An instant of fog, a land so foreign he was certain he had seen it before, and then his eyes fluttered open to the sight of an ordinary ceiling, in an ordinary room, in an ordinary life.
Sam got up on his feet and did his morning ablutions, feeling a little better about his weird life now he had actually had a decent time on the other side. Seila was stubborn and overly assertive, and her possessive nature shining through their bond was downright creepy, and yet the people around her seemed to appreciate her.
Good friends, huh? Maybe he too could get that.
His morning routine was short, and he shared most of it with Liz as she chatted about life in school – who he should meet, where the best places for lunch were, and which classes he should consider signing up for. Sam just nodded as she spoke, content to hear her speak of those things that should occupy his mind, yet did not.
Instead, as he chomped down breakfast cereal and bread, his thoughts drifted towards the issue of pockets, and whether he would experience one soon.
Once the morning ritual was over and done with, they quickly found their way out onto the street, settling into the bus that would take them to school. The scenery passed by in a blur; Sam’s mind still jumping up and down as if on a trampoline.
“Did you hear what I said, Sam?”
Liz’s voice interrupted his train of thought, and Sam started. With a guilty conscience, he looked over at his sister. Her bright, blue eyes probably saw through his distracted mind, and he had to quickly cover with a smile.
“No, sorry, what?”
“Have you gotten to know anyone yet? Anyone in school, I mean.”
“Not really, no–” an image of a blonde student with green eyes and a cheeky smile flashed in his mind. “Well… I guess. Do you know someone called ‘Sandy’?”
Liz furrowed her brow and began studying him even closer. “Do you mean Friedrick Sands? That trickster? How did you ever meet him?”
“I just sorta ran into him, I guess,” Sam answered, nocommitedly.
“He’s bad news, Sam, don’t get too close to him,” she warned, pointing her finger at him, “He used to run with those grey-armband thugs, before even they got tired of him.”
Sam broke off eye-contact and looked out the window instead. “What do you know about the armbands?” He finally asked, after a while, hoping to gleam what other students, not involved in the whole crazy scheme, thought.
“It’s a kinda club, but I have no idea how to get into one, or even why some are accepted while others are not,” she answered, shrugging, “I do know the school gives them special privileges, though, the kind most students would kill for.. well, maybe not literally. The blue and the whites are alright, as far as I see it, but I don’t know why the school tolerates either the grey or the golden – they are just bullies and troublemakers.”
“Did you try to get into one?” He asked before he could think twice. Liz grew red in the face and turned away; the set of her jaw clearly indicating how far he had overstepped.
“I did,” she said, her tone clipped, “I wasn’t accepted.”
That stopped their conversation for the journey. Even when the bus stopped and they got off, Liz refused to even look at him, and instead walked off without a word. She never had been good at hiding her emotions. Left behind, Sam let his sister leave without attempting to catch up. She would not really be mad at him, but rather at herself for failing at being accepted.
There was therefore no one to warn him when an arm was suddenly laid across his shoulders, startling Sam just as a voice spoke nearby, “Hey there, Partner, how’ya doin?”
Sandy’s green eyes were as sparkling as Sam remembered, the confident tone of voice even more so. “You alright there, Sam was it?”
Sam shoved off the arm and stepped a bit to the side before he answered, “I’m fine. What do you want?”
“That’s a little cold, aren’t we comrades in arms?”
“Being at the same place at the same time does not make us comrades. I’d say it was your fault I was even in that whole mess to begin with.”
Sandy shrugged and stepped closer, “Maybe it was, but they’d have been after you anyway. Any free agent is considered prey these days. If they can’t get you to join them, they can just suck you dry and leave you.”
“Is that what you did to Rob, suck him dry?”
Sandy’s teeth flashed in half a smile, “Sure I did, but what you did to Ol’ Perci was way worse than what I ever did. I hear they had to drive him to the hospital after the shock of losing his core like that.”
Sam whitened and looked down onto the ground, having just managed to forget about that whole thing. Sandy stepped even closer, bending down so their eyes were level, “You’re not just a free agent, but a free-bloody-Well of all things. And you really had no idea?”
“No,” Sam said, wrestling himself away from the taller boy and starting up the causeway towards school.
Sandy just grinned and made a few skips to catch up by Sam’s side. “Well, whatchya gonna call your faction then? I guess your color is red, seeing the way you drained Perci, but tradition dictates you name yourself after an animal too.”
“I’m not gonna call my faction anything,” Sam said, biting his words as he spoke, “There’s not gonna be a faction. I just want to go to school.”
“Oh, but you can’t run from it now, Sammy-boy,” Sandy said, a joke hidden somewhere in his tone of voice, “They have you now exactly where they want you, and there is no escape.”
What that meant, Sam was not sure, but before he could ask, a group of four students stepped out in front of them, cutting them off. Two girls and two boys, all with golden armbands around their bicep, and only one of them known to Sam.
Lorsen stepped up, his giant frame dwarfing even Sandy, who was the second tallest present. To Sam it was like looking up a mountain side.
“Well, New Boy,” said Lorsen, cracking his neck, “It seems you’ve gotten some new friends; care to introduce us?”
Sam looked to Sandy, who stood at his left, then looked over his right shoulder to find a bronze-skinned face framed with long dark curls.
How long has he been there? Sam jolted, beginning to tire of people sneaking up on him. He and the mute student locked eyes for a moment, and for a moment Sam thought he saw something in the other’s eyes – something familiar. Then it was gone, and so was the student: whirling about in a wind of cloth and dark hair before running off down a nearby path.
“No? I guess it doesn’t matter. You’re coming with us, New Boy, the Golden Lion wants to see you.”
Sandy stepped up in front of Sam, stretching his neck so that he and Lorsen were only a head apart in height, and said, “You don’t have any authority to tell him what to do, minion. Go back and tell your piss-yellow kitten he can come face a fellow W–”
He did not get any further before Sam had firmly stabbed him in the side with his elbow. “Sure,” Sam said, emphasizing his point by also stepping on Sandy’s foot, “Give me just one moment to talk with my friend here, alright?”
He used all of his teeth to show a friendly facade, while on the inside he was beginning to steam. The boiling sea was growing hotter, and he felt the urge to lash out at both Sandy and these pathetic stooges in front of him. All of them were less than he, and yet they looked so mighty, so darn sure of themselves.
The two girls on Lorsen’s right flank was not even looking at him, but through him, as if he did not even exist. The other boy was one of those he had faced behind the sheds, and he looked like he wanted nothing else but to take Sam back behind those sheds and repay the favor from that time.
Lorsen raised an eyebrow, but ended up shrugging and signalled his fellows back. Then he, himself, stepped a mere two steps backwards before crossing his arms across his chest.
I guess that’s what I’m gonna get, Sam sighed inside and turned to Sandy. The taller boy looked at him with a mock-hurt expression, enough that, in his current mood, Sam wanted to punch him in the face.
“Look,” Sam said in a sharp, but low voice, grabbing Sandy’s jacket and pulling him in close, “They don’t necessarily know I’m a Well, so don’t go telling them, you bloody idiot.”
“But you are a Well, Sam,” Sandy countered, “They should treat you with more respect, even if you’re not their Well.”
“I don’t want respect, I just want a life at school that does not include a bloody deathgame!”
“Too bad, you’re already stuck here. Might as well get the best out of it, right?”
Sam tightened his lips and shoved Sandy away. With wrath seeping into his voice, Sam said, “You leave me the fuck alone, hear? I don’t want anything to do with this, and I don’t want anything to do with you.”
True hurt seemed to seep into Sandy’s look for a moment, but then a veneer of guile soon replaced it, making it unclear whether it had been as fake as before, “Don’t worry, Sammy-boy, I’ll get out of your sight for now. However, I think you’ll find it very hard to get by here without some good friends around you, mark me.”
With those words, the lanky boy turned on his heels and marched off, leaving Sam alone to fume in silence.
“Let’s go, New Boy, we’ve wasted enough time as is,” Lorsen said, reminding Sam of the other source of his ire. Turning back to them, resetting his face to hide most of his emotions, Sam gave them his best, toothy smile and said, “Let’s go.”
Lorsen led the group, beside the female followers, while the other two filed in behind Sam, sandwiching him in between. They passed through the school plaza to much attention from onlooking students, although no one made any move to inquire about the marching group. Even the occasional teacher who came upon them made a wide circuit around them, avoiding eye contact as best possible.
They did not enter the main building, but went straight for the right wing, entering into corridors which were marked for office spaces. Several of these looked to be shared, given the names of teachers that appeared on plaques on the wall, but there were also several which appeared to only have single residents. They walked through two hallways, and up a couple of stairs, before reaching the bottom of the thirds hallway. Here Lorson knocked on an unseeming door, which was soon rewarded with an, “Enter.”
Lorsen pushed open the door, and shoved Sam inside. Sam just barely managed to catch the name of the door’s plaque: Fellix Gossman.
He stepped into a room that was as spartan as ever he had seen one. It was a five by five meter box dressed in white walls without as much as a smudge on them. The floor was brown boards, on which only a single unadorned desk obstructed the clean surface. Two windows at either side of the back wall, opposite the entrance, was enough to shower the room in clean daylight, while the wall in between them held the only visible decoration of the entire room. Two frames had been prominently displayed there: one holding a certificate from Flotsam’s university, the other showing a brilliant night sky where lines had been drawn between stars into an animal-esque shape.
While not an expert in star signs, Sam thought he could infer the name of this one.
Sitting beneath the two frames, in the exact middle of the room, was a large man with skin as dark as molasses, and eyes so brightly intelligent they shone with a light of their own. He was wearing a fine jacket over a buttoned up shirt and straight tie, cuffed with golden links in the imagery of a roaring lion. His bald head lent a second shine to his appearance, as it reflected the light coming from outside.
Without looking up at his guests, the man scribbled with a mechanical pen onto physical paper – an outdated action at best, as his finger followed lines of numbers in a book in front of him. Lorsen held Sam back from going too far inside, keeping himself only just inside the room as he shut the door behind.
When finally at the bottom of his page, the Golden Lion finally looked up at the arrivals; eyes scanning every inch of them both with machine-like precision.
“Lorsen, you brought him. Good. Leave us.”
His voice was like the click of a typewriter – nearly as old-fashioned a technology as the means he was using now. Lorsen bowed his head, then turned and walked outside, sparing only a single warning glance at Sam.
Don’t be disrespectful, the look seemed to say.
Sam took a step forward, making sure he kept a safe distance – even if it was potentially useless against an older and more experienced Well, like this one obviously was. The Golden Lion was no spring chicken, although not exactly old either. Sam thought him to be around 30 years of age, give and take, and the way he now looked at Sam made it absolutely clear he knew exactly what he was – what they both were.
“Good day, Mr. Welbourne,” said the Lion, “I am Felix Gossman, although most of our kind refers to me as the Lion.”
“Our kind?” Sam said, feigning ignorance. There was no point in showing off how much he knew, or of how much he was ignorant. Both could be deadly.
The Lion leaned back, narrowing his eyes. “You had a talk with our dear Student Council President, yes? I did hear you had a bit of run-in with some ravens before that, but she should have put you up to speed.”
“She did,” Sam said, still trying to keep his cards close.
He was faced with an expression of stone. For a long while silence reigned, then the Lion initiated once more, “Samuel, may I call you Samuel?”
“Sam is fine.”
“Sam it is; call me Felix, please. I have called you to discuss a potential partnership. I know you have questions, most of which the president would have been unable to answer – but I can.”
Sam sank. Barely in the door and the man had already seen through him, of this he was certain. “What would you want in return for… answers?”
The Lion leaned forward, placing elbows on the table and folding his hands in front of his face. With a showman’s grasp of timing, he finally said, “Let’s start with your location… on the other side, of course.”