Thursday, 14 February 2019

Sixteen: Three Rules, Always


Yasi looked up as the hatch on the Oubliette opened. Owen looked down at her. She smirked at the irony, despite herself. Their positions had reversed; she the prisoner, and him the smug jailer. "Well. Here we are again." She said blandly.
Owen nodded, amused by a similar thought. "Apparently. Can you climb?" He threw down a rope.
Yasi watched it like it was a dangerous snake. Owen said nothing, content to wait, until Yasi uncoiled herself and started to climb the rope painfully. He didn't offer to help her, and she was glad for it. Asking Vandark for help had been crushing. Asking Owen would be more than she could bear.
On their way out of the Dungeons, she found that Vandark had been busy. "How long was I down there?"
"Two days." Owen reported.
Yasi was stunned. "Two days?" In a virtually soundproof cell, dark enough that you were unable to see the nose in front of your face, it was impossible to measure the passage of time.
The last two days and nights had been kinder to the Underside than Yasi would have expected. Riverfolk roamed freely, apparently having the run of the place. It was still as crowded and as busy as ever.
But there was a difference now. The Lostkind that she could see had lost something. Lost their… joy. There was no music playing, no dancing on the steps. The Lostkind were shuffling past each other in the narrow streets, going to and from without looking up. It was almost like being back on the surface during Rush Hour.
Their eyes were on her again. She supposed she was imagining the accusations, but she still felt their blame wash over her. It's your fault, Yasi. She sighed silently in her mind. You could have stopped this eight different ways, but you were so sure you could handle it all by yourself.
Owen led her through the Secret City, and Yasi took the opportunity to look around tactically. The debris and damage of the battle had been cleared away, but the hangings and destroyed doors had not been replaced. Scorch marks were still visible all over the walls and floors, but the walkways and the Stairs had all been cleared. The Market was operating again.
Yasi felt a numb dread spread over her. "The Labyrinth?"
Owen nodded. "We reopened it. Vandark declared that Lostkind that lived here shouldn't be left starving any longer than they need to be; though you certainly made it difficult for us."
Yasi's face hardened at the way he put that, as though it was her fault people had died. "If you were so worried, you could have come at us with food instead of swords, Invader."
Owen didn't bother to respond to that. Yasi's hands were opening and closing at the sight of the Riverfolk making their way around without challenge. They were the only ones carrying weapons. There was no sign of the surviving Wildmen.
Of course. Yasi thought to herself. Vandark will keep his own close by as a personal guard.
The Lostkind didn't seem to be under any duress, but they wouldn't look the Riverfolk in the eye. One or two sent her a hopeful glance, but looked down again quickly.
"I could just kill you." Yasi said tightly to Owen. "I may not have beaten Vandark, but you'd take less than two seconds."
Owen continued to lead her along, not at all concerned. "We have the run of the Underside. If there's anything in here that you care about? We have it."
Yasi didn't bother to respond. She already knew it was true, and she wasn't really interested in playing threatening games with Vandark's flunky. She followed him up a few levels, astounded at how much repair work had been done. The hallways were cleared out, and on the surface, almost all was as it had been before the attack.
"Hold up." Owen stopped her as they reached the lowest Market Level. "You know the rules, largest cargo gets right of way."
Yasi watched in disbelief as the Borrowers filed past, their packs piled high again. Just like a week before.
Here and there, Yasi could see the Gremlins' artwork. It showed the fighting, the bodies, and people repairing the Underside back to what it was.
How is it possible? Yasi asked herself in disbelief. How is it possible a war was fought here two days ago and nothing changed?
But the more they walked, the less Yasi cared, because Owen was taking her to the Chapel. The differences were obvious here. The wounded were still being treated.
The Healers wandered between the cots, helping where they could. The Wildmen were here, getting treated alongside the Shinobi, but they were sitting up in their cots, keeping watch.
One or two of them glared at Yasi the second she entered the room, and she had no problem glaring right back. "Remember me?"
The Wildmen looked at her savagely. They remembered vividly.
Yasi turned from them and saw two Healers standing over a cot at the far end, wearing their full Bird-Masks. They didn't seem to be doing much, giving them the appearance of human-sized vultures standing over the patient. Owen gestured for her to go to them, and Yasi felt her heart lurch at the sight of her mother.
~oo00oo~
Vincent was flipping through old sewer maps when his phone rang. "Hello?"
"I got good news, and bad news." Connie reported. "The good news is that I was able to track down all the parts you need. I couldn't find working cameras, but I was able to get in touch with an enthusiast of sorts who was able to name the brand of camera from the description you gave me. He gave me a set of blueprints, and a list of the parts. I found them all."
"Connie, you're a miracle worker." Vincent sighed in relief. "And the bad news?"
"Shipping is going to be a problem. I'm willing to pay it out, but at best it'll take six weeks to get it all here."
"Six weeks!" Vincent exclaimed. "Is that all?"
"Hey, I can't force US Mail to deliver stuff faster." She took a breath. "There's another option. I can order the parts for pickup, but that would mean going out to each person, and some of them are three states away. You and Gill are working on the transmitter, and I'm keeping Tecca in his seat with a whip and a chair..."
Vincent rubbed his eyes a moment. "Drew."
"Drew." Connie confirmed.
"Yasi's gonna kill me."
"If you're lucky." Connie agreed. "The three of them usually have lunch together. I'll find out where they're nesting today and text you the details."
~oo00oo~
Keeper's eyes opened slowly as Yasi approached, and a smile crossed her blackened face. "You're alive." She murmured. "I thought for sure he wouldn't let you live once…" She drifted a moment, and fought her way back to clarity. "How is it out there?"
"Amazingly normal." Yasi said quietly, signaling the Healers to give them space. "If it wasn't for the damned Riverfolk walking around, you'd think it was just a quiet day."
"How quiet?"
"Dead silence." Yasi admitted. "It looks normal, but nobody's even looking at each other if they can avoid it."
Keeper glanced about. "Kamy came to see me. The Gremlins were routed the day after The Invasion. They haven't been hurt, but Vandark wants to know where they are at all times. The Labyrinth was reopened first, and he started sending the Borrowers back out."
"They all came back?" Yasi was surprised.
"They can't leave everyone else down here to go hungry. Where else have they got to go?" Keeper yawned, starting to drift again. "I don't know what he wants, Yasi… But so far the only people he's hurt are the ones who fight back. He's playing this so perfe..." Keeper drifted off to sleep before finishing the sentence.
"What do I do?" Yasi whispered to her unconscious mother. "The war is over, and we lost, and nobody's being hurt or oppressed. What do I do?"
A shadow fell over them and Yasi's shoulders straightened. She didn't need to turn. She could feel it like electricity in the air. "Vandark."
The new Lord of the Underside stood behind her casually. "The Healers tell me that she'll make a full recovery. So will most of my people. More than I thought would. Your Healers are to be commended. Can you imagine what they would do with full modern hospital supplies?"
Yasi almost let that one go. "Can you imagine how quick they'd get caught out, trying to 'borrow' some?"
Vandark rested his hands on her shoulders, almost against her neck. "Don't hate me, Yasi. Things are going to get better around here soon. Beauty grows back."
Yasi seethed, hating his hands on her, unable to do anything about it. "Why am I alive?" She demanded.
"Because I have elected not to kill you both." Vandark said. "I know how tricky Lostkind can be. I'm one myself. If this was happening to me, I'd have some kind of safety net. A wild card in the back pocket, just waiting for the right moment."
Yasi said nothing.
"So, until I know for sure that I'm secure here, it's best to keep a prisoner as insurance." Vandark said, like he was discussing a to-do list. "Someone the people here will respect, care about... Someone that will quell any unrest, until such time as I manage to make the general population loyal to me. Two of you is dangerous. It allows the possibility of conspiracy, or rebellion."
Yasi ignored his touch on her shoulders, reached out to hold Keeper's motionless hand.
"Yasi, the more I see of this place, the more I wish I'd come in five years ago." Vandark said casually. "You know that half the Gremlins are eating out of garbage cans?"
"Don't try and tell me things are going well." Yasi hissed, keeping her voice low for Keeper's sake. "Look around! You've ruined it! You've killed it! You ruined the Underside."
"No, Yasi. I'm changing it. Transformation is a dangerous process sometimes." Vandark slid his hand down her arm, threading his fingers through hers powerfully. "Come with me. I want to show you why I'm doing this."
~oo00oo~
Drew looked over the list. "So, just to be clear. You need obscure, worthless bits of junk gathered immediately, brought to New York and slapped together into fifty year old versions of things that are freely and easily available on every street corner in the western hemisphere, you need it in full working order, and laid out in a dusty archives room; to the precise specifications that you found on the Internet, in a hundred year old blueprint of a stage magicians set design."
"That's it exactly." Vincent confirmed. Once he'd entered the Diner, he had no trouble locating Drew. He was sitting at a table with Benji and Tony, and there were five plates of food on the table for three people. He'd taken a seat with them and quickly explained what was needed, but not why.
"And... why exactly would I want to take a week off work to go on a roadtrip for this?" Drew demanded. "Have you ever been locked in a car with Benji and Tony for a long drive?"
"Drew, you'd know I'd never inflict your closest friends on you if it wasn't really important." Vincent said honestly. "I'm not cruel, and Connie says that Benji always sticks his head out the window on long car rides anyway..."
Tony glanced over at Benji. "They know we can hear them right?"
Benji nodded his head up and down rapidly. "Uh-huh." He leaned forward. "Vincent, what do you need the cameras for? You could just get a webcam."
"Not for this broadcast we can't." Vincent said absently. "I'd do this myself, but me and Gill have to work out some details..."
"Is this about the buried treasure?" Benji demanded excitedly.
"The what-now?" Drew reacted.
Tony jumped up. "There's buried treasure involved? I'm in."
Drew glared at Vincent. "Oh. Good. Excite them." He said tightly, pointing a finger in his face. "We get back with your junk and you're going to tell me what the hell is going on, and if I am not satisfied with the story, I will do something bad to you." He grabbed his jacket and let out a 'hey-taxi' whistle. "Come on, boys. Road trip."
"So, what's Connie doing while we're all on a scavenger hunt?" Tony asked blandly as they all headed out of the diner.
Vincent sighed. "She's... got another assignment." He said shortly.
~oo00oo~
Tecca woke up with a light moan. "How long was I asleep?"
"Most of the night." Connie reported from the other end of the couch, not looking away from her laptop. "Listen, one way or another, you're stuck up here for a while. I get that you hate that feeling, but I was thinking... it doesn't have to be terrible. There are a few things you've probably never been able to do before."
Tecca was still rubbing his eyes. "Like what?"
"Well, for instance, there's ice cream."
Tecca blinked. "Ice cream? What's that?"
Connie smiled. "I'm glad you asked."
~oo00oo~
Dickie Bricks stared at the board as Checkov grinned at him, patient. "You can stare at the board all you want. The Rook is your only legal move."
Dickie kept looking, undeterred. "There's a way out."
"Find it, would you?" Checkov countered. "You've been staring at the board for over an hour and I am losing the will to live."
"My evil plan is working." Dickie grinned. "Concede the game and I'll let you go."
"Let him have it." A familiar voice put in. "For a dollar in dimes, it's not worth staring at the board all night."
Checkov looked up from the board as Vincent came over. "Haven't seen you for a while."
"Been busy." Vincent conceded. "Dickie, a few years ago, I helped you and your friends out. You said you owed me one, and I told you to forget about it." Vincent drew a slip of paper from his pocket. "I take it back, because I need your help."
Checkov and Dickie traded a look.
Putting the paper between them, Vincent quickly sketched out the Lostkind Marks from memory, the ones that reminded him of Yasi's tribal tattoos. Vincent had only seen a few, used to mark the entrances to the Labyrinth. "I want you guys to spread out, and find these marks. As many of them as you can. And any friends you have with time on their hands? Get them to look too."
Checkov gave the glyph a calculating look. "I have seen these before."
"So have I." Dickie rasped with open worry. "Vincent, you don't want to get into this. The city has marks everywhere. Gang signs, graffiti tags... But this mark?" He tapped it with one dirty finger. "This mark is dangerous."
Vincent nodded somberly. "I know. But I have to do this, and you guys are my best chance. Find all the ones you can. In a day or two, I'm going to bring you a list of places to look that you might not think of. Go to everyone that might help."
"What does it mean, Vincent?" Checkov asked softly. "What does the mark mean?"
Vincent went silent for a long while before answering. "It means... there's still hope."
~oo00oo~
Tecca was actively moaning in delight as he shoveled another spoonful into his mouth.
Connie smiled at him. "Glad you like it. Y'know the best ice cream in the world is Italian gelato. There's a café in Italy that I like to go to whenever I'm in Europe." Her voice dropping seamlessly into 'warm storyteller' mode. "The creaminess just dissolves through your mouth and carries the flavor so that it melts into you with each taste." Connie smiled at him. "Still, no matter how glorious ice cream is, it's always better with a little chocolate topping."
~oo00oo~
Vandark had no apparent fear when it came to wandering around the Underside. He was escorted by three Wildmen wherever he went, but they stayed mostly out of earshot.
The Riverfolk were deferential to him. They did everything he told them to do, even when he went down to the Seven Steps and set up the stalls all over again. What had been torn down by his forces a few days before, was rebuilt by the Riverfolk in less than an hour.
Yasi was struck most by the silence. The Lostkind were everywhere, as usual; but not one of them was talking. They were milling around, like cardboard cut-outs of people trying desperately to play it cool. But Yasi knew they were all watching.
Vandark stepped back after finishing up the repairs to one of the stalls, and looked across the crowd. "When I came to this City, the people here were living off things stolen from dumpsters. Look around, look up. You have the run of the greatest city in the world, and you don't care. More money goes through this city than most countries, and you don't care. Five star restaurants, power and fame, and you don't care. Late at night, you listen to echoes of the greatest music ever written, played by the greatest musicians ever assembled. You should be sitting up there in the front row. At the very least, you should be living like people. Nobody should be eating out of dumpsters. Nobody should be wearing clothes stolen from five different strangers. You deserve better than that!"
Even as he was speaking, the Borrowers were filing along the Seven Steps, bringing their cargo. Vandark himself claimed the first load and began spreading it out. It was food. Not in foil or Tupperware containers like it had always been before. This food was coming in large pots, still steaming. The Riverfolk were quick to assemble burners to warm it up, stack after stack of food boxes were brought to the stalls.
"No trade, no barter, no price!" Vandark declared, his voice carrying in the unusual silence. "It is a gift. A taste of things to come. I came here because my own Underside refused when I made them this offer. Up Above, this food would be slated for judges, lawyers, millionaires and congressmen. The output of the finest five-star caterers in New York City will feed your children tonight. It is exceptional, and it is no less than you all deserve!"
And despite herself, Yasi could feel her stomach growl. A thousand world class meals were being laid out before them, and she hadn't eaten in two days.
Yasi could sense the Lostkind looking at her, waiting to see what she did. Vandark peeked at her over his shoulder as he personally set out the food, and held the bowl out to her. She felt sick. Vandark had kept her hungry for exactly this moment. He wanted her starving enough to pounce on the food he gave her, because once she did, none of the Lostkind would refuse what Vandark was giving them.
The silence hung in the air, and suddenly it was all Vandark and Yasi: One hungry, the other offering five star food, and a thousand eyes waiting for a decision, waiting for permission.
Vandark's face softened after an endless moment, and he picked up two plates. "I understand. You don't trust me. I don't blame you. If it makes things easier on you, we will step out, and leave you to eat in peace." He returned her gaze to Yasi. "Won't we, Yasi?"
Yasi did not respond at first, but had to follow when Vandark left the Twelfth Level. She peeked over her shoulder past the Wildmen, and saw the Lostkind running forward, eager to eat. She caught a glimpse of more of the Borrowers coming in, walking carefully to keep the cargo level.
More food. Vandark isn't letting anyone go hungry. Yasi found herself almost smiling, and a thrill of mortal fear suddenly went through her. If they were hungry, they might fight back.
~oo00oo~
"I feel like half of New York just fell on me." Keeper croaked.
"It was worse than losing the Duel." Yasi was on the floor next to her cot, hugging her knees to her chin. "Keep, we got a real problem here. People are getting more under Vandark than they did under us. Better food, more stuff… Keep, he's going to do it. He'll have bought their loyalty inside six weeks. Even if we think of a way to fight him… It'll be our guys that fight for him."
Keeper smirked crookedly. "Look behind you."
Yasi very slowly turned to look. Kamy was at the other end of the Chapel, casually walking away from a hastily scrawled slogan on the wall.
Three Rules, Always!
Yasi grinned. There was still resistance here. The Invaders had broken the Three Cardinal Rules, and the Lostkind could forgive The Invasion faster than that.
Keeper nodded, knowing what the Shinobi was thinking. "You're worried, because Vandark can improve living conditions. But that's like eating an entire Pizza. It tastes good, it's easy, it's fast. But it'll make you sick, because you're working contrary to what's good for you. Vandark's breaking the rules. That's a hard thing to keep going, and a hard habit to break."
"Keep, doing what's easy and enjoyable, but bad for you... is the wrong way to live, but there are still plenty of people who live that way, and don't care what the consequences are." Yasi sighed morosely. "It's my fault. You and Dorcan and Archivist were right: I froze everyone out. They hate Vandark, but they don't particularly like me. The one reason they all had to follow me anywhere was the certainty that I would protect them... And I failed."
"Maybe so, but the game ain't over yet. Time will tell." Keeper was drifting again, low on energy.
Yasi looked back at the slogan Kamy had painted. Kamy is six years old. She didn't come up with this on her own. Somewhere out there, someone is still fighting.
~oo00oo~
Days passed, and things moved quickly, in both the Underside, and New York.
In the Underside, Yasi slept in the Oubliette, and spent her days under guard by Vandark's side at every step. The Underside had been rebuilt, and the Labyrinth passages cleared. The doors had changed from what the Shinobi knew.
Yasi had asked Keeper where the bodies were put, and nobody seemed to know. Yasi was allowed to visit Keeper, and was quietly made aware of a few facts. The surviving Shinobi had escaped capture, but nobody had heard from them since The Duel.
Vandark had made an effort to find them, and failed. Yasi hesitated to grin, knowing that the resistance was the only reason she was alive. In the week since the Victory of the Wildmen, the Resistance had done nothing more than put up the slogan, like the Resistance Fighters of old: Three Rules, Always!
Those were the only rules that Vandark was breaking.
The food kept coming, and it was excellent. The Watchers brought in new information that tabloids would kill to get, and Vandark began stockpiling it. The Whisper Gallery had to be reopened as a result.
The Riverfolk had become Vandark's police force, and had the run of the Underside. One or two took advantage, causing trouble for the Lostkind. Vandark's few Wildmen put a stop to it, permanently; and the Riverfolk behaved themselves.
To all appearances, it was peaceful. There were no riots, demonstrations, or brawls with the Invaders. Vandark's rule had gone out of its way to make the Lostkind comfortable.
On the surface, things were happening quickly. Drew and his friends made their trip, collecting the items on the list. Vincent's friends, a network of people that nobody else wanted, were eager to help someone who had gone out of his way to treat them with respect and kindness, gathering information the same way the Watchers did.
Connie worked with Vincent when Tecca wasn't watching. Connie knew most of the same Homeless people Vincent did, both from the Soup Kitchen and the Free Clinic; and she took messages for him. She was more than a little surprised to see Tecca had stayed when she went home. Her apartment had a spare room, and Tecca had nowhere else to go. Every night she would come home and find him waiting for her. The two of them had slipped into domesticity with surprising ease.
After a week, Connie knew they were rapidly approaching the point where it couldn't last, and Tecca did too. They had carefully avoided all mention of the future, but it was time to force the issue.
~oo00oo~
Gill was parked out the front of Connie's building, with Vincent in the passenger seat. "Vincent." He said quietly. "Are you sure?"
Vincent didn't answer right way.
Gill turned to look at him properly. "Once you do this, there's no going back."
"I know." Vincent decided finally. "But I have to try." He held out the folder. It was bulging with printouts, and scraps of paper with locations across the city and other miscellaneous notes written in various scrawls. "Everything I could find in the Archives Room, everything I could get from memory, everything that my friends below the Poverty Line could find in time. It's all here. Every entrance to the Secret City that we can find." He gave Gill an intense look. "You understand what I'm giving you?"
Gill nodded respectfully. "I'll do the job, Vincent. I'll do it right; I swear."
~oo00oo~
"Tecca, there's something I want to discuss with you." Connie said quietly as she placed the hot chocolate in front of him.
Tecca looked up at her over the rim of his mug, instantly on guard. "What?"
Connie stayed calm. She had spent years with the kids at the Clinic. Children from the streets, or from rough homes were always on guard, and had a very good grip on the harshest parts of reality. Any conversation with them was done with a measure of suspicion.
Connie spoke briskly and professionally. She was negotiating a tough deal. "I like having you here. But sooner or later, somebody's going to notice."
"Nobody sees a Watcher." Tecca scorned.
"Even so, it's been a week." Connie pressed on. "I was wondering, if you'd be willing to do me a favor."
"What kind of favor?"
"Well, there's something I never told you about me and Vincent..."
"You wanted kids, and he didn't." Tecca cut in. "You think it was because part of him was hoping to go back to the Underside."
Connie paused. "Yes." She said simply. "Thing is... I'm not as young as I used to be... Having a kid is hard enough at the best of times. So I was hoping you might be willing to do me a favor and be sort of a trial run."
Tecca bit his lip. "What do I have to do?"
"Well, basically you'd pretend I was your mom. You know, like that woman who always brought you into the Clinic. You had me fooled for three years before I found out about the Lostkind. You seemed like a natural."
"You want me to pretend to be your kid?" Tecca seemed stunned.
"I think it'd be good for you. You'd be able to go to school, you'd be able to graduate... You'd be able to stay here as long as you wanted."
"I can go to school?" Tecca's head tilted. "I've never been to a school before. Archivist teaches the kids in the Underside. I remember some of the Watchers telling me about when they were kids. Seemed interesting." He kept his jaded eyes on hers. "Different to what I'm used to."
Connie nodded, and slid a plate over. "Have a cookie."
Tecca looked at the plate like there were strings attached, but took one. "Food's good here." He admitted finally.
Connie held her breath and pulled a few folded pages out of her pocket, setting them down on the table.
"What are they?" Tecca asked around a mouthful of cookie.
Connie took a breath. "Adoption papers."
Tecca froze mid-chew, and swallowed thickly. "Why are you doing this?"
"That's not an answer." Connie said gently.
Awkwardly, Tecca began to answer her, when there was knock on the door. Connie gave Tecca an imperious look. "Saved by the bell."
Despite himself, Tecca smiled back at her.
Connie opened the door to Vincent who gave her a steady look. "Show time." He said simply.
Tecca froze. "What do you mean?"
Vincent gave Tecca a level gaze. "We're going back."
Connie looked stricken, and Tecca rose to his feet smoothly.
~oo00oo~
The Throne Room had been repaired too. Where once there was a table that everyone gathered at, and three seats for her, Keeper and Archivist… now there was just Vandark's Throne.
He had taken meetings every morning, getting reports from the Borrowers, giving orders to the Watchers, mediating disputes, and answering questions. Very few were willing to ask questions, and Yasi was slightly sick to see that they were coming to him at all.
Vandark was polite, reasonable, patient... And Yasi hated every minute that she spent there, hands bound. He'd used her as a coat rack, putting his cloak around her shoulders as he held court. Despite herself, she found she was nodding along with him, agreeing with half the things he said.
The Watchers were given new orders, no longer following the Homeless and the Urban Explorers; now turning their eyes on the wealthy. Power-brokers all over the city now had shadows that they did not recognize. Their homes were being invaded and searched with practiced skill. Each Watcher knew the penalty against his or her loved ones. The Powers Above were having all their dirtiest secrets and hidden loves collected and cataloged for later use.
Vandark took time after each ruling to explain his reasoning, and this was no exception. "Over the last few days, our people have been eating well." He pronounced.
They're not your people. Yasi thought silently.
"They received Gourmet food from the finest chefs in the city. In New York, that's world class." Vandark continued. "Some have asked where it all came from, and now I'll tell you. The right piece of paper in the right office can give us access to huge amounts of money. A few moments with a phone and the right set of numbers can make people jump to work. Taking a driver's uniform gives us secrecy, and just like that, we all eat like Kings." Vandark took a moment to let that sink in. "Why the hell haven't you guys been doing this all along?"
Because we can't get away with it for long. Yasi thought silently.
"The Chief of Surgery at St Luke's is considering retirement, and his staff are angling to impress him. The right bit of blackmail at the right moment could be the decider. My faithful servant Owen is, at this moment, meeting with one of the Candidates, securing a supply of the most innovative medicines New York can offer, in exchange for his rivals secrets. Your Eyes can decide the rise and fall of empires. Imagine what your dedicated Healers can do with more medicines coming in. We can start by improving our lot in the world, but that's only the beginning."
Our lot only needs improving because you burned it all down. Yasi retorted silently.
Vandark dismissed the Local Lostkind, and turned to his Wildmen Warriors. "Don't worry, I won't forget you. You've followed me, and we have prevailed. And as Victors, we are entitled to the spoils of war." He went through his team, one by one. "Dagny. Pepsi will win the Cola Wars within the year."
Dagny grinned, and his teams chuckled in a good-natured way.
Vandark went to the next. "Nutt, the next time Manchester United is in town, you have free reign."
"They'll never win a World Cup again!" Nutt crowed, and everyone laughed.
"What about you, sir?" One of the Wildmen called to their Leader.
Vandark grinned over at Yasi. "I have all the Prize I need."
And then, suddenly, a voice whispered gently from the walls, echoing from all directions. "Three Rules, Always."
Vandark stiffened, as did everyone else in the room. Yasi struggled not to jump to her feet.
It was Archivist's voice.
"Our homes have been invaded, and our hiding place burned out." Archivist declared, his voice resonating from the steam pipes. "We have accepted these things quietly because we have been allowed to stay in our chambers, and our lot has improved. On the surface, there is relief."
"The Whisper Gallery." Vandark took his cloak from around Yasi's shoulders, and swept it around himself as he stalked toward the door. "Bring her."
Yasi was pulled roughly off the floor by two of the Wildmen, dragged along behind him.
"Relief that the horrors our imaginations conjured have not come to pass." Archivist continued. "But many oppressors have come with the promise of friendship. Never forget how many of our friends the Wildmen have slain. Never forget that they burned our children. Never forget that we have lived in secret for a hundred years, protected by safeguards that the Invaders have overturned in a day of violence and murder. Three Rules, Always!"
Yasi glanced around as she was practically dragged behind Vandark. The words were going through the pipes, as they did when Vandark challenged her. Everyone was hearing this.
~oo00oo~
Vandark made his way to the Whisper Gallery and found Archivist half-collapsed over the pipes. He looked wounded, but unbowed, a light sheen of sweat across his determined face. He turned to face Vandark, and ignored him completely, eyes focusing instead on the young woman dragged along behind him forcibly.
"Yasi!" He called out in joy, despite Vandark's approach. "Thank God your ali-"
BANG!
Vandark promptly shot him down.
"NO!" Yasi fought her way free of the Wildman holding her chain with a scream, and threw herself down at her father's side.
Archivist was still, and already growing cold. Yasi looked him over. He had been bandaged expertly. Someone had helped him make it this far after he had fought... She pressed on the wound quickly, but it was already too late. Vandark was a crack shot, and Archivist never knew what hit him.
Yasi cradled her father for a moment, hot tears running down her face. A moment later her fingers tightened on him savagely, and her eyes blazed at Vandark, who had the gun pointed at her instantly. "You've still got one parent at my mercy, Yasi." Vandark said simply, not raising his voice. "Not to mention yourself."
Yasi bared her teeth at him, half feral from the rage.
Vandark turned to the trunk of pipes and spoke to the Underside. "In my time as your leader, I have brought you much. I do not forget those who help me and show loyalty. I do not ignore the hard work you have shown already. Instead, I have rewarded it. Look around, and you will see that I am right. But I do not have mercy for those who defy me. If you have a problem, bring it to me. If you have questions, ask them. It's better than starting a riot, and the only way you can challenge me without losing your life."
The pipes always brought the whispers, from the city, from the Underside... With the right pipes closed off, and others opened, he could control the flow of the heat, and the whispers that went with them. From the Underside and the listening Lostkind, there was only silence.
Vandark pressed the moment. "I have killed to claim this place as my own. What do you think I would do to keep it?"
"Vandark." Yasi said darkly. "May I ask a question?"
The Invader was surprised. "Yes."
"Do you know why we don't use guns?" Yasi said, her voice almost unrecognizable under the weight of her anger.
"They're volatile." Vandark nodded. "In enclosed spaces, curved walls, lots of stonework, they can be far more dangerous to friendlies." He held up his own. "That's why mine is the only one you'll find down here."
"No." Yasi said coldly. "We don't use them... because they break the rules. Be Invisible. Be Daring. Be Beautiful. Guns are loud, cowardly, messy, gawd-awful things. They have no beauty, they have no respect, they make killing a game, and they are just bad." She shook her head. "You're alone in the world now, Vandark. Even the Riverfolk know to follow the Code. The Underside is not forgiving to those who do not keep her Rules."
Vandark had provided the Lostkind with food, improved and rebuilt their homes, answered their fears with respect and behaved honorably toward his prisoners, but this made him scoff dismissively. "Hm. I'm sure."
"Mark my words, my lord." Yasi said bitingly. "The Underside is like any other city. It has a pulse, a soul. It has a Rhythm. And you have made Her your enemy. The Secret City Herself is your enemy now. You're already beaten, you just haven't fallen down yet. Your reign here is finished."
And through the steam pipes that spread through the Underside, carrying the whole conversation in both directions to all the Lostkind, a silent roar went between them.
Nobody ate the food Vandark brought them that night.


~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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