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 The cameras and the transmitter are all fifty years out of date, so there shouldn't be anyone else on that frequency.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 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.
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."
"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."
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.
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, if anything bad happens to me, it won't matter. Vandark will still lose."
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."
"How did you know it was me?" Tecca asked nervously, not bothering to deny it.
"You missed." Vincent said simply.
"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.
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.
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.
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?"
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...
"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."


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