Thursday, 14 February 2019

Sixteen: Three Rules, Always


Yasi looked up as the hatch on the Oubliette opened. Owen looked down at her. She smirked at the irony, despite herself. Their positions had reversed; she the prisoner, and him the smug jailer. "Well. Here we are again." She said blandly.
Owen nodded, amused by a similar thought. "Apparently. Can you climb?" He threw down a rope.
Yasi watched it like it was a dangerous snake. Owen said nothing, content to wait, until Yasi uncoiled herself and started to climb the rope painfully. He didn't offer to help her, and she was glad for it. Asking Vandark for help had been crushing. Asking Owen would be more than she could bear.
On their way out of the Dungeons, she found that Vandark had been busy. "How long was I down there?"
"Two days." Owen reported.
Yasi was stunned. "Two days?" In a virtually soundproof cell, dark enough that you were unable to see the nose in front of your face, it was impossible to measure the passage of time.
The last two days and nights had been kinder to the Underside than Yasi would have expected. Riverfolk roamed freely, apparently having the run of the place. It was still as crowded and as busy as ever.
But there was a difference now. The Lostkind that she could see had lost something. Lost their… joy. There was no music playing, no dancing on the steps. The Lostkind were shuffling past each other in the narrow streets, going to and from without looking up. It was almost like being back on the surface during Rush Hour.
Their eyes were on her again. She supposed she was imagining the accusations, but she still felt their blame wash over her. It's your fault, Yasi. She sighed silently in her mind. You could have stopped this eight different ways, but you were so sure you could handle it all by yourself.
Owen led her through the Secret City, and Yasi took the opportunity to look around tactically. The debris and damage of the battle had been cleared away, but the hangings and destroyed doors had not been replaced. Scorch marks were still visible all over the walls and floors, but the walkways and the Stairs had all been cleared. The Market was operating again.
Yasi felt a numb dread spread over her. "The Labyrinth?"
Owen nodded. "We reopened it. Vandark declared that Lostkind that lived here shouldn't be left starving any longer than they need to be; though you certainly made it difficult for us."
Yasi's face hardened at the way he put that, as though it was her fault people had died. "If you were so worried, you could have come at us with food instead of swords, Invader."
Owen didn't bother to respond to that. Yasi's hands were opening and closing at the sight of the Riverfolk making their way around without challenge. They were the only ones carrying weapons. There was no sign of the surviving Wildmen.
Of course. Yasi thought to herself. Vandark will keep his own close by as a personal guard.
The Lostkind didn't seem to be under any duress, but they wouldn't look the Riverfolk in the eye. One or two sent her a hopeful glance, but looked down again quickly.
"I could just kill you." Yasi said tightly to Owen. "I may not have beaten Vandark, but you'd take less than two seconds."
Owen continued to lead her along, not at all concerned. "We have the run of the Underside. If there's anything in here that you care about? We have it."
Yasi didn't bother to respond. She already knew it was true, and she wasn't really interested in playing threatening games with Vandark's flunky. She followed him up a few levels, astounded at how much repair work had been done. The hallways were cleared out, and on the surface, almost all was as it had been before the attack.
"Hold up." Owen stopped her as they reached the lowest Market Level. "You know the rules, largest cargo gets right of way."
Yasi watched in disbelief as the Borrowers filed past, their packs piled high again. Just like a week before.
Here and there, Yasi could see the Gremlins' artwork. It showed the fighting, the bodies, and people repairing the Underside back to what it was.
How is it possible? Yasi asked herself in disbelief. How is it possible a war was fought here two days ago and nothing changed?
But the more they walked, the less Yasi cared, because Owen was taking her to the Chapel. The differences were obvious here. The wounded were still being treated.
The Healers wandered between the cots, helping where they could. The Wildmen were here, getting treated alongside the Shinobi, but they were sitting up in their cots, keeping watch.
One or two of them glared at Yasi the second she entered the room, and she had no problem glaring right back. "Remember me?"
The Wildmen looked at her savagely. They remembered vividly.
Yasi turned from them and saw two Healers standing over a cot at the far end, wearing their full Bird-Masks. They didn't seem to be doing much, giving them the appearance of human-sized vultures standing over the patient. Owen gestured for her to go to them, and Yasi felt her heart lurch at the sight of her mother.
~oo00oo~
Vincent was flipping through old sewer maps when his phone rang. "Hello?"
"I got good news, and bad news." Connie reported. "The good news is that I was able to track down all the parts you need. I couldn't find working cameras, but I was able to get in touch with an enthusiast of sorts who was able to name the brand of camera from the description you gave me. He gave me a set of blueprints, and a list of the parts. I found them all."
"Connie, you're a miracle worker." Vincent sighed in relief. "And the bad news?"
"Shipping is going to be a problem. I'm willing to pay it out, but at best it'll take six weeks to get it all here."
"Six weeks!" Vincent exclaimed. "Is that all?"
"Hey, I can't force US Mail to deliver stuff faster." She took a breath. "There's another option. I can order the parts for pickup, but that would mean going out to each person, and some of them are three states away. You and Gill are working on the transmitter, and I'm keeping Tecca in his seat with a whip and a chair..."
Vincent rubbed his eyes a moment. "Drew."
"Drew." Connie confirmed.
"Yasi's gonna kill me."
"If you're lucky." Connie agreed. "The three of them usually have lunch together. I'll find out where they're nesting today and text you the details."
~oo00oo~
Keeper's eyes opened slowly as Yasi approached, and a smile crossed her blackened face. "You're alive." She murmured. "I thought for sure he wouldn't let you live once…" She drifted a moment, and fought her way back to clarity. "How is it out there?"
"Amazingly normal." Yasi said quietly, signaling the Healers to give them space. "If it wasn't for the damned Riverfolk walking around, you'd think it was just a quiet day."
"How quiet?"
"Dead silence." Yasi admitted. "It looks normal, but nobody's even looking at each other if they can avoid it."
Keeper glanced about. "Kamy came to see me. The Gremlins were routed the day after The Invasion. They haven't been hurt, but Vandark wants to know where they are at all times. The Labyrinth was reopened first, and he started sending the Borrowers back out."
"They all came back?" Yasi was surprised.
"They can't leave everyone else down here to go hungry. Where else have they got to go?" Keeper yawned, starting to drift again. "I don't know what he wants, Yasi… But so far the only people he's hurt are the ones who fight back. He's playing this so perfe..." Keeper drifted off to sleep before finishing the sentence.
"What do I do?" Yasi whispered to her unconscious mother. "The war is over, and we lost, and nobody's being hurt or oppressed. What do I do?"
A shadow fell over them and Yasi's shoulders straightened. She didn't need to turn. She could feel it like electricity in the air. "Vandark."
The new Lord of the Underside stood behind her casually. "The Healers tell me that she'll make a full recovery. So will most of my people. More than I thought would. Your Healers are to be commended. Can you imagine what they would do with full modern hospital supplies?"
Yasi almost let that one go. "Can you imagine how quick they'd get caught out, trying to 'borrow' some?"
Vandark rested his hands on her shoulders, almost against her neck. "Don't hate me, Yasi. Things are going to get better around here soon. Beauty grows back."
Yasi seethed, hating his hands on her, unable to do anything about it. "Why am I alive?" She demanded.
"Because I have elected not to kill you both." Vandark said. "I know how tricky Lostkind can be. I'm one myself. If this was happening to me, I'd have some kind of safety net. A wild card in the back pocket, just waiting for the right moment."
Yasi said nothing.
"So, until I know for sure that I'm secure here, it's best to keep a prisoner as insurance." Vandark said, like he was discussing a to-do list. "Someone the people here will respect, care about... Someone that will quell any unrest, until such time as I manage to make the general population loyal to me. Two of you is dangerous. It allows the possibility of conspiracy, or rebellion."
Yasi ignored his touch on her shoulders, reached out to hold Keeper's motionless hand.
"Yasi, the more I see of this place, the more I wish I'd come in five years ago." Vandark said casually. "You know that half the Gremlins are eating out of garbage cans?"
"Don't try and tell me things are going well." Yasi hissed, keeping her voice low for Keeper's sake. "Look around! You've ruined it! You've killed it! You ruined the Underside."
"No, Yasi. I'm changing it. Transformation is a dangerous process sometimes." Vandark slid his hand down her arm, threading his fingers through hers powerfully. "Come with me. I want to show you why I'm doing this."
~oo00oo~
Drew looked over the list. "So, just to be clear. You need obscure, worthless bits of junk gathered immediately, brought to New York and slapped together into fifty year old versions of things that are freely and easily available on every street corner in the western hemisphere, you need it in full working order, and laid out in a dusty archives room; to the precise specifications that you found on the Internet, in a hundred year old blueprint of a stage magicians set design."
"That's it exactly." Vincent confirmed. Once he'd entered the Diner, he had no trouble locating Drew. He was sitting at a table with Benji and Tony, and there were five plates of food on the table for three people. He'd taken a seat with them and quickly explained what was needed, but not why.
"And... why exactly would I want to take a week off work to go on a roadtrip for this?" Drew demanded. "Have you ever been locked in a car with Benji and Tony for a long drive?"
"Drew, you'd know I'd never inflict your closest friends on you if it wasn't really important." Vincent said honestly. "I'm not cruel, and Connie says that Benji always sticks his head out the window on long car rides anyway..."
Tony glanced over at Benji. "They know we can hear them right?"
Benji nodded his head up and down rapidly. "Uh-huh." He leaned forward. "Vincent, what do you need the cameras for? You could just get a webcam."
"Not for this broadcast we can't." Vincent said absently. "I'd do this myself, but me and Gill have to work out some details..."
"Is this about the buried treasure?" Benji demanded excitedly.
"The what-now?" Drew reacted.
Tony jumped up. "There's buried treasure involved? I'm in."
Drew glared at Vincent. "Oh. Good. Excite them." He said tightly, pointing a finger in his face. "We get back with your junk and you're going to tell me what the hell is going on, and if I am not satisfied with the story, I will do something bad to you." He grabbed his jacket and let out a 'hey-taxi' whistle. "Come on, boys. Road trip."
"So, what's Connie doing while we're all on a scavenger hunt?" Tony asked blandly as they all headed out of the diner.
Vincent sighed. "She's... got another assignment." He said shortly.
~oo00oo~
Tecca woke up with a light moan. "How long was I asleep?"
"Most of the night." Connie reported from the other end of the couch, not looking away from her laptop. "Listen, one way or another, you're stuck up here for a while. I get that you hate that feeling, but I was thinking... it doesn't have to be terrible. There are a few things you've probably never been able to do before."
Tecca was still rubbing his eyes. "Like what?"
"Well, for instance, there's ice cream."
Tecca blinked. "Ice cream? What's that?"
Connie smiled. "I'm glad you asked."
~oo00oo~
Dickie Bricks stared at the board as Checkov grinned at him, patient. "You can stare at the board all you want. The Rook is your only legal move."
Dickie kept looking, undeterred. "There's a way out."
"Find it, would you?" Checkov countered. "You've been staring at the board for over an hour and I am losing the will to live."
"My evil plan is working." Dickie grinned. "Concede the game and I'll let you go."
"Let him have it." A familiar voice put in. "For a dollar in dimes, it's not worth staring at the board all night."
Checkov looked up from the board as Vincent came over. "Haven't seen you for a while."
"Been busy." Vincent conceded. "Dickie, a few years ago, I helped you and your friends out. You said you owed me one, and I told you to forget about it." Vincent drew a slip of paper from his pocket. "I take it back, because I need your help."
Checkov and Dickie traded a look.
Putting the paper between them, Vincent quickly sketched out the Lostkind Marks from memory, the ones that reminded him of Yasi's tribal tattoos. Vincent had only seen a few, used to mark the entrances to the Labyrinth. "I want you guys to spread out, and find these marks. As many of them as you can. And any friends you have with time on their hands? Get them to look too."
Checkov gave the glyph a calculating look. "I have seen these before."
"So have I." Dickie rasped with open worry. "Vincent, you don't want to get into this. The city has marks everywhere. Gang signs, graffiti tags... But this mark?" He tapped it with one dirty finger. "This mark is dangerous."
Vincent nodded somberly. "I know. But I have to do this, and you guys are my best chance. Find all the ones you can. In a day or two, I'm going to bring you a list of places to look that you might not think of. Go to everyone that might help."
"What does it mean, Vincent?" Checkov asked softly. "What does the mark mean?"
Vincent went silent for a long while before answering. "It means... there's still hope."
~oo00oo~
Tecca was actively moaning in delight as he shoveled another spoonful into his mouth.
Connie smiled at him. "Glad you like it. Y'know the best ice cream in the world is Italian gelato. There's a café in Italy that I like to go to whenever I'm in Europe." Her voice dropping seamlessly into 'warm storyteller' mode. "The creaminess just dissolves through your mouth and carries the flavor so that it melts into you with each taste." Connie smiled at him. "Still, no matter how glorious ice cream is, it's always better with a little chocolate topping."
~oo00oo~
Vandark had no apparent fear when it came to wandering around the Underside. He was escorted by three Wildmen wherever he went, but they stayed mostly out of earshot.
The Riverfolk were deferential to him. They did everything he told them to do, even when he went down to the Seven Steps and set up the stalls all over again. What had been torn down by his forces a few days before, was rebuilt by the Riverfolk in less than an hour.
Yasi was struck most by the silence. The Lostkind were everywhere, as usual; but not one of them was talking. They were milling around, like cardboard cut-outs of people trying desperately to play it cool. But Yasi knew they were all watching.
Vandark stepped back after finishing up the repairs to one of the stalls, and looked across the crowd. "When I came to this City, the people here were living off things stolen from dumpsters. Look around, look up. You have the run of the greatest city in the world, and you don't care. More money goes through this city than most countries, and you don't care. Five star restaurants, power and fame, and you don't care. Late at night, you listen to echoes of the greatest music ever written, played by the greatest musicians ever assembled. You should be sitting up there in the front row. At the very least, you should be living like people. Nobody should be eating out of dumpsters. Nobody should be wearing clothes stolen from five different strangers. You deserve better than that!"
Even as he was speaking, the Borrowers were filing along the Seven Steps, bringing their cargo. Vandark himself claimed the first load and began spreading it out. It was food. Not in foil or Tupperware containers like it had always been before. This food was coming in large pots, still steaming. The Riverfolk were quick to assemble burners to warm it up, stack after stack of food boxes were brought to the stalls.
"No trade, no barter, no price!" Vandark declared, his voice carrying in the unusual silence. "It is a gift. A taste of things to come. I came here because my own Underside refused when I made them this offer. Up Above, this food would be slated for judges, lawyers, millionaires and congressmen. The output of the finest five-star caterers in New York City will feed your children tonight. It is exceptional, and it is no less than you all deserve!"
And despite herself, Yasi could feel her stomach growl. A thousand world class meals were being laid out before them, and she hadn't eaten in two days.
Yasi could sense the Lostkind looking at her, waiting to see what she did. Vandark peeked at her over his shoulder as he personally set out the food, and held the bowl out to her. She felt sick. Vandark had kept her hungry for exactly this moment. He wanted her starving enough to pounce on the food he gave her, because once she did, none of the Lostkind would refuse what Vandark was giving them.
The silence hung in the air, and suddenly it was all Vandark and Yasi: One hungry, the other offering five star food, and a thousand eyes waiting for a decision, waiting for permission.
Vandark's face softened after an endless moment, and he picked up two plates. "I understand. You don't trust me. I don't blame you. If it makes things easier on you, we will step out, and leave you to eat in peace." He returned her gaze to Yasi. "Won't we, Yasi?"
Yasi did not respond at first, but had to follow when Vandark left the Twelfth Level. She peeked over her shoulder past the Wildmen, and saw the Lostkind running forward, eager to eat. She caught a glimpse of more of the Borrowers coming in, walking carefully to keep the cargo level.
More food. Vandark isn't letting anyone go hungry. Yasi found herself almost smiling, and a thrill of mortal fear suddenly went through her. If they were hungry, they might fight back.
~oo00oo~
"I feel like half of New York just fell on me." Keeper croaked.
"It was worse than losing the Duel." Yasi was on the floor next to her cot, hugging her knees to her chin. "Keep, we got a real problem here. People are getting more under Vandark than they did under us. Better food, more stuff… Keep, he's going to do it. He'll have bought their loyalty inside six weeks. Even if we think of a way to fight him… It'll be our guys that fight for him."
Keeper smirked crookedly. "Look behind you."
Yasi very slowly turned to look. Kamy was at the other end of the Chapel, casually walking away from a hastily scrawled slogan on the wall.
Three Rules, Always!
Yasi grinned. There was still resistance here. The Invaders had broken the Three Cardinal Rules, and the Lostkind could forgive The Invasion faster than that.
Keeper nodded, knowing what the Shinobi was thinking. "You're worried, because Vandark can improve living conditions. But that's like eating an entire Pizza. It tastes good, it's easy, it's fast. But it'll make you sick, because you're working contrary to what's good for you. Vandark's breaking the rules. That's a hard thing to keep going, and a hard habit to break."
"Keep, doing what's easy and enjoyable, but bad for you... is the wrong way to live, but there are still plenty of people who live that way, and don't care what the consequences are." Yasi sighed morosely. "It's my fault. You and Dorcan and Archivist were right: I froze everyone out. They hate Vandark, but they don't particularly like me. The one reason they all had to follow me anywhere was the certainty that I would protect them... And I failed."
"Maybe so, but the game ain't over yet. Time will tell." Keeper was drifting again, low on energy.
Yasi looked back at the slogan Kamy had painted. Kamy is six years old. She didn't come up with this on her own. Somewhere out there, someone is still fighting.
~oo00oo~
Days passed, and things moved quickly, in both the Underside, and New York.
In the Underside, Yasi slept in the Oubliette, and spent her days under guard by Vandark's side at every step. The Underside had been rebuilt, and the Labyrinth passages cleared. The doors had changed from what the Shinobi knew.
Yasi had asked Keeper where the bodies were put, and nobody seemed to know. Yasi was allowed to visit Keeper, and was quietly made aware of a few facts. The surviving Shinobi had escaped capture, but nobody had heard from them since The Duel.
Vandark had made an effort to find them, and failed. Yasi hesitated to grin, knowing that the resistance was the only reason she was alive. In the week since the Victory of the Wildmen, the Resistance had done nothing more than put up the slogan, like the Resistance Fighters of old: Three Rules, Always!
Those were the only rules that Vandark was breaking.
The food kept coming, and it was excellent. The Watchers brought in new information that tabloids would kill to get, and Vandark began stockpiling it. The Whisper Gallery had to be reopened as a result.
The Riverfolk had become Vandark's police force, and had the run of the Underside. One or two took advantage, causing trouble for the Lostkind. Vandark's few Wildmen put a stop to it, permanently; and the Riverfolk behaved themselves.
To all appearances, it was peaceful. There were no riots, demonstrations, or brawls with the Invaders. Vandark's rule had gone out of its way to make the Lostkind comfortable.
On the surface, things were happening quickly. Drew and his friends made their trip, collecting the items on the list. Vincent's friends, a network of people that nobody else wanted, were eager to help someone who had gone out of his way to treat them with respect and kindness, gathering information the same way the Watchers did.
Connie worked with Vincent when Tecca wasn't watching. Connie knew most of the same Homeless people Vincent did, both from the Soup Kitchen and the Free Clinic; and she took messages for him. She was more than a little surprised to see Tecca had stayed when she went home. Her apartment had a spare room, and Tecca had nowhere else to go. Every night she would come home and find him waiting for her. The two of them had slipped into domesticity with surprising ease.
After a week, Connie knew they were rapidly approaching the point where it couldn't last, and Tecca did too. They had carefully avoided all mention of the future, but it was time to force the issue.
~oo00oo~
Gill was parked out the front of Connie's building, with Vincent in the passenger seat. "Vincent." He said quietly. "Are you sure?"
Vincent didn't answer right way.
Gill turned to look at him properly. "Once you do this, there's no going back."
"I know." Vincent decided finally. "But I have to try." He held out the folder. It was bulging with printouts, and scraps of paper with locations across the city and other miscellaneous notes written in various scrawls. "Everything I could find in the Archives Room, everything I could get from memory, everything that my friends below the Poverty Line could find in time. It's all here. Every entrance to the Secret City that we can find." He gave Gill an intense look. "You understand what I'm giving you?"
Gill nodded respectfully. "I'll do the job, Vincent. I'll do it right; I swear."
~oo00oo~
"Tecca, there's something I want to discuss with you." Connie said quietly as she placed the hot chocolate in front of him.
Tecca looked up at her over the rim of his mug, instantly on guard. "What?"
Connie stayed calm. She had spent years with the kids at the Clinic. Children from the streets, or from rough homes were always on guard, and had a very good grip on the harshest parts of reality. Any conversation with them was done with a measure of suspicion.
Connie spoke briskly and professionally. She was negotiating a tough deal. "I like having you here. But sooner or later, somebody's going to notice."
"Nobody sees a Watcher." Tecca scorned.
"Even so, it's been a week." Connie pressed on. "I was wondering, if you'd be willing to do me a favor."
"What kind of favor?"
"Well, there's something I never told you about me and Vincent..."
"You wanted kids, and he didn't." Tecca cut in. "You think it was because part of him was hoping to go back to the Underside."
Connie paused. "Yes." She said simply. "Thing is... I'm not as young as I used to be... Having a kid is hard enough at the best of times. So I was hoping you might be willing to do me a favor and be sort of a trial run."
Tecca bit his lip. "What do I have to do?"
"Well, basically you'd pretend I was your mom. You know, like that woman who always brought you into the Clinic. You had me fooled for three years before I found out about the Lostkind. You seemed like a natural."
"You want me to pretend to be your kid?" Tecca seemed stunned.
"I think it'd be good for you. You'd be able to go to school, you'd be able to graduate... You'd be able to stay here as long as you wanted."
"I can go to school?" Tecca's head tilted. "I've never been to a school before. Archivist teaches the kids in the Underside. I remember some of the Watchers telling me about when they were kids. Seemed interesting." He kept his jaded eyes on hers. "Different to what I'm used to."
Connie nodded, and slid a plate over. "Have a cookie."
Tecca looked at the plate like there were strings attached, but took one. "Food's good here." He admitted finally.
Connie held her breath and pulled a few folded pages out of her pocket, setting them down on the table.
"What are they?" Tecca asked around a mouthful of cookie.
Connie took a breath. "Adoption papers."
Tecca froze mid-chew, and swallowed thickly. "Why are you doing this?"
"That's not an answer." Connie said gently.
Awkwardly, Tecca began to answer her, when there was knock on the door. Connie gave Tecca an imperious look. "Saved by the bell."
Despite himself, Tecca smiled back at her.
Connie opened the door to Vincent who gave her a steady look. "Show time." He said simply.
Tecca froze. "What do you mean?"
Vincent gave Tecca a level gaze. "We're going back."
Connie looked stricken, and Tecca rose to his feet smoothly.
~oo00oo~
The Throne Room had been repaired too. Where once there was a table that everyone gathered at, and three seats for her, Keeper and Archivist… now there was just Vandark's Throne.
He had taken meetings every morning, getting reports from the Borrowers, giving orders to the Watchers, mediating disputes, and answering questions. Very few were willing to ask questions, and Yasi was slightly sick to see that they were coming to him at all.
Vandark was polite, reasonable, patient... And Yasi hated every minute that she spent there, hands bound. He'd used her as a coat rack, putting his cloak around her shoulders as he held court. Despite herself, she found she was nodding along with him, agreeing with half the things he said.
The Watchers were given new orders, no longer following the Homeless and the Urban Explorers; now turning their eyes on the wealthy. Power-brokers all over the city now had shadows that they did not recognize. Their homes were being invaded and searched with practiced skill. Each Watcher knew the penalty against his or her loved ones. The Powers Above were having all their dirtiest secrets and hidden loves collected and cataloged for later use.
Vandark took time after each ruling to explain his reasoning, and this was no exception. "Over the last few days, our people have been eating well." He pronounced.
They're not your people. Yasi thought silently.
"They received Gourmet food from the finest chefs in the city. In New York, that's world class." Vandark continued. "Some have asked where it all came from, and now I'll tell you. The right piece of paper in the right office can give us access to huge amounts of money. A few moments with a phone and the right set of numbers can make people jump to work. Taking a driver's uniform gives us secrecy, and just like that, we all eat like Kings." Vandark took a moment to let that sink in. "Why the hell haven't you guys been doing this all along?"
Because we can't get away with it for long. Yasi thought silently.
"The Chief of Surgery at St Luke's is considering retirement, and his staff are angling to impress him. The right bit of blackmail at the right moment could be the decider. My faithful servant Owen is, at this moment, meeting with one of the Candidates, securing a supply of the most innovative medicines New York can offer, in exchange for his rivals secrets. Your Eyes can decide the rise and fall of empires. Imagine what your dedicated Healers can do with more medicines coming in. We can start by improving our lot in the world, but that's only the beginning."
Our lot only needs improving because you burned it all down. Yasi retorted silently.
Vandark dismissed the Local Lostkind, and turned to his Wildmen Warriors. "Don't worry, I won't forget you. You've followed me, and we have prevailed. And as Victors, we are entitled to the spoils of war." He went through his team, one by one. "Dagny. Pepsi will win the Cola Wars within the year."
Dagny grinned, and his teams chuckled in a good-natured way.
Vandark went to the next. "Nutt, the next time Manchester United is in town, you have free reign."
"They'll never win a World Cup again!" Nutt crowed, and everyone laughed.
"What about you, sir?" One of the Wildmen called to their Leader.
Vandark grinned over at Yasi. "I have all the Prize I need."
And then, suddenly, a voice whispered gently from the walls, echoing from all directions. "Three Rules, Always."
Vandark stiffened, as did everyone else in the room. Yasi struggled not to jump to her feet.
It was Archivist's voice.
"Our homes have been invaded, and our hiding place burned out." Archivist declared, his voice resonating from the steam pipes. "We have accepted these things quietly because we have been allowed to stay in our chambers, and our lot has improved. On the surface, there is relief."
"The Whisper Gallery." Vandark took his cloak from around Yasi's shoulders, and swept it around himself as he stalked toward the door. "Bring her."
Yasi was pulled roughly off the floor by two of the Wildmen, dragged along behind him.
"Relief that the horrors our imaginations conjured have not come to pass." Archivist continued. "But many oppressors have come with the promise of friendship. Never forget how many of our friends the Wildmen have slain. Never forget that they burned our children. Never forget that we have lived in secret for a hundred years, protected by safeguards that the Invaders have overturned in a day of violence and murder. Three Rules, Always!"
Yasi glanced around as she was practically dragged behind Vandark. The words were going through the pipes, as they did when Vandark challenged her. Everyone was hearing this.
~oo00oo~
Vandark made his way to the Whisper Gallery and found Archivist half-collapsed over the pipes. He looked wounded, but unbowed, a light sheen of sweat across his determined face. He turned to face Vandark, and ignored him completely, eyes focusing instead on the young woman dragged along behind him forcibly.
"Yasi!" He called out in joy, despite Vandark's approach. "Thank God your ali-"
BANG!
Vandark promptly shot him down.
"NO!" Yasi fought her way free of the Wildman holding her chain with a scream, and threw herself down at her father's side.
Archivist was still, and already growing cold. Yasi looked him over. He had been bandaged expertly. Someone had helped him make it this far after he had fought... She pressed on the wound quickly, but it was already too late. Vandark was a crack shot, and Archivist never knew what hit him.
Yasi cradled her father for a moment, hot tears running down her face. A moment later her fingers tightened on him savagely, and her eyes blazed at Vandark, who had the gun pointed at her instantly. "You've still got one parent at my mercy, Yasi." Vandark said simply, not raising his voice. "Not to mention yourself."
Yasi bared her teeth at him, half feral from the rage.
Vandark turned to the trunk of pipes and spoke to the Underside. "In my time as your leader, I have brought you much. I do not forget those who help me and show loyalty. I do not ignore the hard work you have shown already. Instead, I have rewarded it. Look around, and you will see that I am right. But I do not have mercy for those who defy me. If you have a problem, bring it to me. If you have questions, ask them. It's better than starting a riot, and the only way you can challenge me without losing your life."
The pipes always brought the whispers, from the city, from the Underside... With the right pipes closed off, and others opened, he could control the flow of the heat, and the whispers that went with them. From the Underside and the listening Lostkind, there was only silence.
Vandark pressed the moment. "I have killed to claim this place as my own. What do you think I would do to keep it?"
"Vandark." Yasi said darkly. "May I ask a question?"
The Invader was surprised. "Yes."
"Do you know why we don't use guns?" Yasi said, her voice almost unrecognizable under the weight of her anger.
"They're volatile." Vandark nodded. "In enclosed spaces, curved walls, lots of stonework, they can be far more dangerous to friendlies." He held up his own. "That's why mine is the only one you'll find down here."
"No." Yasi said coldly. "We don't use them... because they break the rules. Be Invisible. Be Daring. Be Beautiful. Guns are loud, cowardly, messy, gawd-awful things. They have no beauty, they have no respect, they make killing a game, and they are just bad." She shook her head. "You're alone in the world now, Vandark. Even the Riverfolk know to follow the Code. The Underside is not forgiving to those who do not keep her Rules."
Vandark had provided the Lostkind with food, improved and rebuilt their homes, answered their fears with respect and behaved honorably toward his prisoners, but this made him scoff dismissively. "Hm. I'm sure."
"Mark my words, my lord." Yasi said bitingly. "The Underside is like any other city. It has a pulse, a soul. It has a Rhythm. And you have made Her your enemy. The Secret City Herself is your enemy now. You're already beaten, you just haven't fallen down yet. Your reign here is finished."
And through the steam pipes that spread through the Underside, carrying the whole conversation in both directions to all the Lostkind, a silent roar went between them.
Nobody ate the food Vandark brought them that night.


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

If you're enjoying 'The Lostkind', but don't want to wait for the next chapter, you can get the whole thing here in ebook and paperback format.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Fifteen: The Last Line Of Defense


Gill didn't believe at first. Connie joined in after a while and added some details. After they were done, he asked a few questions, some of which they knew the answers to, most of which they didn't. Gill didn't believe it, but was willing to concede that they weren't lying to him.
Vincent had described the Lostkind. Everything from the dirty, hidden, patchwork people to the elegant, artistic wonder of everything they made and did; and found his eyes were shining. He didn't like to think of Riverfolk running free through the tunnels and dreaded the thought of what had happened far below them while he was reading the cards.
Wiping unshed tears from his eyes, he suddenly realized it wasn't about making a choice any more. The choice had been made. He couldn't escape the reach of the place... and he didn't want to. The Lostkind's fate would be his own.
"You're going back, aren't you?" Gill said finally, seeing the determination growing on Vincent's face. "You're going back down there."
"Yes." Vincent admitted. "I have to."
"What are you going to do?"
Vincent took a breath. "I have a few ideas. But it's going to take some preparation."
"So what do we do now?" Connie whispered.
Vincent bit his lip. "Vandark took my files. All the ways in. And Yasi would collapse as many entrances as she could... But if Owen left without contest, it probably hasn't worked. Which means... I'd have to find a whole new way in."
"Vincent, even if you do find a way in, what do you plan to do?"
"There might be a way. But doing it would mean breaking Rule Number One." He gave Connie a crooked smile. "Yasi would kill me."
"Anything we can do to help?"
Vincent bit his lip. "Connie, I need you to keep Tecca close, because I'll need him eventually. And Gill, I need your help now. We need to track down some rather obsolete equipment and get it here as fast as we can. We're going into the Office, we're going to take this City apart and find ways into the Underside. A lot of them. As many as we can get. I'm pretty sure I'll remember most of them as we go through the files. Any that I can't remember we'll have to explore."
Gill frowned. "There's no shortage of places to hide things, but if these guys collapsed as many entrances as they could, what would finding a bunch of doors into a collapsed maze give you?"
Vincent smirked. "You'll see."
"What about Yasi and the others?" Connie asked. "How long can they hold out?"
Vincent shivered. "I don't know."
~oo00oo~
The Twelfth Level was the last line of defense.
Keeper was in bad shape, but still conscious. Yasi sat with her once the guard was set up. "Hey."
Keeper looked at her daughter, barely moving for a long time.
Yasi didn't know what else to do, so she filled Keeper in on the situation. "It seemed like a good plan, collapsing a lot of the tunnels, turning the whole place into a Gauntlet. I figured it would work for longer, but... Vandark did things I didn't predict. We stopped them, though; stopped them dead-cold at the entrance to Twelfth Level. We've even got enough room to fit everyone semi-comfortably."
"...food?" Keeper rasped.
Yasi leaned a little closer and poured small sips of water between Keeper's cracked lips. "Not enough." She admitted. "He can't get in, but we can't get out. We can only hold out so long. The good news is, the Throne Room wasn't a frontal attack like the Entrance or the Markets. I think it's working. We're wearing them down."
Keeper licked her lips, grateful for the water, and began to speak. "I've been Keeper of this place for sixty years." She rasped slowly. "Rule Number One is to Be Invisible. When you're Invisible, you never get noticed. I have kept this place at the status quo as best I could for my entire life, trying not to... let things change."
"I noticed." Yasi nodded, not really in the mood to provide examples.
Keeper looked around the Twelfth Level, up at the softly twinkling lights of the private living chambers. "I know the names and life stories of each and every one of them, living up there. Some of them are married. I was the one that married them. Some of them have kids. I was the first one to visit every newborn Lostkind." Keeper shivered violently, and settled into sleep. Yasi tucked the blanket tighter around her bony shoulders and stood up.
Yasi looked around slowly, telling herself it wasn't the last time she'd do so. Those that escaped the Throne Room explosion were badly wounded. Burned, laying out on pallets along the second of the Seven Steps. Not a huge number, as far as the world went, but they were her warriors.
And I was their Captain. Yasi thought bleakly to herself. I led them into battle. I led them here.
Kamy appeared out of nowhere, as all the Gremlins did, and tugged on Yasi's belt. The Captain scooped her up and sat on the edge of the Steps. "How's it going?"
Kamy sniffed. "Keeper saved me."
Yasi nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, baby girl, she did."
Kamy's eyes were red. "I'm sorry. We should have run when you told us to."
Yasi shook her head. "We are what we are. We're tied to this place. It's more than our home. It's us. Keeper wouldn't be our keeper if she wasn't willing to run out into the middle of it to save the kids in her keeping. And Gremlins are always there, just out of sight. If you weren't, we'd have to call you something else. Don't ever apologize for being you. I never have."
At that moment, a calm, cultured voice came whispering from all directions. "Yasi."
Everything froze.
"Yasi, you know where I am. My name is Vandark. But you knew that, too." The voice continued, unhurried and not at all concerned.
Kamy glanced at her. "The Whisper Gallery."
Yasi gave a single nod.
"Your warriors have fought bravely. A credit to their Captain." Vandark continued. "But look what happened. We have undone your defenses, overwhelmed your soldiers and captured your Kingdom. I have been reliably informed that you have successfully sealed off the River, and the Twelfth Level."
The few Shinobi left standing cheered bleakly at that. There was no sense of victory.
"Yasi, I can dig my way in, but with you ready and waiting, people would die. A lot of them. Probably enough that you win. So I won't try." Vandark said. "Ours are two small armies, Yasi; trained and taught by us. We've both lost people we count as our own. I aim to keep what I have made... and what I have captured. So, where does that leave us?"
Yasi glanced up, seeing people coming to the Chamber entrances all over the Level, listening to his voice. It was a good tactic, making the whole thing known to the public.
"Well, I know for a fact that you can't stay alive forever. You try and exit through the River, my allies will stop you. You try to escape any other way, my own warriors will stop you. Your greenhouse is my territory, and we found a lot of your stores in the ruins of the Throne Room. You can't hold out for long. I can hold out indefinitely. And if you think I won't starve every last one of you; you're wrong."
Yasi glanced up again. The Lostkind were looking to her now. Vandark would do it; she knew he would. Time was on his side. If he waited a few days, a few weeks, a few months...
"Idiot!" She whispered at herself in outrage. "You should have had all the stores down here, but no. You were so sure you'd be able to hold them at the Throne Room."
"Yasi, you're the only one left. Archivist had to choose between himself and the History of this place. Keeper had to choose between herself and her kids... You're the only one left. If the fight goes on, you might even win. It's over; because I have decided it's over. All that's left is to pick the winner." He paused, his tone became richer, grander, like he was giving some inspiring speech. "We are the Generals. We are the Warriors-Born. We're not that different, when it comes right down to it. We could decide the whole war, right here. Or we could wait, bluff it out, drag dozens of people we care about into it with us."
Yasi looked to her Warriors. They returned her gaze evenly, shaking their heads. They knew he was baiting her, and didn't want her to go for it.
"Admit it, Yasi; if either of us dies, our team falls with us. Who's going to lead them if you fall? And who will continue the fight for me if I am dead? We can settle this right now. You and me. All you have to do is let me open the door."
Yasi turned her gaze the other direction, at her fallen Shinobi, wounded or dead, laid out in neat rows on the huge stone and concrete Steps. The Lostkind all looked to her from above, holding their breath, waiting for her reaction.
"Admit it, Shinobi; it's the way you'd really prefer it to be. You against me, nobody else involved, nobody else gets hurt... With everything we want as the prize." Vandark said, the eagerness in his voice was clear.
Yasi walked, in no particular hurry, toward the telephone on the wall.
"And you want to see who'll win as badly as I do." Vandark added, coming to the end of his story.
Yasi lifted the phone. "Hello?"
Vandark's voice responded, her phone already connected to the Whisper Gallery. "I'm here."
Yasi spoke. "I want to find out too." She growled into the phone. "Come and get me."
~oo00oo~
Vincent's key was enough to get them into the City Planner's Office, even at that late hour. "We'll do it here!" He declared as he strode into the Archives Room, Connie and Gill flanking him.
Everyone started clearing a space, when Vincent suddenly noticed there was a message waiting in the pneumatic tube. He sent a glance over at everyone, and collected it.
V--
This will be the last message I send before I disable the tubes, so if you get something new, either we've won, or the bad guys sent it.
Tecca knew when the attack was coming, so I sent him up to you.
Understand?
--Y
PS: Merlin is a finicky eater; you gotta give him good stuff. Wish us luck.


Connie came over. "What's that?"
Vincent crumpled the message instantly. "Nothing I didn't already know."
"Here's what I don't get." Gill called over to them. "Your whole plan is dependent on going back to the Underside, right?"
"Right." Vincent confirmed.
"But if Vandark took your secret list, then what does rebuilding it matter? Because if I was the bad guy, the first thing I'd do is burn the bridges behind me."
"Very likely." Vincent agreed.
"So we can tear through all these files and blueprints, but if they all lead to the Labyrinth, then we're still left with just one way into their Secret City. So why do we need a thousand ways in? How is that supposed to help the good guys win?"
"Who said anything about helping the good guys win?" Vincent responded innocently.
~oo00oo~
"You're going to die, doing this." Keeper rasped weakly. "You know that, right?"
"Keep, this might just be the only way to save us all. I win this... and we can mop up what's left easily. They won't fight for a dead commander."
"He knows that too." Keeper said softly. "If he starves us out, he wins. So what the hell is he thinking?"
"He's thinking that we shouldn't be left down here too long alone." Yasi reasoned. "He's thinking that he can't run New York through manipulation and man all the needed posts in the Underside with what's left of his army, so he needs us. He doesn't want us wiped out, he wants us to surrender control. He's thinking that if he doesn't win this fast, he doesn't know what happens. I'm the only way this ends quickly. And both sides need to end this quickly."
Keeper weakly raised a hand and traced a finger gently over Yasi's tribal marks. "I was the one that inked that mark into your face, child. I was so scared for you that day. Proud, but scared. It's been seven years since the Lostkind were in danger. The last time, you were the one that saved the day. And now... When Archivist and I made you Captain, our great fear was that it would happen again."
"You didn't think I could handle it?"
"Oh, of course you can." Keeper scoffed. "But I'm your mother. The less Duels you fight for the fate of the City, the happier I am."
She was drifting, losing steam. Yasi pulled away. "Rest. When you wake up, we'll be safe again." She promised, and sent a glance over to her team.
The Shinobi were clearing away the rubble, opening one entrance to the Twelfth Level. Every now and then, one of them would look over at her. They knew she was their last line of defense. They were actively letting the bad guy in, just to give him a free shot at their Captain.
They gave Yasi a wide berth as she rose from Keeper's side. Not one of them wanted to intrude on her thoughts, letting her prepare her mind for what was about to happen. Yasi took her time, testing her armor, checking her sword.
When the tunnel cleared enough that both sides could see each other, her team jumped back, expecting a sudden attack that did not come.
Yasi wasn't worried. She knew. Vandark wanted this. He wanted to be the one that won. He wanted to do it himself, and be able to say that he conquered the Underside single-handed.
The Wildmen poured through, fewer than a dozen left of them. Our tactics worked. Yasi thought. Their numbers have been worn down. But with only half a dozen Shinobi left... One more fight and we would have had them, but we didn't have our stores in the right place. Stupid, Yasi; real stupid.
The Wildmen did not spread out, instead forming two rows, on either side to the tunnel. They formed two rows, stood at attention.
And then between them, emerging into the Twelfth Level, was Vandark. He wore jet black body armor, under a rich purple cloak. He wore a sword at his hip and a dagger in a sheath slung across his chest.
Almost as an afterthought, Owen came out of the tunnel too; staying well back.
"Yasi." Vandark said with a grin as he spread his arms wide. "There's no need for more people to die here."
Yasi could feel a thousand eyes beating down on her from every chamber in the Dome. As much as she wanted to fight to the last man and woman... It would have been a short fight. "I agree." She said with anticipation.
Vandark grinned, filled with a dangerous energy. "Are you feeling up to it? You've been working harder than I have today."
Yasi grinned toothily. "Might just make it a fair fight for you then."
Vandark stepped forward, and cast aside his cloak.
Yasi stepped forward, and slowly drew her sword, letting him take a good long look at the gleaming curved steel.
Vandark grinned, and pulled out a gun. Yasi didn't move, as Vandark grinned cruelly and tossed the handgun to Owen. Vandark drew a sword of his own. A large, heavy blade, made from a thick black metal.
Yasi settled into a combat crouch, a pose that she had used often, practiced endlessly. The energy of the moment was explosive, years of training, years of exploring, years of leadership... It had all boiled down to this one fight to see if it would mean a damn. The silence in the huge underground dome was hushed and powerful, the pressure great enough to crush every last one of them into silence; but Yasi was exultant, electrified.
Vandark charged, and Yasi was more than willing to meet him halfway.
The savagery of the first attack was a surprise to everyone but Yasi. For all the damage he had dealt, for all the cunning he had shown, this was the first time the Lostkind had seen Vandark himself in combat, and it was terrifying to witness. Even Yasi barely managed to dart aside, and the blade came down like a sledgehammer, cracking the concrete floor.
Yasi danced away on quick light steps. If it had connected, that slash would have carved her right down the middle, but she wasted no time on surprise, slashing back with her sword from his side.
Vandark blocked the blow with barely a blink, taking the strike on his gauntlet. The black metal of the armband let loose a bright flash of sparks, and Vandark struck again.
Yasi was pure grace and speed, Vandark ruthless power and savagery. The balance between them was a terrifying dance, hanging on the verge of being a sudden slaughter, but for which side nobody knew. For every bone-crushing strike that he made, she managed to twist her body somehow, just barely enough to spare her life. For every blow that she landed against him, nothing seemed to work. She slashed and kicked and gouged and hit him with every type of attack she could think of, and he shook them off instantly.
Yasi got in closer, trying to blunt his power, give him no room to make a wide attack. Her sword was smaller and lighter, but he was able to block her attempt to cut at him. It worked, cutting off his attacks, but slowing hers too, enough that he could get a grip around her blade with his armored hand, sending it sliding away.
Yasi didn't care, practically climbing up her opponent's torso to pile-drive her fists into his face, his throat, his neck, his eyes... Every blow moved seamlessly into the next, without a wasted motion of any kind. It was an impressive display or raw speed and skill, that finished up with a spin kick that spun his head around sharply to the left. It was a flurry of lightning fast strikes that would have killed any ten Riverfolk...
And Vandark started laughing at her.
Yasi swallowed, using his shoulder as leverage to flip over him, and make a break for her sword.
Vandark grasped his scimitar with both hands and swung it in a full 360 like a baseball bat, using the wide flat of his blade rather than the edge. The strike wouldn't cut, but it made the scimitar too wide for her to dodge around it, slamming into her midsection. The air burst from her lungs like someone had swung a safe into her gut, and she staggered away as best she could.
Something horrifying occurred to Yasi suddenly: Vandark was going to win. He was big enough to make her look like a child, fast enough to match her, able to absorb everything she could throw at him without flinching...
And if she fell, everything she had known and loved in her entire life would fall with her.
Except she had absolutely no idea how to beat him. And looking at the sly grin on his face, he knew it too. And apparently, so did everyone else. The Wildmen were cheering, loving the show, the Lostkind were dead silent, seeing a disaster unfold.
Vandark decided he was tired of playing and sheathed his sword. He showed no concern, was in no particular hurry as she dove for her katana, coming up swinging. She put everything she had into one last attack. He had her measure now, and she had his. They had tested each other and seen where the balance of power in this contest was. She poured everything she had into one last attack; because she knew that she would never get another.
The long samurai blade came down, quick as a lighting strike... and Vandark clapped his hands together. For a frozen moment, Yasi couldn't believe what she was seeing.
Vandark had caught the blade flat between the palms of his hands.
The swing stopped dead in an instant, Yasi's strength nothing next to his. Vandark pushed the blade away and struck, slamming his boot into her ribs. Yasi let out an explosive shout, feeling a grenade explode in her middle. Vandark did it again and again, and she felt the stone floor jump up and slap her.
Yasi weaved, tried to get a grip on his leg. Vandark kicked her off like she was something to be scraped off the sole of his boot. And at that moment, she pretty much was.
Vandark rolled his shoulders, sending his gaze up over his audience. "Yasi." He gestured down at her grandly. "The Captain of the New York Ninja, your Warrior-Elite." He looked back down at her and laughed pityingly.
Yasi looked up blearily, head pounding, eyes rolling in opposite directions. "...s... is the fight over?"
Vandark looked down at her. "Yes." He said simply, and held a hand out to Owen, who immediately handed him that gun. He looked down at her without aiming. "Surrender."
Yasi tried to spit at him and missed.
Vandark sighed, bored with this part already. "I imagine putting a gun to your head would be a waste of time." He turned and made for the row of cots along the Steps. Yasi saw it and gasped, trying to stop him, barely able to crawl.
Vandark waited for her to catch up, standing at the head of Keeper's bed. The old woman slept, never looking more frail, while Vandark stood over her like the Grim Reaper.
Slowly, painfully, Yasi dragged herself over to the two of them, trying to cover Keeper with her own body, putting herself between her mother and Vandark's gun. Vandark leaned down and grasped Yasi's leg, dragging her back beside him.
"No!" Yasi put a hand out, punch-drunk and swaying back and forth on her knees. Vandark put a boot on her back and forced her down to the floor.
"It only takes one of you to give the surrender order. I only have to keep one of you alive, Yasi." Vandark said simply. "And the fact of it is... between you and Keeper? You're prettier to look at."
Yasi struggled to lift her head. "NO!"
It made no difference. Vandark's gun went off.
Everything. Stopped.
The sound of the gunshot echoed off the entire Twelfth Level, everyone reacting to it in the same way. Guns were forbidden in the Underside. The Shinobi, the Watchers, even the Wildmen never touched them. But Vandark had used one so casually...
Yasi fought to lift her head. The concrete ground next to Keeper's head had been torn into chunks by the heavy bullet.
Vandark looked down imperiously at Yasi. "Scary, isn't it?" He lifted the gun again. "The way to the Chapel is open. The Healers are there of course, treating my wounded. Shall I take your Shinobi up there for treatment? Should I keep them here? What about Keeper? Half an inch to the left and the question is academic. You tell me. What do I do?"
As if to punctuate the question, Owen tossed Yasi's sword down next to her. It clattered loudly, only a few feet away.
A thousand terrified eyes looked down on them from all over Twelfth Level, as their Champion lay beaten, literally under Vandark's boot.
Yasi's hand inched over to the hilt of her sword, grasping it slowly.
Vandark didn't move, didn't react at all.
With excruciating slowness, Yasi crawled out from under Vandark's foot, and lifted the blade painfully; to hold it out to him, handle first. Yasi mumbled.
Vandark didn't reach for the sword being offered. "I didn't hear that?"
Yasi swallowed thickly. "Treat them."
"Ask me nicely."
Yasi's eyes blazed for a microsecond, before going dull. "I surrender. The New York Underside surrenders. Please treat our wounded; save my mothers life. Please... my Lord Vandark."
The huge Warrior reached out and took the sword she offered him, sending Owen a nod.
Owen walked to the River, following along the lowest of the Steps. He was the only one moving on the entire Twelfth Level, and every teary, terrified Lostkind watched, as he made his way to the razor nets... winching them up out of the water, making the water clear to travel through below the surface.
Seconds later, the River boiled with movement, and as Vandark raised The Sword of the Shinobi Captain over his head, an army of Riverfolk marched up to the Steps. Nobody moved. The Riverfolk were expecting a fight, weapons drawn and muscles tensed.
But they first thing they saw, was The Man Himself with Yasi laying beaten at his feet, and the sword of the Shinobi held over his head in triumph.
Vandark roared a victory cry; taken up by every voice in his triumphant army.
The Secret City belonged to Vandark.
~oo00oo~
Gill was clearly overloaded by the story and the plan. Connie called a halt to the evening, giving him the time he needed to process; taking Vincent to her apartment for Tecca. They had a small bet in the car as to whether or not Tecca would have given Benji the slip, even though the boy had nowhere to go.
"Here's the thing." Connie said carefully as they climbed the stairs. "If Tecca has bolted, we're going to have to tell Benji something. And if he hasn't, Benji's gonna wonder where Tecca came from."
Vincent nodded. "I know. It's not the first time you've babysat a kid who came into the clinic overnight. So what are the odds Benji could keep track of him?"
"Not terrible, unless something shiny came along..." Connie sighed. She checked to see if her apartment door was locked, and found it wasn't. Drew opened the apartment door to Connie and Vincent swiftly.
"Drew." The both chorused in surprise.
"Is that Connie?" Benji's voice called from in the apartment.
"It sounded like Vincent was with her." Tony's voice answered.
"Think they've made up?"
"Didn't they do that already?"
"Were we there for that?"
Drew still hadn't said a word. He just rolled his eyes at his sister. "They really need to take that act on the road."
"It's two in the morning, and I asked Benji to sit in six hours ago." Connie retorted. "Don't the three of you ever go anywhere alone?"
"If we did that, they might have to get our own breakfast." Drew snorted as Connie pushed past him, into her apartment. Tecca was fast asleep on the couch.
Drew closed the door quietly. "So. Do I want to know where the hell you two slipped off to all night? Or who this kid you wanted us to babysit is? Or... well, what the hell is happening? Because there's something going on. Every time I see you two together for the last six months, you're either glaring at each other across the room or whispering quietly to each other."
Connie pushed her glasses up her nose, not looking at her big brother.
"Connie, there was a time when you'd have a fight with a friend, or a boyfriend, and you wouldn't be able to stop yourself. You'd come to the three of us and pour your guts out and we'd crowd around you and make you all better again. With Vincent, we get silence. That worries me. I don't know whether to strangle the man or shake his hand. Connie... what the hell is going on?"
Connie was silent for a long moment. If she told him everything, Vincent could not blame her. He had come clean with Gill to ask for help. If she did the same with her brother...
Connie spoke at last. "Thanks for helping out tonight, Drew." She gave her brother a kiss on the cheek. "Go home and sleep."
Drew gave her a long look and nodded, not happy. Benji and Tony were within earshot enough to pick up the tense family moment, if not all the words, but they went with him. As they left the apartment, Connie sat down on the end of the couch without waking Tecca. "I hate keeping secrets from my brother. If you had any idea how often he's saved me from having bad days..."
"I know." Vincent sighed.
"He knows I'm hiding things, Vincent. In our family, that's as bad as lying to him. This is why I never wanted a part of that world. I wanted to be honest with the people I loved, and now I'm lying to him."
"I know." Vincent said kindly. "I'm sorry."
"I could tell him." Connie tested, just wanting to see how he'd react.
Vincent nodded. "You could have told him at any point over the last six months. I only told Gill because he had to know. But I still told him. What's been stopping you?"
Connie didn't answer, but she didn't have to. She'd wanted to protect the Lostkind too, and she wanted to keep her brother out of the whole dangerous mess.
"We can't send Tecca back." Connie said softly. "There's nowhere for him to go any more. He comes over a few times a week, tells me all about being a Watcher. The things this kids knows about people, Vincent... He's still a baby and he can practically walk through walls... He sees me reading the paper sometimes, fills me in on what the news stories don't say. About the constant gang wars, the secret clubs that the mayor's staff belong to... Yasi sent him up here for a reason, and it wasn't to protect him. It was to protect all those things he knows."
"No." Vincent said quietly. "There was another reason too."
"Well, whatever she did it for, this is probably a stroke of luck." Connie said, thinking logically. "He could probably help you. Finding a way into the Labyrinth is one thing... after that, it becomes a whole other game, and not one you know much about." There was no disparagement in her voice, she was just stating the facts.
"I agree." Vincent said honestly. "But I need you to keep Tecca here with you while I prepare." She looked confused, and he pressed the point. "I mean it, the entire time."
"Why?"
Vincent bit his lip. "There are two options here. One: I can tell you what I think. I doubt you'll believe it. Option Two: You keep him here as long as you can because a war's being won or lost downstairs and we want him far away from it."
Connie nodded. "That works for me. But Tecca won't fall for this if he thinks we're protecting him."
"Protect him, distract him, tie him to a chair and gag him if you have to. Just give me some time." Vincent said as his cell phone rang. He answered it. "Yeah?" He listened for a moment and squeezed his eyes shut. "Hell. You're sure? Thanks, Gill."
"Bad news?" Connie said quietly, mindful of Tecca sleeping; even after the phone had gone off.
"He can't find the parts." Vincent sighed. "He's been through all the databases, taking apart every storeroom we can get to. He can't find the equipment we need."
"What about the info? Frequencies? Blueprints?"
"That stuff is all over the Internet." Vincent waved it off. "But we can't use modern cameras. We need the original stuff."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure of exactly nothing with this plan, which is why I'd rather not take any chances."
Connie grinned. "Heh. How about that? It's all on me now."
Vincent blinked. "Sorry?"
Connie gestured around grandly. "Look around, McCall. All these bits and pieces from across land and sea, and I got it all without leaving the apartment. You think there's anything at all that I can't find and buy somewhere? I've raised the knack for finding obscure talking points to an art form."
Vincent laughed triumphantly, because he knew it was true.
"Get my laptop, would you?" Connie said primly. "And when you manage to pull this off, tell Yasi that her Kingdom is safe, and it's all thanks to me. And if you can get a photo of her face when she hears that, I will consider us even."
Vincent chuckled and fetched her laptop. What he appreciated most was not her willingness to help, or even her long refined skills suddenly being so helpful. What he appreciated most was that she hadn't said the far more likely scenario out loud.
Even if Vincent could rescue the Secret City, Yasi was almost certainly dead by now.


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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