Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Nine: The Battle On The Seven Steps


Nobody said much on the way out of the prison. Connie wondered if the kids were still watching them; if they had heard every word. If they had, the Triumvirate didn't seem too worried about it.
Yasi had signaled that they keep the matter quiet while in company, and they made their way through the Underside toward a more private place. Connie wasn't sure if it was the fact that they were underground, or if everywhere was like this, but the route they took had them pressing through the crowds to get to the elevators.
Even in this wild circus, they made an odd group. Vincent and Connie stood out the most. Archivist and Keeper were constantly being approached by people who needed their opinion or ruling on whatever day-to-day matters they had. People saw Yasi and Dorcan coming, and stepped aside automatically.
Eventually though, they made their way to the basket lifts. There wasn't room for all of them, so Yasi and Dorcan climbed ahead, going up the ropes hand over hand, as the basket lifted them toward the upper part of the dome to Keeper's chamber.
Keeper's room had maps and images all over the walls. Victorian Era paintings, sepia toned photographs, the omnipresent cave drawings of the Underside Gremlins. Every inch of wall space was a gallery of The Underside through the years.
When they stepped off, Keeper went right to the largest single image, essentially a blueprint of the Underside. Vincent looked at her out of the corner of his eye as everyone found places to settle. Yasi was pacing, Dorcan was over against the wall, not taking his eyes off Yasi.
Long silence. Minutes passed as the only ones who knew in the entire Underside turned the conversation over in their head, weighing their options, considering their responses. After several heavy moments, Keeper turned away from her blueprint and spoke, giving them all her official opinion on the matter.
"We're screwed." She said profoundly.
A nervous chuckle went around the room, but the intensity of the situation hadn't eased at all.
Connie spoke up suddenly and Vincent almost jumped. She'd been so quiet he nearly forgot her presence. "Vincent told me that the Steam Pipe plan might have exposed a few ways in and out of this place during construction. The Company that wanted to do that was based out of Germany... Vandark sniffing entrances?"
"More than likely." Yasi agreed.
"How long would it have taken to prepare that?"
"A while, probably." Vincent offered. "New York City Construction... over a large area? Months, maybe years, for a project that size."
"Then two years working another angle wouldn't have been a significant problem for them, whoever they are. But there's one thing I don't get." Connie said. "What's this got to do with us? If Vincent hasn't been down here in three years... Vandark is clearly willing to work a plan that long, but... why would it still involve Vincent?"
"Your world and ours overlap in a few places." Keeper explained. "For the most part, that doesn't matter because none of you know it's here. But Vincent knows. He would notice if Wotcha disappeared, or if Yasi showed up in his office looking for something. He's a blip. A loose end to be tied up. And he's got access to all the information Owen's been gathering. If somehow we figured out their plan at any step, we'd come to Vincent. He was Owen's barometer of how much we knew. And we knew squat."
"Hell." Yasi spat. "I feel like I've been walking around with my eyes shut for three years. It's not about Vincent, or Keist, or even about Owen. It's about that office. It's always been about his job! How many times did you say it, Keeper? If Vincent wanted to find a way in, all he'd have to do is put an hours thought into it. Owen put two years into it... And there's only one reason in the world you'd want to find all the entrances into a place."
Vincent said it for her. "Because you're planning to come in."
"Vandark played it perfectly." Archivist agreed. "He prepared his way in without involving us at all. If we hadn't found out about Keist's plan, our first hint of this would have been when they came in the front door!"
"And if Owen's found all the ways in and out of the Underside… All Vandark has to do is pick up a phone." Keeper whispered. It was a tone Vincent had never heard from her before. She was scared. "We're being held to Ransom here, Archivist. If Vandark comes for us… He's got the Ace. He could expose us at will."
"He won't do that." Yasi told Keeper instantly. "That's Rule Number One. He won't take it that far."
"He will." Vincent countered instantly. "He's willing to go as far as he wants. The ultimate act of spite would be to expose the Underground. You guys told me the first time we met: Being remembered is the worst thing that can happen to this place. Yasi told me about 9/11 down here. The fear that some paranoid person would notice something. The Great Fear of The Underside is getting the attention of the rest of the world, and Vandark knows that! It's the heaviest bat anyone can use against you."
"No. He won't do it." Archivist put in. "I agree with Yasi. You heard Owen: Vandark wants to capture us. He won't wipe us out, and if he exposes us, then everything he wants us for gets thrown down the riverpipe."
"They're right." Connie agreed. "Vandark wants to be a Kingmaker, and he can't do that if anyone finds out about this place."
Silence.
"Maybe we could call other Undersides for help?" Vincent observed, not noticing Connie's sharp look at the word 'we'.
"The Round Table used to have over a dozen people talking from a dozen cities." Archivist shook his head regretfully. "Nowadays... we keep to ourselves."
"Berlin might send help, but… they probably don't know who to trust either." Yasi shook her head. "Their main problem is on the other side of the world. They're not gonna go out of their way to make Vandark their problem again."
"So we're on our own." Vincent nodded, and Connie sent him another fierce look.
"How long would it take to change the entrances?"
"Most of the entrances lead to the Labyrinth. We can change those, but… We'll screw up the whole Rhythm of the place. We'll be paralyzing ourselves. It's not like there's a border crossing where you roll through trucks full of stuff. Everything gets carried in and out by hand, by a hundred odd people, every day. That stops…"
"Well, we don't have to close all of them." Keeper argued. "Find the places Owen would know about. We've got Vincent, have him go back and see if he can find out what Owen found out…"
"What? Find two years worth of answers in two days?"
Vincent jumped up. "Eureka!"
Yasi jumped a little too. "What?!"
"Let me see that second photograph again. The message that's only been there a week."
Yasi pulled the photo out and handed it to him.
EUREKA! 44-B L4-18
"It's a location." Vincent explained. "I didn't see it sooner, because it's been years since I needed the floorplan, but... 44-B is a staff locker number in my office. L4-18, means Level Four, Room 18. That's the staff room where the lockers are. Someone was directing someone to one of our staff lockers."
Yasi was on her feet instantly. "Whose?"
"I don't know, but off the top of my head, probably Owen's."
"Owen's locker is a dropbox." Archivist boomed. "Yasi, Owen's been here a full day and a half. I don't know who he was supposed to check in with, or how often…"
Yasi nodded. "I'm already on the way." She paused and gave Connie a quick hug, a warm smile on her face. Connie was surprised, but didn't flinch. Yasi pulled back and looked her in the eye. "Give this place a chance. This is a world where things must be Beautiful."
And then the Shinobi Captain swept around and gave Vincent an identical squeeze. "Keep an eye on Connie." Yasi whispered in his ear. "Somebody in here is helping Vandark, and she came into your life around the time we did."
And then she broke the hug, like nothing was wrong, taking the exit at a running leap.
"What's wrong?" Connie asked, worried at the sudden spike of action.
"We didn't dare do anything that might focus their attention on Vincent, but we knew about Owen, so we kept an eye on him." Keeper explained.
Vincent was stunned. "Who did you have watching him?"
Keeper had a secret smile. "That would be telling." She gestured at the opening. "Think you guys can handle the basket elevators to get back to your chamber?"
Connie and Vincent rose and made their way back to the elevators. "I think so."
~oo00oo~
Vincent selected one of the ropes and fed it through the gears. A moment later they were moving.
"What the hell are you doing?" Connie demanded the second they were alone. "Since when are 'we' finding help for 'our' secret war?"
"We can't just walk away now…"
"Sure we can!" Connie retorted. "Why can't we?"
"Come on, Connie; you know what's coming for these people!"
"Exactly. For these people. Meanwhile, we've been snatched, attacked, watched illegally, dragged underground and the day is still young. Yes, I do know what's ahead for this place. That's why I want to leave."
Vincent bit his lip. "Well... I don't. I want to know where I can help out. Look around, every inch of this place is... is magic. One of the first things they said to me here... This world is made of people our world threw away. And this place makes them... heroes."
"First things they told you." Connie repeated. "You mean Yasi."
Vincent didn't answer.
"Vincent..." Connie she said gently. "There are guys who jump across rooftops with swords and crossbows, there are guys who run into burning buildings with a hose… and there are guys who open their own building to total strangers when it gets too cold for them on the streets." She moved in closer, pressing herself against him tightly. "You were already my hero, Vincent… please?"
Vincent let himself embrace her for a moment, before realization caught up and he froze, pulling back sharply, suspicion crossing his face. "How do you know that? I never told you about that."
"Wotcha told me! She was… ow. Vincent, you're hurting me!"
Vincent released her instantly, horrified. "I'm sorry…."
"Wotcha told me." Connie rubbed her wrist. "She was trying to talk you up when I asked about you." She turned away from him, annoyed. "She told me you were the most caring person she'd ever found. She told me that if Vincent McCall was in your life, he'd be the one thing in this world that you could be sure of. The one person who wouldn't drop you when things got tough." Connie rubbed her wrist. "And in all this time, you never did. It's ironic that the one thing Wotcha didn't consider was the place she came from."
Heavy silence.
Connie noticed another elevator moving at an angle that would take them past each other. "I… I need to think about things for a bit." She declared. As the elevators passed each other, she climbed over the side and jumped the three feet to the other basket, suddenly going the other way.
Vincent felt his jaw drop. She had made the leap without hesitation. He couldn't help but think about the last time he was presented with such a leap, and he had chickened out.
And they looked sadly at each other, as the Lostkind ropes took them further away from each other.
~oo00oo~
The night Janitor at the City Planner's Office collected Owen's garbage, checked through it quickly, and put it into the hidden bag. He left the cubicle to empty the next bin…
And walked into Yasi. He nearly passed out. "Shi… Shinobi." He stammered.
Yasi glared at him. "Christen, I made it clear what your job was."
"Yes Ma'am." He gulped. "To keep watch on Owen Niklos, and all the ways he makes contact with people outside this office, as well as anything he takes with him."
Yasi nodded. "And?"
"I check his bag every night, right here at his workstation. I check his garbage every night, and turn over anything to the Watchers and the Scroungers. If there's anything of value, I told them to take it to Dorcan immediately. I know the man's passwords and check his mail, business and private. He's not sending anybody any details that could lead to us, and he's not carrying anything out in his pockets."
"Then anything he's taking an interest in, must be in his locker." Yasi said logically.
"He doesn't keep a locker, Captain." Christen said promptly. "I promise I would have checked it if he had one."
"Doesn't have a locker?" Yasi repeated, holding up a keyring. "Then why does he have a locker key?"
Christen froze. "I swear, I looked at the roster, he didn't get issued a locker when he was here, because he was only supposed to be here temporarily."
Yasi nodded. "I know, I'm not blaming you. But the time for subtlety has come and gone."
~oo00oo~
Connie wasn't sure if her watch was still keeping time correctly, or if it was set to the right time at all. It felt like a lifetime since she had last seen daylight, and she didn't have a clue what day it was. The Underside was huge, and the open space above them was criss-crossed with so many ropes, and so many people climbing them, it felt like being in a circus. Down at this level there were crowds of people going about their routines.
Now that she could see it from ground level, she could see that the 'street level' of the dome was broken up into ledges, like steps for an impossibly huge giant. Each ledge created a 'wall', with a series of stalls and tents against each of them, and room enough left for a busy crosswalk. The next 'step' was the same, as was the one above it. Above them all was the dome, and its many chambers, their lanterns casting a permanent starlight glow. Here and there on the edge of each enormous Step were iron streetlights, putting the multilevel marketplace in twilight.
The stalls and tents were as varied as anything you'd find in any metropolis, including New York. There were buskers, performers, and street vendors every ten feet, except they all seemed to be working a barter system instead of cash.
Connie would have been fascinated if it was a vacation, but her day had started with a home invasion, graduated to kidnapping, and now she was embroiled in an international conspiracy to take over the world. She wished bitterly that Vincent was as terrified as she was, but he was enthralled.
There were social classes, even here. She saw like staying with like, and those that hadn't been named or described to her, she picked names for them herself. There were the Amazons, the Urchins, the Watchers…
Connie stared at the Watchers. They looked like homeless people. Dirty, unashamed, slow moving… They would fit in under bridges, on park benches. She wondered how many she had seen in her life.
Had they been watching her? Had they been following her when she came into Vincent's life? When they had first started dating, there was a homeless woman outside his building… Connie tried to think of what she looked like, and couldn't picture it.
And then she was caught up in the movement. Yasi had mentioned the Rhythm, and now Connie was part of it herself. Goods and people coming in from all angles, the largest pieces staying at the higher 'steps', and the smaller items migrating down to the lower stalls. The trickle-down theory was at work here, assembled over the course of entire generations.
And the area where she walked was a riot of color and noise. Every inch of the ground and ledge wall was covered in street-art and cave-drawings done by the kids she had met, drawn in the style of tribal paintings, as though generations of record keeping had twisted into graffiti. One of the drawings was of her, and she couldn't help the bitter smile.
"I know that look. Whoever he is, he's not worth it." A Busker said as she passed. His voice was rich and smooth, and he swayed on his feet like a snake-charmer. "And this is not a place for heartbreak. This is a place where art meets means, and beauty must be everywhere, or life is not worth living. Welcome to The Seven Steps, surface lady." He started to play his wind-pipes, a sweet Irish jig. A street drummer five feet away started playing along, tapping away on buckets and pots and pans, and everyone nearby made room for a few people who started to dance to it brightly.
Connie almost joined in, but shyly stopped herself. She'd never been to a place where people would start to dance in the streets at the drop of a hat, just because somebody nearby began the tune.
And then she felt familiar hands on her hips, and turned to find Vincent had tracked her down. And then they were dancing, swaying together to the music. It suddenly dawned on her that dressed in scuffed and torn clothes, still carrying the marks of a Riverfolk attack, they both fit right in with the rest of the Lostkind.
Nobody had called the dance, none of them were dancing the same steps; but it just seemed like a natural thing, to be in a crowd of strangers, dancing in the twilight streets.
"You remember first time I came over to your place?" Vincent said softly in her ear. "You made up all those romantic stories about exotic places?"
"Yeah." Connie nodded. "But that's what they were. Stories. My real life never got in the way. Vincent… real life, our real life, the life we built together, is not here. It's a few hundred feet over our heads. And I think if Yasi offered to let us stay, you'd hate me for wanting to say no."
Vincent pressed his face to her hair. "I'd never hate you. Never could. Never will."
"I know." She admitted. "You'd even come back with me if I insisted… but this is where you'd want to be, and I'd be the one forcing you to… You would always resent that, regardless of how your life here would turn out."
"Well… It doesn't matter." Vincent said finally. "Yasi hasn't offered me a place here, and I think Keeper would kill me in my sleep if she did."
Ordinarily, Connie would have been happy to go with that, but she was not quite as content as he was to just go with the flow. She wished bitterly that Vincent was as terrified as she was, but he was thrilled.
"I am not smart enough to figure this out right away." Vincent said finally.
"Me neither." She admitted.
Vincent dipped her back a bit as the music changed pace, and then gave her a twirl. As they came back together, he let out a breath. "We'll figure it out later, then. Let's just… enjoy the music."
Connie was willing to accept that much, and tried to relax into his familiar arms.
And then the screaming started.
~oo00oo~
Officer Grey was checking the numbers on each staff locker against his notepad. When he found the one he wanted, he pulled the chain around his neck, revealing a small key.
"So. That locker wouldn't be 44-B by any chance?"
Grey spun, one hand going to the gun in his holster, as Yasi and Christen walked in. She was cool and confidently striding in, Christen was nervous and shrinking against the door frame.
"It was you?" Grey said in surprise when he saw the man in the janitor's uniform. "Owen was worried about being watched, but he didn't know it was the Janitor."
"Nobody did." Christen took a slight bow. "Nothing in the world that's harder to notice than the man holding a garbage bag."
Yasi took a step closer. "So. Where is Vandark?"
"Who?"
"Don't pretend you don't know why Owen was all over this." Yasi pointed to the locker. "You're NYPD, you wouldn't take part in something like this blind."
"Owen Niklos is dirty, I know that. I'm not an idiot." Grey scorned. "But he showed me proof. If there's a whole community squatting illegally, taking part in organized theft, blackmail, and-"
Yasi swore colorfully. "You don't have a clue what you're into here, do you?" She snarled. "Owen fed you a pack of lies and you swallowed it whole. People are dying because you helped that worm."
"What?" Grey was stopped short at that one. "What do you mean, people dying?"
Yasi bit her lip, thinking. Yasi had always felt a certain affinity for police. Serve and Protect? That's what I do too. The Shinobi and the NYPD were part of the same Brotherhood, even if they didn't know the Lostkind existed. "I am bound by oath to keep Rule Number One." She said calmly. "But I do need to check a few things, so I will give you one part of the story; the part that involves Owen Niklos, and what he was up to. After that, you will tell me everything he told you in return. You may think about hiding it, but don't worry: I think we've both heard the story we're about to tell each other."
~oo00oo~
It was hard to see what was happening at first, with so many people in the way, but at the bottom of the 'Seven Steps', the lowest point of the level, was the water. It led out in several directions, and was moving slowly enough that when he'd first arrived, Vincent had thought the water still.
But this aqueduct led to to the Great River that even Yasi spoke of in whispers. The ultimately necessary, but always feared part of The Underside.
And now suddenly, rising from the still waters, were hulking monsters.
"Riverfolk." Connie whispered.
The effect on the Lostkind was electric, they fell back from the monsters, screaming in fear. Sheer panic and mortal terror ruled every motion and action in the retreat, and what was orderly pedestrian traffic, became a petrified mob. The few Shinobi that Vincent could see where struggling to maintain order, keep the crowds under control...
The reaction was visceral, instinctive. The Riverfolk were few in number, but the mere sight of them sent the Lostkind into hysterics.
Vincent's brain was overloaded. A confined space, a thousand people, everybody screaming, and monsters hunting him...
Connie was trying to stick with him, pulling him along as they tried to stay with the crowd. Behind them, Vincent caught glimpses of more Riverfolk climbing out of the River, emerging from the still waters, weapons in hand. As the Lostkind fled from them, they tore apart stalls, tents... fires broke out, and chaos reigned.
The crowd scattered in various directions, some of them scampering up the ropelines, running along the thin lines with ease. Some clambered over each other acrobat-style, climbing up the Seven Steps themselves, despite their height. The rest, Connie and Vincent included, pressed in toward the staircases, trying to get distance. The crush of people slowed, and the Riverfolk grew closer, smashing and slicing anything in their path.
Vincent couldn't get any closer to the steps through the crowds, and looked over his shoulder. More Riverfolk were emerging, some armed with crossbows, picking off the Lostkind that climbed the ropes. One of them slashed the anchor points. The ropeline severed, and almost a dozen Lostkind fell screaming...
The nearest Riverfolk were getting closer, close enough to smell them. Connie looked at Vincent in despair. They were the target. It was likely the last thing they would ever see.
And then Dorcan dropped out of the sky. Nobody saw where he came from, but he landed in a cat-like crouch, halfway between the civilians and the attackers, a blade in each hand. The Riverfolk tensed, recognizing the first thing they met that could possibly face them.
While the Lostkind fell back in panic, the Shinobi stood defiant, ready for war.
The first Riverfolk charged him, blade out, howling as he ran toward Dorcan. The Shinobi was more than willing to meet him halfway. They charged, passed each other in less than a second... neither turned around for another pass. After a timeless beat... The Riverfolk fell to the ground. Dorcan didn't even glance back, already hunting a new target.
The others were quick to attack, to avenge their fallen member.
Battle was joined, and for all Dorcan's skill, he was hopelessly outnumbered.
The crowd was finally getting through the bottleneck of the stairs, moving again. Connie realized Vincent was staring back at the fight and started tugging on his arm. "Come on! We're the target, remember?" She shouted at him over the crowd.
Vincent tugged back the other way. "Exactly! We can't lead them toward these people!"
"Well what exactly do you intend to do?!"
As the crowds moved further away from the Riverfolk, Vincent could see people pushing their way through, trying to get closer. As they escaped the crowds, he saw the weapons and leather vests. It was the same style Yasi had. They were the warriors of the place, the Shinobi.
The Riverfolk had emerged from the water, and had gathered into a group. The Shinobi were gathering, forming a line, putting themselves between the water's edge, and the retreating crowds.
There was a pause as both sides got ready for the inevitable, and Vincent finally got a look at them. Fifteen Riverfolk, gathering together against seven Shinobi. The Riverfolk were all identical in features, the only notable difference was their height and build.
Vincent looked around for Yasi, and didn't see her. Dorcan stood in the middle of the defensive line, looking in both directions, checking his backup.
The Riverfolk Leader was a foot taller than the rest, and he let out an inhuman roar, though his mouth wasn't visible. It was the signal that the monsters were waiting for, and both sides exploded into action.
The attackers had long range weapons. Crossbows and throwing blades. The Shinobi were close combat warriors, getting inside their attacks, too tight to shoot. The Shinobi were all about speed and agility, glancing off their attackers, swooping around blows that could break stone.
The Riverfolk were all about savagery, sacrificing agility for power, smashing with brute force wherever they could land a blow. Against the Shinobi, they couldn't land many, but the Riverfolk seemed barely aware of any damage they took. Vincent caught a glimpse of one with three bolts in his gut, and he barely seemed to notice.
Connie bit her lip, unwilling to leave him behind, and knowing he was right about taking the fight away from the civilians. Listen to me. She thought blandly. 'Protect the civilians.' Like I'm not one of them myself.
Casting about as the combat shifted into a deadlier gear, Connie found a place to hide, in one of the stalls. There were a variety of things in the stall that she didn't have time to study, but a huge pile of clothes were kept in a large crate. There was space enough behind it for two to hide. "Vincent!" She hissed. "Over here!"
Vincent started to follow, picking his moment to run from the staircase to the stall... when he noticed the enemy that Dorcan had dispatched. His eyes focused on the body... and the crossbow slung across his back. Without thinking about it, he inched forward, and pried the weapon loose.
Dorcan slashed at the leader, and missed, getting knocked flat on his back a moment later. He landed less than two feet from Vincent. The nearby impact shook Vincent out of his numb staring contest with the dead, and Dorcan twisted to look up at him. "Run, you idiot! Run!"
Vincent gripped the weapon tightly, as Dorcan twisted his body, jerking himself fluidly off his back and up onto his feet. The Shinobi reached out and grabbed the crossbow, pumping the handle once, and shooting the nearest Invader. He tossed the crossbow back to Vincent and moved swiftly back to the fight.
One of the Riverfolk looked at the two Upsiders, getting a clear look at their faces. Vincent gripped the crossbow, knowing he was a dead man. The Riverfolk looked straight at him...
And turned off to find something more interesting.
~oo00oo~
"It's an interesting story... When Owen told me the details, I didn't believe a word of it." Grey said carefully. "Some of the other things Niklos was up to? That was a surprise."
"Well, now you know. Everything you just told me? That's a long list of things that nobody knows about, for obvious reasons." Yasi challenged. "So. Will you help us?"
"I'm a cop, Miss Yasi." Grey said plainly. "If there are crimes being committed, and people getting killed, then you better believe I'll do my job. This is my city too, and I intend to protect it."
Yasi smiled. "Thank you." She said gratefully.
"Anything else, we can sort out when this is over." Grey nodded, holstering his gun.
Yasi paused. "Anything else? Meaning?"
"I work for The Law." Grey explained. He wasn't being belligerent, he wasn't challenging, he was just stating the facts. "If there are Laws being broken, then I will put a stop to it. If the only way to sort that out is to drag the whole Secret World out into the light of day, then that's what I'll do."
Yasi sighed, regretful. "Damn. I was afraid you'd say that."
"What do you mean?" Grey asked.
Faster than anyone could follow, faster than anyone could react, Yasi snap-drew her sword and brought it around in a neat slash. There was a sudden spray of blood, and Grey's head fell to the ground. The death-blow was so fast it took a few moments for his body to collapse.
"Did you have to do that?" Christen asked from behind her.
"It was bad enough that he knew, but he was planning to expose the Underside to the whole world. That's the end of us, so I had to stop him. I take no pleasure in it, Christen, but the First Duty of the Shinobi is to protect the Secret. The First Duty is an Absolute." Yasi cleaned her sword casually and sheathed it. Stepping over the body, she collected the contents of Owen's Locker, and sent Christen a look. "You can clean this up yourself?"
"Yes, Captain." Christen said, collected his cleaning supplies. "I'll ditch the body in one of the usual places."
Yasi checked the package in her hand and smiled. "Well. This has been a good night."
~oo00oo~
"This is bad!" Connie gasped. "This is very very bad!"
"They aren't after us." Vincent hissed at her. "One of them got a good long look at my face, and he didn't recognize me, or he didn't care. They're not after us!"
"Then what the hell do they want?"
"I don't know."
The two of them were crouched in one of the stalls, unwilling to lead the Riverfolk in closer to the terrified Lostkind, but unable to do anything else.
"What the hell do you plan to do with that?" Connie hissed.
"Make a lot of noise and act like Rambo." Vincent scorned sarcastically. He made a quick study of the weapon. It was not like a medieval crossbow. It had a frame in front of the trigger, with six bolts on a spring. The grip had a pump action handle, and Vincent worked it. Pulling the handle back drew back the string and raised a bolt, letting the handle forward again notched it, ready to pull the trigger. A pump action crossbow. Vincent thought. Incredible.
Outside the stall, the sound of combat grew stronger, angrier. They both ducked lower as they heard the sound of someone shouting in pain, and an instant later a body was hurled into the stall.
The Shinobi flew in through the front of the stall, smacked into the stone wall of the ledge, and flopped to the ground, dead already. After a moment, the tent flap was thrown back, and one of the Riverfolk came in with an animalistic growl, ready to push the advantage. It saw its prey was dead... and then saw Vincent aiming the weapon.
Vincent hesitated, gripping the handle so tightly it creaked.
"Do it, Vincent." Connie whispered, terror in her voice. "Hurry!"
Vincent was frozen. His finger was on the trigger, the bolt was aimed, and somehow he couldn't make his brain stop screaming at him. Why isn't he attacking? He's not moving, why isn't he killing us both, what the hell am I doing here, I should be at home where things like this don't happen, just pull the damn trigger, Vincent, squeeze your finger a little tighter, oh my God, that's why he's not moving, I've got the drop on him and he knows it, just do it, Vincent; what the hell is wrong with you?
His target had suddenly realized that Vincent wasn't going to do anything and lifted his mace, ready to take Vincent's head clean off.
"VINCENT, COME ON!!" Connie shouted, panic making her scream.
There was the briefest sound of metal on bone, and the tip of a sword emerged from the monster's chest. For a moment, everything froze. Vincent realized before the Riverfolk did, and the monster fell to the ground, slain by Dorcan's sword.
The Shinobi lieutenant wiped sweat off his brow, a trickle of blood running from a cut above his eye. He was covered in bruises, and his eyes were wild from adrenaline. "You guys alright?"
Vincent couldn't speak. It had happened again. The moment came, and he froze.
"Fine." Connie said for him. "How's it going out there?"
"We got them routed." Dorcan said shortly, and turned back to the battle without another word to them. They followed and found their way to a scene of total carnage. Riverfolk lay dead on the ground, and more than a few civilians. Two Shinobi had fallen, with knives in them.
"SHIINOBI!" Dorcan roared. "They're retreating! ADVANCE! Drive them back to the water!"
And the New York Ninja proceeded to do exactly that, as the Invaders drew back in full retreat, some of them nursing their wounds. They went backwards to the water and vanished under the surface, barely a ripple following them.
The ninja gave a bloodthirsty roar of victory. The battle for their homes had been fought and won decisively. Dorcan kept his swords drawn and ready, and Vincent couldn't help but stare at the water. He had first entered the Twelfth Level chamber by those waters, the small boat Yasi had punted along sat within view. It looked so peaceful, so still... To look at it, nobody would have believed that there were monsters so close at hand.
"Come on." Connie tugged at his arm. "Let's get away from the water."
"That's good advice." Dorcan called over to them, and then raised his voice to be heard by all of the people who were still watching in worry from the upper levels. "We're putting the River and all attached waters under surveillance, anyone not Shinobi are to stay well back." He looked at Vincent. "That means you too."
He started to answer, when he noticed one of their attackers was still moving... But from the look of it, he wouldn't be for long.
Dorcan saw his gaze and held out a hand. "No."
"We can't just..."
"Yes we can. Riverfolk are dangerous, Vincent."
Looking at him was a bizarre experience. Just a few minutes ago this creature and a dozen like him were attacking from all angles, rising out of the water like something out of a demented horror story. But now, on the ground and being very still, he looked like a man in a Halloween costume.
The gleaming red eyes were goggles. The claws that rasped and gripped the walls and ceiling were gloves, with grapple hooks sewn into them. He looked back at the water's edge and could see the claw marks scratched into the stone.
Emboldened, Vincent pulled off the mask, revealing the Riverfolk attacker underneath. He was ghostly pale, having never seen the sun. He had no hair on his face or head, having lived in his full wetsuit costume, but he was unmistakably human. The man shifted, eyes cracking open blearily. He looked up at Vincent for a few seconds... before letting out a rasp, and going still.
After a long moment, Vincent reached out and closed the Riverfolk's eyes.
"The Boogeymen of the Underside..." Vincent whispered. "It's all just... Halloween."
Dorcan glared at him. "What were you expecting? Goblins and trolls? You came to the Underground and acted like you'd found some fantasy world full of magic and fey-folk. Well, it ain't. There's no magic. There's just us. Could be we're just different. That's no great crime, y'know?"
"I agree." Connie put in quietly. "Vincent, there's no magic here. This is another neighborhood in New York. It's not even the weirdest one you'll find. Not in Manhattan. Hell, not even in Brooklyn."
"What the hell is happening?" A familiar voice bellowed.
Vincent guiltily tucked the goggles in his hand away, and held the crossbow low. He turned, knowing what he would see. Sure enough, Yasi had returned to the Underside, and she looked madder than all hell. "I was gone less than half an hour." She roared. "Everything was still in one piece when I left!"
"We were hit." Dorcan said simply.
"Riverfolk?"
"Who else?"
"Who else is there?" Asked a perturbed Connie.
"They never come up this far." Yasi raged. "They stay where The River is deep. Seriously, have they ever once come up this far? We laid razor wire nets just for that reason!"
"The nets are gone." Dorcan said thickly. "Someone winched them up out of the water enough to let a team through."
Yasi stopped short. "They had help? From the inside?"
"Sure looks that way, doesn't it?" Dorcan nodded, and Vincent stepped back. This was a discussion between the two Gatekeepers.
"What about our people?" Yasi asked with worry.
"We lost Muskrat and Minix. Pockets took a mace to the neck. Lowen is on his way to the Chapel, but-"
"Lowen?" Yasi reacted. "I… I should go see him."
"Captain… I doubt he'll live long enough to make it that far. Otherwise, it was far worse for them than us."
Yasi shivered. "I convinced Lowen to join the Shinobi. I told him he'd be an asset."
Dorcan raised a hand very slowly, about to rest it on her shoulder, but Yasi gave him a quick shake of her head. Her face was stone, and he broke off awkwardly. Yasi looked around. "Very quietly, get a count of all our people and find out where they all were when it started. At least, the ones not already on assignment."
"Won't take too long, most of them were in combat with me." Dorcan nodded, and headed off.
"Miss Connie!"
Connie turned and found Tecca pushing his way through the crowd, only to be blocked by the Shinobi perimeter. "Are you okay?" He called over to her. Connie sent Vincent and Yasi a quick look, and made her way over to reassure the boy.
For a moment, Vincent and Yasi were left alone. "What are you thinking?" He asked her.
Yasi's posture didn't change, and she looked around. Once she was sure she was out of anyone else's earshot, her expression softened a little. "I wasn't here." She confessed. "I blew it, I wasn't here."
"It's not like you went out and got drunk on duty, Yasi." Vincent said forgivingly. "Your job was to find out what an enemy of this place was doing."
"My job is to protect this place from those who seek to harm it." She looked down, blaming herself. "I love this place, Vincent. I wasn't here to save it."
"That's exactly what you were doing. You were going out to seek out dangers so you could destroy them before anyone was hurt." Vincent told her immediately, and then he sighed hard. "Something I can't really say about myself."
Yasi looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"I… I froze." Vincent admitted. "I had the chance…" He lifted the weapon, still in his grip. "I had this crossbow in my hand, a clear shot, and my life was at stake, plus Connie behind me…" He lifted the crossbow in his hand. "I froze. I knew exactly what to do, and…"
Yasi nodded. "Vincent, the movies say that when a regular guy gets his chance… he becomes a warrior. In real life… It's not like that at all. You froze, because you were scared for your life. That does things to a person. You hesitated because you didn't want to be a killer, even if the stakes were that high. That doesn't make you weak." She reached out and pulled his chin to make him look at her. "You really think pulling the trigger would have made you a better person?"
"No." Vincent admitted.
Yasi sighed. "Wish I could give myself a pass as easily. It's my job to be here on the line when danger comes."
"Yasi, you were here. Your training, your team, your lieutenant… You can't be everywhere, that's why you train people to do the job as well as you can. Six Shinobi, plus Dorcan should be about equal to one of you."
Yasi let out a little bark of laughter, despite herself. "Almost. Maybe." She conceded.
She was still holding the side of his face. After a moment, they both broke away, feeling awkward.
"It wasn't your fault." Yasi said kindly.
"It wasn't yours either." He returned simply.
"Captain?" Dorcan called over, and Yasi's shoulders straightened. "We got the final casualty list. Only two losses. Pockets and Lowen were the worst of the wounded."
Yasi wiped her eyes, and hid it under the pretense of adjusting the collar on her coat. "I don't get it; it's a bad caper. They had to know we'd fight back a dozen Riverfolk. This wasn't a serious attack, it was a probing mission. So what were they after?" She demanded of her lieutenant.
"Well they weren't after Vincent or Connie." Dorcan reported. "They had time, they had opportunity... They didn't take it. So what else is there?"
Yasi's eyes flashed. "Owen."
~oo00oo~
Owen was gone. The chain was left at the floor of the cell, along with the keys used to release him.
Keeper looked to Yasi. "It's not a cell, it's an oubliette. The only way out is for someone to open the hatch for you. There's no way in hell he escaped on his own."
Yasi nodded. "I know. Somebody helped him." She raised her voice. "Tecca?"
"Captain?" The boy was suddenly at her elbow, and Vincent jumped. There was no sign of where he had come from, or that he'd been there at all. The boy had a long rope coiled around his chest like a bandoleer, and a knife at his belt. Everyone was getting edgy after the brief invasion.
Yasi didn't even turn to look at him. "Tell me about Owen."
"He was living in a little old lady's spare room." Tecca reported. "She thought he moved out yesterday, and was putting a message in the paper about renting his room out. His things were collected by a moving company and put into a storage space. There's a letter apologizing for the inconvenience, and another one telling his boss that he got a job somewhere. The stamp on both letters is at least two years away from being new."
"He's been ready to disappear without a trace since he started working at the City Planner's Office." Yasi concluded. "Nothing there that will lead back to us, or to him being here."
"Which means he doesn't care about his day job any more..." Connie bit her lip. "It could be he's done with us. Whatever it was he needed Vincent for, I think we're past that now."
"Agreed." Archivist rumbled.
"In the meantime, we have a mole." Keeper said, calm and deadly. "Who is it?"
Yasi seemed a good deal older. "Try a little common sense. Who has the most to gain from a regime change in the New York Underside?"
Keeper nodded. "Anyone who was in line for a leadership role, but didn't plan to get it."
"And what was Vandark's role before he promoted himself to a Rebel leader?"
"He was the guy in your job." Keeper nodded. "So if something happened to you, who would be in line for your job right now?"
~oo00oo~
Dorcan looked up and found Keeper staring at him. "Ma'am?"
Keeper glanced past him, and Dorcan followed her gaze. Yasi was behind him. As he turned to face her, she decked him.


~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, 19 December 2018

Eight: The Ultimate Kingmaker


"Tell me about Connie."
"She's nice." Tecca said dutifully. "She works at the Free Clinic, and volunteers with Vincent at the Kitchen. She takes care of kids who don't need people to take care of them."
"The kids?" Archivist asked.
Tecca nodded. "She takes the bookings, and comes out from behind the desk to sit with the kids when their parents meet the doctor. She tells them stories, and gives them cookies."
Archivist rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm."
Tecca looked down, sullen. "Can I go now?"
Archivist gave the boy's shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "Yeah."
~oo00oo~
Connie never left Vincent's side. For the better part of a day, Vincent lay still, recovering. Yasi came by from time to time, but they had little to talk about.
Connie couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched. She kept glancing around, and every time her gaze swept the room, she could catch glimpses of something retreating, vanishing into hiding places she couldn't guess at.
A hand rested gently on her shoulder, not threatening, but unexpected, and with her nerves already frayed, the paranoid Connie jumped violently.
"Excuse me." Archivist said kindly. "Didn't mean to startle."
"I'm getting used to it." She assured him.
He just looked at her. "So you say… But are you really?"
"No." Connie confessed, resting one hand on Vincent's arm. "I don't mean to offend you Archivist, but… this place scares me."
Archivist smiled warmly. "When I was in college, I took a semester abroad. I absolutely fell apart after one week in India. The weather, the crowds… I nearly had a nervous collapse." He took her free hand in his. "I've been to over a dozen different cities in my life. In all of them, there's a different pace. People speak at different volumes, walk at different speeds, drive with different attitudes… The Underside is like any other place. It has its own nature, its own soul. If it doesn't fit with yours… that's nothing against either."
Connie relaxed, his easy tone and honest concern putting her at ease. "Vincent… I love him dearly. You should have seen it when I moved in with him. His bookshelves are full of travel memoirs. Stories of people who travel to faraway lands… He never travels, but his head is always in other places." She waved a hand up at The Angel. "This place… is what he's been waiting for. A mystical, mysterious world… And he doesn't have to go anywhere to find it. This place is everything he wants."
"And you?" Archivist asked kindly.
Connie shivered. "I feel like I'm being watched every second. I don't know if it's paranoia, but-"
"Boo!"
Connie levitated clear out of her seat, and spun around to find Dorcan sitting on the opposite side of Vincent's cot.
"Dorcan." Archivist chastised him. "Be nice; that's the sort of thing Yasi would do."
The Shinobi Lieutenant nodded an apology to Connie.
"And speaking of that…" Archivist suddenly seemed to have a great idea. He rose smoothly to his feet and held out a hand to Connie. "Why not come take a walk?"
Connie sent the sleeping Vincent a nervous look, and Dorcan sat down next to him pointedly. "He's in no danger here."
Connie hesitated a moment longer, and went with Archivist.
Dorcan turned to Vincent once she was gone. It was unclear how much of that he had heard, drifting in and out of consciousness. After a while, Vincent half-woke and asked for some water. Dorcan brought him a cup, and spoke while Vincent sipped. "So, things with Connie worked out then?"
Vincent reacted, surprised by that. "You know Connie?"
"Not exactly." Dorcan took the cup back. "Tecca and Wotcha know her. Knew her. We send our children up Above to get vaccinations, check-ups… You live tightly packed in a room with a bunch of people, one gets the flu, the whole town gets it minutes later. We look after our health as best we can."
Vincent suddenly realized. "Connie's a medical receptionist."
"Yep. We know the clinic she volunteers at. She helped out the homeless, kids in poverty… We actually thought about recruiting her. She was great with the kids at the clinic. But you've seen how she lives. She'd never fit with us... She met a few of the regulars at your Soup Kitchen, when Tecca brought them in to see the doctor. Tecca mentioned her to Wotcha, who came in and… well…"
"Wotcha talked Connie into coming to volunteer at the Kitchen." Vincent finished. "Explains why she seemed so nervous her first night there."
"Wotcha is… was, a hopeless romantic." Dorcan summed up, rising to his feet. "Yasi asked me to check in, see how you were doing. I think she was a little surprised to see things with Connie going so well."
"Two years is a long time." Vincent said, feeling something akin to guilt, but he wasn't sure why. "I... I knew I was never going to see Yasi again."
"Nor would you, had things stayed as they were. So you can thank Owen for the hooded looks your girlfriend is giving you." Dorcan rose. "It's been two years, and Yasi moved on too, but I think she would be happy to know that you're happy."
~oo00oo~
"Do I look happy to you?" Yasi snarled.
Owen pulled his head back as far as the chain would allow, her sword still close enough at his throat to give him a shave. "No. No, you don't look happy at all."
"A sane person would be begging right now. What the hell is your problem?" Yasi growled. She placed herself at the edge of the shadows cast by the hatch to the oubliette. A position that let her eyes catch the dim light, but not her face, making her eyes glow in the dark. "Who are you working for?" She demanded.
Owen said nothing. He didn't even seem nervous. He just looked back at her.
"You're not Lostkind, I can smell the surface on you." Yasi snarled ferociously. "So what do you care about any of us? What's your interest? Profit? Revenge?"
Owen just shrugged. "Well, you're the Top Cop in this town. You should have a brain in that hat-rack of yours. Figure it out."
"Oh, I will." Yasi promised him, not a trace of doubt in her voice. "And the second I do, you will cease to be of interest or use. When that happens, you... most of you at least, will be shipped out of here. Seems we're not the only ones who have an axe to... grind." She smiled toothily, and crouched low, gathering herself for a leap. With one powerful jump, Yasi had managed to gain enough height to catch the edge of the pit, and pull herself up without pause.
"How's Vincent?" Owen called after her.
Yasi paused, still at the edge, but she didn't turn.
"He's alive, but it's obvious you didn't get to him in time or he would have got his girlfriend out before I got there, and if you were protecting her after hacking apart my escort then he must be here." Owen continued, with calm, brutal logic. "I imagine Connie was a surprise. He's really quite taken with her."
The hatch closed with a heavy bang, and Yasi kept moving. Was that a dig at me? She wondered to herself, looking for all the angles. If it was... how did he know it would work? What does he know?
~oo00oo~
"My God, what is this place?" Connie asked in awe.
"This is Twelfth Level. Years ago, this is what we showed Vincent." Archivist told her warmly, pushing the small boat along. "But this is not our destination."
"There's more?" Connie said in surprise as the small boat passed into a small tunnel.
"You have entered the Great City by Night." Archivist intoned, weaving a spell with his voice. "Every one of those clustered chambers encloses its own secret."
"Dickens." Connie recognized the quote.
The older man dropped the spooky voice instantly. "Oh, you know that one."
"Tale of Two Cities. Which, I suppose, is appropriate." Connie nodded, as Archivist guided the boat toward their destination. Connie felt like she was in Phantom of The Opera, being guided down the misty underground passages to the light of Victorian Lanterns.
"Well, it's true. Every room has its own history. They all have their own secrets, their own story. Every dark shadow, every tunnel. They aren't there by accident. If they've been forgotten then it means they weren't needed any more. But they're all there for a purpose."
"It's very... elegant, here." Connie nodded as she stepped out of the boat. "Nothing need be added, and nothing to take away."
"Elegance born of purpose." Archivist nodded. "We have to climb now. Up to it?"
Connie chuckled, despite herself. "Yeah, I'm up for it."
There were stairs, then ladders, then more stairs, then an elevator like something you'd find in a mine shaft. Connie wasn't sure how high they went, but she knew she wasn't moving quickly, so distance was hard to guess. "Where are we going now?"
Archivist pulled the control level back and the elevator stopped. "Above the Twelfth Level." He said, his deep voice leading her through the dim passage, bouncing off the walls. "Above the Throne Room, above the Round Table. But far below the subway, far below your world. This is the highest point before leaving the Underside. For all that, there's only one way to get here yourself. The entrances and exits all moved, found better locations." They had reached the end of the passage, and Archivist held up his lantern. It was a huge, ornate, oak door.
Archivist drew a large brass key from a chain around his neck and put it into the lock. "You aren't wrong. The whispers do echo all over the place." He told her. "This room is where they all come from."
Connie didn't know what to say to that. Archivist opened the door, and she felt her jaw drop open, yet again. The first thing that hit her was the heat, the room was much warmer than the rest of the Underside. The second thing to hit her was the sound. The whispers were louder in here, grander. There were thousands of them, voices whispering out of the walls, from every direction, going non-stop. Connie actually had to raise her voice slightly to be heard over them, but she couldn't begin to guess at where they were coming from.
The chamber Archivist had led her to was large, and filled with shelves, Shelves in rows, more on the walls; more shelves than any library, packed together so tightly that Connie had to turn sideways. They were covered in books. Thousands of them, on their sides to stack higher and heavier. First editions, paperbacks, collectibles. Of all languages, all styles, all ages. The dusty tomes were all over the place, most of them with some kind of visible damage or stain, but all of them were perfectly legible.
And rising into the high domed ceiling of the chamber, was a thousand brass pipes, secured to each other like an enormous tree trunk. The pipes came from the highest point in the ceiling, and branched off from the main trunk, off into all directions, going straight into the walls. It was a secret Lostkind library, at the roots of an enormous brass tree.
Connie walked slowly into the room, her head turning non-stop in an effort to see everything. Her eyes lingered on the endless shelves of books. "Archivist." She said his name finally, soft as a psalm. "As in, the one who keeps the archives."
The older man nodded, pleased. "These Archives have the combined history of the entire New York Underside, plus the books that have been collected and passed into our collective ownership, plus what the locals have created or dreamed. It's all in my keeping."
Connie ran a hand over the large leather-bound volumes. "Moisture must be a nightmare this far underground."
Archivist nodded. "In some places. The Dewcops keep a close eye on it."
"Dewcops?"
"They harvest the condensation and keep it off anything that can be bothered by it. On some nights you can actually get rainfall in the Twelfth Level. For the bigger stuff, like the flooding in 2012? The place is designed to channel most of that floodwater down as far as the River, or back into the Sewers. We actually tapped all that raging floodwater for Hydro power."
Connie leaned against one of the shelves and tilted her head, listening upwards. "The whispers are stronger here too."
"The steam pipes cover half the city above, and they provide us with our air circulation, which is a rather serious matter this deep underground. Heat isn't so much the problem as fresh air. The pipes also form a natural echo, like listening through an air vent. There's very little strength behind it, but the sound carries through. It's strongest here, because this is where the most pipes are together. This room is my Whisper Gallery."
Connie shut her eyes a moment, letting herself hear the sound properly, not suspicious of it for the first time. The moment stretched, and Connie almost started to smile.
Archivist's cane began to tap slowly, and Connie opened her eyes. He was moving back down the shelves to the door. He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Connie, you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. My home is your home. I have to take care of a few things."
"I..." Connie swallowed. "I'll never find my way back."
Archivist gestured to the opposite side of the room. "Don't worry, when you're ready to leave, you'll have a guide."
Connie nodded her thanks as Archivist swept out of the room.
Once he was gone, she turned back to the shelves. They filled her vision, carried away her attention. She felt like she had been turned loose in a fantastic marketplace, where the wondrous things lived. She wouldn't have been surprised to see Merlin around the next corner, hunched over a cauldron. The whispering was no longer a source of fear, and she listened to it like a gentle rain, wondering what all those people far above were talking about, how they'd react if they knew she could hear the tiniest echoes of everything they said.
And then over the whispers, she heard a sob. It was small and hidden, like they were trying to keep it quiet, but Connie had worked the desk at a Free Clinic too long not to know the sound of pain concealed.
She followed it down the shelves, in the direction that Archivist had pointed, and peeked around to see a small boy, bent over a large hardcover book that he hugged to his chest.
A boy she recognized.
"Tecca?" Connie blurted.
"Hiya, Miss Connie. Welcome to the Underside." Tecca wiped his face as he turned to her, and despite himself, he smirked at the way Connie's mouth flopped open and closed.
"W…What are you doing here?" She demanded.
"I live here." His small voice said wearily. His eyes were red, his hair was messy, and his face drawn. He looked miserable. She looked the question to him, and he sniffed again, stubbornly keeping the tears back. "Wotcha." He confessed. "They got Wotcha!"
"From the Kitchen?" Connie nodded. "How did you know her?"
"She was the Eyes of the Lostkind. Like I was going to be when I grew up..."
Connie nodded, filing that away, comparing it to what she thought she knew. "Tecca… That woman you come in with at the Clinic… She isn't your mother, is she?"
"Never said she was." Tecca shot back, sounding a lot older and smarter. "She meets me in the park, she walks me to the clinic, she holds my hand, and she doesn't talk about it. She's my disguise."
Connie shook her head. "Why can't your real paren-"
Tecca cut her off instantly, clutching the book like a magic talisman. "Whenever you're ready, I'll take you back."
Connie nodded, realizing it was a sore point.
Tecca wiped his face again, shaking off the emotion while he had an audience. "Yasi says I'm a full-blood Watcher now. I direct the lightning."
Connie shivered at the pure iron coming from the young one, still a child to her eyes. She looked to the book in his hands. It was a beautiful hardcover volume. She leaned a little closer to read the title. "The Secret Garden. Did Wotcha read that with you?"
Tecca's jaw worked. "Yeah." He challenged, daring her to comment on it.
Connie tread lightly, pushing gently. More than a few times at the Clinic, mothers had left their kids out in reception with her while they went into discuss delicate adult matters with their doctors. Connie gave him her friendliest smile. "Where'd you get up to?"
After a long moment, Tecca handed her the book, and she sat down in Archivist's chair. "Let's see..." Connie started to read from where he marked. "It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of climbing roses which were so thick that they were matted together. Mary Lennox knew they were roses because she had seen a great many roses in India."
Connie glanced at Tecca. The kid was as tough as anyone Connie had ever met, but he was still so young. He was listening earnestly, as only a kid could do when listening to a story, and his eyes were red with unshed emotion, memories of Wotcha reading to him like this bubbling up.
Connie kept reading. "Mary had thought it must be different from other gardens which had not been left all by themselves so long; and indeed it was different from any other place she had ever seen in her life." She read from the book.
Tecca sniffed and shifted over, to sit closer to Connie. He leaned against her, looking for pictures in the book, and Connie was suddenly quite certain that the boy had never seen a real garden before.
~oo00oo~
Vincent was awake and clear for the first time, and had no desire to go back to sleep. Yasi was sitting opposite him, staring intently down at a notepad. "Hey."
She looked up from her notes and put them away. "Hey." She reached over to a bowl beside his bed. "The Healers say you need to eat something."
"When am I going to meet these Healers exactly?"
"You have met them. They've been treating you and checking your bandages."
"The big Bird-People? They're your medical staff?"
"It's a Renaissance style outfit. The big mask is where they store their supplies like a First Aid Kit. They… like their privacy."
Vincent couldn't even shake his head without groaning. "I couldn't eat."
"Of course not, your teeth are barely holding themselves to the inside of your head as it is." Yasi said without pity. "Nevertheless, you need something. I brought you some broth. If you ache too much to sit up, tilt your head back and let it trickle down your throat."
Vincent started to argue when she put the spoon to his lips and the decision was made. A moment later he gagged again.
"It tastes dreadful." She conceded reasonably. "But it's good for you."
"Hey."
They both looked up and found Connie coming over to them. "Um. This isn't what it looks like." He said reflexively, waving at Yasi.
Connie barely blinked. "It looks like she's forcing you to eat something nasty."
"Well, then it's exactly what it looks like." Yasi responded dryly, and handed her the bowl. "Is he always like this about taking his medicine?"
"Oh God, yes." Connie agreed instantly and took Yasi's place beside the bed.
Vincent rolled his eyes at his girlfriend and quickly regretted it. "Well. Your mood has improved."
"Archivist has been giving your girl here the nickel tour." Yasi explained. "Or at least, as much of it as we're willing to let her see."
"I'm glad I went." Connie admitted. "I know where that whispering comes from now… It's not even remotely scary. I thought I was just being paranoid, always feeling watched."
"It's not paranoia." Yasi promised. "We have got people watching. They're there to protect you."
"You think the men who attacked us are coming here?" Connie asked.
"Well… that's a more interesting question than you think. One that we don't need to discuss here. The walls have ears all over The Chapel. We've got a room set up for you two." Yasi nodded. "Give me a minute and we can shift Vincent there."
~oo00oo~
Vincent's recovery was going well, and he was able to walk under his own power, though not quickly.
"Oh, thank God…" Vincent breathed as they entered the Twelfth Level. "I was afraid I remembered it wrong."
"By the way, Vincent…" Archivist said warmly. "Just in case nobody said it yet… Welcome back."
Aching as he was, Vincent wanted to laugh joyfully. He was back in the Underside, the place he'd dreamed about for three straight years.
Yasi waved over at the baskets on the ropelines, and the Lostkind there held one for him. Between Connie and Archivist, he was able to walk stiffly into the basket, and Yasi worked the counterweights, raising them off the ground, toward one of the chambers.
Having seen it before, Vincent was able to pick out more detail this time. The baskets that they used for elevators worked by counterweights on ropes. So it's not so much an elevator, as it is a cable car…
Yasi selected one of the dozen odd ropes hanging by the controls, and wound it around the counterweight cogs. She pulled a lever and somewhere beneath them the weights released, and just like that, their basket was off the ground, winching its way up the rope Yasi selected.
"How many rooms are there?" Connie asked, curious about this strange wonderland, despite her earlier unease.
"Hundreds." Archivist responded. "The rope network is strung across them all. Some only lead up to the next set of ropes. You pick the right combination of ropes, you wind them around the counterweights yourself, and you can get carried to any chamber on the level."
"A do-it-yourself rope swing elevator." Vincent laughed.
Connie pointed out across the empty space. There were hundreds of ropes, and a lot of them had people climbing on them like kids at a jungle gym.
Yasi followed her gaze and shrugged. "Who can wait for an elevator when the stairs are right there?"
Connie felt embarrassed about that briefly. So did Vincent. They always took the elevator, no matter how long they had to wait.
Their basket was moving slowly, the weights moving with a steady pace, and Connie finally got a sense of the scale of the Twelfth Level. The dome was as big as a hollowed out tower, with the chambers facing into the open space. If she squinted her eyes and adjusted her glasses, she had a view of people living in those rooms.
"You know one thing I can't figure out?" Vincent said idly. "And I've been trying to work it out for two years now."
"What's that?"
"Where's the River lead?" Vincent waved at the water far below the Seven Steps. "I mean, we're underground and water all flows downhill, right?"
Archivist chuckled. "The Panama Canal acts to make traffic between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean travel two ways, upstream and down. More than a million ships have passed through it over the years. With effort, water can flow uphill. Construction on Panama began in 1904."
"Roughly the same time the Underside was made, give or take a few years." Vincent nodded, looking down at the water again. "You're telling me the whole place is protected by Canal Locks? Enough to take the run-off of half Uptown out to the Hudson?"
"Most of it goes there anyway." Archivist shrugged it off. "It's not like the whole city trickles down to us. Just a few tunnels that we use, and even then only to get in and get out."
"Yeah, but you use the River for dumping, don't you?"
"Not as much as everyone makes it sound." Archivist explained. "In the words of Coleridge: 'Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.'"
Connie put it together. "You don't know how it works, do you?"
Archivist was silent for a moment. "Not for sure." He admitted, and shook his head. "The Riverfolk took over the whole area long ago, and we..." He chuckled despite himself. "We don't think about it that much. The early history of the place was kept secret, because that's what the place was meant to be. The Twelfth Level doesn't flood; the water stays down where it should. Maybe it gets back up there somewhere, maybe it flows deeper until it hits some groundwater table, who knows? It's worked long enough that we don't have to worry about it. How many New Yorkers ask themselves where garbage or sewerage or whatever else goes? Out of sight, out of mind."
"Like everything else here?" Vincent guessed.
"Like everything Lostkind."
"And nobody knows any of this is here…" Connie whispered in open awe.
"You know how impossible it is to keep a secret these days." Yasi said. "We hide the place the same way you hide a person. You keep them hidden, you make sure that nobody knows where to find them, and you let everyone forget they were ever there. The only way to keep a secret is to never have anyone talk about it."
"You keep making comparisons between the city and a person." Connie observed.
"A city is a living thing." Yasi told her warmly, with obvious affection for her home. "Any city is a complex system. It lives and breathes like a person. Every person in it is a cell. They work, they function, they can starve or receive nourishment. The city consumes fuel, puts out waste, it thinks and reacts to stimuli. And like your body, the city does this automatically. The city has a pulse. A Rhythm. It circulates and it adapts and it grows."
"So where do you fit in?" Connie asked with interest as the basket came to a halt against the dome wall, the opening to the nearest room easily close enough to step into as they helped Vincent stand..
"We're the ghosts. The subconscious. The gremlins."
There was the sound of a child giggling from somewhere in the chamber they entered, and Connie turned, peering toward the opposite end, where the lights were low. Something moved in the edge of her vision, and by the time her eyes focused, there was nothing there.
Connie shivered unconsciously. A fact that did not go unnoticed by Archivist.
"Whose room is this?" Vincent asked with interest. "It not empty, there are things on the shelves, food on the table, coverings against the walls…"
"You wouldn't recognize the name." Yasi shook her head. "But Connie met him. Last night he took a spear to the back in your apartment."
Connie felt her jaw drop open at the easygoing way she said it. "And… what? So his room opened up?"
Yasi was not impressed. "What? Space is a premium business down here. You two need someplace private, and I'm the one that lost a man, so you don't get to be pissed at us." Yasi went over to the wall and considered one of the hanging draperies. "Besides..." Yasi drawled. "New York is an old city. You've stayed in a dead guy's place before."
"Yasi." Archivist chided her. He and Keeper had been following this silently from the entrance.
"Icewater." Connie said to Yasi with disapproval. "Nothing but Icewater in your veins."
"If you two could just…not." Keeper waved a hand vaguely. "There are a few things we need to sort out."
"Yes, we do." Yasi agreed. But instead of speaking, she moved to the deeper part of the chamber, half-disappearing into the gloom. A moment later the rest of the space was lit up by a warm yellow glow, from a few lamps. They were big brass things, which would have been at home in a turn of the century manor.
Looking around, Connie got a sense of the size of a room at last. It was about twice the size of their apartment's living room. Stone walls, with draperies and rugs, lamps to provide light and warmth. There was no sign of a bathroom or shower, but there was a stone shelf set into the wall at the back, which seemed to be a kitchenette. Whoever had owned the place had set up his own shelves, his own wardrobe… Like everything else in the Underside, his personal effects and furniture was a patchwork collection of all possible styles.
With the golden light of the lamps, the room was actually quite welcoming, and the three of them sat down to talk.
"First things first." Yasi said. "Vincent, did you ever tell Owen about us? You and me? Not where I came from, but… that I existed at all?"
"No, I didn't tell anyone. Why?"
"Because I just questioned him… and he knew. He knew we had met before. He knew that we knew each other before the Attack." She threw a look at Archivist. "Somebody told him."
"Well, we already knew there was somebody on the inside connected to this." Archivist was not surprised.
"Connected to what?" Vincent said quietly. "What happened? What were those things that attacked me and Connie?"
Yasi nodded, having expected the question for a full day, and she leaned forward. "Not long after this place began, a group of us went deep. Deeper than anyone has ever gone, deeper than we dare go now. At the lowest level, there is a River. Nobody knows how deep it goes, but it provides us with water at its head, and it carries out everything we don't use and can't get rid of any other way. It feeds into the Hudson, and is fed by many many places in this city, where water seeps through. When those first explorers got there, they stayed too long. When they tried to come back up, they started getting the bends. The depth meant that their bodies couldn't take the decompression when they came back closer to surface level. When you go the top of a mountain, your ears pop. You go too high, your blood literally fizzes. Down at that great River, the same thing happens. To the Riverfolk, surface level is Everest. Seven years ago, there was something of a revolution in the Underside. I was one of the newest Shinobi to graduate. My Sensei was killed in the first few minutes of the attack. The Riverfolk boiled up out of the River, trying to take us by surprise. They succeeded. I gathered what was left of us into a counter-attack, and we managed to keep the Underside safe."
"The Underside's Boogeymen." Vincent hummed.
"So if they can't survive the surface, what the hell were they doing halfway between our apartment and the Starbright Restaurant?" Connie demanded.
"That's a good question, but we already have the answer: They weren't. They dressed like Riverfolk, but it wasn't them. Wotcha started noticing bodies showing up. Riverfolk bodies. Somebody has taken over the Clan down there." Yasi agreed. "Here's a better question: What's actually down there that's so desperate to go ignored that they'd pretend to be the Lostkind Boogeymen, just to keep us from noticing them?"
"That's a very good question." Archivist agreed reasonably. "One we were hoping you'd be able to answer for us."
"How could I know?" Vincent argued. "I haven't seen any of you for two years!"
Yasi nodded. "I know." She couldn't stop the slight smile.
Vincent tried to smile for her around cracked lips. "It's good to see you too."
"The Riverfolk are an ongoing problem for us." Archivist said. "One we live with. It is to us, what gangs are to you Above. It's not a problem that we can easily clear out, and for the most part you protect yourself by taking sensible precaution. We avoid the lowest levels, they don't come up." He paused. "There has been consistent trouble, but this week, there was a lull. They went completely silent. The same thing happened years ago, shortly after Vincent's first encounter with us."
"Around that time, we investigated." Yasi added. "We found this on the wall beside The River, at the edge of the Riverfolk's territory."
She showed them an old Polaroid. The quality of the picture suggested an older camera, but the image was clear enough. Written on a grungy wall in glowing paint was a message. KEIST FAILED. STAND BY.
"Keist telecommunications." Vincent read. "How old is this message?"
"We found it two days after you blocked them from opening up the steam pipes." Yasi confirmed. "Connie, you know what we're talking about?"
"Vincent told me about it." Connie confirmed. "What do you know about Keist Telecommunications?"
"Nobody knew much about them... their first really big account was the one they brought to us." Vincent thought out loud. "I think Keist was based out of Germany. Once the Fiber-Optic thing fell through, I think they turned to real estate..." He shut his eyes a moment, trying to remember. "Um... Last I heard, the market ate them up and they folded."
Heavy silence.
"Germany." Yasi said. "Keist, then Owen. VonGunn knows more than he let on."
"Who?" Vincent asked.
"He's in charge of the Berlin Underside." Yasi explained. "He was the one that put us onto Owen years ago."
"You knew all this time?!" Connie exploded.
"But I stopped them." Vincent protested thinly, knowing it wasn't that easy. "I stopped the Fiber-Optic deal..."
"And when you did, they started a new plan." Archivist countered. "Vincent, the point of Gill's suicide attempt wasn't to get someone close to you. It was to get him into your office."
Vincent paled. "Oh no... Yasi, he's been there for two years!"
"And in that time, he's gotten a pretty good idea of all the ways he could expose us at will."
"Why now?" Vincent asked. "If the whole thing was a setup to remove Gill and get Owen into the City Planner's office, why wait two years to wrap up the last loose end?"
Yasi pulled out a new photograph. "There was another lull in Raids this week. Given that the last one followed a message on the walls down below, I figured it was worth checking. We found this."
EUREKA! 44-B L4-18
"We don't know what it means, but we do know that it's only been here a week." Yasi summed up. "The last one was connected to you, and given that you were targeted..."
"Sorry, Yasi; I'm afraid I can't help you." Vincent shrugged. Yasi deflated a little.
Archivist was moving. "Well, you two should get some rest. I have to talk to Keeper. Something is going on, and I don't like where it's leading."
"I'll go with you." Yasi agreed. "There's something I want to discuss with you both."
"How do you summon one of the basket elevators?" Connie asked Archivist, but the older man had already leaped out into the open space beyond their chamber. Yasi leaped after him, using her sheathed sword as a grip, taking the rope as a zip-line.
Connie let out a breath explosively as they were left alone.
Vincent stroked his thumb over her hand. "So, how are you holding up?"
"Well… I think I'm getting used to the fact that this isn't a dream… But Yasi scares me." Connie told Vincent. "She scares everyone in this place. Did you see them on the way here from The Chapel? They all look away, they step aside. I don't know whether she's the Top Cop or a Mafia Don, but nobody here wants her to notice them." She noticed the hammock hanging above and went looking for a way to lower it down to them. "Except you."
Vincent sighed, feeling an edge creeping into the conversation. "Connie, what did I just say? I haven't seen or heard from any of these people in over two years..."
"She asked... if you told Owen about her." Connie said carefully. "Yasi. Her exact words were: 'Did you ever tell Owen about us? You and me?'"
"Connie..." Vincent started to say, but she wasn't finished.
"You've been smiling ever since we got here. Don't get me wrong, you have a great smile, and I love seeing it... except that you've just been severely beaten. Why the hell are you smiling so much?"
Vincent was forced to concede that point, but still shook his head. "There's nothing going on between me and Yasi."
"I know that. I'm not talking about her, I'm talking about this." Connie waved a hand out of the chamber at the Secret City. "How can you be so… into all this?"
"Connie, before we're taught anything in school, we understand that there's more to the world than we can see. Every kid can see it, and we stop looking when we grow up and focus on our own lives. Look around, we're through the Looking Glass. We're in Narnia."
"Vincent, when I told my family I was moving to New York, my mother nearly fainted. The city is dangerous... and down here, if something happened to us... they wouldn't even find our bones."
There was a long silence as Connie found the pulley and lowered the hammock down to their level, and helped Vincent into it, stretching his wounded, battered body out for rest. After a moment, she slid in next to him, careful not to flip the hammock over.
Vincent sighed. "I wish you loved the Secret City."
Connie smiled, just a bit. "I love you. It's enough for me."
Vincent smiled back at her, and gave her a soft kiss. Connie turned, putting her head against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close to him. She tilted her head back and nuzzled into his neck. "I feel like I've been running for a million years." She whispered. "It's nice to stop for a minute."
"Yeah, it is."
"It's a beautiful place." She admitted softly. "But it's not our place. Our world has questions and the longer we're missing... We have to get out of here and go home."
Vincent glanced over at her sharply. He schooled his expression quickly, but it was too late. She'd seen the look, and they'd practically had the conversation. They'd said it all in that one quick glance.
She wanted to leave the Underside and go back to her life. He wanted to stay.
~oo00oo~
"Did you get anything from the prisoner?" Keeper asked Yasi and Archivist.
"Afraid not. He's got an edge we don't know about. Nobody's that cool without an ace."
"VonGunn is on the line again. He's jumping up and down, trying to get us to answer him. He might be willing to offer more information now we have a prisoner."
Yasi steeled herself. "I want Vincent in on the investigation."
"Yasi-"
"First of all, shut up, it's not that. Second of all, I think the Prisoner wants his chance to crow. Vincent knew we existed, and still didn't notice a spy in his office. Owen will want to gloat."
Keeper bit her lip. "No."
Archivist spoke up. "I vote yes. We're only going to get one crack at getting any answers out of VonGunn, so let's make the most of it."
"Two to one. I'll get Vincent."
~oo00oo~
"Owen won't talk to us. But he's spent two years posing as a co-worker, watching you out of the corner of his eye." Yasi explained. "He's following the supervillain playbook, serene smile, patient looks... But I think he wants to rub your nose in it. I think he wants to flaunt the fact that he managed to fool you for two straight years. He might give up something that'll help. It'll help us figure out what's going on here, and if we figure that out, it'll help you."
Connie sent Vincent a look. He was weighing it up, thinking it through...
"Also... I want you to listen in on this conference we're about to have." Yasi said. "We're on the edge of getting some answers, and I don't want to screw it up now." She sent Connie a bare glance. "Once before, I asked you for help, Vincent; to protect this place." She held her hands out, palms up. "I need your help again, my friend."
The delivery was flawless, and Connie looked to Vincent, already knowing what she would see. He looked eight feet tall, even lying prone on the hammock.
"Yasi..." He answered, rolling her name off his tongue like a prayer. "Of course I'll help you." He slid off the hammock, landing gingerly on his feet. "Let's go..." He was halfway to the door, when he remembered himself. "Connie, are you coming?"
Connie bit her lip. "Um... no. Ran into Tecca, and he mentioned that Wotcha helped out at the school here, before she started staying up top. I figured I might see if I could lend a hand there." Plus, I would rather have a spider lay eggs in my hair than spend an hour playing third wheel to you and Princess Yasi.
Yasi met Connie's gaze, not fooled, but not really caring. Vincent however, was thrilled, glad to see his girlfriend settling in.
~oo00oo~
"Connie's not wrong, y'know." Vincent said as the basket moved. "We didn't just step out for an hour; we fell off the world. I haven't seen the sun since we got here, or a calender, or a clock. We both have jobs, we volunteer regularly... If we're going to be here much longer, we need to call people." He sent her a look.
"There are no communication lines between here and the city above." Yasi told him, as the basket came in to settle on the ground. "Obviously, cell phones don't work down here, and phone lines don't come this deep."
Vincent grunted a little as he settled his weight on wobbly legs. "You just cut yourself off completely?"
"We could tap the phone lines, but too many ways to talk back and forth would make it more likely someone would find out about us."
"Then how do you talk to each other?"
"We send messages, we have our own phone lines, circa 1910."
"No, not to each other... to other Undersides." Vincent tried. He saw her reaction, and shrugged. "I figure if there are people out there who found their way here, then... New York was the first Megacity, but there are hundreds of them now. Lots of places out there with tunnels and abandoned buildings. If people like you live between the cracks in the world, there have to be other places out there..."
"There are." Yasi confirmed, leading the way down one of the endless tunnels. "Anywhere that people are forgotten, they have to go somewhere. And why not? Nobody else wants them, it's natural they drift together. To some degree, it's an organic process. It's funny, but every metropolis seems to have it's own Lostkind. They have different names for it, settle in different spots..." She shook her head, getting back on topic. "But to answer your question, it's always an event when we find out about another Underside; but other than that we tend to keep to ourselves. When we do have reason... We talk to them in this room."
Yasi opened a door and led the way into a rather ornate room with a round oak table. The table was big enough for twelve people, but had only three seats at one end of the oval. There were television cameras that looked thirty years out of date at regular intervals around the room, mostly pointed at the head of the table. The room was brightly lit, with banners lining the walls. Vincent studied them and noticed each brightly colored banner was a marker of a city... with names he recognized.
New York. Sydney. London. Berlin. Moscow. Beijing...
"My God, how many?" Vincent asked in awe.
"Getting a good look?"
Vincent turned back to the door as Archivist and Keeper came in. They looked worried. Even a little scared. There was a great feeling of gravity in the room, like stepping into the Throne Room of King Arthur, or the Oval Office...
"What do you think, Vincent?" Archivist boomed, taking the leftmost seat at the table.
"I think..." Vincent struggled for words. "When I first came in here and saw the cameras, I thought that maybe this room was for making announcements, like a press conference for the whole Underside. But now that I think of it, I haven't seen a single screen in any room I've been in."
"All three of them." Keeper commented blandly.
"There's something about this room." Vincent finished lamely. "Something that makes it important."
"Oh, Bravo." Keeper clapped slowly. "Holmes, you astound me."
"Be nice, Keep." Yasi told her, taking the seat on the right.
"Be nice? It's not right." Keeper snarled slightly at Yasi, before turning on Vincent. "This is a big deal, and you're so completely ignorant of how bloody big a deal it is, that you just take it in stride. Today on the tour, the freaking Round Table! And you get to be here for it. You have any idea how many people come into this room at any given time?"
"No." Vincent said honestly.
"THREE!" Keeper exploded. "There have only ever been three people ever in this room! The Arbiter, the Scribe, and the Shinobi Captain. The three highest ranking people in The Underside only. When it wasn't us, it was still the people in those same three jobs. Today there are four. You have any idea how many times we've even used this room in the last fifty years?"
"No." Vincent said honestly, stepping back unconsciously from her wild rant.
"TWICE!" Keeper exploded again, drifting toward him slowly as he retreated. "Exactly TWICE! You have no idea what a big deal this is! Mr-What's-on-CNN-let's-check-Facebook-and-find-out! We don't do this sort of thing very often y'know! And we've done it twice in three years because of you and your pal down in our basement!"
"Me and my pal? He tried to have me killed." Vincent protested, but by this time she had gotten right up in his face, having backed him against the wall.
Keeper shook her head in disgust. "I was this close to letting him. Things are changing, Vincent. And you're in the middle of it. I don't know what the hell Yasi hopes your presence will contribute, but no King in his Throne Room ever had to worry about the Court Jester getting into the middle of..."
The lights went out suddenly. The room went dark.
Keeper got right in his face, breathing harshly in his ear. "Stay exactly on this spot. Pretend that if you say anything or step forward, a dragon will eat you."
There was a hushed silence to which Vincent wholeheartedly contributed. Keeper left him and settled into the middle chair, holding court at the head of the table.
Vincent looked around in confusion. The light was coming from the slide projectors, both of them shining a plain white light at the opposite end of the table, so that the light intersected.
Yasi flipped a switch on her left, and one of the Underside's omnipresent clockwork machines puttered to life, churning out soft puffs of white smoke from the floor at the opposite end of the table.
It's a smoke machine. Vincent realized. Like on a movie set.
A moment later the two devices that looked like slide projectors flared to life, drawing an intersection of light at the other end of the Round Table. The two beams both projected an image in the smoke, and having two of them gave it three dimensions. The shape was that of a man.
It's a hologram! Vincent realized and struggled not to shout with glee at the crazy wonderful thing. Two images projected into smoke and mirrors at angles that met in the middle of the smoke. It was a trick that any stage magician could do a hundred years ago to make ghostly apparitions appear, but here in The Underside it was used to hold holographic international teleconferences.
Any child-like wonder he felt at the sight of the machine vanished once the image cleared and the conversation started.
"Principal VonGunn, I bring greetings on behalf of the New York Underside." Keeper said with formality.
"Arbiter Keeper, I bring you greetings from Berlin Beneath." VonGunn responded with equal formality. A moment later the veneer of polite conversation dropped instantly from his face. "I have been trying to get you people to answer me for over six hours!"
"We've been busy." Yasi cut him off. "And I'm betting you know more about the reasons why than we do."
VonGunn wasn't smiling. "I understand you have successfully located Owen Niklos. Have you been questioning him?"
"Asking questions. It's actually been a very interesting time for us here." Keeper returned. "Now that we've got him, perhaps you'd be more willing to talk about why you've wanted him for two years?"
"That is a matter of some delicacy." VonGunn said. "Suffice to say, it's a problem limited to our own territory. Regardless of what he may, or may not, have told you... it's a situation that is exclusive to our Jurisdiction. We have all the relevant information, the necessary background..."
"Too bad you don't have Owen Niklos too, because he's in our Oubliette, so it's our problem now." Yasi put in.
"A problem we'd be happy to take off your hands."
"Finders Keepers." Yasi shot back.
Silence.
"Well, as it happens..." VonGunn said finally. "You've done us a good turn, and we certainly wouldn't let that go unmentioned. In fact, I'd say we owe you a favor in return... If there's anything you would like..."
Yasi shrugged. "Nothing I can think of. Keeper, can you think of anything?"
"Hard to say." Keeper agreed gamely. "Without knowing what Niklos is worth to them... We could ask for anything, couldn't we?"
They smiled like sharks at VonGunn, who said nothing. Vincent could see the question in his eyes: What do they know? What has Owen told them?
Owen had given them nothing, but Keeper and Yasi were playing it out to try and coax details from VonGunn, and doubt was beginning to grow in the other Lostkind's mind.
"Principal." Yasi said silkily. "While Niklos was here, he was working in the City Planner's Office… That wouldn't be of any significance, would it?"
VonGunn blinked. He seemed to think for a long moment, before speaking. "Perhaps."
"Something else, Principal." Keeper added smoothly, keeping her voice low and calm. "We have pretty strong evidence that Niklos wasn't working alone, or even that he's the one giving orders. The only one who seems to have an interest in him is you. Are you involved in the attempted murder of our people? The hunt for entrances to our world? Would you declare war on us?"
VonGunn froze. "No, of course not."
"Then who would?" Keeper pounced. "If you're not backing him, who is?"
Long silence. VonGunn was looking for another card to play, and found none, before coming clean.
"Very well..." He said, much softer now. "The truth."
Long silence. Very long silence.
"You don't seem to be saying anything." Archivist said after a moment.
"Noticed that, did you?" VonGunn admitted ruefully. "All right. There are only four people who have the whole story. I won't be telling you all of it, but... For the past eight years, there has been a growing division in Berlin Beneath. I won't betray the full reason why, except to say that it started when we failed to live up to a long awaited promise, and... someone else was able to deliver, in our place. This 'someone' managed to do so, entirely without our knowledge, and since then, there has been a growing faction, gaining more and more... practical authority."
Vincent was being very small back behind the table. It was not unlike listening in to the conversation at the grown-ups table, but it sounded as though VonGunn was describing a coup in the making.
"Three years ago, we were able to identify the leader of our opposing faction... It took us that long, because most of the people willing to tell us anything were found dead before we could question them. You know what it's like, rumors and secrets spread and multiply like nothing else alive."
Especially in a place like this. Vincent thought quietly to himself.
"After chasing shadows for months, we were able to get hold of some fairly usable intel, which led us to an Upsider, who had moved into Berlin recently. That man was Owen Niklos."
"And so you want him back." Yasi finished. "To question him about who's plotting to overthrow Berlin Beneath."
"No, we already know that." VonGunn shook his head. "We lost track of Niklos after someone tipped him off. We found that leak, and leaned on him. He gave us the only answer we needed."
"So why do you want him back so badly?" Archivist put in. "If you have the information you need..."
"We... have some of the information we need." VonGunn corrected. "There is obviously a plan underway, but the more we learn about it, the less it seems directed at us. And then when Niklos moved to New York unexpectedly, we started to worry. The whispers all lead to one of our own being in charge. But by the time we found someone who was willing and alive to give us a name, it was too late. Niklos had left, so had the other suspected conspirators, and so did the Ringleader, our... former head of security."
"Former head of security?" Yasi repeated.
"When the trail led to him, we took him prisoner, and he escaped. We can't find him, or his contacts. So when we found out his whole operation, Owen included, had gone to New York..."
"And in the two years it took us to do something about it, he kept working..." Yasi sighed. "Does this Ringleader have a name?"
VonGunn hesitated before saying it, with a hushed voice and low tone, as though afraid of saying the name too loudly. "...Vandark."
~oo00oo~
Connie found the kids were thrilled to have her as a substitute teacher. They were like Neverland's Lost Boys and Girls, and she fell in love with them instantly.
One of them, a boy named Patch, took the watch off her wrist like a pro pickpocket, and she hadn't even noticed. Lessons with the Lostkind children seemed to be about storytelling. She had spent half their lesson talking about life above the surface, and by the end of the hour, they were asking her questions.
She was doing her best to describe a world that she had lived in her whole life. The Rules of the Lostkind said that they had to be a certain age before they went to the Labyrinth, and ones this young had never seen a tree, or the sky, or a car. Aside from the classroom, it was surprisingly similar to most class settings she'd seen in her life. There were a dozen kids, each with a pad and a wooden board to lean on. There were no desks, but the kids seemed perfectly comfortable wherever they were, perched on top of the shelves, and cross-legged on the stone floor. In front of the pipes it was actually fairly warm, and Connie was surprised to find she was enjoying herself.
Connie felt her stomach rumble, and was suddenly aware of how much time had passed. Patch sent a glance over at Kamy, who vanished into the shelves, and came back a moment later with a bowl. Connie smelled food and smiled. "What's this?"
"Dinner."
"Dinner?" Connie was surprised. "How long have we been here?" She checked her empty wrist. "My watch..."
Patch held it out to her and the kids giggled. Somewhere between the start and finish of the little class, he'd managed to polish it up like new.
There was a sound like a giant clearing his throat, and Connie turned, the watch in one hand, the bowl in the other, and found Archivist had come in, Vincent, Yasi and Keeper right behind him. Connie was surprised to realize that she felt relief at seeing him again. For a full two hours, she had managed to forget her paranoia about the place.
Vincent's face suggested that he had some stories to tell, but his stomach growled loud enough to put them all off when he caught the scent. "Ah! Food!" He came forward.
Connie grinned, and pulled the bowl back. "Uh-uh. You had your chance to eat."
Vincent barely blinked before looking back at Yasi. "So tell me, Yasi; what's in that bowl she's holding?"
"Six meat stew. Underside delicacy."
"Six kinds of meat?" Vincent looked back to his girlfriend. "Let's see how many you can name."
Connie considered her options and handed him the bowl without contest. "Goodbye appetite."
There was a giggling sound at her reaction. Connie turned to smile at her 'class' and found they had vanished; every last one of them. There was the briefest sense of tiny figures darting into hiding places, but they were gone before she could track where they went. "Class dismissed." She murmured under her breath.
Vincent speed-ate half the bowl, and the four of them quickly summed up the point of the conversation with Berlin, and what they had learned.
"So... if Owen was part of a conspiracy in Europe, what's he been doing here for the last two years?" Connie asked when they were finished.
"That's the big question." Vincent agreed, finishing up. He set the bowl down on the smooth stone floor and pushed the bowl. It skittered across the room, toward the darker corners. A tiny hand flashed out of somewhere and snatched it up instantly. Connie jumped with a short, surprised yelp, not noticing her boyfriend trading a sly glance with Yasi.
"Okay. So we've got his history, and the name of his Master... Vandark." Yasi summed up. "Now we've got something to work with, it's time we spoke to Owen."
~oo00oo~
"Hey, you sure you want to do this?" Connie asked as they walked.
"I wasn't sure this morning. Now I am. I need to see him." Vincent said darkly. "I need to see Owen."
"Why?" Connie demanded. "What's going to be made better? What are you going to say to him?"
"I don't know, I just know that I have to." Vincent said. "He was there for two years, Connie. Two years, sitting right behind me." His gaze was clear and decided. "I have to see him."
Yasi sighed. "Well… just remember, you're the only thing we can think of that might get a rise out of him. He hasn't been speaking. Don't expect a lot of answers."
"He'll talk to me." Vincent promised.
They walked down the dark hallway toward Owen's cell, when Connie noticed something on the wall. Taking Vincent's wrist, she pulled his lantern over so that she could get a clear look.
Drawn on the wall like cave paintings, was a scene of New York, though the shapes and details were all off. It was a drawing done by someone that had heard trees and cars and buildings described to them, but had never seen it themselves. It was the scene she had described to the kids only minutes before. "How?"
"They put it up for you." Yasi explained absently, leading the way. "They knew we'd be coming this way."
"How do you people live like this?" Connie demanded breathlessly. "With eyes on you from dark corners every second... how do you stand it?"
"Well, how do you stand living surrounded by security cameras, traffic cameras, computers that run your personal details every ten minutes?" Archivist shrugged. "It's just a part of the world you live in."
They reached the row of hatches in the floor, and Yasi went to the end one.
"An Oubliette." Vincent observed.
Connie's head tilted. "A what?"
"A kind of dungeon." Archivist explained to her. "It's from the French word meaning 'to forget'. So it's literally the place you put people when you want to forget about them."
"Only way out, is through a hatch in the ceiling they can't reach, or climb to... and wouldn't be able to lift if they could." Yasi told them. "The most secure prison cell ever to come out of the thirteenth century."
It took Yasi and Archivist together to hoist the hatch open, and they all stared down at Owen, who didn't seem surprised or worried.
"It's about time you got here." Owen said jovially, as though he'd invited Vincent to a dinner party. "I expected the Ninja-babe, but The Other Woman as well?" He waved in Connie's direction. "You got nerves of steel, Vincent."
"I was surprised." Vincent confessed. "Two years, you never let on. I was hyper-aware of all things potentially Lostkind, and I never thought for a second that you might be involved."
"I'm not one of them." Owen assured him, quick to make that clear. "I come from a place where the sun actually shines. I'm like you and Connie. The normal people."
Vincent felt Yasi straighten at his back. Somewhere off the left Dorcan growled a bit.
"Tell me, Vincent; why did you hide this place?" Owen asked him. "You got snatched by a girl you made eye contact with on the subway, you got thrown down a hole in the ground, literally, and just like that you were happy to grovel at Yasi's boots?"
"They showed me-"
"They showed you nothing. You think you can see all there is to see in this place after two hours? You had no idea what this place was, but you worshiped it after only a few minutes here." Owen pointed out. "Didn't it ever occur to you that maybe discovery was for the best?
Long silence.
"Yes." Vincent acknowledged. "Briefly."
"Our parents lied to us, Vincent. Every child who reaches the age of three or four knows that scary things hide in the closet, or lurk under the bed. And every night our parents come in and tell us that it's not true, and our eyes are lying to us, until we grow up enough that we believe them. Even you. But not any more, am I right? You and Connie alone know that there was something really there."
Vincent leaned forward, his bruises making him almost inhuman in the dark. "Is that all you see here? Really?" He looked to Connie for support and found that she was not looking at him. "Connie? You don't agree with him, surely?"
"You miss the point. What do the monsters under the bed want, Vincent?" Owen pressed. "There are urchins in every dark corner, Gremlins slipping through all the cracks. The Borrowers clothe the whole Lostkind city by snatching bits and pieces from every closet, every laundry... Vincent, they have the run of the world. They're human sized rats with swords. What would rats do if they had the smarts to use their tunnels? How hard would it be to run the world if you already had the run of the world?"
"Oh come on, you've seen the Underside, or at least know more about it. It's mysterious, but it's not like it's at the top of the food chain." Connie argued. "If these guys ever started something, they'd be outnumbered a thousand to one in New York alone."
"I'm not talking about a revolution, I'm talking about taking what they already do, kicked up to the next level." Owen retorted. "Ask yourself: What sinks a politician? Say... the Mayor. What would end him faster? A dozen speeches against him during the campaign, or one Lostkind Gremlin who can rifle through his desk and find a dirty photo, or a bad check?"
Connie looked to Yasi, who never took her hawk-gaze off Owen.
Owen kept going. "Imagine for a moment you want to make a great deal of money. What if you could get someone into the offices of the Wall Street Stockbrokers? A small change in the right ledger..." He let the thought go unfinished before he moved on. "What if you had an enemy you wanted removed? Or a house you wanted cleared out for your own uses? It's all about the information, it's all about the locks and the walls we put up to protect the secrets. But we're sitting in the Secret City, in the World that lives Between the cracks of the world we come from." Owen gestured. "Ask her, Vincent. Ask Yasi. You've seen what she can do... is there any door she couldn't open? She walks though secured rooms and locked up buildings like a ghost. You've seen her do it. Imagine if she didn't want to be friends. If she wanted to destroy you, what secret could you keep locked away from her? What could you do to hide from this place?"
Long heavy silence. The world that Owen had just spelled out was not a happy one.
"So that's why you want to expose the place?" Vincent spoke finally. "To stop them from using that power? To stop them from taking over?"
Owen gave him that look again, like he was a slow-witted child. "Idiot. This goes bigger than that."
"How?" Vincent demanded.
"I'll answer that one." Yasi growled. "Vandark is planning to do exactly what you just described, isn't he?"
Owen twitched. "Where did you hear that name?"
Yasi nodded. "That's why. Vandark used you to find ways in. Lots of them. The most tightly guarded secret of any Underside."
"He didn't use me. I volunteered." Owen retorted. "It was VonGunn, wasn't it? He told you. Bastard broke the rules."
Yasi continued, as though she hadn't heard him. "Then Vandark sends in his forces. Whoever left Berlin with him... plus the Riverfolk... They capture our home, and suddenly they have the run of New York. A global center for art, research, fashion, media, commerce for half the western world, a huge local and federal power base, the busiest international seaports and airports, more people than any other city in the USA..."
"To say nothing of Wall Street and the United Nations..." Vincent added.
Yasi nodded, still looking at Owen. "Vandark used you to find him a way into the Castle, so that he can move his people in and out of the Kingdom. He wants to set himself up here... so he can find any secret, pick and choose any leader, make or break any deal... and even if nobody knows he exists, Vandark becomes The Ultimate Kingmaker."
"And with that..." Owen finished for her. "He rules as The Ultimate King."


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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