Somehow, without meaning to, I became the centre of attention. Lance didn’t look very pleased but, let’s be honest, that was his default setting. If I’d insulted him and he’d taken offence, then he probably wasn’t the best person to be leading the charge against the country.

“What you gonna do, start a resistance against the resistance?”

Whether he intended it to be sarcastic or not I just couldn’t tell. He was impassive, difficult to read and generally intimidating. Giving nothing away the four of us stood there, taking it in turns to blink and waiting to see what he was going to do. If he wanted an answer he wasn’t going to get one.

“You must give us your faith. We do not perform according to whim,” he relented, “if you want to know you must wait.”

“No,” I stood up, “I’m not gonna wait. Maybe if you weren’t so up yourself. I need convincing either way and you’re pushing me elsewhere.”

I started towards the corridor we came out of but someone grabbed me arm. I braced myself for a struggle but it was Elswick. His eyes were pleading, almost panicking. If he thought I was in danger he wouldn’t have brought me here especially knowing the thin line I walked between Solo and his beliefs. So it struck me that he was panicking because the fallout would land at his feet. He’d been away for so long there was bound to be suspicion following him, me walking out wasn’t going to help matters. Plus, from what I heard he had the possibility of going home and seeing his sister again. I didn’t want to spoil that.

“I never questioned my country until I met you. And I’ve definitely never dreamed of joining a terrorist group -”

“We aren’t a terrorist group,” Lance broke in.

“Doesn’t really matter if you are or not,” I snapped, “that’s what they think of you up there. It’s a risk for anyone to be linked to it. Give me something that tells me I’m making the right decision if I choose to stay.”

“There are tests,” Lance piped up again, “it’s not an immediate admittance.”

“I wouldn’t expect it to be. You’d be fools if that’s how you worked.” I found I quite enjoyed winding him up. His face turned red but he didn’t try to say anything else. Elswick tightened his grip in warning, I was pushing my luck.

“What tests are there?”

“You don’t need to worry about them,” Elswick said.

“Excuse me, but I think she does,” Lance countered, “no one gets in unless we okay them.”

“Well, I vouch for her. She saved my life twice, one of them she had the perfect opportunity to leave me to whatever fate was heading my way. I’ve already told you my thoughts, Lance. We might not have worked together before but I know your predecessors wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss me.”

“You left.”

“Because things weren’t getting done.”

“What do you think has changed?”

“You’ve obviously worried the government otherwise they wouldn’t have gone through the hassle of setting off an explosion at the bank and framing you for it.”

At this he moved uncomfortably, shuffled his feet, scuffing the soles of his shoes against the rough stone beneath. Elswick was hitting a nerve without even knowing he where he was striking, Lance didn’t enjoy his insight into an organisation he left decades ago.

“What do you want?” he eventually asked.

“Get me someone who works with minds. I have the evidence Asha wants.”

Chapter ten

Darkness everywhere, somewhere in it water was dripping, echoing around the emptiness. A lonely sound in a lonely place.

After a while another sound came through, breathing. Steady and peaceful, someone was sleeping. They too were hidden in shadows. My eyes grew used to the dark and shapes came flying out. Bars, only on one side, floor to ceiling. Nothing beyond them, more emptiness. A chamber pot in the corner. Thin bedrolls with people on.

One was bald. Elswick.

The other was new.

Both were thin, starved, thirsty. Hunger gnawing at their stomachs. The need for food so great, sleep was fitful. broken by screaming. Deep, bone-rattling screams. Life-ending screams. The two figures jumped awake, startled but not entirely surprised. Looking to one another fear was not the only thing to pass between them; resolve.

Another scream. The guy who wasn’t Elswick drew his knees to his chest and rested his head. He was dirty, they both were. As if neither had seen freedom for months.

“We need to get out of here,” Elswick’s voice broke the silence, it cracked and creaked, another symbol of his captivity.

The screaming died down. Fading, fading. Along with the life of the person it came from. Once it went the following quiet was eerie. Almost unnatural.

“How?” The other guy croaked. He was weak, so weak. He’d be gone soon, even if their captors didn’t get round to him.

“We have to fight.”

No one bothered to point out they were in no state. When the guards arrived it was obvious  they needed something else to help. Two of them, fully dressed in their black armour, swords rattling against their legs. Daggers secure  in sheaths.

They went for the weaker one. He didn’t even struggle. He went limply with them, accepting what was going to happen. Elswick would be left alone.

As heavily armed and armoured as they were, they never expected an attack. Even though it was feeble they were caught off guard. Elswick darted from his spot on the bedroll and shoved the guard holding his friend. He stumbled and let go.

Grabbing the other captive’s arm he dodged past the other guard and they legged it. The emptiness was filling up now. Darkness dispersed and revealed a dank maze of corridors. Torches flickered, merrily lighting the way for the two runaways. In the light it became clear the both of them, not just Elswick, were Hebens.

A door loomed ahead, the clunking of the guards far behind. The thing about heavy armour and weapons; it slowed you down. They were through the door, but it didn’t mean freedom. One of them cursed.

“We’ve been here so long I’ve forgotten the way,” Elswick muttered.

It was a torture chamber, with weird contraptions. Blood on the floor, the walls, the tables. Everywhere. A chair in the middle still had a body strapped in. Wires looped from his arms, neck, legs, chest. Not wires. Tubes. The guy screaming earlier. Vials glinted in the torchlight, full of something almost a transparent red. It swirled ominously.

Another door on the far side. The other Heben bolted the door and managed to muster enough strength to block it with a cabinet full of mysterious objects. Both stopped by the body of their comrade.

“What did they do to him?”

Elswick went over and picked up a vial, unstoppered it and sniffed at the contents. He flinched back at the smell. Poured it on the floor, smashed the others too.

“Disgusting,” he spat, “unnatural.”

“What?”

“They’ve harvested his magic. I bet they did the same with the others.”

“Why? Solo doesn’t like magic.”

Elswick shrugged then seemed to remember what they were in the middle of. He grabbed his friend’s arm again and they went through the other door. Another lot of corridors, more doors but none of them were right. He looked like he knew where he was going this time. A few twists and a few turns and they found themselves at the foot of some stairs.

At the top they braced themselves, beyond would be more people, but beyond them freedom. They were silent as they crept through the doorway. The front door was out of the question, too obvious, too heavily guarded. The same for any other traditional exit. So they snuck into the back of the mansion, stone floor turning to carpet, sparse decor becoming elaborate and cluttered. It reeked of wealth, disrespect of what the city suffered. An ignorance to general sentiment. Portraits on the wall showed various leaders, ending with a really old man. Stooped, wizened and angry. These were all the regents of Solo. Aristocratic men.

A room was open, Elswick stuck his head in and reported a window, their best chance of getting out. The both of them crept in and tried to open the window, it didn’t move. The Heben, whose name had yet to be said, cocked his head, hearing something in the corridor. They hid, so quick the man coming in didn’t have a chance to be suspicious.

There was something familiar about him, there was a slight hunch to his shoulders , as if age was just starting its attack. His blonde hair becoming grey, eyes on the verge of weary. A cross between the picture in the hall and the Regent.

Picking up some papers he shuffled back out of the room, something clinking in his pocket. Sounding a bit like the vials Elswick picked up. A minute went past before they came out of hiding.

“He looks younger than when we last saw him.”

A worried glance. A beat of silence. Another unspoken agreement to get out of there. Glass tinkled as one Heben threw a chair through the window. Stealth quickly becoming a lower priority. They both leapt out, not bothering to clear away the jagged shards. Blood dripped after them as they ran.

There was no light outside, rain making it impossible to keep torches alight. They climbed the fence uninterrupted and landed the other side, the taste of freedom so enticing, the only sustenance they needed to survive. Adrenaline pounded, like their footsteps. By now guards were mobilised, a jailbreak, a secret the Regent didn’t want out. But any attempts to bring the prisoners in failed, the disappeared. Slipping out of a wall free Greystone and into the wilderness beyond. Foraging along the way, stealing clothes for warmth.

As they disappeared into the wild country beyond I found myself coming back to the underground hideaway. Warren and Lance were standing the side. A woman called Maya held her hands to mine and an older looking Elswick’s foreheads. A few minutes ticked by before things started to clear up and I remembered what the hell was going on.

He’d said he had evidence for me and I ended up tumbling through his memories. Horrifying memories of imprisonment and torture. In the city I’d always lived in. Except, some of it was different. There wasn’t a wall in those memories, but there’s been one around Greystone for a hundred and seventy five years. I’m guessing he was the reason why.

But other things were pretty much the same. One of them I couldn’t believe. It didn’t make sense. How could it happen? The other Heben was right, Solo hated magic so why go through all the trouble of harvesting it. And what did they do after the two of them escaped, they didn’t have any more captives.  Then I remembered Hebens mourning on the street, begging anyone to believe them, begging anyone to care. Their friends, partners, children were missing. No reason for them to go, no chance to say goodbye. Just gone. Taken. Abducted.

Had this been going on for two hundred years? Had the guards been kidnapping Hebens on the orders of the Regent? The Regent who looked remarkably like the aging man looking for papers, but without the hunch and his hair wasn’t silver.

I stumbled back a couple of steps, feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Feeling their expectations, their need for an answer. One I couldn’t give. The world was turning. It didn’t make sense. Solo hated magic, hated it because of our government. we’d always followed their example. But this. It didn’t make sense.

I felt the wall against my back and I slid down to the ground. It was cold and grounding. It injected some stability into my thoughts.

“Explain,” I demanded.

Elswick knelt beside me and spoke low, but everyone could hear his words. Not that they needed to, they knew the story, they knew what deception was going on.

“Two hundred years ago I took my first steps into Solo,” he started.

“I know, I interrupted, “you’ve already said.”

“I came with nine others, all Hebens. The rest of our delegation were stopped at the mountains, told they couldn’t come in because they were too dangerous. we were only allowed because our magic is passive, we can’t use it against people. Guards accompanied us all the way. We marched through towns and villages, Greystone always on the horizon. Three days later we finally made it and slogged up the hill until we came to the Regent’s mansion. It was the richest place I’d ever seen. It sprawled the entire hilltop and cast a pompous shadow over the rest of the city but no one batted an eyelid because it was what they were used to. We went straight into his office, a wide open space with no extravagance spared. All of us filed in, ten Hebens and double the amount of guards. Sitting at the desk was a very old man, only a few years away from death. He knew the end of his life was closing in, you could sense the defiance though. He bowed down to no one, not even death. He was arrogant and had us placed in his dungeons. Over time we were whittled down until only two of us were left, as you saw. When we broke free I uncovered his secret; the real reason he wanted Hebens in Solo.

“He didn’t want to die, but neither did he want to be old. Somehow he found away to harness our magic for his own gain. He hooked my kind up to that awful chair and drained them of everything that made them Hebens. He took their magic and their youth and their quick healing and gave them only to himself. He drank the essence and you saw the result. You saw it in my memory and you saw it in the hearthsquare yesterday. If you want evidence to help you decide what you should do then there’s nothing better than hypocrisy. Your Regent has been your Regent for over two hundred years. He uses the magic of my people to keep himself young. Plucks them off the street, where he puts them in the first place so no one will miss them, and throws them into his dungeons so he can stock up on more of that substance. All the while he spouts out propaganda telling you magic is bad, it’s unnatural and shouldn’t be allowed in Solo. He has to let Hebens in otherwise he’ll lose his youth, but he can’t let the Continent in otherwise they’ll stop what’s going on. That’s why he’s desperate for people to vote against joining. He keeps dragging his feet and stalling the decision for as long as possible . He’s a dictator, ploughing the world for anything that’ll help him but leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. He is the very definition of scum.”

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