For a while, Sam stood silent and observed his opponent, because that was what this Golden Lion was: an opponent he had to overcome.
“You want to know my location? Even if your information is good, is it worth my life?”
Felix returned the calculating stare with just as much discrimination. “Why would I kill you, Sam? Do you think we are bloodthirsty murderers, just because we play dangerous games?”
Sam did not answer, but kept staring at the Lion with as much strength of will he could muster. He would not cower before this foe. Finally, Felix sighed and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands before him, and said, “Very well, it seems I must prove my goodwill first. How about I give you a small piece of information to prove my sincerity?”
Again, Sam did not answer.
Smiling, Felix said, “Very good, Sam; you drive a hard bargain. This is something the president would have been unable to tell you about. On this side, we are wells of power; reliquaries of the lifeforce that infuse our body with strength. On the other side, we are prime constructs, able to bolster the strength of the spirit we share between flesh and machine. Although we know only of four of our kind, we are not the only ones there. I’m certain the president has explained the position of kertal, and how they too are connected to Elhané, correct?”
“I understand they are connected, somehow, but cannot manifest their consciousness there,” Sam said, trying to seem as if he knew more than he actually did.
“That is partially true,” said Felix, putting up a finger, “They cannot manifest their consciousness there, unless someone helps them.”
Sam raised an eyebrow and said, “That ‘someone’ being like us, I presume?”
“Indeed. On this side we aid the kertal by granting them the lifeforce we extract on the other side, while on the other side we aid them by pulling their consciousness into the world in truth.”
“If they can manifest on both sides, then, how are they different from us?”
Felix smiled a genuine smile that even travelled all the way up to his otherwise cold eyes. “You ask the right questions, Sam.” For the first time since they initiated eye-contact, the Golden Lion broke it in order to look down in a drawer he had just pulled out from the desk in front of him. When his dark eyes returned to the contest, he put onto the desk three coins: one sitting alone, while two were connected by a piece of string.”
“This is the best way I have found to explain it, so please bear with me,” Felix said, as he gestured to the coins. This time, it was Sam who broke eye-contact to take a closer look at them. They seemed like ordinary old coins –the kind that had long been done away with in favor of cards– shining like silver and with a hole in the middle.
“You and I are like the singular coin,” Felix said, taking up the coin and turning it around a few times in his hand. “We are currently awake in this world, but when we sleep–” Felix flipped the coin over one more time “–we awaken on the other side. Though the sides may differ, the coin stays the same. Do you understand?”
Sam narrowed his eyes, thinking. “You’re saying I’m not really going back and forth between worlds, but simply that my perception of reality is?”
“Indeed, this gift is not wasted on you,” Felix said, grinning such that his white teeth flashed, “The distinction is important, as you will see in a moment.” With those words, he put down the single coin, and drew the two coins connected by strings into the center of the desk.
“Now, the kertal on the other hand, are like these two coins.” On the table, Felix pulled the two coins apart such that the string became taught, “Like us, they are connected to a construct on Elhané, but unlike us it is not a simple matter of flipping the coin.”
With the coins pulled apart, he pointed from one coin to the other, “This is their body of flesh and this is their body of metal. In between is the connection, forged by a lifelink…”
The familiar word made Sam blink, although he managed to stay most of his surprise. Focusing on calm breaths, he continued listening to Felix.
“…and through this link, the core in their bodies are forged. This is what allows them to consume and manipulate lifeforce, even without the strengthening of spirit that you and I have to go through in order to advance.”
Does he mean the user level? Is he too embarrassed to call it what it is? Sam allowed himself half a smile. Indeed, it sounded a lot more profound when talked about as spirit, than the game-like gimmick it really was.
In that very moment, Felix looked up and raised an eyebrow at Sam. Doubling down on the smile, Sam attempted to make it into a smile of interest, as he nodded along to the older man’s explanation.
“Can you see the problem, Sam?”
Sam took another look at the coins, tilted his head, and said, “The president talked about resistance. According to her, the kertal may pull a little bit of power into themselves from the other side, but it may take months to do what we can do in moments. If the connection is like an electric current, then the length of the ‘wire’ would mean more resistance, meaning more energy lost in the process of transfer.”
Tapping his own chin, Sam continued in a distracted tone, “If what you’re saying is true, though, the same does not apply to us, since we are both here and there – even if we can only perceive one place at a time.”
The Golden Lion clapped his desk twice, his grin still in full display. “This is where the coin analogy breaks down a little, and we have to enhance it,” he said, pulling out a piece of paper from the side, placing the coin connected by a string on either end of the paper, “Now, imagine that the two parts exist on their own side of this paper, and the distance between them represent the –probably– near infinite distance between them. You are right, of course, in saying the distance is too great for the link to provide more than a tenuous connection between the two. We, on the other hand, bend the distance around like this.”
Removing the two coins, Felix placed the single coin on one end of the paper, and bent the other end back such that both sides of the coin was connected to either end of the paper.
“Do you see the difference? This is also how we can pull the consciousness of the kertal into the other side, simply by being close to them on both ends.”
He retrieved the two coins, put them on top of each other, and inserted them in between the ends of the paper. “Even like this, though, the two coins are still separate entities, distinct from one another even when the lifelink is shortened to such a degree. They can never be like us, and should they stray too far from our influence on either side for too long –or worse: on both sides– the ends will pull apart again.”
“And so they are dependent on us, whether on this side or the other,” Sam said, nodding to himself. In a way, the system was extorting those of the ‘lesser classes’ to comply with the will of the mighty. If those red-eyed things really were out there hunting the kertal, how could any of them afford not to enlist with any of the factions?
“Indeed. You see, there’s your information; completely free and without any strings attached.”
Sam eyed the older man. Felix was definitely playing some kind of game, even with all of that friendliness of his. Whatever it was, Sam was not inclined to give him an inch of territory.
“You must be joking, right Felix?”
The Lion adopted a hurt expression and said, “Are you calling my information a joke, Sam? I can assure you, everything I have told you comes from my own personal experience. As best I can tell, this is the nature of our connection with the other side.”
“No, I’m not calling your information a joke,” Sam said, shaking his head and then placed both his palms on the table, leaning forward until his face was only a hand width from Felix’s, “I’m saying, you acting as if this information is worth anything, is the joke.”
“How so?” The man was bloody grinning again.
“While I do appreciate the lesson, this is virtually useless to me, and serves only to further whatever agenda you are trying to put forth. Even with this knowledge, in order to apply it I need to find someone on the other side –who may have no idea about where the construct they are connected to in Elhané is– and who’s furthermore not a member of any other faction, or is willing to abandon their comrades for an unknown Well. A Well, mind you, who is newly awakened and most certainly the weakest among peers.
“Instead, you are merely explaining to me the extent of your power, since I must now infer you have at least one awakened kertal like this –if not many more– on the other side. These are agents you can send against me, without ever coming close yourself, if I should tell you my current location. Thus you have given me no real advantage, but only served yourself. If that is not a joke then I don’t know what is.”
Slowly, the golden lion put his hands together and clapped; once, twice, thrice. “Excellent work, Sam. I’m impressed. According to your file, you are a quick study, but it says nothing about a cunning mind. It appears I have underestimated you; I apologize.”
The bald man lowered his head slightly, enough that light reflected off the crown of his head. Sam did not buy the sudden humility one bit. Whatever this man was trying to do, it was most certainly not an attempt to help a new and untried Well.
“Very well, let’s try something else then,” Felix said, as Sam returned to his standing position, “Please, Sam, take a seat.” The older man gestured to the only chair in front of his desk. Carefully, Sam pulled out the chair and sat down, not taking his eyes away from the opponent at any time.
“I understand your caution – I even admire it. Let me be frank then: I want you, Sam, to join me.”
“Join you? You want me to become a part of your faction?”
Felix shook his head and put up a hand, “No, we are bound by the rules set by the White Rabbit: all Wells must have their own faction and following. What I mean is, I want you to join me in standing against the other factions.”
Sam raised an eyebrow – was this guy messing with him?
“I may have only experienced one pocket, Golden Lion, but I seem to recall most of those fighting it out, were either those of your faction, or of the grey faction. Surely, with that kind of fighting power, you don’t need me to help you.”
Felix waived his hand while his face screwed up in annoyance, “That is exactly why I need you to help me, Sam. You do not know, since you are new to this world, how dangerous the Raven and his people are – and what will happen if no one stands against them. The White Rabbit will not take sides, and the Blue Mink hides away in her hole during every pocket, doing God-knows-what.”
Sam leaned back in his chair and folded his arms in front of him. As far as he could tell, both the lions and the ravens were bullies and battlemongers. What difference would it make if either side took control?
“Enlighten me,” he said in a level tone.
“In order to understand, you need to know that I awakened when I was only a little older than you are now, but I am not the oldest of the Wells. The oldest should be the White Rabbit, who had just established this school when I first opened my eyes on the other side. Even back then, the Rabbit did not directly interfere with anything on-campus, but only set down the ground rules of engagement, and left it to students to sort the rest out.
“When I arrived, however, there was already a faction established – namely, the Grey Ravens. The Raven is not as old as the Rabbit, but he is my senior, and at that time most of the school was under his command. If you had seen the state of affairs back then, Sam, I’m certain you would not hesitate to join with me.”
The battle of stares between them was hotly contested, and Sam felt his own inadequacies more strongly than ever before. Felix, for all intents and purposes, seemed the image of perfection; a monolith of conviction without a single flaw on the surface.
“If you think the pocket is a brutal battlefield now, you should have seen it back when it was a slaughterhouse. Yes, I’m serious: a slaughterhouse is the right word. As the only Well, the Raven stood atop a hierarchy of sycophants who destroyed anyone who would not kneel to his whims. Even when they bowed, the weakest were simply used as fodder for the stronger; commanded to stand in rows and let themselves be deprived of their energy to ‘prove their sincerity and obedience’.”
A growing desire to puke slowly overcame Sam, as blood drained from his face.
“You are right to pale, Sam. Only after the kertal had proved their sincerity at least a hundred times over, would the Raven even deign to consider them one of his own, and only then would the true cruelty begin. Being treated as livestock for half a year, the kertal, finally enlisted into the circle of the Raven, would immediately turn on those who had been their fellows. They, more than those before them, would show the most enthusiasm to do onto others what was done to them.
“You have to understand, Sam: the kertal are children, unable to distinguish between right and wrong unless someone teaches them. As their betters, we must take that responsibility upon our shoulders and guide them down the proper path; the path of order. In this fight, the Raven is chaos, who guides the kertal down a path of nihilism and self-satisfaction; while I am order, guiding the kertal down the path of unity and altruism. Who would you rather stand with?”
For a long moment there was silence. Sam whetted his lips, uncertain. “And what if I do not wish to make such a choice? What if I’d rather just stay out of this fight, Golden Lion? Will you hunt me down like those free agents, just like the Raven does?”
“Those who refuse to stand on the side of order stands on the side of disorder, Sam. There is no middle ground, no grey zone, or nuance in this fight. You can either step out of those doors behind you as an ally to the Golden Lions, or as a hunted enemy. It is your choice.”
Sam took a deep breath, preparing his ripost, “I’ve met some of the ‘order’ you wish to impose upon others, Golden Lion, and I am not impressed. I have seen both greys and goldens trample upon those who would not conform and become like them, but I understand you think this is a war – and war requires sacrifice.”
He leaned forward in his chair, placing his hands upon the desk, trying to infuse his will into every word he spoke, “But that is not why I will refuse you. The reason I’m refusing you is that, whatever fancy words you use to distinguish yourself from your perceived enemy, you share the exact same view on the kertal as the Raven. I may not know very much about this world, yet, but I do know that, as far as humans are concerned, at the core we are all equal. However which way I came to be a Well, it is surely only by chance – nothing more. Even if the kertal must depend on our gifts, they surely cannot be considered below us for that reason alone.
“No, Golden Lion, I will not join you, nor will I hinder you. I simply do not care about whatever fight you think you’re fighting.”
With those words, Sam pushed away the chair and stood back up. Felix was a mask of stone as his dark eyes bored into Sam. A nod, then Sam turned on his heels and left the room, certain that he would have to live down this decision very soon.
Left alone in the small office, Felix leaned back and closed his eyes. How very tired he was. Yet another youngling who did not understand – could not understand. This new world of powers untold and unknown did not need the idealism of the young, but the realistic order he would impose upon it.
The Raven and I are the same? What a foul notion…
His meditation was disturbed when the door to his office was opened again, after he had ignored the knock preceding the action.
It was Lorsen. Felix had high hopes for this first-year, and already placed him in his confidence because of the skill the young man had proved.
“What is it, Lorsen?”
“I just… It just doesn’t seem proper to allow a mere free agent, and one who hasn’t been here long, to meet you, Sir. Is he really worth that much?”
Still with his eyes closed, Felix allowed himself a slight smile and said, “What is this now, Lorsen? Are you jealous?”
“N-no Sir, I wouldn’t dare!”
Snapping his eyes open again, Felix leaned forward and observed the young man with his scrutinizing gaze. “Good, for you and he are separate species. Let it be known that the fourth Well, Samuel Wellbourne, is to be hunted down by anyone who sees him in the pockets.”
“He–He’s a Well?”
“Didn’t I just tell you that? Now go.”
Lorsen gave an unpracticed salute and left the office in a hurry to make the command known. Felix leaned back into his seat and closed his eyes again. He wondered, not for the first time, if the pieces he so carefully shuffled around were merely a minor part of a much larger game of which he had no idea.
Is this what you really want, White Rabbit?