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Shangri-La Spell (Old School Book 8) by Jenny Schwartz (1)

Chapter 1

 

“Holy toads!” Olga Fisher stalled the old jeep she was driving down a rough road in the backwoods of Maine. The ex-army vehicle was over sixty years old and she’d restored it herself. Every part had enchantments sunk deeply into them. She’d just crossed the boundary onto Darius Selbourne’s land and the ward around it should have kept her out. Sure, she was an ally of his and he was expecting her, but he wasn’t expecting her jeep which was basically a mobile fortress of defensive and offensive magic. Darius’s ward certainly shouldn’t have greeted her with caresses and eager welcome.

“I do not need this.” Rather than try to restart the jeep, she sat and concentrated on the magic weaving around her. Magic wasn’t sentient—or so wizards and witches claimed—but Olga was a sorcerer and she knew a few secrets about intense concentrations of magic that made her very, very cautious about the magic caressing her.

This magic emanated from Darius. He’d only become a sorcerer a couple of months ago. Before then, he’d been a wizard; powerful, trained and experienced in combat, but not flooded with magic.

“Roses, roses, roses.” Olga had learned the hard way to be circumspect with her choice of swearword when magic was this active. Roses were far preferable than inadvertently summoning rats, for instance.

When no roses appeared, she relaxed a fraction. The situation she was driving into was tricky, but not yet out of control; unlike a certain person’s magic and emotions—and wouldn’t Darius be thrilled with that particular revelation? The former army captain possessed incredible reserves of discipline and strength. Learning that his magic was revealing his innermost desires…yeah, that wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have.

“Roses. Pink, stinky roses,” she swore. “Can nothing ever be simple?” she appealed to the heavens.

All she wanted was an ally. A single-minded, self-reliant, trustworthy and powerful ally.

“Stop kissing me.” She swatted at his uncontrolled magic. It bit at her skin with little explosions of bliss. “Noo-oo.”

Her plan had been simple. She’d been willing to overlook that Darius provoked her on a personal level, which she hated. Professional challenges were fine. She believed that they helped a person grow. But in her private life, she preferred to avoid complications. Nonetheless, to gain a partner of his power, resolve, and connections, she’d been willing to bury her feelings. However, if his magic was this untamed, she couldn’t risk including him in the investigation, which would leave her to tackle Svenson alone. There were few people she’d dare expose to Gerald Svenson’s influence.

She sighed loudly, protesting her fate. This was karma in action. If you refused the universe’s first offering, its second attack walloped you. Two months ago she’d known Darius was new to sorcery, but when he’d pushed her away, she’d let him; even though she knew he’d need help to adjust.

Now, she had to help him. If he could take what she taught him and control his magic, then their nascent joint investigation could proceed. Otherwise…she winced. She could cut him out of her investigation, but he’d still go ahead and try to take down Svenson. For Darius, the problem of Svenson was personal.

Somehow, she had to teach Darius sorcery fast—and unless she handled the situation tactfully, he’d resist her training. That he hadn’t controlled the influx of his magic in the last two months showed that he was unaware of its danger. His experience as a combat wizard could almost be a handicap in these circumstances. It made him overconfident of his magical abilities.

Being a sorcerer is different to being a wizard. She’d have to hammer that truth home, first.

There was no way their upcoming meeting could be anything but awkward and too personal.

She ran her hands lightly down her arms and thighs, gathering threads of magic. “Thank you for your welcome.” She flung the threads into the air, and they dissipated into the natural wild magic of the woods, their purpose—her welcome—having been achieved and acknowledged.

The trees around her wore their fall colors: deep gold, burnt orange, red and pale yellow; plus the evergreen of the pines. The air was cool, and she had the soft top up on the jeep, but hadn’t triggered a heat spell. Her thick green sweater, jeans and heavy boots kept her warm enough. She restarted the jeep.

The road wound through the trees, climbing slightly before dipping again. She rounded a bend and there was Darius’s cabin, set on a rise a prudent distance from the lake where it was safe from flooding. The steeply angled roof was designed to shed snow and the wide front porch that faced the lake also served to protect the front door and windows. The log walls and shingled roof had weathered to a harmonious gray that blended with the forest.

A lone rocking chair occupied the porch, and it was empty.

There were no other vehicles in sight, but smoke drifted from the chimney. She parked to the side of the barn. Its double doors were closed, but tire tracks in front of it indicated its use as a garage. She got out, stretched and headed for the cabin. Show no weakness. Except, if she was to engage Darius in the very private aspect of developing as a sorcerer, then she’d have to. “Roses. Stinky roses.”

The back door opened.

“You found the place,” Darius said in lieu of a greeting.

“Yup.” She was a tall woman, but he was taller and solidly muscled. She caught the edge of the door and held it, waiting for him to move aside.

He gave a slight shrug, and did so. His gray henley shirt was half untucked from his jeans and his black hair mussed, but he was shaved and his boots were on, even inside the house. With his boots on and loose jeans covering his legs, no one could have guessed that his right leg below the knee was a prosthetic. It certainly wasn’t obvious in the easy way he moved.

The back porch had been closed in and served as a mud room and storage area. Jackets hung on hooks by the kitchen door.

“Is Gregory here yet?” Olga asked.

Gregory was her boss and the director of the Boston office of 13OPS, which was the government bureau of supernatural happenings. It was responsible for magical investigations. Just because she hadn’t seen Gregory or his car didn’t mean she should assume he wasn’t around.

“No.” Darius opened the kitchen door. This time he kept hold of it, forcing her to walk past him and into the cabin.

The layout was basic. She entered the kitchen which stretched out to her right. It had a sink facing the enclosed back porch, while the stove stood against a stone chimney on the opposite wall. The side wall contained a window that held glimpses of the lake. A large oak table and chairs took up most of the space. To her left was the bathroom, its door ajar.

“Keep going forward, into the living room,” Darius said.

The living room was on the other side of the chimney with a fire crackling in the hearth. A single bedroom opened off it to the left. She glimpsed a large bed covered in a dark blue quilt before she looked away.

“Before Gregory gets here…” She sat on a tartan red sofa that faced the fireplace with its back to the gorgeous lake view. The cabin was tidy, but lived in. A compendium of magical herb lore sat on the coffee table with the television remote on top of it. “We need to talk about some of the differences between being a wizard and being a sorcerer.”

Darius picked up a log and threw it on the fire, which didn’t need the additional fuel. Sparks flew up the chimney.

“I don’t want to have this conversation any more than you do,” she snapped. “But your magic greeted me as I crossed your ward.”

He frowned at her. His brown irises were so dark they appeared almost black. “You’re speaking metaphorically. I left no welcome for you. I simply let you in.”

The confirmation that he had no idea that his magic had escaped his control made her shoulders sag momentarily. She’d had a faint, impossible hope that they wouldn’t have to have this discussion. “You haven’t spoken to another sorcerer yet, have you?”

“No.” He didn’t add that sorcerers were rare or that he had trust issues. Both statements would have been true, but were also redundant. He knew that she knew those facts. Their circles of friends and influence intersected.

“I don’t like you,” she said bluntly. “You are cocky and, I suspect, obsessive. But I am attracted to you, physically. Perhaps also magically. It could be that power lures power. You’re attracted to me.”

The confusion in his expression vanished into a flat mask of rejection. His head jerked back.

She smiled wryly. “Whether you want to admit it or not. You mightn’t like me, but the attraction is there. Your magic gave that away. When I said that it greeted me, I meant that literally. Strands of magic broke from your ward to welcome me. They…caressed me.”

His black eyebrows twisted as he struggled between disbelief and horror.

With anyone else, she’d have shown some sympathy, but with Darius, admitting her physical attraction to him had already exceeded her tolerance for being vulnerable. She continued with her lesson and warning. “There is something I should have ensured you knew about being a sorcerer. We command so much more magic than a wizard that if we don’t shape and use it frequently, it coalesces into a force that tries to fulfil our desires. I enchant objects as a hobby. People believe I do it because I like to help others.”

She paused to emphasize what was coming. “Enchanted objects are always a welcome gift, which is a nice bonus, but the crucial element is that the act of enchanting an object bleeds off my magic sufficiently that I remain in control of it. Magic that seeks to serve independently of its sorcerer is dangerous.”

“And impossible,” he countered. “Magic isn’t sentient.”

“Nor is your body when it’s sleepwalking, but the condition of somnambulism is still real and the results can be deadly.”

He leaned an elbow on the fireplace mantel. “You’re serious.”

“Oh yeah. Being greeted by your magic wanting me near you makes me exceedingly serious.”

He swore under his breath and averted his face.

She gazed into the fire, giving him a few minutes of privacy. No one liked to discover that their feelings had been exposed, especially feelings that they wanted to deny.

“So what do I need to do to control my magic?” he asked finally.

This was part of why she wanted him as an ally in investigating Gerald Svenson. Darius addressed problems. He didn’t waste time wailing about them.

“A sorcerer’s magic needs to be used. Pick a magical project, one that you can pursue daily, and commit to it.”

He sat down in a recliner that could swivel to face either the fireplace or the lake. He swiveled it to face her where she sat on the sofa. “Why did you choose to enchant objects?”

“The sorcerer who trained me at Minervalle suggested it. Some people can feed their magic into the earth to grow things or into the weather or even into crowd control in dangerous neighborhoods.”

His eyebrows rose at the last example.

He didn’t ask what Minervalle was. He already knew about that aspect of her history, although not the personal details. Her innate sorcery had revealed itself when she was ten. By the age of eleven she was a student at Minervalle School, an elite boarding school in Britain. It had been founded in the aftermath of the First World War to educate mundane and magical girls to form an Old School network to match the Old Boys’ Network that had so spectacularly failed to protect the world.

Minervalle graduates hadn’t been able to prevent wars and disasters, and they weren’t so hubristic as to think they could, but they had helped millions of people directly and indirectly through a century of dedicated work. Minervalle encouraged its girls to pursue their dreams and passions, but to stay linked to the network. Everyone contributed something.

For Olga, the Old School was her family. She’d met Darius through it when a Minervalle graduate, her friend Donna Keats, had called for help.

Donna was now engaged to Darius’s former magical combat army unit member, Forrest “Rest” Castillo. Donna and Rest were a cute couple. Their trust in one another was absolute.

Rest was a courier, one of only three people in the world capable of opening portals and navigating the path between them. Rest could move anyone to anywhere on Earth in seconds. After a complicated situation, one that had resulted in Darius acquiring his magical boost to sorcerer level, Donna and Rest had formed a new business with Darius’s old army unit. They were now an independent combat courier company.

Although Darius was taking time away from the company to pursue a private vendetta.

“Private vendetta” is a harsh call, Olga acknowledged. She might judge him on his obsession, but she was here at his cabin because she intended to use it for her own purposes—if he could control his sorcery. “I can show you some basic enchantments. Containment boxes are always valuable.”

He ignored her offer; surprising her, instead, with a different question. “How much do you know of what happened in the Kyzylkum Desert? Of how I gained my extra magic?”

The red desert of Central Asia held a number of archaeological ruins. The Silk Road, which was really a plural, Roads, had crossed it. Cities had risen and fallen on the tides of conquest and changes in trade and water flow. When a river dried up, cities died.

“Donna didn’t tell me your story.” Olga absently traced the seam at the edge of the sofa’s arm. “All I know is that you and your team returned from a lost temple in the desert with a boost in your personal magic and a paradise fruit that you surrendered to the care of the Old School network. I gave it to Professor Ancona to remove the taint of death magic from it. He’s still working on that.”

Darius rubbed his chest. “The paradise fruit was protected by a temple guardian. I took on the guardian’s rune.” He pulled his shirt up over his head, leaving his muscled chest and chiseled abdominals bare.

Her gaze was riveted not to his muscles, but to the brand on his chest. It was a stylized image of a snarling lion. As she stared, it moved. A paw flexed. Her gaze snapped up to his face.

“I can summon it forth,” he said.

“Do so.”

A lion formed of shadows leapt from his chest and sat knee-high in front of him. It stared at Olga.

She leaned forward on the sofa, staring back. Her forearms rested on her knees. “I’ve heard of such constructs, but never of one bound to a person. Does it obey you?” If it didn’t, they were in huge trouble.

The shadow lion rose and prowled to her.

She held her position. They ended up nose to nose; physical body to insubstantial, metaphorical smoke.

Darius answered her question. “The lion emerges when I summon it and returns to its rune form when called. Beyond that, I don’t know what to ask of it.”

“It’s a stunning bit of work. If you’re directly threatened, I imagine it would protect you.”

“Is it doing anything to you?”

She ceased her fascinated study of the shadow construct to stare at its possessor. “Not that I’m aware of. What might it do?”

“In the temple ruins, it absorbed magic from any who entered the temple, and especially those who attempted to fight there.”

She considered the lion as she checked her magical shields and core. Everything was as it should be. “Your guardian is merely watching me.”

“Is its magic ‘caressing’ you?”

“Ah.” She might have blushed faintly, but she’d have denied it if challenged. The fireplace was radiating heat, that was all. “No. A construct is different to a sorcerer’s magic coalescing into a form that takes independent action.” She added a quick explanation. “Animate magic is the term used for undirected but self-organizing magic. A construct is created with purpose and parameters. It might appear to act independently, but it is performing at its possessor’s command. You have a very fine construct.” She envied him.

The shadow lion leaned against her legs. Rather than true weight, it gave off a sensation of warmth and the heavy languidness of lying in sunshine.

Olga smiled at it. “I cannot touch you, Brave One, but a little magic…” She traced a thread of magic against the lion’s incorporeal nose.

The false sense of weight increased.

“You have charmed my guardian,” Darius said.

“Befriended. It senses that I won’t hurt you.”

The silence after her statement caused her to look up, away from the shadow lion.

Darius regarded oddly.

“I don’t go around randomly hurting people,” she said, offended.

He shook his shoulders, physically dismissing a thought or mood. “No. No, of course you don’t.” He changed the subject. “Director Ofori is late.”

She had to take a second to shift her mind from sorcery to schedules. “Gregory’s cover story is that he’s spending the weekend antiquing with his wife. Something may have held him up. Traffic, a chatty bed and breakfast owner, an old bookstore.” Gregory was a bibliophile. If he found a Mark Twain first edition, they could lose him for hours.

“Huh.” He tapped the rune on his chest and the shadow lion flowed back into it. He tugged his shirt back on. “Do you want a coffee?”

“Yes, please.” The coffee was an excuse. What he wanted was space from her. Preparing the coffee gave them a reason to be in separate rooms.

While he made the coffee, she admired the view of the lake. The tranquil water reflected the blue of the sky. It was a pretty jewel framed by the woods.

Her mind drifted to analyzing the guardian construct.

The shadow lion had been an intricate piece of work. If she’d been less wary of Darius and the potential for trouble there on a personal level, she’d have asked to study it. Other constructs required magic drawn from their creators to sustain them, but the shadow lion drew magic from the world around it. When she’d concentrated, she’d sensed that suction, subtle though it was, but it hadn’t been directed at her. Unconsciously, she stared at the recliner where Darius had sat. The guardian that served him had chosen not to lessen her. It would have been interesting to make a study of how it reacted to other magic users.

“Milk or sugar?” Darius shouted from the kitchen.

“Neither. Just coffee.”

“How about Director Ofari? He’s here. He just crossed the ward.”

“One sugar.”

There was the sound of vigorous teaspoon stirring before Darius carried in three mugs. He put them down on a side table before passing Olga hers. His own mug had milk in it. He left it beside Gregory’s and walked to the door, stepping onto the front porch as a car approached slowly.

Gregory was giving the rough road due caution. He parked near the porch. A minute later, he greeted Darius.

Olga didn’t stand at his entrance. She wouldn’t have in the office, either.

Gregory demanded professionalism and discipline in the field, not empty formalities when they were out of public view. “Morning, Olga.” He sat beside her on the sofa, picking up his coffee after his host had crossed the room and sat in the recliner. He nodded at Darius. “Good coffee. Thanks. Helen and I flew up, but then had some problems with the rental car company.” He swallowed more coffee before putting the mug down. “Have you started discussions?”

“About Gerald Svenson? No,” Olga said. By which she told her boss that she and Darius had been talking about things that mattered, but weren’t Gregory’s concern.

The twinkle in his eyes indicated he understood, and that her firm statement of boundaries amused him. Gregory Ofari was a big man in his late forties, comfortably married again after several years as a widower. His two children were at college and he was enjoying his life. He was a respected director at 13OPS and a skilled and experienced wizard. “So let’s talk about Svenson. Darius, Olga said you brought her information along with an invitation that she work with you in investigating Svenson’s activities.”

Darius sat with the relaxed stillness of a hunter. He didn’t fiddle with a pen or phone, sort through papers or cradle his coffee mug. He was at ease with himself and his purpose, and he answered Gregory by starting the story further back in time. “Two months ago I learned that the final mission for the magical combat unit I’d led in the military was sabotaged by General Olafur at the behest of Paul Webb, a known fixer in the supernatural community. If you wanted a job done, legal or illegal, for a fee he would put you in contact with a person capable of doing it. For a bigger fee, he’d arrange the job himself, leaving your hands technically clean.”

He looked at his own hands, large, calloused, and scarred. “One of my men died in the ambush General Olafur set up in the Congo. Lt. Wayne Liu lost his life because Paul Webb arranged for Rest Castillo, the courier of the team, to be kidnapped. The kidnap attempt failed. It took us two years to discover the truth of it, and Paul Webb was silenced—killed—before he could spill his secrets. I don’t have direct proof that Gerald Svenson was Webb’s client, but the circumstantial evidence is sufficient for me to scrutinize Svenson’s activities.”

Since Olga had been doing the same, she was curious what he’d come up with. In his obsession with vengeance, he’d devoted himself to the investigation full time. She’d had other cases.

Their gazes locked.

Darius spoke in the level tone of someone giving a report, all emotion removed. “Gerald Svenson has spent decades building a network of power. For over twenty years he’s been one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists, while keeping a low personal profile. He is wealthy, but not startlingly so. He operates by convincing others in his network to fund his projects. He is adept at manipulating people.” He broke eye contact with Olga to meet Gregory’s assessing gaze. “Which is why we’re meeting here at my cabin with no one aware of your and Olga’s visit.”

Gregory inclined his head in grave agreement. “I believe Svenson has people who keep him informed of 13OPS activities. A lobbyist succeeds by identifying and riding streams of power. Magic is power, and 13OPS collects and collates information on supernatural happenings whether of purposeful action or natural occurrence. We, and particularly our database, is a resource he wouldn’t ignore. This meeting is off the record.”

Anticipation warred with uncertainty in Olga’s chest. After Darius had contacted her with the news that he had information on Svenson, but needed assistance, she had discussed the case with Gregory. Previously, she’d kept the Boston 13OPS office director in the loop as to her personal interest in Svenson and the case she hoped to build against him. Lobbyists were a part of government these days, but their influence was less easy to track than that of elected officials or civil servants. They operated in a murky area.

Gerald Svenson would have been one among many, and of little interest to 13OPS, if it wasn’t for his activities intersecting with, and endangering, Minervalle graduates. Cases involving the Old School network had brought his name up a few too many times for Olga’s instincts for trouble to ignore it—and then, there’d been the revelation that Svenson might be the instigator of the attack on Darius’s combat courier team.

The accusation was credible. With only three couriers in the world, and the other two definitively aligned and protected, capturing and controlling Rest would have been a major score. Sabotaging his combat team had been a ruthless stratagem, and one that might be Svenson’s downfall, if the accusation could be proven. Either way, the possibility that Svenson had key personnel in the military dancing to his tune meant 13OPS couldn’t ignore the hedge wizard.

A hedge wizard like Svenson possessed a mere touch of magic, enough to hold a small illusion for a few seconds or perhaps to light a candle. As such, hedge wizards seldom interested 13OPS. But what 13OPS procedure overlooked was that hedge wizardry could provide a gateway into the supernatural world. Svenson’s magical talent might be small, but it had been the means of revealing to him the existence of a world of power that he’d learned to tap through influence and through (Olga suspected) outright blackmail and threats.

So firmly did she fear that Svenson’s tentacles were embedded in the power structure of the nation—its government, finance and military—that tackling him could be not just a career-ending move, but a life-ending one. Olga wanted to eliminate him, or at least remove the taint of his influence. However, she’d been a 13OPS agent for a decade. She knew that ruthless, powerful people could retaliate in unexpected, fatal ways if they felt threatened. They didn’t care who they hurt in their rush to protect themselves. That’s why she had to keep the Minervalle Old School network out of this.

She looked at Darius. The former army captain and new sorcerer could defend himself. Whatever they got involved in, she wouldn’t have to babysit the man. Which was why she wanted him as an ally.

That had been her thinking. But she couldn’t risk partnering with him in the field if he couldn’t control his magic. Animate magic heedlessly seeking revenge against Svenson could bring disaster.

He returned her gaze with matching cool judgement, which was reassuring. He’d led combat missions. He’d accept the need to acquire and demonstrate his control over his sorcerous powers before they actively engaged in their mission.

This covert operation had a far greater chance of success if they could work together.

She rubbed her knee, where the shadow lion had leant against her. “Over the last year there has been an upsurge in the number of cryptids—fantastical creatures—hunted, trapped and sold on. Some Old School members have encountered the creatures and/or their hunters, and after some interesting adventures, organized successful raiding parties that have freed cryptids from cages and compounds.” She glanced at Gregory, and didn’t add that there had been some casualties among the hunters whom her friends had taken down. “Svenson’s name came up a few times as one of the major buyers of the most magical cryptids. Breaking the cryptid hunting ring would have upset his plans.”

Darius sighed. His impersonal expression broke enough to show weariness, of the soul rather than body. “Maybe not as much as you’d expect.” He stood and poked the fire. He paced. “I haven’t had much contact with cryptids. My understanding is that some, like phoenixes and yetis, are as intelligent as any human. Rest,” he glanced at Gregory, and added an explanation, “the courier from my team, transported some of the cryptid rescuers. I went along for two of the raids.”

Olga hadn’t known that.

“The suffering of the cryptids was as intense as a human wrongfully imprisoned, separated from their family and fearing death. Since Svenson was willing to trade in such suffering, it seemed logical to me that he wouldn’t limit himself to cryptids. If he was—is—building a collection of living magical sources, then why wouldn’t he also trade in humans?”

Olga nodded, keeping her own emotions locked down tight. She’d had the same thought. Unfortunately, she’d also had immediately dangerous cases to resolve first, including a wizard turned werewolf who’d been attacking hikers in the Rockies. But the logical extension of Svenson’s evil was painfully obvious.

The sofa creaked as Gregory shifted unhappily. Imperturbable in the face of almost everything, he hated slavery and loathed slavers. “13OPS has had to break up human trafficking rings before. The desire to own a magical slave fuels the illegal trade. We tear down one network and a new one springs up within a couple of years. It was only last December…I hadn’t thought another—”

“I have a location,” Darius dragged a hand through his hair. “Rest could portal the team in. We could bring some of our own contacts. Wipe out the camp, if it’s there. Free the prisoners.”

“But you haven’t…” she prompted.

He sat his butt on the windowsill. “I don’t like going in blind.” His hands tightened on the edge of the sill. The tight, gray henley shirt revealed the flex of his chest and shoulder muscles. “And it’s about balancing mission and individual action. I want to bring down everyone in the slave trading ring, not just those at the camp…and Svenson. If this leads to him, I don’t want him getting free of it because I acted prematurely. Reconnaissance. Investigation. That’s why I need your help, Olga.”

One point in his phrasing troubled her. He’d said “bring down”. She was a law enforcement agent. She wanted to “bring in” those responsible. She believed in the justice system, not vigilante justice. But that distinction, the difference in actions and consequences, was a discussion she’d have with Darius alone. He could be a game-changing ally, and he’d asked for her. She didn’t want Gregory deciding against her involvement in the case because of fear Darius might go rogue.

Sometimes the definition of rogue depended on where you stood.

She took a deep breath. She believed in the system she served, but if Svenson had subverted it, then she needed to work with someone outside the system to restore justice. So she was making the decision not to inform her boss of Darius’s animate magic problem.

“Where did you get the location?” Gregory asked.

Darius released his grip on the windowsill and folded his arms, leaning his back against the glass. “A couple of places. I interrogated some of the hunters we caught while raiding cryptid holding pens. The leader of the first group, and the selling agent bagged in the second, both gave the same direction. They directed me to an agent in Chicago.”

Chicago. It was a transportation hub, which made it an ideal center from which to trade slaves.

“However, the camp I’m interested in, the one I believe is linked to Svenson, isn’t in Chicago. Gabe tracked the agent’s online activities.” Hacked, he meant. And “Gabe” was undoubtedly Gabe Shelby, a mundane member of Darius’s combat courier team. “He found where the more powerful magic talents were being sent. The agent didn’t hide his visit as well as he thought he did. When Gabe got the location, he stopped poking. We didn’t want to trigger any techmage tripwires or defenses. The victims are hostages as well as slaves.” The last statement indicated that he understood how complicated the situation was.

Olga dug her fingers into her palms. Human trafficking, the vile things people could do to one another, was a hot button issue with her. Her life could have been so different. If Minervalle School hadn’t found her…

Gregory had to approve her investigation, now; not just to get Svenson, but to save the victims of the human traffickers.

“You’ve certainly dangled the right information to get us interested,” Gregory said to Darius.

Their host gave him a sardonic look. “You didn’t drive up this way on a whim. We’re here to clarify what each of us wants, what we can expect from one another, and how we go forward.” A hint of a growl deepened his voice. “I haven’t had the best experiences with 13OPS.”

“I am aware,” Gregory said calmly.

The two encounters Olga had found recorded in the 13OPS database left her both sympathetic to Darius, and wary of him. The first had occurred while he was still in the army.

13OPS worked with the military more often than people might have suspected. The military, after all, trained combat wizards like Darius. True, 13OPS usually recruited from their ranks after they’d left the service, but the ties began earlier than that. The military and 13OPS had an unofficial mutual assistance agreement.

In the debacle in Omaha, the mission to counter a curse had unraveled fast. The briefing provided by the 13OPS agent leading the case had been fundamentally flawed. Rather than facing an ill luck curse, the 13OPS and military wizards walked into the miasma of a plague curse. While trying to hold it at bay via their personal shields, the wizards fought to find the curse’s caster. The briefing had said it was a wizard. The truth emerged that it was the wizard’s witch daughter and her unregistered coven.

The collection of teenagers had created a coven that was an insult to witches. It was polluted by the unstable emotions and energy that they fed into it. The swiftest and most complete means of ending a curse was to end its caster, or in this case, casters. The 13OPS agent on the ground had made the gut-wrenchingly tough call to kill the coven members. Seven teenage girls. A plague curse was a Grade-A danger.

Captain Darius Selbourne had refused the order. He’d enlisted to defend his country. He had not joined the army to attack and kill fellow Americans.

13OPS agents signed up knowing that their enemies would be fellow citizens, and that said citizens would at times try to maim and kill them, and that they as agents would, in turn, sometimes have to do the same. The use of lethal magical force was rare, but it happened. Olga judged that a post-mission analysis would have accepted the senior agent’s order to kill the coven. Given the threat to the people under his command, and to the wider community, if the 13OPS and military taskforce fell, lethal force was justified.

Still, Olga wouldn’t have made that call. It was a lazy decision. Much like the briefing the lead agent had provided.

In refusing to obey the kill order, Darius and the three other military combat wizards had taken the harder path the senior agent had refused to risk. The military wizards, led by Darius, tore apart the spell the coven had woven to cast the curse, while all the time holding their personal shields against both the coven and the five 13OPS agents. The lead agent had been incoherent with rage by the time the mission ended with the dissolution of the plague curse.

Although, to say the mission ended was to overlook the prolonged clean up not just of the curse’s effects and survivors, but the coven members’ rehabilitation as witches. A rigorous investigation into the bungled mission and Darius’s refusal of the kill order revealed that three of the coven members, including the wizard’s daughter, had suffered sexual abuse. The other four girls had equally traumatizing personal histories.

Darius had been officially reprimanded, but reading between the lines of the report, his actions were respected.

The 13OPS agent who’d issued the kill order retired.

Darius’s second clash with 13OPS had been a debacle for everyone involved. He’d just quit the army following intensive debriefing of the last hellish mission in which his combat courier team had lost their lieutenant. And Darius had lost his right leg. He was in a dangerous state, volatile emotions mixing with the medications in his system. He’d taken a six pack of beer to a park in Arlington, stretched out on the lawn, and commenced drinking. At some point, he began floating beer bubble creatures into the air. They’d been party balloon-sized constructs, like giant soap bubbles.

Despite the rule against revealing magic to the general population, everything might still have resolved itself at that point. Either Darius finished his beer and stumbled off, or he fell asleep, or an ordinary cop found him and moved him on to sleep off the alcohol and his mood somewhere safer than the park. Darius would probably have heeded the cop’s order, one reasonable adult to another.

Unfortunately, the slight burst of magic involved in the creation of the beer bubbles attracted the attention of two newly minted 13OPS agents. They could have minded their own business and continued on with their duties. Instead, they tracked the beer bubbles to their creator and ordered Darius to “cease and desist”.

He zapped them in the ass with magic. Later, in a cell at 13OPS headquarters he’d slur that he’d made his beer bubble creatures—dragons, lions and seagulls—bite the agents’ “fat asses”.

The agents had retaliated, but even drunk, Darius’s experience as a combat wizard exceeded the agents’ magic training. So the agents upped the stakes and called in a general containment dome to trap him.

He destroyed it, and pushed the two newbie agents into the river to cool off.

At that point, more senior agents arrived and arrested him.

In the aftermath of the incident, Darius retreated to his cabin in Maine and shut out the world. The two agents were retrieved from the river and sent to Alaska, it being the nearest option to Siberian exile that their raging director could achieve. Attacking a wounded combat wizard and escalating the situation to a Category 3 Revelation Threat were permanent black marks on their records.

Darius’s conclusion would naturally be that 13OPS didn’t play well with others.

Yet his magic had welcomed her onto his land, into his home.

“I’m willing to work with Olga,” he said. “Our resources and approach are complementary. She works within the system, and I work outside it. I’ve seen for myself her loyalty. Together, we can dismantle the slave trading ring and take down Svenson.”

“If he’s involved,” Gregory interjected.

“He is,” Darius responded with conviction.

Gregory sighed. “So Olga believes. She’s convinced me that Svenson’s approach to the exploitation of magic to advance his personal agenda—whatever that is—threatens the security of our country. We also agree that we can’t do anything on the record, at the moment.”

“The risk of Svenson learning of our investigation is too great,” Olga said. “We need incontestable proof.”

Darius unfolded his arms and gripped the windowsill again, either side of his thighs. “So, 13OPS is contributing Olga, and nothing else?”

“I’ll ask for help as and when we need it, and pick people I trust,” she said. “At the point where we can push forward and arrest Svenson, Gregory’s and my involvement from the start will expedite the process.”

“Arrest him,” Darius mused.

She frowned. “I do not support vigilante justice.”

He nodded. “Gregory, how will you cover Olga’s absence?”

Her boss sighed, conceding that the investigation would proceed. “Sealed orders. This will be an undercover operation with an agent-in-danger rating that prioritizes non-disclosure. Olga and I have agreed that I will be her handler.”

Darius’s black eyebrows flew up. “You’re that scared of Svenson’s information incursion into 13OPS?”

Gregory stood. He moved heavily, stiff after being seated for so long in the plane, driving, and now, on the sofa. He rolled his shoulders. “This mission is off the books. You have three weeks to bring me evidence of Svenson’s involvement in the slave trade. Earlier would be better. Either way, after three weeks, we’re taking out the ring.”

“The people with magical talents are being sent to a camp in Minnesota, south of Lake Superior, on land owned by a corporate trust. Interesting point—the land abuts a hunting lodge owned by Svenson.”

Gregory grunted.

Olga’s fingers curled. She flexed them, releasing the tension of recognizing where Darius meant. Svenson’s hunting lodge was a luxurious private retreat where he wined and dined the wealthier members of his network. The lodge was just remote enough for shenanigans to be unmonitored, especially if his contacts in the military blocked satellite surveillance of his land, and perhaps of the slave camp next door.

Darius crossed to a bookcase, picked up a crossword puzzles book, and tore out a back page. He scribbled on it. “This is the location.” He handed the paper to Gregory, who shoved it in a pocket.

“Two weeks, not three,” Darius said. “If we can’t get the link from the slave trade to Svenson before then, that’s on Olga and me. I don’t want those people trapped longer than necessary. But as you unravel the network, start with the Chicago agent. Svenson might believe that his connection won’t be noticed, which will give us extra time.”

Gregory nodded. He scowled at Olga. The aggressive expression failed to hide his concern. “Be safe.”

“I will be.” She smiled tensely at him. They had agreed a protocol for contact. She wanted this case, had pursued a surreptitious investigation into Svenson, and lobbied for the opportunity to make it her full time focus. But there was no denying the danger. Svenson was a powerful and unpredictable target, and her ally, Darius Selbourne, was the same.

Gregory departed.

Darius closed the cabin door and asked, anticlimactically. “Ham or cheese sandwiches?”

Apparently, they were going to discuss their joint mission over lunch. “Cheese.” She followed him into the kitchen.

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