Blackness covered Lancer like a mother tucking her child into bed. The pain eased away as if it were ice melting in the summer sun. The taste of blood in his mouth was now gone, and he could no longer hear his heart thumping over Rupert’s voice. The bookish smell of crisp paper permeating the librarian’s study seemed like an afterthought, some vague remembrance of a surreal daydream.
Overall, it was kind of nice. Lancer felt an interesting calm pass through him. Was he dead? Was this what the afterlife felt like? Should he count the seconds? Except it was difficult to know if he thought in real time or if his perception of time controlled the speed of his thoughts. He wasn’t much of a philosopher, but this idea intrigued him.
His nothingness took shape, a room, and it seemed like the void nearby lightened as if a spotlight were shining on him very dimly. A sound, music, interrupted his isolation. Classical, mostly piano, but with faint hints of violin added in. Lancer felt this was very strange, because he shouldn’t be feeling anything, but there it was.
The spotlight widened, making a circular area for him to stand in. Him in a metaphysical sense, he assumed. Or his afterlife self? He didn’t want to contemplate the implications of seeing and hearing things when he shouldn’t be seeing or hearing anything, so he stopped before he started.
A spot on the “wall” of his enclosure flickered, a rectangle appearing. Inside the rectangle a series of images progressed. A few seconds, then it paused, and replayed. He saw himself as a child playing with Rei, them hiding beneath a table while Kanin pretended not to notice.
Another rectangle flared to life. This one showed his first day at school, unable to participate with the other children because of his lack of sphereshifting ability. The teacher shook her head, annoyed, but Lancer’s child self merely grinned like an idiot.
He’d been that once. Maybe he was still. No one thought him intelligent, but it didn’t matter. He had friends and no one mocked him, or at least they didn’t to his face. Did they do it behind his back?
Another image. Jared talking to Jaylee, both younger. He couldn’t hear them speak, but somehow Lancer knew they were talking about him. Jared mentioned how useless Lancer was, how he shouldn’t go to the same school as them, and Jaylee agreed. Odd. Would she do that?
Then another picture, another Jaylee. She looked nice, grown and older. She wore a rich-looking dress and seemed important. The way she walked accentuated this, making her appear confident and sure. The pictures started this way, then shifted, showing a destitute, older Lancer living in a rundown shack by a lake. He held a mangled fishing rod and was failing his attempts to catch fish. Summer sped by to autumn, then winter. The lake froze and the older Lancer lay huddled in the shack, shivering.
One final image popped up. The perspective was odd as if he were seeing it for himself, first person, but watching from far away. Starting blurry, it cleared until he saw Rupert wielding a knife above him—real this time, not a letter-opener. The knife fell into Lancer’s chest, guided by the librarian’s hand, and the picture blurred and took on a ruddy hue.
Lancer turned and looked at a different image. They kept repeating. Jaylee, older, then Jared berating him, and him and Rei hiding under the table. That teacher harassing him, over and over again.
And his death at the hands of the maddened bookman.
The piano music changed depending on where he looked. He liked the childlike plucks on the keystrings for the image with him and Rei, but the elegy that played when he saw the older him was frustrating.
His final remembrance, the death scene, had strange music, though. It picked up, heavy and fast, then slowed to a screech at the end. Lancer thought if he could jump through, enter at the right time when the music was fastest, maybe he could stop it from happening. Or maybe it had already happened, and this was a memory.
Except why would he see an older him in another picture then? Granted, it wasn’t a nice picture, with him homeless and poor and freezing by a lake. Still, it seemed like there was something he needed to recognize, something he should do.
“Lancer,” someone said.
He looked around. An image flickered, vanished.
“What?” Lancer asked.
“You can’t stop me!” Rupert’s voice.
Another picture ceased to exist.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lancer said.
The other images blew out, making loud popping noises. Pop. Pop. Bam!
The room never existed. His thoughts of it shattered and his mind carried him to the fore of reality. He was on the floor in terrible pain, but something was happening around him. A discarded knife lay at his side. He stared at it for a long while, then realized he was wearing leather armor. When did he get that? Was this the real afterlife now? If so, it kind of sucked. What sort of afterlife kept you in horrible pain?
He heard loud honks coming from one side of the room. Ruffled feathers erupted into the air. Lancer saw Rupert struggling against an onslaught of swans. They pecked his body and battered him with wings, buffeting air and feathers into his face. The librarian shrieked and fell against a bookshelf.
Vials of ink spilled from a desk, upending their contents on the floor. The ink moved like shadows, seeping across the floor towards Rupert. At his feet, the tenebrous substance sprung up and grabbed his legs, latching him to the floor. The swans continued their assault, shredding his clothes to tatters.
“Are you alright?”
Lancer glanced sideways with groggy eyes.
His brother, Kanin. And Lyle Lampblack, the lantern cleaner, standing in the doorway.
Kanin smiled. “Everything will be fine.”
[Special Note: Check out Sphereshifters beginnings on Smashwords (here)! If you like the story, why not leave a review on Smashwords?]
Lancer ran to Lyle’s, a box of feathers tucked under one arm and his map clutched in the other.
Breathing heavily, he stopped in front of the Gothic-looking shop and peered into a display window. Or he tried, but it was covered in dust and grime and impossible to see through. In contrast, the window on the other side of the front door was spotlessly transparent. An interesting marketing trick, that; show customers how clean they could become.
Pocketing his map, he opened the door and stepped inside.
“Good. You’re here,” a man said. “Sit, relax. Care for some tea?”
Lancer paused. “I don’t think I have time.”
“There’s always time. Sit. There’s a nice chair here. It came from the Outlands. Paragrin to be exact. What do you think?”
For lack of anything better to do, Lancer sat in the chair. Smooth leather covered the outside and the seat cushion bounced when he put his weight on it. A nice chair, he had to admit. Casual, comfortable, but with a hint of sophistication in its appearance.
“Nice, eh?” the man said, offering a steaming cup of tea.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Lancer said, blowing on his tea. “I think you have me mistaken, though.”
“Oh?” the man asked. “My apologies. Your nametag says Layne, and Nisa said to expect one. I’m Lyle, by the way. You aren’t here to collect her soot?”
“Er, strictly speaking, yes–”
“That’s good, because there’s plenty. Have you done this before? It’s easy. People send their lanterns for cleaning, and you wipe them with rags. You keep the rags, of course, and then Nisa turns the soot into ink. It’s magical, isn’t it?”
“So I’m going to have to work again?” Lancer sighed. “Does this take long?”
“Ah, you visited Sussex and Clyde’s first, eh? Right, there’s the feathers. I’m surprised you’re this early then. Is everything there? Did you double check?”
“I collected them myself! It was horrible!” Catching himself before he went on a tirade, Lancer added, “It wasn’t terrible. I had a system, which was fun, but I don’t see why they don’t manage their farm better.”
“Inherited,” Lyle said. “They’ve only owned it for a year. Business stays steady, but it’s not like it was with Old Sussex and Grandpappy Clyde. Good men, those two. Honest and true.”
“Oh,” Lancer said. “I didn’t know they’d―passed―I’m sorry.”
Lyle laughed. “Ha! Those geezers are good for a few more rounds. They retired. Moved to a tropical island where all the women are under the age of thirty.”
“Ahh.” Lancer didn’t get it.
“Anyways, shall we?” Lyle asked. “Lanterns are there.” He pointed to a wall of shelves, floor to ceiling, filled with different shaped and sized lanterns. “Rags are in that cask.”
Lancer eyed the wooden cask, tilted sideways with the top removed and filled with white cloth. “Rags?”
“We say rags, but really they’re textile factory scraps. Can’t use real rags or Nisa would rage. Impurities cause subpar ink, she says.”
Lancer nodded. Setting his tea aside, he searched for a lamp he liked, plus a rag. He carried them to his chair and peered at them curiously.
“You remove the glass, whichever way it unlatches, then wipe it. Stack the rags on the floor and I’ll pack them after.”
“How many do I need?” Lancer asked, expecting some ridiculous number.
“Ten. Maybe fifteen?”
Lancer worked. He toiled, wiping soot-smeared lantern glass with white white cloth. One, four, eight. This was fast! He liked it.
“You’re not from here, I suspect?” Lyle asked while cleaning. “Mind telling me where you’re from?”
Lancer told him. Details evolved into a story, which resulted in explanations about Rei and the subsequent library visit and Rupert’s help.
“Rupert, he’s crafty. I’m sure he can help–” Lyle smiled, but his speech sounded cautious.
“Huh?” Lancer fetched a new rag and lantern.
“Don’t attract his attention much, alright? Well, you have already, so perhaps it’s a finished deal. He’s not bad, but when he’s curious, he’s very curious.”
“I don’t follow.” Lancer wiped the glass with his rag using swift, sure swipes.
“Let’s put it this way. One time Rupert became fascinated with myths about a moonstruck pearl and dedicated weeks of research towards it. Myths, so nothing a regular person should invest much time in, right? That wasn’t enough for Rupert. By the end he convinced himself it existed, and likely would have chased after it, except suddenly he stopped. Might’ve found another obsession, or the S.R.D. stopped his shenanigans.” Lyle shrugged. “That’s a mild example. Usually he’s worse, though. He’s been arrested more than once. Stalking, trespassing, stealing, and the like.”
Lancer stopped rubbing soot from the lamp, markedly concerned.
“Don’t worry,” Lyle added quickly. “Everything’s probably fine. Rupert’s a genius when he sets his mind to something. He can definitely do an information sphereshift.”
Lancer nodded, numb. He counted the sooty rags. Thirty-one, really? He must’ve lost track of time, enraptured with Lyle and gossiping.
Lyle grinned. “It happens. I keep a chart for when Nisa comes. The longest she’s stayed was ninety-seven rags. Conversation keeps you distracted, but―here, let me bundle those for you.”
Lancer sipped his lukewarm tea while Lyle packaged rags. “Do you think everything’s fine?” Lancer asked. Rei, primarily, but Jaylee, too? Granted, he hadn’t told Rupert about her and the pearl, but maybe the librarian knew things.
“Ah, kid, don’t listen to me.” Lyle handed him the rags, neatly tied with twine. “Just be careful. Rupert’s not a bad guy, just strange.”
“Alright,” Lancer said. “Thanks.”
“Hey, don’t forget the feathers! You done? Nisa should have lunch ready soon. Maybe I’ll stop by.”
“I need parchment paper. Which is–” Arms full of feather crate and rag bundle, Lancer couldn’t check his map.
“Two blocks to the right. Huge building. Grammer’s. Can’t miss it!”
“Thanks!” Lancer bolted out of the store.
“Good luck, kid,” Lyle called after him.