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~

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