THE MAGE’S TRICK
Ah, Rome. The city of Raphael . . . Bernini . . . Caravaggio. And an ancient and evil vampire who’s recently come out of a deep sleep.
The mage known as Joshua is finally reunited with the mother who disappeared when he was a teen, but there’s little time to celebrate. His mother’s kidnappers may be dead, but their master–a merciless vampire who wants to rule humanity–is very much alive. And he grows more powerful every night, making followers and plotting overthrows.
The only hope Joshua has of stopping this tyrant is a daring scheme that puts him in the belly of the beast–a beast that includes treachery, gas attacks, fake corpses, beheadings, and bombs.
Can a few witches, a possibly-repentant blood-seeker, and a lone mage save the world? Or is the whole situation about to explode?
Hello—Joshua Alderman here. So nice to see you all again. I hope you’ve been well since our last little adventure together. What’s that? Oh, I’m fairly good, thank you. Still around, as you can see. Though perhaps not for long . . .
What’s that? Why, you don’t remember what brought us here in the first place? Well, mortal memories tend to be shorter than those of supernaturals, so allow me to refresh yours.
I recently joined forces with my father, Titus, a two-thousand-year-old former Roman general and a witch forcibly turned vampire. Our goal was to rescue my mother, Abigail. She’s also a witch—one who’d been kidnapped for a crystal some vampires believed she possessed.
And Titus being turned into a vampire didn’t stop him from being a witch, by the way. Now he’s simply both. I’m sure you recall that I am a mage, which is less than a witch but more than a man. But I can explain all that to you again later. Hopefully.
Anyway, my mother disappeared when I was a teenager, almost twenty years ago. After searching all over the world, Titus and I finally learned she was in Rome. In an attempt to uncover where in the city she’d been taken, I’d had to infiltrate an organization known as the PIA, or Paranormal Investigation Agency. I made an ally in the British manager of the PIA’s London branch, Arthur. He ended up assisting in my mother’s rescue.
It helped that Abigail had actually given me the crystal—the one the vampires wanted—a long while ago. Apparently, it was much desired by the descendants and worshippers of a vampire called Callix Ferox. He was a contemporary of my father’s whom witches trapped in a magical sleep beneath Rome. It seems he was too bloodthirsty even for ancient times, and his attempts at world domination were wreaking havoc.
But that didn’t stop his followers from kidnapping my mother and putting her under a similar sleep spell when she refused to reveal the crystal’s location. They wanted it for Ferox because its mystical properties would allow him to do . . . something. We haven’t determined exactly what that something is yet, but suffice it to say it isn’t good. However, the witches who imprisoned Ferox died before realizing their permanent sleep spell wasn’t so permanent.
Which brings us back to our present predicament. Although we managed to kill Ferox’s followers, we still had to escape their underground lair of Roman ruins. To do that, we had to get back to the Wiccan Temple of Aradia in Rome, which is where we’d come in. But the temple was miles away, since we were now beneath rural farmland on the outskirts of the city.
And the way things were going, we might not make it back in one piece.
Suddenly, the ground beneath us started to shake. Dirt and debris began coming down from the rim of the hole above, and from the walls of the cavern.
“Joshua, what’s happening?” Abigail shouted over the noise. She held onto Titus for balance, but still had trouble keeping upright. “Are you doing another spell?”
“It’s not me!” My hand shot out to steady myself as the earth continued rumbling. We looked all around, but couldn’t find the source of the sound or the quaking.
“Then what the devil is going on?” asked Arthur. His next words were swallowed up by something that was a cross between a scream and a roar.
“Oh my God!” Abigail cried. Her brown eyes went wide with fear. “It’s Ferox. He’s actually begun to rise!”
“Forget what I said about returning to the States,” said Titus grimly. He held onto my mother with both arms as the rest of us turned pale. “It looks like we’ll be staying in Rome a little while longer.”
Several stalactites started to fall, like enormous daggers hurtling towards us. One pierced a human skeleton only a few feet away, and the bones splintered into tiny pieces. This was one of the victims of the vampires we’d just defeated, and a not-so-subtle reminder of our potential fate.
“Come on, we have to get out of here!” I grabbed Abigail by the hand. Titus quickly followed. Together with Arthur, we ran past the great globe of rock in the center of the room—the one where I’d managed to trap several vampires and turn them to stone. We dodged falling stalactites, maneuvered around stalagmites, and tried to keep our balance while dashing over the shifting ground. I glanced up at the enormous hole in the ceiling that I’d made during my latest spell.
Blast it! If only huge rocks would stop falling, we could simply fly out of here.
“Why is everything shaking?” yelled Abigail. “It’s like an earthquake!” She picked up the skirt of her gauzy, dark green dress—now filthy and torn—and ran as fast as she could.
“Maybe Ferox is doing something,” Titus yelled back. A charred sleeve of his shirt caught on a rock. He gnashed his teeth as he ripped the sleeve away, exposing a large, powerful bicep. “Maybe he was put into some kind of prison as well as a sleep spell. He could be trying to break out.”
As if on cue, the vampire’s screaming grew even fiercer. Though these screams seemed less pained and more outraged, they still made an unholy sound. Really, you wouldn’t believe something so raw came from anything that had once been human. Arthur was having an especially hard time with the excruciating noise. The elderly man squeezed his eyes shut while putting one hand over his ear, the other clutching his crossbow.
“We have to get up to the ledge!” I shouted. There was a slim ledge of rock that ran the circumference of the cave, and on one side was an archway to the next underground chamber. Earlier, I’d made a path from the ledge to the center of the cave, where a stone pedestal stood ten feet high. We’d all jumped down from it when the vampires began attacking us, except Arthur, who fell. But there were no steps leading to the pedestal, which was buried under the vampires turned stone anyway. We needed another way up.
“I’ll carry Abigail,” Titus said. “You take care of Arthur.” He swept my mother into his arms, and with typical vampire speed, flew up to the ledge. The tallest among us, he had to duck under the archway on his way out.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my father’s build, or his supernatural strength. Still, I grabbed Arthur’s arm, and before he had time to protest, used my magic to lift us as well. He lost a few supplies from the satchel held crosswise against his body, and his miner’s helmet fell off, but he was otherwise unharmed. He nearly didn’t stay that way. As I pulled him into the next chamber, a boulder rolled in front of the archway. A fraction of a second earlier and he would have been crushed to death.
It was very dark in these chambers, but like Titus and Abigail, I held my magic ball of light high as we fled. I set Arthur down, and we all ran hell-for-leather through the old catacombs, with death and decay all around us. We knew the boulder that had rolled in front of the archway wasn’t going to stop a vampire from getting out, at least not for very long. Pieces of broken pottery, statues, and other ancient detritus were strewn everywhere, threatening to trip us. It was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, only with immortals. Arthur was having an especially difficult time keeping up, hindered by the weight of his crossbow. It doesn’t kill vampires, of course, but it had come handy in wounding the ones we fought.
“Oh, forget the crossbow, Arthur!” I tore the weapon from his grasp and propelled him on. “It’s no match for Ferox, and it’s slowing us down. Father!” I gasped. Titus was in the lead. I knew his vampire speed would allow him to go faster; he was only holding back for our sake. “We can’t outrun Ferox. Surely we have enough magic between us to take care of one more vampire.”
“Are you mad?” Titus turned around just long enough to look at me. His light blond hair had been singed to the point where what was left looked nearly brown. “We’re exhausted, injured—in no shape to fight an ancient.”
He had a point. During our earlier encounter with the other vampires, his entire body had been severely burned. Fire is one of the few things that can kill their kind, in addition to decapitation. It’s the same for witches, actually. And although Abigail had used her healing magic on him and Arthur (the latter’s broken fingers were now on their way to mending), she was worn out from fighting as well. I hadn’t been hurt in the fire quite as badly as Titus, though my own clothes were a charred mess. We were all fairly bruised and cut-up, and yet . . .
“Won’t he be weak from not feeding for two thousand years?” I panted. “Possibly we’re still a match for him.” We had made our way now to an abandoned aqueduct, and were dashing across it as quickly as we dared.
“Possibly, but he may still be strong enough to kill us,” Titus said, clearly winded despite not going at full speed. His foot knocked several pebbles off the aqueduct’s narrow ledge, and they disappeared into fathomless darkness.
“He certainly doesn’t sound weak,” Abigail said breathlessly. Indeed, the roaring continued behind us, and more rocks rained down from the ceiling. The noise seemed as close as ever, though I didn’t know how Ferox could have moved the boulder from the archway quite that fast.
“Can’t we just fly over this thing?” Arthur coughed. He was bringing up the rear, and falling behind.
“Agreed,” said Titus. He looked at my mother and nodded. Together they flew over the aqueduct and through the next archway.
What’s that you say? Brooms? Please don’t be ridiculous. Real witches do not need brooms, unless they mean to sweep up something.
There were no giant stalactites in this part of the underground to fall on us, so I presumed I could take a chance at flying as well. I looked at Arthur. “Er, sorry,” I said, grabbing him by the legs and flinging him over my back. This took more magical than physical strength, but trust me, the former is just as taxing.
“Oy!” Arthur protested as we rose in the air. “Careful—I’m not a bloody sack of potatoes!”
After we passed the aqueduct, we had to stop to catch our breath, but I knew we couldn’t afford to do so for long. The roars definitely sounded like they were getting closer now.
“Are we sure he’s even chasing us?” I was doubled over with my hands on my knees, sucking in air.
“Do you really want to stop and ask him?” said Titus, inhaling sharply over and over.
“He’s obviously mighty pissed,” Abigail said, her chest heaving. “I don’t want to be the first thing he sees in such a temper. Enough with this running.” She shook her head, brown curls damp against her temples despite the thin bands holding back her hair. “We should just fly out of here.”
“But parts of the ceiling could still fall on us,” I said. “We’d never make it back to the Temple of Aradia.”
“There must be another way to escape,” Arthur said. His usually scratchy voice was even hoarser from running. He combed his fingers through his sweat-slicked gray hair and scanned the room. We were now in the colossal domed hall where we’d been confronted by half the High Council.
Yes, yes—I’ll tell you about the High Council in a little while. Just know they’re a collection of staid, authoritative witches who tried to discourage Titus and me from finding Ferox—rather violently at times.
“The only way out is the way we came in,” Titus said with a grimace. “Unless you want to go back through the hole Joshua put in the cavern ceiling, and that means going through Ferox.”
“Ah, no then,” Arthur replied quickly. Dripping with perspiration, he removed his satchel, then his faded sweater vest. He threw the vest on the ground, leaving himself with only a button-down shirt, and put the satchel’s strap over his shoulder.
“Josh, didn’t you say the Council left this room by some other means?” Abigail asked. “Not how you came in, but not going towards Ferox’s tomb either?”
“Yes, but where?” I looked around frantically, trying to recall the exact location of the Council’s departure. My strength was dissipating, the ball of light above me growing dimmer. “There!” I cried, pointing to the archway where the Council members had trailed out silently, one by one. The rumbling and roaring was growing louder again, and we only looked at each other for a moment before scrambling towards the archway.
We hadn’t stepped inside more than a few feet when we were met with a stone wall, one whose bricks looked like they hadn’t been moved for centuries.
“What the . . . ? But that’s impossible!” I gasped. “I know I saw the Council leave this way. They walked over here and disappeared. But how did they get out?”
“Likely there’s some magic on this wall,” Abigail said, moving her hands up and down over the stone. A particularly loud growl came from Ferox’s direction. She stole a glimpse over her shoulder, her features twisted in fear. “If only we knew what it was!”
Wordlessly, my father made a fist, pulled back his arm, and punched a hole in the wall. He did the same thing several times with the other fist. In seconds, the whole mess of stone crumbled to the ground, revealing a dark, narrow hall.
“There,” he said. “Problem solved. Let’s go, all.”
We moved our balls of light into the hall and stepped inside, but it was still difficult to tell where we should go. Passages in a circle shot off in several directions, and it wasn’t as if we had a map or compass. So with my father in the lead, we simply tried to put as much distance between ourselves and the howling maniac that was Ferox.
“Why is water dripping everywhere?” Abigail asked. Her foot splashed in a puddle, while Titus’s eyes scanned the interior, trying to determine which path to take. “And what are we stepping in?”
“Does anyone else smell something funny?” Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose.
“It’s not a hallway,” I realized. “It’s a connection to a sewer main.”
“Oh, hell,” Titus said. “This evening could not get any more revolting.”
“Was this really the other entrance—now our exit—that Ashcroft mentioned?” Arthur asked. “I’m surprised he and the rest of the High Council would deign to go through it.”
Suddenly, a sound came from far behind us that sounded like an angry, barely human yowl. Ferox.
“Who cares?” Titus said. His voice wasn’t panicked; Titus would never admit to feeling panic. But he didn’t exactly sound calm either. “Just run, you fools!”
And Lord, did we run. Titus picked up Abigail again and sped through the underground. I groaned, but managed to draw up enough magic to fly close behind, pulling Arthur’s hand as I made him rise in the air with me. To our relief, the rumbling and roaring fell farther and farther behind us, until we came to the end of the sewer main. A thin metal ladder led to a manhole cover twenty feet above.
My father was exhausted. He put Abigail down and placed one hand on the wall, bending over to catch his breath again. I nearly did the same when Arthur and I caught up with them, but Abigail was already climbing the ladder. One by one we followed her as she tried to pry open the manhole cover.
“Hurry, Gail!” my father urged, looking down the path we’d just come. Ferox’s rumbling and quaking were still distant, and I’m sure Titus wanted to keep it that way.
The manhole cover was likely welded on. Although earth magic, including metal magic, was my mother’s forte, she wasn’t at her best to perform it. After being held captive and kept asleep for twenty years, battling vampires, et cetera, she was understandably weak. But I saw her magic snaking its way around the heavy metal disk anyway. It creaked loudly. After several moments, my mother let out a grunt and the cover flew up, clattering on the ground above us.
We climbed out of the sewer as fast as we could, and were nearly run over by several passing cars. After scrambling to the sidewalk, we glanced around and realized we must be in a suburb on the outskirts of Rome. Abigail peered at the manhole cover and slowly moved it back into place with her mind. There were no other signs or sounds from Ferox, and we all looked at each other in silence.
It seemed we were safe . . . for now.