and copied all your servers, and we’re starting the deep dive now. We’ll see who had access when, and if anyone could have been getting it some other way. Plus, there’s the money.”
“Which money?” Ray asked, suddenly interested.
“I’m not sure yet, but there’s always money. We’ve started digging into the financials for everyone that works there. Any discrepancy, any suspicious spending, any of that, and we’ll find something interesting. Wells and his group have to be paying off someone at GAR. Even if it’s ideological, something weird will show up with the money.”
“I hope you’re right.” Ray shook his head. That was a lot of tedious effort that his department was not cut out for. For this alone, it was worth bringing in the mundane experts.
“It never fails,” Dave said with assurance. “Follow the money.”
Callum was having great fun filling in his portal cache. Having access to a huge inventory at will was incredibly, obscenely powerful, for everything from offense and defense to just everyday chores. He never had to worry about forgetting his keys, could easily stash away groceries without toting them to the truck, and could even store the pickup instead of needing a parking space. Admittedly, the last was needless, since none of the places he ever went were particularly crowded, but it would surely be useful sometime in the future.
Of course, he didn’t magically get a nice, neat, organized inventory. He just had a big chunk of space in a cave. He had to make a special trip to find a place with a lot of free-standing racks and shelving that he could inspect and figure out how to use. Mostly he wanted a bunch of big flat surfaces and neatly sorted drawers, because there was nothing more multifunctional than a flat space.
In keeping with that, he spent a lot of time evening out a chunk of the floor. He was sure that someone, somewhere would have been horrified by him ruining a natural cave, but it wasn’t one with beautiful stalactites and the like. It was just a hole. A few wheelbarrows full of gravel filled in a lot of cracks and corrugations, and then a few more wheelbarrows of cement he mixed up himself did a lot to create a nice foundation to start from.
The portal anchor went on a stand he’d found at a used furniture place, right in the middle of the pad, and he arranged the rest of the stuff relative to that. A set of cones to demarcate where vehicles would go, a bunch of tables where he put the weapons, as well as packs of trail food and jerky. Under that, a few packs of bottled water.
He got some racks and big bins for holding water grenade supplies, extra clothing, currency, materials for disguises, and all that. Food and big barrels of water, especially, since there was no telling when he’d need them. The cache was still a little scanty, but eventually he’d fill it out. At some point he’d have to get electricity in so he he’d have more options, but that’d require either another portal generator or somehow running cables.
Outside the concrete pad, he put a bunch of boulders. There were plenty of nice big rocks like that wherever glacial moraines could be found, which was all over the northern US. By his estimation, the car-sized boulders were on the order of thirty tons, while the smaller ones ranged from two or three to ten or fifteen tons. He hadn’t been considering it at the time, but it was no wonder his boulder weapon had simply smashed the wood fae.
The cave didn’t have room for too many big rocks, and besides, they were probably worthless against earth mages, but they were still the best large-scale projectiles he had. He took one of the tree trunks from the forest-clearing that was still going on around the house site for alternative ammunition, but it just wasn’t as good. He’d have to find out whether metal would be better, and possibly visit a scrapyard, but boulders were free. A full ton of metal was expensive, even if it was scrap.
Since he’d armed himself with such projectiles, he figured he’d better practice while he had the time. There was no point in a weapon he couldn’t use properly. He’d not really used his gravitykinesis as an offensive weapon, since it required some amount of preparation, but now that he’d done that preparation he had no reason to put it off.
He ended up spending the better part of a day hucking rocks.
Even though he’d invented the gravity alteration trick a while back – which wasn’t actually gravity as such, but altering the spatial tensor or some jargon like that – he hadn’t really tried many tricks with it. It was basically a static flexing of the space field inside of a box, and he’d left it at that. Now that he was being more proactive with it, he had to set aside time to experiment.
Countering gravity took effort; making gravity go in an entirely different direction took twice the effort. It was really a matter of how much he was distorting space, relative to what it was supposed to be by physics. He could get a rough idea of the effects just by using the gravity field on a weight placed on a bathroom scale, and it was pretty easy to see that the ratio of effort to effect was roughly linear. Twice as much vis, twice as much gravity.
While he didn’t have access to whatever equipment mages used to measure such things, he’d say that gravity manipulation was actually the most vis-intensive of his tricks, aside from spatial expansion. Teleportation was the easiest, and portals fell somewhere in between. They all scaled with volume, though for portals that was the volume of the torus that formed the perimeter, since the hole was perfectly two-dimensional.
The recirculation bits he’d stolen from the Dragonlands portal actually helped quite a lot. Even if he wasn’t using them too efficiently, incorporating them into his frameworks meant that he could handle larger things than before. Maybe double the volume, which didn’t translate to much in terms of linear dimensions, but it was not a small increase.
The final result was that the size and speed of things he could huck was a weird sort of optimization puzzle. The easiest thing was to make a column of altered gravity and let the rock accelerate along it with a force of ten or fifteen times standard, but he couldn’t make those columns overly long without bumping into the upper limit of the total vis output he could handle. Increasing the gravity force meant he got more bang for his buck for each bit of acceleration, but meant he could accelerate for less time.
It might have been nice if he could use the gravity directly, but all the acceleration came from the distortion imposed by his vis frameworks. For mages or even supernaturals, that’d just slide right off. In fact, the mage bubbles might disrupt the entire thing, he wasn’t sure. Either way, throwing things was a far better use of his time.
In fact, he didn’t ever want to try and engage a mage with actual magical combat. They were better, they had more training, and they seemed to have more vis capacity. He was basically playing a game of rocket tag every time he encountered them, because he had no real way to defend himself. If he didn’t kill or at least neutralize his target right off, he was pretty well screwed.
Given the nature of his testing, he found a disused quarry far away from any kind of population and brought along some earplugs. They helped, but didn’t protect him from the bone-jarring shock of the impacts as he smashed boulders against the quarry walls and let them splash into the dark water that had pooled there. It was quite a kick to throw multi-ton boulders around like he was an actual mage and not some cut-rate amateur, even if it was exhausting. He ended up opening the portal in his implant just to get some extra mana flow and replenish his vis reserves.
It was in a way tempting to leave the portal open all the time, so he’d have extra mana flow for himself, but it left a definite residue behind which necessitated cleaning up after himself. Besides which, surely someone would notice a high-mana source wandering around if it was left open for significant lengths of time. He didn’t think that short periods really impacted much, especially since it was inside him.
Callum thought it unlikely there were any significant side effects from having that mana flow in him simply because people lived in the portal worlds, and those had far more mana than he was getting through the portal. They breathed in air and drank water completely saturated in the stuff. It still was a little niggle at the back of his brain that dumping a lot of mana right into his guts might not be the best idea, though, so he kept it conservative.
At the end of the day he was completely wrung out but thought he had a pretty good grasp of how to properly throw a rock. He was even able to incorporate flinging the gravitykinesis matrix itself around to give things a bit of an extra oomph. Beyond the range at which he could use portal delivery, he wouldn’t have any real accuracy, but it was better than being forced to close the range.
The practice had also sparked some more ideas for how to use his portal connections effectively. The gut portal had not only been amazing in terms of logistics, it showed he could freely connect two different areas with portal anchors. Rocks weren’t the only thing he could fling, and while portals were fragile, they did let through things like air and light. Even water, if there wasn’t too much flow, since he still had the issue that any real movement of matter through the magic threads disrupted them.
Somewhat regretfully, he set aside most of his remaining stock of mordite for making a few extra portal enchantments. It was more than a little alarming how fast he’d burned through it, though fortunately it seemed that it would last a lot longer than the paste. So far he’d seen no signs of degradation from his old homebond implant, at least not before he re-melted the mordite so he could use it in something else.
With the gut portal fully functional he reshuffled his destinations. The portal went to his bunker, the homebond stayed in northern Montana, but the teleport pad got moved to transition between Montana and his trailer house in Texas. Soon enough he’d be ditching the trailer house and free up the telepad, though when it came to construction, soon was generally measured in months.
Once he had portioned out the mordite for each project he decided he did have enough for one more to sell to Chester. Considering how expensive the bunker project was, having the extra money would be a bit of a relief. He absolutely hated how much he was spending getting all his infrastructure up and running, when for most of his life he’d been fairly frugal, but soon he’d be able to return to normal. Normal-ish.
“Hey, big man!” Lucy answered the phone on the third ring, as Callum sat in his pickup with the heater going. “What’s shaking?”
“Hey, Lucy,” he said. “Thought I should check in, since I kinda got wrapped up in stuff the past couple days. Everything still quiet over there?”
“What, at work? Hell, no. There’s a million new policies and procedures and enforcements, the scheduling is all out of whack, and all the bosses are mad at everyone and everything. On the up side, we all got a few days off while they were figuring out whatever they were doing on their end. Paid vacation!”
“Glad I never had to deal with that stuff,” Callum said, with feeling. His stint in a cubicle farm had been all of a few months before he’d gotten fed up and quit. In hindsight he’d been fairly lucky to build up the contacts he did so his consulting business worked, but at the time he had just been thinking about how he couldn’t stand the environment.
“Eh, it’s not so bad. I have my own little dungeon full of toys.”
“Ha! Not that kind of dungeon, sadly. Just a basement full of servers and such.”
“Sounds pretty nice, actually,” Callum admitted. “Though I’m a little surprised you actually go into GAR for that. I would have thought you could be remote at this point.”
“Ha! Computers are new enough to GAR, something like remote work is asking a bit much. Besides, you can imagine what they think of anything like that slipping out from under their thumb.”
“That is a point,” Callum admitted. Admittedly, most of what he knew about GAR was really second or third-hand, but monolithic entities weren’t very friendly to independent agency. “I suppose extra vacation is the best you can expect out of the mess.”
“Yeah, but gotta be honest, it’s not like I do that much at work. Except when someone breaks something.” Lucy laughed. “I’m not sure I actually know what to do with all this free time!”
“Go out somewhere? See a movie?”
“Ugh, man, there’s nobody here to go with but the shifters and they have just the worst taste in movies.” For some reason that made him laugh, but at the same time he was a little curious.
“You don’t have any mage friends? Mundane friends?”
“Not really. I mean, I’m a dud. Neither fish nor fowl. Mages are all stuck a hundred years in the past and don’t care about me anyway, and I’m not really cut out for trying to hide all this stuff from mundanes. Technically I’m supposed to get some kinda release form or whatever to actually go out past the shifter territory, not that anyone actually cares.”
“Well, that’s a shame. Though I guess that explains some stuff.” The glamours explained part of why the whole supernatural thing was a secret that kept, but only part of it. If they policed the people who actually went out into public to some extent, at least gave them an orientation, that would help. The magical cleanup squad would probably do the rest.
“Yeah, so, that’s me. Kind of a homebody.”
“You should probably get that release,” he told her. “If you’re going to be retiring and all. Since one of the reasons I called was to tell you that I can make another telepad for our mutual friend.”
“Oh! Oh, man, yeah, he’s gonna be happy about that. Kept asking me about it.”
“Well, you can tell him yes.”
“Great, yeah! Let me call him up right now actually.” Callum waited a moment, and the line clicked as Lucy did her telecoms magic.
“It’s me,” Callum said. “I hear you’re in the market for a second device.”
“I certainly am,” Chester said, with a grimness that didn’t seem to fit a purely commercial transaction.
“Same as last time, or did you want it larger? Or smaller?”
“Larger,” Chester replied. “Five feet or so, if you can.”
“Sure, that’s not a problem. I won’t be able to supply any more for a while, though.”
“Understandable. The additional one will be sufficient for our purposes.”
“I can have it to you in a few days,” Callum said, wondering vaguely at what purposes Chester had in mind, but not asking. It was better if he didn’t know, considering the use the last one was put to. Not that he disapproved at all, but Callum didn’t want to get entangled in Chester’s supernatural struggles.
“Excellent. Same pay as before?”
“Works for me.” Considering that Chester seemed to really want it, he probably could have pushed for more, but it didn’t seem worthwhile. Chester was really the only person who would buy the stuff, and something close to a million dollars was more than enough for his purposes.
“The same drop-off locations work for me, but I assume you want payment in a different city?”
“Then I shall be looking forward to the package delivery.”
“Good doing business with you,” Callum said, feeling oddly aware of how much it sounded like they were dealing in drugs or something equally degenerate. Not that black-market teleports were any less illegal under GAR. Chester hung up with a click, and Lucy got back on the line.
“All right, big man, you keep me updated.”
“Will do, Lucy. Thanks for playing go-between for me.”
“Anytime, big man!”
Gayle Hargrave absolutely loathed her teachers. It was in part what she was learning, because she didn’t really have any interest in the destructive uses of healing magic, but it was also because they were all Fane’s old apprentices and complete jerks. They condescended to her because she wasn’t Chinese and wasn’t House Fane.
The Chinese Houses had been absolutely sullen ever since the dragonblooded had requested their portal be moved into Europe, some two hundred years back. With no portals in China, especially not ones that could be lived in, they’d been less important than the European families and couldn’t stand it. They especially couldn’t stand House Hargrave because it was an actual American House, and it showed.
What really rankled, though, was that she wasn’t really able to be part of House Hargrave. Grampa’s influence had kept them from forcing her into no-House blacks, but at the same time, it was clear that BSE claimed her. Frankly she didn’t care about the spooks and didn’t feel any pride in whatever business they had. It was her family that mattered, and unless things changed she was stuck on the other side of a procedural wall from them.
She wasn’t even allowed to go back and visit when she wanted. Garrison Two was somewhere in the Deep Wilds, and the only way off-site was a set of teleporters that were guarded and controlled. Not that she’d try to sneak out. After what had happened with Professor Brown, Gayle was not about to try and circle around the rules again.
Gayle gathered her vis into the dissonant framework that she’d been shown, watching dispassionately as her bolt of what the apprentices called Gu slammed into the monstrous, six-limbed tiger-thing prowling around the outskirts of the BSE facility. It wasn’t even a challenge; the beast just dropped as her magic instantly necrotized its brain. She understood the importance of keeping the infrastructure clear of the ravenous beasts that prowled the Deep Wilds, but it felt like she was pointlessly wasting time.
“Not good enough. Do it again.” Fane Xan, who was supposed to be her tutor, didn’t say what she’d done wrong, or how she could improve. BSE had mandated that she be trained, but they hadn’t made sure she was being trained well. Gayle glowered at the man and turned away from the crenelations.
“Where are you going?” Xan demanded, and Gayle scowled back at him over her shoulder.
“You do not speak to a daughter of House Hargrave in that manner,” she said coldly. “If you do not intend to teach me properly, you will be silent.” Her mother had made sure she knew when to invoke the House and when not to, and this was certainly a time when she should rest on her House’s dignity. If Grampa hadn’t kept them from inducting her into no-house like BSE normally did, she wouldn’t even have that.
Considering the man had the black uniform, despite his name, he certainly didn’t have the standing to order her around like that. Even then, she might have listened, if he actually did anything helpful. Instruction was not the same as making someone repeat the same thing over and over.
Archmage Fane might have been more helpful, but she hadn’t talked with him. Or seen him. She wouldn’t, either, until and unless she learned the dialect that he spoke. Which she probably could, if she put her mind to it, but there hadn’t been much incentive. Instead, she was waiting for the political struggle to end and she could go back to House Hargrave.
Gayle was pretty sure the only reason BSE was so insistent on keeping her was because Professor Brown was still at large. Or rather, Callum Wells, who bore the juvenile nickname of the Ghost. She still didn’t know what to think of that, since she couldn’t imagine the elderly man going out on a massacre. The thing she wanted to know was why he’d sent her on the path of destructive healing.
She refused to call it by Fane’s name in her own mind.
If it weren’t for the fact that he was wanted by everyone, she would have thought he was one of Fane’s agents, meant to force her into the archmage’s care with forbidden knowledge. In fact, she still wasn’t completely convinced that wasn’t the case. She’d done a little bit of snooping on her own and the fact that he was there at one of Fane’s stupid attacks on a dragonblooded was very suspicious.
Inter-House warfare was subdued under GAR, but by no means was it gone. Callum’s strange aptitude test could well be the result of one of Fane’s experiments. She’d only heard rumors, but Fane had not hidden the fact that he thought he could change and improve magical talent by proper application of healing vis.
Gayle walked down the stone steps into the inner courtyard. The BSE facility had a thick stone outer wall, with a dome composed of interlaced metal and glass above it to keep out the flying monsters. Despite the medieval look, the interior buildings were properly insulated, furnished, heated, and cooled. The entire thing sprawled over two or three square miles of real estate, a crowded grouping of buildings that reminded her more of the campus she’d learned magic at than a top secret facility.
She stopped to let several shifters in war-form past, the party carrying in a somewhat smaller beast than the one she’d just dropped. It looked like some twisted offspring of a boar and a bird, though it did make for a very good barbeque. It wasn’t exactly haute cuisine, but it had a certain rustic charm. Supplies did come in through the teleports, but the facility was at least partly self-sufficient.
Technically speaking, she outranked the shifters here, who were mostly support staff. At the same time, this was their portal world and they were due some deference. Besides, they were more powerful here than on Earth, more in tune with the dangers and the ebb and flow of magic. She could just see the local mana; they could actually interpret it like the weather.
“Shouldn’t you be training?” Gayle jumped as Grand Magus Taisen appeared from nowhere. The head of the BSE possessed a vanishingly rare triple aspect, though for some reason he’d never advanced to Archmage. Gravity, Light, and Force meant that Taisen could appear practically anywhere at speeds that nobody would believe, and was an utter monster in a fight. Unlike Fane’s lackeys, she actually respected Taisen.
Taisen’s abilities were not in doubt, and he’d built the Society for Portal Defense from the ground up before GAR folded it into the BSE. He was polite and respectful, even though he outranked practically everybody. Plus, he'd been her mother’s rival back when they were still in the academy, and that said a lot.
“Just having me shoot the same thing and then yelling at me is not training,” Gayle said bluntly. Then she relented a bit; he was still her superior. “Grand Magus,” she added. “I know that only Fane’s apprentices can teach me how to properly use negative healing, but I don’t believe they are actually trying. House Fane and House Hargrave do not get along.”
“There is a reason I insisted that the members of the Bureau of Secret Enforcement swear their allegiance to no House,” Taisen said. There wasn’t any particular bite to his tone, but she understood what he was saying anyway.
“I understand, Grand Magus, but this is not what I chose.”
“Yes, indeed. That is certainly not common.” Taisen didn’t actually apologize or offer to change things. She understood why, but it was still hard not to resent him. Just like she resented House Fane, and Professor Brown, and all the other people who had gotten her stuck here.
“I’ve seen your transcript,” Taisen said instead. “I suspect you’ll have no trouble understanding the scope of what negative healing can do if you acquire more mundane medical literature. There is far more to the body’s capabilities than most healing mages realize.”
“That’s what got me into this mess.” Gayle gave Taisen a sideways look. He looked older, distinguished, with a hard face and greying hair, but moved like he was built from coiled springs. The rumors were that he fought in mundane wars, using their weapons, just to see what it was like, and he certainly spent more time killing things in the portal worlds than running BSE. “But even if that’s true, where would I get such things?”
“You’ll find some in your quarters tomorrow,” Taisen said neutrally. “I’m sure you’ll find that the knowledge contained therein can be used in many ways, and not just in combat.”
“Thank you, Grand Magus,” Gayle said, not missing the hint he’d tossed her way. While she didn’t really have any interest in learning more harmful healing, studying on her own was one way to discharge her obligations, and if Taisen thought she might find healing applications he was probably right. So it wouldn’t be a complete slog.
“It is my responsibility to make sure all my people have what they need,” Taisen returned. “Be it material or information.”
“Speaking of information,” Gayle ventured. “Is there any news on Pro- I mean, Mister Wells?”
“Of late? He removed two mundanes from GAR custody and somehow convinced a Fae King to shield their identities.” Taisen responded promptly. “He remains as elusive as ever, but eventually he’ll slip up. Or someone will.”
“I hope so,” Gayle said glumly. “I just want to know why.”