Thursday, 13 December 2018

Seven: "That's Round One..."

It had taken Yasi and Tecca together to hoist Vincent down to the Labyrinth. The entrance was close, and even with her odd cargo, Yasi's footsteps through the darkness were certain. The Gremlins and the Borrowers were willing to help the Shinobi, mostly out of fear, but Yasi knew that she was going to catch hell for this.
The Healers didn't care that their patient came from Above. They went right to work, and Yasi quickly sent Tecca back to the surface. One glance at Dorcan's expression and she decided to go with the boy.
By the time they reached the surface, it was too late. Wotcha's body had been discovered, as well as the limb Yasi had personally sliced off. The Riverfolk had vanished. People were already gathering around to look. Police tape kept Yasi from getting any closer, and searchlights were set up to shine on the crime scene.
Their manhole was certain to be noticed if they tried to come up through it, so the two of them doubled back and found another way, observing the scene from a rooftop across the street.
Tecca never took his eyes off Wotcha, even as the NYPD swarmed.
Yasi reached out and rested a hand awkwardly on his shoulder, but the boy flinched away, still scared of her.
Yasi drew her hand back, and wrapped the long black coat around herself, drawing inward. "You okay?"
"I missed." Tecca said dully. "She was lying on the ground, and I had the crossbow, and I missed."
"It would have changed nothing." Yasi said seriously. "They left one behind to finish off her and Vincent, the rest chased you. You can't reload a manual crossbow that fast. You would have been chased by two instead of three and it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference."
"I know."
He was still shying away from her. She drew herself taller, casting a silhouette against the night sky, and she put a little more power into her voice. It was a perception trick that could make grown men shudder. Archivist used the technique all the time, and Yasi used it now. "Tecca." She commanded. "Look at me."
The boy did so, tears still streaming down his face.
"Wotcha loved you, and she had faith in you. I have faith in her, and so I turn to you. You're The Watcher now. Whatever reason they had, their plans are only beginning, and I will stop them. The Riverfolk have forgotten that our Eyes are on them always. And you, Tecca: You are our Eyes now. Do you understand?"
Tecca wiped his face instantly, getting his eyes clear at once. His shoulders straightened. "Yes, Shinobi."
"Then keep watch." The New York Ninja commanded. "Sooner or later, someone will come. Someone that's not a part of the City Authorities."
"Someone will come for Vincent." Tecca thought aloud.
"When they do, you will follow." Yasi told him. "Whoever attacked Vincent failed, and their next step will be to find him again. They'll go to his loved ones."
"Are you sure?" Tecca frowned.
"I would." Yasi said simply. "I'll send backup for you."
"You think I'll need it?"
"Sooner or later. Probably sooner." Yasi confirmed, and unslung her katana, drawing it a few inches, so that the blade was visible. "The Sensei said that this blade was made by the greatest Master of the last five hundred years. It has passed down through generations of Kendo Masters, teacher to apprentice. The Sensei said that this sword in motion was the wrath of the lightning. For longer than you've been alive, Wotcha and I kept watch, her over the city, and me over the Underside. When the sword was needed, she told me where." She paused, drawing the sword and lowering it to rest the flat of the blade on his shoulder gently. "As her chief apprentice, and her kin... You are The Watcher now. You direct the Lightning."
Tecca shivered, and turned his eyes back to the crime scene. "I'm ready." He declared, turning back to her. "I won't..."
She was gone.
"...let you down."
Vincent felt like his brain was disconnected from his body. He felt movement, but wasn't sure if he was being moved, or if he was imagining it. He couldn't make his eyes open, couldn't make his limbs move... But he didn't see any reason why he should. There was a distant ache, which felt like it should be worse. It was almost a pleasant feeling, to be apart from his body, and let the sounds of his surroundings wash over him.
Voices. He heard voices. Familiar voices.
Keeper's voice was sharp with disapproval. "This is ridiculous. I told you to do it quietly. This is not doing things quietly. This is the exact opposite of doing things quietly!"
Another voice answered her, with the familiar balance of whiskey and promise. "I know what you're going to say…"
"Good. Then I won't waste time." Keeper snapped. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that if I didn't bring him down here, he would have died."
Yasi? Vincent whispered, but only in his own mind.
"But why here?" Keeper demanded. "They have hospitals up there too!"
"I couldn't take him to go to an Above hospital. If I did it myself, there would have been questions. If I called an ambulance, it wouldn't have been there in time. He was lying there next to one of ours, as well as three Riverfolk... if I let his own kind treat him, there would have been questions he couldn't answer. He recovers here, and he can tell his people anything he wants when he goes back."
"Would you still have decided that if it was someone you didn't know?" Keeper challenged.
"I had to make a choice. I could either bring him here, or I could let him die!" Yasi argued.
"Then why didn't you let him die?" Keeper demanded.
Don't I get a vote in this? Vincent wanted to say, but he still couldn't seem to make his eyes open.
"Why would Riverfolk come to the surface to attack Vincent?" Archivist asked, his deep voice, like the rolling thunder, was unmistakable.
"They wouldn't. They can't. Wotcha found bodies over near the Hudson. They were stripped, but they showed all the physical symptoms of a fatal case of the Bends."
The voices faded slightly, the tones becoming jumbled. He was having trouble finding voices, putting them with names and faces. The words washed over his muddled brain. Except Yasi. Her voice was still crystal clear to him.
"When was this?"
"Years ago. I told you about it."
"Oh, that. I thought that was a clan war."
"So did I, but apparently not. Somebody cleared out the Lowlands and the River." Yasi explained. Even in his state, Vincent could tell she was worried. "Whoever's down there now... It's not us. Not even Riverfolk."
"As I recall, we couldn't find anything down there to tell us one way or another. Well. Except for the graffiti."
"And you didn't tell Vincent about that, did you?"
"No." Yasi said calmly. "I also didn't tell him about Owen. So before you get sore at me for bringing him here, just remember: Any one of us could have stopped this long before now. It's my mess to clean up."
"Does Tecca know about Wotcha?"
"The kid's not an idiot. He already knew. I put him back to work. Dorcan's up there now with his team." Yasi answered. "What about Connie?"
Vincent passed into oblivion before he could hear an answer to that one.
Connie felt like she was going mad. She had waited at the restaurant for over an hour, and once she'd decided that something had to be wrong, she kicked herself for wasting so much time. She phoned home, and there was no answer. She phoned Vincent, and it had gone to voicemail, which chilled her blood; because he never missed a call. She'd called Gill and was told that he'd left the office on schedule to meet her…
Panicked, she went home as fast as she could. The clothes he'd worn to the office were there, so she knew he must have come home at some point…
She called his cell again, and gotten the same response.
It was two in the morning by the time she'd run out of ideas. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and realized how panicky she had gotten. She was still wearing the black dress, there were candles surrounding the bed, in preparation for a romantic evening… And he'd vanished.
Changing clothes quickly, she tried to think logically. She started by retracing his steps. He'd clearly gotten home, his most expensive aftershave was on the bathroom counter, and his dinner suit was missing. He'd come home to get ready for their anniversary…
Like most New Yorkers, neither of them owned a car, so he'd be on foot. Vincent wouldn't take the subway to the restaurant, so he'd be looking for a cab… She knew he always walked in the direction of his destination, waving down taxi's as he saw them. In New York, it was faster to flag one down than to call for one directly.
Leaving the apartment, she turned to head toward the restaurant, hoping that she was going the right way.
After a few minutes she saw the flashing lights and suddenly panicked again. There was a crime scene set up two blocks away. It hadn't been there earlier when she left for the restaurant so it must have been recent.
Running for the yellow tape as fast as she could, she pushed through the crowd that had naturally formed. For a city that was supposed to be jaded and ready for anything, there was always a crowd gathered around the scene of an accident.
Or a homicide.
Connie pushed her way through quickly… There was blood all over the pavement, dead bodies covered by sheets...
There were bits and pieces of things she couldn't guess at marked with Police markers, lights set up all over the place, shining on the whole scene...
Connie's eyes focused on a severed arm lying on the pavement. The arm was still clutching a machete.
"Vincent!" She shouted. "Police! Help me, please! He's missing!"
She tried to press through the police tape, and found herself stopped by a wall of police officers...
"Let her through." A voice cut through them all. The police officer was older, and had a tone of natural authority that came from experience. He took her by the hand and led her away from the bodies, over toward the police cruiser. "Ma'am, I'm Officer Grey, and I'm in charge of this investigation. You feel you have some information that might help?"
"I… I don't know about that, but my boyfriend is missing. He was supposed to meet me earlier tonight, and he didn't show, and nobody knows where he is, and he would have come this way…" Connie was babbling, and she knew it. Her voice stopped instantly when she saw the phone.
On the ground, a few feet away from the bodies, was a cell phone with a cracked screen. It was Vincent's. "That's his phone." She said sharply. She didn't recognize her voice.
"Are you sure?" Grey asked her.
"I'm positive. That's his phone." Connie's voice was flat and dull with horror. It wasn't a coincidence. He really was here. He lost his phone in the fight. "Where is he? Where's Vincent?"
"Now don't assume the worst. We haven't found any other bodies..." Grey led her to the phone, practically holding her up. "Has CSU photographed all this?" He called out to someone. Connie didn't see who he was talking to, or what the answer was. She couldn't take her eyes off the phone. She had proof positive that something horrible had happened to the man she loved.
Grey picked up the phone and pushed a few buttons. "Battery's nearly flat…" His voice changed suddenly. "Oh my."
Connie saw the screen. It was cracked but still working, and there was the photo she had sent earlier, of her picking a dress. She flushed, despite the tension of the situation.
Grey lowered the phone, and turned to her. "When did you last hear from him?"
"Earlier tonight, about seven. He answered that message, texted me back."
"Are you sure it was him?" Grey asked.
Connie froze, feeling a terrible nausea creeping up. If Vincent had been attacked early, she could have been dressing up for the thugs that attacked him…
Immediately, she shook that thought out of her head. "No. I came this way in my cab when I was on my way to the restaurant. He made it home after that, I know it. If he'd been attacked before I sent that photo, I would have seen him."
Grey checked the time on the phone. "That narrows it down. Can you think of anyone who might have had reason to hurt Vincent?"
"No, of course not. If there was someone, he hadn't mentioned it to me." She bit her lip. "And even if there were… where the hell did the severed limbs come from?!"
Vincent awoke to a kind of numb lethargy. For a time, he thought that he was back in his bed, and was just taking his time to wake up. He lifted a hand to rub his eyes and fire raced through his limbs.
Memory came back then. The mugging, the pain, the alley, the rain, the cold...
He had no memory after that...
Then he saw The Angel.
It had to be at least thirty feet tall, made of ornate carved stone and marble. It's wings were light blue stained glass, and it was beautiful. It's unmoving form stood at the head of the room, watching over it protectively, as two elaborate ascending staircases curved around it, leading behind those widespread wings.
The light behind it shone through the stained glass giving the whole room a blue glow by the ethereal light of an unmoving Angel's wings, and Vincent stared at it blankly, his concussed mind wondering where he was for a very long time.
A large figure moved over him, and in his half-awake state he was convinced he was dreaming. The figure wore a long blue robe and a wide-brimmed hat, and a large full-face mask in the shape of a bird. The costume beak extended out from the figure at least two feet, almost touching his face as the cloaked figure ran practiced hands over Vincent's bandages. Vincent breathed in automatically at the proximity, and caught the scent of herbs and medicines. The figure moved out of sight and Vincent went back to staring up at The Angel.
"Where am I?" He whispered, without planning or thought.
"The Chapel." A warm feminine voice responded. "At least, that's what we call it. It's the oldest part of the Underground. Over the decades, we found other ways in and out, and we stopped using this one... It's something of a shrine for us, for all the Lostkind that need comfort and protection and healing."
"I know that voice." Vincent smiled at last and rolled his head a little to the left.
Sure enough, Yasi was sitting there, with her feet up on the end of his cot. It had been two years since he'd seen her last, and she hadn't changed much.
"Hey." He slurred.
Yasi grinned. "Hey yourself." She leaned over and brushed her fingers over his forehead, and Vincent was suddenly made aware of more bandages around his head. "What the hell did you get into the middle of, Vincent?"
Vincent passed out again.
In the early hours, just before dawn, the downstairs door buzzed, and Connie threw herself out of her chair to answer it. "Hello?"
"Connie, it's me." Owen's voice called back. "Can I come up?"
Connie let him in. Owen was more Vincent's friend than hers, but she was glad to have familiar faces around. Her family lived out of town, and would take a while to get to her, and Gill was probably still too hungover to have got the message…
She opened the door for Owen and he came in, full of concern. "Connie, are you okay?" He said first thing, gentle and worried for her.
She shrugged helplessly. "I'm fine… I just need to know where he is."
"So you haven't heard from him?" Owen looked around the room like he expected to find Vincent under the couch.
"No." Connie shook her head. "Have you?" She knew it was a pointless gesture, but it was about the only thing left she could try.
"Not since last night." Owen said. "Officer Grey tells me you were able to identify his phone."
"Yeah. It was at the…" Connie stopped short. "Officer Grey? The cop in charge? He spoke to you?"
Owen nodded. "I asked him to keep me updated… see who got involved. Connie, where did Vincent go?"
Connie's head was spinning, trying to keep up. "I… I don't…" She blinked suddenly, forcing herself to think. "Huh. I guess this is what going crazy feels like."
Owen's head tilted. "What do you mean?"
"Officer Grey spoke to you before three am, and you came straight here?" Connie challenged, feeling nervous for a reason she couldn't immediately place. "That doesn't seem right to me. So either I'm going nuts, or there's something else."
Owen met her gaze. The concern dropped away from his face, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. "Clever girl." He commented.
Getting her act together, she turned on Owen viciously. "What the hell is going on here?!" She demanded. "What the hell do you mean, you asked him to keep you updated?!"
"Connie, do you know where Vincent is?" Owen pressed, cold and lethal.
"No! If I knew, I'd be there with him!" Connie shouted, her fingers gripped the first thing she touched on the table behind her, a hardcover book. "Now it's your turn. Talk!"
Owen studied her face for a moment. "I believe you." He decided finally. "I called around to the hospitals and a few morgues. They don't have him… Which means there's only one place he could be."
Despite that, Connie felt herself tense slightly further. "Where?"
"A very dangerous place, Connie." Owen told her, drifting back toward the door. "A place where there is no law, and nobody sees."
"Quit the fortune cookie crap, Owen. If you know something, then you have to-"
Her windows exploded inward, and she ducked automatically. Despite the fact that they were on the third floor, the apartment was suddenly invaded. Connie looked up from the floor at them, and felt her stomach drop. There were three of them, dressed in trenchcoats and leathers, with tribal tattoos on their visible skin. They were armed with various close quarters weapons. A short sword which would have been at home in a gladiators arena, a crossbow, a mace...
They were a mixture of New Yorker Chic, and medieval soldiers. They took in the room with a glance, and focused their eyes on Owen. Connie followed their gaze. Owen was suddenly filled with a dangerous energy, practically vibrating with anger. He moved, faster than Connie could follow, something slipping from his sleeve to his fingers.
The three Urban Warriors prepared to defend themselves, but it wasn't a weapon.
It was a dog whistle.
Owen lifted it to his lips and blew hard. Connie didn't hear anything, but it was clear that somebody did, because a millisecond later, her apartment door was ripped off its hinges, and in boiled another group. They had gray skin that covered their whole bodies, and featureless faces, except for huge red goggle-like eyes.
"Riverfolk!" One of the Warriors yelled in horror. "Yasi was right!"
The tallest of the ninja held out a hand and stepped forward, putting himself between Connie and Owen. "I am Dorcan of the Shinobi. Stand down, and we won't hurt you."
Owen looked to the Riverfolk. "Kill them all." He said coldly, and walked out of the room.
"Protect the package!" Dorcan shouted at his people and all hell broke loose.
The Riverfolk and the Shinobi leaped at each other across her dining table. One of them flipped it up and used it as a barricade, exchanging blows across it. One Riverfolk Warrior caught Dorcan in a full tackle, and slammed him into the wall. The picture-frames fell as the wall crumpled under their combined weight, and Dorcan wasted no time slamming his attacker with two-fisted blows, over and over.
The Shinobi with the gladiator sword took a swipe at the nearest enemy and missed, his target throwing everything he could reach, books, pillows, couch cushions, coffee cups... The Shinobi slashed them all out of the air with his blade, knocking them aside as he methodically moved closer, trying to get within range...
Connie was nearly hyperventilating, wondering how the hell her living room could turn into a warzone so fast at four in the morning. She pressed into the corner of the room, being as small as she could get.
One of the Riverfolk seemed to notice her and aimed a spear-gun. Connie froze, like a small animal about to be run over, when one of the Shinobi jumped in the way, putting his body between her and her attacker. Connie could see the moment of impact on his face, as something speared heavily into his body. Staggering, he pushed Connie toward the hallway, out of the room. She caught a glimpse of the spear sticking out of his back. He had taken the hit for her.
Dorcan said to protect the package... A clinical part of her mind thought distantly. They're protecting me. I'm the package. They're after me? What the hell is happening?
The sounds of war continued behind her, and she grabbed for the hall phone, dialing 911 immediately.
There was no response, and no dial-tone. One side or the other must have cut her phones on the way in...
Connie felt something go over her face, and a foul smell filled her senses...
Darkness closed in instantly.
Owen had made it to the downstairs entrance, and ran out of the building as fast as he could. A moment later, something slammed into his body from above. He crumpled under the blow at once, feeling at least one of his legs crack.
Cold steel touched his Adam's Apple a moment later. Dorcan had jumped out of the apartment window and landed on him. "You should have taken my offer."
Owen didn't respond.
Vincent came back to himself and looked around the Chapel. Keeper was sitting where Yasi was the last time he was conscious.
"Keeper." He groaned. "Would you believe I missed you?"
"Nope." The old woman said instantly, sharp as a whip-crack. "The things you'll do to see Yasi again."
"Damn, my evil plan is foiled." Vincent groaned sarcastically. He shifted on his cot, trying to get a little more comfortable, and he found himself staring up at The Angel again. New York was full of statues, but none that big and elaborate.
"Many years ago, a property developer found an artisan's concept design of The Angel, and the Chapel." Keeper told him, like she was reading him a bedtime story. "They thought to investigate. I think they wanted to make a tourist spot of it. Archivist's father was that man. He was the one that found the way down here, and we showed him this place. He came to understand as we did, and he told his investors that he couldn't find it. We went out from under their feet and slipped into patent offices, city planners... We tracked down any sign of us, and destroyed it. It was the first time we chose to be non-people."
"And before that?"
"Before that we just... lived down here. That was the day we agreed never to go back. He sent his kids up to the surface, to give them a normal life. Archivist was seven when he found his father's journal, and a full adult when he followed the trail down here." Keeper dropped the 'folk tale' tone and hit him with a sub-zero gaze. "So. What happened?"
"I don't know." Vincent admitted. "I was on my way to..."
He almost spun around before the muscles in his neck rebelled, and he cried out in pain. A moment later, he saw Connie weaving toward him on wobbly legs. Her eyes were glassy, but fighting to focus on him. Dorcan was right behind her.
She almost fell against his bed, and he was more than happy to hug her back, even with his weakened limbs. He sniffed. "You smell like chloroform."
Keeper sent a glare at Dorcan, who shrugged. "Yasi said to get her here quickly." He defended.
"Are you okay?" Vincent said into her hair.
"I'm fine, but... We're gonna have trouble explaining to our neighbors what happened to our door."
"Our... door?" Vincent tried to process this.
Connie chuckled, her head still clearing, just glad to see him alive. "Owen!" Connie whispered to her boyfriend. "It was Owen. I don't know how or why, but he's behind this."
Vincent held her tightly, and spoke up, directing his words to Keeper. "Owen knows Connie..."
"And we know Owen now." A familiar voice declared. "Owen is no longer a problem you need to concern yourselves with."
Vincent lifted his face from Connie's hair, and found Yasi striding in to stand with Dorcan. "It was him?" Vincent repeated in shock. "The whole time?"
Yasi nodded. "The whole time."
"Is he alive?" Vincent demanded of the Shinobi Captain.
"He's not comfortable, but he's more or less in one piece." Yasi promised.
"Tell him." Keeper said impatiently to Yasi.
"Tell me what?" Vincent asked Yasi.
Yasi sent Keeper a glare. "I was trying to ease into it."
"Tell me what?" Vincent repeated.
"You've never eased into anything." Keeper retorted.
"Tell me what?!" Vincent shouted.
"About Wotcha." Keeper sighed finally. "They got her, Vincent."
Vincent stared blankly. "What do you mean they 'got' her?"
Yasi sighed hard, and spelled it out for him. "It means, Vincent, that the men who attacked you killed Wotcha."
"Wotcha?" Connie whispered. "From the Kitchen? She's involved in this?"
"Not anymore." Keeper said bitterly.
Connie shivered. "Vincent... We have to get back."
"Vincent isn't well enough to move yet." Yasi countered.
"People are going to notice we're gone." Connie protested.
From somewhere in her leather vest, Yasi drew a picture. The photograph of him and his girlfriend, taken off his desk, right out of the frame. "Vincent, when we met, I promised I wouldn't let any harm come to you. I haven't forgotten."
Vincent looked to Connie, feeling open sympathy for her. The poor woman looked overwhelmed. He sent Yasi and Keeper a look. "Can I have a few minutes?" His eyes went to Yasi, seeking understanding. "I never told her about you. Any of you."
Yasi bit her lip, but Keeper nodded slowly. "No, that's fair. Yasi, I know there are questions that need answers, but Vincent was invited. Connie was kidnapped. Give them a moment."
Yasi and Connie were staring at each other openly. Finally, the ninja gave a curt nod, and strode away. "Rest. Both of you. We'll talk soon."
She left them then. Connie looked borderline terrified by her surroundings.
The only light that shone underground was what they made for themselves. The Underside was not a dark or dreary place, but every light was there by design. The deepest point of the New York Underside was The River, and if there was anything below that, nobody had ever come back to talk about it. But even there, the lights were always on for those that needed it. The only part of their world kept forever in darkness was the Labyrinth, the maze that sat between their world, and the entrance to the world above.
Yasi had told Vincent of the Rhythm of the Underside, the natural flow of movement at any given time of day. There were no cars, but there was constant traffic. Everyone lived somewhere, and they worked somewhere else. Hidden from the sky, there was no day/night cycle, so the Underside never slept, never went quiet. The most trafficked places had the most light. Where Lostkind went, there was light, and where there was light, the Lostkind followed.
But there was one corridor, carved in the strongest stone, that had few lights. It was the only place in the Underside that was important, isolated, and kept in the dark.
Archivist made his way to this, the darkest part of The Underside, letting his footsteps, and the tap of his cane echo off the smooth walls. The only features in the dark hallway were the large, round hatches in the floor. The heavy oaken circles were seven feet across, on huge brass hinges, with heavy iron rings, like large door handles.
"Has he said anything?" Archivist asked.
"Not a word." Dorcan promised, standing guard over one hatch in particular. "We put a splint on his leg, and chained his good one to the floor."
"Where's Yasi?"
"Checking in on her pet."
"You don't like Vincent, do you?"
"It's not that. It's just... he's not Lostkind. He doesn't belong here."
"Not all of us are Natives, Dorcan. You and Yasi were born here, but a lot of us weren't. And this place owes a debt to Vincent. We can afford to give him our protection for a while." Archivist glared. "Especially since, at this point, we're protecting ourselves as well."
Dorcan nodded, accepting that. He was still Shinobi, and protecting his secret home was what he did for a living. "Riverfolk in New York. I thought they couldn't go up to the surface."
"They can't." Archivist agreed. "They'd never survive the pressure change. When they were building the Brooklyn Bridge in 1871, the workers who had to go underground to lay the foundation got the bends. We're used to it, and we've rigged the Labyrinth to ease the transfer from here to the surface; but the Riverfolk have been too deep too long."
"Then who the hell killed Wotcha?" Dorcan demanded. "If they weren't Riverfolk, then who were they?"
"I don't know, but they were very serious about making sure we didn't recognize them." Archivist declared, clearly bringing the conversation to an end.
"You want to talk to him?" Dorcan jerked a thumb back at the hatch.
Archivist shook his head. "Let him sweat a while. Yasi gets to have first crack at him. Security is her jurisdiction."
Dorcan nodded. "He couldn't have been working alone." He said finally. "Whatever he was after, it was for a reason."
Archivist nodded. "No prizes for guessing that one."
"So this was round one." Dorcan said seriously. "Wherever this goes... They've been planning it for three years at least. The first shot just got fired. That was round one."
"Yes." Archivist agreed darkly. "It was."


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