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Chapter 1

      The street lights flickered out as Dante’s team approached the rendezvous point. He shook his fingers, trying to flick away the ominous feeling he got before an op like the one they were on now. He and his team were to meet with Alezandria and hers nearly a half hour ago. He’d ordered a watch on the meeting zone, not trusting that it hadn’t been compromised. In his line of work, those who walked without looking found themselves dead all too quickly. He motioned for two of his companions to secure the far entrance to the courtyard. They’d arrived in the abandoned city by helicopter drop the day before, but they’d holed up in the overgrown, empty buildings, waiting for a sign of the other team arriving. He hated being the first on scene, but duty called.

      Dante signaled to the entire team for a quick equipment check, examining his own gear with the quick, professional grace of a man raised on the battlefield. Their equipment consisted of items used by any other Special Operations soldier, all colored black to blend in with the night, with two notable exceptions. In place of kevlar vests commonly worn by regular troops, Dante’s team had specially imbued vests, capable of deflecting the potent magic spells they were sure to encounter in their missions. Vambraces on their arms and legs helped generate the mystical force field that protected them, at least to a point. Black cargo pants ended tucked into titanium capped boots, imbued to make their wearer near completely silent while walking. His only weapon was his wand. A combination of modern technology and arcane magic, it represented the pinnacle of Spellcaster research and development. A tool of deadly grace and beauty, it responded only to him.

      His AEF team, Arcane Expeditionary Force, was one of the most elite in all the world, well regarded by their peers and battle-proven by nearly 90 years worth of conflicts. The team had played major roles in both World Wars and later in the Middle Eastern conflicts at the turn of the century. Vietnam had been a notable exception, but military leadership was quick to reincorporate their magical teams after that failure. Current operations had evolved from full scale war efforts to counter-terrorism operations, specifically dealing with their current target, known only as the Shadow. From what little intel he’d received, Dante knew this encounter would definitely be violent, likely leave behind casualties and possibly be his last. The only thing known for certain about the Shadow was that they rarely left survivors, all but a few of whom had been found tortured and driven insane by their captors. Alezandria’s team had been sent for observation; his team had been sent to back her up in the event that she found actionable intel.

      Dante peered around, searching for any signs of an enemy presence, but was rewarded only the whispers of the wind passing between the blackened husks of civilization. After the fire bombing of ‘24, only the brave and lunatic entered the ruins of Chicago, a no-man’s-land of rubble and decay, reminders of a world that no longer existed. Dante glanced down the street, feeling as if he was back in the city during it’s height of prosperity. That was the downside of being long-lived. He’d personally served that day at Verdun, that day in Normandy, that day in Fallujah. He’d lived the steady rise and break-neck fall of the country he loved. The dreams of this once bustling city had faded away in the wind like the painted walls of it’s ruined buildings

      He felt the footsteps as much as heard them, catching sight of the figure out of the corner of his eye as the searing ball of blue-white energy flashed past his field of vision. One of his mean screamed as the orb encompassed his body, singeing his flesh.

      “Sanctus Aquarius!” Dante yelled, the tip of his wand erupting in a jet of brilliant blue. The spell would extinguish the flames, but Rolph would be out of the fight. “Aegis Ambosius!” he shouted as a wall of pure, white energy appeared between his team and the attacker.

      The hostile raised his wand and Dante watching with horrific fascination as his shield wall fell to an onslaught of ghostly green beams of light. Whoever this warlock was, they were extremely powerful to be able to simply wipe away his spell as if it were cast by a child. Then the wall was gone and Dante realized for the first time there were five more figures approaching behind the first. He clicked the Morse Code light on the base of his wand, sending a vibrated message to his two operatives at the entrance to the complex. They’d know what to do. He looked at the other two next to him, locking eyes with each of them. Soren and Jorge were two of his most trusted friends and mages of extraordinary power. A simple nod was all he needed. What happened next was a flash.

      “Deflagracio!” they shouted in unison. Jets of flame erupted from all three wands, lancing spears of fire that sped across the hundred feet between the two groups. Three of the advancing hostiles fell instantly, hit full in their chests by the fountains of mystic fire. The remaining two and the leader took the opportunity to sprint towards the three casting mages, leaving their comrades burning in agony. They were almost upon the three when two orbs of light vaporized the two rear warlocks. Ian and Janus had sprung the trap, but they’d only been able to get two. The lead warlock was faster than all but one other spellcaster he knew and at that moment, the horrible truth dawned on him.

      Alezandria burst through the flames, covered in a shield of the same green light she’d used to tear down Dante’s defenses. Her eyes glowed with green fire, like emeralds set into the face of some ethereal demon. She smiled at him, not with the sweet, shy smile she usually gave him, but with a savage and cruel grin. He’d seen that grin before, on the last Shadow they’d encountered. Had this been a trap? How high did knowledge of Alezandria’s betrayal go? Was the Council compromised? Questions blazed through Dante’s mind, his senses reeling. Alezandria leaped into the air, screaming something primal, something dark. Spears of smoke shot forward from her wand, impaling Dante’s companions and staking them to the ground. Necromancer, was his only thought, staring down at Soren as his friend was slowly enveloped by the smokey, oily substance of the strange spear. Disengage! shouted his subconscious desperately.

      “Defugio!” he yelled, flicking his wand down at the earth between himself and Alezandria. He felt himself propel backwards into the air. That spell had come in handy on more than one occasion, but here it would give him only moments to spare. He glanced to his right only to see Ian and Janus both down, pinned by the same smoke spears. He landed lightly a hundred yards from where he’d used the retreat spell, regarding what lay across the courtyard with a mix of horror and amazement. Soren and Jorge were no longer pinned to the ground. In fact, they looked perfectly normal except for two things; they were standing with Alezandria and they had the same, eerie green light in their eyes.

      “Glacio!” he boomed, his wand set to multi-target. Strands of pale blue ice lanced out at his possessed comrades. The strands wound themselves around the bodies of those across the yard, enveloping them in a thin veil of frost. The frost quickly encompassed their entire body’s and then hardened, leaving five ice carapaces, his friends unconscious and frozen inside. Dante realized he was holding his breath and slowly exhaled.

      “Too close,” he said even as he saw the movement in the corner of his eye. Rolph was up, eyes glowing with the green fire, wand upraised in a strike position. Dante tried to summon a barrier, but it was too late. He felt the spell and knew with dread certainty what it was. Consopio, the sleeping spell, was the last thought he had before the spell struck. Dante did the only thing he could in the situation; he closed his mind, knowing full well that whoever or whatever had had the power to possess six of the most powerful mages he knew, apparently only to capture him, would be wanting some answers. In his last moments before near complete unconsciousness, he managed to erect a mental wall. If you want it, come and get it, read the message he inscribed on the gates of his mind as he drifted into nothingness.

      * * *

      When he came to, Dante immediately sensed the intruders as they poked and prodded his mental defenses. Whoever they were, they had an expert sense in the way they teased the gates of his mind, looking for any weak point. He needed to discover who his captors were, but without them knowing he was aware of his predicament. He sent out his mental antennae, feeling the magical rifts and patterns, absorbing the arcane power that flowed from all magical beings. Magikinesis, as he called it, was a trait of his he’d found useful in more than one situation, a trait that as far as he knew was unique only to him. It had taken decades to hone his abilities, to train himself to filter our unnecessary information. Now it was almost like seeing without his eyes, and the picture he saw was worrisome to say the least.

      Two warlocks stood, one simply watching, the other with his wand out waiving in faint, almost imperceptible motions as their wielders worked their trade. Dante noticed he was not strapped down to a table or chair, but was floating nearly fifteen feet in the air. The two on the ground wore dark robes with large hoods to conceal their faces. He could not sense their identities, but the power they exuded was immense. He shifted his attention away from the men, fanning out his consciousness like a dolphin’s echolocation, using the rifts of magic emanating from the two figures on the floor to determine the contents of the rest of the room.

      The room was a large warehouse, probably used to store produce under normal circumstances and definitely used to store magical items recently given the arcane residue he sensed several hundred feet to his right. He found that he was located square in the center of the room, equidistant from any of the three exits he’d discovered, though at full strength he might be able to blast himself up to the roof. No, he decided, he would have to figure out a way to escape that involved incapacitating, or if necessary killing, he two captors. Confident he’d absorbed all he could of his surroundings through his Magikinesis, he pulled back his mental scan and opened his eyes.

      “Who the hell are you and where is my team?” he whispered coldly to his captors. He fully expected to be ignored and was surprised and a little suspicious at their response.

      “Ah, Captain Triarius, welcome. I hope you’re not too terribly uncomfortable,” said the figure at the rear who was watching his companion work. He was taller than his accomplice by several inches and even through the thick robes, Dante could tell he was more physically fit as well. His voice was deep, but strong, suggesting he was old enough to be highly puissant, but not so old as to have lost his touch.

      “Of course not, I really quite enjoy being imprisoned and probed by masked men. It’s kind of a fetish, actually,” replied Dante sarcastically, smiling darkly at the two figures on the ground. “As I asked before, who are you and where is my team?”

      “Yes, yes, your team is fine. They are being, housed shall we say, elsewhere and will be released pending your cooperation with our mission,” the tall man reassured him, though Dante felt no assurance of his team’s safety whatsoever. For all he knew, they were still possessed, waiting outside to kill him as soon as he was released. “As for who I am, well, I can’t go giving away all my secrets up front can I, Captain?”

      “Fine, then what the hell do you want from me?” he asked defiantly. It was easier to act boldly, give the enemy the impression that he was rash or reckless, that he would try to muscle his way through negotiations.

      “Yes, well, that’s the question isn’t it? We don’t want anything you can willingly give us, unfortunately,” the hooded man said. He reached into his robe and pulled out an object.

      Dante braced himself for the pain he knew was coming, but was surprised when the object turned out be a simply hologram display unit. The image it displayed, floating in the air at the same level as Dante, was a face. The face was familiar, yet distant, like someone unremarkable he’d met and couldn’t remember when or where. That was when he realized he’d fallen into their trap, as he felt the second man’s probes bypass his mental defenses. His attempt to recognize the face had recalled memories, inadvertently unlocking a part of his mind to the intruder testing it’s boundaries.

      “I’m in,” the man said, his wand increasing in the tempo of his casting as he wove a doorway through the walls of Dante’s mental barriers.

      “Thank you. See now Captain, we really just need to take a peek and when we’ve found what we need, you’ll be free to go,” said the first man. “Please don’t resist, it will only make things more difficult for us and more painful for you.”

      “I don’t know who you think you are, but whatever you want, you’ll never get it,” Dante said, straining against the nearly completed portal to his mind.

      Then it was done, a flash of pain drove Dante to the brink of unconsciousness, but he held fast his mental footing, reeling from the blow. It was like someone had used a cattle brand on his soul, a burning so real and agonizing he felt he might die here, in this god forsaken warehouse.
The pain ceased suddenly and he felt no lingering sensation. But his consciousness was numb, his mind malleable. Dante felt the warlock working his way into his mind, seeking whatever information he needed. He had to do something, he had to stop these people from getting what they wanted, whatever it was. Then the man with the wand touched a part of Dante’s memory he’d sealed off, a part he didn’t wish to remember. Anger surged through his body, coursed through his mind like a rampaging forest fire. He felt power jolt through him and he unleashed that power without thought, without focus, towards the two on the ground. The result was surprising for all three of them, as the lights went out. But the darkness was pure, as if they were in a sightless void. Dante felt himself falling, falling into nothing, until he finally lost consciousness.

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