Chapter 2

The lamp came on very suddenly, its full-spectrum glory flaring into brilliance before Zap had the chance to close his eyes. He cursed and flailed in place for a moment, then grabbed the top of the ladder and waited for his vision to clear. While he was still dazzled, he heard a female voice call from below.

“You okay up there?”

“Yeah,” Zap replied.

“You got the dead crystals ok?”

“Yeah,” Zap said, squinting as his sight slowly returned. “I’m coming down now.”

One careful, slow trip down the ladder and Zap was once again on the floor. He looked to Steve, who had already turned her attention to something else. “Check this out,” she murmured conspiratorially to Zap and pointed down the aisle.

On the other end of the store, an elven toddler was throwing a tantrum while its father stood nearby. The child was giving an expert performance: it rolled on the floor and shrieked its rage as tears rolled down its face. The father had an air of baffled helplessness, seeing his child in a state he could not bring himself to control or even address.

Steve had her eyes still fixed on the child, but she leaned toward Zap with a smirk hanging on her face. “Can you believe how impossible it’s got to be?” she asked him. “By the time elven kids are done with their ‘Terrible Twos’, they’re over five years old.”

“Probably why most of them are so patient,” Zap murmured in agreement. “Elven puberty is what, like five to eight years long? I think that’d beat patience into anybody.”

The two went quiet, silenced by the unpleasant thought. The toddler’s tantrum continued, and the father moved toward the shrieking beast but seemed unwilling to do anything.

“He should smack the kid,” Steve said.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. He could just take the kid out of the store,” Zap replied. “It’d teach action and consequence without having to resort to—”

“Is that how you were brought up, seriously?” Steve interrupted. “No wonder you suffer urges to wear a pointy hat and speak in tongues.”

“You’re an asshole,” Zap said, managing to only mean it a little.

The two went back to regarding the commotion on the other end of the aisle, just in time as the child reached up to a shelf and swiped his hand across it, knocking twelve boxes of cookies to the floor.

The two employees sprang into action without their usual snarky comments. In a moment, the toddler found himself confronting one and a half imposing meters of Steve Anderson, while Zap launched a rapid-fire lecture at the father for failing to control his child. Moments later, both parent and child were being ushered out of the Securemarket™ by a pair of employees making shooing motions with their hands.

Zap and Steve walked back into the store. “Sweet jumpin’ zombies,” Zap commented, looking behind him at the retreating figures.

“Friggin’ larvae,” Steve grumped.

“I’m just glad we got there when we did,” Zap said. “Kid could’ve unshelved a whole aisle.”

“Yeah,” Steve said with a smirk. “Good thing we’re such good employees.”

On the other side of the store, Alan sighed as he heard raucous laughter coming from the entrance. “I need to separate those two or something,” he muttered.

“Pull!” Steve shouted.

Zap hurled the jar high into the air and broke into a run toward the other side of the loading dock.

Before Zap had gone four paces, Steve’s hand sped to her hip and wrapped around the grip of her custom pistol. A fluid motion brought it from its holster in an unnecessary but stylish spin, coming to bear at the jar as the latter reached the top of its parabolic flight. Steve squeezed the trigger, and the pistol barked.

The sound of a bullet hitting an IHDP wall echoed through the dock. The jar fell to the ground and bounced once, unscathed.

“So apparently the third time is not the charm,” Zap quipped, amused.

Steve waved off the disparaging remark, then jumped down from the ledge near the loading shutter. “I’m not warmed up,” she offered as an explanation. “And anyway, I’m better at making guns than shooting them.”

“Can I try?” Zap asked.

“Okay,” Steve replied, jogging to the jar and picking it up. She stood in the position that Zap had stood, marked with a chalk “X” by the employees. “Stand on the ledge,” she said to Zap, who was already climbing up.

“Ready?” Steve asked. Zap nodded. He drew his wand from a narrow pocket of his slacks. It was elegant, for a student’s wand: it had a simple burnished black design with a number of white runes etched near the bottom. Zap held it with easy expertise.

“Pull!” he yelled. Steve threw the jar.

Zap drew his energies inward and prepared the arcane syllables that he would use to cast a magic missile at the jar. As he raised his wand, there was a sharp report from behind him, and the jar shattered in midair, sending pieces of plastic scattering across the garage. Both Steve and Zap cringed in frightened surprise, Steve raising her arms to ward off the falling bits of plastic. Both turned to the source of the noise, too surprised to bring their weapons to bear.

A male half-elf wearing the trademark red apron of a Securemarket™ employee stood in the loading dock’s doorway, grinning. He had tousled platinum-blond hair, appeared to be in his late fifties (were he human, he’d be “pushing thirty”), and was holding a smoking Dai-Sho Katana .45-caliber pistol.

“Iyesukristo!” Zap exclaimed.

“Holy fuck!” Steve shouted. Unlike Zap, her tone of surprise was a happy one. “To’mas!” She ran to the edge of the loading ledge and vaulted atop it. “Where have you been?!”

“Earning my Dai-Sho B-Cert,” the half-elf said with a smirk, waving the gun in the air as demonstration.

“I missed you, jackass!” Steve said, leaping forward and embracing To’mas, who moved the pistol out of the way and returned the hug with his free hand.

“Yeah, I know,” To’mas replied. Once freed, he holstered the gun and held out his hand to Zap. “Sorry to steal your thunder, little guy. I’m To’mas Bonvent.”

“It’s cool,” Zap said as he put the wand back in its pocket. He reached forward and shook To’mas’s hand. “I guess I would have done it too. Zap Bradshaw.”

“Good to meetcha,” To’mas replied. “Anyway, Alan says you guys have to come back in. Loren’s done waxing the floor and you need to stock some shit before we open.”

“Aren’t we overstaffed?” Zap asked. “We never have this many people.”

“Go-Go Cola just adblitzed,” Steve explained. “I think Paru’s worried that a supervisor and three people aren’t going to be enough.”

“Oh,” Zap said.

“Anyway, somebody’s gonna have to sweep up that jar,” To’mas said.

Zap clapped him on the shoulder. “Well,” he said with a grin, “you broke it.”

Steve and Zap slipped through the entrance before To’mas could reply. He looked at the broken shards of plastic on the dock’s ground and sighed. “To think I kind of missed this place,” he said wistfully.