Chapter 28

“Hello, 15th and Neimuth employees,” Paru said to the assembled group. There were fifteen students in the room, a small clump in the center of a large gymnasium-like area. The three shift supervisors stood at the front of the group. “Welcome to Kekkai orientation.”

There were a few murmurs from the group.

“Would the shift supervisors please step forward?” Paru asked. The shift supervisors stepped forward and turned to face the other employees. Alan was chewing his lip, looking somewhat nervous.

“This island uses top-of-the-line Kekkai technology to ensure the most realistic and safe combat situations possible. This room is currently affected by a Kekkai enchantment which I will now demonstrate by shooting your supervisors in the head.”

There were loud murmurs as Paru unholstered a pistol from her hip, and the group shifted their feet. She held up a hand and they quieted a bit.

“Kekkai is the Japanese word for barrier, and it is Japanese scientists who first developed the technomagical devices that allowed for a standalone Kekkai for dueling. Originally Kekkai were only designed to reduce property damage during high-power duels and pitched battles, but it was soon discovered that the same technology could be used to protect combatants from their own actions under a very specific set of rules. What I am about to do is completely safe.”

With that, she raised her gun, pointed it at Emma Rammek's head and pulled the trigger. The other side of the quarter-dragon’s head erupted in a mess of blood, skull and brains. She fell heavily onto her side, what was left of her head bouncing on the gymnasium floor. Her eyes were blank.

There was a moment of silence, and then a half-elf girl among the employees screamed.

“Quiet!” Paru barked and the girl fell silent, her eyes wide. “I’m disappointed, May-May. You need to take my word. Kekkai, reset this scenario.”

With a wet noise, the blood, brains and shards of bone eerily slid back to the dead-eyed supervisor, reattaching to her head. The quarter-dragon woman blinked twice and winced in memory of the pain, dragging herself back to her feet.

“You will see some horrible things happen to your coworkers during this retreat,” Paru said. “This is part of your training. You are New Washingtonians and Securemarket™ employees. You need to be able to work through horror. But rest assured: you are all safe here.”

She hefted her pistol again without warning and raised it to Alan’s head. He had only enough time to flinch before Paru fired. Zap closed his eyes in a cringe and Steve’s eyes widened a bit as the left side of Alan’s head exploded, covering Raye Courts-the-Shadows (who held up an arm defensively) in gore.

The employees stared at Alan’s corpse lying on the ground for a few moments, and then were interrupted as Paru shot Raye Courts-the-Shadows.

Paru turned to the employees, all of whom were visibly shaken. One employee on the edge of the group kneeled to the floor and vomited.

“I hate this orientation,” To’mas murmured behind Zap.

“Kekkai,” Paru said, “please reset this scenario.”

The employees watched as the supervisors’ heads reconstructed themselves and the two slowly got to their feet. The employee who was on his knees remained there, but his vomit had vanished.

“This will not be the last upsetting thing you’ll see here,” Paru said. “And don’t expect that you will be exempt from doing them as well. If a threat needs to be neutralized in your store, sometimes that will mean lethal force. I expect all of you to be able to use it if you have to do. I do not enjoy shooting my subordinates any more than you will enjoy shooting each other. But I expect you to do your best. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” the group replied.

“All right,” she said. “We’re done here for now. You’ve already been through seminar orientation and opening statements, so you’re released at this point. I encourage you to go to the mixer tonight, but don’t stay up too late. Exercises begin at 7 a.m. tomorrow. Mages will especially need to get a decent amount of sleep, as the first combat magic exercise will commence immediately after the morning routine. Supervisors, please come with me. Everyone else is dismissed.”

The crowd, staying more or less in a clump, moved toward the exit.

“She didn’t even blink,” Zap said in a hollow voice. “She just shot him in the head.”

“Paru’s hardcore,” To’mas said. “Wait’ll you see her in the combat exercises; she’s like a machine.”

Zap shuddered.

“Chilling, no?” an iron-haired man said, approaching the group. “Difference is that back in basic, they did it to us instead of our officers. It was like an execution line. Pow!”

Zap smiled a little and gestured to the man. “Everybody, this is Arden Prewett, a veteran of the 8th Street War and an early-morning shift employee.”

Various one-syllable greetings were exchanged. Arden shook the nearest hands.

“May I be so presumptuous to ask,” Steve said, “which side you were on, Mr. Prewett?”

“The losing one,” Arden said, and guffawed. “Just my luck. Why d’you ask, young lady?”

“Did you work with Lieutenant General Dukakis?” she asked.

“Why yes I did; he was my commanding officer. I was in his unit when the surrender happened.”

“My Master is a good friend of the Lieutenant General,” Steve said with a smile. “Grover Messianic.”

“Messianic, that old bastard?” Arden asked, guffawing again. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing apprentice for a drunken ol’ sot like him?”

“’Cause I’m the only one who can hold Scrumpy like he does,” Steve said, grinning.

“Well we’re going to get along fine, Miss…”

“Steve. Steve Anderson.”

“Miss Steve. We’ll both have to have a glass of cider in your Master’s name at the mixer tonight.”

“Sounds like a plan, Mr. Prewett,” Steve said.

“Hey everybody,” To’mas said. Standing next to him was a clean-cut looking young man with sculpted good looks and an innocent appearance. He was the employee who had thrown up at the Kekkai display. “This is my roommate, Michael.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Steve said, a wry smile hanging on her face. “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into, Mike?”

“What?” Michael said.

“Don’t worry about it, she’s just ribbing you,” To’mas said.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Steve said. “Anyway, I really need a smoke. You coming, Zap?”

“No, I, um, have to go meet somebody,” Zap said carefully.

“Oh,” Steve said.

“I’ll go, if you don’t mind,” Arden said. “I could use a smoke, and I’d love to talk to you about what being apprenticed to old Messianic is like.”

“Sure,” Steve said, perking up. “I’ll see the rest of you guys later.”

As the two started walking away from the group, Steve continued speaking to Arden. “First of all, I should tell you about how I ended up with this pistol. Its name is Polaris…”