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Author's Chapter Notes:
tower struggle
They turned to see Freedan, Aden Rawne, and at least a dozen of their henchmen, emerging from a doorway near where they entered.

“Now that I’ve finally caught up with you,” Freedan shouted at them, “you’re going to march your ass right back down those steps!”

Even at this distance, they could all see Rawne facepalm at Freedan giving them away before his men could move into position for a proper ambush.

“Why don’t you come up here!” Max challenged.

“Yeah!” Justin seconded, whipping out both double-barrel power pistols and opening fire on them. “There’s no way in hell I’m goin’ back down there for nothin’!”

Shades immediately ducked behind one of the squarish pillars that adorned some of the corners of the platforms as Rawne’s men started shooting back wildly. There had been all the air of a dream about this place before Freedan and his crew shattered that dreamlike calm. Yet he also felt an unsettling tension weighing down on him, as if something big was going to happen.

And now it finally had.

As he drew his own power pistol and joined in returning fire, Rawne’s men scattered, attempting to reach the cover afforded by the lower levels of the tower. Justin managed to take out a couple of them while his friends laid down some suppressive fire, but once they started reaching the entry pillars and other safe places, they started up a cover fire of their own, pushing Justin back into a defensive posture. From there, it didn’t take long for Max and the others to scramble up different paths in search of a more defensible position.

Much as Shades suspected, the enemy was indeed in for a surprise, as the tower turned out to be every bit as durable as the rest of the stonework they’d encountered earlier— and he would not be surprised at all if it turned out to be all of the same piece as the rest of this place— shrugging off their barrage of laser fire like a pelting of rainwater. Their own shots only helped to keep the enemy at bay, but while their firepower couldn’t cut their cover apart, by the same token, they couldn’t penetrate the enemy’s, either. Providing unbreakable cover for what could easily become a long standoff.

At first, Rawne’s men found themselves bogged down, but as they began to spread around the substantial base of the structure, the more limited defenders had to spread themselves too thin, allowing the enemy to resume their previously steady advance.

Justin’s two-fisted gunning taxing his ammo and his peripheral vision as his targets spread out. Shades struggling to keep tabs on one group that split off to the side. Maximilian firing at any enemy that crossed his sights, while keeping a very specific eye out for Freedan, who— for all his bold words— seemed to have vanished without a trace now that the shooting started. And Max focused almost exclusively on covering Rawne, whom he considered to be the biggest threat in the bunch, already having worked his way up higher than the rest, advancing from cover to cover.

Finally had him right where he wanted him. A place where Rawne couldn’t make a move in any meaningful direction without exposing himself.

Shades, meanwhile, began to reconsider their mostly instinctive retreat up the tower. At first their defense played out like a game of Whack-A-Mole, but as their attackers became fewer and farther apart, he feared it would quickly degenerate into a game of cat and mouse instead, now that each of them were becoming isolated in their own separate struggles. Wondered if perhaps their only hope at this point was to reunite at the top level and watch each other’s backs.

Justin, on the other hand, found himself pinned down behind one of the pillars, a pair of enemies tag-teaming him from two different angles.

After a good minute or so of stillness from his quarry, Max began to wonder what was up. As far as he was concerned, it had been too long since the last time Rawne tried to make a break for it. Struck him as too wily and hard to pin down to resort to just waiting out his attention like this.

That was when he noticed a hand reaching around the edge of the wall, realizing belatedly what Rawne was most likely counting on. Him being so focused on the biggest threat, he had forgotten there were also smaller ones, as well.

He kicked the hand, and an angry mercenary revealed himself, trying to aim a power pistol with his off-hand. Max kicked again, nailing him in the face, sending him rolling down the steps to hit the next level in a groaning, twitching heap.

Cursing the fact that Rawne had surely slipped out of his tight predicament during that little episode, he turned back to the battle at hand, spotting an enemy sneaking up on Maximilian while his attention was focused in the other direction, but he slipped back behind cover before Max could draw a bead on him.

“Behind you!” Max warned him.

He got to see Maximilian retreat around a nearby corner for cover, even as he went diving for his own, his shout having drawn others’ attention.

In his own corner, Shades was beginning to wonder why the battle was starting to quiet down when he was sure they were still amply outnumbered.

It was about then that he noticed one of the small doors leading into the structure. Hoping he wasn’t cornering himself, he ventured in, finding that the door led into a narrow warren of passages and stairways that appeared to connect to other parts of the tower. Relieved to know that mysterious iridescence still provided enough light to see by, even in here, without his flashlight giving him away.

Fearing their adversaries may have already found these passages, he moved cautiously, hoping he might use these back ways to turn the tide against them.

Down below, Aden Rawne wanted to kill somebody.

It was not often that anyone kept him pinned down like this, and he was fast beginning to wish he had given his men permission to break this Max’s legs the first time they met. It was bad enough that he hounded him to each foxhole, and then some, but finally trapped him someplace where all he could do was hide with his back up against the wall.

The wall, he now noticed, that contained a door he had been ignoring all this time. It appeared to lead into the tower, possibly leading to higher levels of it. Deciding to leave Max sitting scarecrow, he entered.

Still cursing Freedan for ruining what could have been a perfect ambush, demonstrating once again that his business acumen did not carry over onto the battlefield. Freedan, who was becoming more and more unsettled since they came down here, and he hoped to turn things around with his own surprise attacks. Even without the underdwellers killing a portion of his crew, they still would not have enough men to fully surround something this huge, but if their quarry kept retreating further up it, they just might be able to surround them anyway. It was fast becoming all he could do to compensate for even bringing him down here in the first place, as his employer was becoming more of a burden and liability than a benefactor.

Wondering every step of the way where the flighty little man had run off to, now that there was a real battle to be fought.

Little knowing that Freedan had also had the same idea, having noticed the mysterious doors at the base while he was busy fleeing the firefight. Having worked his way up more than a dozen levels already, finding it an easy way to the top. Allowing him to slip past all of his enemies’ defenses, determined to show up the seasoned mercenary and kill at least one of them first. Already pretty sure none of the others had discovered this exploit yet, he peered out of the doorway on this level.

Seeing, to his delight, that he had the Young Master right where he wanted him.

Elsewhere in the tower, Justin continued to hide behind the pillar, pinned down by the same two mercenaries.

Realizing that if he stayed like this for too long, other enemies could out-flank him, he switched to his crossbow. As long as his attackers hid behind that impenetrable stonework, they could tag-team him, and cover one another, making it near-impossible to hit either of them during the brief windows when they popped out of cover. Arming a smoke bolt, he decided to lob his next shot behind their cover.

Just as he finished reloading, and was prepared to arc one over on the nearest of the two positions, he heard something clatter to the floor next to him.

To his horror, he realized that his opponents beat him to the punch, apparently having the same idea, as he recognized the small object as a hand grenade.