“You say you’re the Raven?” Sam said, looking at the youth dubiously, “I don’t believe you.”
Felix, the Lion, had said the Raven was older than he, and Felix was in his thirties. This youth could not possibly be older than 17, maybe 18.
“There are so many things you don’t know, Samuel,” Said the fatty, “Why would you presume to disbelieve me when I honestly tell you who I am?”
“Because I’ve already met the Lion.”
Sighing, the youth, calling himself the Raven, shrugged and began pacing back and forth, keeping Sandy just within reach. Sam could see his would-be-friend had been properly roughed up by this gang of degeneratives. His cheeks were swollen, and his shoulders had been pierced, and were now just two holes – probably the same treatment that Sam’s earlier pursers had wanted to inflict upon him.
“Ah yes, the vaunted ‘Golden Lion’ of all that is right and just in this world,” said the Raven imposter, throwing his hands up in the air, “And what did this paragon of inadequacies tell you about me, hmm? That I sow chaos? That I am a danger to everyone and everything? Did he tell you I sleep with dolls in my bed?”
The surrounding goons laughed at the joke, delivered with just enough sarcasm for Sam to be sure it was masking deep-seated hatred.
“He told me enough for me to be sure that you most certainly are not the Raven. You’re not old enough.”
Laughing, almost hysterically, the wide-girthed imposter shook with mirth. “Not old enough? Do you not understand what we wield, Samuel? We are Wells, not just of any mean energy, but of lifeforce. Don’t you see? Why should I look like a wrinkled old man when I can literally just tap into that force and renew myself? Right down to a cellular level, I possess the age I desire, when I desire it.”
That did make Sam blink. In the context of crazy, it made a modicum of sense. Still, it was no assurance.
“That still does not mean you are who you say you are. That just means you have an excuse to claim that you are.”
The fat youth looked to ponder it for a moment, then nodded. “You are right to be suspicious, Sam. That is a good instinct. Then how about this?” He stepped over to his nearest subordinate and, without a word of warning, grabbed him by the neck.
Grey threads erupted from his hand, in a very familiar manner, latching themselves onto the victim’s skin. Blanching, the offended student nonetheless stood completely still and accepted the transfer, without a word of protest. Once depleted, the Raven –because this was now most certainly the real deal– let go of his practice dummy, and returned his gaze to Sam. The poor student, meanwhile, collapsed and was quickly reduced to golden threads and dispersed.
“I… Yes, I am,” Sam said, his throat a little dry.
“Good, then we can get on with business. I have a proposal for you, which you are going to listen to. You are going to think I am not serious, but then I will prove to you how serious I am, and –once you have had time to consider just how serious I am– you will either accept out of necessity, or decline out of obstinacy. When we are done, you and I will either be the best of friends, or the most inconciliable of enemies. Do you understand?”
Sandy, still kneeling, coughed and spat blood. Sam furrowed his brow and said, “Are you alright, Sandy?”
“Just peachy, Sammy,” Sandy answered, grinning with blood stained teeth, “Don’t believe a word he says, though. He’s a mean old bastard.”
That earned him a forceful kick to the abdomen, courtesy of the Raven, sending him reeling off to the side. “You were told to be silent, Sandy, so shut up. Would you believe, Sam, that this guy has the balls to shortchange me after begging me to refill him, last time?”
“Why is he here?” Sam asked, trying to stay calm and neutral – and not get angry.
“He’s here to help me prove my point, to pay back his debts, and because he is apparently the closest thing you have to a friend, in this academy. Now, I ask you again: do you understand the situation you’re in, or do you need me to spell it out further?”
“In broad strokes, yes. Could you give me more specifics?”
The Raven smiled and said, “I knew I liked you, Sam. No beating around the bush, then? No, I agree, no games. I know the gist of what the Lion told you, and from his perspective he probably told you no lie. Only, he probably neglected to tell you what kind of world we were living in only fifteen years ago. Do you know your history, Sam?”
“I know there were tensions of war,” Sam said, trying to sound exactly as nonchalant as he did not feel, “The sea was beginning to swallow entire countries, leaving food production by an all time low. There were some riots in major cities, especially after the Mars Initiative first returned with their findings, since to many it seemed like throwing money out the window, while the rest of the world starved.”
“Very good, Sam, you’ve at least picked up the basics. But that is a very general picture of the events back then, the broad strokes, as you said. So let’s get specific; what do you know about the Desertion of Scandinavia?”
“Riots broke out in three capital cities at pretty much the same time, just as major parts of Denmark and Sweden got swallowed up, almost over night. The riots spilled into the countryside and sent hundreds of thousands to fly across the border to Germany and Finland.”
“That is the watered down version of events, yes. What no history book will tell you, is that the riots were not sparked by a lack of food, or dissatisfaction with the government. The riots only began when officials from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway all opened fire at crowds gathered to hear their leaders speak on the topic of the future.”
“Oh yes, and that is not all. Have you heard of the Bloody Spring of India?”
Sam nodded, not sure where this was going.
“Same deal. Huge masses gathered, but this was at a religious ceremony. Before anyone knew what had happened, an armed fight between religious groups had broken out, and within four days the entire country was embroiled in civil war. The story repeats in the Americas, in Africa, and Australia. You can almost name any country, and I can give you a tale of leaders attacking followers. Back then, only few knew what was really going on, and, most importantly, that we were already at war.”
Sam crossed his arms before him and said, “Then tell me what was going on, oh great and all-knowing Raven.”
“Despite your sarcasm, I will,” said the Raven, putting up a finger, “That was when the first kertal appeared in more widespread numbers, and they were all being corrupted at a rapid pace. At that time, I had already realized a few years earlier about my connection to the other side, but I had yet to make the connection with concurrent events.
“I only learned the truth when the Rabbit found me. The truth was shown to me, and I was marveled. Not only at the fact that such a war of shadows was being fought beneath our very noses, but at the simplicity of its execution. Our enemies were relying on chaos, sowing only a few seeds here and there and seeing them sprout, sending us further down the path of self-destruction.
“It is natural to think, as the Lion does, that the cure to chaos is order, but that is a false choice. Insisting on order in the face of chaos will lead you to be the victim of the whims of those without rules, without a code, and without morals. I have thrown these ideals away, such that I can fight chaos with chaos, cruelty with cruelty, strength with strength.”
Sam was surprised. For someone who openly prized himself on having no ideals, this talk of chaos sounded pretty much the same as when Felix talked. Truly, these two were not as different as they liked to think.
“Hehe, see? What did I tell you, Sammy? A mean old bastard, that’s all.” Sandy laughed, even as the Raven delivered another set of kicks to his defenseless form.
Looking at the cruelty delivered before him, Sam could not help but wonder at Sandy’s insistence on taunting the Raven so. Did they have some kind of bad blood? “And now what? Do you want me to join you?” Sam said, raising an eyebrow, “Be your little soldier in this war?”
“Oh, no no, I don’t want you to join me, Sam,” said the Raven, mouth quivering with the gist of a smile as he took hold of Sandy and dragged him back onto his knees, “I want you to surrender to me.”
Without warning, the Raven formed a sharp blade on his hand with grey threads, and chopped off Sandy’s head in a single, powerful cut.
“Surrender or die, Samuel, that is your choice. Choose carefully.”
The gong sounded three times.
Sam was back on the main causeway, back to normal. As normal as can be when everyone is out for your head. After the summary execution of Sandy, the Raven dispersed the encirclement, saying he would give Sam a few days to think about it. Sam could only watch, as Sandy’s body was turned into golden threads, and then into nothing.
Looking from side to side, Sam continued down the causeway. Radrin could not be far away, since they had been close when the pocket formed, but there was no sight of him now. Sam did not know what to make of him either. He appeared to want something from Sam, but fled whenever Sam took the least bit of notice in him.
Until we were in the pocket…
Was that significant? There was no way to know. Sam shifted his focus from searching for the dark-haired music student, to look for the blonde Sandy. If what he had been told was correct, Sandy would still be alive, he would just have no memory of the events in the pocket.
There was not much time though. Soon the first bell rang, and Sam had to go to the lecture he had signed up for, which turned out to be an exercise in torture. The subject of the day was basic trigonometry; calculations that Sam could make in his sleep. When it was finally over, Sam stormed out of the lecture hall without hesitation, running down the hall and onto the central plaza.
Sandy was not there.
He tried searching the gardens, replete with flowers in all the colors of the rainbow, but it was futile. Roaming the hallways bore no fruit either, not until he looked out a third store window and saw a recognizable head of hair sitting by the fields beside some female students.
He ran out there, nearly fell down the stairs, and made it out onto the fields before Sandy had moved. He found him there, laughing and joking with three female students, playing out some kind of internal jest that made no sense to Sam.
“And then.. and then,” he heard Sandy laugh, “He fell down trying to pull up his pants again. Haha, you should have seen his face, he was like this.” Sandy pulled his face into a grimace, which made the girls chirp with laughter.
Sam stepped up and caught Sandy’s attention. The young man’s green eye widened with surprise, but he quickly took control of the situation with a disarming smile, saying, “Ahh, my good friend, Sammy. How are you?”
Seeing such a lively reaction from someone he had just watched be beheaded was a little unsettling. Sam moved in close and spoke beneath his breath, “Are you alright?”
“Alright? what do you mean alri–” Sandy took another look at Sam’s face, and realization dawned, “Shit… I got taken out, didn’t I?”
Sam confirmed it with a nod, and Sandy sighed. He turned to the girls and said, “I’m sorry, ladies, something has just come up. I need to go, but I’ll see you later.”
“See you after school, Sandy,” said one of the girls, a brunette with big brown eyes, which she fluttered liberally, “Don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” Sandy said, grinning, then grabbed Sam by the shoulder and walked away.
“That your girlfriend?” Sam asked, a little curious at the social interplay.
“What? Jasmin, no, c’mon dude. Although I wouldn’t say no… No, we’re just going on a group date together later. Anyway, tell me what happened.”
Sam told him what he knew, and Sandy grimaced and put a hand on his neck. “Really, that guy is too brutal. Now I feel an itch there, which I guess I’m not going to get out of my head for a while.”
“But, you’re alright? And you don’t remember anything?”
“Jack shit,” Sandy proclaimed, shrugging, “It’s too bad too, I’d been on a real streak lately. A few more drains and my core might have improved. Now I’ve either got to wait for two months to refill again, or make a deal with some jackass Well… No offence.”
“None taken,” Sam said, furrowing his brow, “Why aren’t you a part of any faction, Sandy? It seems a lot easier, and a lot more secure than just being a free agent.”
Sandy put a finger in the air and said, “It’s the free part that’s the point. The Raven allows for relative freedom within his faction, but the constant infighting means you always have to be prepared to backstab, or be backstabbed. Did I tell you I was originally in his faction? No? Well, I was, and let me tell you: it was shit. The Lion is just a fascist with a pretty moniker, and the Mink? The Mink’s batshit crazy, Sam. Don’t ever get near to her.”
“So, none of them are good people. Still, if that’s the case, why don’t you just stay out of the fighting, and keep to yourself?”
Sandy looked at him ascance. “Have you seen the goddamn pictures of those red-eyed freaks? I don’t intend to get corrupted and become one of them, not even if I have to participate in this cheap-ass battle-royale style nonsense that’s going on here.”
“That’s what is so weird,” Sam said, stroking his chin, “Why is this corruption happening, and why now?”
“What do you mean, ‘why now’?”
“I mean, humankind has 10.000 years of history, and about 200.000 years of prehistory. If this is a problem that has suddenly escalated in the last 20 years, then something must have happened that changed everything. Something that bound two otherwise independent worlds together…”
Sandy just shrugged and retrieved a long stalk of grass, which he began chewing, “I don’t know, Sam. That is some big-league question, not something a grunt like me thinks about. I’ve only ever heard about the other world, just rumors really. Is it true? Are we really connected to an entirely different world?”
Sam looked sideways at his would-be-friend. No, he decided, his friend. Despite his misgivings, he could not help but like the guy. He might be a little crass and possess dubious morals, but he was straightforward and told things as they were, without embellishing or painting pretty pictures.
“It’s true,” he said, looking out over the school grounds, “But it’s no fairy tale world. It’s a gruesome kill-or-be-killed world, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing that it’s being replicated here in this school.”
“Nonetheless,” Sandy sighed, “I’d like to see it, you know. Damn, a whole new world, Sam, and that’s where we get these magic powers from?”
“I believe so.”
“I bet there’s like wizards and unicorns and all that stuff… have you seen any unicorns?”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh. “No, I’ve never seen any unicorns. I’ve only spent a few days there, to tell the truth, so I’m still figuring out what the hell is going on.”
“Ahh well… I’d really like to see it. To think there’s some part of me connected to that world, but I’m unable to even look at it…”
“If I ever find you on the other side,” Sam said after a short while of thought, “I’ll see if I can’t pull your consciousness in. The Lion said it was possible…”
“For real? Does that mean you’ve finally succumbed to my charms?” The wide grin he displayed made Sam want to punch him.
“Sure, why not. Tell me how the transfer works, and I’ll also fill you up, as an apology.”
“You’d do that? Wait, an apology for what?”
“I did get you taken out, remember?” Sam said, “The Raven just wanted to prove a point to me, and you got used as a scapegoat.”
“Oh that.. Well, I’m pretty sure I had pissed him off enough that he would have taken me out anyway, but if you insist, I won’t refuse!”
The method turned out to be fairly simple. While resistance made it impossible to manifest lifeforce outside one’s body, as long as Sam could touch Sandy, he could allow the transfer without problems. At first, he was a little worried the desire to crush Sandy’s core might overwhelm him, but once he initiated the process, he felt none of the compulsion that had overtaken him during his first pocket.
The anger was still there, but as long as he was outside the pocket, he could control it.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sandy said, grinning as he studied himself, for some reason, “This is some really good shit you’re holding, Sam. With this kind of dope, you’ll have a rock-solid faction on its feet in no time; have you decided on a name yet, by the way.”
“No I won’t, and no I haven’t,” Sam said, dismissing the notion, “I don’t intend to play this game any more than you do.”
“That’s going to be hard, though. Now two of the Wells have approached you, they will not leave you be unless they know who you stand with…”
For a while they did not speak, but just walked out on the central plaza, not knowing exactly where they wanted to go.
“So hey, here’s an idea,” Sandy suddenly said out of nowhere, “How about you come with me after school?”
“Yeah, I told you I’m going on a group date, right? We’re actually a guy short. Why don’t you come along? It’ll be fun, I promise!”