THE LAST MAGE

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I do hope it won’t be the last time we speak, dear readers, for this could be a mage’s greatest battle yet. Even if I do survive it in some form, the Joshua you know may be gone forever.

When a demon takes over your body, there’s nowhere you can run.

The good news is that Joshua and company defeated a 2,000-year-old vampire who sought to rule the human race. The bad news? The demon the vampire wanted to call up is already here–and it’s inside Joshua. If he and his allies don’t rid the world of this scourge, it will cause more horror and suffering than their previous foes combined. Unfortunately, the only apparent solution is as brutal as it is simple:

Kill Joshua, of course.

Chapter 1

Yes, so . . . the backstory. Me and my ancient Roman father (who’s both a vampire and a witch) rescued my decades-missing witch mom—finally. Turns out she was kidnapped by the minions of some other ancient vampire. His name was Ferox, and he was under the impression she possessed a crystal that, for some reason, would let him rule the world.

He was wrong about one thing: I had the crystal, and still do. But he and his minions did nearly succeed in taking over the world. That is, until we were able to blow up their underground headquarters, and them along with it.

There were other complications with the High Council of Witches and mortals at the Paranormal Investigation Agency (PIA), but I’ve blathered on enough. The upshot is, we’re still at the Hassler Hotel in Rome, and all should be well. Except it turns out Ferox thought the crystal would let him rule the world by calling up a demon . . . who it seems was here all along.

Anyway, sorry to linger in the introduction. But I just wanted to take a few moments to gaze fondly at you, my beloved audience. Because for reasons that will soon become apparent, this may be the last story this mage ever tells you . . .

***

“What you mean, ‘the demon is already here’?” Titus demanded. My father’s light blue eyes were filled with worry as he held up my mother, Abigail, on one side. The slightly transparent veins at his temples seemed even more pronounced against the paleness of his face.

“That’s impossible,” I said, holding up her other side. It was difficult to do, since it required stomach muscles, and a vampire had recently punched me in them quite hard. But I wasn’t about to let my own mother fall on the floor. It was bad enough the shock of discovering a demon had left her so shaken. And yet . . . “There is no way a demon could have manifested itself in this world without anyone knowing.” I paused. “Is there?”

“Such an occurrence would be highly unusual,” said Arthur, running several fingers through his gray hair. Gently, he took a book from Abigail’s trembling hands. It was the one she’d been using to detect the demon’s presence. He placed it on the table with his other volumes and papers. “Abigail, are you sure?”

“Absolutely sure.” She was shaking even harder than before, when she’d come rushing from the master bedroom to tell us the detection spell’s results.

We walked her over to one of the penthouse’s many couches, where she sank into a chair. She made a face as she put down her right leg, which still bore a limp from recently being pinned under a rock. Welts and scratches from the same adventure marked her face. But while her witch blood would cause them to fade quickly, the ones I had would take longer to heal. Not as long as a mortal’s, but still too slow for my taste.

“According to your book, Arthur,” she said, “demons bear a particular marker—a form of energy, if you will—that can be recognized by this spell. And the spell was absolutely clear: there is definitely some form of demonic energy present in our world.”

“You mean the kind that causes wars and plagues and starvation?” Arthur sat down as well and adjusted his reading glasses, then started flipping through the book.

Abigail shook her head, making her brown curls bounce back and forth. “No. For the most part, that’s just mortals being stupid. This is different. This is unlike anything I’ve seen before.” She clutched the arm of the couch, trying to steady her breathing.

Using his telekinesis, Titus poured Abigail a drink from a decanter on a glass coffee table. It floated through the air in her direction, her own mind powers grabbing it before Titus could set it down. Some of the liquid sloshed over the rim as she sipped the drink with trembling hands.

“But Ferox never had the crystal in his possession.” I fingered the crystal inside my pocket. Clear and smooth, it was almost the length and breadth of a large thumb. I ran my own thumb over it, as if doing so would yield answers. “I mean, that’s what the last few weeks were all about. Him trying to get the crystal, us trying to stop him. Fighting over this thing they call ‘the Opener of Doors,’ getting the hell beaten out of us. So how could he call up a demon? How could anyone?”

“Demons don’t only come when they’re called, Joshua,” Arthur said. “They’re not dogs, you know. One could very well enter this realm of its own volition, if the circumstances were right.”

Dismaying though it was to hear, I had no reason to doubt what Arthur said. As the manager of the PIA’s London branch, he was taking quite a chance using the organization’s offices here in Rome to help us. Although the PIA makes it a point to study and catalog supernatural individuals and occurrences, supernaturals and those in league with them cannot join. If the PIA ever found out, Arthur would be lucky to find himself expelled. He would be unlucky if the PIA thought he was a threat to them. Those members have a way of just . . . disappearing.

“Wonderful,” said Titus. “Demons coming and going as they please. And according to you,” he jutted his chin at Arthur, “this one calls itself ‘Oblivion.’ ”

“For reasons we still don’t know,” I added.

“Where exactly is it?” asked Abigail.

“What does it look like?” Titus wondered.

“What does it want?” I furrowed my brow.

“I don’t know!” Arthur threw up his hands. “This is an arcane text,” he motioned to the book, “not a demon dossier. Remember, information collected by the PIA is almost never complete. It’s always being expanded, worked on.”

“Mr. Hartwood.” Titus looked down at Arthur. “I’m beginning to think your organization is more trouble than it’s worth. Which isn’t a great step up from what I thought of it before.” He started to rub his forehead, then stopped when his fingers met the large welt there—a reward for previous efforts to help Abigail and me.

Those efforts were also the reason for the many cuts on his face, courtesy of a glass window. His healing was slower than normal for a vampire, but that owed to the severe electrocution he suffered at the same time as the cuts. At least he was still alive; such a shock to the system would surely have killed a younger, less powerful blood-drinker. And yes, vampires can be electrocuted as surely as they can be burned, the same as witches and mages.

“All right.” I took a deep breath. It still hurt my sore throat a bit, since another vampire—the same one who graced my stomach with his fist—tried to strangle me. “Do we at least know when the demon got here? Perhaps it correlates to another big event somewhere in the world. Maybe we can track it that way.”

“Actually,” Arthur flipped through the book’s pages, “there is a chart in here that measures kinetic energy—bursts of power, in this case—against supernatural signatures. Where the bloody hell—ah, yes! Here it is.” Arthur roughly estimated the date of the last such occurrence.

“Wow. They even have the exact time?” Abigail said.

“That’s the PIA for you,” said Arthur. “Diligent as always.”

“Still, that was decades ago,” she said.

“Yes,” Titus agreed. “Wouldn’t a demon have made its presence known by now? Or are we just meant to believe he’d ‘hang around’ on earth for a while, taking in the sights, or getting a tan?”

“Oy, I’m not his social director,” said Arthur. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

But while the rest of the room was arguing, a thought occurred to me, and a disturbing one at that. I ran through dates and numbers in my head, mouthing them silently, eyes on the ceiling. Suddenly, I felt very cold, and my face grew slack.

“I notice Joshua’s gone uncharacteristically quiet.” Titus folded his arms and looked at me. “What’s your take on the situation?”

“I think . . . I think . . .” I sank slowly into one of the chairs around Arthur’s work table. “I think a demon could hide very well for decades. If he didn’t appear as a demon, that is.”

“Didn’t appear as a demon?” Arthur echoed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, demon possession isn’t unheard-of in your line of work, is it?” I asked.

“No, of course not, but—”

“So what if a demon possessed or lived inside someone for years?” I continued. “There’d be no proof of it arriving, or evidence of its existence. It would look and act like a completely ordinary person. Someone like me, perhaps.”

“Oh, come now!” Titus chuckled. “You think you’re the incarnation of a demon? He came into this world almost . . .” Titus did his own quick calculations, “. . . almost a year before you were born.”

“Nine months, to be exact,” I said. “Nine months to the day and time. Don’t you think that’s rather odd?”

We all stared at each other for a moment, and Abigail’s eyes went wide.

“That is odd,” Arthur said softly.

“True enough.” Titus placed a hand on my mother’s shoulder. “But it could still just be a coincidence.”

“But what if it’s not?” I said. I was beginning to get a feeling that was more than just paranoia. From the instant I heard about the exact moment of the demon’s arrival, a sense of dread came over me. It was heavy and chilly, and I got the distinct impression I was in an underground cave. I’d never felt any sensation like it before.

“You have to admit,” I continued, “all this convergence around one person is unusual. The crystal that’s always been in our family, rumored to have come into our world through a magic door. My unorthodox parentage of one vampire and one witch. My mysterious conception, which, with all we know about vampires, should never have happened. Doesn’t it all seem a bit strange?”

“So you think it means you have a demon inside you?” Titus scoffed. “Joshua Alderman, are you really so desperate to be special?” Abigail glanced up at him and tightened her lips.

“I wish it were that,” I said. “But didn’t Arthur just say a demon could enter this realm of its own volition—if the circumstances were right? Well, what if the circumstances were right the night you, ah . . . when I was . . . that is . . .” I moved my index finger between my parents, and Abigail blushed while Titus buried his eyes in his hand.

“Well, they did have the crystal.” Arthur stroked his chin. “Which we know makes it easier to open mystical doors. Making life is an example of one such door. Perhaps the demon saw an opportunity and seized it.”

“Or perhaps this is just a bunch of nonsense my son is making up to—Abigail, what are you doing?” Titus asked. “Abigail?”

My mother had risen from her chair, and was staring at me hard while taking slow, deep breaths. “There’s an easy enough way to find out.” She held both hands in front of her, murmuring ancient Wiccan words. Tendrils of magic floated through the air and hovered over my head and shoulders, lightly, cautiously. They looked like slender yellow threads made of pixie dust. I heard layers of whispers all around me, and wondered if I should be alarmed.

“Steady on.” Arthur pushed his seat out a bit. “Isn’t that the same spell to see if a demon is in our mid—”

Suddenly, Abigail clapped her hands over her mouth in an effort to drown out a scream. She staggered back a few steps. Only Titus’s vampire speed kept her from falling into his arms instead of on the floor.

“It’s the marker,” she gasped. “The energy. It’s all around him.” Abigail swore in Yiddish. “Oh my God, the demon is in Joshua!”

***

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