Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Nineteen: Rule Three: Be Beautiful

Vincent's head was forced down. He was dragged the length of the tunnels, with one Riverfolk on each arm, dragging him along low enough that his nose was six inches from the floor the entire way. He had no leverage, his feet trailing along uselessly behind him…
There was the sound of a heavy door opening and suddenly the stone ground below his nose was covered in a thick carpet.
A moment later he was dropped, and he forced himself up as far as his hands and knees. He was in the Throne Room, at Vandark's feet. Yasi was at his left, surrounded by three guards, her hands cuffed together, looking down at him in horror.
Vandark looked disappointed. "I kept Yasi alive because I was expecting a trap. I thought there'd be some tricky, clever turnaround that would make trouble. Yasi was my insurance. And now I find out that it was just you?" He turned to Yasi. "You're not seriously telling me he was your last hope?"
"Ohh, I'd be scared right now, if I was you." Yasi said with biting scorn.
Vandark looked from her, back to Vincent. "Why?"
Yasi sighed as Vincent slowly dragged himself to his feet. "I don't know, I'm just trying to buy time until I can figure out what the hell is going on here."
Vincent felt hammer blows strike at his elbow, his kneecap, and his ankle. A millisecond later he was on his hands and knees. Owen brought his knee up and Vincent felt his head snap back at the blow, suddenly on his back and moaning in pain.
Vandark laughed, finding the whole thing to be a huge joke.
Yasi squeezed her eyes shut, unable to bear it any more.
Vincent rolled over to his hands and knees slowly, as Vandark came over, still chuckling. "What did you think you were going to do?" He demanded in open disbelief.
Vincent leaned up enough to raise himself from his hands, and looked up from his knees at the intimidating Warlord. The battered Vincent, actually seeming a lot calmer now, coughed back an answer. "Stealing all the medieval battle gear was a mistake. You broke Rule Number One."
"Oh, don't you start. I get enough of that from this one." Vandark jerked a thumb at Yasi. "The Rules are whatever I say they are now."
"Back on the surface, we had people like that coming into the Office. Thought they could change the way the entire city moved through streets and bridges and tunnels because it suited them. The people that have been there for as long as I have... we know that we can't do that. We try to change that Rhythm, there's chaos to follow."
"Then you should know... you have some chaos of your own coming." Vandark raised his voice. "Owen? Go to the surface. Find everyone that is friends with Vincent... and make sure our surface team knows where to find them."
Owen bowed and left the room. Vincent tracked him with his eyes, but couldn't move.
Vandark smiled cruelly. "I have backup plans too, Vincent."
Vincent was still shaking from the beating he'd taken, but his voice was clear and strong. "Vandark, you have twenty minutes to surrender. You will turn control of the New York Underside to Yasi and withdraw your forces immediately back to whatever hole you crawled out of."
The audacity of the statement was so outrageous that everyone who heard it laughed. Except for Yasi, who stared at him, openly gaping. He saw her mouth form the words silently. What are you doing?
"You will do this immediately and without incident." Vincent finished.
"Well, I'll certainly think hard about that. Now here's my counter offer. Any friends you have on the surface? Their lives are forfeit the second you try anything... and yours was forfeit the moment you came back." Vandark said casually. "Somebody kill him. Klov, you do it."
One of the Wildmen reached down and grabbed a fistful of Vincent's hair, almost indifferently.
The room was shattered by the sound of Klov shrieking as an arrow suddenly pierced through his hand. Vandark looked surprised for the first time, shouting for the guards he'd had on the door.
But it wasn't the guards he'd placed that came in, it was Dorcan's Shinobi, led by Dorcan himself, already reloading his bow.
Yasi's face bloomed into an amazing smile at the sight of her friend, but she wasted no time. In an instant she was slamming her palms, knuckles and feet outward in every direction, her guards taken completely by surprise as she struck, even with her wrists cuffed.
Vandark drew Yasi's sword and charged into the fray, locking blades with Dorcan for a moment, before noticing that Vincent had managed to get past their lines, and out of the Throne Room.
Yasi charged Vandark, slamming into him with a full-bodied, feet first, tackle. It knocked him off target for a moment, and three Shinobi jumped him. Vincent was out of sight, but Vandark wasn't interested in pressing a fight he would most likely win, powering through the three of them like a linebacker. The Riverfolk came running into the Throne Room moments later, giving Vandark a chance to chase after Vincent.
Yasi picked the biggest Wildman guard she could find and dove at him, putting her bound arms around his neck, using her weight and the chain of her handcuffs to bring him down. A moment later she had taken his weapon. "DORCAN! Over here!"
Dorcan broke from the battle long enough to bring his sword over and down through the chain of her cuffs with a quick shower of sparks. "You got this?" She asked quickly.
"I got this." Dorcan nodded and took up the fight.
Armed, angry, and sporting a shiny new pair of bracelets, The Captain of the New York Ninja went hunting.
Vincent was amazed at how little attention he was getting as he ran as fast as he could. His plan had shattered, the only option left was to finish the mission, and see if he could live through it.
The top three levels of the Underside had gone berserk, with the entire resistance launching an attack on the Throne Room, and every guard that could move running to get there.
Absolutely nobody cared about Vincent as he ran in the opposite direction. There was no invisibility, no discretion, no hiding or sneaking. The tunnel had plenty of people in it, and most of them were armed. They weren't packed in, coming along without organization, but any one of them could easily reach out and end his run.
When Vandark entered the tunnel, all the rushing defenders froze, and suddenly Vandark had to push his way through some of his own people.
When they got to the intersections, the Lostkind were there, Borrowers armed with heavy objects from their carts, Gremlins lurking along the edges with trip-wires. The whole Underside was involved, one way or another, in this last ditch effort to free themselves from the velvet grip of an evil man.
It wasn't enough to stop him, barely enough to slow him down. Vandark was an unstoppable force in combat, but it bought Vincent a scant few seconds, enough time to make it to the elevator and get it moving.
Vandark muscled the door to the shaft open, and saw the elevator car climbing above him. He gathered himself for a leap to grab on for the ride, when someone landed square on his back, hanging on by the sword handle that was slung between his shoulder-blades.
"That's my sword!" Yasi growled in his ear.
Vandark slammed his head back into her face. "Takers Keepers!" He shot back, and shrugged her off, clambering up the inside of the elevator shaft.
The doors opened, and Vincent ran for the pipes. They were all where he had set them, probably still open to the entire Underside.
A bullet slammed into the trunk of pipes before him. It had passed by his head so close that he felt the shot graze his hair. The omnipresent faint whispers grew slightly different in pitch as steam leaked from the bullet-hole, sighing out a steady whistling note.
Vincent spun around and found Vandark emerging from the elevator, having climbed up the shaft, and into the elevator itself. Vincent had left the doors open.
Vincent didn't try to run. They both knew it was over.
"Vincent, why did you come back here?" Vandark demanded, with no particular anger. "All you had to do was walk away. I didn't care. Why'd you have to start up? You had to know you couldn't win. Why try for it? Yasi? Pride?"
"I have won." Vincent said simply. "Your tactics have never been about controlling the people, but controlling the options. You forced Yasi to choose between saving me and capturing Owen, you made me choose between protecting her and Connie or winning the game... So here's me, returning the favor. I never thought I could beat you; I thought I could get into this room. And I have."
Vandark studied him, the tiniest knife edge of worry starting to creep in. "How?" He said finally. "What? What did I miss?"
"Nothing." Vincent said honestly. "You were extremely thorough. You spent three years testing out the things you had, the things you could find... You spent two years gathering information for your grand power play, and it paid off. For me."
Sudden silence.
"You will leave this place now." Vincent declared, raising his voice so all could hear it. "Because if you do not, I will expose the New York Underside to the world above. At this moment, my associate is waiting to release all the information that me, my friends, and your man Owen have spent the last two years gathering about the Secret City."
There was a sudden shift in the air, like lightning about to strike.
"The information includes all the new entrances, which have been identified by the Lostkind Glyph, as well as your own Glyphs, which you used when you stole all those things from the surface." Vincent almost had the nerve to smile, but not quite. "So here's an interesting moment in the life of Lord Vandark." He said. "If you can't have it, are you willing to destroy it, and take all your men down with you?"
Vandark's face was stone. "The City belongs to me and mine right now. There are other ways."
"I know you're not worried. You probably have a plan." Vincent said honestly. "But right now, we're talking in front of the Whisper Gallery Steam Pipes. Which means my voice is being carried to every corner of the Underside."
Kamy smiled cruelly at the Riverfolk, as they looked at each other awkwardly, not sure what to do. Sure enough, Vincent's voice was reaching every room, some of them loudly enough to be an announcement, some rooms he was soft enough that they had to strain to hear it, but where once there was whispers echoing off the walls like white noise, there was now Vincent McCall.
"Yasi drilled it into me every time we met: Be Invisible." Vincent's voice said. "It's Rule Number One. And you're willing to break it; but you lost more than two thirds of your faithful warriors. I've been making my way through the Underside for hours, and the Riverfolk are the ones patrolling Twelfth Level. And they've survived for seven years by being invisible, even to the Lostkind. I didn't think that was possible. How do you think they'll react when presented with the prospect of being under a microscope from all New York City?"
"Call your friend off!" Vandark roared.
Vincent waved around the room. "Well, I can't do it from here."
"He can't do it from anywhere."
Both men looked, and saw Yasi framed in the elevator door. She looked miserable, her expression one of utter defeat.
"Gill's on a clock. I gave him the deadline because I knew you'd probably kill me on sight." Vincent gestured to the pipes. "I thought if I could get here in time, Yasi could still get someone to the surface with a cell phone... once you were gone."
Vandark looked to Yasi, and for a moment, Yasi and Vandark were on the same side, two Lostkind trying to keep the same secret. "He won't do it."
"He can't stop it." Yasi shook her head. She actually had tears in her eyes. "We don't have any connection to the Surface. I destroyed the pneumatics before you invaded. There's no signal this deep, just the Round Table Room. And that can't be picked up by anyone without the same equipment. We use it to talk to Undersides across the planet, not across town..."
Vincent piped up. "You were right, Vandark. I couldn't stop you, and I can't save the Underside, but I could save New York, even if you killed me. That decision was made before I ever came back here."
Vandark turned back to Vincent. "What have you done?"
Yasi choked out a wretched laugh. "He's alerted your allies. You were down to half a dozen Wildmen, and the Riverfolk were your only reinforcements. He's just told them that we're having company for dinner."
Vandark paled. "No!"
Vandark's cry echoed across the Underside as Yasi's words proved prophetic. Vandark's Loyal Soldiers had remained in the Throne Room, at the top of the Underside, but the vast complex had been policed and guarded by the Riverfolk. But theirs was an uneasy alliance, as the Riverfolk had their start among the New York Lostkind. The Rules that governed the place were sacred to the Lostkind, and to the Riverfolk. They had tolerated Vandark's defiance of the sacred Three Rules... until now.
Without a word being passed between them, they knew what to do. The Shinobi had driven them out, or forced them to defeat before, and every time it happened, they regrouped beneath the River. And so, all across the Underside, across the Seven Steps, in every Tunnel, in every Chamber... The Riverfolk broke away from their positions.
The Lostkind were being very quiet about it, doing nothing to get in their way, as the Riverfolk vanished into the River, disappearing without a trace. It was what they were best at.
Even the Riverfolk were Lostkind, and they were determined to stay invisible; no matter what.
Yasi glanced to Vincent. "Vandark sealed the Labyrinth when he found out you were here. You can still stop Owen, before he gets to the Surface."
Vincent checked his watch again, and ran for the elevator, catching the crossbow Yasi tossed him on the way out. Vandark let him go, having no reason to stop him.
Neither of them moved, letting Vincent take the elevator and go.
Dorcan and his warriors were too busy to hear the conversation, drowned out by the noise of battle; but the Shinobi were the first to discover the gravity of the shift in loyalties. The Throne Room door, which was crowded with the reinforcements of their enemy, was suddenly empty.
The tide of battle turned, as the Wildmen's numbers thinned, and they realized there was no help coming. Dorcan dove for his bow, and came up with a bolt already notched. "Put up your swords!" He roared.
Yasi had tears rolling down her cheeks. Her world had collapsed.
Vandark's face was stone. His plans had all turned to ashes in his hands.
After an endless beat, Vandark turned to the steam pipes and started resetting them, closing off their voices to the Underside. Her eyes flicked to the gun in his hand, and he snorted, seeming to find it ridiculous as he tossed it aside. It skittered across the floor, unnoticed. Yasi half expected to see a small Gremlin hand reach out from nowhere and snatch it up, but they were alone.
"So." Vandark said.
"So." Yasi agreed.
"If the Powers That Be come down here... The Secret City is still filled with the damage we've inflicted on each other, including the bodies. They'll lock us both away."
Yasi nodded. "Figure they will. I don't know that there's a prison made that could hold either of us for long."
"Probably right, but can you see either of us living like that, even for a little while?" Vandark said practically. "Prisoners? From being Untouchable to being Convicts?"
Yasi raised her hands, letting the severed handcuffs glimmer. "Must say, I didn't much care for it." She choked out another bitter chuckle. "But where else have either of us got to go?"
"Can't go back to Europe." Vandark nodded. "Neither of us exist according to any record anywhere..." He smirked and drew her sword slowly from its scabbard. "Why don't we do ourselves a favor and just kill each other now?"
Yasi glanced to Vandark's own sword, sheathed at his hip. "If you like."
Vandark went from still to lunging so fast that Yasi barely reacted in time. He swung her sword with the speed of a lightning strike, left to right. Yasi was expecting it this time and bent herself backwards, far enough that the sword passed over her. An instant later, she swung her boot upward and caught the hilt of her sword with the kick. The handle flew out of Vandark's grip, and the samurai sword went flying.
They both dove for the blade as it arced. He was closer, she was faster, and caught the Sword of the Shinobi he'd stolen from her with impossible smoothness, her eyes cold and deadly as she spun to point the blade at him. "Takers Keepers." She challenged him eagerly.
Vandark drew his own black scimitar with a smirk. "Indeed."
Owen was shining his torch back and forth as he moved through the Labyrinth... When something hit him from behind, sending him staggering into the wall.
He put a hand on the wall and spun around, his torch waving wildly... And he came nose to nose with a pair of enormous, glowing, red eyes. He fell back in horror and felt his spine smack into the wall.
Everything froze for a second as Owen got a clear look past the goggles. "Vincent?"
Pow! Vincent hauled off and slugged him hard across the jaw. Owen reeled back from the blow and went face first into the wall. The double impact of the punch and the concrete sent him sinking slowly to the floor, unconscious.
"Been saving that one up for months, buddy." Vincent grinned, and went running back into the Underside.
Yasi was faster than he was, but not nearly as strong. She had learned many of his moves, but he had plenty more to draw on. She had the trick of it now, knowing the pace of the fight. Vandark fought by giving out slower, more powerful blows, and saving speed for defense and evasion. He was far faster than his appearance would indicate, and skilled enough that his timing was flawless.
Yasi did not attack, she counter-attacked. In any battle, you had to sacrifice your defense in favor of offense. She was far more nimble than he was, and could get in under his strikes, taking the opportunity for a quick strike of her own.
It was a dangerous form of combat, one that required phenomenal endurance. Yasi danced, gliding over the floor, twisting into impossible shapes. Her body became an impossible target, hard to predict, difficult to reach.
Vandark was breathing hard, wearing out. Their blades glanced off each other in a shower of sparks, like a constant lightning storm; flashes of metal on metal.
Vandark was smart, and saw her movements for what they were, an attempt to wear him down, but there wasn't a hint of worry on his face as he struck methodically, making long sweeping attacks that forced her to change direction every second. Yasi realized quite suddenly that she was getting tired too.
Yasi felt the air shift as she dodged and realized that Vandark had worked her back into the shelves, trying to corner her. She dodged the next slash and Vandark's sword went through one of the large volumes. If his sword had been as sharp as hers, it might have made it through, but the thick blade went into the book like an axe into a tree and stuck there. Vandark realized the error instantly and lifted the sword; volume and all. Long enough for Yasi to slash her blade in under the Wildman's defenses and score a heavy blow to his ribs.
Vandark hissed and lashed out with his fist, clipping Yasi across the side of the head. She rolled with it and headed down the length of the shelves. Vandark freed his sword and kicked out hard, bringing the whole row of shelves down, knocking them over like dominios. In the smaller, resonant space, the noise of the impact was massive, and Yasi had to scramble to keep from getting buried.
Neither of them spoke or taunted, their worlds lost in a frenzy of blow and counter-blow, dedicated to getting a little closer, a little faster, a little better than the other, each looking for a fatal opening, dreading it when it came.
Another slash, and Yasi danced back... when her foot hit the pedestal. She glanced back in horror, and discovered that Vandark had managed to work her back against the steam pipes without her noticing.
With a victory shout, Vandark swung his sword so hard it would have sent her head rolling. She ducked instinctively, and his sword chopped through half a dozen steam pipes instead.
Yasi howled as the gushing steam ripped into her face. The combined heat of the Underside flashed across her vision unexpectedly, and she reeled, blind and hurting. She brought her sword up vertically in front of her body and felt him knock it aside. In the same instant, a massive blow struck her midsection, bending her double. Another strike against her ankles, and she was flat on the ground, half-curled into a ball. She rolled to her feet, everything blurry before her vision, but she forced her eyes shut against the pain, and listened. There was a rush of air and she rolled, feeling his blade pass over her. The roll morphed into a tackle into Vandark's midsection...
...which did nothing at all. Disorientation had made her forget how massive he was compared to her, and she was back on the floor instantly.
Too slowly, her vision cleared, and she looked up blearily to see Vandark above her, ready to bring down the death-blow. No room to dodge, no time to beg...
And she was glad for it. She had failed to save her home, but she would die with the knowledge that Vandark had lost...
Vandark jerked in surprise.
Vandark jerked again. Yasi shook her head to clear it, trying to understand what she was seeing, and turned her head to the left. Vincent was back in the Whisper Gallery, stepping off the elevator. And in his hand was Vandark's smoking gun.
Vandark looked down at himself, stunned... and slowly slid to the ground.
Everything was suddenly silent. There was only the hissing of ruptured steam pipes, and Yasi's heavy breathing as she struggled to her feet.
Vincent looked down suddenly, as if he'd only just realized he had a gun in his hand, and he put it down quickly on one of the surviving shelves.
Yasi rolled to her feet and stood, hurrying to Vincent's side. He started to smile and reach out for her...
...and she shoved him away viciously, putting him into the shelves. "You idiot!" She snarled, rubbing her eyes. "What have you done? You burned this place. There's no way your phone is gonna work down here. There's no way we can get you back up there in time to stop Gill from-"
Vincent was running again, back for the elevator.
"Where the hell are you going?!" Yasi shouted after him, confused. "Don't think a head start will protect you!"
Dorcan was limping as he reached the elevator, with Dyce at his side. The doors opened, revealing Vincent, and the three of them started running immediately.
"Vandark?" Dorcan demanded as they ran.
"Dead." Vincent puffed shortly. "The Wildmen?"
"Surrendered." Dorcan returned.
Vincent's watch started beeping, and Dorcan looked at Vincent in horror.
Vincent kept running. "I know Gill. He'll give me a little longer, just because he's hopeful."
"Listen, no offense, but we've gotta hurry." Dyce grabbed Vincent by one arm, and Dorcan took the other. An instant later, Vincent felt his feet leave the floor and yelped as the two Shinobi shifted into another gear Vincent didn't have, moving through the Underside much faster.
"I'm really sick of being carried around." Vincent snapped. "But this once, I'll forgive you."
Vincent's feet didn't even touch the floor until they reached the door to the Round Table Room.
Dorcan opened the door to the Round Table Room and Vincent hurried in. It took him a moment to realize that he was alone. "Come on!"
Dorcan shook his head. "We don't go into this room. Tradition."
Vincent sighed. "Tradition."
The door closed behind him, and he quickly went to the chairs. It was all as he remembered it, with the table, the banners of other Lostkind Cities across the walls...
And the projectors half-hidden behind the curtains, laid out in an identical configuration to the ones Vincent had set up in the Archives Room at the City Planners Office.
"Now." He thought aloud. "If only the Triumvirate are allowed in here, then it stands to reason that they must control it somehow... If Archivist is the one that's in charge of all the information..."
Vincent went to Archivist's chair and started feeling around beneath the table. Sure enough, he found a latch and opened a concealed control panel. Like everything the Lostkind made, it was elegant and beautiful. Vincent would never have known it was there, giving the projection a feeling of being spontaneous and magical.
I'm the Wizard behind the curtain now. Vincent thought distantly, as he started turning the frequency dial. Now, if I was an on-switch, where on this panel would I be?
He checked his watch. He was several minutes overdue.
Gill was pacing back and forth, when his pager beeped.
"Vincent?" Connie asked hopefully.
Gill shook his head bleakly. "The boss. He's suddenly noticed there's a press conference upstairs, and he's wondering what they're here for."
Connie checked her watch for the fifth time in two minutes. "He's... late."
Gill gave a tiny mirthless chuckle. "He usually is. Reliable, trustworthy... not punctual."
"No." Connie agreed with a nervous giggle.
Gill looked at her sickly. "You know what that means, right?"
"Give him a few more minutes." Connie whispered softly. "Please?"
Gill looked miserable. "Connie... I've known him longer than you have, and in ten years, this is the first time he's asked me for anything bigger than a hamburger, I owe it to him to do it right, and I already gave him five more minutes... six minutes ago."
Connie sniffed. "...god. How did this happen?"
Gill pulled some cards out of his pocket. "I have a big news day to unleash."
He gave Connie a gentle kiss on the top of her head, and made his way upstairs slowly.
Connie didn't go with him. She sat staring into space for a second, looking over the equipment, the cameras, the projectors... all the things that she had helped him find...
"I helped you." Connie croaked out. "I helped you do this. You never would have found all this stuff without me... well, yes you would have. Dammit, I should have talked you out of it. We could be halfway to anywhere by now. I'm sorry, Vincent. I'm so sorry!"
She rose to her feet, and slowly wandered her way toward the stairs, tears streaming down her face. She reached out and turned off the lights. "Goodbye, Vincent. I love you."
She closed the door to the Archives Room behind her quietly, and made her way to the stairs... and stopped.
She had heard something, just for a second, she had heard something. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a glow in the frosted glass of the Archives Room door. There were no lights on, or windows to the outside, so there should have been no glow.
She went back, daring to hope, and opened the door. And there, in the middle of the dark room, casting a ghostly glow over everything, was the image of Vincent McCall, sitting at an ornate desk. "Vincent?"
Vincent's face reacted. "I can hear you, but I can't see you."
In the Throne Room, Connie's image flared into existence, as she took her position in the city above, standing between the cameras he had set up with Gill. "Vincent, it's me! It's Connie! I'm here!"
The relief between them was clear enough to reach out and touch. "Connie!" He called to her. "It worked! Vandark is dead! Tell Gill! Hurry!"
Connie turned and ran, her projection vanishing instantly.
"So... that was the plan?"
Vincent spun around in Archivist's chair to see Yasi in the doorway, staring gob-smacked at the place where Connie's holographic form was a moment before.
"Yeah." Vincent admitted quietly. "That was the plan."
The New York Ninja choked out a laugh. "That was a good plan." A moment passed and Yasi was laughing. "It was a hell of a bluff, Vincent. Even I bought it. I honestly thought you'd burned us all." Yasi was laughing from deep inside her, relief for herself and her home merging with her pride in him, becoming a release of emotion that he'd never seen from her before. "God; you bluffed me, and Vandark, and all the Riverfolk across the city at the same time. I honestly can't believe you pulled it off."
Vincent didn't look at her. She could see his back and shoulders tense as though he was expecting an attack to come any second. "I didn't." He said softly.
"Sorry?" Yasi smiled, not hearing that, when she suddenly noticed the bloody mess that his right hand had become, knuckles split open painfully. "What the hell happened to your hand?"
"Oh, that?" Vincent drawled. "I punched Owen."
She giggled. "Did you?"
"I knocked him on his butt with one punch." Vincent said, very pleased with himself.
Yasi found that hilarious.
There were twenty or so reporters, mostly from newspapers, a few from news blogs, none from television. Still more than enough to get a good look at the evidence, and spread the story far enough that there would be no denying it. Gill had used an authority in the City Planner's Office that he didn't really have to get them all there. Drew, Benji and Tony had sneaked in to join the conference, eager to see how the story ended.
Gill had two statements, one to make if there had been no word from Vincent, and one for cover if the plan worked. Gill had all the evidence hidden on his person, as well as a few rolled up maps of the hidden entrances to the Labyrinth hidden behind the podium. He would tell them everything, about the Lostkind, the Underside, and lead them to the nearest way in.
Gill strolled his way to the podium, and the noise dropped instantly. "Good morning." He said to them all. "I have a statement to read, and then I'll be taking a few questions." He cleared his throat, and tried not to gulp. Public speaking wasn't his strongest talent under the very best of circumstances.
"This is a matter of grave importance, and a story that has gone untold for far too... long..." Gill had looked up, and noticed Connie at the back of the room, waving her arms frantically. Their eyes met, and she nodded her head up and down dramatically, giving him two thumbs up; a huge smile on her tear-stained face.
Gill smothered his relieved smile, cleared his throat, and pulled a second set of cards out of his jacket pocket, giving a very different statement. "This week marks the fourth time in two years, that Earth First, a pro-environmental group has come before our fair city, with a perfectly reasonable plan to improve living conditions, as well as the condition of our planet. New York was the first, and is still the greatest of Earth's Mega-Cities, and yet the future of our planet has gone deliberately unchecked by both our city fathers, and the state government." He said, as Drew, Benji and Tony all noticed Connie themselves. "We have a responsibility to act with-"
"YES-S-S-S! YEAH-AH-HA-HA!" Benji screamed ecstatically, exploding up out of his seat, throwing his arms up in the air.
The room came to a complete, screeching silence at his outburst, as twenty reporters spun around to look at Benji in disbelief.
"He's... very green." Tony offered as Drew tried to wrestle Benji back into his seat. "Down with pollution!"
Connie's image flared to life again, casting a quick glow in the room. "Vincent? I did it." She called, exultant. "We called it off in time. Gill got the message."
"Good." Vincent called back. "I... I'll see you soon?"
"I hope so." Connie answered. "Be safe."
"You too." He said back softly, as the image died. He switched off the projector, not turning to face the stunned ninja at his back.
"What does that mean?" Yasi asked from behind him. Her voice was suddenly soft and stunned, like she didn't understand what she was hearing. "Vincent?"
He said nothing, refusing to look at her.
"Vincent?" She pressed weakly. "What does that... What did Connie mean? What did she call off?"
Vincent finally looked up at her. "Yasi... Vandark already had the run of the city. It was only a matter of time before he moved up from robbing restaurants to robbing banks and..."
He could see the exact moment the light-bulb went off over her head. "Oh my God." Yasi whispered. "It wasn't a bluff. You weren't bluffing, you were actually going to announce it. You were really going to reveal this place..."
Vincent looked at her, eyes pleading with her to understand. "Yasi, Vandark was threatening my world too. I was the reason he could do it; and we were the only ones who even knew he existed..."
Yasi looked at him sickly. "We were still fighting down here! You could have given us time!"
"I didn't even know if you were alive or dead." Vincent shot back.
He could see the two thoughts at war behind her eyes. Half of her was pleased that he'd done it, but the other half was almost obsessively uncompromising, upholding the law that he had broken. "Vincent, we have rules down here, carved in stone, I mean literally, carved in stone. You know what those rules say about people who try to expose the Underside? Do you know what happens to people who do that?"
"Like a cop named Grey? I think I can guess." Vincent acknowledged, his eyes flicking to her sword.
"The First Duty of the Shinobi..." Yasi started to recite from rote, before she broke off and stared at him, stricken. "I have to... I mean, I have to... I have to go." She said finally. She turned and stalked out of the Round Table Room, before freezing at the door and whirling back on him viciously. "Why the hell am I leaving? This is my Secret City. You go! Get lost!"
Vincent fled the room.
The City was still giving its victory cheer. He could see smaller faces poking out of hiding in the corners, the adults were still milling about, looking for friends, trying to find the people they had lost in the rush of battle.
Here and there were wounded, with the patchwork Gatherers huddled around the fallen enemies, laying claim to salvage or trade. The Shinobi, what few there were on the Twelfth Level, were holding court, telling their War Stories.
Each and every one of the Shinobi made a point to meet Vincent's eyes, the closest to a salute they could give him at the moment. They all knew the risk he had taken, and they all knew that the gamble had paid off.
Nevertheless, he was still from another world, and none of them knew for sure how much of the tale would be told.
Vincent enjoyed the energy of the place, getting carried along in the sheer relief of the people. Someone had started playing music again. The first music heard since The Invasion began. He heard the penny-whistle tune and stood straighter, the smile on his face settling, becoming more real and relaxed. Already the signs of healing were starting to show.
He made it all the way to the Labyrinth before someone stopped him. As he approached the large ornate Entrance, the boundary of this little Lost World, a trio of Borrowers were coming out of the Labyrinth, carrying a familiar body between them. Vincent smirked at Owen, still unconscious, as they rushed him back toward the city. He didn't envy the spy his next stop.
"McCall." A voice called powerfully from the shadows, and he turned to see Dorcan materialize out of the darkness. He had a new slice across his face, and a light sheen of sweat from the battle. He looked dangerous, and victorious.
"Dorcan." Vincent nodded to him with a smile. "I would think you have more important things to do than check up on little old me."
"Oh, you caused quite a stir." Dorcan admitted. "We've got a bunch of Wildmen looking for someone to accept their surrender. The rest of the place is frozen, trying to decide who's in charge now, or if they should keep looking for bad guys to fight. The Borrowers don't know if the Labyrinth is sealed or open since the Riverfolk guards are scarce. About a hundred Watchers want to know if they should start evacuating before someone comes down here, and the Whisper Gallery is half-trashed, so getting the word out won't be easy..." He took a breath. "So. You're leaving?"
"I broke a lot of rules." Vincent offered. "Yasi... Nobody knows quite what to do with me, so I figured I'd get while the getting was good until someone figures it out."
Dorcan let out a disgusted sigh. "We all saw her getting closer to you. We didn't realize it at the time, but Yasi's so single-minded she wouldn't recognize a good thing if it showed up and saved the whole city." He gave Vincent a crooked smirk, extending a hand. "Which you have. For what it's worth, we never would have been able to take back the Underside if the Riverfolk hadn't run away, and they never would have run away if not for you. I don't know what Yasi will settle on; but I intend to make it clear: You've got at least one brother in the City by Night."
Vincent smiled and shook his hand, grateful for the kind word.
Dorcan gestured at the Entrance. "You need someone to lead you back?"
"Don't worry about me." Vincent gave a crooked smile and pulled up the hood of his cloak past the ruby red goggles. "I know my way home." He said ironically, and strode into the Labyrinth.


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.