Lucian felt like he was floating. He was struggling to wake up, but the process was like pulling himself out of a mud pit in the pouring rain. It was almost like he was being pushed down. He began to panic as he couldn’t tell why he couldn’t wake up. Was he dead? Was this the afterlife? The thoughts were terrifying.
“Oh! Sorry, Lucian!” A cheerful female voice came from all directions. “I didn’t notice you waking up in there! One moment.”
Suddenly Lucian felt awake, the weight and restricted sensations gone. He was, however, still floating. He looked around, hoping to get his bearings, but all he saw was perfect blackness. He glanced down at himself, and while he was visible, he looked too bright and crisp. It was almost as though the light was hitting him from every possible angle.
“Hi!” The voice came again, but this time right in front of him.
Lucian looked up into the face of a strange, dark-skinned girl with large golden eyes and a wide, sharkish grin. Her hair was like a liquid rainbow, ebbing and flowing in the air around her, dancing as it pleased in invisible currents. She was wearing a short dress colored like the night sky, but it seemed more alive than fabric should. Lucian felt after a moment that it actually was the night sky, made into a dress. The thought was silly, and he found himself involuntarily shaking his head to be rid of it.
“Are you all right?” The Girl asked, more confused than concerned. “I’ll admit I’ve never ridden one of you like this before, but I couldn’t have broken something that easily, right?”
“Who are you?” Lucian asked.
“She-Who-Is-Above-You,” she said after a moment’s consideration.
“That’s rude,” Lucian said, annoyed. First, she talks about riding him, and then she says she’s above him. Was he a horse?
“My name isn’t rude,” The Girl said, equally aggravated. “I worked hard for it. And it’s true, unlike like yours. Just how pretentious do you have to be to name yourself the Divinely-Anointed-Ruler-Of-Light? You are a baby human, right? If there were anything true about your name, I would know, and your name is a lie from sky to soil. So how’s that for rude?”
“I’m sorry,” Lucian said, suddenly realizing the girl was saying her name and not describing herself in relation to him. “I misunderstood. I thought you were talking down to me.”
She-Who-Is-Above-You blinked hard then doubled over in laughter. “I forgive you.” She said after a moment.
“Your name is a mouthful. Can I call you Sway instead?”
She-Who-Is-Above-You frowned at that, though it seemed more thoughtful than upset. “You have my permission,” She said, nibbling absently on a fingernail. She caught herself and narrowed her eyes at the assaulted finger as though it were to blame her for whatever she was thinking.
“Where are we?”
“Inside you. Though from the looks of it, you’ve never used this place, so there is no orientation. Let me help.” Sway waved her hand, and the pair were standing on a strange, black-sand beach. It was night, and the water was placid, like a sheet of glass. It looked just like what Goldie had described as the taste of his soul.
“We’re inside me?” Lucian asked. The vista before him was comforting, even though it should have felt more lonesome than anything else. The wind and water were both as still as midnight, yet seemed to buzz with unknowable energy.
“That’s right, both literally and metaphysically.”
Sway stopped and looked at Lucian for a moment before shaking her head. “Okay, I have time, but not that much time. Just have some trust, Kay?”
“Might as well.” Lucian huffed as he sat heavily on the ground. “Not like anyone is champing at the bit to explain anything else. Where is my Uncle?”
A screen of light opened in the sky and Lucian could see Jack running toward a group of people. They looked to be standing in a warehouse, but the shot was from pretty far away.
“Is your uncle one of these?” Sway asked.
“Yeah. I see him there. What happened?”
The shot moved to focus on Dell, who was struggling to stand.
“He was going to kill you at the behest of his master. I doubt this human actually is aware of his master’s influence, but it’s there nonetheless.”
“Dell has a master?”
“Yup! And it wants you dead. Lucky for you, its cheating became so out of control and desperate that it made us aware of its presence. So I’m going to use your body to kill it. Well, chase it off really by killing its pet. No one has ever been able to kill the stupid thing before it escapes.”
“Why do you need my body to fight it?”
“To put it simply? I’ll break too many things if I do it myself and there are some exciting developments here I need to protect. Make sense?”
“I guess so,” Lucian lied.
“Perfect!” Sway said. “Now I’m limited in what I can do, since I don’t want to snap you like the virgin filament you are, but I can still teach you a neat trick since you are awake in here. Just sit back and focus on how your body feels.”
“And remember who did this for you,” Sway said as she faded out of view. “Because one day you might get bold and forget me and my name and that will be very unfortunate.”
As Sway’s presence faded, Lucian noticed increased movement on the screen. He tried to do as Sway had instructed and focused on his body. He wasn’t in control, but he felt like he was.
A new feeling rushed through him. It was like flexing a new muscle or understanding a concept that had long eluded him. It was a thought he’d never had before or even knew HOW to have. It was alien, yet natural.
In his hand, in the real world, an object took form. It was a thin plate, five-sided and of a black so pure it seemed to swallow the light. His arm swung to the side, and the plate grew and took flight. It vanished and reappeared several times in various places around him. Lucian became uncomfortably aware of the space around his body. It was another new and distinct sensation.
More of the plates formed in the air, shifting in size and winking in and out of existence until Lucian could count ten in total. Each plate carried its own peculiar perception, and the input was too much to properly absorb, so Lucian tried to relax and watch.
He began to walk towards Dell. The plates stopped their flickering and began to spin and loop casually in the air.
“Get away from me, whatever you are!” Dell snarled. He made a circle with his hands and began to chant. It was louder than when Lucian had seen him do it before. Dell’s eyes rolled back, and the air around him began to warp. Lucian could just make out something behind him. Some alien shape fouling the air.
“Don’t look too hard,” Lucian heard himself mutter. It was a warning from Sway. Whatever that was behind that man, it wasn’t for Lucian to figure out.
He refocused on Dell just as a blast of light, wreathed in lightning, screamed into being.
Four of the plates formed a shell to block the blast as the remaining six streaked towards Dell. Lucian felt them make contact with their target, biting through his flesh with little resistance. These plates were a part of him in an almost physical way, so the sensation of them striking home was sickening and impossible to ignore.
As the shell parted, Lucian was finally able to see what remained of Dell and was instantly hit by a wave of revulsion. Dell was less a man now and more a pile of gore and clearly recognizable body parts.
The plates then appeared to form an incomplete sphere around Dell’s remains, and Lucian felt his body tense.
From within the sphere, Dell’s body detonated with tremendous force. Light burst from the opening at the top and bottom of the sphere, shattering the ground below and blowing away the roof and part of the wall of the building. The force was so great that Lucian got the distinct impression that Sway was struggling to keep the sphere together.
“This is about to get ugly,” Sway’s voice came from all sides, thick with concern, desperation, and anger. “Turn away, close your eyes and cover your ears. No matter what you feel, you must not look!”
Lucian turned from the screen, squeezed his eyes shut, and covered his ears with his hands, not willing to take any chances with Sway’s orders.
The sensation that came next would haunt Lucian for years to come. A hatred so intense it made his heart race and his stomach turn. The feeling washed over him like the water of a raging river. It wasn’t even really hate, but something more. It was something beyond words. Something the human heart couldn’t experience and still call itself human. These were the feelings of something else. Something wrong. Something that was looking at him. Not at Sway. Not at his body. At him, here in this place inside himself. It wanted Lucian to look back and meet its feelings. Lucian wasn’t sure how he knew this, only that if he looked, that would be the end.
Then, silence fell. The feeling faded, and a sense of calm filled the air. A pair of cool hands touched his cheeks, and Lucian looked up to see Sway’s large golden eyes. She looked tired and her hair, less animated. She gently pulled his hands from his ears.
“Good, you’re okay,” She said, running one hand over his hair.
“Sway, what was that?” Lucian asked.
“A cheater,” She murmured. “It would never survive a true contest with us, so it cheats and hides and interferes with our task.”
Sway leaned back into her hair, allowing it to obscure her face. “That’s not for you. None of this was for you. I wouldn’t even be talking to you if it had the good sense to lose when it lost. Now, can you remember the feeling it gave you just now?”
“Good. If you ever feel that, even for a moment, you call my name, my real name, and I’ll come. Now, I’m going to give your body back. Safe and sound.” Sway began to fade into the air again. “And work on this place, will you? Your name is dreadfully ironic otherwise.”
Lucian awoke with a start. He was genuinely awake now and back in control of his body. Around him, the floor of the dais was scorched and smoking, a testament to the violence of the blast Sway had used Lucian’s plates to deflect.
His mind instantly went to the plates and the feeling of summoning them. He focused on the sensation from before and found he could create a single plate, but it immediately made him feel like he was going to pass out again. If just one plate was that tiring, he couldn’t imagine the strain ten of them must have caused. He released the feeling, and the plate vanished.
Lucian walked to the edge of the platform and looked into the hole made by Dell’s death. He could still feel the act of cutting Dell to pieces in his hands. It felt like wet sawdust. He rubbed his fingers against his palms like he was trying to wipe the feeling away.
Lucian climbed down the platform and began to jog towards his uncle and the others. “Uncle!” Lucian shouted, waving his hand over his head.
Jack cleared the space in seconds, wrapping Lucian up in a hug so tight it made his ribs crack. It hurt, but he was happy to feel it. He was happy to feel anything. It hit him all at once how close to death he’s been this whole time. Rowan died because of him. His mother died because of him. Amber, Goldie, and the entire town of Maplenut were almost killed because of him. A group of strangers he’d never met had to risk their lives because of him. A horrible thing from somewhere else gave him a taste of a hatred that threatened to end him merely from its intensity. He carried the feeling of killing a man. Lucian began to cry. He was safe now. Here in his uncle’s arms, he was finally safe.
The trip back to Amber’s house had been subdued. Don was worried about Allie, but a being that had possessed her had assured them that she would be fine after a bit of rest. Goldie was ecstatic to see Lucian was well, speaking in circles about having her mother back. Jack had a thousand questions about Sway, none of which Lucian could answer. It was clear though that the being that had taken control of Allie and the one that took control of Lucian were benevolent at best and benign at worst. They were more concerned with dealing with the hidden power behind Dell’s actions and helped the group as more of a thank you for causing the being to out itself. Lucian asked if the others had seen anything during the explosion, but none of them saw or heard anything beyond the blast itself.
When they arrived, one of the strangers, an older man with salt and pepper hair wanted to speak to Lucian, but it took every ounce of willpower he had to stay awake. Jack promised the man they could talk later and ushered Lucian into a room to sleep. As he began to fall asleep, he contemplated telling Jack about his ability to make those floating black plates but decided against it. It could wait until morning, and for once it would be nice to have a secret that he didn’t have to share.