Sam woke up the next morning feeling as if he had not slept a second that night. Drained and weak, for a second he feared his sickness had returned, but then he remembered what had happened after he had tapped into the source of mana. Whatever that stuff was, it was not good for him.
Slowly getting to his feet and dressing, Sam thought back to the events after they had escaped the dungeon. For a while it had been chaos; the wounded had been grabbed and carried to the lazaret – the lord marshal himself insisted on carrying Seila there – while those who were relatively hale were treated with mugs of ale, and other vile stuff, thrust in their faces from the other delvers.
Apparently, the whole ‘baptism’ was no joke among these people. They celebrated the birth of a new delving team with as much, or more, gusto as an actual childbirth. It drew away all attention from the events superseding their delve, as well as from the experienced team who quietly entered the dungeon right after their exit.
Seila had been right. He had to hand it to her.
Regardless, that was then, this was now. He needed to get to school – he had signed up for a lecture on general mathematics. With his unnatural skill in the area he might not need it, but he needed to know the standard that would be applied to him.
After the morning routine, the busride, and parting with Liz, he walked down the main causeway, taking in the pleasant surroundings. This was indeed a peaceful place – on the surface. Who knew when the next pocket would appear, and he would have to run around. At least this time around, no one approached him with demands or attempts at friendliness.
He honestly did not know what to think about Sandy. The guy did not seem so bad, but his insistence on getting close was suspicious, and Sam was bad at judging people. It could be genuine interest, but it might just as well be some kind of scheme. Until he had an idea about which it was, Sam would keep his distance.
Curiously, one student, sitting on a bench along the causeway, caught his attention. Not because there was anything special about this student, but rather because it was among the first times Sam had managed to identify this particular student before the opposite had occurred.
In a relaxed position, the dark-haired music student, who had been stalking Sam since their first, violent meeting, sat upon the bench with a block of paper on his lap, drawing on it with a classic charcoal pen.
Being very careful not to make any suspicious movements, Sam circled around the bench and approached the student from the back. He remembered one of Lorson’s goons saying something about this student and his drawings, and wanted to know what it was about. Avoiding the gravel by the causeway, he stepped onto the soft grass that willfully gave way to his intrusion. The sound of students chattering in the morning was luckily loud enough to mask the sound of his careful steps, enough that he made it all the way up behind the dark-haired student.
When he looked at the block of paper, he saw absolute madness.
Caricatures of inhuman faces frozen in abject fear, the scene of a cat ripped limb from limb and strewn across a rocky surface, the shape of a monkey just barely escaping into a dark tunnel, looking over its shoulder with terror in its eyes.
“A-are you alright?” Sam could not help but ask, although the words stuck a bit in his throat. A flutter of clothes and paper later, and the music student had gained his feet, facing Sam while hiding the block of paper behind his back. In his haste, a few pages had escaped, showing more scenes of gruesome acts of violence.
“I didn’t mean to intrude, well.. I guess I did, but I didn’t mean any harm, is what I’m trying to say,” Sam said, trying on a cautious smile to alleviate any fear. It did not work. The student looked down on the ground and began shaking from head to toe. Sam stepped forward and reached out a hand, but the young man only drew back and shook even more violently.
And right then, a gong resounded throughout school.
Shocked, Sam looked towards the main buildings, where the sound came from, and in that one moment of distraction the dark-haired student turned on his heels and escaped, leaving Sam behind. “Don’t… go,” he said and sighed, knowing it was useless. The student was already far away when the second gong rang. He needed to find a place to hide, so that he could avoid whatever was about to go down.
Around him, he noticed more commotion. Students with armbands were banding together, pointing at positions and making plans, neither of which he had when the third gong rang and the whole world froze. Once more the golden net consumed him, and once more he found himself in a world going completely mad.
It barely took a second before the first scream came, but Sam had no time for it. He was surrounded by several groups of students, most of whom were luckily too occupied with the other groups to care for a single straggler, but that might not be the case for long.
He opted to eschew the causeway, aiming for the sports fields where he might be able to hide among the many sheds. Some yelled and pointed after him, but most let him go, seeing no reason to pursue one runner when there were groups of others standing their ground. Most, but not all.
A green ball flew by his ear, electrifying the air and making his hair stand on end. Already breathing heavily, he looked over his shoulder at his pursuers –a boy and a girl– both of whom had conjured up more ammunition and were aiming at him.
He felt the oncoming projectiles, the energy within them calling out to him in a familiar manner, and therefore managed to avoid the next salvo as well.
“He’s got eyes at the back of his head, this one!” the boy yelled, while the girl called out to him, “Stay and fight, you coward, we promise to go easy on you.”
The anger within, the one he kept at bay by balancing on a tightrope of emotional control, pulsed and beat. He was sure that the strength of the anger was stronger than it had been yesterday, and understood that giving into it on the other side was just as bad as giving into it here. It had grown stronger with his indulgence during the night.
He disregarded their jeers and flew across the first field, arriving at the most immediate sheds. He only had to dodge a few more projectile, but rather than dissuade his pursuers, this only seemed to spur them on.
“The more you run,” the boy laughed, “The more I want to drain you!”
“And we won’t make it pleasant,” the girl added, “Just you wait!”
They had stopped using the projectiles, and instead focused on running him down – and they were getting faster. He looked over his shoulder and noted a green sheen around their legs.
He tried summoning his own power, but the anger was in the way. It felt like he had to give in to the seething sea of lava, before he would be allowed to enjoy the strength within, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
“Leave me alone,” he yelled, turning a corner and doubling back around a shed before they had time to see where he went. He put his back up against the wall between two sheds and put a hand to his own mouth, stifling as much sound as he could from the deep breaths he had to take.
At first they yelled, trying to get him to answer, but soon they stopped, and their footsteps began to fade away. For a moment he thought himself safe, then the boy popped up from the other side with a, “Boo!”
His heart caught in his throat, much to the boy’s delight, as he closed in with a sadistic grin on his face. “You know, I really like this part of school life. Not many get to go wild like we do; it should be enjoyed to its fullest, don’t you agree?”
“I do,” Said the girl, arriving behind Sam. It had been a childish trick, and these two had probably spent a lot of time hunting in this reality.
“We told you we were going to make it quick, if you’d just stop and let us drain you, but you had to resist, didn’t you?” Said the boy, stepping closer and sighing dramatically, “Now we have to set an example, right? Make sure you never do this again, and next time you’ll just lie down on your back and let us blast you.”
Still breathing heavily, Sam noted the armband on both their bicep: grey. He knew all he had to do was touch their skin, and their lifeforce would be his. As long as he restrained himself and did not destroy their core, they would just wake up afterwards with barely any memory about what had happened.
It was just wrong. Or, he wanted it to feel wrong. The truth was, he felt it would be a completely justified course of action, one within his right as the superior being. It was a natural preposition that his conscious mind desperately fought to overcome, struggling against it with all of its might.
The boy raised his hand, and a green spike surrounded it in a flash. “This will not be pretty,” he said, still grinning, “As long as I don’t stab you in your core, or harm your head, the transfer will be incomplete, but you will feel all of the pain. I’ll make sure you get to enjoy having all your limbs pierced, before I let you off, alright?”
“No?” Sam tried, eyes darting between the two of them. It would be so easy, just touch the first, drain and repeat. The other might run, but that was alright as well.
He elected to try something else. Tapping into the anger, just ever so slightly, Sam focused on his hand and unleashed a bit of lifeforce. Red threads emerged from his skin, curling around his hand and combining into a mesh, until he had a spike there, just like the boy.
The two stopped, eyes open in shock. Yes that’s it. Be scared, he thought, hoping to scare them off, before he lost control of the anger he was currently fighting with. Instead, both their faces cracked simultaneously into wide grins.
“I’ll be damned,” said the girl, stepping closer, “He’s the one they’re looking for. Red threads… You are the fourth Well.”
“I’ll go,” the boy said, still grinning, “You keep him here, Sally. Don’t let him get away.”
“Oh I won’t,” she said, getting really close.
Not good. Sam had miscalculated. Throwing all caution aside, he jumped towards the boy and stabbed, trying to take him down quickly. “Oh, so now you want to fight?” The boy laughed and avoided the blow, leveling an ordinary blow into Sam’s solar plexus as a counter, “Where was all that eagerness before, huh?”
Sam didn’t answer, instead he collapsed onto his knees, lungs completely devoid of air. “How can a Well be so stupid?” The boy asked, leaning forward until their faces were close enough to touch, “Going around unprotected out here, without any helpers? You deserve what’s coming to you for that alone. What’s that? What are you trying to say?”
Fighting to regain his breath, Sam’s inner fight was long lost. “You..” He breathed, trying to get the words out, and his limbs under control, “You clearly haven’t…”
With all the speed he could muster, he reached out and grabbed the boy by the face. Red threads erupted once more from his wrists, piercing into the boy’s weasel-like face. He finished the sentence while drinking up the sweet lifeforce from his foe, “…haven’t fought a Well before.”
“Ken, no!” The girl screamed and came at him, but before he could reach out and grab her as well, a green spike erupted from her breastbone, leaving her stunned. Slowly she fell off to the side, revealing the attacker. Dark curls and even darker eyes greeted him, and Sam was so surprised by the music student’s arrival that he dropped the boy in his hand, stopping his drink. He had already finished anyway.
Both of his assailants flickered, then dispersed into golden threads.
“Why,” he asked, staring the student in the eyes. The other’s eyes were darting back and forth, but, every once in a while, they would rest on Sam, and a sort of recognition would emerge on the, otherwise, frantic face of the student.
“What’s your name?” Sam asked, not expecting an answer.
“R-Radrin,” The young man stammered, much to Sam’s surprise. He had not heard the guy say a word until then, not even when Lorsen and his fellows had beaten him down.
“Alright, Radrin, I need to get somewhere no one will find me. Do you know such a place?”
His compatriot shook his head and said, “W-wont w-w-work. They’re already h-h-here.”
Sam blinked. They? Which ‘they’?
“Get out here, Samuel Welbourne,” a loud voice proclaimed, from outside the narrow passage between sheds.
“Did you sell me out?” Sam asked, calmly, coldly.
“N-n-no.. they r-r-recognized you. I f-f-followed you and they c-caught me. I’m to t-tell you they w-will drain him if y-you don’t come o-out on your own.”
“Sam! Don’t come out here, hear?! Stay in there and take them out if they dare come for y-“
He recognized that voice, even as it was cut off by what sounded like a hard slap. Sighing, he walked towards Radrin, who stepped aside. “You shouldn’t g-go.” He stammered, looking at Sam with a strange expression.
“I owe him,” Sam said, shrugging, “Can’t leave debts unpaid, right?”
Without any further ceremony, Sam stepped out of his hiding spot between the sheds and into an immediate encirclement. A dozen students formed a semi-circle around him, arms lowered, but ready to raise and attack with. Right in front of him, at the top of the encirclement, Sandy knelt on the ground with his back to a small student standing behind him.
Though he had a small stature, this student made up for it in girth, which he displayed magnificently in his ordinary clothes. No older than Sam, the guy had a pair of rimmed glasses upon a small pigs-nose, and a perpetual smirk on his pursed lips.
“Samuel Welbourne, I presume,” said the student with the massive girth, “I’m so glad to meet you, in this place. I am the Raven. Let’s talk, shall we?”