THE AGE OF MAGES

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A mage should be able to handle anything, but really, the circumstances are getting quite ridiculous.

Joshua’s witch mother has been missing and presumed dead since he was a teen. Years later, when he learns she might be alive, all he can think of is finding her. His antagonistic vampire father agrees to help, but Joshua fears he has ulterior motives. The situation gets even more complicated when they discover why she disappeared: she possessed a mysterious crystal whose powers remain a secret.

Unfortunately, Joshua and his father aren’t the only ones interested in the crystal. As their search leads them from New York to Las Vegas to Rome, they’re pursued by the Paranormal Investigation Agency, the High Council of Witches, and yet more vampires. In the process, they uncover a plot to wake the deadliest vampire who ever lived.

If Joshua can find the crystal, he might find his mother–and stop a massacring blood-seeker from rising. But that means not fighting with his father long enough to hold off adversaries both human and supernatural.

It might just be more than one mage can handle.

Chapter 1

Most conversations with my father take place through a dead woman.

There is no medium or séance, mind you, although there is the possibility she is not dead. It doesn’t matter if she is physically present or not. In fact, I don’t think my father and I have stood in the same room with her for almost twenty years. It seems like longer.

Every exchange my father and I have revolves around this woman. Even when she isn’t discussed, she’s always there. Behind our thoughts, our plans—even our barbs. We battle each other in a war of words about her. She doesn’t take sides.

It doesn’t matter if she likes the conversations or not. If she approves or disapproves. If she wishes they would continue, or dies again when they do.

Life hasn’t been the same since my mother disappeared.

***

“WHERE IS SHE?” I screamed. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HER?”

I held the vampire’s collar twisted in my fists, but he only laughed and pushed me away with such force that I hit the brick wall behind me. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be cause for distress—except the ground was nearly forty feet below us.

Hitting the wall forced the air out of my lungs, and for a moment, I was falling. It took every ounce of magic I had to stop myself. The vampire lunged for me, and I spun around just in time to send him crashing into the wall. But I couldn’t dodge him forever, delaying the inevitable. I had to get the upper hand somehow.

Pity this wasn’t a fighting arena. There, I’d have a bevy of weapons at my disposal. But in a back alley in one of the seedier neighborhoods of New York City, one must make due. This wasn’t Times Square or Fifth Avenue. There were no flashing signs and bejeweled beauties here. Oh, no. Not unless you counted the motel I’d passed at the end of the block—the one whose sign had three letters unlit, and a bored, aging prostitute beneath it.

If any other mortals were awake at this hour and heard the commotion, they wisely kept to themselves. It saddened me to think that years of gunshots and gang fights had made residents too afraid to look out their windows. But for once, I was glad of it. Let them think it was a street war; mortals are safer not knowing we exist.

High above, on the roof of one of the buildings, another vampire was watching us. He did not intervene, and from what I could see, not a flicker of emotion passed over his face. But he was staring at us intently, and at me in particular. I didn’t know if he was planning on joining the fight; I certainly hoped not. He seemed content to observe for now.

With any luck, there would be more for him to observe than a bloody slaying, and me as the victim. “Always make the first move, Joshua.” That’s what my father taught me. But in this case, it seemed to have backfired spectacularly.

When I first tracked the vampire to the alley, he insulted my mother, and I did a perfectly mortal thing: I punched him in the face. After chuckling and pushing his broken nose back into position, he attempted to hit me back—except hard enough to take my head off. I ducked just in time to prevent it, but not in time to avoid being grabbed by the neck. As I saw the fangs coming at my throat, a quick upward jerk of the knee broke a few of my opponent’s ribs. He let out a snarl, and gave me an elbow in the Adam’s apple. I clutched my neck in pain and surprise, then did the only thing I could think of to get away—fly.

Oh yes, both vampires and witches can fly, but the smarter ones use more conventional methods of transportation so as not to attract attention.

And please, don’t get me started on broomsticks. Ever.

What’s that, you say? Why, no—I haven’t used the wrong word. Witch is what I am, at least in part. After all, I’m the offspring of one natural and one learned witch—but we can get into that a bit later, if I survive. No, there is no such thing as a warlock. Witch is the term, regardless of gender. You don’t call a female governor a governess, do you? Gives the word an entirely different meaning. And wizard just brings to mind Merlin-looking fellows with long robes and tall, pointy hats. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to fighting for my life, and possibly my mother’s.

Once I confirmed my neck wasn’t broken (the blow would surely have snapped a mortal’s head off), I faced my rival as we rose in the air. That’s when I flew at him in a rage, demanding to know what had become of my mother. For years, my father and I thought her dead. When we learned she might still be alive, we wasted no time in following every possible lead. It all ended here—my last chance to discover what happened to her, and I’d be damned if I let this smug, bloodsucking prick take it from me.

The vampire was of average build, but size has nothing to do with how formidable a fighter one can be. The most harmless-looking vampires possess incredible strength. This chap’s hair was somewhat shaggy, as if he last cut it in the 1970s. Vampires can’t change their appearance after they become immortal, so this gave me some clue as to his age.

He wasn’t as strong as an ancient, but that didn’t mean he would be easy to dispatch. And I’m not exactly what they call well-built myself. If one were charitable, one could describe me as slender. If one were being honest, gangly would be a better term. Too bad I didn’t have my father’s muscular frame. That might at least convince this vampire I was worth reckoning with. Witch strength is more than a mortal’s, but less than a vampire’s. This isn’t always apparent at first, since we can often accomplish physical feats through magic. But it’s hard to think of spells in a contest where your opponent moves at the speed of light.

The vampire’s face was scratched and his clothes were torn from where he’d struck the wall, but he hardly seemed put off. In fact, he was grinning now, a gesture hideous not so much in appearance as in its sheer arrogance.

“I won’t ask you again,” I said slowly. “Where. Is. My. Mother?” A soft breeze pushed back the edges of my blazer. I tried to make my voice sound as commanding as possible while trying to think of my next move.

“Awww . . . poor little mama’s boy,” the vampire taunted. He stretched his bare arms out, as if to demonstrate how relaxed he was. Or maybe it was to show off the multiple tattoos he thought made him look so tough. “Why don’t you ask some army regiment where she is? Or maybe a crew of sailors? Though searching through alleys is probably a good start.”

I clenched my teeth as my chest rose and fell. There was no truth behind his gibes; they were just witless attempts to infuriate me. They were working.

“I told you I wouldn’t ask you again, and I’m a man of my word.” I squeezed my hands into fists.

“Oh, good—I love when a whore’s son keeps his promises.” The vampire cracked his knuckles, a sound that made my skin crawl even under the best of circumstances. Before I knew what happened, the vampire tore off part of the fire escape on the nearest wall. The metallic, scraping sound it made was like a scream. My eyes bulged, and my arms flew up to protect my face. Only the fastest of shielding spells prevented the fire escape from hitting me as it and I crashed to the ground.

As I crawled out from beneath it, the vampire was already behind me. He grabbed the back of my neck and slammed my head into the wall. I felt the plates in my skull crack, then begin knitting back together. But the shock and pain made me fall on my hands and knees. The vampire viciously kicked me in the stomach several times. Coward. I tried crawling towards a trio of overflowing garbage cans, only to be kicked again.

“Unbelievable,” the vampire laughed. It echoed in that strange, teasing way that was a hallmark of their kind. “When I realized you were a witch, I thought this would be interesting. But you’re pathetic. This isn’t much more trouble than killing a mortal.”

Actually, mage is a better term for me, though your limited intelligence likely prevents you from understanding that.

He pulled back his leg for another kick, but before the blow landed, I pulled down a metal garbage can lid and hit him in the knee with it. I doubt it did much damage, but the blow surprised him enough to make him grunt and stagger back. I got up and held the lid in front of me like a shield. The vampire promptly ripped it from my hands and crumpled it like tinfoil.

He shook his head, then raised his eyebrows. “Really?” He threw the balled-up lid to one side.

Well, that was humiliating, I thought. And possibly deadly. As I deduced when I entered the alley, there were few useful weapons. Clothing lines and telephone wires hung high above us, but such flimsy things wouldn’t bind an immortal. The bricks in the walls were too processed and refined for me to access much of their earth magic. Still, there might be a bit I could use to heal myself. Heart pounding and chest heaving, I pressed my palm against the wall, willing the magic to restore me just a little.

“Not my best move, I admit,” I said. “But not my only one either.”

My reflexes might not be as good as a vampire’s, but years of training with my father had made them damn close. I grabbed a broken bottle at my feet and stabbed the vampire in the eye. He screamed and clutched his face as the bottle fell to the ground and blood poured down his shirt. Groping wildly, he slashed my chest with his razor-sharp nails. I automatically clutched my front, which turned out to be a mistake. The pressure of my hand and arm against the cuts made them burn like fire. Fortunately, the vampire had been too sloppy to take more than a swipe, so the wounds weren’t overly deep. If only that made them hurt less.

Roaring with agony and rage, the vampire lunged at me, reaching for my throat. A quick elbow in his forearm prevented him from succeeding, but not from punching me in the chest. I gasped and choked for breath, whirling around as the vampire moved in for a second blow. He grabbed me from behind and started choking me, my neck in the crook of his elbow. I ignored the crushing pain in my throat and kept going. I learned long ago that when you are the son of Titus Aurelius, you do not fail. Ever.

Grabbing the arm that was squeezing my throat, I bent at the waist and flipped the vampire onto his back. He jumped up, did a spinning kick, and gave another blow to my chest. Then he lunged for me again, but I gripped his head and flew in the air, feet first. Flipping him over, I smashed his back onto the ground, pulling at his neck as hard as I could.

It wasn’t hard enough. And it didn’t remove the vampire’s head so much as piss him off. I cursed myself for almost killing him—I’d been so focused on winning the fight, I’d forgotten I needed him alive. After all, dead vampires aren’t very good at dispensing information. It was the same reason I couldn’t throw random bolts of magic at him, tempting though it was. He leaped up, and I flew in the air again in order to gain a tactical advantage. But the advantage was temporary, and soon we were flying around the alley, pummeling each other in a whirlwind of magic and snarling.

Lord, but I do hate fighting vampires. Most of them are so coarse and brutish, it’s like fighting an animal. At least witches use spells. There’s elegance there, a refined violence. Of course, witches have the potential to do damage of a much more tortuous nature.

But back to the fighting—

Even though vampires are technically immortal, there are various ways to fell them, including using fire and beheadings. It was hard to determine which would work best at present, since I was trying to prevent a similar fate from befalling me as well.

And I was growing weary. Flying comes naturally to vampires, so it was much easier for my opponent than for me. Witches must use magical energies for such tasks, since we don’t have wings like fairies. Every bit of magic I performed depleted my stores, and it would be a while until I could build them up again. At the rate I was going, I estimated I’d need at least a few days to get back in fighting form. Assuming I lived that long.

I considered fleeing, at least for the moment, to recover my strength. But if I did, my father would never let me forget it. “Death before dishonor, et cetera, et cetera.” Though I didn’t see how being drained of all my blood in a stinking backstreet was honorable.

Another spinning kick to the shoulder tossed me across the alley again, only this time my magic stopped me just before I hit the wall. I slid down it to stand on the ground, and the vampire and I faced each other, my rival glaring at me with his one good eye. I could hardly bear to look at the other one, though my father would be ashamed of my weak stomach for such things.

“Tell me where Abigail—where my mother is,” I panted, “and I’ll let you go.”

“Let me go?” The vampire’s voice was deeper now, angrier. It sounded less human with every word. “You’re the one who’s about to die. And I’ll tell you about your mother when you replace my fucking eye!”

I shrugged. “Legend has it the god Odin gave up an eye for wisdom. Maybe you should have tried it before, you brainless twat.”

The vampire let out an animal scream that made the windows vibrate. He came at me in earnest now, fangs bared. Again and again he tried to strike, and I only just managed to block every blow. I had to admit, if it hadn’t been for all those training sessions with my father, I’d definitely be dead by now. I ducked one blow and his fist lodged in the wall. While he was busy extracting it, I moved to the opposite wall and—with a great deal of magical effort—placed an enormous piece of the broken fire escape in front of me. But that wasn’t going to stop him for long.

What the devil am I going to do? I was a mess of cuts and bruises; muscles I didn’t know I had were throbbing with pain. My chest was heaving, my lungs were burning. It hurt to breathe because of the pain in my throat where the vampire first struck me. Blood strummed in my ears, and just below that I could hear the distant hum of magic.

Come closer, come closer. I directed my thoughts to the energy, this force that had sustained witches for generations. Blood of my mother, blood of my father, come to me. I need you now. I felt it getting stronger, reserves of energy pooling inside me. But my supply wasn’t inexhaustible, and I hadn’t had much when I started. Tracking the vampire had been a long and arduous affair. My body felt so heavy, it was difficult to move.

As I predicted, the vampire took big, heavy footsteps towards the fire escape. His boots crunched on the debris and broken glass of the alley. With one hand, he pulled the huge hunk of metal away with such force that parts of it splintered off. He looked at me with murder in his eyes, grabbed my throat, and lifted me several feet off the ground. I grabbed his forearm and tried not to suffocate. I could feel his fingers tightening around my neck. Reaching down, I bent two of them back until they broke. Then I pulled the fingers off and flung them away.

The vampire dropped me and clutched his hand, screaming longer and louder than before. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a foot-long metal rod—a piece of the broken fire escape. I called the rod into my hand and held it before me like a wrought-iron wand. Maybe there was some metal magic in it I could use to—

Crunch. Again, the sound of the vampire’s boots. I looked up from the rod, but it was too late. The vampire’s one eye was bulging, his nose still a bit crooked from where I punched him. He was breathing heavily through slightly parted lips. I could practically feel the white-hot fury rising off him. His good hand grabbed the hair at the back of my head, exposing nearly all of my throat.

I gripped the metal rod in my left hand and squeezed it hard, summoning all the magic I could. My forearm ached from the force of the summoning. I felt magic burning in the metal, almost enough to scorch my skin. As the vampire leaned his head towards my throat for the second time that night, I raised the rod, praying it was enough to—

A few feet away, an enormous crash made the vampire turn around and let go of my hair, and I dropped the rod in surprise.

Dammit. I had hoped the other vampire wouldn’t get involved.

Nonetheless, he’d swooped down from the roof and knocked over the trio of garbage cans. Before my adversary had time to react, the second vampire punched him in the stomach and then in the face. Both blows landed much harder than any of mine. The last punch completely shattered his nose. But the second vampire didn’t stop there. He kept hitting the first one over and over, in the face, the stomach, the chest. He struck so sharp and hard, the first vampire could do little more than cover his body with his hands.

The second vampire was tall, with very short, light blond hair and blue eyes. He had long, muscular limbs, and appeared to be in his forties. The merciless look on his face told of a true hardness his tattooed foe could only hope to achieve. Finally, he swiped the first vampire’s leg, and the latter fell back onto a tall pile of reeking garbage. I picked up the rod from where I’d dropped it and ran over to them.

“Excuse me,” I said to the tall vampire, “but just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Father?”

***

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