Thursday, 28 February 2019

Eighteen: Rule Two: Be Daring


Vandark moved out of the Twelfth Level as the riot broke out behind them, and sighed hard, looking at her with a sad smile. "We could do so much, Yasi. The faster we make peace, the sooner we can move mountains. We could have billionaires seeking permission from the homeless, have congressmen feeding the hungry… We could do so much, if we could just learn to let the past go."
He looked genuinely upset by the violence. So much so that Yasi actually had to remind herself that this man had blown up children to get in here.
It's working on you too. She warned herself. He's buying forgiveness with talk and treats.
The riot had been settled with a minimum amount of fuss. Once Vandark left, the riots had lost focus, and the Riverfolk were still terrifying and largely unknown specters to most of the Lostkind, able to break up the violence quickly.
Yasi flexed her wrist, and judged how much give she had in her handcuffs. She had made a point of moving easily and freely, letting her guards get used to seeing her making gestures while she talked. If she kept it up, there might be a moment where she could make a larger movement without anyone noticing right away. She flexed her wrist, judging whether or not she might be able to use the cuffs as a garrote…
Vandark turned away from her, eyes turned elsewhere, and she slid one foot forward, just the tiniest bit, shifting her weight. Most of his guards had been drawn off by the riots in Twelfth Level…
The gun was suddenly pointed point-blank at her nose. Vandark had drawn and aimed at her before she could even register the movement.
"Not good timing." Vandark glowered at her, barely turning to face her. His voice had gone from soft regret to vicious in a blink, and Yasi settled. Her guards stood closer to her, horrified that she had a chance to think of attacking.
Vandark sent her guards a heavy look. "There's a riot going on outside. Why don't you see if you can help, hmm? We'll talk later."
Doomed, the two Wildmen that had flanked Yasi all week left them alone. Vandark leaned close enough that she could feel his breath. From a distance, it might have looked like a warm embrace. "Yasi, you can't win. The fight is already over. This is mine now. Everything in it is mine. I could make this a living hell for you, but I haven't. I am a killer. So are you. How many of my friends did you cut down when we came in here? Seven? Eight? Given my options, I think I've been pretty good about it. I'm not insane. I don't hurt people for fun."
"Neither do I." Yasi said tightly. "But don't pretend we're partners in this, Invader."
"I know we're not." Vandark said tightly. "But things change. How long are you going to keep fighting a lost fight? How many people have to get hurt? Work with me, and your people will be safe, and happy, and fed, and warm, and prosperous. Or you can keep fighting me."
Yasi got to the point she wanted to make. "Why am I alive?"
"Because others are too." Vandark said. "Right now, the only use you are to me is as a shield. Your guys haven't done anything more than write on the walls. It's not like they don't know where I am."
Yasi was forced to admit that was true. Who is it? Dyce? Trigger? Somebody has to be in charge now… A fight is all we need. Even if one falls down, two more stand up…
"I know what you're thinking." Vandark put in. "You're thinking that if you keep pushing, or if they do… then I will retaliate, and the people here will all remember what a bad guy I am, and fight back. I'm not an idiot, Yasi. No matter how you come at me, no matter what you do… I will not respond in kind against your people. Not ever. They are safe. The only ones that can hurt them now are your people. If Lasa hadn't thrown that knife, he'd be alive and feasting right now. Keep fighting me, and you will be alone in this place."
It was a tough position to argue with, and Vandark swept away from her. An instant later there was a grip around the back of her neck and she was being marched. Yasi was gutted. He wasn't acting like a dictator at all; which was why he was so good at it. How do you fight the hand that feeds you? Yasi racked her brains and came up with nothing.
Secretly, Yasi knew why Vandark wasn't worried about her. He knew she couldn't do anything. Even if she could reach Vandark before her guards stopped her, the one and only time she'd actually fought him, she'd lost. She tried to calculate how fast she could take him by surprise, and didn't like her chances.
The slogan of the Resistance kept showing up on the walls. There was still a chance.
Part of Yasi was tired of fighting. Protecting the Underside had been her only job for seven years, and she had failed. Vandark had given her a straight up shot, and she had failed. Her own mother had been on the battlefield, and she had failed.
Yasi checked her wrists again. The cuffs were strong, but Yasi knew she could slip them with some effort. Maybe if she could get her sword back, she could slice through the chain... The only question was: what could she do after that? What could she do that wouldn't get Keeper executed, or a few of the Gremlins fed to the River?
She would only get one chance, if she hadn't missed it already.
Please, somebody… Yasi thought bleakly. Find a way to set us free.
~oo00oo~
Vincent checked his watch. Ninety minutes left. "We can't stay here much longer."
Dorcan nodded. "We'll have to go back through the River. Below the surface there are smaller tunnels that branch off into Riverfolk territory. We have to avoid them, but we can't come back up through the Twelfth Level either. We'll have to stay under a while."
"Okay." Vincent nodded. "So where do we go?"
"I told you that part of the Underside flooded, which is why the Evergreen was cut off. There are other places that were sealed off, one of them was a ladder that led up. We stay under till we get to the ladder, we take that up to the Twelfth Level. From there, we can slip through to the Whisper Gallery. The way there is patrolled since Archivist…" Dorcan trailed off a moment, before shaking his head clear of that thought. "We can either sneak in, or fight our way through."
"Owen saw me." Vincent offered. "He'll be looking for me."
Dorcan nodded. "This is going to be difficult." He led the way to the waters edge and paused. "I should stop you." He said plainly. "This goes badly? You'll do more damage than Vandark ever would."
"I know." Vincent swallowed. "But it's not just your home at stake now. It's mine, too. Vandark wants to rule the Underside, so that he can rule New York. Stopping him is…"
Dorcan burst out laughing, sounding loud in the tranquil underground garden. "Son of a bitch. So you're here to save the world?"
Vincent shook his head. "I can't save the world. It's too big."
"So what are you here for?"
Vincent flushed. "Yasi?"
"You thought Yasi was dead." Dorcan scorned. "What are you here for?"
Silence.
"For me." Vincent said finally.
Dorcan took that in, and nodded at last, leading Vincent back into the water.
~oo00oo~
"I'm sorry? What was that?" Yasi heard her voice say stupidly.
Vandark was intrigued. "You're certain?"
Owen nodded. "I'm positive. It was Vincent McCall. He's here in the Underside."
Vandark sent a glance over to Yasi, a smile on his face. "Well. Seems I was right about you." He scoffed. "You did have a backup plan. Smart move, keeping your reserve outside the Underside for the whole battle." He rose to his feet and bellowed out to the entire room. "Find him! Bring him here!"
Owen stepped a little closer as the orders went out and all the guards in the room acted. "Is it wise, to bring him right to you?" Owen asked his Master.
"Possibly not, but I've met McCall. I played chess with him." Vandark responded quietly. "He won't be the type to come at me with a gun, or a grenade for the whole room. It's simply not his nature. No, if he's here, he's got an ace; and I want to… politely ask him what it is before he plays it."
Yasi had barely heard any of this. Vincent, what the hell are you doing?
~oo00oo~
Vincent followed Dorcan up the ladder, and came to a halt because the space above had been sealed. Dorcan felt around behind him, and found an empty space to step back into. Vincent followed, and realized that it was a new addition, the walls were narrow enough that he had to turn sideways, and broken up enough to scratch and claw at him.
"New additions?" He called conversationally.
He could hear Dorcan's smile. "The Wildmen don't have a clue how we get around without them seeing."
They slid their way down the passage until they suddenly emerged upward through the floor of a room Vincent didn't recognize.
"What's he doing here?" A small voice called, and Vincent jumped. It was Kamy. The Lostkind girl was perched on the edge of their entrance, watching like a hawk.
"He's here to save the world." Dorcan snorted lightly, and Vincent got a look at the room. It was the same shape and size as Yasi's chamber, and Vincent realized suddenly that it was one of the living quarters in Twelfth Level. There were a row of swords against one wall, and a row of the Lostkind crossbows along the opposite.
And in the room was the Resistance. Five Shinobi, plus Dorcan, Three male, two female. Some of them were wounded, some of them barely standing, all tired, all determined. And none of them were smiling at Vincent.
Dorcan spoke first, waving them all down. "Guys, this is Vincent McCall."
His name rolled over all of them at the same instant and their eyes turned on him. Vincent had the feeling of being dissected.
Dorcan made introductions. "This is Dyce, Trigger, Gritt and Takal. This is what's left of the Shinobi. The ones that stuck around." There was bitterness in his voice, and Vincent could see a similar sentiment on all their faces.
"Stuck around?" Vincent repeated. Meaning, someone left? But Dorcan sent him a look that told him not to comment, and he dropped it.
"So, what's he doing here?" Dyce demanded. "Look at him, he's got to be a good ten pounds above normal."
"Got good clothing though." Gritt put in. "Maybe a little soft."
"Soft ain't a deal breaker." Dyce put in, amused. "Just means he can block more blades headed our way."
"Unless he runs away."
"Soft means easy to catch."
Vincent smirked, feeling like he was being hazed by Benji and Tony again. It was so downright normal that it made him smile.
Dorcan, however, was not smiling at all. "As much as I'd like to watch you all keep going with this, we're on something of a clock right now. Kamy?"
The youngest of the Lostkind stood up and began reading notes off her arms. "Fourteen Riverfolk in the Main Intersection, twenty five at the Twelfth Level, five in each of the Marketplaces. I couldn't get into the Whisper Gallery. All the Wildmen I saw were with Vandark, always."
"How many Riverfolk are there?" Vincent asked. "Because Dorcan said that they couldn't go far above Twelfth Level; but two of them were guarding the entrance."
"They're not all real Riverfolk. Vandark has some of his people dressed up in costumes... He knows that the Riverfolk are terrifying monsters to our people, and he's taking advantage. We thought that the Riverfolk had been cleaned out." Dorcan said quietly. "There were Riverfolk bodies showing up years ago... Not a lot of them, but Yasi thought that the River had been taken over. That's why we added more razor nets."
Kamy pointed to the maps on the walls. "There's enough of them that Vandark can keep his people close to him. Before he went back to the Gallery, Archivist told me that the ones that we've got running around aren't the ones in charge. The Riverfolk Captains? I haven't seen any of them."
Dorcan nodded. "Those bodies Wotcha found three years ago were the victims of a coup. Vandark had the loyalty of the Riverfolk years before we knew his name."
Kamy bit her lip. "Vandark is smart, huh?"
Dorcan nodded. "Yes."
Vincent spoke up. "The slogan you guys have painted on the walls, about the Three Rules. Have the Riverfolk broken them?"
Silence.
Dorcan barked. "Answer him. Have the Riverfolk broken the Three Rules?"
"No." Kamy said. "Not that the Gremlins have seen. They don't have to. They've got everything they need right here."
Dyce hissed angrily. "With them all over the place, we can barely move without being caught. If it wasn't for the Riverfolk as reinforcements, we'd have the city back in ten minutes!"
Dorcan looked at Vincent, who nodded. "We might be able to make that happen." He said seriously. "We had planned to do hit and run attacks, but with Vincent's inclusion, that can't happen." Dorcan informed his people. "This war is going to end today."
The gathered Shinobi were stunned. "How?"
Vincent started to speak. "I have a friend on the surface, who will-"
Dorcan put a hand out. "They don't need to know that part. If they did, one of them might try and stop you, and then we'd have Yasi to answer to." A chuckle went around the room at that.
"Always be nice to the Captain's Pet?" Trigger quipped.
The second she said it, the room fell into a sudden awkward silence, and Vincent froze. Are they talking about Merlin… or me?
Dorcan set his jaw. "While Trigger takes her foot out of her mouth, here's the game plan: We have to cover Vincent while he makes contact from the Whisper Gallery."
"I like it." Dyce scoffed. "Simple, elegant, ridiculous. You're basing the whole fight on someone who… quite frankly, is the main reason Vandark was even able to get in here! And his plan is one we've tried before, and failed. Didn't losing Archivist tell you anything?"
"It told me that we weren't finished yet. Archivist's message was meant to inspire resistance. Vincent's message is meant to inspire an unconditional surrender." Dorcan was silent a moment. "If Yasi were here, she'd say that Rule One worked against us. We were so used to going unnoticed by the world, and suddenly it was all out in the open. Some ran away because of that. But we didn't, and it's better to have a dozen people you trust than a thousand you can't. Yasi trusted you, and I trust you too, and with good reason: You repaid that trust at every step of the darkest hour this place has ever seen. Yasi trusted Vincent, and now he's come here to repay that trust. That's something we have in common with him, even if he's not Lostkind."
Everyone glanced at Vincent again, and he kept his chin up. It was easier to take pride in what Dorcan had said, because all of it was true.
Dorcan reached out a hand and checked Vincent's wrist. "The clock's ticking. We'll take the ropelines to the top of the Seven Steps, then the tunnels from there to the elevator. There are enough of us that we can look like a band of Borrowers, as long as we keep the weapons hidden. We just make our way toward the Labyrinth, and slip off when we get near the elevator to the Whisper Gallery. I want cover, but stay behind us from the ropelines on, and close with us once we get into the tunnels, out of sight. Any questions?"
"What happens then?"
Dorcan's face was a perfect stone wall. "You'll see."
~oo00oo~
"Why didn't you tell them the rest of the plan?" Vincent asked.
"Because I honestly think they'd rather take their chances with Vandark." Dorcan said lightly. "Just between you and me… How do you see this ending? Because even if we get you to the Whisper Gallery…"
"I know." Vincent admitted thickly.
It was the first time they'd had a moment of privacy since leaving the garden. The two of them were suspended in mid-air in one of the basket elevators, slowly making their way on the pulleys toward the ground below.
"How many people up there know the plan?" Dorcan asked him.
"Does it matter?"
"Not in the least." Dorcan said seriously. "But we have at least a minute of waiting for the basket to hit concrete, and the silence is going to make me crazy given the stakes; so I'm looking for unimportant chit-chat."
"Okay. How about this? Are you still in love with Yasi?" Vincent challenged suddenly.
Dorcan swallowed thickly, biting down on his first response. "Jeez, a little less important than that would have been nice." He repeated finally. "It was that obvious?"
"To everyone." Vincent confirmed.
"Except her." Dorcan snorted. "To answer your question: no. I followed her around like a puppy, and got kicked in the face for my trouble. There's only so many times you can get that before you quit coming back for more, as I have."
Vincent nodded. "Okay."
Dorcan looked out of the corner of his eye at him. "Do yourself a favor, and don't try with her. She's the Sword of the Underside. Just steel and edges. She stands alone, and always has. You think you can change that?"
Vincent was about to respond, when the basket lurched, and Vincent looked up in horror. A Riverfolk was less than six inches away. Above, looking past him, Vincent could see a second basket full of enemy troops, jumping down from one ropeline to the next.
Dorcan struck, slashing out with his sword. The Riverfolk dropped properly into their basket, and Dorcan was all but smothered. "Out! Get out of this thing!" Dorcan snapped, pummeling the Riverfolk with short jabs.
"Where the hell should I go?" Vincent blurted, pressed against the inside wicker wall as tight as he could. Above, he could see Dorcan's allies using their sheathed swords as handles, sliding down the ropelines themselves, letting gravity bring them to the battle that was unfolding in mid-air above the Seven Steps.
Like that? A terrified, analytical part of his mind thought.
The basket bounced again, hard enough to almost toss them all out, as a second attacker dropped to pounce on them. Dorcan was surrounded, with no room to strike back properly. "Vincent, GO!"
There was no choice.
"Rule Two." Vincent told himself with quiet desperation. "Be Daring."
Heart pounding, he shrugged off the long coat and stepped out into the open space, clinging to the side of the basket as tight as he could, and threw his jacket over the ropeline, using it as a handle… And he pushed off.
Smothering a scream, he slid down the line, feeling himself get faster and faster as he sped toward the ground, faster than he could ever remember moving before…
Refusing to look down, he looked back the way he came, and saw Dorcan doing the same. A level above them, his team of Shinobi were getting into the fight with the Riverfolk reinforcements…
And then someone back at the basket got careless with a blade, and the rope snapped. Vincent dropped, his momentum sending him skidding along the surface of the Step, rolling out of control toward the edge. Every time he rolled he came over hard on the crossbow, harder on his face, again on the crossbow.
He felt the ground vanish beneath him and knew he was finished, when Something slammed into his leg, and everything came to a wrenching halt.
Upside down, battered and bruised, Vincent looked up and saw Dorcan had managed to check his momentum and stop Vincent from falling. It took a few seconds to organize themselves into a position that Dorcan could haul him back up.
And those few seconds was all the time needed for the omnipresent guards to start moving in on them.
"Run!" Dorcan hissed, and roughly pulled Vincent toward one of the tunnels leading away from the Twelfth Level, into the Underside's many pathways.
In this area, there were always people moving. Borrowers with heavy burdens, making their way to the surface, Runners taking messages, Gremlins marking new paintings on the walls…
Dorcan clapped a hand on Vincent's shoulder and yanked them both to a halt. "We can't lead the Riverfolk Guards into these people up ahead." He said, breathing hard. "And the plan is shot to hell anyway. Vandark's going to know where we're going before we get anywhere close. He won't be able to miss a running, screaming fire-fight the entire way to the Whisper Gallery."
Vincent checked his watch. "Forty five minutes. You got a better idea?"
The Riverfolk had organized themselves at the mouth of the tunnel, and began running the length of it, looking for the two of them. Dorcan looked at Vincent darkly. "It's on you now. Good luck, and tell Yasi… ahh, she knows."
A chilling premonition struck Vincent and he tried to stop the Shinobi from drawing away. "No! Dorcan, no!"
Dorcan pushed Vincent's hands away, and drew his sword. "Do the job. Save the Underside. I'll buy you as long as I can."
Heartsick, feeling hopeless, Vincent ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, as Dorcan made his way down the tunnel to face the pursing forces. A moment later there was the sound of steel on steel, but Vincent didn't look back.
~oo00oo~
Yasi tensed as Owen came back into the Throne Room. Vandark had kept her within three feet of him since finding out about Vincent's return. Three guards on her every second, instead of the usual two; plus Vandark. Her odds had not improved. The guards had their weapons drawn, and one of them aiming at her at all times.
"What's the latest?" Vandark demanded.
Owen looked nervous. "We tracked down the Gremlins. They were hiding in a room on Twelfth Level, which belonged to the father of one of the Shinobi. We found their weapons there."
Vandark just waited.
Owen steeled himself. "We found the ones in hiding, but they were able to fight their way out and esc-"
"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?" Vandark bellowed.
Everyone but Yasi cowered. She wasn't worried. Vandark could go from friendly to homicidal in a heartbeat, but he wasn't crazy. He played crazy from time to time to keep people running for their lives, but he didn't scream in anger. The move was meant to intimidate, and it did.
Owen spoke again, quietly. "Vincent was with them. We caught them in motion. They fought their way off the ropelines and we lost them there."
Silence.
"They weren't in hiding, they were going somewhere." Vandark thought aloud. "Vincent's not a warrior, not even Lostkind. So what would he be looking for? What would his move be?" He tapped a finger on the arm of his chair, and focused his gaze on Yasi, who stared back evenly. It wasn't the first of these long unsettling stares he had given her, and she wondered briefly if he could read her mind.
"What are you planning, Yasi?" Vandark wondered out loud quietly. "What's he doing?"
Yasi said nothing, but inwardly she was relived. As long as Vandark thinks it's my plan, Vincent's odds might be improved. Maybe. A little.
Vandark turned to his men. "Post extra guards in sensitive areas. Yasi used explosives to collapse the tunnels on our way in, I want them guarded heavily. I want the cross passages sealed, and the Labyrinth is to be closed. Nobody in or out." He turned to Owen. "And you. I have a special mission for you."
~oo00oo~
Vincent stayed with the Borrowers. His face was grimy enough after his tumble that he could blend in. He was stiff and hobbling, so nobody noticed that he didn't have a pack. It was the posture of someone carrying a heavy load, so he fit right in with the small group that trudged toward the Labyrinth.
When the movement stopped, Vincent realized faster than anyone why the Labyrinth was closed again. They were keeping anyone from going out, or coming in.
Already past the point of no return, Vincent checked the baskets they were carrying, and took an oil-cloak. It had a hood, and he pulled it up to cover his face, putting the coat he wore in its place. Borrowing, not stealing. He told himself. There's a difference.
We have a way of finding things when we need them. Yasi's voice came to him, and he smirked.
The Riverfolk were checking everyone, looking for him, looking for Dorcan and his Resistance... Vincent chose his moment and branched off from the group he was hiding in. One or two of the Borrowers looked at him as he left, but most of them knew instinctively what he was running from, even if they didn't know who he was. He was confident they wouldn't turn him in... Or at least, that most of them wouldn't.
He still wasn't moving as fast as he should, but secretly, he considered that an advantage. Owen would take a closer look at someone in a hurry, but with the hood up and his back bent he was an old man.
It got him halfway to his destination, and he was suddenly aware of how much bigger the place was on foot than he had considered. It really was a small city, laid out in three dimensions.
His progress was slowed further by the Riverfolk. They weren't all identical, but they all had the same uniform. Grey, form-fitting wetsuits, mottled enough that it could be mistaken for animal skin, large red goggles that gleamed, and muscular bodies crossed with bandoleers and weapon slings. They had the run of the Underside, abd Vincent had to blend in with a crowd, or brazen it out and hope he looked like he belonged there.
Rule One. He told himself. Be Invisible.
When he reached the old antique elevator, he knew his luck had run out. There were no guards, but there almost certainly would be in Archivist's Whisper Gallery. And the only way he had left to get there was an elevator with see through iron gates for walls. He would be a sitting duck.
He checked his watch. Thirty two minutes left.
With Dorcan MIA, he had no other options. He could try creeping around looking for another way in, but he knew he'd get caught by then. The Underside was running out of time...
Trying not to think about it, he boarded the elevator, and started it moving.
~oo00oo~
Gill was pacing the length of the Archives Room, looking at his watch every two seconds. He kept fiddling with his suit as a nervous habit. It was the first time he'd worn a suit in a while.
"You look good."
Gill turned around swiftly and found Connie coming in the door. "People are going to start wondering what's so interesting down here. Vincent was the first one to open that door since the office went to computer records."
Connie nodded. "Yeah. They probably think you're growing mushrooms down here."
"Mushrooms or something else." Gill commented. It was nervous, pointless small talk. The things they said because they had nothing to say and didn't want to think.
"Thought you'd be halfway to your mom's." Gill said finally.
"I did too." Connie admitted. "But I couldn't. Vincent, Drew, Tecca... Everything in the world that I love is here. I can't leave. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I have to be here."
Gill nodded. "So. You think this is going to work?"
Connie shrugged.
Gill looked miserable. "It's all on me when the clock hits zero. Nobody's ever trusted me with something like this before."
Connie put a hand on his shoulder. "Vincent has faith. You can always tell the ones that do. You see Vincent with the homeless, at the clinic… People who haven't eaten in weeks leave the Kitchens smiling on days when he's there, because they know he cares. He walks through the world with hope, and people respond to that." She smiled impishly. "I did."
Gill smiled a little. "So did I. There was a day when I gave up on everything, and Vincent was able to give me justice, give me hope, even saved my job."
"That why you're doing this?" Connie asked. "Because you may not be down there, but you're taking a risk too."
"If this works, I'm out of a job." Gill said finally. "If it fails... We'll have rewritten every book ever written about New York... and Vincent is most likely dead."
~oo00oo~
The Whisper Gallery reminded him of the Archives Room, with its endless miles of shelves and plenty of huge hardcover volumes. But the ceilings were a lot higher, there was no dust on anything... and at the opposite end of the chamber was the steam pipes.
Vincent crept through the huge room, and his instincts were screaming. The room was empty, and that just didn't make sense. He was creeping along the shelves, peeking around corners, expecting an ambush any minute... But there was nothing. Just him, the shelves, and the whispers.
No guards. Why are there no guards? Vincent thought bleakly to himself. There's something going on...
The pipes went upward, and then split up into many directions. The omnipresent whispers were all coming from the city above. He knew that the pipes could carry echoes; he'd been told all about it. He had to figure out how to open or seal the pipes to carry his voice. The largest pipes led straight down and would be the loudest. He opened them. The iron pipes, the ones that weren't copper; they were part of the Underside, something the Lostkind had built to bring warmth to their rooms. He opened them carefully... Every City Planner knew enough about engineering to do their jobs, and it took everything he had to figure out how to set these pipes right.
"You're pretty close."
Vincent spun in horror, and found Owen had walked into the room, with a full team of Riverfolk guards behind him. Owen smiled smugly as Vincent paled. "You didn't think it was a little strange that we had nobody in here?"
~oo00oo~
Limping after the battle, aching from a dozen gashes and cuts, Dorcan looked up swiftly at the sound. It was Owen, speaking in whispers from the pipes. His voice was quiet but clear. "We knew you were here, but none of us believed you had it in you to try a doomed rescue. There were maybe three things you might be trying to do, since we've cut off access to the surface... and Archivist tipped your hand. He tried it already, and failed. You think we were going to fall for that twice?"
"Stay back!" Vincent's voice came next.
Dorcan started running.
~oo00oo~
Vincent tightened his grip on the crossbow, sweating bullets.
"Look, we've been here before. You think you have it in you to pull that trigger?" Owen didn't seem that worried, despite the arrow pointed at the middle of his forehead. "I'm betting you don't."
Owen moved forward silkily, one foot in front of the other. Unhurried, and perfectly at ease, Owen held out a hand. "Give me the weapon, Vincent. This is almost over."
And behind him, were three Riverfolk, weapons drawn and muscles bulging as they stalked along behind Owen patiently.
"Two years, Vincent. In the two years we worked together, you never so much as raised your voice to anyone; let alone kill an unarmed man." Owen scorned. "You're not a killer, Vincent. You just don't have it in you."
"Willing to bet your life on that?" Vincent challenged, with a strength he really didn't feel.
Silence.
"Yes." Owen decided, and strode forward.
One step. Vincent was looking back and forth between Owen and his guards. Two steps. Vincent felt his grip begin to shake slightly. Three steps. Owen was way too close for anything else...
Too late.
Owen grabbed the bow straight out of his hand. Disarmed, Vincent tried to back away, as both Riverfolk charged forward, and took him by the arms. Owen made a quick, methodical search of him for any concealed surprises and found nothing.
Owen stepped back and took the moment to just stare at Vincent. "Two years, Vincent; and not one thing you've ever done has surprised me. But I am surprised you came back. So what the hell is happening here?"
Vincent gave him nothing.
Owen just glared. "Fine. You can tell me... or you can tell Him."
Vincent shuddered. In a few minutes, Vandark would be grilling him personally. A few minutes after that, Gill would go ahead with the contingency plan and... A great sense of calm washed over Vincent suddenly. It was over. There was never really much of a chance, but as long as there was one, Vincent was on the hook. But now it was finished. The plan had fallen apart.
But even so, Vincent couldn't help but glance at his watch. Twenty five minutes left. He told himself, as he was taken to meet Vandark.


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

If you're enjoying 'The Lostkind', but don't want to wait for the next chapter, you can get the whole thing here in ebook and paperback format.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Seventeen: Rule One: Be Invisible


In the Archives Room of the City Planner's office, Gill and Vincent had been busy. The two of them had converted the back of the room into an open space, large enough for their purpose.
Vincent was working from memory, but it was a fair approximation of the projectors in the Round Table Room.
"Two projectors and a smoke machine to create the hologram." Vincent began pointing them out. "Two cameras, circa 1950 to record and transmit the image being projected in real time. The cameras are pointed at me here, and the Projectors intersect over the smoke at the other end. When someone is projected there, we now have the ability to have a conversation. It's the only outside line the Underside has, at least that I know of. It's the only way they talk to other communities like them."
"So, they're listening to us right now?" Gill guessed, looking at the smoke.
"No, we're not transmitting. The cameras and the transmitter are all fifty years out of date, so there shouldn't be anyone else on that frequency. It's like watching an analogue channel on a digital TV."
"What if they've changed frequency at some point since the fifties?" Gill asked carefully.
"Jeez, Gill. I'm just glad we're transmitting at all. The only way the plan works out as a happy ending is if I can get a message through. The fewer liberties we take with this, the better. That's why I needed original equipment."
"Lets synchronize our watches." Gill said.
Vincent nodded and checked his watch. "Eight hours... go." They both started their watches, beginning the countdown.
"Why not just send them a message from up here?" Connie demanded. "Why do you have to go back?"
"Because if nobody's come to talk to me or Tecca? Odds are good that the Bad Guys won. Vandark's smart. He'll keep anything I can throw at him a secret. This only works if they all hear me."
"The Whisper Gallery?" Connie hissed, worried.
"The Whisper Gallery." Vincent agreed, determined.
Heavy silence. Connie sent Gill a look, and the man found something fascinating to do on the other side of the room.
Connie stood close to Vincent and spoke in a low voice. "I managed to arrange a surprise vacation to my mom's." She explained. "I can be there for a week or so. If you need me here, nothing's promised."
"No. You should go." Vincent told her. "This plan goes bad… Vandark might come looking for you. I need Gill here, but I'd rather you be safe."
Connie sighed. "Never thought I'd be fleeing the city." She smiled at him, just a little. "I've been hanging with a bad crowd, huh?"
"Looks that way." Vincent peeked at her out of the corner of his eye. "But why don't you say what you really want to say?"
Long silence.
"Don't take him with you." Connie whispered. "The Underside cost me you, it's almost cost me my brother, it cost Tecca his grandmother… It can't have him too."
"Connie..." Vincent sighed. "I've been terrible to you, I know. But for what it's worth... Tecca will be back soon."
"Meaning?"
"Meaning New York isn't his home, the Underside is, but Tecca won't be coming with me, and if you're going to run… do it soon and take him with you." Vincent said.
~oo00oo~
Outside the City Planner's Office, Drew was perched on the hood of his parked car, with Benji and Tony waiting in the backseat. Tecca was pacing impatiently back and forth in front of the car, waiting for an answer.
Drew put out a hand and stopped him. "Kid, will you hold still? You're making me nervous."
Tecca reined himself in with difficulty. "You're Connie's brother?"
"Have been all her life." Drew confirmed. "You one of the kids from her Clinic?"
"Technically, yes." Tecca admitted. They were silent for a moment before he continued. "She wants to adopt me."
Drew reacted. "Well. That's big."
"It's a first for me too." Tecca admitted. "Thing is, I kind of like the idea."
"Connie says she's about to explain what the hell is happening." Drew said. "But I'm guessing you already know, huh?"
Tecca glared. "It's not something we talk about. Ever. Ev-er!"
"Connie trusts me." Drew offered. "Does that buy me anything?"
"Yes." Tecca said honestly. "That's why I decided not to kill you before they could tell."
Beat.
"Well… welcome to the family then." Drew said awkwardly.
They were saved from further conversation when Gill, Connie and Vincent came out of the building, a shared look of determination on all their faces.
"We're ready." Vincent said firmly. "Drew, Benji, Tony… thank you so much for getting it all together for me."
"Are you going to explain what's going on now?" Drew demanded, fed up at last.
"Yes." Connie said softly. "And you're a Prince for being so patient with me."
Vincent wrapped up the little meeting. "Connie, tell your brother the story. Tecca, you're coming with me, Gill…"
"Set up a Press Conference." Gill said for him. "On it. This works, I'm fired. You know that, right?"
"I do." Vincent sighed. "I'm really very sorry for that."
"Don't be." Gill said easily. "The best thing about the job was the late night poker games. Stupid Gambler's Anonymous."
Vincent shook his best friends' hand. "Thank you for… well, for all of it."
Gill nodded, swallowing. "Thank you for… ahh, you know."
"Men." Connie breathed disgustedly. "Just can't say anything can you?" She stepped forward and hugged Vincent tightly. "Be safe."
Vincent hugged her back. "I will." He turned to Tecca. "We have to stop by my place first. I need some equipment. You ready?"
Tecca nodded, filled with a fierce energy. "Let's move."
~oo00oo~
Vincent took his time, gathering what he'd need, making sure he had everything. He sent one last look around his apartment, very aware that he might never see it again. It was the last chance he had to listen to doubt. Connie was half right: It wasn't really his war. He wasn't one of them, he just knew about them. He'd helped out hundreds of homeless people as well. He wasn't considered part of their family either...
His eyes slid unconsciously to the windowsill, half expecting to see Yasi perched there. What would she do? He asked himself. She'd protect her own.
You failed to protect yourself from the Riverfolk, you didn't pass any of Yasi's tests... You didn't say anything against Owen, or even try to save your own life in the Underside... History says you're not ready for this. Vincent closed his mind to the questions. If he went, he was probably going to get himself killed. But if he didn't even try, he'd never forgive himself.
Taking a deep breath, Vincent turned to go. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror... and froze.
The long coat Yasi had given him went down past his knees. The hiking boots were far more appropriate for the Underside than office shoes. He took the old Lostkind Lantern, his first memento of the Underside, and clipped it to his utility sling, slung over his chest like a bandoleer. He took the red Riverfolk goggles, just in case he couldn't risk using the light. He hesitated at the weapons, but eventually took the knife he'd been issued, and the crossbow Yasi had let him keep after the battle of the Seven Steps. That left the charm bracelet, made for him in another life by the homeless children. The people who fell through the cracks of the world had thanked him for noticing them. He didn't dare wear it around his neck, so he tied it around his upper arm instead.
He'd never realized it, but his every action for the last three years had been combining to complete this look, and make him ready for this moment. He looked the part. He was dressed in a bohemian mixture of modern and medieval. He was a steampunk urban warrior, looking like something outside the normal world.
He wasn't a New Yorker any longer.
He was Lostkind.
~oo00oo~
Tecca's jaw dropped when he saw Vincent step out of his apartment, and lock the door behind him. "Huh."
Vincent left his door key under the mat, and spread his arms a little. "What do you think? Will I blend in?"
"Well... yeah." Tecca guessed. "But I don't know what you expect to do... You cannot possibly take them." Tecca said bluntly. "You look like us, but... If Yasi couldn't stop him, I doubt you can."
"Doesn't matter. I'm not going to fight Vandark. I'll never succeed." Vincent said honestly. "But I've got an insurance policy."
"Meaning?"
"Meaning, if anything bad happens to me, it won't matter. Vandark will still lose."
~oo00oo~
Tecca had led the way out of the apartment building, to the nearest manhole. Waiting until the street was empty, the boy produced an odd shaped piece of metal like a conjuring trick, and used it to lever up the manhole cover. The boy moved with experienced ease, having done it a million times. Vincent had always exited this way, but never entered.
Tecca didn't even hesitate, leading the way down the pipe, until they came to a maintenance hatch. "Phone exchange." He told Vincent. "The city fixes phone circuits through here. Try not to bump anything."
The exchange passage was narrow and filled with electronic bits and pieces, and Tecca led him through. There was a chalk mark on the floor. One of the Lostkind's glyphs. "The door only opens from the other side, but the Labyrinth is right below our feet now." Tecca explained.
"Let's go then."
Tecca held up a hand. "So. If you do manage to do... whatever the hell it is you're planning to do? What then?"
"Then Vandark loses, and the Lostkind win. Either way, the bad guys are done."
Tecca was staring blankly. "Okay. We're not going in until you tell me what you're planning to do down there."
"Well, you're half right." Vincent said, turning to face the boy squarely. "I'm not telling you anything, but you're not going to come with me, so it hardly matters."
Tecca took a step back instinctively. "You still need me."
"No, I don't. If you don't let me in this way, there are a hundred others I can try. I need a Watcher I can trust." Vincent challenged. "Not the kid traitor that let Owen loose, and left secret messages for the Riverfolk."
Tecca froze for a microsecond, and then reached for his belt.
"Looking for this?" Vincent probed, holding up Tecca's knife. "Connie took it off you when you were enjoying your ice cream sundae."
Pause.
"How did you know it was me?" Tecca asked nervously, not bothering to deny it.
"You missed." Vincent said simply.
"What?"
"When the Riverfolk attacked me, Wotcha gave you the crossbow. She took a beating to distract them... and you missed."
"I could have just missed. It's harder than it looks."
"I know. That's why I didn't say anything to Yasi." Vincent just looked at him. "But it turns out I didn't have to. She knew it was you." He started counting on his fingers. "You were there when they met their first Wildman Warrior in the Labyrinth, and probably slipped him the poison. You were there when Owen was a prisoner, and with the rope, you could have levered the hatch open. You knew that Yasi and I were close, and Owen was able to use that knowledge when Yasi had him prisoner. And you knew when the attack would come, which was something that even Yasi didn't know. That's why she sent you up to me." He glared. "I didn't need you to find a door, kid. After three years, I got friends in all the ignored places in this city. But I needed to be sure. And you didn't even bother to deny it."
Tecca swallowed, but when he spoke, it was with the fiery passion of a true believer. "We've been eating out of garbage cans!" He snapped. "Stealing garbage for food. Doesn't matter if it wasn't rotten; it was still refuse to you people! Ever since my grandmother was my age, that's the way it's been. I tried to convince her that we could live like Kings. Vandark understood that. So did Owen. I tried to convince Wotcha! She said I was being silly. Silly! For wanting her to be comfortable and powerful instead of pretending she had to sleep in the gutter, she thought I was 'being silly'. Well I refuse to live like that when I get old. I'm gonna be a King!"
Vincent scoffed. "The hell you are. I'm going in there, and I'm going to win this thing. And if I die, my 'insurance package' will still do the job. If Yasi's alive, she'll be by to see you soon. If she's dead, Vandark will still blame you. It took me a week to set this up, and Vandark's going to wonder why you didn't warn him." Vincent's voice turned to pure iron. "It won't take him long to realize that you were too busy eating ice cream with Connie."
Tecca paled.
"So. You still want to go down there?" Vincent challenged. "Because it's going to be worse for you than it will for me; and that is saying something."
Tecca swallowed.
"Run." Vincent growled, and stalked down the tunnel, not looking back at him. Tecca ran and Vincent checked his watch. Six hours, forty minutes.
~oo00oo~
Vincent was swallowed by darkness the instant his feet touched floor. Feeling around on the top of his head, he pulled the goggles down to his eyes, and was able to see in front of him, enough to make out the walls.
What so few people realize about a Labyrinth is that all the walls are connected. He thought to himself. The only ways in are above floor level since they all lead up to the surface, and the only way out is the Entrance to the Underside. The entire maze is all one wall that branches off into confusing twists and turns. To find your way out, albeit slowly, all you have to do is put your hand on a wall and keep following it.
It was a very slow, roundabout route, but it was a reliable one.
Vincent adjusted the Riverfolk goggles, the pitch black now a dim red, and he started making his way deeper into the Underside.
~oo00oo~
Benji looked terribly disappointed as Connie finished telling the three of them the whole story. "No Buried Treasure?"
Connie ignored him, eyes focused on her brother. "Drew? You okay?"
Drew just stared at her. "I'd like the truth now, please."
Benji piped up again. "Oh it's true, I saw Vincent's maps. But I thought it was... meh. Secret City is much less interesting."
Tony just looked at him. "Less interesting?"
"Buried treasure, we can spend it. Secret City, there's not much point if we know about it; they'll never let us go."
"They let Vincent."
"CLAM UP!" Drew shouted at his two friends and glared at Connie. "Come on, sis. What the hell is really going on?"
"Drew, you know me..." Connie pressed.
"Yeah, I do. I remember you making up stories all the time." Drew snapped. "Look around this apartment, there's not one true story to go with any of your stupid junk."
Connie twitched. Benji and Tony leaned back in their chairs, suddenly silent, trying to become absent from the conversation.
Drew immediately deflated. "Sorry, that was way too... Sorry."
"Drew, if I was going to make something up, I'd pick something a hell of a lot more believable than this." Connie said softly.
"I don't believe it." Drew said finally. "If it were true, I can't believe you'd want out. I've seen you at the clinic, at the Soup Kitchen... You love the kids and you'd have a whole city's worth of people to take care of..."
"Why would I have to look underground?" Connie retorted. "There's plenty of Lost Boys right here on the surface."
"Like Tecca?" Tony offered, and they both turned to him. "I noticed what looked an awful lot like official papers on your breakfast table."
"You had breakfast at Connie's?" Benji jumped in. "And you didn't bring me?"
Drew spun on Connie. "Don't tell me... You want to adopt this kid and you think he comes from Neverland?"
"Neverland was in the sky." Benji countered and everyone ignored him again.
"I don't think it, I know it. He does too." Connie told Drew.
Drew paused, stuck between not believing and not wanting to believe.
~oo00oo~
Vincent saw the light change and pulled off the goggles. He could see a light ahead. He'd done it. He had found his way through the Labyrinth. The first time he came here, Yasi had lead him to an underground channel that led straight to Twelfth Level. On his way out with Connie six months before, he'd seen more of the geography. He had no idea where he'd come out now, but was amazed to see there were almost a dozen exits from the Labyrinth meeting to form a much larger tunnel. It had to be the Main Entrance. He could hear two Riverfolk guards talking to each other, and here and there he could see signs of recent construction... and destruction alongside it.
Yasi collapsed the tunnel, and somebody rebuilt it. He thought numbly to himself. Whatever happened, it's well and truly over now.
He tried to creep along the edge of the walls but there was little to no point. There were two Riverfolk guards. Vincent crept along as silently as he could, looking for an opportunity to sneak past them... And they whirled toward him. Vincent couldn't detect the slightest sound from his footsteps, but they had both spun as if shot.
"Take me to your leader." He demanded, proud of the way his voice held steady.
The two Riverfolk looked at him, unimpressed.
"Kill him." One said simply to the other.
"Okay, McCall; here we go." Vincent told himself bravely, and pulled out the crossbow.
The Wildmen looked at him, looked at the weapon in his hand.
And started laughing.
Vincent gripped the crossbow. Well, this plan is going well.
The Riverfolk moved in, drawing their familiar curved knives, as he took aim... And froze. He couldn't fire. Oh come on! Vincent raged at himself in a panic. You knew this was going to be... Come On!
It was no good. They were getting in too close and Vincent couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. He scurried backward, trying to get some room, trying to get out of reach...
The nearest one picked him up by the throat and Vincent felt his feet leave the ground, feet kicking against the faceless monster uselessly. Vincent had his fingers dug into the Riverfolk's wrist, trying madly to get some air as it all started to go black...
There was the sound of metal rasping, and a distant cry of pain, as the hold around his throat vanished. Vincent came back to consciousness painfully, as his vision cleared, and he saw the Riverfolk that had dropped him in the middle of a knife-fight with a Shinobi in a hooded cloak. The second guard was already down, probably before either of them knew he was coming.
Vincent's vision was still blurred, but clearing, as the two warriors moved around each other like switch-blades, slashing in and out of reach.
The Shinobi ducked around to the Riverfolk's left, and the guard made a full bodied swing that left him completely off balance. It was all the opening the ninja needed, driving his blade in under the Riverfolk's guard.
Vincent's throat burned for a moment, as the hooded figure stalked over to him, and pulled back the hood. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Vincent choked on a short bark of laughter. "Dorcan?" He croaked. "I can't believe I'm happy to see you."
Dorcan pulled him up. "You picked a hell of a time to come and visit." He glanced back at the two dead guards. "We better get moving. They'll have friends coming for them soon." He gestured at the tunnel. "Go home."
"Dorcan, I'm staying."
"No, you're not." Dorcan said directly. "There's a war going on down here."
"I know." Vincent took a deep breath determinedly. "I'm down here to win it."
Dorcan tried to hide the pity on his face. "Vincent, no offense, but what I've seen tells me that you wouldn't be much good in a fight."
"I agree." Vincent admitted. "I'm not here to fight this war, I'm here to end it. Today."
That got Dorcan's attention, and the Shinobi stared at him. "Yeah?"
"Yeah."
Dorcan glanced around for a moment, and gestured for Vincent to follow him. "Hurry. This way."
They ran off down a side tunnel together, heading deeper into the Secret City. Vincent checked his watch. Four hours left...
~oo00oo~
"I can't get over how normal this place seems."
"It's an old conqueror trick." Dorcan explained quietly. "Make it seem like nothing has changed, so why would the conquered people bother complaining about it?"
Dorcan had led him to the Seven Steps. The Bazaar had reopened, and with more loads coming in every day.
"Back on the surface, there are pictures in the paper." Vincent said quietly. "Things stolen out of warehouses and supermarkets. They think it's gang crime, because all the crime scenes had a calling card." Vincent tilted his head toward one of the banners. "Vandark's Icon? That's the mark they left."
"He's breaking Rule Number One." Dorcan said viciously. "When we leave a glyph we put it places nobody ever finds them unless they're looking. Certainly places nobody would ever photograph and put on the news."
"You should make that point clear to people." Vincent said quietly, when he noticed a tiny figure scribbling on the walls. Three Rules, Always. Vincent read the Graffiti as the Gremlin ran for it. "Okay, so I'll just shut up then."
Dorcan grinned without mirth. "We tried to be more obvious about it. The plan was to have Archivist use those reasons, tell them he was alive, and end by inciting an uprising, so we could use the diversion to grab Yasi."
"Yasi's alive?" Vincent let out the breath like he'd been holding it for a year. The relief almost made him fall to his knees, as he started babbling. "God, I was afraid to ask, because I knew the answer wasn't going to be something I liked, and I knew that you would tell me the truth, and I'd still have to do this, and it'd be harder if I knew that-"
"Pull yourself together, you idiot!" Dorcan hissed, almost holding Vincent upright. "People are looking." He grit his teeth. "The plan didn't work. Vandark took Yasi with him to the Whisper Gallery, and our brilliant idea to win a few hearts and minds ended with her watching her dad get gunned down."
"Did it help?" Vincent demanded, with far more intensity than Dorcan expected.
"Sort of. They're still not fighting, but they're not taking this lying down either. Archivist managed to get across what was really happening... Living in secret has all kinds of rules, but every Lostkind has the Big Three tattooed to the inside of their eyelids."
"Have the Riverfolk broken the Rules?" Vincent demanded swiftly. "There's graffiti all over the place with the Three Rules Slogan. Have the Riverfolk broken those Three Rules?"
"No, they wouldn't." Dorcan shook his head. "Just Vandark's guys. The Riverfolk are allies, but they're not really the same. They can't go much higher than Twelfth Level anyway. The highest I've ever seen them go was where we met up."
Vincent grinned. "We might just have a chance here."
"What exactly is this big plan of yours?"
The tone of the crowd changed suddenly, everyone speaking faster and more often, but in hushed voices. It took a few seconds to notice it, but at the top of the Seven Steps, Vandark had arrived. Vincent felt his heart stop at the sight. Last time he'd seen the Warlord, he was wearing casual clothes and a jacket. Now he was wearing a cloak and battle armor, surrounded by warriors.
He was terrifying. He was untouchable, in complete control, unafraid.
With a smooth charismatic smile on his face, Vandark's gaze swept over the crowd, and Vincent felt a wave of terror wash over him. Did he see me? Does he know? I'm supposed to beat this guy? Come to his Throne and knock him off it? Spastic laughter gripped Vincent's chest, and Dorcan elbowed him. This is insane. What was I thinking?
Vandark spoke, his voice was filled with power and confidence, rolling over those listening like a living thing. "The Underside has been fully repaired. The wounds of the last week are gone. The time of violence is over, and there are greater heights on the horizon. More than rebuilding, we will prosper. Already, you're seeing the signs. Who can deny that your needs are not only being met, but being excelled? Every man woman and child here will not only eat, but eat gloriously. You will not only have places to live, but I will make them palaces. New York is ours now. Pick any prize, any work of art, and I will bring it to you. This is the start of Good Things."
"My Lord!" A voice called out. "My name is Lasa. Today I ate crème brule, when I would have been happy before with dry bread."
A low murmur broke out as the man who spoke jumped up, climbing the stairs toward Vandark. "Today I left my chamber, and when I returned I looked at all the new things brought in. Treasures I never would have considered. I never would have thought we could have so much."
Vandark was pleased. "Lasa, my friend... There's only better to come!"
"My son would have loved to see the future of this place." Lasa called out powerfully, as a knife slid out of his sleeve into his waiting palm. "His name was Tyla. And you blew him up to get through the Throne Room last week."
Everyone yelled and ducked to the floor as the man hurled the knife toward Vandark, close enough that Vincent could see the spinning blade. Vandark's guards were too far away to react in time, but Vandark didn't even duck. Everything seemed to drop into slow motion for a moment...
Vandark moved, and when his hands clapped together, it was like a crack of thunder in the suddenly silent cavern.
Everything. Froze.
Lasa was still standing with his arm extended from the throw. Vandark had his hands together in front of his face, having caught the thrown knife flat between his palms. For an endless millisecond, everyone just stared at the unhurt Lord of the Underside.
A moment later, Vandark threw the knife back, sending it flipping end over end until it caught Lasa square in the chest. The would-be assassin went sprawling down the steps and chaos broke out instantly. Those closest to Lasa tried to stop the Riverfolk from getting to him, the Riverfolk tried to pull the crowd out of the way, and things erupted instantly into a full scale riot over three levels of the Seven Steps.
Vandark actually looked sad. "We have a lot of work to do." He said calmly, and stalked off the way he came. Yasi was dragged along behind him, kicking and clawing for all she was worth.
Vincent turned away, unable to look... And came nose to nose with Owen. His former co-worker had a fierce look on his face, and the two Riverfolk coming up behind him didn't look happy either.
"Run!" Dorcan hissed, and Vincent turned from Owen, trying madly to keep up with the Shinobi as the guards chased after him, all of them desperately trying to push their way through the chaos.
"Get'im!" Owen shouted, barely audible over the crowd.
The crowd pushed against them without being aware of their presence. The two of them forced their way through, getting buffeted back and forth by the riot.
"We can't go up!" Vincent shouted as loud as he could, barely able to hear himself.
Dorcan nodded. "Not toward Vandark! Down!"
The two of them fought their way toward the staircases, and quickly realized they wouldn't make it. The pursuing Riverfolk were shoving their way through, strong enough to toss people out of their way, heedless of the damage they were doing. One of them got caught in the middle of the riot, jumped on by three of the out-of-control Lostkind, buying Vincent precious seconds. The other kept coming.
"Jump!" Dorcan shouted, and the two of them fought their way to the edge of the level, jumping over the side. They fell hard through the canopy of a Market stall on the next Step down, and Dorcan got to his feet first, hauling Vincent up. "Come on!"
They pushed through the crowd, as the Riverfolk took their chance to jump down to chase after them, getting closer.
"We can't drag them through the crowds." Dorcan shouted.
"I agree!" Vincent shouted back. "We're gonna get killed if we stay and fight here."
"Yup." Dorcan shouted over to Vincent. "Sorry about this!"
"About what?" Vincent shouted back, and Dorcan struck. He grabbed Vincent by the belt, and the shoulder, hurling the stunned New Yorker off the Step, far enough out to reach the River below.
Feet first, he exploded into the water, shocked by how cold it was; sinking down. A moment later, Dorcan did the same. A Riverfolk Warrior dove in after them, terrifyingly at home beneath the water. Its curved feet and webbed finger-gloves made swift work of the water, gliding toward the two of them like a shark.
Dorcan shoved Vincent to the side, and pushed off the concrete wall with one boot, hurling himself back toward the Riverfolk. They collided in the water and wrestled, spinning around and around in close quarters, flipping over and over in the water, until Vincent couldn't tell them apart.
Suddenly, they broke apart, and Vincent could see the Riverfolk sinking, as Dorcan was hauling along a small tank with a mask on it. The mask was trailing air bubbles.
Vincent took a deep, grateful breath, as Dorcan pushed the mask against his face. Dorcan then took a breath for himself. Through hand signals, he gestured for Vincent to stay below the water. This proved easy enough, as the weight of his gear was dragging him downward.
Another breath, and Vincent let Dorcan pull the red goggles off the top of his head and put them on. Vincent realized that the goggles didn't just work in the dark, but in the water too.
Another breath, and Dorcan started towing him along the bottom of the River. Vincent became aware of a current and squeezed his eyes shut as the icy, unclean water became darker.
There was no telling how long Dorcan pulled him along, and Vincent was starting to worry, wondering how long the single small tank shared between them would last. He hadn't even seen it carried by the enemy guard Dorcan had dispatched, though he was sure all the Riverfolk had to carry them.
Dorcan dragged them further, until their direction changed, pulling him upward. Vincent fairly exploded out of the water, spluttering for air. He slipped back under the surface a moment as Dorcan released him, and levered himself up out of the water. Vincent kicked, the boots and the coat dragging him down, and Dorcan hauled him up.
They were silent for a long moment, spluttering for air.
Dorcan pulled the mask off his face and checked the tank. "There's enough left for the return trip. Scuba-divers use an oxygen/nitrogen mix to avoid pressure sickness. The Riverfolk use something similar."
"Are we clear?" Vincent gasped out, gripping the floor. "They're not coming after us?"
"You have a plan, right?" Dorcan shook the water off as he climbed to his feet. "I mean, this little game is going somewhere? It would be a real shame to get killed now."
"I know." Vincent promised him. He suddenly noticed the room Dorcan had led him to. The air smelled fresh and clean, but it was noticeably humid in the large chamber. The lights were bright and warm, but muted by the endless hanging vines that seemed to cover every inch of the chamber. The floor was covered in moss and dead leaves, making it seem more like a real, natural place. Unlike the art deco nature of the rest of the Underside, this was a thick lush jungle crammed into the space of a large living room.
Vincent turned to look, and his jaw dropped. "What is this place?"
Dorcan nodded. "This is the Evergreen Chamber." He explained. "The lamps keep the things growing, and since we're underground there are no seasons to make the growth go dormant."
Vincent looked up at the ceiling of the chamber, saw vines growing endlessly across it. The vines were all over the place, as dense as a carpet.
Dorcan followed his gaze. "Passionfruit." He explained. "The vines are creepers; they climb better than we do. The hanging baskets are just to give us more room to grow."
"You grow your own food?"
"We used to." Dorcan nodded. "We never had enough to feed everyone, but... eating fresh leftovers that some supermarket throws away quickly loses its novelty."
"I can understand that." Vincent nodded. "How do you keep the... things, how do you keep the vines in their place?"
"The lamps." Dorcan said simply. "You watch a flower sometime... it follows the sun. We moved the lamps, the plants follow the light."
Vincent nodded and followed. "Where'd you get all the lamps?"
"So full of questions." Dorcan joshed lightly and grinned. "You have any idea how many people in this city were growing… more illicit plants in their closets? Because the number is a lot less than you think. At least, it was once we set up these rooms."
Vincent tried hard not to laugh.
Dorcan looked around. "It's been seven years since we lost this room. There are a few of them spread across the Underside, but this was the first."
"It's beautiful." Vincent agreed.
"The Lost Places always are." Dorcan agreed softly, slumping to the floor.
"What happened seven years ago?" Vincent asked, sitting down.
"The Riverfolk tried to flood out the Twelfth Level. Or at least the Seven Steps. Yasi fought them back and became Captain, but there were still a lot of rooms that got sealed off. This was one of them."
"The Riverfolk know about this place?" Vincent blurted, suddenly worried, looking to the water like it was about to attack him.
"The Riverfolk have enough to do." Dorcan waved it off. "They're combing the Underside looking for us, and they're eating well off Vandark's cargo. I suppose it never occurred to them that we might be hiding in their backyard after all the other places got blown apart."
It was the first chance they had to speak openly and Vincent asked the question that was most on his mind. "Dorcan, what happened?"
Dorcan glared. "You know what happened. Vandark told you his whole strategy." Nevertheless, he told Vincent everything he saw, from the first attack at The Entrance to the moment he and Yasi were separated at the Throne Room.
"How did you escape that?" Vincent asked curiously. "Yasi must have thought you surely died."
"Dumb luck. Archivist took a team to try and save the Whisper Gallery, and he failed. The last of his team got him out of there. Then the Old Man sent them to try and help us, but by then he was on the wrong side of the barricades. They got there just in time to get me free before the whole corridor lit up."
"How many do you have?" Vincent asked curiously. "How big is the Resistance?"
"Half a dozen, plus another five Lostkind that know how to fight." Dorcan counted. "Marketeers, Borrowers... And the Gremlins. They're still all over the place." He pulled a tomato off a nearby bush and tossed it to him, taking another for himself. "So, just to sum up: Owen knows you're back, which means Vandark knows. We're hiding in an underwater cavern, and none of my backup know where; and the bad guys will still have the run of the place once we leave our hiding spot."
"And thank mercy my watch is water resistant enough, because we've only got four hours left to save the Underside." Vincent put in, checking his wrist.
Dorcan looked at him, disturbed. "Save it? From what?"
Vincent winced. "From my plan to save the Underside."
"Ah. Makes perfect sense." Dorcan nodded, nonplussed. "I think it's time you told me what the Grand Plan is."
Vincent bit his lip. "I guess it is. How long do we have down here before they find us?"
"Long enough. My people might find us first. We've got a few hiding places, and we keep moving." Dorcan said honestly. "We'll wait."


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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