Thursday, 17 January 2019

Twelve: The New York Ninja


Vincent went back to work as normal, got a few ribs from Gill about being a klutz, and discovered his workload had doubled because of Owen's sudden departure. Everyone at the office was annoyed that he'd left without giving them warning, but nobody thought there was anything unusual about it. Vincent was struck again by how simple the deception could be. All it took was a piece of paper in his employers 'In' tray, and the rest took care of itself. Not for the first time, Vincent wondered how often things like this happened and nobody noticed.
Two weeks after returning to the surface, Vincent went downstairs to the Archives Room at the City Planners Office… and found he had a message waiting, directing him to leave home for one specific hour, the next day.
~oo00oo~
The following day was a Saturday, and he made his way home after going out for one hour in the late evening as instructed. When he got back, he found his living room transformed. The walls were covered in old maps of the city. Vincent recognized several of them from the archives. There were over a dozen more stacked on top of each other, as well as blueprints of skyscrapers. They were set up to surround his coffee table, which had notepads and a map of the subway system on it. His living room looked like the command centre for an urban expedition.
And perched at her customary post on the windowsill, was Yasi.
"Well, this is quite an operation." Vincent observed.
"Hope you enjoyed your 9 to 5 work week, McCall." She told him. "Because now your other job starts. It started the second the sun went down."
Vincent fought a sudden fit of nerves. He had no idea what this was, but it was what he'd been waiting for since he first fell down the rabbit hole. "What do you need?"
"The most dangerous, and most important part of any Secret City is the entrance." Yasi told him, not for the first time. "So we shift them from time to time. All entrances lead into the Labyrinth, which leads into the Underside. We need to scout some new entrances." She gestured to the documents all over his living room. "That's where you come in. You read blueprints like this for a living. Your job description is to know how a subway tunnel interacts with a building foundation, or a sewer, or an electrical cable."
Vincent nodded and shrugged his jacket off. "Okay. What do you need to know tonight?"
"Finding new entrances has three parts. Scout, Support, and Structure. One to go hunting for places, another to declare them good or not, the third to actually build what we need."
"And the 'Support'? The one that decides whether or not it's a good place?" Vincent guessed. "That would be me?"
Yasi rose to her feet. "It's dark now, so we can work. I'm your scout." She drew a folded page from her bandoleer, and handed it to him. He unfolded it, surprised to see how large a page it was. It was map sized, easily.
Yasi didn't let go of it right away. "This is a map of the Labyrinth." She said seriously. "The list of people who see this is very short."
Vincent nodded, equally serious.
Yasi studied him and seemed to reach a decision, releasing the map into his hands. "I marked a few points on the city directory that I think might work. Your job is to overlay the city. Maintenance tunnels, sewers, subways, basements… find all the places that the Labyrinth and New York overlap, and we'll figure out where there's a place that would suit an entrance. I'll scout them for you as we go."
"How do I keep in touch with you?" Vincent asked curiously. "Do those pneumatic tubes stretch everywhere? Because I doubt those pigeons are going to come to me when I call."
Yasi grinned. "I thought we might try a cell phone."
Vincent snorted, feeling foolish. "Oh. Okay, well, that works too."
Yasi pulled a cheap burner cell phone out of her bandoleer and dialed. A moment later, Vincent's house phone rang. He hit the speaker as she hooked a hands free headset over her ear and went to the window. "I'll start at Brooklyn and work my way up." She reported, sitting on the windowsill. "Find places on the way. I'll be in touch."
Vincent compared the maps. "I'll start with trains and tunnels. We'll cover a lot of ground that way."
"Only way to fly." Yasi agreed. She gave him a wink and rolled backwards out his living room window. He didn't bother to check; she'd be long gone.
"You still hear me?" Her voice came through the phone. He could hear the sounds of traffic in the background.
"Loud and clear." Vincent responded, sitting down with the maps. "Okay, let's get to work."
~oo00oo~
After half an hour, they had an easy pace going. Yasi had come by a few times to educate him about his place as an outside friend to the Secret City, so the conversation was not awkward. They were working, so the conversation was not halted. It had the effect of them having two conversations at once, and the fact that they were a city apart didn't alter that at all.
"I'm just saying, one time, it would be nice to actually pay to see a movie." Vincent was saying firmly to the phone. "My treat."
"Of course it's your treat; I don't carry money." She retorted. "But I figured doing it my way would be more exciting. You weren't complaining at Museum."
"You don't ever talk about money on the first date." Vincent defended.
"I'm at the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel." Yasi reported. "First date, huh?"
"No?" Vincent flushed a little.
"No." Yasi confirmed.
"Sorry. Whatever you want to call it, then."
He could hear the smile in her voice. "By my count, that night was the second date at least; a good week B.C."
"B.C.?"
"Before Connie." Yasi teased. There was a sound through the line like something heavy and metallic being shifted. "Going in now. I might lose the signal."
"I'll wait."
There was a brief period of static on the line before she came back. "I've never actually been in there before. Had no idea big it was."
"I'm looking at the blueprint now." Vincent said. "The tunnel was supposed to have two trains side by side. It's certainly big enough for your needs…"
"And then some, but let me check the side tunnels first." Yasi said. "What's wrong with sneaking in the back way?"
"The Tunnel is sealed." Vincent said like it was obvious. "The front way is a tourist attraction."
"No, not here at the Tunnel. I mean back at the movie theater." Yasi clarified. "Why do we have to pay? I've never paid for a movie. Most times I get the sound for free through the steam pipes without leaving home."
"It's illegal."
"So's the Underside." Yasi said instantly. "There's not much point being part of a secret society if you go playing by the rules; there have to be some perks. Besides, you're less than a week out of your year long relationship with another woman."
"I wasn't suggesting we go tonight." Vincent protested. "It wouldn't be right, and certainly not fair to you or Connie."
"I agree. If you pay, it's a date. We sneak in, then it's me teaching you how to be invisible." Yasi grinned. "I think I found another way into the subway tunnel from here."
"How have you not been using it before now?" Vincent asked. "The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel is the oldest subway tunnel in New York."
"That's why." Yasi explained. "It became popular. During the 20's, people started bootlegging in here. During the 40's, the Feds thought spies were hiding in here. Walt Whitman actually wrote about this exact tunnel… As a secret hiding place, it was way too well known. But now that they've got walking tours of the main portion, we can slip between the cracks, the same way we do at subway stations."
"If you think we can do it." Vincent nodded along.
"Think big, Vincent. And don't stress so much, it's bad for you." Yasi said cheerfully. "I've seen all the stuff I need to see here. Mark it on the map. I'm moving on to the next target."
"Right." Vincent did so. "I just can't believe The Underside spreads as far as Brooklyn."
"Not the Underside, the Labyrinth." Yasi explained. "Look, you're a city planner. You have to learn to think for an underground city. When New York was built, they had to set things up so that the essentials would be in reach for the most people. So did we. The Underside is basically a big upside down pyramid. The top level is the widest, with the Labyrinth. It keeps the riff-raff out, and lets the right people in. Below that is the Marketplaces and the Medical, since so much of that is dependent on what come from the surface. Below that is the workplaces, the meeting places, and other things everyone use, and at the narrowest point at the bottom, is the Twelfth Level, where people live. They all do different stuff for a living, just like you guys up here; so the level above them is wider to make room for their workplaces."
Vincent was drawing the map of what he'd seen in his head. "And the River below all that, because it's the exit for your waste, your water, and anything else you don't want and can't haul up."
"Right. The trickle down theory at work. The Lostkind live together, spread out a little as they go up to work, spread out further as they go up to meet or shop or borrow, spread out further when they reach the Labyrinth, and by the time we get up to the surface, nobody has any idea we're there at all."
"Very nice." Vincent acknowledged the design. "Must have been some genius who designed it all."
"Well, not all of it was designed." Yasi admitted, puffing a little. In the background, Vincent could hear the sound of traffic and weather. She was moving again. "A lot of it just evolved organically as we dug out room for ourselves. Some of it… We honestly don't know where it came from. They say that when they got to the River, there were tunnels and places built there already. The Riverfolk don't let anyone get close enough to look, but some of what's in the Underside was there long before us."
Vincent was stunned. "Built by who?"
"Nobody knows." Yasi admitted, and the sound of a train got real loud suddenly, wiping out all communication.
~oo00oo~
Ten minutes later, Yasi landed neatly and rolled, with the ease of long experience. "Still with me?"
"Right here." Vincent's voice said in her ear. "How do you guys do this below?"
"Talk to each other? We inherited part of the early phone system." Yasi explained. "The wall mounted turn-of-the-century wind-up phones you see in the movies? We have them. Switchboards and everything."
Vincent's voice was smiling at her. "That is... way more awesome than it should be. Where are you?"
"Knickerbocker Avenue? Item nine on today's walking tour." Yasi guessed. "It could work, but not for the Borrowers. I'm ankle deep in water. At least, I think it's water. Hope it's water. Mostly water."
"So shuffling down this particular tunnel with stolen goods isn't a great idea." Vincent concluded.
"Borrowed." Yasi corrected him doggedly.
"You know, you keep saying that, but 'borrowed' implies you intend to return it."
"We do. When we can."
"And when you can't?"
"Usually because it's too damaged, or too worn out." Yasi sighed. "Upsiders put so much faith in their ability to own things. Shelves and tables and storage areas and garages full of things they own, but don't use. They keep it so that if, in some hypothetical future, they need it again, it's there."
"And Lostkind?"
"We have a way of finding things when we need them, and don't stress about it when we don't. For example, your laundry room? Who owns that?" Yasi challenged lightly. "Because I seem to recall there was a time when you rented it out cheap to a bunch of people who needed it for the night while nobody else was using it."
~oo00oo~
Vincent smirked. "Touché."
There was a knock at the door.
"Yasi, someone's here, I got to call you back."
"Two minutes." She directed. "If you don't call back in five, I'm going home."
"Well we can't have that now can we?" Vincent disconnected and answered the door. "Benji?"
Benji came in with a bright smile. "Hi, I'm here to snoop." He shook his head slightly. "No, I'm not. I'm here to get something that Tony left behind when we were here last."
"Really?" Vincent smirked. "And what is that?"
Benji cast around for a moment and finally pulled a wallet out of his own pocket. "This. Oh look, I had it the whole time."
"Connie sent you here to spy on me." Vincent said, not really asking.
"No, of course not. Connie would never do such a thing." Benji scorned. "It was her brother." Benji tilted his head and sniffed the air. "Wait a minute. You ordered a Caesar salad. I can smell the croutons. There's a hot dog vendor at the end of the block, but you're eating salad." Like a dog with the scent, he went searching. "You bought a treadmill! You're exercising at home!" He whirled on Vincent, getting right up in his face. "And you shaved on a Saturday. You heartless bastard, you've started dating again!"
"I have not." Vincent dismissed that.
Benji heard the tone of sincerity and nodded. "Okay. But something's up." He looked around quickly, poking his nose into everything he could… and spotted the setup in the living room. "Ooh. What's this?"
"Small project I'm working on." Vincent said lightly. Benji got his nickname from the fact that he was hungry as a pup, loyal as a pack of guard dogs, and too good at digging into things he shouldn't; so Vincent didn't make it sound too serious.
Benji looked closer at all the maps, and didn't even try to guess at what he was seeing. He could tell the city maps and blueprints were old, but whether he could tell it was New York was anyone's guess.
"Oh my God." Benji breathed. "You haven't got a girl… You've discovered buried treasure!"
Vincent rolled his eyes. "Okay, time to go."
"Wait! I want in!" Benji shouted excitedly, even as Vincent pushed him toward the door. "Indiana Jones! Tomb Raider! Long John Silver! Me too! I want to play!"
"Out, Benji, out!" Vincent laughed.
Benji started to shout something else and Vincent shut the door. A moment later he sat back at his desk and hit redial. "So Yasi, where were we?"
"Arguing about who was paying for the movie tickets." Yasi responded promptly.
"Actually, we were arguing about whether or not to pay for them at all." He retorted.
"Well, that'll be the third date." She teased. "The man usually pays, right?"
He grinned. "Third date, huh?"
"Or whatever you want to call it." She amended, and he could hear the smile in her voice.
~oo00oo~
Mobile phones didn't work underground, but there were other ways. Within an hour of the private conversation between Yasi and Vincent ending, a recording of it was being replayed far underground by Keeper and Archivist.
"They work well together." Keeper admitted.
"Sword and Support." Archivist agreed. "Tecca wants to know how long we plan to keep listening. I think intercepting the call without getting caught by Yasi is... difficult."
"Tell Tecca it won't be long." Keeper promised. "Just paranoid, I guess."
Archivist nodded in understanding. "Is there any sign of who let Owen escape?"
"No. But it's not Vincent." Keeper acknowledged. "Yasi thinks whoever it is might have left with Owen."
"We're not that lucky." Archivist snorted. "So, can I take it you're starting to thaw on Vincent?"
"Not exactly. But Yasi trusts him, and Yasi doesn't trust anybody."
Archivist grinned. "You old softie."
Keeper glared. "Stop smiling at me!"
~oo00oo~
Connie came into the Kitchen with a yawn, trading nods with some of their regulars on her way back toward the serving lines. "Lizbeth, you look like you woke up in a dumpster."
Lizbeth rubbed her bloodshot eyes and handed Connie the soup ladle. "Or 'hello' as some would say." She yawned. "Never go out partying unless you're willing to suffer the results."
"You could just shift your volunteer hours to Monday instead." Connie suggested, already serving.
"Naw, see… I go out partying all Friday night, I spend Saturday volunteering to help the homeless. So on Sunday, I can consider myself even on the Good/Evil scale. With the scales balanced, I can skip Church and sleep till Monday."
Connie chuckled and officially began the late shift. "Go home. I got this."
"Thanks."
~oo00oo~
Lizbeth went out as a few homeless people came in, making her way toward the street, searching for a cab. After a moment she realized she was alone in the street. A moment after that, she felt a presence behind her.
"Liz."
Lizbeth turned and her eyes widened when she saw Dorcan, exhaustion wiped out in an instant. She turned and ran as fast as she could. Dorcan did not pursue her.
Lizbeth ran… And skidded to a halt as she nearly collided with Yasi.
"Hello, Liz." The Shinobi Captain said brightly. "How have you been keeping yourself?"
Lizbeth was shaking so badly she actually fell to her knees.
Yasi reached a hand out and cupped her chin. "Be calm. We're not here to settle scores."
"Then why are you here?" Lizbeth whispered, unable to look the Lostkind warrior in the eye. "I haven't done anything. Much."
"We know." Dorcan said, coming up behind her. "But there's a small matter we need to discuss with you. And you look like you could use a cup of coffee. Good coffee, not the instant stuff you drink at the Kitchen."
Lizbeth was still scared. "Why?" She asked finally. "Captain, I haven't been Lostkind in seven years. And we didn't exactly part company on the best of terms."
"You wouldn't be the first girl who left home to try for a big-time career. We're not holding a grudge, Liz." Yasi promised her. "In fact, quite the opposite."
"Really?" Lizbeth didn't believe it.
"Well." Yasi put on her friendliest smile. "Let's get some coffee and talk about it."
~oo00oo~
"So, you must be in a real tight spot." Lizbeth commented. "If you're desperate enough to come to me."
"Not just you." Yasi countered. "This offer will go to all the… displaced Lostkind."
Lizbeth smiled tightly. "You were about to say, 'all the Throwbacks'."
Yasi said nothing.
"That is what you call us, isn't it?" Lizbeth snapped. "Because we didn't want to live underground our whole lives?"
Yasi spoke finally. "Yes. That is the term you have come to be known by. But you were never counted as an enemy to our world, and never as being less than us. Times are changing, and becoming dark. We need you back."
"That's what you need. You need us to run down the guns for you. The real question is, why could we possibly need you back in our lives?"
"You were born to the Underside, Lizbeth." Dorcan said quietly. "Is there nothing of your home that you want to see saved?"
"New York is my home. I'm a few hundred feet away, Captain; but none of you ever came to visit me until you found out you were in danger. You're not my friends. You're my ex-neighbors." Lizbeth snapped. "It takes a very special kind of arrogance to think that after being ignored by people we thought our friends for so long, we'd be willing to get killed now that you're in over your heads."
Long silence.
"Throwbacks won't help you." Lizbeth broke it to them firmly. "But if you are worried, you might want to look a little closer to home."
Long silence
Yasi spoke first. "Okay. Explain that comment please."
She smirked. "A man named Owen came to see me a few weeks ago and mentioned you might be stopping by. He made me a counter offer. And if he's paying me off to stay out of it, you know he'll be talking to your people next."
Yasi took off running, heading for the rest of their team before Lizbeth had finished talking.
Dorcan stayed behind a moment. "What was the counter offer?"
Lizbeth smirked. "We don't get involved, and our lives go on in any manner we wish them to." She made a face at Dorcan. "Too bad Yasi couldn't make the same gesture."
~oo00oo~
A few days later, Vincent received a message through the Archives Room, telling him that the Diggers had been to work, and some of the places they had scouted together were now functioning entrances. It was the first time Vincent took part in discovering new entrances, and it wasn't the last.
Weeks passed, more entrances were found, and Vincent suddenly realized that Yasi was trying to find as many new ways into the Labyrinth as possible, because Owen might know about the old ones. Vincent worked diligently, bringing home maps from the office, making notes for the next time Yasi would come by for another scouting Mission.
Connie had been receiving regular visits from Tecca. The boy missed his grandmother terribly, and didn't dare go to anyone like him when he was upset. He wasn't the first kid that had to grow up fast, and Connie had taken more than one of them under her wing. Having a touch of the Underside coming to her home, in a way she was comfortable with, instead of being dragged underground against her will cooled her suspicion significantly. Tecca would tell her stories of the place constantly, and she in turn became his surrogate mom whenever he was on the surface.
The more she learned about the Underside, the less she feared it, and the more she and Vincent became friends again.
Connie and Vincent were able to avoid seeing each other for a whole week before running into each other at the Kitchen. Neither of them had volunteered to help the homeless because of the other, and both of them felt guilty about having stayed away so long. And when Vincent had to quietly slip out to speak with the Watchers, Connie was able and willing to cover for them.
Dorcan continued to seek out people who had, for whatever reason, abandoned their lives in the Underside, recruiting them back into the fold. To the last man and woman, they refused. Owen had been thorough. The Shinobi were taught to be guards; not soldiers, and Yasi began training her Urban Ninja in the finer arts of combat, preparing for a war in secret. Nobody knew, except for Dorcan and Yasi, mindful of the threat of gossip and suspicion.
Nobody had seen Owen since his escape.
After six months, their lives had settled into a new rhythm; a routine they were comfortable with. Yasi started coming by more often. She had confided that she came above fairly often just to wander around New York by night, but now she stopped by Vincent's apartment too.
But more and more often, she brought teams of Shinobi to the surface, teaching them all the ways of a New York Ninja.
~oo00oo~
"Today's lesson." Yasi declared. "The use of Terrain. In your training, I have always taught you in a dojo, where it was just two combatants sparring. But real battles don't happen that way. Real battles take place in battlefields. Mountains, fields, swamps… But this is not our world. We are urban warriors. Our battlefields are rooms, tunnels, chambers… The Underside is closed in and lives in three dimensions." She waved a hand out over the city skyline. "Even with their towers going up so high, they still think in two dimensions. We've all done it at one time or another. By being a little bit over their heads, or a little bit under their feet, they lose track of us completely."
The assembled Shinobi grinned.
Yasi gave Dorcan a nod, and her Lieutenant raised his longbow, arrow notched.
Yasi spoke. "One of our crossbows can fire a bolt every two seconds, with enough force to go through mail and armor. A longbow is slower… but has a better range. Dorcan, demonstrate."
Dorcan drew the bow and fired. The arrow flew through the night air silently, and reached a point high on the skyline, three streets away, stuck between the struts of a radio antenna.
"Did you get the cable?"
"Of course I did." Dorcan snorted as though it was obvious.
Yasi grinned at her assembled people. "Today's training session. Get that arrow back before the staff at the radio station comes to check the antennae."
With a whoop, the Shinobi took off running, leaping across rooftops. Their initial shout was the only sound they made as they moved like ghosts. They could climb walls with ease, run along power lines with the balance of acrobats, use their whole bodies for movement. Far below, in the city that never slept, the citizens of New York had no idea what was going on in plain sight above them.
~oo00oo~
Vincent collected the message out of the pneumatic tube in the Archive room, and read the paper with a smile as he made his way back upstairs to his cubicle. He pointedly ignored Gill behind his desk.
"Look." Gill said, giving a long-suffering smile. "I didn't mean to jump up and down on you this morning. I'm just saying, it's been what? Months? At least? Get over her, Vincent; there are a million women in this city."
"Actually there are a lot more than that, but a lot of them are married, dating, too old or too young." Vincent shot back.
Gill sighed. "Here's the thing." He said quietly. "Word is Connie got a guy-friend."
"A guy-friend?" Vincent repeated. "What does that even mean?"
"It's like having a boyfriend, only platonic. It's pretty much what you were to Connie before she promoted you." Gill explained. "A guy only gets one chance to start dating again before his ex does, and you don't want to miss the window befo-"
"Why not?" Vincent interrupted lightly.
"Why not?" Gill repeated. "Who ARE you, and what did you do with Vincent McCall?"
Vincent smirked and changed the subject. "Earth First is trying again."
"I heard." Gill brushed it off. "I can pass it off to someone in the intern's office and don't think I didn't notice you changing the subject."
"No, I mean I want to handle it myself."
"We approved the permit but they lost out on Real Estate. Exactly what were we supposed to do for them that we didn't do the last time? What's more, you know that; so quit changing the subject. It's been long enough since she dumped you, get up off the dirt already."
Vincent sighed and looked him in the eye. "I have too much to do."
"I know." Gill nodded agreeably. "What, exactly? I called you the other night when I needed a pick-up. I mean, where the hell do you go at 11:30 at night?" Gill studied him a moment. "You've lost weight. And you've been working out... You haven't got a girl already, have you?"
Vincent just grinned. "I have to go."
~oo00oo~
Trigger jumped between two cargo containers, and yelped as she ran into Yasi.
"Two down, three to go." The Captain grinned, and took off running into the dark. Trigger nodded and knelt on the roof of the container, waiting for the game to end.
Yasi cat-walked along the narrow edge of the container so that her feet would make no echo on the metal. The rest of her team were spread out across the port, making their way through the dark corners of the thousands of shipping containers, playing a game of cat and mouse.
Dyce sensed movement behind him and dropped between two containers. He landed silently and stalked carefully toward the edge of the shipyard, when a low whistle drew his attention. He looked up and saw a gleaming samurai blade touch him gently on the collarbone. He froze at the sight of Yasi, holding herself in place by pushing her feet against opposite sides of the narrow space between the containers.
"You're out." She told him as she pushed herself back up above to the open air.
The game went on in this way for the next several minutes. The Shinobi were learning to be ghosts, and learning it from the best in the business.
Dorcan lasted longer than all of them. It lasted long enough to be a game, dancing in and out of shadows.
Off the 'playing field', the rest of the trainees watched them, eyes roving across the dark corners.
"I can't even see them." Dyce hissed.
"Nor should you." Whispered a cold voice, and everyone jumped, spinning in place. Yasi and Dorcan were right behind them, swords drawn.
"We are ninja." Yasi told them, imparting the point to the lesson. "We can hide in the tiniest shadow, we can dance on the thinnest wire, we can strike with the tiniest opportunity. The rules do not change if we were on the surface, above it, or Below."
A pigeon with familiar markings landed on the edge of the roof, and Yasi and Dorcan traded a quick look, before grabbing it. Dorcan slid the message from the pigeons' leg, and read it quickly. "They need you." He told Yasi. "There's a call coming into the Round Table Room."
"Another one?" Yasi blinked. "Three in one year, that's more than in the last half century. Alright then, class is canceled. Come on, let's get moving."
~oo00oo~
The Shinobi team scaled down the side of the building into the alley, and quietly joined the New Yorkers. The whole lot of them walked their way through the streets toward the subway.
"People ignore the impossible." Yasi said. "They will expect to see others like them, or criminals that lurk. Be neither, be both. It doesn't matter what they see, or what they think. Only what they know."
Her team nodded, accepting that, as they all trooped into the subway. They each paid their fare, waited at the station, like every other passenger in the city.
"Yasi?" Trigger asked softly. "Why are we doing this? We all passed the trials."
Yasi and Dorcan traded a secret glance. "There are… other trials coming." Yasi said only.
Conversation stopped as a train pulled into the station, and the Lostkind filed aboard with the other passengers. Tired from their evening, the Shinobi dropped into their seats, letting the train carry them through the tunnels. Trigger leaned over and whispered in Dorcan's ear. "Other Lostkind are calling us for the first time. There are rumors in the Market of Lostkind from other cities being found. They say there is an enemy probing our defenses. The Gremlins drew a warrior found in the Labyrinth. And now the Captain is training us for more than just breaking up squabbles between Borrowers."
Dorcan sighed. "Trigger, you know what your problem is? You think too much."
The response did nothing to calm the worried Lostkind. "We're not soldiers, Dorcan. You're the closest thing The Captain has to a confidant… and you don't think we have a chance, do you?"
Dorcan wisely kept his mouth shut, as Yasi silently rose from her seat and led the way out of the carriage, and up to the roof of the train. It was a point halfway between stops, and their most convenient entrance to the Labyrinth.
~oo00oo~
An hour later, Dorcan was pacing outside the Round Table Room. Though it had only been used twice, now three times, in fifty years, only the Triumvirate was allowed inside, as only they could speak for the New York Lostkind. The conference was unscheduled and had been going for over an hour. Nobody but Keeper, Archivist and Yasi knew who they were talking to, nobody but them knew what was being said.
The door opened at last, and Yasi stuck her head out. "Dorcan?"
He came to her quickly. "Captain?" His sharp eyes scanned over her shoulder and got a quick look at Archivist, pale as death; and Keeper, looking sick to her stomach.
"Go back to the Crucible, and get our people assembled." Yasi directed. "It's time we told Keeper and Archivist what we've been doing with them."
Dorcan took in a shuddering breath as she ducked back in and closed the door.
"Well..." He said to himself. "It's starting."
~oo00oo~
"Hey."
Vincent passed a bowl across the counter and responded to his ex without looking. "Yeah?"
Connie was looking over the tables. "You notice anything strange?"
Vincent looked out over the crowd of homeless, and slowly glanced over at her. "Can you be more specific?"
"No Lostkind." Connie remarked.
Vincent looked, and realized she was right. "When was the last time we didn't have even one of them here?"
Connie shrugged. "Might be new faces. They could be here and we just don't recognize them."
Vincent shook his head. "Doubt it. They don't recruit that many that quickly."
Connie frowned, willing to take his word for it. "You think something happened?"
"Maybe."
"Well, Yasi will tell you tonight if you ask."
Vincent spooned soup into another bowl and didn't answer, but his face turned a shade of red.
Connie grinned, enjoying his reaction just a little. "I got eyes everywhere too." She needled in a spooky tone. "Your ex-girlfriend is always watching."
"Tecca told you." Vincent retorted. "The eight year old kid really thinks the grownups don't know where he's going?"
Connie snorted. "I felt that the kid might be safer indoors at night instead of scurrying through alleys looking for street gangs to spy on."
"Tecca's spying on gangs?"
"Yep. And before you ask, no. It's not his job. It's just something he does for fun." Connie scorned. "So yeah, I get him to stay in as often as I can."
Vincent held up his hands, placating her. "Hey, I'm not complaining. But you're right: Yasi and the Watchers do a lot of business with the Homeless. Places like this are golden opportunities to keep an eye on the city… so where the hell is everyone tonight?"
~oo00oo~
Dorcan hurried into the Dojo and froze. The assembled Shinobi were leaving via the opposite door. All the original chambers of the Underside had two entrances, in case one corridor caved in. It also made it far easier to sneak in and out of reach without anyone knowing; which was the way the Shinobi usually operated, but not so many at once...
"Are you sure we should be doing this?" Noale whispered.
"You want to stay here and try and reason with Yasi?"
"She's not unreasonable." Noale defended. "She just... Doesn't have real emotions like most people do."
"Noale." Dorcan stepped out of the darkness and caught her by the collar. "Where the hell are you going? We were told to assemble."
The rest of the Shinobi froze at the sight of Yasi's Second. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry to say anything first. Finally, Dorcan forced the issue. "Noale, you can go ahead and consider that your cue to start talking."
Noale shrank a little under Dorcan's glare. "A few weeks ago... Some of us got to thinking, that maybe... Hell, we're not soldiers. We're Urban Runners! We're acrobats with swords! We break up scuffles in the Market and we keep an eye on the River but... Dammit, we're not at war with anybody! Or at least we shouldn't be."
Dorcan didn't bother to deny the possibility, but didn't surrender the point. "There's been no Deceleration. We don't even know for sure that anyone wants to start a fight, so there's no reason to worry yet... Is there?" Even as it came out of his mouth he saw the reactions on their faces and his gaze narrowed. "Is there?"
The sneaking Shinobi glared hard at Noale as though she had a big mouth.
Noale grit her teeth, and kept her chin up. "A few weeks ago, a man called..."
"Owen." Dorcan said it with her. "How do you know he was telling the truth? It could just be a bluff. How many warriors could come down here without getting noticed? How many would we have waiting? How do you know that he's not playing you? Could be he can't get enough warriors in to beat us, so he just bluffs us into surrendering... or running away. How do you know?"
"That's the point, Dorcan. We're not fighters. We're spies, and we don't know. We know this whole city better than the people living in it do, and we don't know."
"You coward!" Dorcan snapped. "You're the guardians of this place, and have been your whole lives!"
"We're not all Yasi, dammit!" Noale snapped, finally frustrated enough to meet him with equal fire. "We don't all look forward to battle, we're not all so good at it, we're not all tough and cold and brutal as the Captain. She's trying to turn us into her, and we don't want to be. This is too big for us. What's the point of being Lostkind if being invisible doesn't work?"
Dorcan looked at her darkly. "And what happens without you? It's your job to protect these people, this place... Does that mean nothing after all this time?"
Noale looked sick about it. "And when we charge down the guns, protecting this place... Who's protecting us?"
"We protect each other!" Dorcan's face hardened. "Listen. All of you, listen to me. Yasi's the Captain. She's our Captain. She says to fight, we fight. She says to wait, we wait. There is a reason for that. We're the ones that look out for this place. Everyone up Above is scared of things that lurk in the shadows, but Lostkind aren't. We are the things that lurk in the shadows. Now all of a sudden we're not the only predators in the concrete jungle, and you lot want to run? Like hell. You're better than that. You live here. If our home is in danger, we'll protect it. That's what we do. It's what we've been trained for. It's what we're born for!"
Nobody moved, nobody spoke.
Dorcan growled, disgusted. "If you can't live up to that, then go. You carry the swords of the New York Ninja. You don't want to be ninja, hand them in. But you don't run just because the game got harder. Captain looks out for her own-"
"Like she did when you got thrown in the Oubliette?" Noale shot back. "Captain's not our friend. What do we owe her?"
"Same thing you owe your home." Dorcan said seriously. "If you don't care about the thousands of people who live here as much as you do about your own worthless hides, then go. I can't stop you. It's your call." He stared them all down. "What's it gonna be?"
~oo00oo~
Still in the Round Table Room, Keeper looked sick to her stomach. "Is there any chance at all it was a mistake?" She whispered, horror making her voice raspy.
Yasi shook her head. "No. This is for real."
Archivist looked about a million years old. "It was all they could do to stop the authorities from finding them. There are newspapers all over Europe talking about where the water may have come from."
"He had to know." Yasi thought aloud. "I mean, Vandark had to know. Driving them out into Berlin had to be the plan."
"They stopped him." Keeper croaked, still hoarse from pure dismay. "It cost them everything, but they kept the secret. They kept Rule Number One."
"But Vandark tried to break it." Yasi muttered, not really hearing anything. "He wanted to… to drown them all."
Archivist shook it off faster than the rest of them. "Yasi. He might come here."
Keeper spun. "Why the hell would Vandark come here?!"
"No, he's right." Yasi said, untouched by the emotions of the room, being cold and smart. "He's always wanted New York. Berlin Below wasn't the target, it was just a stage in his attack on this place. He's spent two years doing recon and prep. We assumed we'd stopped his plans when we got Owen's files. We were wrong. Now that Vandark has pulled the first trigger, he won't hesitate to pull the second." She came to attention. "Keeper, Archivist, I strongly suggest that we tell everyone that this place has been at war for the last six months."
Keeper and Archivist traded an ugly look. They knew she was right, but it would be the first time that the Underside had faced an open threat to the whole. They feared the reaction of a large population of people that were used to being invisible to dangers.
But there was another terror lurking in the conversation, and Keeper was the first to speak it aloud. "We can't take them." She said shortly.
"Wanna bet?" Yasi grinned. The first smile any of them had shown in over an hour. "Come with me."
~oo00oo~
Yasi led the way through the tunnels toward the Shinobi Dojo. She filled them in as they walked, mindful of the omnipresent Lostkind Gremlins.
"Six months ago, after Owen spelled out the whole story, a number of things started making sense." Yasi explained. "After giving the matter a little thought, I figured as long as Vandark was a hunted man in Europe, he wouldn't give up on his plans to come here." She sighed. "And we weren't ready, plain and simple. So I took steps."
"What sort of steps?"
"My Shinobi have never exactly been super-soldiers. It's a Clan, like the Borrowers, or the Diggers... I've been working since we learned of the threat to turn them from Peacekeepers into actual warriors."
"Why didn't you tell us?!" Archivist asked, not for the first time.
"Because it was the only way I could see that we could stand against Vandark, and there was a very small chance you might have said no, so I took care of it myself." She shrugged. "There was no reason to tell you, and the less people that knew about it the better."
Keeper nudged Archivist. "She gets that from you."
Yasi grinned. "You want to go see them in action?"
~oo00oo~
Yasi came into the Shinobi Dojo. "Fall IN!" She bellowed as Archivist and Keeper came in behind her.
The Chamber was empty.
Surprised, Yasi looked around and let out a shrill 'Hey Taxi' whistle.
No response.
"Okay." Keeper creaked. "What are we looking at?"
Yasi had a self-deprecating smirk on her face, confusion making her laugh despite herself. "What you're supposed to be looking at is over three dozen newly trained and well armed Shinobi."
Keeper hissed a breath through her teeth. "Still can't believe you managed to keep this a secret."
"They were motivated enough. They'll be protecting themselves too." Yasi promised.
"That's more true than you know." A voice came from the other end of the chamber.
The Triumvirate spun at the sound of the voice, and Dorcan emerged from the shadows. "They left." He said, sounding exhausted. "Vandark made the Throwbacks a better offer, and apparently our people too: If they walked away, he wouldn't chase them."
"What?!" Yasi hissed.
"Because they know we can't win." Archivist said instantly. "You said it yourself, Yasi; Vandark is a threat we aren't ready for, and even our own warriors know it."
"How many do we have left?" Keeper asked thickly.
"Twenty, maybe thirty..." Dorcan said bitterly. "Our elite warriors just became a non-event."
Yasi said nothing, staring into space for a long time, completely derailed.
"So what do we do?"
Yasi didn't seem to hear. The Warrior Woman had gone blank, lost for the first time.
"Vandark made them a better offer?" Archivist repeated. "He didn't get in. So how did he find out about your little secret army?"
"I don't know." Dorcan said honestly. "Yasi?"
Yasi shook off her dark thoughts finally. "This is going to be a very tough little war." Yasi said at last. Her voice was hollow with barely contained horror. "I don't..." She looked to Dorcan, who met her eyes with steely calm. Yasi felt her posture straighten automatically. She could break down in front of Keeper and Archivist, but not in front of someone who worked for her.
"What do we do?" Dorcan asked.
Nobody had an answer.
~oo00oo~
Vincent had been staring at his newspaper for a long time, never taking his eyes off a story in the local news section. He kept staring at it when the phone rang. He hit the speaker. "Hello?"
"You found the story?" Connie's voice said gently.
"Yeah. You were right." Vincent nodded, though she couldn't see it. "It had to be Yasi."
"Not necessarily." Connie offered.
"It was her." Vincent repeated.
"Yeah, it was." Connie confirmed. "What are you going to do?"
"Ask her about it."
Connie was silent a moment. "You can not be serious."
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Vincent didn't turn to the window, unsurprised. "She's here."
"Call me back in two hours or I'm sending a search party." Connie said, concerned.
"It'll be fine. Call your guy-friend, have a nice night."
"You know about that?"
Tap! Tap! Tap!
"Bye." Vincent disconnected the phone line and turned to Yasi, sitting on his windowsill.
"I don't know why I'm here, so don't ask." She said as soon as he opened the window for her. The Shinobi looked wrung out.
"You never needed to offer a reason before. In fact, you've never needed me to open the window for you before. But I'm glad you're here, there's something I need to ask you about…" Vincent started to elaborate, and paused, looking her over. "What happened?"
Yasi said nothing. She came in and just stood there for a moment. She looked sick to her stomach, and scared out of her mind. The sword was loose in its scabbard, ready to draw at a moment's notice, and her hands were opening and closing compulsively.
"Yasi? What happened?" Vincent said again.
Yasi waved a hand incoherently, not speaking. She went from scared to furious and back again, before giving up and starting to pace.
Vincent felt cold, deep in his stomach. Whatever it was, it had to have been bad. "How about I get you some coffee? Because a couple hundred volts of caffeine would probably be good for you right now."
Yasi unhooked her sword from her back and held it in both hands, staring at the grip like she was searching for the meaning of life. Vincent went to the kitchen to brew, and she collapsed on his couch, seeming to cave in on herself.
The Coffee Machine took several minutes. He half expected her to be gone by the time it was ready, but she was right where he left her, slouched on his couch. He set the coffee down next to her, not looking in her direction. She slapped the couch next to her and he sat down. They didn't look at each other.
"You asked me once, where Lostkind go on vacation." She said. "I told you we never needed them."
"From anyone else, I would have found that hard to believe." Vincent admitted.
"I have this powerful urge to go somewhere far away from New York and spend a few weeks... Somewhere else." Yasi whispered.
"Where would you go?" Vincent asked wistfully.
"Somewhere warm. Somewhere you can always walk in the sun." She dreamed aloud. "Someplace with no crossbows or tunnels."
"I could see you on a beach somewhere in a Hawaiian skirt." Vincent admitted. "Your head would explode from boredom, but I think the look would work for you."
"Five minutes in tropical sunlight, I'd probably burst into flame. Live long enough underground…" Yasi sighed. "There's no coming back. After a while, you just don't belong up here. And you never miss it, but it does tend to box you in."
"It's a hell of a box." Vincent said neutrally. He was being very quiet, trying madly to figure out what had happened that made an Amazon like Yasi so… introspective.
"Yeah, it is." Yasi suddenly noticed the coffee cup beside her and took a sip.
"Yasi." He said softly. "What happened?"
Yasi sniffed. "Something terrible happened today in Europe."
Vincent reacted. "Berlin?"
Yasi sighed. "Berlin. We don't have all the information, but it looks like Vandark tried to pull off a coup. They knew he was coming, and were ready for him, but he never came. Then The Monster broke Rule Number One."
Vincent reacted. "He exposed the Berlin Underside?"
"He was going to." Yasi nodded, her voice low with dread. "He diverted the Havel River, so that it flowed into their Underside a lot more than normal. He tried to drown them all. There were Lostkind in those tunnels. He just… drowned them all like rats. The water came bubbling up out of sewer grates, gutters, subway tunnels… The whole city is trying to figure out where it came from. VonGunn did something to divert the river back where it belonged before… before they were discovered. It worked, but more than two thirds of the Berlin Underside was drowned." She rubbed her face. "God, all those people…"
Vincent was stunned. "Why would Vandark do that?"
"Because he didn't want Berlin." Yasi said simply. "He didn't want it, or couldn't use it… so he destroyed it all. Wiped out the whole secret city. Everyone who might know about him, might talk about him to us or others..."
Vincent stared at her numb. "Have… were there any survivors?"
"Not many." Yasi said quietly. "We're almost too scared to bring any of them here. London took some of them… There's plenty of room, since there aren't that many refugees left."
Vincent suddenly put it together. "You think he's coming here."
"He's here already." She scorned. "Three years. Three years that we know about. He's been planning a strike on us for three years, and now he's committed himself. There's nowhere for him to go back to. It's not just that he's unwelcome in Berlin Below; it's GONE!"
"What does VonGunn say? Has he been in touch?"
"VonGunn is dead." Yasi said quietly. "He died getting the waters to stop rising. The authorities will wonder where it all came from, but any tunnel they might investigate is underwater… and so are all the people."
Long heavy silence.
"How many?"
"Thousands, at least. Hard to tell, since we've only had a few conversations in the last fifty years." Yasi wiped her eyes and changed the subject. "Y'know something I never had in my chamber at home? A carpet."
"Really?"
Yasi nodded. "It's not because of the job. Shinobi have a certain... Spartan quality about them. But I never kept a rug because I'd track dust and mud in on it. We don't have front doorsteps like you do. Just open walls leading out into the Twelfth Level. Don't have a doorstep, you can't have a doormat. I have to keep my floors clean by hand, so I keep it bare stone. I've never had a carpet before." She lowered her head into her hands.
Vincent was starting to get really worried about her. For the first time since he'd known her, it looked like she was going to cry. "Take off your boots."
She didn't respond in any way for a moment. "What?"
"Your boots, take them off."
Yasi sighed and did so. Her socks were mismatched.
"Why can't the Borrowers ever take socks in pairs?" Vincent asked in amusement.
"I don't know, but they have a good reason." She waved vaguely at her feet. "I think if you lost a pair, you'd wonder if someone took them. You lose one, you assume you lost it somewhere." She pulled her socks off and rested her bare feet on his thick rug. Vincent wasn't certain, but it looked like she was relaxing a little. She started gripping the carpet with her toes unconsciously, and the more she relaxed, the more upset she seemed. It felt like walls were coming down, melting away before his eyes, and the unbreakable Yasi nearly burst into tears.
His reaction was instinctive. He put his arms around her, and she returned the hug gratefully. "I don't know what to do, Vincent. First time in over ten years that I don't know what to do."
"You've been lucky." He whispered to her. "Most people live out their whole lives not knowing what to do."
"I'm sorry about this." She hissed stubbornly, keeping her voice level. "Never cried on somebody's shoulder in my life."
"Shh, don't be embarrassed, it's okay." He promised her. "Tell me what you're thinking."
"I don't know." Yasi admitted. "I guess a wall came down. I've been keeping my chin up since this whole thing began. I can relax around you, be myself. I can't do that with anyone else..." She looked up at his face and blushed again. "Oh. Sorry, forget I said all that."
They stayed like that a while, almost hugging, breathing each other in gently.
"Keeper wants me to come up with ways to secure The Underside." Yasi whispered after they broke apart. "The only way I can do that is to paralyze it. If that lasts for long, we'll starve. And for all that, we can't block the River."
"He won't do that with New York." Vincent said with certainty. "Owen said that having New York and keeping the Underside a secret was his whole plan."
"I know." Yasi admitted. "But what if we win?"
Vincent looked at Yasi. The poor girl looked like her universe had just crashed down on her head. Which, in a very real way, it had.
Vincent reached out to her, hesitated, and let his hands drop. "It's a long way from here." He offered.
Yasi's voice was flat with barely contained anger. No. Not anger. Terror. "Vandark has nowhere to go after this. He just burned his own backyard. His only chance is to get to us, and get us in one piece. Or at least, enough of it that he can call it a victory. If we drive him off, what's he going to do? Things, people, whole communities that he can't control or can't use? He kills them. I know, because I've seen the bodies."
"Can he get in?" Vincent asked with worry.
"No, I made sure of it." Yasi was certain of that much. "But every time we've thrown up a roadblock, Vandark found a way around it."
"You'll beat him, Yasi." Vincent said with certainty. "You'll find a way."
Yasi picked up her cup again and held it, more to give her hands something to do. "Beating him will be hard. But the real thing is… we may not want to win."
Vincent blinked at that, unclear. "I don't understand."
Yasi threw her cup against the wall so hard it shattered, suddenly livid. "WHAT don't you UNDERSTAND?!" She exploded. "Vandark is coming FOR US, and he's made sure his people have NOWHERE else to go. They won't hold back for anything now. They won't take anything less than everything." Her voice dropped, cold and deadly. "And even if we win, now we know what he'll be willing to do for revenge if he loses!"
Heavy silence.
"Yasi..." He said quietly. "You know that you could always have a place here. If somehow the worst happened, you would have somewhere to go."
Yasi's eyes narrowed, her face growing harder again. "I ain't gonna need it." She growled, suddenly tougher than any working class girl to come out of the Bronx. "Our home ain't gonna fall. Not to him. He's bluffing, and if..." She shook her head and headed for the window. "This was a mistake."
"Yasi…" Vincent called after her. His heart was pounding. "You're the strongest woman I've ever met. I get why you have to be, particularly now… but you've never treated me like you do any of the Lostkind. You don't have to be a leader with me. You can admit it."
Yasi's eyes searched his face for a moment, then flicked to the coffee shards against the wall. "I'm… worried." She conceded finally.
He just looked at her. She balled her fists tightly. "I'm scared." She confessed. "We've never faced anything like this before, and… none of the rules or protections we've always had can help us this time."
Unsure of what else to do, Vincent reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder in support. He felt her tense and suddenly remembered how the Lostkind were about getting too close...
And yet he couldn't seem to take his hand from where it lay, giving her what support he could without speaking.
Yasi licked her lips absently. She hadn't blinked once since he'd asked her to stay. The last time they had been this close, she had kissed him…
After what felt like a lifetime, she brought her own hand up to rest over his wrist gently, before tilting her head to rub her cheek over the back of his fingers. "Rule number one…" She said finally. "Rule number one is: Be Invisible. If we want to keep rule number one, we have to lose. We win the big fight, and he can still expose us. The act of Spite. He can't have New York, so nobody can."
Vincent didn't know what to say.
Yasi took a breath and got herself together. "I'm sorry about all that. I needed to vent. Usually, I can vent to my parents, but they're looking to me to win a war right now, so..." She scrubbed her eyes for a moment and met Vincent's gaze. "Sorry. You wanted to ask me about something."
It took Vincent a full four seconds to shift topics. "Oh, that? Naw, that'll keep."
"Tell me." She pressed.
He shook his head. "You have enough on your plate."
"Which is why I'd like to change the subject." Yasi insisted.
Long silence.
"Yasi." Vincent said quietly. "There's a story in the papers about a body being discovered in the Hudson. Got washed up with the tide. The body didn't have a head, but fingerprints say it was a missing cop. Officer Archibald Grey."
Yasi said nothing for a long time. "Well, that's just the icing on the cake." She muttered thickly.
"All the Riverfolk I've seen use spiked clubs and crossbows." Vincent volunteered, feeling nervous. "There's only one person I know who might have a problem with Grey, and use a weapon suitable for beheading purposes."
Yasi said nothing, but her eyes flicked to the sword, propped up against Vincent's couch.
"Yasi..." Vincent continued, trying to get a response of some kind. "What did you think I was going to do? Did you think I was going to turn you in? Did you think it would matter if I tried?"
Yasi said nothing, but she wasn't looking at him.
"Yasi." Vincent pressed. "Look at me."
She wouldn't.
"I wondered how you could be so cool about lying to me, about slicing up a cop and then forgetting it ever happened." He almost laughed at the thought. "And of course, the answer came to me: Why would it bother you, when it never has before?" He didn't raise his voice, he didn't threaten. He wasn't angry, he was heartsick. "I... I gave up a lot for this." He said finally. "I'm lying to all my friends. I'm lying to my boss. I'm breaking a few laws, or at least bending them a scary long way."
Yasi said nothing.
"I lost my girlfriend." Vincent kept going, unable to stop. "I know you didn't like her, but I did. And I walked away from her for the chance to just... be in your universe for a while. If you hadn't come to me... If I had stumbled onto the Underside on my own?" He held the paper up, almost pointing it at her like an accusation. "Would you have taken my head, too?"
She said nothing, but she kept bunching her toes. "This is nice. I like your carpet." She admitted, and reached for her boots again. As she pulled them on, Yasi finally looked at him. There was a single tear on her face. "You hate me now." It was not a question.
Vincent shook his head. "Of course not."
"But things have changed. You were scared to ask. You were worried I might do something to you, too." She pressed. "You've always known I was a dangerous ninja, but I was your friend first. Now I'm more ninja than friend."
Vincent couldn't look at her either. "I think... The Underside needs a ninja more than I need a friend."
Yasi felt another single tear follow the first, but her expression never changed. "Probably right." She acknowledged. "But that's not going to change any time soon. If my world lives out the week, it will still be like this. It will always be like this."
"I know."
"I can't walk away and go somewhere sunny, Vincent. I can't just move up here and go to movies with you." Yasi said, frustrated. "I have a job. It's important that I do it right, it's important that I do it myself. Now more than ever. It's not the first time I've had to do damage."
"I know."
Yasi's voice grew hard and certain. "The First Duty of the Shinobi is to protect The Secret." She declared, and Vincent could tell it was a lesson learned by rote.
"Yasi, I'm not arguing with you."
Long silence.
Vincent picked up her sword and held it out to her. She came over to take it, never taking her eyes off his as she slung it across her shoulders again. She didn't step back, leaving them close. Vincent found he was holding his breath.
Yasi leaned in, very slowly, and brushed their lips together just the tiniest bit. It was a kiss so totally devoid of any warmth and emotion that it actually made Vincent shiver.
"I have to go." She said softly. "I'll understand if you don't want me to come back."
Vincent wanted to stop her, but he hesitated. He looked around the apartment for a second... and his eyes fixed on the newspaper, reporting a dead cop washing up. It wasn't an endearing quirk she had, it wasn't a sweet habit he could laugh about. She killed people. It was part of her job.
He started to tell her to stay... but she was already gone.
"Be safe." Vincent whispered after her. "And if this ends with a happy ending... I'll wait for you in the sun."
~oo00oo~
"Where have you been?" Keeper demanded.
"Clearing my head." Yasi said softly. "What happened… threw me for a loop. I was in the mood to have a fit, and I can't do that here."
"You went to Vincent." Keeper said. It was not a question.
"Yes." Yasi confessed.
"How'd he take it?"
Yasi sighed hard, and shut her eyes. "Keep, I screwed up. I think I may have wrecked that one completely."
"He'll forgive you." Keeper said simply.
"I don't think so. The things he's mad about are all true. And if I try to make it better, we'll start fighting again."
"Exactly. You don't come back for more arguments with people you don't like, you barely talk to people you hate… You fight with your friends. They're the only people you can fight with."
"I hope so." Yasi said. "But Dorcan was right. Except for Vincent, I have no idea who's on my side any more." She almost looked sad. "And now, I think that I may have screwed that up completely too."
Keeper started to say something when Archivist came in. "Hey there." Archivist said lightly. "We thought you might have been tracking down the mole."
"Six months, we haven't found any trace of a mole since Owen escaped." Yasi shrugged.
"No sign?" Archivist scorned. "Think about this for a second. You approached one hundred and fifty Throwbacks and assorted others, and asked them to come and fight for us. Owen, or someone else, got to them before you did and convinced them to switch sides. This happened in between your training schedule, and you didn't know? Considering that you managed to keep them secret from the two of us…"
"We have no idea if the mole is even still around." Yasi insisted. "After the last week, what else is there for him to do here? He could be anywhere, but honestly? I think he escaped long ago. He's out there laughing at us right now."
"Whoever he is, he would have been passing on all our entrances to Vandark."
"Maybe, but I doubt it." Yasi said. "If their mole spent a lot of time communicating with the outside, I would have found him out by now."
"Everything Vandark has been doing has been from inside. If VonGunn hadn't called us, we never would have had a clue." Keeper said logically. "So who has access to the information Vandark would want?"
"Nobody." Yasi said proudly. "I did more than recruit for the last six months. Remember how me and Vincent spent all that time scouting new entrances? Did you think I did it on my own just because I liked hanging out with him?"
"Yes." Archivist said without hesitation.
Yasi flushed. "Okay, so maybe I did. But I handled it alone so that anyone in here would have very limited information about ways in and out. I saw to it that every Watcher, every team of Borrowers, every Digger putting the door in, every Shinobi only knows about one or two entrances, and that's not enough for a full scale invasion. Even the Throwbacks I recruited all came in the same three doors; just at different times. Whoever the spy is, he doesn't have a way to let Vandark's army in."
"Vincent." Keeper said suddenly. "Vincent knows about the entrances you found."
"I told Vincent to lose it all." Yasi said. "I convinced him that having such information was dangerous. He has no copies at his house, he wrote nothing on the records we Borrowed from the City Planner's Office. There's no way he committed it all to memory. We only put entrances in at a third of the places we scouted."
"Then we're still ahead of the curve." Keeper said with certainty.
There was a beat as that sank in.
Archivist grinned. "Did Vandark just gain himself an advantage over our army and have no way to use it?"
Yasi nodded, like it should have been obvious.
Archivist and Keeper traded a look. "We made her." Keeper said proudly, jerking a thumb at their daughter.
"Yeah, we did." Archivist boomed with obvious pride. "Yasi, you just outsmarted him! Why aren't you smiling?"
"I don't smile." Yasi barked coldly. "Has Vandark been dissuaded at all? Ever? Every time we've tried something approaching a roadblock, he found a way around it." She was cold as a rattlesnake as she drew her sword, and checked along the blade. "Make no mistake, he'll think of something."
Yasi turned and stalked toward the door.
"Where the hell are you going?" Keeper demanded.
"Back to the surface." Yasi said over her shoulder. "Whatever's gonna happen, it'll happen there."
Archivist looked after his daughter with his jaw hanging open. "What was that all about?"
"She had a fight with Vincent." Keeper excused.
~oo00oo~
"You understand what I need you to do?"
"Yes, My Lord Vandark."
"I take no pleasure in using these tactics. But it must be done, or the plan will fail, and all we have spent so long working toward will fail."
"I understand."
"I'm sorry about before."
"Before?"
"The Riverfolk attack. None of them know you're with us. They never should have struck at you."
"It's all right. It actually made my job easier."
"I remember the people who help me, my friend. Do not think that you are being used. I am not blind to the work you have done already in my name. Just a little while longer, and we will all have more than we ever thought was possible. Including the New York Lostkind. You're doing this for them. Not for me, not even for yourself. This is for the people you love."
"I know. And… I am grateful. I'm just nervous."
"Don't be. I'll be right there with you."
"Thank you, Lord Vandark."
~oo00oo~
The fight with Yasi was a weight on his back.
Vincent hated the way things had been left with her, but at the same time, he couldn't think of anything he said or did that was wrong or unfair. She was guilty of everything he had accused her of. How many people had stumbled onto the secret of the Lostkind? How many people had her blade silenced?
Such thoughts chased him into the park, and he collapsed down into his usual seat at one of the chess boards. Checkov saw him, and Vincent shook his head. He wasn't so much in the mood to give a chess game his attention. Checkov moved on.
His purpose to the Underside was to use his knowledge of the unseen parts of the city to their advantage. It was not unlike his regular job. If Yasi had approached someone else two years before, and Vincent had stumbled onto the Labyrinth himself by accident… would she have taken his head too?
A man sat down opposite Vincent. "You look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders."
Vincent looked up. His guest was wearing a long black overcoat, had incredibly pale eyes, and a scar just under his chin. He was built like a gorilla, but his smile was warm and friendly. "Wanna talk about it?"
Vincent wanted to scream it from the rooftops, but knew he couldn't. "Do I know you?"
"Not exactly, but I'm told you've been a source of help to many a person in this city that couldn't help themselves. I think that people like that should expect a little karmic loyalty. The world is full of silent heroes, and the news doesn't mention them. About the only time you hear about a Good Samaritan on the news is when they get caught in the crossfire and killed for their trouble."
Vincent couldn't help the chuckle. "Well, that's true I guess." He held out a hand to the huge man. "Vincent McCall."
The man returned the handshake. "You may call me Vandark." He said without fanfare.
Vincent yanked his hand back like he'd been burned. He jumped to his feet and backed away quickly.
Vandark didn't seem surprised. "Sit. Down." He growled, suddenly ferocious.
Intimidated, Vincent did so. For the first time, he got a proper look at the man that had caused all the fear Below.
"So." Vandark seemed to be enjoying himself. "We finally meet. You've been an interesting wild card in this story, Vincent. You're not with them, but you're not exactly a neutral either. In fact, of the three carefully arranged plans to gain entry to the New York Underside, you have managed to single-handedly block two of them." He shifted on the bench, to sit closer to Vincent. "Let me say first that I have no interest in hurting you."
Vincent just looked at him, heart hammering.
Vandark smiled, despite himself. "Okay, that's a lie. I would love to throttle the life out of you. But there's something I want more, and if I can do it cleanly, that works for me."
"What the hell do you want?" Vincent demanded.
"But of course, you already know the answer to that." Vandark said smoothly. "I want all the ways into the Underside that you have discovered in your time at the City Planners office." He let that sink in. "One way or another, this ends in a few days, and I want to do this with a minimum of fuss. In the final analysis, I've already won."
"You haven't won yet." Vincent warned. "You've never even seen the Underside..."
"I don't have to." He countered, and started counting on his fingers. "Keeper, who leads the general population. Protective, and unwilling. She's been the third party in all disputes, giving her authority over most of the Lostkind. All I have to do is present her with a choice where she doesn't know what to do and she will crumble. Then there's Archivist, the protector of all the accumulated knowledge. He thinks in abstracts, as the keeper of all accumulated knowledge of the place. As a result, he has a strong love for the libraries and the archives. You've heard Yasi spin off a textbook history of something, like the subway, or the steam pipes. Who do you think taught it to her? All I have to do is make him choose between his books, or his daughter. And that leaves Yasi." Vandark's eyes glimmered. "I, for one, can't wait to cross swords with her. One Warrior-Guard to another."
Vincent felt his heart sink. He knew everything. "I don't have any idea how to get to the Underside. I've been there exactly twice, and the ways they brought me in were gone the next day." He said honestly.
"I know you and Yasi scouted new entrances." Vandark said with such certainty that Vincent couldn't argue the point.
"Then you also know I only scouted the locations." Vincent countered. "I couldn't tell you which ones actually have doors."
"True, but you were smitten with the whole place, weren't you?" Vandark said gamely. "Think about it. Regular guy, regular life, boring office job, barely looked around at the fantastic city around you… Then you get a moment's attention from an attractive, mysterious woman from another world and get swept away to Neverland. You can't expect me to believe you didn't want more."
"If I did…" Vincent struggled to be smart. "Then you know I'd destroy any information I found, once people started dying. I destroyed all the records, at Yasi's insistence."
"No you wouldn't." Vandark said easily. "Oh, I have no doubt you'd hide anything of value, but you wouldn't destroy it. Information is just so easily copied these days. I'm guessing you have a private copy. Something only you know about. Just for the moment, just for the day when you finally say: 'What the hell, I want to go back'. You said it yourself: You found places to put doors; but don't know which ones were used. So if you ever wanted to go back…"
Vincent said nothing.
Vandark pointed at him. "Ha! I'll take that as a 'yes'." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a USB key. "So, I can assume that's what on this, then?"
Vincent froze. He recognized the USB as his own personal one. It never left his person; and he slapped at his pocket.
Vandark grinned. "My people swiped it off you before you got as far as the subway this morning. We've been all over it, but the folder we need? The one marked 'Historical Documents'? It's heavily encrypted. Three codes, each as a fail-safe that will delete the folder if incorrectly entered. We've already searched your house, your computers, your post-it notes, your messages, your emails, your office... My guess is, you kept them memorized." Vandark slid over a piece of paper. "Write down your passwords in full, please."
Vincent said nothing.
Vandark sighed. "Must I really threaten you?"
Vincent shook his head. "You can't. Even under duress, you'll never be sure if I gave you the right password, and the fail safe would delete the files. You'd never get a second chance."
Vandark considered that and grinned at Vincent. "Tell you what. I'll make a deal with you. My network tells me that you play chess when you come to this park. Sometimes you throw the game so that you can give money to people who won't accept charity."
Vincent froze. "Yeah?"
"Then how about we play a game? You and me. You win, you get this USB back, I walk away and you never hear from any of us again. I win, you give me the passwords, I walk away, and you never hear from any of us again. Sound like a good deal? Either way, you survive without a scratch."
"You won't do it." Vincent said seriously. "If you walk away, you won't be able to find a way into the Underside. Not for a while. Long enough that Yasi and the others will find you and think up a way to stop you."
"Very likely." Vandark agreed, grinning like a shark. "The game ain't worth playing if the stakes aren't big enough. I could lose the whole war on this chessboard. Yasi would owe you her whole world. I can only imagine how... grateful she'd be."
Vincent pressed his hands against the chess table to push himself upright, getting ready to leave. "No deal."
There was a flash of movement, and by the time Vincent could follow what had happened, Vandark had slammed a long knife into the chess table, burying it a half inch deep in the concrete, right between Vincent's first and second finger, close enough for him to feel the cool steel. The whole lunge had happened faster than Vincent could see it.
"Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a polite conversation." Vandark snarled like a feral animal.
Vincent sat down with a gulp, and Vandark began setting up the pieces for a game.
Thus began the last chess game Vincent would ever play.
Vincent was an experienced player, and had a standard opening gambit, but this was different. His hands were shaking as he made his usual opening moves. He didn't know if Vandark was an expert player, or if he had been told what Vincent's tactics were…
Vincent played cautiously, testing out what Vandark might do, making sure his defense was stronger than offense. Vandark barely looked at the board, focusing his eyes squarely on Vincent's face, psyching him out. Feeling sweat break out on his forehead, Vincent was forced to admit it was working.
Vandark barely hesitated at his turn, moving his pieces forward aggressively. Vincent was paralyzed, wondering if there was a deeper, subtler strategy than he could see. If Vandark was serious about the stakes, then making such outlandish attacks would be a certain way to lose it all.
If. If Vandark was being honest. If he wasn't being incredibly smart. If he wasn't being led into a trap. If this whole thing wasn't a set-up….
Vincent hesitated, and moved his Queen forward. The most powerful piece on the board, and Vincent moved it into position, where Vandark's attackers could strike at it. Vincent was careful, putting defenses in place. If Vandark saw them, he wouldn't go for it. Vincent looked at the whole board, and saw another solution. A way to turn the trap against him. If Vandark was as good as Vincent, he would not take the Queen, but attack with his Rook
It was a test, and Vincent struggled not to hold his breath.
Vandark reached to capture the Queen, then hesitated, looked over the board, and withdrew his piece.
Vincent felt better. Vandark had seen the trap, but had missed the better solution. Vincent had the advantage.
The game continued, and after several minutes, Vincent suddenly realized they were alone in the park. He didn't know how, but the rest of the park was empty.
For his protection? Vincent wondered. For privacy?
Vandark moved one of his Knights forward aggressively, moving it in too deep. Vincent stared at the black chess piece hard, like he was expecting it to move again on its own.
Vandark waited. "Well?"
Vincent met his opponent's eyes, convinced there was more to it than he knew. He found no clue in the pale gaze. Finally, he lifted his hand, ready to capture the piece.
Vandark raised a hand suddenly. "Oh, wait. Sorry, my mistake." He said, as though embarrassed he forgot to mention it. "If you capture that piece, I will have to do something… drastic."
Vincent felt his heart rate spike. "Such as?"
Vandark gestured with elaborate courtesy over to the left, and Vincent followed his gaze to see a black van sitting on the edge of the park. Its rear doors opened, and Vincent felt his stomach sink as Yasi became visible, her hands tied behind her back. With the overcoat to cover her bonds and the van doors to keep her relatively hidden, nobody else saw it. The doors slammed shut again, and Vincent spun back to Vandark. "Let her go."
"I will. As soon as I win the game." Vandark promised, sounding sincere. "But for every piece of mine you capture through this game, my people in the van will remove one of Yasi's fingers."
Vincent felt a cold chill squeeze around his heart. "No…"
"Now look the other way." Vandark said simply.
Vincent did so, and saw a White Van waiting at the other end of the park. He knew before the doors opened. Connie was stuck in the back, also tied, with a gag in her mouth. She looked borderline catatonic from fear.
"Two sides, two prisoners, two vans, black and white." Vandark continued. "Delicious metaphor, isn't it? For every one of my black pieces captured... I take it all back in digits from Yasi. For every piece of yours that you fail to protect... I take a finger from your lovely lady-friend, Connie."
Vincent couldn't speak, couldn't move. Everywhere he looked he saw Connie, looking scared and helpless. It was a horrible feeling. He looked at the board with fresh eyes, wondering what to do.
Vandark leaned back, studying Vincent's face. "Well now. Here's an interesting moment in the life of Vincent McCall. You're a much better player than I am. You must know this by now. You could win the game. But it'll cost Yasi. You could drag it out, looking for a way to flip the rules, but the longer you drag out this game, the more likely I will capture a piece of yours... and dear sweet Connie won't even know what the game is really about."
Vincent said nothing, heart hammering.
"And even if you do win this game? What's to stop me from trying to find my own way in? You know I can try, but you don't know if I succeed. You do know that if you lose the game, you'll have just handed it all to me on a plate; but you don't know how much time you've bought if you win. Pretty tough judgment call."
Vincent stared at the board, looking for a solution.
"You can stare at those pieces all you want, there's only one way to win." Vandark read his mind. "You can try to run, but you know you won't get five feet. You can try to win without capturing any of my pieces, but you're not that good. You can try to win without losing any of your pieces, but we both know you can't do it. Especially when I don't care how many pieces get lost. You could save the Underground, you could be the big hero, and you could be Yasi's hero. But she'll be missing a few bits if you do. Connie might forgive you, but unlike Yasi, she won't be able to tell anyone what happened. You want to win the war, you gotta make sacrifices."
Vincent stared at Vandark, panting for breath. He looked at the board. It was a chess piece. It was two inches of painted wood carved to look like a horse. All he had to do… He could win this. He could save the entire Underside. He could do it if…
"Why are you fighting so hard, Vincent?" Vandark advised him. "Think about this for a second. What are you fighting for? Your home? We're talking about a place you'll never see again. It's already rejected you once; kicked you out. You think there's any chance you'll be welcomed back after this? You're not one of them. You never will be. Even if Yasi accepted you as her pet, her family never would."
Vincent kept staring at the black knight, sitting there, an easy capture. A fast victory.
"If it was you in that van, and Yasi sitting here, she'd do it without blinking." Vandark continued his ruthless deconstruction of Vincent's life. "She'd gladly let me hack you apart to protect her home. And Connie? She wouldn't even hesitate to spare you and let the Secret City fall. Is Yasi really worth it? Worth this?"
Stop it. Stop reading my mind. Vincent thought numbly.
He lifted a hand to make the move, to capture the black knight. It would be so easy. His hand was shaking.
Vandark's eyes blazed at him, the forgiving and logical tone vanishing again. "Do you have it in you?!"
Finally, Vincent put his hand down, resting it on the table. After an endless moment, he reached out and knocked his king over, officially conceding the match.
"Checkmate." Vandark grinned, and leaned forward. "Well?"
Feeling like his limbs were made of lead, Vincent reached out and picked up the pen. He scribbled down the passwords. Three cryptic combinations of letters and numbers.
Vandark took the bit of paper and held it out. A moment later the only other person in the park strolled by and took both the paper, and the USB without breaking stride. "Good game." He said graciously. "We'll just wait a moment to see if this works. Hope you double-checked. I'd hate to have three people killed because of poor handwriting."
Vincent said nothing. After several seconds, a pager beeped. Vandark pulled it from his belt and checked the screen. The sight of a Lostkind using a pager was so impossible that Vincent almost didn't believe it.
Vandark seemed pleased. "Done." He held out his hand to shake Vincent's, and didn't seem at all bothered when Vincent left it hanging in mid-air. "Don't move. Do not move from this spot. I'll send them both over, and then you can go home. Understand?"
Vincent nodded dully. He couldn't move if he wanted to.
Vandark stood and walked away. After a moment, Vincent managed to get his head together again, and looked after him. Vandark was walking out of the park, with all the time in the world, until he reached the black van. The rear doors opened for him, and he hopped in. A moment later, Yasi was pushed out the back roughly. The doors closed behind her, and the black van drove away. He turned quickly to look back at the other van, but Connie was already moving toward him, limping.
Vincent looked back to the board and shut his eyes, unable to look at her.
After a few minutes, Connie sat down next to him, trembling. He didn't speak. Couldn't speak.
Yasi sat down on his opposite side. Neither of them looked at her. Connie was still shaking, and he put an arm around her. She clung to him for dear life.
Very slowly, Yasi reached out a hand to him and rested it on his shoulder. He didn't move.
"I'm sorry, Vincent. I'm so sorry." Yasi said finally. "I was the one that picked you. I could have chosen Gill, or Davidson, or any one of a dozen other people who work in your office. I picked you. I'm so sorry I dragged you both into my world."
For a long time Vincent said nothing. "Yasi, I don't know what it's like where you come from, but up here, where I come from, most people live their lives in quiet desperation, going from one day to the next, just... waiting for something to happen to them. This has been... I don't know, but there have only ever been three things that make me feel like I mattered. Connie is one of them. You and the Underside are the others."
Yasi glanced over at Connie, who seemed to relax a little. Connie released Vincent's hand, Yasi did not.
Connie sniffed. "Funny isn't it?" She said, her voice a little hoarse. "All these people walking around the park, just having a normal day. Tomorrow will be just the same. To them, it's just another day. Who would have figured there was a war going on beneath their feet?"
A war we just lost. Vincent added to himself. And it's all my fault.


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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