Some of you are worried about how Ruby Fever is going. It’s going well. And I just knocked on wood and spat over my shoulder three times. But we haven’t posted a snippet in a while, so today is your first substantial glimpse at updated Ruby Fever. This is the first chapter, but it’s structured almost like a short story.
PS. For those new to the blog, this is an unedited first draft. Please do not point out typos.
“Hold on!” Arabella took the turn too fast.
The Mercedes jumped the curb. Normally, it would’ve been jarring, but since our grandmother insisted on outfitting Arabella’s Baby with VPAM 7 armor and an engine to match, jumping the curb with all of that added weight and power felt like a near death experience. Fortunately, I had a lot of practice riding with my sister.
“Careful,” I told her. I kept my voice calm and reasonable. Unless she started bumping other vehicles off the road, there was no reason to get excited.
“You said go fast,” Arabella growled. “I’m going fast.”
“I also want to get there in one piece.”
“We’re all going to die,” Runa intoned from the back seat.
“Don’t be a drama queen.” Arabella barreled her way across two lanes of traffic and made a hairpin U turn.
“That’s okay,” my best friend told her, bouncing in the back seat. “I’ve lived a good life. If you survive, tell Bern I love him.”
“Will you stop?” Arabella shot down the side street leading to the parking lot of the new Justice Center. We rocketed toward the glass entrance. For a moment it looked like Arabella would ram it. She spun the wheel. The Mercedes made a terrifying turn and slid to a stop.
“There,” Arabella announced. “In one piece.”
“Hold on,” Runa said. “My short life is still flashing before my eyes.”
“Oh my God…”
I popped my door open. “Don’t wait for me. I don’t know how long this will take.”
“What else is new?” Arabella rolled her eyes.
“You owe us a lunch!” Runa yelled.
I got out of the car, jogged to the entrance, and managed to successfully negotiate the rotating glass door to get inside. For some reason, rotating doors always flustered me.
The guard at the desk by the door raised his eyebrows at me. It was Sunday. The plan had been to go bra shopping with my sister and my best friend and then have fruity drinks and gossip. I wore strappy sandals and a pale blue dress with tiny sunflowers flowers on them made of rayon crepe fabric. I was twenty-two and I had to rely on conservative clothes to be taken seriously under the best of circumstances. This outfit made me look fifteen years old.
“Who are you here to see?” the guard asked.
“Prime Duncan. I’m expected.”
The bored expression evaporated from the guard’s face. “Sixth floor, room 602A. The elevators are directly down that way and to the right.” He pointed at the lobby.
“Thank you.” I took off at a near run.
“You’re welcome, Prime Baylor,” the guard called.
I grabbed an elevator to the sixth floor. It spat me out into a wide hallway, and I hurried down, tracking numbers on the doors. 630, 629, 628… Wrong way. I reversed. 600, 601, 602A.
I knocked on the massive oak door, opened it without waiting, and slipped inside. Eight pairs of eyes stared at me. We were in a dim room in front of a huge one-way mirror. Four people in uniform, two Army, two Marine Corp. I took a quick survey of the shoulders. Silver eagle, silver eagle, gold leaf, silver bar. Two colonels, one Army, one Marine, a Marine Corp major, and an Army 1st lieutenant.
Beside the military brass, the room held a man and a woman in business clothes who looked like law enforcement; Agent Wahl, tall, trim, with light brown skin and blue-black hair; and to the right, Linus Duncan, my mentor and my boss, dressed in an impeccable suit, his distinguished salt and pepper hair styled into a loose but very deliberate haircut. The Warden of Texas looked at me with his hazel eyes and winked.
Agent Wahl pointed at me. Some people looked exactly the way they were supposed to. Linus looked like a Prime, a top-tier mage who had been at the apex of power for decades. The Army colonel to my left looked like a senior officer, spare, precise, confident, the kind of woman who would walk into a disaster and immediately assume command. Agent Wahl looked like an FBI agent: severe haircut, grave expression, athletic build, and that no nonsense look in his eyes that suggested he knew you were up to no good even if you didn’t and he was not amused.
He also had the rare distinction of knowing that Linus Duncan was the Warden of Texas and I was his Deputy. We’d crossed paths before. He no longer treated me with open suspicion, so I had been upgraded from “doomed to fail” to “useful asset.”
“You’re here. Fantastic. What took you so long?”
“Traffic.” Hello to you too.
Linus had called me less than twenty minutes ago. I had been all the way across town at Harwin Trade. I would’ve had to fly to get here any faster. I had wings, but they didn’t work like that.
Linus beckoned me to the one-way mirror. Three men sat inside in an interrogation room, two on one side of the table, and the third on the other. A suitcase lay on the table between them.
The two men sitting side by side were in their early thirties, one blond, the other a redhead. Both wore expensive clothes masquerading as casualwear. Having to interact with upper echelons of the magic elite quickly taught me to recognize three-hundred-dollar T-shirts.
The man across from them was stunning. Tall, broad shouldered, with soft, wavy brown hair, he was built like a gymnast, the fact which he normally mitigated with careful choice of clothes. He must have been called in on short notice, because he was wearing a blue mineral-wash T-shirt and a pair of torn faded jeans.
His face could literally stop traffic. I had seen it happen. He had a square jaw, a strong nose, and chiseled cheekbones. The contours of his features were devoid of softness. His control over his expression was superb. He could look charming and urbane one moment and sarcastic and arrogant the next, but today he hadn’t bothered hiding. He looked exactly like what he was, a merciless, unstoppable fighter, a calculating killer, who removed obstacles without hesitation. His eyes were like amber, lit from within by an agile, fast mind, and he stared at the two men with controlled calm menace.
“The suitcase has a custom combination lock,” Linus told me. “It’s trapped. If the outer shell is breached, the case will explode. To open it, those two have to enter their combination and press their thumbs to the sensor on the lock in unison. I need the suitcase opened.”
I headed for the door.
The female colonel cleared her throat.
“Linus, you’re sending a child into a room with a bomb. If it detonates, everybody in this room, no, everybody on this floor, is going to die. Are you absolutely sure about this?”
The Marine Colonel nodded. “They have been in there for over an hour. He can’t keep this up indefinitely. Perhaps it’s time to consider more radical measures.”
I’ve dealt with Marines before. Radical measures were their favorite. Left to their own devices, they skipped straight to radical.
“She isn’t a minor,” Agent Wahl said. “She’s twenty-two years old.”
“As I said, a child,” the Army Colonel said.
“Prime Baylor has my complete confidence,” Linus said in that Linus voice that meant the end of all discussions.
The room went silent. Linus’ word carried a lot of weight.
Agent Wahl opened the door for me. “Do me a favor. I need to know who they would be meeting in Miami. Name, place. Anything you can get.”
I glanced at Linus. He was looking through the one-way glass, which meant he left it up to me to accept or decline.
“I’ll do my best,” I promised.
Wardens preferred to operate from the shadows. The less general public knew about us, the better, and there were times when we required quiet cooperation from the Federal authorities. Having an FBI agent owe me a favor would be quite useful.
I stepped out into the hallway. The plain clothes woman from the room followed me, crossed the hallway to 602B and held her card up to the lock. The door clicked and she ushered me in.
I stepped inside and nearly choked.
Magic. So much magic that it was a wonder the walls didn’t vibrate from the strain. The two men across the table battered against the other man’s defenses. If it was bothering him, he showed no sign of fatigue. Suppressing two mental Primes without breaking a sweat. Just another lazy Sunday.
The two Primes looked at me. I gave them a little wave and pulled a chalk out of my pocket. “They said you may need an amplification circle, sir.”
“No need,” “sir” said.
“Arrogant pisshead,” the redheaded Prime spat. An English accent, Northern, Manchester maybe.
“Ah, does that mean we’re starting?” The killer on the other side of the table raised his eyebrows.
The redhead growled.
“The girl is a distraction,” the blond Prime said. Cultivated Australian accent, upper class. “No worries. Concentrate on target.”
I took a chair, set it in the corner, out of the way, and sat.
Invisible currents of magic clashed in the air, the steady, almost cold stream of power from the Aussie and the uneven, knotted current from the Brit smashing into the other’s man’s defenses. His magic streamed around him, a potent, overwhelming force.
I took out my phone, pretended to look at it, and began to hum. They glanced at me again and resumed their assault.
I kept humming. The first tendrils of magic spiraled from me like invisible grape vines, curling and twisting as they grew.
“We seem to be at a stalemate.” The Aussie’s tone was almost cordial. “No permanent damage has occurred thus far. You are not a member of their law enforcement. You’re not even American. Why involve yourself in this unpleasantness? All you have to do is walk out that door, and we’ll part as friends.”
“Fuck you, you fucking dickhead,” the Brit snarled.
Someone was getting tired and cranky. Good.
My vines had wound around them. Gently, oh so gently, the shoots of my magic probed their defenses. All their shields were up. This would require a bit more power.
I hummed louder, murmuring the actual words.
A ‘níon mhín ó, sin anall na fir shúirí
A mháithairin mhín ó, cuir na roithléan go dtí mé
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Dúlamán na farraige, be’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
“Oh that was dead good,” the Brit said.
“What language is that?” the Aussie asked. “Is that Scottish?”
“It’s Irish.” The Brit was looking at me. “Don’t mind him. I rather like this song.”
“You would.” The Aussie rolled his eyes.
“Keep going, miss…?”
“A lovely name. Please continue.”
I sang, pouring magic into my voice.
Tá ceann buí óir ar an dúlamán gaelach
Tá dhá chluais mhaol ar an dúlamán maorach
Bróga breaca dubha ar an dúlamán gaelach
Tá bearéad agus triús ar an dúlamán maorach
“You’re right,” the Aussie said. “It is pretty. What is it about?”
“Seaweed,” I told him. It was also about famine, courting, and a potential kidnapping.
“Brits,” the Aussie said, resignation plain in his voice. “Of all the things to sing about on your rocky little island, you picked seaweed.”
“It’s an allegory,” the Brit told him. “And Ireland is a separate country, you nonce. You say that to an Irishman, you’ll end up picking your teeth off the ground.”
The Aussie shrugged. “Who cares? Do shut up so I can hear the rest.”
The man across the table smiled. It flickered on his lips and vanished, but I saw it.
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Dúlamán na farraige, be’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
The Aussie began to tap his foot. On the second chorus, the Brit joined in. A moment later the Aussie began to hum, proudly enunciating Dúlamán at strategic moments.
I finished the song. My vines had burrowed through their mental shields.
I let my wings out. They spread from my back, translucent and glorious, emerald green at the base, then lightening to seafoam until they turned an exuberant gold at the tips. The people watching us from the other room would see nothing. This was a private show for the two mental mages in front of me.
The two Primes stared at me. The relentless bombardment of their magic died.
“Who are you meeting in Miami?” I asked.
“Niels Muckle,” the Brit said. “A strange block. Has a strop every time something doesn’t go his way. Give me the creeps.”
“There is something quite unsettling about the man,” the Aussie said.
“Where are you supposed to meet?”
“He has a yacht.” The Aussie frowned. “The Eclipse. We’re supposed to connect when we get down there.”
“Is he the one who wants the suitcase?”
The Brit laughed. “Oh, he wants it. He isn’t getting it. Maybe, if he is very lucky, we’ll give him a glimpse.”
The Aussie leaned forward, his blue eyes wide. “Would you like to see it?”
“I would. If it’s okay. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
The Brit shook his head. “It’s no trouble at all.”
The Aussie pulled the case toward him with a magician’s flourish. The two Primes locked minds and keyed the combination into perfect unison. Two thumbs pressed on the reader pads on the sides of the suitcase. The top popped open and swung up slowly.
A beautiful jewel the size of a grapefruit rested on pale silk inside the case. Rainbow fire played in its depths, and past it, deep inside the heart of the gem, something moved. Something glittering and sinuous, a star stretched into a long shape of a living creature. It was mesmerizing.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” The Brit smiled like a proud parent showing off his newborn.
“You have no idea what we went through to pull it out of the arcane realm.” The Aussie winked at me. “Don’t touch, however.”
“The last bloke who did lost his arm up to the elbow. It melted the damn thing right off his body. That’s something I won’t ever unsee.” The Brit smiled at me, a little shy smile. “Do you like it?”
“It’s very beautiful.” I smiled back.
“You can’t wear this one,” The Aussie said. “But if you like jewels, I have several that would look stunning on you. You should come with me to Miami. We can stay as long as you like.”
“Don’t listen to him,” The Brit said. “You should come with me, he’s no fun.”
The door swung open. People in Marine uniforms filed into the room with the major in the lead. They positioned themselves behind the Primes. Two of the Marines raised syringes.
“That’s sounds nice, but right now, you have to let these nice people give you a shot.”
“What about Miami?” they asked at the same time.
“Miami will have to wait,” the major told them.
The Aussie’s eyebrows came together. His power stirred like a lion waking up.
I got up, walked over, and took their hands. My feathers glittered. They gazed at me as the sedative entered their bodies and spread through them.
“So will you come with me?” The Aussie murmured.
“I can’t,” I told him. “I have someone.”
The Aussie collapsed onto the table.
“Who?” The Brit demanded.
I nodded at Alessandro still sitting across the table. “Him.”
The Brit glared at Alessandro with undisguised hatred, a last rally before the sedative took him under. His lips shaped the words even as his voice faded out.
“You lucky bastard!”
Alessandro got up, went to the door, and held it open for me. We escaped into the hallway.
“Prime Sagredo,” I murmured. “Imagine meeting you here. What was it someone said this morning? Something about wild horses not being able to drag him out of bed?”
Alessandro gave me his heartthrob smile. His voice low and intimate. “Why would I stay in a bed without you in it?”
Oh wow. My heart actually skipped a beat.
He leaned closer. His eyes were warm. “As I recall, I tried to keep you in bed with me.”
He’d gotten in around 2:00 am, taken a shower because he was covered in something nasty, and then decided that finding underwear was too hard. I woke up to a naked Alessandro, golden from the Houston spring tan, sprawled on white sheets. And when I tried to slip out of bed, he opened those amber eyes and said, “Stay with me” in this dreamy voice. If I hadn’t stood up Arabella and Runa once already, I would’ve still been in that bed when Linus called.
“You are such a cruel woman,” Alessandro murmured.
The door swung open, and Linus emerged, followed by the military brass.
“I even said please.”
Oh my God. My face was heating up. “Stop making me blush. We’re in public.”
“The public should be aware of my suffering.”
The group headed toward us.
“No, it really shouldn’t.”
“Prime Baylor,” Marina Colonel called out. “Please give my regards to your sister. Tell her Colonel Rojas says hello.”
“Have you considered a career in the military?” Colonel Rojas asked.
“Stop poaching, Bendik.” Linus gave us a brisk nod. “Walk with me.”
Alessandro and I dutifully followed him down the hall toward the elevators.
When Linus deputized me, he also roped Alessandro in by offering him a contract to be my bodyguard. At the time, I thought it was a formality. In reality,
Linus had made Alessandro my temporary Keeper, a position Alessandro permanently accepted during the Abyss affair. Keepers were to Wardens what bailiffs were to judges. While Wardens investigated, Keepers guarded them and applied force when force was required. Just like me, Alessandro was always on call.
It wasn’t hard to piece together what happened. The military had gotten a whiff of an object with potential combat applications extracted from the arcane realm. They used FBI to track down the owners. They must’ve deployed suppression mages to take the Englishman and the Australian into custody. Almost any mental mage with strong defenses could function as a suppression mage, a telekinetic, a psionic, anybody who could put up a good mental shield. The two men with the suitcase would’ve sensed it and attempted to dismantle the threat before the other mage attacked. Clearly, they had succeeded, because Linus was called in, and he in turn called both of us. Normally he took pains to keep Alessandro and me out of the limelight.
Dismantling Alessandro’s mental defenses was a whole another matter. He wasn’t a mental mage in the strict sense of the word. He was an antistasi. His magic didn’t shield him, it made him immune to mental attacks.
“The Gundersen affair escalated over the weekend,” Linus said.
Alessandro grimaced. Dag Gundersen was a colossal pain in his neck. An alteration mage, he had the ability to supercharge missiles with arcane energy and he’d used his talent to turn ordinary hail into an arcane meteor shower, damaging several municipal buildings. Normally something this minor would be handled by Texas Assembly, who would slap him with a fine and move on, but instead of paying restitution, Gundersen proceeded to evade the authorities, unleashing random bombardments against various targets. The Assembly got fed up with trying to track him down and petitioned Linus for help, who sent Alessandro to take care of it.
“What did he do?” Alessandro growled.
“Bombed a National Guard armory.”
Vandalizing a couple of municipal buildings was one thing. Attacking National Guard escalated this one-man crime spree to state level.
“I’ll take care of it,” Alessandro said.
“Sooner rather than later is best. I’ll see you both tomorrow evening at the usual time. Call me if there is a problem.”
The elevator chimed. The doors opened and Alessandro and I moved into it. The doors slid shut and the cabin carried us down.
Alessandro stepped closer and kissed me. The world stopped and I floated through it. No matter how often he kissed me, when his lips touched mine, everything halted. It would never get old. I leaned into him and kissed him back, savoring the taste.
The elevator opened. Alessandro put his arm around me, and we strolled into the foyer.
“Do we need to go after Gundersen?” I asked.
“No. He’s holed up in a bay home in Morgan’s Point. I’ll pay him a visit early in the morning.” His eyes shone. “Let’s have lunch instead. Let’s bill it to Linus and not tell anyone where we are or what we’re doing.”
I turned my phone off. “You’re on.”
Last week was hell. Judging by the packed schedule, next week would be purgatory and tomorrow was Monday. We had the rest of today and tonight, and I knew exactly how and with whom I wanted to spend it.
My family would just have to fend for itself for the next few hours. I rested my hand on my fiancé’s arm and we walked out into the sunny parking lot.