Jackson Graves oddly found the fantasy dungeon far more comforting than the real one his body sat bound in. Instead of the naked, vulnerable victim from before, he was an armored samurai with a sharpened sword in this fantasy realm. Well-honed reflexes from the real world carried over into the virtual one as he drew his sword, ready to meet his adversary. Given where ghosts went in the basement, he had no doubts as to whom it would be.
Talbot materialized before him, his broken body recast as the savage beast from Piece's game. He grunted in pain with each movement, as though his mind rebelled against the caricature he was trapped as. He look around at his environment, shaking his club in the air until he saw Jackson. The fantasy warlord's savage black eyes locked with his, and he immediately snarled with pure hatred. "Where is this?"
"Guess," Jackson said as he raised his sword.
Talbot stumbled for a split second, as if still adjusting to his new body. He managed to swing the club around wildly, flailing like a tree branch in the wind. When Jackson got within range, he brought the sword down from over his head, twisting his hips as he cut. Talbot tried to leap away, but the blade slashed across his chest. As the virtual blood trickled down his chest, fury contorted his face. He grasped the club in both hands and charged Jackson without regard to his own safety.
Jackson put his sword between himself and the wildly swung bludgeon, careful to keep well away from it. He stepped back, seeking an opening he was looking for. Pierce had instructed him to stay alive, so his immediate priorities were defensive. He was not averse to offensive action if he had an opportune movement, something Talbot's wild strikes would eventually provide.
As Talbot swung the club down upon his head, Jackson reacted. His fluid unison of movement and precision had been practiced for years. Talbot exposed part of his back as he recovered from the heavy strike. The medium stepped in and to the side as he brought the razor-sharp weapon down on the back of Talbot's neck. His hips drive the weapon through the skin and spine, partially separating head from neck. For a moment, Talbot stood gurgling on blood before Jackson thrust the weapon into his chest and twisted it. His foe spit up blood as his face contorted to one of anger. Jackson pulled the blade back out and stood for a moment, unsure of what else to do.
The world grew blurry around him, and he awoke in a cold sweet back in the chair he had been strapped to in the basement. Pierce had freed him, and his adrenaline rush had allowed him to stand up. Eagerly, he threw his clothing back on and grabbed Talbot's discarded gun. The weapon was heavy and awkward, far unlike the conventional firearms he trained with. He checked the chamber and the safety right before Pierce threw his arms around him.
"We did it! We stopped him!" he cheered. "I knew you could do it!"
"We still have to get out of here. How'd you make it in?"
"Iktomi directed me towards all their drug smuggling routes. That's how I was able to take out that van of theirs. To get in here, I just hid in another van when it stopped. The suit did the rest."
Jackson sighed. He struggled to his feet, and Pierce helped pull him out of the chair. Despite the vague sensation of pins and needles in his limbs, his lower body was in better shape than he thought it was. The skin around the burns was still raw and hurt whenever fabric brushed against it, but it was not the crippling pain he had anticipated. Given he only had one magazine of ammunition for his pistol and no protective vest, he still felt naked to an extent. The absence of his spiritual companion was perhaps the deepest vulnerability that troubled him.
Pierce darted towards an empty corner of the basement and threw opened the panel to a circuit breaker on the nearby wall. He disengaged the cloaking device, revealing the gray metamaterial robe underneath. Pulling out a multi-tool, he yanked out a fistful of wires and began reconnect them to different switches. As he was not the engineer, Jackson deferred to his younger brother's judgment in all manners technical. Unlike Dave, he had a strong moral compass and grasp on his sanity. For a moment, Jackson found himself as envious of his brother's trade, as the engineer was an innately noble and uplifting profession. His brother would solve problems instead of creating them, unlike the financial professionals and opportunistic lawyers he regularly dealt with.
"What are you doing?" he whispered to his little brother. "Why don't we just run for it?"
"The snipers'll see you, so I'm giving them reason to run," Pierce said, throwing a switch. "I'm giving this disgusting place the sendoff it deserves."
Jackson moved towards the base of the stairs, keeping the weapon trained on the doorway. He remembered he had the sunglasses, and slipped them back onto his face. "Iktomi, any bad guys guarding basement door?"
"Affirmative. Guards are stationed in an adjacent room."
"How far to the nearest door once we clear them?"
"Ten meters, but I recommend you leave the basement soon, and stay behind Pierce."
Jackson turned to Pierce as he reloaded his pistols and reengaged the cloaking suit. He ran up the base of the stairs, as crouching like a sprinter awaiting the starting gun. The cue his brother awaited was answered a half-second later when smoke began to rise from the wall behind the circuit breaker and the beeping of a smoke alarm somewhere upstairs echoed downstairs.
Pierce blasted up the stairs with a speed that Jackson scarcely believed he was capable of. Jackson followed behind him at a pace as fast as he could muster. He forced himself to ignore any residual feelings of pain as another wave of adrenaline surged through him. He kept the pistol out and ready to use, knowing anything that him and his brother's lives could depend on his aim and reflexes. Ignoring the complications of potentially creating ghosts, he resolved to do whatever was necessary to defend his brother.
At the top of the stairs, Pierce crashed into the door with his shoulder. The flimsy entrance flew opened as Pierce drew his firearms and trained them on two targets Jackson could not see. A second later, he pulled the triggers, causing a wave of shouting to reverberate down the hallway. Jackson wondered what hell his brother had unleashed as he witnessed what awaited them at the top of the stairs.
A Tigre guard slouched on an chair in front of a TV, clutching a wound in his chest. Another reached for a rifle in what seemed to be slow motion, a slowdown in time granted by the adrenaline rush that shot through Jackson's veins. He instinctively aimed and fired the massive hand-cannon, the recoil driving the weapon up and back as the Tigre looked down in horror and agony at the torrent of blood soaking his clothing. Jackson briefly noticed he had shot him in the thigh, his aim distorted by the unwieldy weapon. The screaming gangster was in no shape to fight, but others would certainly be drawn by the noise.
Pierce rounded a corner before halting. He pulled out another brace of pistols as Jackson peeked to see enemy reinforcements. Six gangsters, clad in body armor and holding assault rifles, stacked up like they were preparing to breach a doorway. The first of them dashed forwards, using the close-quarters battle tactics perfected on distant battlefields. He turned the muzzle of his weapon around the corner as Jackson fired at where he though his enemy was. Just as the assault rifle pivoted towards them, he closed his eyes.
No burst of gunfire ended the Graves brothers, as Jackson anticipated. He opened his eyes a split instant later, when the thunderous cacophony of an automatic weapon in close quarters was followed by screaming and the jingling of spent brass. He opened his eyes to see Liz yanking the rifle around and squeezing the trigger, turning it on the enemy soldier's compatriots. Its original user tried yanking the weapon back from the invisible force pulling on it, but Pierce jammed a pistol into his exposed armpit and pulled the trigger. Their would-be killer blinked and stood for a moment before falling dead. Pierce eagerly grabbed the fallen man's rifle.
"They're retreating!" Liz shouted, pointing around the corner. "I nailed two in the legs."
Jackson peeked out from cover from behind his pistol sights, seeing the remaining gangsters carrying their wounded comrades upstairs and away from danger. One gangster sobbed and cried as two compatriots carried him up the stairs, and the other screamed loudly as two others dragged him in a fireman carry, his wounded left leg banging on each step as he ascended. For a moment, Jackson felt immediate unease in what his allies had just inflicted upon other humans. He presumed that the Tigres had a medic of some kind, hopefully able to treat the wounded men who had tried to murder them just seconds earlier. Combat was a reminder of the terrifying fragility of life.
"C'mon!" Pierce shouted as he sprinted down the hallway past the staircase. Jackson sprinted once clear of the gangsters, and braced on the front door opposite his brother. "Just like the game," Pierce said, in some desperate mantra to cover the fact he was sweating profusely. From the look on his face, Jackson guessed he was close to crying.
"Nothing like the game, Pierce," Jackson said. "Come on, we're almost there."
"Okay, coast is clear," Liz said as she stuck her head through the ceiling. "You won't be having any sniper problems."
Jackson tapped Pierce on the shoulder, signaling his readiness for whatever was on the other side. With tears welling up in his eyes, he threw open the door and aimed down his rifle. The front of the complex was a midnight warzone, with guns erupting like firecrackers in the hands of immature kids. Electric lights provided insufficient illumination, and Jackson realized how easy it would be for Pierce to slip in even without the cloaking suit. The largest obstacle that remained was the fence, but the gate in front of the parking lot was still closed.
The other side of the building was a light with flames and gunfire. A familiar golden-eyed figure golden eyes in a hooded jacket hurled a Molotov cocktail from the rooftop of a nearby row-home. The electric light revealed only cursory glances at his bestial features before he slinked back into the shadows. Connor's projectile, however, crashed into the already broken window of the third story, causing screaming to erupt within. A second later, another improvised firebomb crashed into another window, but Jackson could not see his lycanthropic friend throw it. The gangsters continued pouring gunfire at unseen targets, probably blasting their own in the process.
Jackson could see more gangsters pour of a door on the other end of the tenement, using the fire escape for its intended purpose. He took cover with Pierce behind one of the concrete blocks in front of the entrance, but the Tigres did not seem to care even if they did notice. Standing out in the crowd of gangsters was a figure that loomed above the rest, a stature that could only belong to Diego Alvarado. For a moment, Jackson was tempted to shoot at him while he was distracted, but realized it would do nothing but add to the body count and reveal their positions.
"Jackson, an escape vehicle is inbound," Iktomi said on the augmented reality display. "I am opening the gate."
The gate began to slide opened automatically, and Jackson presumed there was some kind of remote or emergency release that the AGI had triggered. He had little understanding of technology or magic, and it had almost cost him his life. Off in the distance, he saw the headlights of an approaching convoy as powerful engines forced themselves through the gap. Another ally had joined the fray, entering with a flourish.
A familiar SUV was the first vehicle in, barreling nonstop towards the gangsters as it revved its engine like a throaty beast. Jackson hoped that such a vehicle was not their salvation, but instead a distraction when it sped right past them and at the gangsters on the other side of the yard. Pierce began to shiver behind cover, but Jackson held him upright as another vehicle came at them.
It was Dell's automated sedan, which automatically unlocked its doors as it neared Pierce and Jackson. "Now!" he shouted as shoved his younger brother into the car. With all the adrenaline still pumping, he threw himself into the backseat and slammed the door shut. The doors locked, and the car began to move. "What about pursuers?"
"Taking care of that now," Dell replied.
From the rear-view mirror, Dell cocked the lever-action shotgun in her hands as her bike zipped into the opened gateway. She weaved into parked vehicles, blasting the tires and engine blocks of every vehicle in range and emptying a bag of caltrops. She zigzagged in a mesmerizing pattern between the ruined vehicles, drawing the unwanted attention of the bewildered Tigres. By the time they had took positions, Dell had shot back out the front gate.
When Jackson looked back a final time, the SUV exploded. Flames shot from the hood and exhaust pipe, sending tongues of hellfire into the air beyond it. The flaming wreck vanished from view when the sedan made a turn, but Jackson could not help but wonder what Dell was thinking. The sirens in the distance seemed to answer he ended up settling on before he began to feel sick and nauseous once more. The adrenaline urge was wearing off, and his fatigued body could barely move. He ended up puking on the floor. Pierce did the same a second later.
"Yuck," Pierce said, half-murmuring. "But that was awesome."
While he would have protested on any other circumstance, he could not help but nod weakly in agreement. He lost consciousness then, drifting off into the sleep he had been denied for a long time. He was half awake when Liz began dragging one of the fingers through the pool of vomit, but he was too fatigued and tired to do anything about it.