I flicked the revolver’s chamber open, although I didn’t need to count the number of rounds inside.
Three bullets. No more, no less. That was how many they issued each applicant.
I closed the chamber of the revolver, hearing it click into place. I hefted the gun, getting a feel for it, checking the sights to make sure they lined up. Crouched on the white tiles, I did my best to strain my ears, to hear past the thumping of my heart.
Three bullets. Three enemies. We couldn’t miss a shot. To get into the Academy, I had to show perfection.
My thumb slowly slid up to the hammer, tugging it back. A cocked gun could go off more easily, but it meant less pressure needed to fire, a quicker response when I pulled the trigger. I needed that speed.
After all, I wasn’t the only one with a weapon.
My ears caught a slight sound, a scrape, from around the corner to the right. The scrape of a shoe on white tile. Someone wanted to be silent, but a single misstep betrayed them.
Gun up, I stepped around the corner.
There he was – dressed in black, some sort of hood of fabric covering his face. He crouched down, his own gun in his hands. He saw me appear and started, the gun rising, but I beat him. I knew that he was there, had anticipated him.
The revolver barked in my hands, bucking back against my grip. My shot went true, tearing into that black fabric, sending black splatter back against the white tiles of the corridor. My opponent jerked back, the air leaving his lungs in a gasp.
He hit the floor behind him, and then faded. His gun, slipping from nerveless fingers, also faded.
I watched, trying to ignore the surprise. I didn’t know how they would remove the bodies, how they’d stop me from stealing the gun, but I knew that they wouldn’t let me break the rules. I got three bullets. No more, no less. That was the rule.
I moved forward down the corridors, my brain mapping out the maze as I moved along. In the back of my head, I counted steps, using them to construct the map. I’d always had a good sense of direction.
The next man, however, caught me by surprise. I came around a corner and there he was, backed up against the wall, his massive shotgun in his hands.
I pulled the trigger first, acting on instinct, but I didn’t account for his height. The shot caught him in the shoulder, throwing off his answering shotgun blast, but he didn’t fade.
I dove past him, rolling and coming up with the gun up. I nailed him between the eyes – and my gun clicked empty as he fell back and faded.
Two down. No more bullets. I was a dead man walking.
Still, even as my brain screamed at me, as I wallowed in failure, my instincts kept me moving. I advanced through the maze, searching for my death. The third opponent would find me, would take me down as my gun clicked empty at him, and I would fail.
I heard him, at least. The soft steps on the other side of a wall. I knew that the wall opened up with a doorway ahead. I could surprise him, catch him unawares, and-
-and nothing. No bullets, Hans. I was dead.
Still, I waited, acting on reflex alone. He appeared, a short little ugly dwarf with a sawed-off rifle, and I hit him with the pistol. He staggered back, flashing yellow teeth filed down to points, but he didn’t fall. He didn’t fade.
His grin widened as I didn’t move to bring up the revolver. “Bye,” he grunted in a guttural groan, taking aim at me.
I wasn’t thinking, but instinct wouldn’t let me die. I hurtled the revolver, overhand, at him.
The gun hit him below the eye socket, and he winced, staggering backward again. His gun slipped down as one hand rose up to his wound, and I lunged forward.
If I stole it from his hands, it would fade, just like he would when he died. So I clamped down on his hand around the trigger as I twisted the barrel back towards his chin.
One squeeze, and his gun fired.
The top of the dwarf’s head exploded, splattering the ceiling with gore. He dropped down – and faded.
I stood there on the white tiles, all alone, waiting. Had I broken the rules?
And then, after the most agonizing pause of my life, the tiles around me, everywhere, turned from white to green. I sagged down onto the floor as my legs gave way.
I’d passed. I’d bent the rules, but hadn’t broken them. Three bullets, plus my skills – nothing more, nothing less – had been enough.
I was in the Academy.