Sneak Peek: Arcane Ops Chapter 1

Ice shards rained down at Diana from all directions, her attacker’s abilities sufficiently impressive to threaten her from every angle. She responded with a raised-arm spin that created a shell of frozen power around her and pulled energy from the matching magic as the icicles struck and failed to penetrate. She smiled through the barrier at the distorted view of her teacher, whose head looked to be about twice its normal size thanks to the fun-house-mirror effect of the ice. Don’t laugh. Seriously. Don’t laugh. Internal Diana materialized in a corner of her mind and nodded agreement, equally aware that to laugh at the dark elf was to court one’s own destruction.

But as her attacker moved, causing her head to grow in size again, the mirth escaped her control. The scowl it generated was also triply large as normal, as was the flaming wave she threw at her student. Diana conjured her own fire sphere to intercept it but couldn’t find a way out of the continuing assault to counter it. Apparently, the lesson for today is how to maintain a defensive bubble. At least it’s less tiring than usual. Then the attack vanished, and she banished her defense, ready for the next.

When the tentacles erupted from all around her opponent, she panicked for an instant. Her dislike of shadow was manageable, but the tentacle version of the magic reached down into her soul and suffused her with their threat. She’d spent too much time dealing with the things, or wrapped up by them, to respond with the sort of rational detachment optional to combat them.  Force blades materialized in her hands, and she slashed at the approaching strands, not quite wildly but definitely not as calmly and deliberately as she might have preferred. Her teacher fired shadow orbs at her, and she swung the magical swords faster to intercept them while fending off the grasping limbs. She was holding her own effectively, giving her a second of pride that lasted right up until the moment that Nylene snuck one in at her feet and she missed the block.

The impact knocked her legs out from under her, and she managed to flop to her side as she fell to the ground. She spun back up, ready to defend herself, but the Drow stood with her arms crossed, staring at her. Diana frowned. “What?”

Her voice was entirely matter of fact. “You need to be better.”

“I’m well aware that I don’t live up to your expectations, oh most honored master of the magical arts.”

The other woman snorted. She was looking extra prissy today, clad in a tight red dress that buttoned up the left side from the top of her knee-high black boots to her neck. Her snowy hair was slicked back, and her dark skin shone in the flickering light of the basement. As always, Diana was underdressed in tactical pants, boots, and a concert t-shirt. Adam Ant’s face stared out from today’s selection. Her own hair had been chopped down an inch to cope with the part that had been burned away in battle. When her teacher spoke again, it was still without judgment. “Your enemies are getting stronger and increasing in number. If you don’t reach your full potential, they may defeat you.”

“I’m sure you’d cry for days.”

Nylene raised an elegant eyebrow. “I have invested a great deal of time and energy on your behalf and opened myself to possible risk as well. Do not forget, your enemies attacked me directly.

Diana shook her head. “I believe they were your enemies, too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Dreven seemed quite interested in you.”

The other woman laughed. “Indeed so. Arranged marriages are such a bother. He was deeply offended when I chose not to agree to the practice.”

Her jaw dropped, and then she gathered herself, deciding there were some things she really just didn’t need to know. “So, how do I improve? It feels like I’ve come about as far as I can with Fire, Ice, Lightning, and Force. My telekinesis is fine. That leaves shadow, and we are both well aware that I’m hopeless at that.”

The Drow nodded. “True. More practice will enhance your existing skills, of course, but you are correct that the largest gains have already been accomplished. There are only two more paths for growth, and really, they are the same. A Rhazdon artifact, or Fury.”

The idea of having one of the slimy invasive artifacts – she was sure they would be slimy, she just knew it in her bones – working its way under her skin was a concept that made her nauseous whenever it occurred to her. She swallowed hard and replied, “The sword, then.”

“The sword. Yes.” Nylene shrugged. “Then we are done here, for today. I will let you know when I have a new idea on where to pursue the final piece of Rhazdon’s Vengeance.”

Diana stepped into the portal her teacher created to send her home, noting as she crossed over that the Drow was wearing a fierce scowl. Damn. I hope that’s not my fault.

***

When the gentle but insistent request for connection had pressed against her mind, Nylene had been both shocked and suspicious. She lowered her defenses just enough to receive the message, which allowed her to know the source and the content but permitted no further invasion. It was a sophisticated piece of mental magic on her part, but decades of practice had made her expert at protecting her consciousness from others. Her first thought in response involved a great deal of colorful language, and her second had been to get rid of her student as quickly as possible.

What on Earth and Oriceran would Iressa want to discuss with me? She and the other witch had never gotten along, even less so once the woman had entered the radius of Dreven’s influence. Nylene had assumed, after the battle in the Kemana, that all the supposedly secret members of the Remembrance “circle” had declared themselves her enemies. To have one seek her out so soon after was not an expected occurrence, to say the least.

She spoke the commands and made the required gestures to lock down her shop and activate the defenses set throughout. After the place’s unfortunate service as a battleground, she had updated everything and had brought craftspeople in to fix what had been broken. There were now more surprises awaiting an invader than there had been before, and she had ensured the outer wards were as strong as she could make them.

She summoned a cushion and sat in lotus position within her ward rings, inside the outermost, but outside the innermost, limiting the area where the other woman’s magic would function. There was little doubt that Iressa was making similar arrangements, or already had. She closed her eyes and stilled her mind, then locked on to the trace of energy the witch had left behind. She wove her own power into it, sending it along the path to the other woman. Iressa’s image appeared in the center of the wards, also seated on a pillow She was dressed entirely in clingy black, as was her wont, and wore her typical smug expression.

Nylene inclined her head, and the witch spoke. “Thank you for accepting my request to speak.”

“Of course. We are sisters, are we not?” Witches, long forced to defend themselves against the attempts of wizards to subordinate them, respected the connection their magic and the unified purpose of protecting their own power from others who would take it gave them. That history wouldn’t be enough to keep her from killing the other woman, if necessary, but she’d think about it for a moment first. Doubtless, she feels the same.

The thin smile Iressa bestowed upon her confirmed it. Her pale skin was a stark contrast to her dress, but she had some color in the cheeks, as if she was energized by some happening. And if it’s good for her, likely it is not good for me, or Diana, or both. Her voice was smooth and seductive, as always. “Nylene, I wished to give you an opportunity to distance yourself from all of this.” She waved a negligent hand. “It is not your fight, and there is no need for you to get wrapped up in it.”

“Dreven seemed to disagree.”

A true smile broke out across the witch’s features. “He did. But now he is dead, and those of us who knew him celebrate his end.”

“You’re sure? He’s cheated the reaper before.”

Iressa showed her teeth in an even wider grin. “I was there. I saw the knife pierce his heart. He is gone. He probably deserved a more torturous farewell, but one cannot have it all, I suppose.”

Nylene nodded. “Very good. However, it is not up to you to determine what is, or is not, my fight.”

The positive expression vanished as if it had never been, instantly replaced by a scowl. “What do you have to gain? The appreciation of the humans you surround yourself with? Have you truly forgotten yourself so much?”

Her reply was cold but level. “I’m not sure you’re one to be speaking of my compatriots, Iressa. Your ‘circle’ was laughable, and your connection to the witch in the city above is beneath you. She is damaged goods, at the least, and more likely broken and insane.”

The woman shrugged, her hair falling perfectly with the motion. Always on, is Iressa. “Regardless. You are at a moment of choice, Drow. You can choose to disengage from those I name my enemies and live your life free of my involvement. Or, you can count yourself among them, and face the consequences of that decision. Truly, I cannot imagine why you would consider doing the latter.”

Nylene smiled. “And yet, that is my choice. If it is between you and the people I have met here, there is no comparison. You are, at best, a clinging sycophant who mistakes the desire of powerful men to get into your pants for their respect for your power. You deserve the fate you have courted.”

Iressa shook her head with a sad smile curling her lips. “Having been born unattractive, it’s logical that you might not understand this, but what I have is both – their desire and their respect. The more powerful the witch or wizard, the more attracted they are to what I offer, and the more I can use them to further my ends. But plainly you come up short on both measures – power and desirability. It must be so very difficult being you. Perhaps that is why you live underground, outcast.”

The Drow grinned. “I look forward to watching you fall, Iressa, you and whatever master you serve now that Dreven is no more.”

Her laughter was seductive, even through Nylene’s dislike for her. “I never served Dreven, regardless of what I might have led him to believe. There were always plans behind plans, and more hidden behind those. He served his purpose, and now we will bring you and your friends down in flaming ruin. The game until now was simply testing and discovering the edges of the battlefield.” Iressa shook her head. “Now, I’m afraid, you will experience the result of your choices. And I do not expect you will like them.”

Nylene rolled her eyes. “Since they’ve required me to talk with you, I already dislike them. Vehemently.” She canceled the connection, and the witch’s image evaporated before she could respond. The dark elf sighed and rose smoothly to her feet, sending the cushion back toward its resting place with a minor expenditure of magic. I will need to warn Diana that we’ve poked the enemy sufficiently to anger them. She snorted. We’re two of a kind, it seems, when it comes to our ability to irritate others.

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