We spent the rest of the morning, most of the afternoon too, hiding out at Warren’s. He didn’t seem particularly concerned that neither of us was in the square selling the bread he made this morning. Actually, where was it? I shifted around trying to find what he’d obviously baked, the smell clung to every bit of air, but there was no evidence of a source.
“When you weren’t here at your normal time I figured you wouldn’t be coming. You were acting strange yesterday so it wasn’t much of a surprise,” he paused. “I usually make extra bread so I can smuggle some to the rebellion, this time they get all of it.”
“You know, you’re actually chatty.”
“Nah, no one would ever describe me as chatty. I think I’m just glad I can talk to you about all of this. It’s been difficult keeping this secret.”
He stood up, probably uncomfortable with what he’d just said (I was a little) and walked to the window. Elswick was dozing, slumped over the table, head on arms, gentle breathing. Poor guy looked as if he hadn’t slept in a month.
“I think now is a good time to take you to them.”
I kicked the table and watched as Elswick jumped back, confused and scared by the sudden jerk. I grinned at him and he sent me a look that could have killed.
“Time to go,” I said by way of explanation.
Warren led us down to his basement, where I found the bread. We each took a bag full of the delicious smelling food. Then our host, instead of going back up the stairs wondered over to a shelf at the back of the room and yanked it open. A dank looking corridor revealed itself and he stepped in.
“Close the passage behind you,” he called.
We stumbled through the dark, no light to guide out way. Warren first, me in the middle and Elswick at the back. To begin with it was a somewhat steep path downwards and it felt like it curved back on itself. Whatever it did it was still a long journey downwards. Eventually it levelled out but that was the only thing to change. Elswick stumbled and cursed when he caught his hand roughly on the wall.
“Alright back there, Wick?”
“Not dead yet.”
Warren chuckled and kept up the pace. Fifteen minutes later and we emerged into a chamber full of light. There were flame torches flickering all around the circular room and, to meet us, a bunch of angry looking people holding swords level with our hearts or hands poised in curious positions.
“What’re you doing Warren?” I deep voice came from behind the weird looking crowd.
“I have two people who wish to help our cause,” he called out, not entirely sure where the man addressing him was.
“And you brought them straight here. Have you lost your mind?”
“One of them I trust, the other you will want to meet.”
The crowd parted as someone pushed past them to get to the front. I’m not going to lie, I was expecting someone much more impressive. His voice was like a false advertisement, while that was big and loud its owner was shorter than average and looked pretty timid. The unassuming sort you wouldn’t look twice at. He looked hard at us both.
“You,” he pointed at me, “I don’t know you.”
“Asha Quinn,” I answered, not exactly sure if I should be adding a ‘sir’ to the end of that. His wizened face was always scowling so I’m not even sure if he was reacting to a lack of manners or just looking like he always did.
“Your skill is average at best. You will need to take something else up if you’re to help us,” he moved briskly on to Elswick, “ahhh. You. I know you.”
There was nothing about him that gave him away. He had no scars on his face and it’s not like he was going round with his name tattooed to his forehead.
“Funny,” the Heben said, “I don’t know you.”
“In good time,” he turned around and started going back through the crowd, “come with me.”
It was obvious the invitation was for Elswick only. He sauntered off. Warren stayed at my side, almost protectively, as other people kept eyeing me. A lot of people were huddled into the chamber, they didn’t look particularly happy about something. Grumbling seemed to be their favourite way of talking.
“Ignore Lance, you’re better than average,” Warren tried to make conversation, something he wouldn’t usually bother with.
“Oh please, you and I both know mine ain’t up to scratch compared to yours,” I waved him off. “Although, what did he mean if I’m going to help?”
“Well, you know, everyone has to pull their weight. I give them food and donate some of my money, you’ll have to find something to do that’ll benefit everyone once you join.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I-I wasn’t exactly planning on joining,” I stuttered, knowing some people were listening in, “at least, it’s not something I thought about.”
“I bet you never planned on helping a Heben, but you did,” he countered, “you’re here now though. You know how to get to us and seen faces. Why not?”
“I’m not really sure what I believe in anymore.”
He had no answer to that, honestly I didn’t know that was going to come out of my mouth. But the words rang true and, once they were out, there was no bringing them back. Life as someone on the outskirts wasn’t something I wanted, yet when I thought about it there wasn’t really much difference between my life a week ago and what it could be a week from now.
Even the danger would be the same, I’d already attacked a guard, short of also assaulting the Regent I doubt there was a way to become more hunted. But purpose, that was something I didn’t. Moving listlessly throughout the day, putting one foot in front of the other without much thought, going through the motions and repeating the same routines day after day was not purpose. Getting up to go to work was not a life. But joining this cause, having that secret, that knowledge that I was acting – there was an appeal to it.
Although, was it worth the risk if you aren’t sure you agree? I don’t know what these guys stand for, what they want to get out of their actions. I know Elswick had his theories about the attack on the bank, but these were the guys being blamed for it. Was I really in an underground chamber full of terrorists?
Sure, they looked ragged and hardy but that’s to be expected given the hardships they go through. None of them looked like killers, the coldness in the Regent’s eyes wasn’t anywhere to be seen here. Actually, now that I was looking at them, most of the people here were Solo citizens, Hebens were outnumbered, much like they were above ground. No way could this small a minority be able to sway so many people.
One guy came striding in, nursing a cut on his cheek, the cloth he held to it stained red. He spotted Warren and came straight over. His clothes were finer than anything I usually saw in the Fourth Quadrant, probably better than the Third as well. Was someone from the wealthy part of the city really helping?
In fact, he wasn’t the only one dressed so well, there were a few of them. It wasn’t until I started looking around at the people that I saw the different doorways branching off from the chamber. Beyond some of them I saw rooms like this one, a distant deafening crowd suggested there was an eating hall somewhere. A couple of other doorways led into blackness, most likely secret passages leading elsewhere in the city.
There was something in the air, everyone seemed a bit down. Warren picked up on it as well, he was concerned . We found somewhere to sit, he ushered me into the one closest to the wall, keeping me out of sight as much as he could. I was just settling in to another boring wait where we scrabbled about awkwardly for something to talk about. But then I saw something amazing and also terrifying.
In a doorway to one of the passages there was a light that wasn’t there before. It bobbed up and down, flickering in such a way that said someone was coming through, holding a torch before them. Pretty normal, until the person in question came through. She wasn’t holding a torch, she had her hand out in front but the flame was otherwise unsupported. It floated above her hand, casually meandering about not even caring about its unnaturalness.
For the first time in my life I was seeing magic. This woman, who was dressed like she belonged in the Fourth Quadrant but I’d never seen before, was the first proper evidence that magic actually existed. This was the first active magic I’d ever witnessed and I was seeing it below the streets of the oldest city in Solo, a country which prided itself on stamping out any and all magic that wasn’t the passive longevity of the Hebens.
It was absolutely mesmerising how she handled the flame. The fire seemed to react to the slightest movements, or maybe it was her thoughts; I didn’t know how it worked. Every time she moved a finger a tendril of flame started to creep out. She had such confidence in her control. But what if she couldn’t, what if she lost the control she had and it went wild. Was it easy to stop, or did it rage worse than normal fire? Before my list of questions could grow any momentum she clapped her hands together, rather than the sound you’d expect there was a whoomf as the flame was extinguished. Not a single burn on her skin.
“I’d forgot you’d never seen it before,” Warren said gently.
His words brought me back to myself, I realised my mouth was hanging open slightly, thankfully nothing too obvious. The woman went about the rest of her business without any hitch, striding past us towards the clamour in the distance.
“How can you get used to that?” I asked, absolutely bewildered by his lack of reaction.
“Been around it a long time, ain’t I. After a while you take it for granted.”
“But…how? She’s an anomaly, I thought all of them were rounded up and banished.”
“Well, yeah,” he shrugged, “he tried that. But people can find their way home again. Naturally, he didn’t want to let anyone know. He thrives on the confidence the people have in him and he’s not going to do anything to put that at risk.”
“How many people in general or how many anomalies?”
“The second, I don’t think I could wrap my mind around the total.”
For something that’s supposed to be wiped from the city they were doing pretty well. My eyes jumped from person to person, eager to see if they were doing anything unusual, disappointed when they weren’t. Somehow, I’d entered a whole new world. One that lived below the very rigid streets of Greystone, streets full of people who’d absolutely, one hundred percent refuse to belive such a thing existed.
So many questions were running through my head, on top of the ones that had already been. Did they build this place themselves? Did the Regent even suspect such a thing existed? How did they support themselves. It was all so much, but there was one I had to ask.
“Why does everyone seem so down?”