THE MAGE TEAM
A power-hungry necromancer is seeking a world-ending artifact. Only the mage team can stop him—that is if the team members don't kill each other first.
A new urban fantasy series, the Dragongods Saga begins in mid-June with the release of The Mage Team. It will initially be released as part of a multiauthor boxed set Magic after Dark.
The Demon Mirror: A vampire and a mage must defeat the ultimate enemy—their own reflections come to life. To survive until dawn, the mismatched couple will not only have to solve the mystery of the demon's curse, they'll also need to confront the secrets of their hearts.
Find out more about The Mage Team by reading the description and first chapter.
Slate Blackthorn is a vampire hunter who's ready for anything—except for being teamed up with a vampire. However, with the threat of an undead apocalypse looming, Slate and the rest of the mage team will have to learn to work together. The magical artifact is kept in an enchanted safe within an impregnable tower. To get to it before the necromancer, the team will have to overcome an assortment of challenges including mages with machine guns and fighting robots, lethal mindtraps and bloodthirsty demons.
If that wasn't bad enough, Slate knows something the others don't. One of the team members is a traitor.
A magical heist story, Mission Impossible meets Dresden Files, The Mage Team is the first book in the Dragongods Saga, a new urban fantasy series.
Get an early introduction to Slate Blackthorn and his trusty familiar, Harps by reading the first chapter below.
Unbridled sparks of energy and joy, the gypsy children ran, lost in their play—all except for the two who stood apart, their gazes watchful, their backs straight, their skin glowing with a faint green shimmer.
Despite their reserved postures, I knew those two craved to join in and play with the other children, to revel in the chaotic screaming and shrieking where the only boundaries were those limited by the speed of little legs. I glanced down at my hands, examining the green glow on my own skin; I had been just like those two, standing aloof but aching to run and jump and shout with my young peers. Our power was too raw and dangerous, though.
Dagger had drilled into us that we were the unheralded saviors of the human race and that we had to be willing to sacrifice everything. Everything, including our childhoods, I thought wistfully.
Only other helsing warriors could see the green auras, and at that moment, one of the two children spotted me and leaned across to whisper to his friend. They studied me for several heartbeats, then ran toward the wagons. The speed of one momentarily exceeded what should have been possible. Then he remembered himself and slowed to normal speed.
I quickened my step, moving past the area where the children played. Colorfully painted wagons were arranged in a wide circle with ropes between them marking off the area of the fair. Inside the circle, tents of various shapes and sizes vied for attention. It was a cloudy day, and the ground underfoot was wet and muddy, but that didn’t dim the vibrancy of the occasion. Uptempo musical notes floated through the air, punctuated by raucous shouts.
As I got closer, a knot of tension tightened in my stomach. A semicircular board hanging from a tree with the words Gypsy Fair scrawled across it marked the entrance, and several people were lined up to pay the five-dollar entrance fee. I walked straight past the line. A woman moved to intercept me, then got a better look at me and changed her mind.
A small body squirmed against my stomach, then wiggled its way up the underside of my hunting coat, popping up past my collar.
You get that sense of home, too, boy, don’t you? I asked Harps. After several days of bus journeys and sleeping in depots, it felt good to see familiar sights and sounds. I took in a deep breath, soaking in the familiar scents—the linseed oil that preserved the wood of our wagons, the distinctive yeasty smell of homecooked bread, the sharp acidic smell of the dye used to brighten fabrics.
Harps settled on the top of my left shoulder, and he tugged a lock of my hair. Why are you scared, Slate? he thought. Is there going to be a fight? Harps was my familiar, a small monkey who had made his home in the inside pockets of my yellow hunting coat. His thoughts weren’t in words; we communicated via projected images and emotions. However, I had become so used to the process that I automatically translated it all into words in my mind.
I don’t get scared. You know that, I thought back. Dagger hadn’t raised a coward. I’m just ready in case something happens.
But we are among friends, Harps thought.
This is a Hawke caravan, I thought. A non-helsing wouldn’t have noticed any pattern on the colorful pictures that decorated the wagons and signs. For me, though, the occasional presence of hawks screamed out the family name. Each helsing family had their own signature element relating to their name. On our wagons, painted thorns, usually black, twisted around and through many decorations.
Dagger doesn’t like the Hawkes, does he? Harps thought.
He certainly doesn’t. When Dagger had told me to pick up final instructions from the helsing caravan in Fairmount Park, he mustn’t have known it was one of the Hawkes’. He wouldn’t have stood for that.
We walked past a group of fiddlers who danced while they played, mixing laughter and banter with their music and song. Not far away, a strongman raised a chair in each hand, a giggling schoolgirl strapped into each seat. Beyond him, two jugglers tossed bowling pins to each other, with acrobats somersaulting between the path of the pins. Teenage helsings moved through the crowd with hats in hand, accepting tips. I didn’t notice any others with a green aura, but I knew they would be around. Someone had to be training the youngsters I had seen earlier.
The fortuneteller’s wagon sat between two maple trees, and I turned in that direction. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man jogging in my direction, a green shimmer surrounding him. I ignored him, focusing on my destination.
I didn’t get far before the man stepped directly across my path. “My name is Lighton Hawke,” he said.
“Good for you.” I stepped off the path and onto the grass to avoid him.
He slid across so he blocked me once more. Not far away, the two children who I’d seen earlier watched from behind a small bush. They had obviously alerted Lighton to my presence. “It’s rude not to say hello, friend,” Lighton said. He wore a hunting coat similar to mine except a faded brown color instead of yellow, and red shaggy hair covered his chin and cheeks. The beard made his age difficult to judge, but he was likely in his late twenties. We were close enough that our auras almost touched. His grin was overly friendly and overly familiar. I was already disposed to dislike him even before he aimed that smarmy grin my way.
Harps, sensing my intentions, leaned closer to my head, tightening the grip of his toes on my shoulder. I lowered my right shoulder and rammed it straight into Lighton’s chest. He flew through the air, and landed several paces away, sliding along the wet grass and splashing up mud.
“I’m a Blackthorn,” I told him. “I’m certainly not your friend.”
Even planted on his backside with mud splattering his face and clothes, the grin hadn’t left Lighton’s face. “You’re a strong one, aren’t you?”
I turned away from him and continued toward the fortuneteller’s wagon. Prickles ran up my neck as I sensed him watching me. Even from a sitting position, he could be on me in seconds—I was well aware of the speed he was capable of. I didn’t turn. If he decided to attack me, it was his funeral.
I didn’t fear anyone or anything; I certainly wasn’t afraid of a Hawke.
A painted sign said, Fortunes, ten dollars. I climbed the steps, brushed aside the violet curtain at the doorway, and walked inside. I scanned the interior, and only when I was satisfied that nothing was amiss did I drop the curtain behind me and allow darkness to fall. The smell of old books and melted candle wax filled the air. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dimness, then stepped further inside. A partition of beads cut the room in two. In front of me, a small round table held a crystal ball at its center with two stools on either side. The walls were lined with shelves and dense with artifacts of all shapes and sizes, anything with a suggestion of the arcane. A Wiccan medallion was sandwiched between a Celtic brooch and a statue of Ganesha.
The highest shelf was lined with tarot decks, each one with a single card facing outward, and one deck in particular drew my attention. Its cards were oversized, and the drawings were vividly painted, rather different from usual. The outward facing card was The Chariot.
“You must cross my palm with silver to see your true path,” an old woman croaked.
I turned. Moving my head back and forth, I was able to see through the beads well enough to make out the silhouette of a small, hunched figure. “I didn’t come to find my future,” I said.
I returned my attention to the tarot deck, brushing my fingers across the face of the card. It showed a young man on a chariot pulled by two sphinxes.
“You are in the wrong place, then,” the old woman said. The beads parted, and she tottered through the partition. She held a candle high in front of her, showing a face of knotted wrinkles. I was surprised to see the green aura surrounding her. We tended to die in battle, making older helsing warriors unusual. We did age, though. We were born to fight vampires, and many of our talents—speed, strength, toughness—were similar to theirs, but immortality was not one of our gifts.
“I’m only interested in my very immediate future.” I lifted my hand to stroke Harps’s fur. “I was told I’d be given an address in the fortuneteller’s caravan in Fairmount Park.”
“Slate Blackthorn?” She placed the candle on the table and straightened, seeming to shed several decades of age as she dropped the act.
“I’m Rosehip Hawke.” She sat on the stool in front of her. “Please have a seat.”
“Those who get to be as old as I am like to think we have gained wisdom. And, in our hubris, we like to think others can benefit,” she said. “Why stand when you can sit?”
I shrugged. “Why sit when you can get what you need and quickly leave?”
“The young always think they know better. Do you know the story of the contest between the sun and the wind?”
I folded my arms in front of me. “I didn’t come here for half-baked Hawke wisdom.”
“Unfortunately, that’s all I have. You see, once, the sun and the wind got into an argument trying to decide which of them was greater,” Rosehip said. “A test was proposed, whereby both of them would try to get a coat off an old man. The wind blew and blew, but the harder it tried, the tighter the old man held on to his coat. For its part, the sun simply shined down on the old man until he decided to take off his coat.”
“What do you want from me? I don’t do riddles.”
“What I’m saying is this: I mightn’t look like much, but I’m a feisty old bird. Tough eating. If you try to take something from me, I fight like a provoked badger. A badgered badger, if you will.” Rosehip’s wide grin showed she had lost all her teeth. “The other side of the equation is that, when asked nicely, I give freely.” She gestured at the stool in front of her. “Now sit.”
My fingers curled into fists. I wanted to get away before Lighton decided he wasn’t happy about being knocked over, but more than that, I didn’t want to be ordered around by a Hawke. Still, I needed the information Rosehip had. The stool creaked under me as I sat. It was so low that my knees jutted up and my tailbone rubbed against the wood.
The corners of Rosehip’s eyes crinkled. “Isn’t this so much more pleasant now that you aren’t looming over me?”
“And how are you, dearie?” she asked Harps on top of my shoulder. “Are you as rude as your master?”
Harps stuck his tongue out and blew a raspberry. I reached up and scratched his fur. Good job, boy, I thought.
“So you are one of Dagger’s brood,” Rosehip said to me. “Do you know we tell the children stories about you around the fire? About how Dagger and his three charges will descend on Hawke caravans one night like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
“Might happen like that.”
“Really? I’ve always thought that whatever else Dagger is, he’s a dedicated helsing warrior. He knows his true enemy.”
“He does know who his true enemy is,” I agreed. “Though if he has to get through a few Hawkes to reach any vampires, all the better.”
“That’s not as reassuring as I’d like.”
“It’s better to accept the way the world is, even if it’s ugly, than to sugarcoat it and live a lie.”
Rosehip leaned to the side, looking behind my back. I gave her a curious look. “What are you doing?”
“Just checking that Dagger hasn’t his hand up your shirt.”
“I’m no one’s puppet.”
“You’re well trained, is that all? Tell me, why did Dagger send you? Are you the best of his charges?”
I shook my head. Flint and Crystal would laugh at the idea that I was better than them. “Dagger thought I might be able to pass unnoticed in the city better than my brother or sister.”
Rosehip looked me up and down, a laugh turning into a cough.
“What?” I frowned.
“Nothing. Something caught in my throat,” she said. “I was thinking about how invisible you’ll be. A big hunk of muscle in a muddy hunting coat with a permanent scowl and a monkey hopping from shoulder to shoulder.”
“Harps is invisible compared with my siblings’ familiars,” I said. Fierce, Flint’s wolf, had a scar in its snout and a growl that could cause moss to stand on edge. Glade, Crystal’s cougar, was distrustful of strangers. And cougars tended to disembowel first, ask questions later.
“One thing has me confused,” she said. “The connection between a familiar and his helsing varies, but you two seem close.”
“What’s confusing about that?”
“A familiar reflects their owner. You look so stern and humorless you could be the second coming of Dagger Blackthorn. Yet Harps there, on your shoulder, hasn’t stopped making funny faces at me. So I think one of you is faking. Which is it, you or your familiar? Riddle me that, Slate Blackthorn.”
The anger that surged through me was out of proportion to what the old woman had said. Flint and Crystal loved to make fun of me for having Harps as a familiar, Dagger too. I had to take it from them, but I wasn’t going to put up with a Hawke woman using Harps to call me weak.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Harps represents me,” I said, my voice tight. “I didn’t get to choose my familiar. He’s just a stupid monkey.”
I regretted the words the instant they were out of my mouth. Harps jumped off my shoulder, landing on a shelf. He ran along it, knocking an ivory statue to the floor.
Harps, I didn’t mean it, I thought.
Harps didn’t slow. He swung himself up to the highest shelf, and bounded along that until he came to the corner. There, he buried his head in his hands.
Harps. I began to stand, but then I noticed Rosehip watching me, and I plopped back down on the stool. “He’s just a monkey,” I told her.
Rosehip picked up the statue Harps had knocked over and replaced it. “I see you are like every other man I’ve met.” She suddenly cackled. “You can’t control your monkey.”
“I think it’s time you gave me what you’re supposed to,” I said. “I’ve had enough of being laughed at.”
“It’s just a joke,” Rosehip said. “You should be able to play nice with others, better than the rest of your family, at least. That’s why Dagger chose you, I think. If you learned to laugh and smile, it would be a good start.”
“What do you want with me?” I felt an urge to just leave, but I had nowhere to go until Rosehip gave me the address. “What’s with this whole song and dance?”
“I don’t have any nefarious purpose.” She snorted. “Nor any musical purpose. I just want to get to know you better while I have this chance. As I said, we’ve heard all these stories about Dagger and the young warriors he is training. Putting a face on the unknown makes it less scary.”
“Depends. Sometimes the known is more scary.” I glanced up at the far corner. Harps had turned his head to peek down at us. Come back down, boy, I thought. Harps instead faced the corner once more. “Monsters are real, after all.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” The humor left Rosehip’s face, and, at once, she looked impossibly ancient. “When you’ve lived as long as I have…” Her eyes glazed over as she looked deep into her memories. “Let’s just say that sometimes I think I’ve lived too long.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I stayed silent while the distant look faded from her eyes and she returned to the present. She nodded toward the crystal ball at the center of the table. “While you’re here, why not have your fortune told?”
“I’m not one of your marks.” I took the milky-white sphere off its stand, hefting it in one palm, feeling its weight. “There’s no power in this.” I gestured up at the shelves. “And up there you have Buddha grinning toward Shiva the Destroyer. You aren’t even consistent in your fakery.”
“Nothing is fake.” She took the crystal ball from my hand and replaced it on its stand. “They are meant to create the appropriate atmosphere.” Rosehip stood, and reached for the first of the tarot decks on the high shelf. “Sometimes, though, a power is inside us, and simple objects help channel it.”
“It’s all just hocus pocus mumbo jumbo,” I said. Rosehip’s fingers were on one tarot deck, but my gaze was on a different one. I realized why it had drawn my attention earlier. I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry. The young man in the chariot had a familiar look about him.
“Hocus pocus. Really?” Rosehip grinned. “Both of us glow with the green power of the swirl. Are you trying to tell me magic doesn’t exist?”
“The dragongods gave us our powers—our strength, our speed, our toughness, our enhanced healing. Prophecy is just a pretense for fairs like this.”
“The dragongods gave vampires their power. Ours came after—from creation’s need for balance. A subtle difference, but one I don’t like to have forgotten,” Rosehip said. “And I agree that true prophecy is rare. But not unknown. I have experienced it twice in my life.” She shifted sideways and her fingers drifted across to The Chariot card on the other deck.
My breath caught. It was surely my imagination that made me think the charioteer on that card looked like me.
“I was intrigued to see you looking at this when I came in. I got it from one of the Foresters, a gifted lady who told me she didn’t want to see what the cards showed her anymore. I’m a seeker of knowledge and wasn’t afraid of what I might see. To my disappointment, the cards revealed nothing. Perhaps they weren’t meant for me.” She lifted the top card and examined it. “I never really noticed which card faced outward before.” She looked from the card to me. “Interesting.”
“Enough,” I said. “I’ve shown enough patience. Give me what I require, or I will return to Dagger and tell him that the Hawkes prevented me from completing my mission.”
Rosehip replaced the card on the deck, then she took the deck off its shelf and placed it on the table. “If you insist.” She leaned down and pressed a notch on a small mahogany desk off to the side. A hidden compartment fell open and she retrieved a folded piece of paper from inside it. “I have an address for something called the mage team.”
“What’s a mage team?” I reached for the paper, and she snatched it back, holding it high in the air. “Are you sure—”
Harps leaped from his position in the corner, grabbing at the ceiling, and he used a rafter to swoop low over Rosehip’s head. He snatched the paper out of her hand and landed on my shoulder.
Great work, Harps, I told him, taking the paper from him. I unfolded it, saw that it contained an address as Rosehip had promised, then pocketed it.
Harps decided he’d had a great victory over the forces of evil and jumped onto the table to do a victory dance, making rude gestures at Rosehip. She ignored him and started shuffling the tarot deck. I smiled at Harps, glad that the distress my earlier remark had caused had disappeared as fast as it had arrived.
I had what I had come for, so I stood, stretching my arm out for Harps. He stuck his tongue out at Rosehip one final time, then scrambled up my arm. I was about to thank the old woman, but then I stopped myself. Harps had given me the address, not her. She had just made me jump through hoops. So I just gave her a nod, then turned and reached for the violet curtain at the doorway.
When I heard the slap of a card hit the table, I froze.
“Well, look at that,” she said. “You’ll never guess what card turned up.”
I didn’t have to guess. It wasn’t possible that I knew, but I did. I could picture it in my mind. The Chariot. The card with my face. I slowly turned around, and there it was on the table exactly as I had imagined it. A shiver ran up my spine.
“I had to nearly tie the boy down to get him to stay earlier, and now he doesn’t want to leave,” Rosehip said. “What has changed, I wonder?”
“Just turn the next card.”
“His friendliness hasn’t improved,” Rosehip muttered. “With that attitude, I don’t know why he expects anyone to help him. I’ve become curious, though.” She turned a second card, placing it beside the first. “The Lovers,” she said.
I stared at the two cards side by side, seeing the cards, but also seeing beyond them. I wasn’t sure exactly how I did it, though the sensations were similar to how I communicated with Harps, but I could read meaning in the cards.
“You are seeing what I never did.” Rosehip studied me. “What does The Lovers card represent?”
“Team,” I said.
Rosehip rubbed her hands together. “Just after I’ve given you a slip of paper headed with the words the mage team.” She half lifted the next card on the deck, then stopped. “Should we continue? Or just stop this hocus pocus mumbo jumbo now?”
Harps jumped onto the table, stepping onto The Chariot and The Lovers cards, and he tried to pull the deck out of Rosehip’s hands.
“I’ll take that as you wishing to continue.” Rosehip grinned as she flipped the next card over, placing it on top of and diagonally across the other two. The Devil.
Harps shrieked and scrambled onto my lap, and, in a flurry of limbs, squirmed under my jacket. I shifted on my seat to allow Harps room to find refuge in one of the inner pockets.
“Despite what your familiar believes, the devil doesn’t have to be an ominous card. It can have many meanings. In this case…” She looked up. “What have we learned about your new team?”
My throat was dry as I opened my mouth to speak. The word came out in a cracked whisper.