Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Fourteen: Invasion

Connie had woken up from a restless nap to find Vincent making her coffee. Her scattered mind had settled more than her emotions after being held hostage. It wasn't anything like it had seemed from TV shows. She was still seeing her kidnappers at every closed door...
Vincent had given her a hug when she came into the kitchen, and for a very long moment, she seemed unable to let go of him. "I'm okay." She whispered, but she didn't really mean it.
"Me too." He promised, though she could tell he didn't mean it either.
They gripped their coffee cups for a long time, not looking at each other. "You've redecorated since I was last here." She said finally, noting that a lot of her shelves had been replaced with different furniture.
He shrugged. "Yeah."
"Can you afford this place on just your salary?"
"I can." he confirmed. "I could afford it before we met, I just... didn't have any reason for a bigger place."
Heavy silence.
"I feel like I need a shower." Connie admitted finally. "God, it was worse than six months ago. It was... slower. I felt like everything was happening in slow motion. I was going to die. I mean, I thought I was going to die... They just came out of nowhere..."
Vincent hugged her again. "I'm so sorry."
Those three words alone snapped Connie out of her leftover panic, and she scanned around. Yasi had left, likely hours ago. Connie knew she would need to stay close for a bit. She had known Vincent before she knew the Lostkind, and had worried about his tendency to take on too much of any burden. She had seen it in the Soup Kitchens, she had heard about it at his office, blaming himself when a cause he supported or valued had to be passed over...
This problem was bigger and deeper than anything refusing Earth First could do to him. Vincent was in a serious funk, blaming himself for what was happening on three different levels. And this time, Connie knew he had a legitimate reason to feel that way.
"Want to help me recover?" She said softly. "Order a pizza. A really greasy, really fattening one. Then watch TV with me."
Vincent chuckled a little. "Deal."
TV at that time of the day had little to offer. Connie contented herself with snuggling into him tightly, letting herself relax, with a slice of pepperoni pizza in her hand. Vincent had one arm around her and the other wrapped around the remote, hopping channels. The mood was friendly and comforting, but not romantic. Connie was grateful for it.
"You need to make a call?" Vincent asked quietly after the third slice.
"I hear you've got a guy-friend." Vincent confessed.
"What exactly is a guy-friend?" Connie smirked. "And no, David is a friend, but I can't call him. What would I say? I got caught in the middle of a secret war over an Underground City, kidnapped and held to ransom, but I can't go to the police..."
"No, I guess not." Vincent admitted ruefully. "I have missed talking to you about it."
"You and Yasi don't spend a lot of time talking, huh?"
Vincent picked up on the sincere tease in her voice and relaxed at the knowledge that any lingering anger had now faded. "We talk." He admitted. "But The Underside is so... commonplace to her. How close would you be with someone if all you talked about was your backyard?" Vincent was still channel hopping when he stumbled onto the Evening News, and froze. It had an image of Berlin on the screen. Sections of the city were halfway underwater.
"You hear about that?" Connie murmured, waving a hand at the TV. "I saw that this morning. Every sewer-line overloaded, every water pipe suddenly went berserk, every subway tunnel washed out. Burst water mains all over the city. They say that there was a storm surge off the coast, flooded a river that goes through Berlin."
"Imagine that." Vincent deadpanned.
"Turning now to local news..." The newscaster said as the story moved on. "City officials were left scratching their heads today when a series of baffling, but obviously connected robberies took place across New York City. Every museum exhibit, public house display and private residence collection in the city was robbed last night; but the only things taken were medieval weapons and kinds of armor; such as shields, swords, battle-axes, and gauntlets. The NYPD issued a statement saying only that the investigation was ongoing, and they were unable to comment."
"What's a gauntlet?" Connie asked absently, offering him the garlic bread.
"It's a... wrist guard. Wear it over your forearm, use it to block a sword." Vincent answered her, feeling another spike. "Old suits of armor had it built into the glove."
The news story continued. "The private collectors, also victims of this organized crime, have commented that they are reviewing their security for any evidence that they can bring to help the police investigation. The private security firms they employ have said only that they have an exemplary record of service and protection, and that this was the work of well trained and well prepared experts. As yet, there have been no arrests, and no suspects have been named."
Vincent let out a breath. "Rule One: Be Invisible."
"Hmm?" Connie didn't hear him.
"Nothing." Vincent said. "Connie, where did they snatch you?"
"The Botanical Gardens." Connie sighed.
"You were on your way to meet Tecca?" Vincent guessed.
"How'd you know?" Connie grinned and sat up. "Well, I still need a shower." She yawned. "Gill called me yesterday. Said he was setting up a poker game."
"He called me too." Vincent nodded. "I guess the Gamblers Anonymous meetings are going well."
"Friends only, nickel ante." Connie nodded, having had the same conversation when Gill called her. "I told him I would come, if it was okay with you. He agreed."
"Worried that we might not be speaking?"
"Something like that." She agreed.
"I can't speak for you, but I have no problem taking your money." Vincent said blandly.
Connie smiled broadly. He sounded like his old self for a moment. "Bring it on, McCall."
New York had a worldwide reputation as the City That Never Sleeps.
On this evening in New York, something was different. There was a pall over the city, like an unnatural chill. It lasted until Nightfall.
Nobody noticed the increase in people that made their way into the subways, nobody had any reason to be looking at the abandoned buildings or the alleyways...
Vincent was watching out his window and saw only a few of them. Connie came over to the window as she noticed his scrutiny, peeking down at the people in rags that covered their clothes completely. There were only three of them. They made their way to the manhole cover in the middle of the street. They vanished below the surface and put the cover back, leaving no trace behind them.
Vincent sensed Connie's shiver. "It's happening." She said softly.
Yasi was stationed at the Last Entrance to the Labyrinth. The spotlights were hot and bright, aiming down the large tunnel. Her people flanked her on each side, poised behind their barricades. Night had fallen Above, and they all knew the attack would come soon.
The tension was heavy. The Shinobi were skilled warriors, but they got that way through the constant training of a relatively small group, and they knew they were heavily outnumbered this time.
Yasi bit her lip and tapped Dorcan silently. He gave her a quick nod and shifted over to cover her place in the line as she went to the nearest telephone and wound it up for a call. The hardline turn-of-the-century phone connected. "Operator."
Yasi spoke quietly. "Priority. Put me through to Throne Room."
"Right away, Captain." The young voice chirped and connected the call.
"Yasi?" Keeper creaked into the phone. "No action at The River. I think the razor nets are keeping them out."
Yasi nodded. "I agree. Which means the first thing Vandark will do is try and get those nets raised."
Keeper sighed. "It's... really happening, isn't it?"
Yasi was about to respond, when she heard a cry of pain come from the entrance to the Labyrinth. Yasi turned to send a quick look at the tunnel. "It's starting. See you on the flip side." She told Keeper, and hung up immediately, returning to her post.
Another shout of pain came echoing out of the tunnel, the spotlights doing little to shake the intimidating depths of the dark entrance.
Yasi spoke, clear enough to be heard by the whole defensive line. "Do not hesitate!" She commanded them. "Do not freeze. We have always worked as Keepers of the Peace, not as soldiers. But you've been trained and tested, for exactly this reason: To keep our home safe from those who would take it from us. This is our moment to do what we have all been called to do. The moment we were born for!"
Another shout of pain came from the tunnels, louder and clearer. Yasi sent a quick nod to Dorcan, who took up the final instructions. "Don't give way to fear." He said calmly. "There are eleven more barricades behind us, choke points at every level. The Invaders are far from their homes, with only a booby-trapped Labyrinth at their backs, and one way in. Our mission is to outlast them, to wear them down, one by one. They have the numbers, we have the walls. Don't let them wear you down first."
Another shout of pain, sharp enough to hear clearly. The Shinobi all gripped their crossbows tighter, eyes blazing, following the spotlights.
"Those screams you're hearing?" Yasi called. "That's the sound of our traps thinning out the Invaders. Our tactics are already at work, their numbers already shrinking. First Blood goes to the New York Ninja!"
Her Shinobi Warriors roared, the tension transforming into a deadly dangerous energy, hungry for battle, eager to deal out the fury that had been building all day.
Shapes formed in the spotlights, and Yasi's crossbow flashed up, gleaming in the bright glow instantly. "FIRE!"
Without hesitation, a dozen trained marksmen loosed arrows on the enemy, and they all ducked back into the turn of the tunnel, seeking cover. A moment later, they fired back, and the Shinobi ducked below their barricades.
Without Yasi having to give the order, the air in the tunnel thick with crossbow bolts going both directions, so close together that more than a few of them knocked each other straight out of the air.
Battle was joined as the war for the New York Underside began in earnest.
Owen took a long slow breath, and struggled not to keep looking over his shoulder. The subway wasn't crowded at this time of night, but there were people enough that it made him nervous.
Because sitting behind him on the cracked plastic seats of the subway car... was Vandark.
The soon-to-be Kingmaker was perfectly relaxed, dressed in long black leathers, and a chain mail vest which somehow fit perfectly with a few gang members that traded a joint back and forth at the other end of the car.
Owen felt his heart rate spike as the gang got up, heading toward the doors as the train slowed to enter a station. One of them flipped off Owen, more out of habit than any real malice. Owen glanced behind him and didn't say anything.
Vandark did not speak until the doors shut and they were alone in the subway car. "Owen." He said grandly. "Did that youth just..."
"It was nothing." Owen dismissed it.
"Don't interrupt." Vandark said without raising his voice, and Owen felt a thrill of horror go through him. "As I was saying, that sort of disrespect is almost to be expected. Give me some time, once this day is finished, Owen. I'll have that kid shining your shoes soon enough." Vandark checked the map and rose to his feet. "Assuming I let him live that long."
The tide of the battle turned in favor of the Shinobi, as Vandark's Wildmen were pushed back, first retreating slowly, then running for their lives back into the Labyrinth.
The Shinobi roared with victory. Yasi and Dorcan didn't. The first attack was less than ten archers. A probe to see what the first line of defense was made of. It had retreated after only a few minutes. Two Shinobi had crossbow bolts speared through them. Thirteen remained untouched. The Healers were still at the Chapel, still flatly refusing to come out, even for this. The Shinobi knew enough First Aid to do the job and patch the holes.
Yasi never took her eyes off the tunnel, one hand tightly holding her crossbow, the other wrapped around the sword handle at her back, ready and waiting.
Sure enough, the tunnel announced more on the way. Footsteps, suddenly audible. Not the silent tread of the last attack, but clear determined marching. It had a vaguely metallic sound, and as they came into reach of the spotlights, the Shinobi could see why.
The second wave was coming in, and they were organized. There had to be at least a dozen of them, armed with large shields. The shields were all different styles, painted ornately; and held close together, providing no opening where the shield-bearers were visible within. Three of the long Legion Shields were held horizontally over their heads, making the formation almost the width of the Entrance Tunnel.
The Shinobi struck, firing their weapons, and the bolts just bounced aside, unable to get to the enemy as it approached. It wasn't moving fast, but it wasn't stopping for anything.
"FALL BACK!" Yasi roared, and the Lostkind abandoned their fight, covering each other as best they could, shoulder to shoulder as they made their way back to the next barricade, a chamber behind them. The Wildmen were quick to press their advantage, seeking entrenched cover of their own...
Yasi struck, slashing out at them horizontally, her sword providing room for her people to escape, but the tunnel too narrow for her to get any real power or movement.
"DOWN!" Dorcan's voice shouted from behind her, and she ducked her head down low. Dorcan had collected the oil-lamps from where they had been stacked, and was lobbing them at the door. The lanterns shattered, the oil splashing everywhere.
Yasi jumped back, and slashed the sword along the doorway, steel on stone throwing up sparks...
The first barricade burst into flame, forcing the Wildmen back, keeping them away as the Shinobi withdrew to their next line of defense. By the time the Invaders got the flames out, the next hallway had been collapsed.
More and more Wildmen made their way out of the Labyrinth, helping to clear the way, in preparation for the arrival of their Master.
The Labyrinth and the Entrance had fallen to Vandark.
Connie opened the door to Vincent with a tight smile. "I have a guest."
Vincent felt his fists close unconsciously as he came inside...
And let out a breath in relief as he found Tecca sitting rigidly on her couch, and a cat asleep beside him. "Tecca."
Tecca stood up abruptly, and the cat woke up with a hiss. Tecca grabbed it by the nape of the neck and held it out to Vincent. "There. Message delivered." He said angrily.
"What?" Vincent blinked and took the cat on instinct.
The feline hissed back at Tecca for a few seconds, and settled into Vincent's arms. Tecca was surprised. "That demented hairball bites everyone but Yasi."
Connie snorted. "Naturally. What are you doing here, Tecca?"
Tecca growled under his breath. "They collapsed the Labyrinth after I left. There's only one path home, and there are about a hundred bad guys in the way."
"Yasi sent you someplace safe." Connie said approvingly.
Tecca waved at Vincent. "She sent the cat. I'm just the cat-carrier."
Vincent didn't say anything, having a staring contest with the cat. "Merlin." He said. "Yasi told me about you." He looked at Connie thickly. "Yasi believes they're going to lose this one. Cats and children first."
Connie gave Vincent a sympathetic look. "Vincent, go home. Look after yourself. Or stay here with Tecca, if you want. I'll send your regrets to Gill."
"No." Vincent shook his head. "I... I can't just sit staring at the walls while this is happening; I'll go insane."
"What do you want to do then?" Connie said. "I hate to leave you alone..."
Vincent stroked the cat's head gently. "Let's go to the poker game."
Connie turned to Tecca, who was sullenly glaring at nothing. "Turn on the TV and rot your brain like a normal kid your age. I have to go make sure Vincent doesn't swallow his tongue, and then I'll be back. I want you here when I get home."
"The second you close that door, I'm leaving." Tecca said shortly.
Connie and the boy glared at each other a few moments, and Vincent suspected it was an ongoing battle of wills between them. Finally, Connie picked up the phone, not taking her eyes off Tecca. "Benji? I need a babysitter."
Tecca looked outraged, and Vincent fought to keep his grin in check.
The second defensive line was the Upper Markets. Close to the Labyrinth, and the surface, this place supplied The Underside with food and clothing. Dorcan's trick with the firebombs had bought the Shinobi precious seconds, and they swarmed into the Market, taking positions, ready to defend.
Yasi paused, her head cocked as though she heard something, and she reached under the stalls, yanking out a familiar child. "Kamy!" She snarled in shock. She looked around saw the other Gremlins peeking out of their usual hiding places. "What the hell are you lot still doing here?"
Kamy winced under the Shinobi's wrath. "We stayed!" Her little voice shouted defiantly. "The Underside is ours too. That's what Gremlins do!"
The other Shinobi had spotted the little Gremlins and every last one of them paled. Dorcan lunged. "We told you to get to Twelfth Level where it was safe!"
The wreckage caved in suddenly, the weight behind it vanishing. A millisecond later, the debris exploded out as three of the largest, most heavily muscled warriors Yasi had ever seen came roaring out at a charge, covered in armor and chain mail, with huge spiked clubs in each hand. They moved far too quickly for such big warriors, charging forward. The angles were swiftly changing and the crossbow shots went wide. The attack came ferociously, as the huge warriors smashed left and right, knocking down Shinobi and Gremlins alike, sending the defenders sprawling.
And from behind them came the rest of the Wildmen, pouring in through the gap in the barricades, quickly taking advantage. The huge warriors kept brawling, the wide sweeps of the clubs were knocking down barricades and warriors alike, but the Wildmen were the ones ripping apart the defenders, turning over carts, flushing out the Gremlins...
Yasi pushed Kamy behind her and hurled herself into the fray, sword flashing at the huge warriors. She put her lithe form between the two of them, twisting and dodging their fury with quicksilver grace, slashing out at them at every opportunity, her blade flashing again and again.
The one behind her brought his club down like an axe, bringing it up over his shoulder for more power. Lost in some kind of zone that only a ninja could know, Yasi twisted without looking and the club smashed down at her feet, close enough that the impact rattled her teeth. She swung her sword upward, nearly carving the warrior's face off.
It gave the other enough time to grab Yasi by the ponytail and yank her off her feet. Yasi hit the ground, sword lost to her; and her hair in the enormous fist. Her neck and head wrenched painfully, and she couldn't get traction to move without losing her scalp...
She saw the club coming down, the spiked end of it almost bigger than she was, no way to dodge, no way to get free...
...when Dorcan sailed in from nowhere, in a flying kick that put both his feet together into the centre of the warrior's chest. It was enough to drive him back a few feet, and get Yasi free of his grip.
She came up instantly, drawing another blade from the sheath at her leg, and she and Dorcan lunged, both of them at the Goliath's throat, taking him from the sides... The huge warrior swung blindly back and forth at them, having to work to keep his attention on either of them, unable to land a blow.
Yasi heard a shout and looked to the rest of the room which was caught in a desperate pitched battle, the air ringing with the sound of steel on steel, cries of pain, roars of battle. In a chamber, even a larger one such as the Marketplace, it was still loud enough to go echoing off the walls, making the battle seem fiercer and wilder. The fighting grew more desperate the closer it got.
At long range, the Invaders and the Shinobi were almost equals, at close range the Shinobi were Grim Reapers. But the Shinobi were outnumbered, and more Wildmen were flooding in every second.
"URK!" Yasi spun back to the main fight; her and Dorcan versus the Wildman Goliath, and saw her lieutenant was losing, the sheer brawn of his enemy was overpowering him. Dorcan was being held two feet off the ground by one enormous fist...
Yasi cast about swiftly and found her sword a few feet away. With quick light, steps the ran toward it, dropped to her knees, skidding forward on the smooth stone floor. Snatching it up mid-slide, she found the nearest Wildman she could and threw herself at him. Hooking her sword around his torso, the momentum spun them both around, cutting the Invader down, and suddenly putting Yasi in the right direction to charge the Goliath that held her friend hostage.
The Goliath saw her coming, and turned to face her. As before she charged, and dropped to slide, slipping under the swing of his club, and between his legs. Before the enormous warrior could turn she spun, slashing her sword across the backs of his knees, and the Goliath dropped with a roar of pain. Dorcan was immediately released, and he started gulping air.
The Shinobi saw the Giant Champions fall, and roared victoriously for their Captain. Even the Invaders seemed stunned. The most feared secret army in Europe, Vandark's Wildmen Warriors had never fought Yasi before.
With the two biggest opponents out of the fight, Yasi and Dorcan turned their attention to the rest of the battle... And discovered that taking down the Goliath was their only real victory. The Shinobi were being driven out of the Market, being pushed back again by sheer force of numbers...
The battle intensified as they reached the corridors, the narrow passage made the Wildmen's numbers irrelevant, but even as the Shinobi cut down the first row of enemies, the ones behind them used even the bodies for cover, gaining ground.
"It's times like this I wished we used grenades." Dorcan complained to Yasi, wiping sweat and blood from his forehead. Then he froze. "Where's Kamy?!"
Yasi didn't respond. The Wildmen were chasing them, but some of them were splitting up, going down side passages. They had the momentum now, and were taking full advantage; trying to keep the defenders from organizing.
The Invasion was spreading through the Secret City, unchecked and unstoppable.
Even if it isn't your fight, you have to do something. Vincent thought rapidly. But what can you do? Even if Yasi hasn't destroyed all those entrances, and even if you do go back, what the hell are you going to do against the bad guys that Yasi couldn't?
This is the game of secrets. He argued with himself, almost frantic. What do the bad guys want that I can give them? What do they need that I can take away?
Even if you do get into it, what's it all for? For Yasi? Common sense shot back. She kills, and she lies to you about it.
She's a defender, hoping to keep her home and her friend. What are you so worried about? She couldn't possibly be interested in you. You're a paper pusher who can't go any of the places she goes, and you can't even save your own life when there's a weapon in your hand!
Such thoughts chased him around non-stop. Vincent was sleepwalking for most of the night. He went to Gill's place with Connie because he had nowhere else to go.
True to form, Gill was in the middle of setting up a poker game.
"Nickel ante, I swear." Gill said as soon as Vincent came in. "I find I miss the social part of gambling as much as the money, so I rounded up some friends..."
"And enough chips and dip to sink the Titanic." Connie commented with a light smile. "Missed the regular Poker Game routine, huh?"
Vincent barely heard them. There was a war going on beneath their feet. Yasi could be dead any minute. And here he was at a poker game with his best friend.
There was a knock on the door.
"There's our fourth for the night." Gill jumped up and answered the door.
Vincent heard his heart give one solid thump, loud enough that he felt his whole body move.
Because coming in the door with Gill...
...was Owen Niklos.
"Love the place." Owen said to Gill as he came in, friendly and outgoing. "Great furnishings. That's a great photo. They your kids? Vincent! Long time no see."
Below, in the Throne Room, Kamy came running down the tunnel into the room, waving her arms in surrender. "Keeper! Keeper!" She shouted ahead. "They're heading for the Whisper Gallery!"
Keeper heard the news and turned instantly, lunging across the table for her husband. Archivist was already halfway to the tunnel when she caught him. "Waitwaitwait!" She hissed. "You're not going anywhere!"
"I have to!" Archivist rumbled, pulling free. "If we let them take the Gallery..."
"I know you love it, but..." Keeper lunged and grabbed his arm before he got out of reach. "The main fight in is the Thoroughfare. You won't have nearly enough backup. You go, they will kill you!"
"Keeper, we have people in the Whisper Gallery!"
"By the time you got there, they'd all be dead!" Keeper implored.
"It's not just the people..." Archivist looked at her in agony. "The entire history of the place..."
"I know." The old woman creaked sympathetically.
"Every lesson I ever taught Yasi was based on those archives."
"I know."
"She knows this city like the back of her hand, and I'm the one that taught it to her! She still recites facts from memory!"
"I know!" Keeper insisted. "Gerald, please!"
Archivist gave her a crooked smile. "You haven't called me that since we moved down here."
Keeper sucked a breath in between her teeth. "Don't try it."
Archivist wiped a tear off her face with one gentle finger. "We poured our heart and soul into this place, Keep. You the people, me the story. I won't let them steal my heart and soul."
"You can't save them!" Keeper insisted.
"I know." Archivist murmured. "But sometimes the effort means more than the result, my love."
He kissed her goodbye, and ordered the Throne Guards to open the door, just for a moment, to let him through. A team of Shinobi followed, ordered by Yasi to take care of him at all times.
The Wildmen were actually being very careful in the Whisper Gallery, binding up the records cautiously, preparing to take them somewhere. They wanted this room whole, and all its secrets for themselves. The people that Archivist had assigned there were still alive, all of them on their knees, hands tied before them.
Archivist cat-walked in silently, as all the Lostkind knew to do, with a borrowed hunting knife in his hand. With a lunge, he ran the nearest Wildman through before anyone knew he was there.
The rest of the Invaders all spun at the sound of their comrade falling to the ground, stunned to see themselves in danger from one of the Triumvirate. Even so, they had his team of Shinobi outnumbered.
"Welcome to New York." Archivist boomed powerfully at The Wildmen, teeth bared. He charged at them, doomed from the start, and not caring.
The instant Dorcan came charging in, the Shinobi slammed the door shut behind him, bracing the Throne Room door with everything they could find.
Dorcan was gulping oxygen, covered in sweat and blood. Unable to speak, he gasped for air as Yasi wiped his face quickly, checking him over for injuries. Her lieutenant barely noticed, reaching out with both hands and grasping Yasi's forearms tightly.
"They've taken the Whisper Gallery." He reported, breathing hard.
An instant later, echoing through the steam pipes that were omnipresent across the Underside, they heard the echo of Archivist's final breath, crying out in pain.
Yasi's eyes bulged, and Keeper started to say something violent, when they heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor, and something rammed the Throne Room Entrance powerfully.
The door did not move at all.
Dorcan grinned. "They're going to be stuck there for a while."
Yasi nodded and spun back to her. "Keep? What happened?"
Keeper looked to Yasi, and held out a hand to her. "We knew he'd do it. It's what you do when you love something or someone, you care more about it than makes sense."
Yasi nodded, pain on her face. "Well... we'll feel this later."
Keeper gave a single savage nod. "Yes we will, after we've driven every last wretched hell-spawned Wildman thug into the sea."
Yasi nodded. "We've got a chance now... The more of them we can pack into that corridor..." She took an oil lantern off the wall. "There's a side tunnel that I used to sneak out, a long time ago. I had the Diggers put it in when you and Archivist told me to stay in the Throne Room with my studies."
"Got news for you, Yasi; we knew all about it."
"You did?"
"We were running the Underside before you were born, kid." Keeper creaked. "Exactly who do you think gave the Diggers permission to build our six year old daughter an escape tunnel? You weren't that cute back then."
Yasi flushed and looked down. "We got a lot of history in these walls, don't we?"
Owen was the perfect guest, telling them all the story of where he'd been the last few years, what he'd been working on, having enough details and funny anecdotes to keep the conversation moving.
Gill was pleased, having friends in his house, and pizza on the way. Vincent and Connie plastered smiles on their faces and nodded along. Connie was struggling not to ask pointed questions, not knowing what Owen would do if she started picking his story apart.
The doorbell rang and Gill stood up, heading for the hallway. "That'll be the pizzas."
"We can only hope." Connie commented blandly. "I'd hate to think who else might show up tonight."
Owen chuckled at that, as though in on some grand joke.
"What are you doing here?" Vincent hissed.
"Keeping an eye on you." Owen said coldly. "We know that you two are the only ones up here who know what's going on. Maybe you plan to do something stupid, maybe not. But everyone else is needed elsewhere right now. In a few hours, it won't matter."
Vincent's cell phone rang, and he nearly levitated out of his chair. "I'll just... take that call in the kitchen."
Connie glanced at Owen, and was glad to see Gill coming back into the living room with a stack of pizza boxes. She rose quickly. "I'm gonna help Vincent with the plates."
She came into Gill's kitchen, in time to see Vincent ending the call. "Who was it?"
"Work." Vincent said shortly. "God, I wish I could give a damn about the office right now."
"Well, look on the bright side, with Owen here, you don't have to worry about your mind being elsewhere." Connie said quietly, mindful of Gill in the next room. "You were hoping to get a call from Yasi, weren't you?"
"Either she calls tonight to tell me it's over, or I never hear from any of them again." Vincent admitted, putting his phone away.
"I've been there, Vincent; the Underside is pretty big and nothing but tunnels." Connie looked around a moment and started collecting plates. "Yasi will know which ones to seal up, and which ones to ambush. A Siege could go for days."
Vincent drew the map in his head and found himself nodding. "Yeah. But she won't. The Underside is more dependent on the surface than any of them like to admit. They won't survive a siege, so they actually have to fight."
Connie glanced over her shoulder. "I was thinking about what Owen said... about how the Lostkind could own the world if they wanted, and nobody would even know. That's our town he was talking about. I never put a lot of stock in those conspiracy nuts, talking about shadow governments and secret cabals that run our lives... And now I'm one of them. I know that the city is going to be controlled by a malevolent puppet-master... and he knows my name."
"You thinking of bugging out?" Vincent asked her.
"I think that if Yasi and her merry men lose this one, New York will not be a good place for either of us to be." Connie said practically.
Vincent bit his lip. "You might be right."
Connie hesitated. "I think if I had realized that last year... Things might have gone differently."
Vincent didn't think so, but saw no reason to start an old argument that he was long past feeling any rage over. "Maybe. But you never would have survived Underground. I knew it too. I never should have made you feel guilty for that."
"I didn't feel guilty." Connie said. "I was just frustrated. It felt like I was locking you up, and I hated that feeling, but I knew the alternative was I'd lose you. I stopped being mad about it a long time ago."
Vincent felt himself smiling. "So did I."
There was a comfortable silence for a moment.
She spoke finally. "Whatever comes next... You want to be part of it, don't you?"
"I do." Vincent confirmed. "I just don't have a clue what on earth I can do about any of it."
"There's nothing to do." Owen said simply from behind them.
Connie and Vincent both straightened harshly, stepping away from each other to turn and face Owen, flanking him subconsciously as he came into the kitchen.
"If there was no chance, you wouldn't be here." Vincent said, eyes blazing with frustrated wrath.
Owen didn't seem the least bit concerned. "We're not the Warrior type, Vincent. We're the ones the Warriors count on. You're the only connection they have to the surface. You have an hour to do something. But we both know you won't do anything. You're not like Yasi. You're like me. Another hour or two, and the die will be cast. A day or three after that, this will all be over. And frankly... you won't even notice. The wars of the world below have nothing to do with you. Or me. I'm a paper pusher. Just like you."
Yasi and Dorcan crept as silently as they could down the hidden tunnel. The walls were so thin they could hear the Wildmen on the other side, still trying to ram their way into the Throne Room.
"How long will they keep bashing their heads against the door?"
"I think the door will outlast them, but best we don't give them too long to think of something." Yasi grinned. "Keep it down."
Dorcan carried the oil lamp as quietly as he could. There were two more oil jars slung across his back in place of his sword. "Ready to start a barbecue?"
"Once I slide this panel open, we'll be right in the middle of them." Yasi whispered. "The door will be open for only a second. You ready?"
Dorcan planted his feet, ready to heave the lantern. In the narrow passage, Yasi had to crouch, with barely enough room to bend her legs. Yasi grasped the hatch, held her breath...
The instant she pulled the hatch open, she knew it was a mistake. Two Wildmen were right there, aiming at her. They had known where the hatch was all along and were lying in wait for her to make exactly this move. She tried to get the hatch shut again quickly, and failed as they both grabbed the hatch and muscled it back open.
Dorcan threw himself forward, the lantern shattering against them, but the Invaders didn't seem to care. The throw had no time, no preparation. Just a reaction to the sudden failure of their ambush, and Yasi felt herself and Dorcan get covered in the oil as well.
Dorcan grabbed Yasi and pulled her behind him, as Vandark's forces tried to get into the passage for an attack, grabbing Dorcan instead. His foot flashed out and landed on Yasi's hip, sending her deeper into the hidden passage, out of reach.
For a frozen millisecond, Dorcan looked up at her as a hand closed around his throat from behind. "Run!" He hissed. About twenty Wildmen ripped him out of the passage into the corridor, and her last glimpse was of him drawing his daggers, turning to face his opponents with a final defiant roar.
Horrified, beaten, and fast running out of ideas, Yasi dragged her way back to the Throne Room alone, barely getting clear as the flames erupted behind her.
Keeper met Yasi as she returned. "It didn't work."
"It was an ambush." Yasi snapped. "The plan was fine, but they knew the play. They were waiting for us. Our trap became their trap." She looked haunted for a moment. "I lost Dorcan."
Keeper's face was twisted with frustration. "Dammit, who the hell is giving them all this information?"
Connie raked her chips in.
Gill seemed oblivious to the tension around the table. "Connie, I never would have pegged you for a card shark."
She snorted. "I'm motivated to take money off Owen."
"Oh?" Gill seemed openly amused. "Why's that?"
Connie dealt the next hand. "Ante up and find out."
Gill grinned, a light in his eyes. "Vincent, how'd you ever let this one get away?"
With the Siege locked in stalemate at the Throne Room, and alternate routes sealed and collapsed, things had come to an awkward pause. The Shinobi milled around, eyes on the barricaded door, waiting for something to do. As the hours passed, the waiting became more and more painful.
The loss of Archivist had sent the Lostkind into shock. He was the eldest of the Triumvirate; one third of their leadership in the Underside. Those that manned the Throne Room were walking on eggshells around his widow and daughter. Yasi was eerily calm, a calm that the Shinobi recognized. It meant a swift brutal explosion was soon to follow, and they were glad to have her aimed at the door.
Keeper had been everywhere, organizing a few more defenses at the River; helping treat the wounded. The Chapel had been captured, and their Healers, even at the last, had refused to leave. If they were alive, they were healing the Wildmen now. Keeper's eyes were bright red, but her expression was clear.
Yasi looked to Keeper. "You okay?"
Keeper looked exhausted by the weight of emotion. "He knew. They knew. Vandark had the whole plan worked out, knew every angle this place could be worked from."
Yasi nodded. "Yeah."
Keeper sighed. "Connie."
"Vincent's Connie?" Yasi seemed stunned. "Why?"
"Tecca told me that he's been seeing her."
"Little old for him, isn't she?"
Keeper snorted. "We were all so sure he was handling it. He was getting by after Wotcha died... and now we know why. He was confiding in someone else. Telling them all about this place, the people... And in return she was taking care of him, filling in for the parent he lost."
"Lost to the Riverfolk." Yasi pointed out. "Why would Tecca help the same people who killed his grandmother?"
"He wouldn't, but Connie is another matter." Keeper started counting on her fingers. "Think about it, Connie came into his life the same time we did, she was Wotcha's friend, and approached Vincent at her suggestion. She was here when Owen was turned loose; Owen was the reason she was brought down here in the first place... Vincent wasn't with her the whole time before the Riverfolk attack, and once we learned Vandark's plan and Owen escaped? She wanted nothing more to do with this place, or with her boyfriend." Keeper finished, and wiped at her eyes furiously. "I know every inch of this place, Yasi. I still remember the first time I came here." She almost smiled nostalgically. "I hated it. I hated this place."
Yasi felt her jaw drop. "Really?"
"Really." Keeper chuckled. "God, that was a long time ago."
"What changed your mind?" Yasi asked with interest.
"I fell in love." Keeper said. "Your father was just starting out as the Archivist here, keeping the history. Every night he came home, told me one story after another. Fear started to fade after a while, and eventually I said goodbye to my home and came down here with just the clothes on my back. One day I heard an argument between two of the Borrowers, wandered over and gave them a third opinion. Just like that, people started coming to me to settle things... Next thing I know, I become the Lostkind's Keeper." She met the Shinobi Captain's eyes. "I came to love this place because of the people." She waved at the sealed doors. "We left them there. The Gremlins, the Healers..."
"It was my call, Keep." Yasi whispered.
Everyone but Yasi jumped.
The doors flexed inward slightly against the barricade.
Yasi didn't even flinch, didn't look back. "I think that's my cue." She told Keeper lightly. "But just so you know, it's not Connie."
"It's not?" Keeper blinked. "How do you know that?"
Keeper's attention returned to the door after a particularly hard blow, but the barricade still hadn't budged. "How long can we hold them out?"
"A few days ago, I might have said a long time." Yasi sighed. "I was planning to keep their focus on the door, send my people around behind them through some of the smaller tunnels, set up a crossfire to box them in. But now... I honestly don't know if that'll work. They just know too much."
Keeper held up a hand. "Do you smell that?"
Yasi sniffed, and paused. "Yes. Yes I do." She moved toward the door, head cocked to the side, and she picked up a low hissing sound. "Gas!" Yasi snapped instantly. "Everyone out! Fall back!"
Keeper snarled as she rose to her feet. "Twelfth Level is our last chance."
"The Dome Chamber is too big for gas, the River still has all those razor nets, and the entrances have barricades ready as strong as here." Yasi listed the reasons. "We can hold them off there longer than we will once this room fills with gas."
The Shinobi were running, getting clear as best they could. Yasi stayed behind, making sure they were all safe before she retreated from the Throne Room herself.
Too late.
There was a sudden eruption of sound and heat, the barricaded door suddenly erupted off the hinges, ripping up their braces and their barricades viciously. The concussion imploded Yasi's eardrums, the shockwave knocking everyone off their feet.
Yasi was seeing six of everything, stone deaf from the ringing in her ears and her muscles aching terribly. She managed to lift her head enough to see the door to the Throne Room was open, and so was the passage behind it. She expected to see a horde of Wildmen come charging in, but the hallway was empty.
Of course. They were expecting the explosion.
In front of her was a gas tank of some kind. Propane, scuba... she couldn't tell from what was left of it. But whatever it was, it had blown the door off its hinges.
Yasi cast about and saw her people very slowly rising, recovering from the blast. Keeper was up first, looking feral.
And then from the now opened passage, came Vandark's latest attack. Not Wildmen, not Riverfolk...
Children. Four of them.
Yasi felt her heart stop, and her fingers reached out for the hilt of her sword automatically. Her ears were recovering, in time to hear Keeper's howl of shock, and as the approaching children stepped closer to the light cast by flames licking at the ruined furniture, Yasi could see for herself.
The children were their own; the Gremlins that refused to leave. The ones they had been forced to leave behind... Yasi could see Kamy, looking terrified. They were walking forward slowly, with their hands up, moving like someone was pointing a gun at them, which they probably were.
And strapped to their little bodies, were the big lanterns, filled with oil.
Yasi's head was clearing, and she picked up the scent of the gas again...
Keeper moved first, Yasi moved faster, tackling the older woman to the ground swiftly. "No!"
"We can't leave them like this!" Keeper hissed. "We've got to get those lanterns off them!"
"Keeper, look at them, they're the trigger! You can smell the gas!" Yasi looked over her shoulder. "EVERYONE OUT!"
With sick, tortured expressions, the Shinobi fell back, getting clear of the room. Keeper kept trying to claw her way forward, to get closer to the youngest of her terrified charges, and Yasi forced her still. "Think it through, Keep!"
"They'll die!" Keeper hissed horrifically. "They'll burn!"
"And you'll burn with them!" Yasi snapped.
The four of them kept moving, inching forward slowly. The more her vision cleared, the more Yasi could make out dark shapes at the other end of the dark corridor, aiming weapons at the kids from a distance... with lit crossbow bolts.
Yasi tightened her grip on Keeper, trying to calculate a solution. If one of them made a break for the children the enemy would shoot, shattering the lanterns and likely exploding the whole room. If the kids went back, the same would happen...
Keeper was trapped. She couldn't abandon her beautiful baby Gremlins, but she couldn't save them either, and it was all Yasi could do to stop her own mother from charging in on a suicide mission.
Kamy was now close enough to count the tears rolling down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Keep. I should have come when you told us to, I'm sorry I stayed, I'm so sorry..."
Yasi bit her lip, and scanned the room again, finding a crossbow resting against the rubble... With a bolt notched. A trained Shinobi could work a pump-action crossbow to fire three bolts in four seconds... She could count the archers at the end of the corridor by the lit arrows they were ready to fire...
But she would have to release Keeper.
"Go left when you get Kamy." She told Keeper quietly, and the old woman settled for a second, before nodding.
"On three." Yasi whispered.
Electric silence.
"THREE!" They both yelled instantly, and hurled themselves in opposite directions, Keeper toward the terrified Kamy, and Yasi for the crossbow. They both made it to their targets in a split second, and the world seemed to drop into slow motion. Keeper got to Kamy, and pulled her off her feet to the side of the wrecked door, out of sight of the archers. She ripped and pulled at the duct-tape that tied the flammable liquid to her.
Yasi came up shooting, firing with machine like precision, she managed to get two shots off before the Wildmen could make good on their threat.
Too late to get the third.
Time sped up again, as Keeper shoved Kamy toward the other end of the room, and the safety through the opposite door. Yasi grabbed the old woman and pulled her to the floor as the last two living bombs were incinerated; along with half the room.
Keeper made her last lunge for one of the kids and failed, but the lunge put her body between the sudden burst of fire and the Shinobi Captain. A blast of flame caught them both, hurling them off their feet and across the room.
Yasi stayed low, and did her best to drag her mother from the Throne Room, even as the flames rolled through the confined space.
"Keeper! Keep!" Yasi shouted.
Keeper wasn't answering, her clothes and hair still smoldering.
"Well." Owen said with grim amusement as he threw his cards down. "I seem to have been taken to the proverbial cleaners."
"You're a lousy bluff. Not our fault." Vincent commented blandly.
"I'm lousy at it, because I never do it." Owen shot back. "When have I ever needed to bluff?"
Connie made a show of stacking the coins in front of her. "Yeah."
"It's a talent, Owen; not something you teach." Gill counseled, as Owen's pager suddenly beeped. "You've just got an overly honest face."
Vincent and Connie snorted, but Gill didn't notice. "Another hand?"
Owen checked his pager. "Nope. I'm done."
"You sure? The night is young."
"Yeah. Game's over." Owen said, grinning easily at Vincent. "It's over."
Vincent just wanted to cry. If he was going, then it meant he had no reason to watch any more. If he was done, then the battle was all but over.
And Yasi was most likely dead.
Owen rose and headed out, thanking Gill again. Vincent didn't respond. Couldn't move.
Gill returned to the table, saw Vincent still staring at the discarded cards. "I've seen that look before." He smiled. "Take my word for it, Vincent; you can stare at the cards for a hundred years, they won't turn into a straight. Nothing else you could do."
"Yes. There was." Vincent whispered.
Gill read his friend's body language. "Vincent? What's wrong?"
Vincent rubbed his eyes, and suddenly burst into tears. Connie was with him instantly, hugging him tightly to her side. "It was my fault, Connie. I let them in. It's all my fault!"
Gill was stunned. "Hey! What's the matter? Tell me. This is Gill, your partner in crime. Come on, talk to me."
Vincent fought for a long time to get his breathing under control. What are you going to do, Vincent? Owen's voice came back to him, repeating the conversation in the kitchen. We're not the warriors. That's why we aren't down there right now.
It's not about her, it's about there. Connie's voice said to him gently from long ago. You love The Underside. And Yasi is The Underside to you.
Connie was staring at him in open sympathy. "Vincent..." She whispered kindly. "There's nothing you can do to change it now. Be kind to yourself this once, and let yourself off the hook. It was never our fight."
She wasn't wrong. If it had been their world, their fight, they would have been down there with them. Instead they were here, at a poker table.
Gill overheard that, and didn't like the possibilities. "What's she talking about, Vincent? What's happening?"
Vincent shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Gill. I think I'll head home too. Sorry about this."
Gill reached out and grabbed Vincent's wrist. "Vincent, three years ago, I was in a bad place. Bad enough that I tried suicide. It took five doctors and nurses, an ambulance driver, plus two co-workers to keep me here. It would have taken one person to ask what was wrong." Gill shifted his chair, bringing them face to face. "So. What's wrong?"
It was a sincere question, born of honest concern. And suddenly, Vincent couldn't think of a single reason not to answer it.
"Three years ago..." Vincent heard his voice saying. "I was on the subway, heading home from work, when I found myself making eye-contact with a woman named Yasi..."


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