Sandy was frozen. Sam was frozen as well, staring hungrily at Sandy’s chest from which a slight pulse of energy could be felt.
Golden threads appeared all around him, dragging him somewhere.
He was in the room. He had been in the room this entire time. Nothing had happened in this room except him standing here with…
Teslynn held onto his jacket with both hands, mouth open about to speak.
“It will be incredibly uncomfortable, but just remember to breathe and you will be fine,” she said, then stepped back and carefully observed him. Sam furrowed his brow, What will be uncomfortable?
He remembered… being choked. His brain refusing to accept air, and then – chaos.
“Are you back?” She asked. Sam felt he understood why she would ask that question, but had a hard time putting the pieces back together.
Something had happened, he knew it had happened, but what?
“Oh my God…” he breathed. The memories came slowly, and they were fuzzy, but they were there.
“Good, I guess it wasn’t too bad, since you’re back.”
“Not too bad?” Sam asked, still reeling from the experiences. Had he really done that? In the flesh?
“Was it bad?” She asked, eyebrow cocked slightly.
“Yes! There were students… students killing one another! Oh God – I killed someone!”
“You did?” Her surprise was obvious, but not quite in the apprehensive way the statement deserved.
“I mean, I think I did..”
Sighing, she approached and clapped him on the arm. “You’ll be alright, Samuel. This was why it was important for you to be on time to your meeting. The student council president will explain, if you’ll just come with me.”
“There’s an explanation?!”
If you want to know more about what happened today, then come see me.
Sandy – he remembered now. He had wanted to… to–
“Yes, I think I will be needing an explanation,” Sam said, disgusted with himself. He was losing control too easily.
Teslynn led him out of the room, back to the stairs and up the building. He had to ask for a break when they passed a toilet – to get some water, get some time to recollect himself, and to relieve some pressure. Silence dominated once they started walking again.
At the highest floor, down a hallway decked out with paintings along the walls, Teslynn led him to a large gilded door at the very end. When they came right up to it, she halted momentarily and said, “The president is extremely busy, and you have already been extremely rude by blowing off the meeting. I suggest you do not test your luck.”
Sam nodded and gulped, intending to be on his best behavior.
She pushed open the door, and they entered into a fairly large room, edged by bookcases and tall windows allowing for a great view down on the academy plaza. At the central desk, a seated figure was hidden behind a male standing in front, his back to Sam.
“A slightly irregular occurrence, I’m afraid,” said the male figure, “We’ve had to send for immediate aid. The shock seems to have hit him hard.”
After entering, Teslynn shut the door behind them, finally eliciting a response from the other two in the room. The male turned, revealing a young man with close-cropped dark hair and a stern expression on his face. Behind him, a plain red-haired young woman with a pleasant smile on her face. She appeared regal, not because she was stunning or remarkable, but because of the confidence she exuded as she sat behind that desk.
“Ahh… my 10 O’clock,” she said, her green eyes sparkling with merth, “How nice of you to show up, Mr. Welbourne. Thank you Eric, that will be all.”
The stern-faced young man gave her a tight nod, then turned and gave Sam an extremely sour expression. Without a word he walked past, stopping only for an instant to acknowledge Teslynn. Then he was out, and Sam suddenly felt all alone in the room, despite evidence to the contrary.
“Please come closer, Mr. Welbourne. I take it you’ve had an enlightening experience very recently?”
Hesitantly, Sam approached, nodding. “Yes Ms…”
“Elizabeth Corinth,” said the woman, standing up and offering him her hand, “Student Council President of Mimir Wells Academy.”
As their hands touched, Sam could not help but notice the white armband around the president’s upper right arm.
“Ahh, and it seems you’ve even been getting more familiar with the factions,” she said, half laughing, as she noted what preoccupied him.
“I… yeah. I had a recent encounter that put things into a new perspective.”
“Oh I can imagine you have had a lot of those recently, am I right?”
Sam tried to keep his face neutral. Did she know about the other side?
“Could you explain to me what just happened?” He asked, skirting her question.
“Certainly! But first, sit – sit!” She waved at the chair in front of the desk, as she took her own seat again. To the side, Teslynn looked on with a neutral expression on her face.
“What you just experienced was your first pocket, or rather: your first pocket dimension. It can be a bit difficult to wrap your head around without seeing it, and so we arrange these meetings with new students so we can explain during their first time. Our students usually understand they have to be present when the student council calls them in for a meeting.”
Her chirpy tone belied the accusation leveled at him. “I–“
“No, don’t make excuses; they will be boring,” she said, waving him off. “Now that you’ve experienced it, tell me what you think.”
“What do I think? I think this is bloody mad. There was killing everywhere, in a school, for crying out loud.”
“And so you did not note the lowered resistance, allowing you to access lifeforce more easily?”
He blinked. She was talking about things from Elhané. Sure, he had felt lifeforce used in that ‘pocket’ or whatever, but Sandy had showed no understanding when he made the inference to him.
“I, yes, I suppose I noticed.”
“Yes, I’ll say. It seems to me you noticed very much so.” She took out a picture from a folder in front of her and pushed it towards Sam, showing a very familiar student lying on the ground, appearing lifeless.
“Perci,” he said, shocked. He had done that – he had killed this person.
“Yes, or Mr. Percival Gonder, as he is fully named. Mr. Gonder will not be feeling well for a long time, because of you, in fact it may be weeks before he recovers.”
Sam blinked. Perci was not dead?
“All because you put your hands on him without knowing what you were doing,” the president turned to Teslynn, “You did tell him not to touch anyone, right?”
“I did, President.” Teslynn’s tone was flat.
“And so, why did you do that, Mr. Welbourne?”
“He tried to kill me,” Sam said, “He attacked me.”
“Oh then it’s perfectly alright then,” she said, all smiles. “Mr. Gonder will have to live with the fact that he no longer can receive anymore lifeforce from his Well, since you completely destroyed his Core. But the alternative would, of course, be much worse.”
“That he broke you: one of the few Wells we know exist.”
Sam wanted very much to begin hammering his forehead into the desk. “So he’s not dead, is what you’re telling me.”
“Indeed he is not. Nor is Mr. Robert Patrickson, whom I think you also encountered. He is completely empty of lifeforce, however, but physically he is perfectly fine.”
“So, all of those students who died…”
“Merely removed from the pocket and returned to their initial position of causality – from whence they entered the dimension – when it collapsed again. Only difference is that they are now devoid of lifeforce, and needs a Well to fill them back up.”
“What’s a Well?” He finally resigned to ask.
“A Well is someone like you, who can traverse the vast distance between worlds with a thought, and who can consume lifeforce while being there. Everyone else, me included, are merely kertal: We have a connection to the other side, but cannot manifest our consciousness there, not without help from a Well. Out lifeforce is also easily depleted, and slow to replenish, meaning we need a Well to draw on to be effective.”
“You mean… there are others like me? Others who go there when– when they sleep?”
She smiled and tapped her armband, “Yes Mr. Welbourne. We all do. Only difference is whether we get to act there or not. You are one of the few examples we have of someone able to do so. On all of Earth, only four others are officially recognized to have the same status as you, and all of them are here on these academy grounds.”
“And these are the leaders of the factions on the academy, I take it?” Sam said, narrowing his eyes. What kind of game were these people playing?
“Yes, you are correct. We have the Golden Lions, the Grey Ravens, the Blue Minks, and finally,” She pointed to her own armband, “The White Rabbits.”
“So you’re also out killing your fellow students every time this ‘pocket’ appears?”
Elizabeth shook her head, but kept the smile, “Oh no, Mr. Welbourne. The White Rabbits are neutral; we never interfere in the battles, no matter what. This is also why you will find all students engaged in administrative matters, and eligible to participate in pockets, are members of the White Rabbits. We take our neutrality very seriously.”
“Fine, then what about these pockets. What are they, and where do they come from?”
Elizabeth stood up and walked over to look out the panoramic view of the academy gardens below. “The chairman of the school, the Rabbit, has the ability to form these pockets, ” she said, clasping her hands behind her back. “Outside a pocket, even Wells have a hard time manifesting lifeforce, except in extreme cases. In such cases the effect is still small and barely noticeable. The pocket has the effect of lowering the inherent resistance in the surrounding area, allowing us to use our abilities.”
“So, you give all these students the ability to kill one another? What kind of school is this?” His anger was growing again. Biting down, Sam forced himself to keep in control.
“Oh stop your whining,” said the president and turned, stomping back to the table and placing her hands on it. Looming over him, she said, “You have no idea what’s at stake, and your negligence almost screwed everything up. Had Mr. Gonder succeeded in his attack, you would not simply have returned to causality none the wiser, just lacking a bit of lifeforce. Mr. Gonder would have taken all of your lifeforce, including that which is keeping you alive as we speak!”
Stunned, Sam felt his anger recede slightly. Could it be true..? He had gotten better after returning from the other side, but that had also been after surgery. Could lifeforce be sustaining him right now?
“Kertal have one advantage over Wells,” said Elizabeth, leaning in closer, “We have a Core. Deplete the lifeforce, and the Core is merely empty. However, a Well is lifeforce. Take away the lifeforce, and you take out the Well.”
Face pale, he chewed his lips. Dangers all around, it seemed. Keeping a tight rein on his emotions, he said, “But why? Why go through all the battle, all the killing? Why care about these abilities that can barely be used anyway?”
Elizabeth Corinth kept his eyes locked with hers, as she drew back and retook her seat. “Because,” she said, “We have enemies, Mr. Welbourne. Enemies who can do more than simply kill us.”
She reached into the same folder as before and withdrew a picture. “Does this look familiar?” She asked as she pushed it in front of him.
Sam leaned forward and studied the picture with furrowed brows. On it was some kind of terminal – perhaps an airport. Several human figures could be seen in the picture, but only one had their features warped and twisted, washing out any human feature.
“Do you mean the blurred face?” He asked, confused.
“Yes, though I assure you that no editing software blurred the face in question.”
He looked up at her, trying to see if she was joking. She appeared perfectly serious as she handed him another one. It was the same: some kind of crowd, with a single blurred face in the middle. There was something strangely familiar about the washed out features, but surely he had seen many pictures like this.
Another photo was the same, then another, and another, until finally he got one that was a little different.
This one also had a crowd of people, but here it appeared the blurred figure was looking straight at the camera taking the picture. It appeared so, because two crimson spots shone brightly right where the eyes of the human should have been.
He knew he had seen similar, and he now knew where he had seen it. Bann, the obscure gunner of the forest had been exactly like this.
“I think you recognize it now,” she said, lacing her fingers before her.
“Yes,” he breathed, disturbed at the implications. “Are these… were these all kertal?”
She smiled again. “You are not as slow as you look, Mr. Welbourne. Yes, these were all kertal; perfectly fine one day, the next they went absolutely insane, killing everyone around them. The only thing they have in common is this: hours before they went berserk, it became impossible for any camera to take their picture; impossible for any sensor to pick up their trace; and impossible for any database to keep information on them.”
“Technological ghosts,” Sam whispered, putting the picture back and looking up at the president.
“Indeed. The only effective way we have found to shield kertal from this… infection, is to increase the capacity and quality of the lifeforce their Core contains. And the only way to do so…”
“…Is to extract it from other kertal,” Sam finished. That was the only way to explain what the students had been taking from one another.
“Essentially, yes. A Well might spend months doing to one kertal, what a single combat in the pocket can do to a score.”
“And the ones who never improve, because they never take anyone out?”
The president leaned back and shrugged. “There’s a system in place to care for any who are too weak by the time they graduate. We don’t leave anyone behind, but neither do we allow them to roam free. Everyone has a duty to improve themselves to the best of their ability. If not for themselves, then for all of mankind.”
“Why? I thought you said this would decrease the chance of… that,” said Sam, waving at the pictures still on the table.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Welbourne. No matter what we do, the number of kertal only increase, and we can’t find them all and bring them here in time. A kertal without a Well might not be dangerous, but an infected kertal like this,” she nodded to the pictures, “Needs no Well to do damage.”
She fixed him with her sparkling green eyes, now devoid of any mirth they might have previously contained. “We are being hunted, Mr. Welbourne, hunted and made to attack our fellow man. Whatever this is, there is no making peace with it.”