The Merlin's Palace Casino was run by the wizard mafia, and nobody thought anything strange about it. People figured that people who ran casinos were shady one way or another, anyways, so what did it matter if they happened to be magic on top of it?
Big guys in black suits stood by the entrances, trying their best to look simultaneously friendly and threatening, letting everyone know that by golly, they hoped you all had a good time and would come again, but for the love of God, you'd better not try anything or they'd put your insides on your outsides.
Matthew didn't let them bother him. He smiled absently at the security guys and filed in with the rest of the crowd. He was dressed like a tourist, and to complete the costume he made sure to have an appropriately stupid look on his face at all times; anyone looking would have thought him to be continually impressed with everything he was seeing, despite the fact that he'd seen it all before a million times.
Today the place was especially crowded. Not only was it summer, meaning the summer vacation crowd was in town, but there was also a show today- something with tigers and snake charmers that he didn't catch from what he'd gleaned from the posters on the walls.
All around him, rows and groups and clusters of slot machines flashed with blinking lights and made musical blipping noises, all of which were specifically designed to attract the attention and money of people too dumb to know better or too rich to care. He walked too close to one of them and it sparked. The lights flickered off and the music sank to a low-pitched, drawn out "bloop" before it went entirely silent.
He tried to look inconspicuous and stuck to walking in the dead center of the walkway, trying to stay away from the machines on either side.
The house always won. It was one of the rules of casinos everywhere that everyone knew but never paid attention to. The house always won. Maybe they'd throw you a bone once in a while, maybe the dice or slots or whatever would appear to be on your side, but they never really were: they were on the side of the house, and you only got that bone if it was small enough that they didn't care, or if they knew you'd be bringing it right back to them.
Well, Matthew knew better. They wouldn't get anything from him.
The air was steeped in quiet magic. He could tell just by the way the air frizzed when he walked by. The slots all had spells on them. There were spells put on by the house: spells for attracting attentions (come gamble with me!) and spells for resisting fatigue (no use letting the marks get tired before they could spend everything they had, after all) and spells to prevent cheating via magical means. By that same token, nearly everyone there who had even an inkling of talent was trying their damnedest to do exactly that.
He hadn't heard of anyone ever successfully winning via magic (aside from the house), but he figured that if they had, he wouldn't hear about it. People who bragged about scamming casinos typically didn't get the chance to brag for long. He stayed away from the slots as well as he could. They held no interest for him; even without house magic manipulating them, and even if they still worked after being near him, slots were unreliable at best, and the lights gave him a headache.
Instead, he went to the card tables.
Most already had full games going, but there was one in the center of the room that was open. He sat himself down and smiled at the pretty dealer, wondering how many spells had been set on her and on the table, and how many he'd killed just by walking over.
* * * * *
It wasn't about the money.
Well, okay, the money was a big part, but it wasn't the only thing. It was also to prove a point. He considered himself to be the clever little guy going up against the big corporate conglomerate with nothing but his wits. Technically speaking, they had every advantage over him: money, technology, manpower, magic. What did he have?
He looked up and smiled at the nearest security camera, and was satisfied to see it spark and smoke. Everything in this place had magical circuitry, it seemed; he hadn't even been trying with that one.
Alright, he admitted to himself. So he did have something they didn't have.
He didn't cheat.
Well, he did, sorta. But not in the way everyone expected him to. The House had gotten so used to greedy wizards or schmucks with store-bought magic trying to be clever that they'd devoted nearly all their resources to stopping them and had forgotten the simple things. Oh, sure, they had spells to prevent mundane forms of cheating- alarms that triggered when people meddled with cards or dice or spells that muddled the minds of counters (and tourists, for that matter).
But if the spells were somehow broken, then all the stood before a good card counter were the watching eyes of a dealer who'd grown a little too lax, a little too reliant on magic security checks.
* * * * *
He won six thousand dollars in the next four hours over several different tables and games.
When people started to congratulate him on his run of good luck, he decided it was time to go. There was no sense in drawing attention to himself and anyway, six thousand dollars was pretty damn good for a few hour's work. He finished the game he was in and went to collect his winnings from an automatic dispenser. The second he got too close, the machine made a loud thunk noise and shut down.
He sighed and went to the teller at the window nearby. "Hi," he said. "I wanted to redeem this," he held up the ticket declaring how much he'd won, "but the machine-"
"Oh! Sorry about that. They've been on the fritz lately. May I see your ticket?"
He passed it through the hole in the glass and she scanned it with a handheld machine. "Alrighty," she said. "Please hold on one moment, sir."
Her smile was infectious, and he found himself smiling back. "'kay."
Sometimes this happened for winnings over a thousand. They had to make doubly sure the ticket wasn't fake or something. It was no big deal. It wasn't like he'd cheated.
He waited for all of ten minutes before someone came to speak with him.
"Excuse me, sir, I'm going to have to ask you to step into our office."
The man who'd spoken was medium size and medium build, but the two with him were the same sort of bruisers who'd been at the front door.
"Is there a problem?"
There's no way they know, he thought. It's impossible.
The man smiled. "Just want to ask you a few questions. It'll only take a moment of your time, I assure you."
He tried to smile, but he felt it twist and die on his face until it was something like a lemon-sucking grimace. "Alright," he said. "How can I refuse?"
The man walked ahead, but the two muscle men stood on either side of Matthew, making sure he wouldn't run. They led him down a narrow walkway along the wall until they reached a hallway.
Down that was another hallway, a few doors, an elevator trip up three flights, another hallway, and finally a cramped room with a lot of TV screens showing what he took to be security footage. The room's occupants consisted of a man in a chair sitting at the panel in front of the screens, and a thin man reeking of magic who loomed over him, pointing out something in the footage they were watching.
Matthew tried not to look at the screen. He was pretty sure it was him.
The thin man stood up when they entered, and Matthew saw that he was tall, as well as thin. "This is him?" he said to the medium man.
The thin man examined Matthew with the same look of someone studying a new kind of bug. "Interesting. This way."
He showed them out and into a room that held just two chairs and a table with a small pile of paper. The thin man scooped the papers up and took his place on the opposite side of the table.
"So," he said, "you must be Mr. Young." He flicked a paper onto the table. "Or is it Mr. Stark?" Another paper fell on top of the first. "Or Mr. Walker. Or Webb. Morden. Sharpe." One by one, the papers piled on.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," said Matthew, face straight.
Matthew didn't want to sit, but the two muscle men helped him into the chair. The papers, he saw, were copies of some of the fake IDs he'd been using lately. Some of them were stills of security footage, or snapshots of his face from the cameras at the tables. Most of them were from different casinos around town, ones that didn't have as much magical equipment that would go haywire around him.
"Yes," said the thin man, as though he'd read Matthew's mind. "We've been cooperating with some of our competitors over this, whether they know it or not. That's is just how highly we think of you."
"Listen, I think there's been some kind of mistake-"
The medium man entered the room with a small device that looked kind of like a small radio with a musical tuning for attached via a curly telephone cord.
"Thank you, Jameson," said the thin man. "Mr. Young, or whoever you are, do you know what this device is?"
"Not a clue," said Matthew with complete honesty.
"It detects magic. You see, Mr. Young, we know you've been cheating. The problem is we haven't been able to figure out how. We don't know what kind of magic or what spell combinations you're using- it never leaves a trace! But whatever it is, it completely demolishes out existing preventative measures, and, quite frankly, we don't like not knowing things. Especially when it comes to breaks in our security."
He flicked on the machine and it whirred to life. The two muscle men grabbed Matthew's arms and pressed his shoulders, holding him in his seat.
"This may hurt," said the thin man. He waved the tuning fork bit around Matthew's head.
It didn't hurt in the slightest; the most he felt was a slight fizzing, and three seconds after, the machine exploded.
"How did you do that?" Jameson demanded. He grabbed Matthew by the shirt collar. "How did you do that, you little shit?"
"I didn't do anything! You saw me, I didn't do anything!"
"You did," said the thin man. He looked thoughtful. "But not actively. Quartz. Bring me the box in my office, the one on my desk."
One of the muscle men left, and returned a moment later with a box that looked like a large, undecorated shoebox. He handed it to the thin man, who, standing well away from Matthew, began pulling out objects. They were all technical looking doodads that buzzed with strong magic. The thin man found one he could part with- a small round clock- and said, "Catch." He tossed it.
Matthew did without thinking, and before it even hit his hand, the clock screeched and died, the numbers flickering madly before going out permanently.
"Now this," said the thin man. This time, he tossed the wristwatch he'd been wearing. It was fine: there was nothing magical about it.
"It's the magic," the thin man said, eyes bright. "You destroy it."
"I nullify it," said Matthew. "The destroying happens on its own when the magic isn't there to keep stuff working."
"All the same. Is that how you beat our system? You nullify the cheating spells? Then what?"
"I'm not saying anything."
"You can't do your own magic, can you?" said the man, almost to himself. "No of course not, you'd only nullify that." He glanced at the paper pile. "You only ever do tables. You count cards?"
Matthew resolutely looked at the ceiling.
"Hold him," the man said. "I need to make a few calls." He left, taking the box with him.
He was gone for what felt like hours, but was only twenty minutes according to the watch. When he came back, he resumed his place across the table, and smiled.
"Gentlemen, go get a coffee. I'd like a moment alone with our guest." The two left without a word. "Mr. Young, I don't believe we've been properly introduced. My name is Aaron Bishop, and I am the current head of Magic Security here at Merlin's Palace."
"That's a job title?"
"I assure you, it is. And you are?"
"Not telling you."
Bishop still hadn't stopped smiling. "I expected not. You know, Mr. Young, this unheard of gift of yours, this antimagic. Many would consider it to be a highly useful skill in this day and age. Many would also consider it to be troublesome. My employers here at Merlin's Palace, in fact, consider it almost too troublesome, if you decide not to cooperate with them. They've decided that, should things not work out well immediately, it may be the kind of trouble that ought to be eliminated immediately." He paused, letting that sink in.
"Yeah?" said Matthew, feeling sick.
"Yes. But I, however, am not so crass." Bishop smiled in a way that reminded Mathew strongly of the faces of snakes. "I find this talent to be an incredibly interesting development, and I wouldn't waste such an exciting discovery by merely executing it."
"Oh?" Matthew said weakly.
"No. My associates at ArcanusTech agree with me. They would much prefer a live subject to study."
Images of needles and scalpels and surgical tables with restraints on them flashed before Matthew's eyes. "Oh." He could feel the blood draining from his face.
"As you can see," Bishop said. "You have a choice to make here, and both of those choices ensure that you have an interesting, if not long, life ahead of you. Which will it be?"
"Can. . . Can I have a minute to think on it?" He wished Bishop would stop smiling. Why the hell was the man smiling so much?
"Of course." Bishop got up. "You have five minutes," he said from the doorway. The door shut behind him and Matthew heard the familiar sound of a lock being set into place. He put his head in his hands.
There was a way out. There had to be a way out. There was always a way out.
Well I could work for the mob and do. . .
What? Whatever they wanted? What did they even want? All he knew about mafias was what he saw on the Simpsons and from that Godfather movie. Nothing there seemed particularly helpful.
No, that couldn't work. There had to be a way out.
He got up and went to the door. It was locked, yes, but- oh holy Jesus fuck.
The lock was a graceful blend of magic and technology that was designed to keep out both the mundane and the arcane. He held his hand against the metal and there was a sad hiss as the magically imbued components combusted and destroyed themselves. Just in case there was anything else, he ran his hands all along the edges of the door. there were several more small popping sounds as the sensors on the other side of the door broke.
He rammed open the door, hitting the door with his shoulder, and broke the lock entirely off. The hallway was clear: Bishop had sent the others out and apparently they'd taken him at his word. Everyone had been counting on a locked door to keep him in.
Wizards, he thought, disgusted.
All he had to do was navigate his way down the maze of halls, find the stairs, and get the hell out of there. And what luck, the stairs were right there! He started down and someone behind him shouted, "Hey!"
He didn't look back and ran. They followed him downstairs, into the main room, and through the casino's restaurant. They ruined dinner for half a dozen people in the mad dash, knocking over food, tables, and a buffet cart. People yelled behind him. All the exits he could see were blocked, so he ran around the room, through the empty bingo hall, and through another hallway on the opposite side of the building.
He chose a door at random and found himself in the dressing room of a dozen gorgeous women in varying states of undress, wearing at most pink swimsuit-things with feathers on the backs. He stared, slack-jawed, for approximately five seconds before a bolt of lightning striking the door frame by his hand reminded him that he was, in fact, running for his life.
"Sorry!" he shouted, running into the room. There was a door on the opposite side of the room, past racks of clothes with barely enough cloth to qualify as clothing, and hopefully it led to somewhere safe.
Some of the dancers screamed, but most threw things at him or yelled for security. Security was not far behind. They stormed the room and started hurling spells, apparently having missed the pertinent memo. He felt the magic hit his back and fizzle away harmlessly. Nothing they hit him with this way could hurt him. One of the dancers wasn't so lucky. Out of the corner of his eye, he was her get struck by a fly spell and topple over, paralyzed.
Sorry! he thought at her.
He threw open the door he hoped would lead to freedom. It led to the stage. Roughly a thousand eyes watched as he ran into a woman ballroom dancing with a Bengal tiger.
The three toppled over, him landing on the woman and the tiger landing on both of them. He screamed, she cursed, and before the tiger could make up its mind whether or not to eat them both, one of the security's paralyzing spells hit it and it froze stiffly on top of them.
"Sorry!" Matthew gasped, crawling out from under the tiger.
As soon as he'd gotten to his feet, he was hit by a dozen spells at once. The crowd gasped as the spells hit him and did no harm while the stray spells burned the stage and paralyzed one of the other performers. So many spells hit him and were instantly dissipated that there was a visible cloud of magic appearing where he was hit.
It kinda tickled.
He waved at the crowd and jumped offstage, down the front row. Security was still hurling magic at him uselessly, apparently so unused to the idea that their magic could fail that they just couldn't handle it. It was the sort of pigheaded single mindedness that had gotten him to think about scamming wizard-run casinos in the first place.
He ran out the auditorium, back into the game room, and past two ushers who apparently had no idea what was going on. He didn't bother avoiding the slots this time and went straight through the rows. They short-circuited as he passed. Some of them just ate the money of whoever was playing on them and shut down, others spat out a ludicrous amount of quarters. It didn't matter that the path of destruction led straight to him: the game was over now. He was done.
He ran to the nearest exit and, to his surprise, nobody was there to stop him. Out on the street, nobody gave him a second glance. Alarm bells went off in his head. He'd been expecting a street chase, at least. No way they would let him off the hook that easy.
I've gotta get out of here.
He walked briskly down the street, trying to hurry without catching anyone's attention. He discarded his jacket and hat in a trashcan on the corner and put on a pair of sunglasses. Couldn't hurt, might help.
His hotel wasn't far; he'd booked it specifically because it was perfect walking distance to a dozen different casinos. All he needed to do was pick up his passport and a change of clothes, and he'd be out of state in an hour. It had been a fun game while it lasted. He nodded to the doorman on his way in.
He had 40,000$ in the bank from just the last three weeks. In retrospect, that was probably what had gotten him caught. He didn't know how to pace himself, though he'd tried his best. He took the stairs up, since he didn't trust elevators in this city not to work with magic. His room was only on the third floor, anyways.
No more casinos, he thought. He'd gotten his shot, his jab at the big guys, and if he got out right now he'd be on top, technically. Besides, he had a week of vacation time left and he'd rather spend it someplace pleasant rather than hang out in this nauseating neon hell hole.
He slid the card-key and opened the door to his room. A quick hand and volts of electricity greeted him. There was nothing magic about the taser, just good old fashioned human ingenuity. He fell, and two sets of rough hands picked him up.
"Hello, Mr. Young." Bishop was sitting at the kitchenette, looking over a bunch of Matthew's personal effects. "Or is it Mr. Terrace? I assume this passport is correct: they're a great deal harder to fake than regular IDs, if I'm to understand. The consequences for fake passports tend to be more severe."
The room was spinning and everything hurt. Matthew said something that might've been "Guh?" or might've been "Gng?" Bishop swept everything on the table into a briefcase.
"We'll have our specialists look at it all," he said. "We'll figure out who you are, eventually. But, Mr. Young, you still haven't made your choice, so I took the liberty of making it for you."
He took his phone from his shirt pocket and pressed a button. "I've got him. bring the van around. We'll be down in five." To the man on Matthew's right, he said, "Sedate him."
Matthew didn't see, but he felt the prick of a needle and the disconcerting feeling of foreign substances being injected into his veins. In a few minutes, he knew, the world would go very fuzzy, and he'd be lost.
Gotta think of something. . .
He looked around to room, looking for magic he could make malfunction and hopefully blow up. It was useless; there was nothing in there that hadn't been broken already. It was his room, after all.
"I bet you're wondering where you're headed," Bishop said. Matthew guessed this was to kill time until their ride arrived. "Merlin's Palace. They've decided that the wisest course of action is to gain as much information off you as possible before turning you into shark chum, though to be honest I fully expect you to go missing the day before you're slated to die." The snake smile returned. "ArcanusTech has given me a very big incentive to see to it."
Matthew felt sick. The floor rolled and his stomach rolled with it. "This is kind of really illegal," he tried to say. Instead, all that came out was that day's breakfast.
The men holding him both let go, and he collapsed onto the floor. He couldn't breathe. All he could manage were shallow gasps and wheezes. He started convulsing.
"Dammit!" Bishop shouted. "Get a medic in here!" A man ran off. He and the remaining man turned Matthew on his side so he wouldn't choke on his own vomit.
"Mr. Young, are you allergic to anything?" he asked, too late. He grabbed Matthew's hair and tried to hold his head still. "Are you?"
Even through the attack, some small, vindictive part of Mathew was happy to see he'd finally gotten the smile off Bishop's face. He grinned and laughed and then choked. He heard the sound of sirens in the distance and the pounding of feet coming up the stairs, but also felt the delicate magic in the medic's tools combust and break as soon as they entered the room.
Bishop yelled things he didn't understand at people he couldn't see. And it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard in his life.
So maybe the house always won, he thought as the world started going dark around the edges. But at least that guy lost.
The last thing he saw was Bishop, red in the face, trying to throttle a medic and getting tasered for his efforts. It was nice to go out on a happy note.