Chapter 32

The employees rushed to their positions, each one choosing an obstacle to hide behind. To’mas, barely impeded by his two pistols and the rifle strapped to his back, began clambering up the ladder to the nearest tower while Steve covered his ascent, her eyes darting back and forth.

The employees had not advanced far when a blur of blue light streaked around the corner of one of the obstacles. Something flashed, and Loren shouted as something pinned him against the barrier. Alan shouted and brought his shotgun to bear, but the humanoid figure was gone in another streak of blue before he could draw a bead.

“Zap!” Alan shouted into his intercom as Loren slumped to the ground with a large wound in his chest.

“Elven haste spell, sword enchantments, projectile shield,” Zap responded. “A fighter-mage.”

“Gonna tap out, boss,” Loren murmured, struggling to speak through the pain of his wound.

“Do it, Loren. Click!” Alan said. The faerie nodded and moved to Alan. “Zap, I want you to counter that haste effect. Click and I will engage; cover us!”

As Loren tapped the floor twice and turned an iron-gray color, the employees moved forward, edging around their barriers with caution. They halted in their path as a hail of machine pistol fire peppered the area. Finding themselves without cover, Alan and Click threw themselves to the ground to avoid the bullets. A male human was taking partial cover behind one of the barriers, laying suppression fire over the area. Without warning, his head snapped back as a round from To’mas’s rifle struck his bulletshield, throwing the employee to the ground.

“Incoming magic!” Zap called.

“Fall back!” Alan said, stumbling to his feet.

“To’mas, get down!” Zap shouted.

To’mas ducked behind the tower’s short barrier just in time to avoid a magic missile that hissed through the air where his head had just been. As the employees scrambled for cover, a plume of fire washed over the area. The employees found themselves standing where they had been moments ago, where Loren’s still, iron-colored form still lay slumped against the back of the barrier.

“So,” Alan panted, drawing something from his weapon belt, “if my detection’s on-par, that’s a wizard, a fighter-mage, and…”

“A Node Caller,” Zap replied. “Of fire.”

“Of fire, really?” Steve asked sarcastically.

“Flashbang,” Alan said, pressing a button on the object in his hand, “and we go.”

The employees braced themselves as Alan tossed the small grenade around the corner. A deafening noise rocked the battlefield and the employees all turned and ran around their barriers. Sure enough, several of their opponents were reeling, stopped mid-charge by the flashbang. Alan and Click beelined for them.

Click’s hands glowed with dream-fire as he hammered blows upon the nearest opponent, the human with the machine pistol. The man was thrown to the ground after only a few strikes and his body turned stone-gray.

Alan’s shotgun barked as he fired at a young woman, striking her in the arm with a slug. She dove for cover and managed to make it behind a barrier without a serious wound. From partial cover, Steve fired several times at a young man holding a wand, but a pentagram glowed at his feet and the bullets dissolved in the air in front of him.

The employees on both sides exchanged fire as they ran for cover frantically. To’mas clambered halfway down the ladder and jumped to the ground, running toward the battle and dodging between obstacles.

Zap and the other wizard squared off, each standing in a circle of protection. They began battering each others’ defenses; Zap would flick his wand and send a burning projectile at his opponent’s shield, but the other wizard would unweave it before it could reach him. The other wizard would attempt to break Zap’s protection spell, but Zap rewrote it faster than his opponent could break it down. The two fought their own battle, forming a deadly space between them that the other employees avoided.

As To’mas reached the battlefield, a man with a truly unfortunate mustache emerged from cover and fired a few potshots. One struck To’mas’s bulletshield, staggering him. Steve turned and returned fire with Polaris, firing several shots. The mustached man dropped to the ground and To’mas regained his balance, rubbing his chest. He ran to Steve with a smile, but the look dropped from his face as the woman that Alan had earlier wounded stepped out from a nearby obstacle and bathed both of them in magical fire.

Alan winced as To’mas and Steve screamed in pain over the intercom. “Tap out! Tap out!” he shouted, and heard the shouts silence as the employees hurriedly surrendered. “Damn it!” he said, then ducked low and snuck around his obstacle, moving around the side of the battlefield. He muttered to himself. “Where the fuck is Matt?!”

“Okay, finally got something,” Matt’s voice came in over the intercom. “Click, head left and run. You won’t get hit and the Caller’s too busy gloating. You’ll need to break her neck or she’ll immolate you.”

“Good to hear from you, Matt,” Alan said with some relief.

“Please be quiet, I’m about to be shot. Zap, your opponent plays by the books. If you know the Three-Martini Lunch duel set, throw it at him. He won’t know what to do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Sparrow morph with a pair of .38s—”

There were gunshots from the far end of the battlefield and Alan winced. He quickly changed course to intercept the unaccounted-for opponent.

Zap’s opponent looked increasingly concerned as Zap followed Matt’s instructions, unleashing a set of disorienting and usually rather impractical spells known outside the classrooms as the “Three Martini Lunch”. Once the maneuver was over, Zap’s opponent was thoroughly off-guard. With a flourish, Zap brandished his wand and unraveled the enemy mage’s protection spell. One more flourish wrapped his opponent in a binding cantrip, and Zap’s helpless opponent collapsed to the ground and turned gray. At the same time, Zap heard a hail of gunfire from the end of the battlefield where the team had started, Alan’s shotgun blasts punctuated with return fire from a smaller gun. The last shot Zap heard was a shotgun blast.

Good for us, Zap allowed himself to think. Naturally, things then took a turn.

The next moment, Zap saw Click running full-tilt out from behind his cover. He had just enough time to scream “Zap, help!” before a meteoric streak intercepted him. Click’s body whirled and hit the ground. The half-elf woman above him was dressed in traditional mythril armor and carried a pair of ornately-runed short swords, both of which glowed with an ominous blue light. One was held at Click’s throat.

“Tap out,” said the woman, her voice deadly calm. Click obeyed and turned the same iron-gray as the other defeated employees. The woman looked up at Zap, and then broke into a run toward him.

Zap brought up his wand-arm, unweaving the charms the woman had been wearing with as much haste as he could manage. By the time she was halfway to him, her haste charm was gone. By the time she was ten paces away, her shield charm was unraveled. By the time she was within striking range, Zap had almost undone the enchantment on her swords.

Unfortunately, she cut the charm and Zap’s forearm short. The young wizard watched as his hand, still clutching his wand, clattered to the floor. He brought his gaze back up to the half-elf’s eyes, and she looked at him and said, “Tap out.”

“She’s all yours, Alan,” Zap said, then tapped the wall twice with his remaining hand.

Alan emerged from cover, his shotgun trained on the half-elf. She fixed an intense gaze on him.

“Raimi And The Soft Winds Blow,” Alan said. “That makes sense.”

“Hi, Alan,” Raimi said. “We’re out of employees. Want to dance?”

Alan grunted and sighted Raimi with the shotgun. She dove for cover as he fired and ran through the obstacles. Alan backed into the open space, but when Raimi emerged, she was too fast for him. He fired and the slug went over her shoulder, bouncing off of the obstacle behind her. She brought one sword upward and sliced neatly through Alan’s shotgun. Alan stumbled over the prone, plastic-hard body of one of the downed employees and sprawled against the floor, on his side.

Raimi pointed one of her swords at Alan’s throat. “Tap out,” she told him.

Alan looked at her impassively for a moment and raised one hand. “You ought not to do that,” he said.

As fast as he could, Alan sat up and lashed out with his hand. He grasped the cross-guard of Raimi’s sword and yanked backward, causing the half-elf to stumble forward. She brought her other arm toward Alan and ran him through as she fell, her sword passing through his stomach and emerging from his back.

The two were now face-to-face, Alan’s pain-wracked expression next to Raimi’s confused one.

“Why in the hell did you do that?” Raimi asked.

Alan’s only response was to raise his free hand, in which he clutched a holdout pistol. Raimi found that with no limbs free, she was only able to watch as Alan brought the gun to her face and fired.

Five minutes later, the employees were all alive again. They stood in lines facing each other, one of the red-clad Securemarket™ officers between them. The officer spoke.

“I’m impressed with all of you,” he said. “I haven’t seen a harder fight yet today. I know that this was an emotional experience for all of you, but please remember that it was a training exercise. We are all on the same side here. Let’s shake hands and rest up for tonight’s concert. You’re all going to want to have fun.”

Alan and Raimi walked up to each other, each smiling with admiration.

“Well done, Alan,” Raimi said, shaking Alan’s hand. “You’ve really gotten some guts.”

“And you’re even more deadly than I remember you,” Alan said, smiling back.

The lines continued, each employee shaking hands with the others.

“I’m sorry,” the Node Caller woman said to Steve and To’mas. “I don’t actually like burning people.”

“It’s fair,” To’mas said. Steve still seemed a bit too shaken by the experience to reply. “We would have done the same if we … y’know, had control over the element of fire.”

“You’re very good,” Zap said to the wizard he’d disabled.

“Thank you,” the other wizard said politely. “Would you teach me that set of techniques you used at the end? I was never taught that.”

“They don’t teach it in classes,” Zap said, grinning. “But sure.”

Once the handshakes had taken place, the groups moved toward the exit. Alan and Raimi were chatting with each other as the groups moved into the hallway, discussing the time that they had spent since they saw each other last. After a time, they turned back to the group.

“We’re headed to the pub,” Alan said. “Any of you who want to come can. Otherwise we’ll see you at the concert.”

The two walked off, leaving the groups to discuss the matter themselves.

“Think you guys will go?”

“Yeah, I could use a drink,” To’mas said in a casual tone; he didn’t seem shaken at all.

“I think I’d better take a rest, maybe,” Steve said, looking a bit pale.

“I think I might too,” Zap said.

“Mm,” Click agreed, nodding.

Suddenly, the young man from the Rose Street store who was wearing the machine pistol he’d been carrying during the exercise walked up to the group. To Steve, specifically.

“Uh, hi, miss…” he began.

“Steve,” Steve said, her discomfort forgotten in her surprise at being approached.

“Miss Steve,” the man said. He held out one hand. “I’m Mike.”

“Good to meet you,” Steve said, shaking his hand.

“Listen, that’s a really beautiful piece you have,” Mike said. “Who’d you commission it from?”

“Actually, my Master made it,” Steve said. “I’m an apprentice gunsmith.”

Mike brightened. “Oh!” he said. “That’s really interesting! If I bought you a drink, would you be willing to tell me … I dunno, about what that’s like?”

“Sure!” Steve replied, apparently forgetting her trauma. “Let’s go to the pub.”

The two walked off, launching into an animated conversation. The remaining employees watched them for a moment.

“Y’know, I think I actually want a drink, maybe,” Click said.

“Yeah, me too,” Zap said.

To’mas stared at them.