“Shall I give the opening announcement, Sir Erdrick?” one of the Kekkai technicians asked.
“I’ll do it,” Sir Erdrick said, walking to the resonator mic and picking it up.
The knight pressed the button on the side of the mic. “Employees, welcome to the final exercise of the retreat. This will be a combat simulation of the largest magnitude that you have faced here, and probably the largest one you’ve experienced at all, except for you militia veterans.”
Sir Erdrick released the button, cleared his throat and took another sip of coffee.
He pressed the button again. “This Kekkai exercise operates under the same rules that the previous one did. Tap a surface twice to be pulled out; we’ll pull you out if you get disabled, unconscious, or dead. Wait for the signal then fight like hell, kiddies.”
Sir Erdrick set the mic back down on the Kekkai console.
“That’s … not the official spiel, sir,” the technician said.
“It isn’t, is it?” Sir Erdrick said. “How’s the generator?”
“It’s fine,” the technician replied.
“Great. Let’s set it on fire, ey?” Sir Erdrick walked to the observation window.
The technician, clearly a bit annoyed, picked up the resonator mic and pressed the button on its side. “Ready,” he said, paused, then, “mark!”
Below, the two teams leapt into action.
Paru weaved between the objects in front of her, her assault rifle held at the ready as she ran. Behind her, two of her teams followed. The sound of their shoes and boots was a rapid, erratic staccato as they pushed themselves to keep up with their manager. Paru kept herself very aware of the noise, most notably when she heard it in front of her as well as behind.
“Heads up,” Paru said. “Enemy approaching.”
Paru slowed her pace near the end of an obstacle, only to come face-to-face with a shotgun-toting human wearing a bandanna.
Reacting instinctively and spurred by a surge of adrenaline, Paru snapped the butt of her rifle upward with jaw-breaking force. She was instantly rewarded with a sharp cracking noise as the young man’s head snapped backward, the shotgun falling from his hands.
“Find cover,” Paru said calmly into the intercom. She backed up rapidly, training her rifle on the space where the man had emerged. She saw brief movement and fired a short burst at the obstacle, halting any further approach. She reached to her belt and pulled a grenade from it. The young man in front of her, writhing in pain, slapped the ground twice and turned iron-gray.
Paru pulled the pin on her grenade and murmured, “Sir Erdrick, we who are about to die salute you.”
The sound of gunfire echoed not far away, and then a sharp explosion rocked the battlefield.
To’mas, crouching atop one of the flat obstacles, pressed his lips together. He turned back and watched as Steve clambered out of a sticky pool of shadow.
“Hurry,” he said. “They’ve engaged.” Steve nodded and dragged herself out of the shadow a bit faster. “You ready, Loren?”
“I feel useless,” Loren said bitterly.
“Chin up, man,” To’mas said. “Today, you’re a specialist.”
Loren looked across the sparse collection of flat-topped obstacles, each one no less than three meters from the next. “Is Zap’s jump charm actually going to last long enough for us to get to the action?”
“I think a more important question,” Steve said, yanking her foot from the shadow, “is whether we will be noticed and shot as we jump from surface to surface.”
“I have the answer to both of your questions!” To’mas said cheerfully. “And here it is: shut the fuck up!”
“Let’s go,” To’mas said.
Alan fired his shotgun at the small group of combatants and cursed as he watched the slug deflect against a bulletshield with a spark.
“We need some slow ballistics here,” he said, ducking as the area where he had been standing was peppered with gunfire.
“May-May!” Prue’s voice shouted from nearby.
“Prue!” Alan shouted. “Need slow ballistic support!”
“They got May-May!” Prue shouted, turning toward Alan. Marlon leaned around his obstacle and fired a useless spray of buckshot at the cluster of employees.
“PRUE!” Alan shouted, startling the half-elf. “She’ll be fine! We need you!”
Prue stumbled to Alan’s side, drawing her hand-crossbow. She prepared to turn the corner, but flinched as a volley of gunfire sliced the air in front of her.
“We’ve got a blockade,” Alan said into the intercom, then heard a clinking noise. It was a moment before he realized that a grenade had been thrown. “Fire in the hole!” he shouted, and everyone dove for cover.
“Five employees already down,” the Kekkai technician said.
“Spread?” Sir Erdrick asked.
“Three Malachi, two 15th,” the technician replied.
“Good start, Paru,” Erdrick said. “But you’re going to regret trying to set up snipers.”
From his position on one of the obstacles, To’mas signaled to Steve and Loren, each of whom had taken their own positions atop the structures. The three employees brought their weapons to bear and fired.
To’mas saw the employee whom he had shot stumble heavily, protected by armor but stunned by the impact of the high-caliber bullet. Seizing the opportunity, Click darted forward and pummeled the man insensible.
“Good,” To’mas said, chambering the next round.
He adjusted his aim and fired on another exposed employee, an air mutant. Unprotected by armor and too slow to react with magic, the employee dropped to the ground and turned gray.
“Good,” To’mas said again, chambering the next round mechanically and looking for the next target.
A snarling noise startled To’mas, and he lowered his gun and looked to the side. The sight of a hulking creature clambering onto the surface of his obstacle greeted him.
“Oh, shit,” he murmured.
“Werewolf!” To’mas’s voice came over the intercom. “We’ve got a werewolf up here!”
“Hollow-Eyes,” Paru said into the mic.
The ghost ceased his activity, which had been delivering harmless but distracting blows to a group of enemy employees. His voice crackled over the intercom band. “Yeah?”
“Go help,” she said.
“But werewolf claws—”
“That’s an order!” Paru barked. “Steve, there’s your distraction.”
“Workin’ on it!” Steve said. “To’mas is down, and it’s going after Loren.”
“Take care of it,” Paru said grimly. She shouldered her rifle and led another charge forward.
Steve turned her eyes away from the werewolf, who had suddenly been accosted by the swift ethereal form of Hollow-Eyes. With shaky hands, she released the magazine currently loaded in Polaris and grasped another one, which had a piece of silver tape marking its base. She slammed the clip home and looked up in time to see the werewolf tear the ghost into two pieces, its spirit-attuned claws rending the immaterial being. Luckily, the Kekkai’s effect took hold and froze Hollow-Eyes’s torn spirit in place.
The werewolf was about to fall upon Loren when Steve sighted it with her pistol and fired.
It barely flinched. “Chambered round!” Loren shouted, scrambling away from the beast.
“Oh yeah,” Steve said and fired again. The werewolf roared in pain as the silver bullet hit it. Steve continued to fire, forcing the werewolf to drop to the ground from blinding pain and confusion. Steve stopped firing and surveyed the beast. The werewolf raised one claw and slammed the top of the obstacle with it twice, then turned the dead gray of a defeated Kekkai combatant.
“Woo!” Steve shouted. She said into the intercom, “Paru, I got ’im!”
“Impressive,” Sir Erdrick said. “15th Street did its homework. Or Paru did, at least.”
“Speaking of which, sir,” the Kekkai technician said. “Dupree is down.”
“Is that right?” Sir Erdrick said, surprised. “Spread?”
“Only seven 15th Street employees left,” the technician said, “and twelve Malachi Park employees.”
“That means Paru’s frontline is nearly annihilated,” Sir Erdrick said, frowning. “It’s unlike her to calculate so poorly.”
“It’s really ugly down there,” Dr. Wallace said with distaste, but seemed unable to tear his eyes from it.
“Say…” said Mya. “where’s that prodigy wizard boy? Zap?”
“How’s the Kekkai holding up?” Sir Erdrick asked.
“Would you please stop asking me that?” the technician replied, annoyed. “Obviously I’m monitoring it! If something goes wrong, I’ll tell you!”
There was a silence as Sir Erdrick stared at the technician.
The technician sighed. “It’s fine, sir,” he said. “Nominal condition.”
“Come to think of it,” Mya said, “Where’s that shadow mutant supervisor?”
At long last, the arcane words ceased to issue from Zap’s mouth. Breathing deeply, he slowly walked to the center of his pattern labyrinth. Once there, he slowly lowered himself to the ground and sat cross-legged.
“Are you ready?” a voice whispered.
“Almost,” Zap murmured in an entranced voice.
“Well, hurry it up,” the other voice replied. “We’re only 45 seconds from Matt’s mark.”
“Hush now,” Zap whispered.
Zap took a deep breath and let himself become a conduit for the energy for which he had drawn the labyrinth. He turned his inner-eye toward the multi-planar facets of the dream-lines he had drawn, admiring the non-Euclidean angles of the impossible shape. He watched the energy flow, like thick, black blood, down the rivulets he had carved in reality. He breathed in as he felt the pleasure-pain of the energy channeling through him.
He was darkness. He could dip the world in ink. The brush named Zap…
“Zap,” the honey-voice of Dark-Being slid through Zap’s senses. “Almost everyone is out. Steve and Loren are down. Alan is holding back nine people by himself.”
“You are beautiful,” Zap said, hearing his voice echo through several spheres of existence.
The voice was silent for a moment, caught in the echoes of Zap’s empowered words.
Zap opened his eyes, which were pitch black in their entirety. “I am ready,” he said. “I will fill the Kekkai with you.”
In the observation booth, the previously silent Kekkai technician suddenly spoke up. “A spike in Eldritch signatures, sir.”
Sir Erdrick hurried to him. “What’s the analysis?”
“Shadow magic,” the technician said. “But classic W-Encoding. Class B.”
“Class B…” Sir Erdrick murmured, and turned to the observation window. “No one in that room should be capable of a ritual as pow—”
The window suddenly went pitch black, obscuring everything past it. Dr. Wallace and Mya recoiled abruptly.
“The generator!” Sir Erdrick shouted, whirling.
“Fine!” the technician said. “It’s—it’s running nominally! All of the monitoring is coming through!”
“That shadow magic just released,” the other technician said. “This is an elemental field.”
Sir Erdrick leaned back, his mouth forming an ‘o’. He slowly nodded. “Well played, Dupree. Well-played.”
“Ping! Somebody come in!”
“I’m hearing you, but I can’t see—ack!”
“Arbus? What just happened? The—urg!”
“Four … three,” the technician said. There was a pause of ten seconds. “Two.”
Sir Erdrick chuckled deeply. “Bradshaw,” he said. “Zap Bradshaw casts a heavy shadow elemental field and augments it with Raye Courts-the-Shadows’s intrinsic stores, allowing the mutant to pick off their remaining opponents while they’re helpless. Fucking brilliant, Paru. Mind, in a real situation it’d probably kill Raye when the field dropped…”
“I can’t believe Bradshaw was capable of such a wide-ranged and heavy elemental field,” Dr. Wallace said, looking at the glass as though hoping to see through the veil of darkness.
“One,” the Kekkai technician said.
“Yes,” Sir Erdrick murmured. “And I can’t help but wonder how Paru knew about that. Bradshaw’s record doesn’t really show anything like the magic we just saw; she’d have had to see him pull off some really impressive field-based magic, like an isolation ward or a pocket realm.”
“And that’s everyone,” the technician said. “15th Street win.”
“All right, let’s have a reset,” Sir Erdrick said. “I’m going down there.” He turned to walk away, then paused. “How’s the generator?”
The employee glanced at the screen, then stared at Sir Erdrick.
“All right, fine,” Sir Erdrick said. He turned and exited the room.