Ruby shook her head in annoyance as she watched Jennifer flounce through the crowd toward the restroom. Meeting her at all was stupid enough. Meeting her here, though, that took some special effort at being dumb. Well done, Ruby. She sighed and finished off her Ringer, a Pilsner from a craft brewery on the other side of Nevada. She made eye contact with the bartender and pointed at the two empty glasses. The tuxedoed woman behind the long metal-and-stone bar nodded.
Any of the wide variety of casino bars on the Ely, Nevada Strip, which resembled a mashup of the one in Vegas with Fremont Street in that city, could have hosted her reunion with her high school frenemy. Since the other woman offered the invitation, it had seemed only right to let her choose. Still, Ruby hadn’t expected Jennifer to select the one gambling hall that would have easily won the award for “Most likely to piss Ruby off.” Then again, that’s exactly the way she would have acted six years ago, so it’s probably stupid for me to be surprised.
Looking around at the place, she had to admit that the Sunshi family had done a beautiful job with it. It was soft and elegant, all whites and golds and blues, making one think of the sky, mountains, or the oceans. Each of the casinos in Ely, Nevada was owned and operated by a different group of magicals, earning the town the nickname Magic City. It wasn’t as big as Las Vegas to the southwest or Reno to the west, but what it lacked in size it made up for in originality. The Mist was one of two gaming establishments owned by members of the reclusive Mist Elves, who had remained hidden from everyone on the magical planet of Oriceran for generations upon generations until finally, the allure of coming across to Earth proved too strong to resist. Ruby’s family owned the other one, called Spirits.
None of the other magical groups had more than one casino. Her family and the Sunshis were the exceptions because they’d founded the kemana beneath the city in years long past as a home for the Mist Elves on Earth. She’d been in each of the other casinos many times but still liked her family’s best.
Ruby looked down at her watch with a frown. This reunion had already gone longer than she’d hoped it would. It was her first time back in town in nine months, and although she’d seen her family a month before when they’d visited her in Massachusetts for graduation, she would have preferred to see them before having to cope with Jennifer. Another dumb move. Glad I’m getting them out of my system all at once. Well, I’ll get to see the fam soon enough.
She plastered a fake smile on her face as the other woman returned from the restroom. As Jennifer slid into the seat next to hers, the bartender put their fresh drinks in front of them. Ruby nodded her appreciation at the server’s care, which eliminated any chance of the beverage being messed with while its owner was away. It was one of the many little things that made visiting Magic City a unique experience compared to the state’s other gambling destinations.
Jennifer had attracted the attention of almost everyone she’d passed on the way back. She’d fit in much better in California than she does here. She was blond, blue-eyed, thin, and her cheekbones could still cut glass, just like in high school. Hoop earrings dangled under her long hair, and she wore a gold chain with a rhinestone “J” on it. Her white blouse was cut deep enough to entice the eyes, and her tight jeans were no doubt intended to do the same. Ruby’s jeans, t-shirt, and leather jacket didn’t begin to compare.
They’d been sometimes friends and sometimes competitors in high school, and the other woman remained unaware that Ruby was a Mist Elf. Instead, she thought her an adopted daughter of the casino owners, as did almost everyone else who knew her. Camouflage, illusion, concealment—these were things Mist Elves excelled at, and keeping secrets was part of their very essence. Jennifer sipped her drink and flashed a wide smile. “So, tell me all about your degree. Some kind of computer thing, right? Took you long enough.”
Always needling. Ruby fingered the golden sun pendant she constantly wore. In places like this, where anti-magic emitters protected the games from interference, having a magical backup for her disguise was always a good thing. It was also the only reason she could do any magic at all without letting her illusion of being a perfectly normal human fade. It would permit her to “accidentally” knock Jennifer’s drink into her lap with a small burst of force without revealing her delicately pointed ears or the tattoos that would appear when she summoned her power. That would be wrong. For some reason I can’t quite think of right now.
Ruby sighed inwardly but kept her expression neutral. Carelessly displaying her emotions would never do. “No, not computers as such. Engineering. Electromechanical and Magical.”
Jennifer gave a small, sympathetic frown. “It must be difficult, being part of a magical family but not being magical yourself.” It reminded Ruby of why they’d fallen out on more than one occasion. Still, something about the other woman remained stuck under her skin to keep them connected. Like a parasite, maybe. Wonder if there’s a medicine for that.
“You don’t have to be magical to work on magical devices. You only need to know how to collaborate with magicals. That was one of the main things we did during the years I worked on my master’s degree.” Ha. Take that. Jennifer had stopped at a bachelor’s degree, preferring to jump into the working world. By all accounts, she was blazing her way up the corporate ladder at the travel agency that exclusively served Magic City. Still, graduate school was one thing Ruby had accomplished that the other woman hadn’t.
“Who would have thought our Ghost would be so highly educated?” She delivered the line with a thin smile, but Jennifer clearly believed the old nickname still bothered her. It wasn’t particularly inventive despite Ruby’s pale skin, light eyes, and almost white hair. Combine that with the name of her family’s casino, and it became downright predictable.
A standard deflection reached her lips but didn’t get past them. Instead, the sight of six human-sized and -shaped figures approaching the large cashier window about twenty feet away from where she sat caught her attention. The way they moved had snuck into her subconscious as a warning. They strode through the crowds with purpose, all of them heading on direct lines that would converge at the three windows that served as the casino’s cash exchange. Two paralleled the wall that held the cage, and the other four marched through the lanes between the gaming tables, pushing past magicals and non-magicals ranging from gnomes on the short side to Kilomea at the opposite end of the height spectrum.
She thought to shout a warning to the ubiquitous casino guards as the bombs went off. One was behind the bar, and she was too slow to save the bartender. Her force shield snapped into place only an instant before the flame and debris reached her chair. Ruby had the reflexive presence of mind to wrap Jennifer in her protection, and they both flew backward, propelled by the energy that hit the shield, and tumbled onto the main casino floor. Once things stopped falling on them, Ruby pushed on Jennifer’s shoulder to keep her down and rose with a snarl to take stock of the situation.
The thieves—their march toward the casino cage left little doubt what they were—had set the stage cleverly. Detonations had occurred in numerous locations spread across a wide area, to judge by the smoke and the shouting, and the casino’s guards logically moved to deal with the injured. Her rational brain observed that damaging innocent magicals from multiple species wasn’t a smart move unless the criminals wanted the whole town against them. She stored the idea away for later as water poured out of the sprinklers and sent chills through her as it slipped down the neck of her black leather jacket.
Her first instinct pulled her toward helping the injured, like the security personnel, but she was concerned about the people in the casino cage. Not the money—any casino that didn’t have the appropriate amount of insurance to cover themselves against such things deserved to be taken for all they were worth simply for being bad at business. However, the criminals had already shown a willingness to wound or kill, and the Mist Elves behind the bars of the cage would have their magic blocked by anti-magic emitters. Even magical casino owners didn’t possess an abundance of trust in their employees, especially ones proficient in illusion.
Weapons emerged as the figures closed on the cage, black pistols that looked like the 9mm ones she’d used at the shooting range near her university. Ultimately, what kind they were didn’t matter as much as their presence, and that the people they threatened couldn’t use magical defenses against them. Fortunately, the thieves were still outside the cage and far enough away from the gaming tables that there would hopefully be a gap in the defenses against magic use. She half-stumbled toward the wall while pretending to be more stunned than she was until she drew close enough to act but remained far enough away that they might not notice her doing so.
Ruby had practiced martial arts since childhood. She worked her way through the human versions first, then specialized in the Mist Elves’ art, which incorporated magic as a fundamental element in its most effective form. Because she’d attempted to stay disguised, and performing magic caused her illusory humanness to falter, she’d learned to use it with and without invoking her powers.
She knew getting involved was a risk, both to her safety and her ability to continue the pretense that she was human. Still, she couldn’t not intervene. Ruby had never been one to stand by and do nothing. She’d have to hope that the amulet she wore would be sufficient to cover her magic use. She also hoped that she’d be up to fighting at six-to-one odds long enough for someone to come and help her.
Her eyes narrowed as the first man to arrive yelled insults at the workers behind the counter and demanded that they fill the bags he and the others threw at them. The workers looked at the manager, who nodded, and his people began to empty the drawers. For a moment, she thought they might all get out of it without further incident. Then the first thief demanded, “And the drop safe. Now.”
The manager stammered, “We can’t open it. That’s the whole purpose of a drop safe.” His skin was even lighter than Ruby’s, offset by dark hair and eyes, and a sharp business suit concealed his thin body.
Another of the criminals laughed. “I’m going to start counting. Whatever number I get to before that safe is open is how many bullets are coming your way when I run out of patience.” He smiled. “One.”
The manager went even paler. “No, really. None of us can do that. Only our bosses.”
The other man’s grin widened. “Two.”
Ruby realized that whatever was going on, it wasn’t only about the money. The purpose remained unclear, but their actions weren’t consistent with the goal of getting out with the cash. She frowned at the scene. As water from the sprinklers dropped from her bangs into her eyes, she realized that she had the perfect way to even the odds, and if she was lucky, take out the bad guys without a fight.
Stretching out her senses, she pictured a line of force connecting the men’s gun hands, then brought it to life and attached it to the power outlet nearest them. The water pooling in the channel she’d created carried the energy along it, and all the men dropped their weapons to avoid electrocution. She huddled against the wall and tried to look unimportant, but one of them must have noticed her motion and decided she was to blame for the strange occurrence. He pointed at her. “I’ll deal with this. You deal with her.”
The remaining five walked toward her. Three of them drew collapsible batons from their pockets as they came. The other two rushed at her as though they’d tackle her.
Guess today’s not my lucky day. Time to make sure it’s not theirs, either.