The Lorelei Signal
Written by Olga Godim / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
“You’re to take care of the children,” the head librarian said.
A group of magical students huddled behind his back. The younger ones looked subdued and scared. The older ones glared at Ninele. They wanted to help protect their city from the goblin mercenaries. She did too. None of them wanted to hide in the library, with her babysitting them. Unfortunately, neither the children nor Ninele could do much on the walls of their besieged city. The kids had yet to grow into their prospective powers, while her magic was small, confined to paper, no use on the walls either. It was better to keep them in the library, out of trouble, and she was the obvious choice to supervise them.
Ninele nodded to her boss. “Of course, sir. Don’t worry. Be safe.”
He snorted without humor and strode out of the library. The children kept quiet. The high ceiling thrummed with their silence.
“All right,” Ninele said, trying to project a perky reassurance she didn’t feel. “Get comfortable.” She pointed at the reading desks between the rows of shelves and the librarian’s station.
Alistair would be so proud of her. If he knew she existed, that is, he would’ve appreciated her calm voice and her pretended confidence. She grinned flittingly. Of course, he didn’t know, except when borrowing books from the library. She was simply a junior librarian, while he was the most promising young mage of the city. He would be at the center of defense now, flinging fire balls at the goblin force, being a hero, while she was stuck here, with a bunch of kids, but she would do her job the best she could. Maybe he would notice her soon...
“Why am I here?” Goran snarled, interrupting her pleasant daydreams. At fourteen, he was the oldest of the group, and his unhappiness was palpable. “I should be fighting there, with my mentors. With Alistair. I shouldn’t be stashed here, in the library, like a baby.”
“Your magic potential means more to the College than your muscles,” Ninele countered. “How can you help Alistair? What could you do on the walls? Shoot a bow? You’re not very good at it. Bring water to the soldiers and mages? There’re plenty of mundane citizens to do so. Hurl fire at the enemies? You can’t, not yet. Your place is here, Goran, as is mine.”
“What would I do here? Listen to your fairy tales?”
“No. You can help me with the others. They’re young and afraid. They need someone they trust.” Her eyes landed on the two youngest girls, eight-year-old twins. They were holding hands, grasping each other desperately, their identical brown eyes radiating terror. Their mother was a mage, their father an officer of the city guard. Both parents were on the walls now.
Goran glanced at the twins and deflated. “All right,” he said grumpily. “But we can’t listen to stories. Not now.” He dropped on the chair behind the first desk, and the other kids shuffled to the other desks. They didn’t occupy even half the desks in the large reading area.
“No,” Ninele agreed. “We’ll do some paperwork.” Disregarding skepticism etched into Goran’s lips, she barged on. “First, we’ll make spies. We need a warning system, in case something happens in the city.” She distributed piles of paper sheets, one to each desk.
“Each of you make a bird. You know how. Then paint eyes on your bird.” She dropped color sticks on the desks. “Then I’ll put a spell on each bird to fly and watch for anything unusual. They’ll report back to me. You know my magical affinity with paper is strong. I can enhance anything paper can do, in whatever form. Get started.”
Goran puffed dubiously but pulled the top sheet from his stack and started folding it. The others followed his suit. The birds wouldn’t take long. What else could they do to feel helpful to the cause? Nothing they could create here was of any use to the city defenders, but Ninele wanted the kids to believe they were contributing. She couldn’t deceive herself though.
She was a librarian. Paper loved her, and she loved it back: books and scrolls, heavy grimoires and colorful herbariums, illustrated fairy tales and dry scientific tractates. With her eidetic memory, she remembered anything she had ever read. She knew by heart the shelf location of every book and scroll in the huge College library. Even the head librarian sometimes consulted with her. But her abilities—she could remove stains from old manuscripts or brighten faded ink—while convenient for the College researchers were pointless for their current predicament.
She would indeed imbue the little paper birds the kids were making with the capacity of real spies. They would fly out, patrol the area around the library for as long as needed, until the first rain anyway, and report anything unusual to her. But report what? Fear in the streets? She already knew about it. Enemies, in case they breached the walls? She shivered.
“Ready,” Goran announced. He put his elegant green-eyed bird on Ninele’s desk.
“Me too,” piped one of the twins. Her bird was more awkward, with brown eyes, but it would serve. The others also deposited their birds in front of Ninele. They stood around her in a tense semicircle, waiting for further instructions.
“Great,” Ninele said. “While I work on their spying spells, you make boxes. You know how you can hide things in paper boxes. Now, each of you make a box that will fit your hand. I’ll enhance them, so when you put one hand into your box, it would hide all of you. If you need to hide. Goran, you might need more than one sheet of paper to fit your hand. Your hands are too big for one sheet.”
A couple of older girls giggled. Goran blushed. Ninele smiled faintly and picked up several sheets of paper. “I’ll show you how to make a bigger box from two or three sheets.” She started folding paper.
While the kids concentrated on their boxes, she lifted Goran’s bird from her desk and pulled up her magic. “Fly around the library. Watch. Report,” she whispered to the bird. She imagined the goblin soldiers with their gray skin and fangs—something for the birds to watch for—and released the spell. It settled easily. She repeated the spell for all the birds and launched her bevy of paper spies out the window.
What else could she do? Maybe some attack weapons? It sounded ridiculous here, in the peaceful library, but what if some enemies managed to get into the city. What if the tsarina’s relief forces didn’t arrive soon, and the city defendants couldn’t hold against the constant tide of attacks? What if Alistair died? She felt like puking but suppressed her dread. She should be strong for the kids.
She pulled a sheet of paper to her. Could she enhance the paper’s ability to inflict paper cuts? To cut anything? Just imagining the spell was painful; it seemed to slice at her core. Was it necessary? She swallowed her bile and smiled at the first ready box. It was easier, this hiding box spell, and fun too, seeing the kids experiment, as they played hide and seek. The boxes didn’t mute their voices—paper didn’t impede sound.
“Now, find the best hiding places,” she directed their activities. “Probably in one of the far aisles.” She pointed.
The younger children flocked into the bowels of the library, but Goran lingered, his intelligent eyes troubled. “Do you anticipate anything, Ninele?” he asked quietly.
“No,” she said. “But I want to be prepared. Your task is to see that the kids are safe, no matter what. Can you do that?”
“Yes.” He stood straighter. “I will. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to make sure paper cuts from this pile of paper are deadly,” Ninele said. “And Goran. If I say ‘boxes’ or ‘hide’ or ‘hidden’ or anything of the sort, even if you don’t see me at that moment, make sure everyone stays hidden in their boxes.”
He nodded grimly and skipped to join the others.
Ninele put her hand on a sheet of paper and set the cutting spell. Then the second one and the third. The stack of enspelled paper in front of her grew, but this spell exhausted her. She ached inside from the sharpness of the sheets, as if each one lacerated her magical core. When she had about a dozen stiff, razor-sharp paper blades, she dumped them into a wicker basket on her desk, to prevent anyone from getting injured accidentally. On a normal day, she used the basket for color sticks, quills, and other bits and pieces.
A couple older girls came back. “What else can we do? Some origami? Unicorns?”
“No.” Ninele stopped her blade-making but she wasn’t done with her supply of weapons yet. The kids needed to feel busy. “Make darts. They are like unicorns’ horns, straight and sharp.” She called everyone back to their desks and showed them how to make origami darts. While they were occupied, she beckoned Goran down the middle aisle.
“Your magic is teleporting, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said cautiously. “It’s not very strong yet. I can lift and move things but only lighter than I’m and if I’m close.”
“Can you lift a grimoire? They are the heaviest books we have. We store them in wooden boxes.” She pointed to the middle shelf, where several large wooden boxes stood side by side, each a different color, without any writing on them. “The blue one is the heaviest. Could you move it out? Try.”
Goran nodded and gazed at the squat blue box. It wobbled among its neighbors and slowly wiggled out of its place on the shelf. After hovering uncertainly in the air for a couple seconds, it squirmed doggedly back into its former slot. Goran beamed.
“Good,” Ninele said. “Keep it in reserve. If needed, drop a grimoire on someone’s head. They all weigh a ton; they might do some damage.”
He snickered. They returned to the librarian’s station, and Ninele applied a piercing spell to every dart the children made. The little darts ended up in the same basket as her cutting paper. She would dispose of them all later.
“What else?” one of the younger boys asked eagerly.
Ninele opened her mouth to tell them to make origami mice, to trip the enemies, when one of her bird spies flew back into the window, another followed. Both landed on her desk, wriggling in agitation and screaming alarm into her mind, projecting images of the library steps and gray-skinned, fanged faces. As soon as their spell was discharged, they turned into ordinary paper birds with painted eyes and stilled on the scuffed wooden surface.
“What?” Goran yelled. He and the other kids stared at the birds in horror.
“Enemy soldiers on the steps,” Ninele whispered. She swallowed convulsively and cleared her throat. “Get to your hiding places. Now. Into the boxes. Scoot.”
They scuttled away, disappearing into their boxes. Ninele grabbed her weapons basket, just as the heavy steps thudded outside the library door. The door banged open. She always told patrons not to slam the door, Ninele noted absently, watching a group of burly goblin thugs, armed with lots of steel, charge into the library. Her basket of paper armaments seemed inadequate compared to their sabers, halberds, and fangs.
They stopped in front of the librarian’s desk. She retreated behind the reading desks, while the leader scanned the empty library.
“Where are the children?” he barked.
“The children?” Ninele repeated. Her throat was so tight the words emerged as faint squeaks. She trembled but she tightened her grip on the basket. “The children are in boxes,” she said. Her words wobbled, just as her knees did. She repeated louder, making sure the kids could hear her. “They’re all in boxes. What do you want with them?”
Why did they ask about the children?
“Boxes?” The leader shrugged. “Get them.” He was a big goblin with a scar along his jaw and hard black eyes. He stepped towards her, and she flinched, banging her back into a corner of a bookshelf. “Don’t make me hurt you, girl,” he warned. His gloved hand tightened on the hilt of his sheathed saber.
Ninele scurried into the middle aisle. When he appeared at its mouth, a few steps from her, she grabbed her first cutting sheet from the basket. Its sharp edge sliced her hand. She should’ve donned her librarian’s gloves she thought detachedly and flung the sheet at him. “Cut,” she whispered, activating the spell.
It sailed true, cutting across his eyes before he realized the peril of paper cuts. He hadn’t even drawn his saber yet. Blood spurted out of his face, and he screamed. Another of the mercenaries jumped to his injured mate’s side. He didn’t grasp what had inflicted the injury either. The sheet, after delivering its cutting spell, reverted to its regular paper quality. It was already a red soggy mess on the floor.
Ninele scampered back a couple yards and sent a dart at the new goblin. “Pierce.” She didn’t wait to see the dart connect but ducked into a side aisle. Judging by the howl she heard, her dart had pierced something vital.
The mercenaries chased her between the shelves, but she knew the uneven asymmetric aisles much better than they did. As soon as one of them closed in, she let her sheets and darts fly. The chase became a game of cat and mouse. Many deadly cats and one terrified mouse. “Cut” and “Pierce” were the only words she uttered as she dodged her pursuers. Not all of her paper weapons hit the targets, of course. Some embedded themselves into the shelves or books, and once the spell had been released, turned back to harmless paper, but most of her missiles did some damage. The library echoed with the goblins’ moans, shouts, and guttural curses.
The fingers of her right hand were slashed and scratched multiple times. They bled and stung, but she refused to stop. Why did they want the children, she pondered uneasily, as she slipped into a narrow passage between two tall bookcases in the demonology section. She wasn’t sure how many of the invaders were still on their feet. She hadn’t glimpsed any gray faces for a couple minutes. Hadn’t heard anything either. Did she win? Did they stalk her? Why did they want the children?
When two of the mercenaries, one bleeding from a cut on his sleeve, appeared on the opposite sides of her aisle, boxing her in, their fangs gleaming, she shrieked. Her hand dived into the basket, but she had to rummage inside to find one last dart. She was out of weapons. She sent the dart to her right, towards the closest target, and it hit in the middle of his chest, burrowing deep through his leather armor. The soldier tottered, screamed, and collapsed, but another one advanced, his saber out.
“Bitch!” He spat. “You’ll pay.”
Ninele retreated, holding her empty basket in front of her like a shield, but what good was wicker against steel? She was almost at the body she had just downed and she knew her life was over. The relentless blade pointing at her heart was only feet away. The eyes of its owner reflected his murderous intent. Unexpectedly, a silent blue box with the grimoire sailed above her attacker’s head. A smaller paper box bobbed behind him at the eye level. Goran.
The mercenary tracked her gaze, looked up, and frowned in bafflement. He didn’t even try to duck, when the grimoire dropped, hitting him on the head. The goblin rocked. His eyes did some odd uncoordinated dance before they closed. His saber clattered to the floor. He muttered something incoherent and crumpled with a faint groan. The blue box rose again to the vaulted ceiling and dropped again, smashing the fallen goon’s face. This time, something crunched underneath, and the box stayed down. The goblin stayed too. One of his legs jerked a couple times, and blood trickled slowly from under the grimoire.
Goran took off his camouflage paper box and grinned in triumph. “I did him.”
“Yes,” Ninele whispered. She swayed between the two unmoving bodies of her enemies, her lacerated hand throbbing, her stomach rebelling. Unable to keep it in check any longer, she threw up.
Goran’s grin disappeared. “Are you alright, Ninele?”
She wiped her foul mouth with a sleeve. “Keep the box on. There might be more,” she croaked. Her throat hurt from the acidic vomit.
“No. I checked. This was the last one.”
“Then go see that everyone is safe. We’re not out of danger yet. There might be another bunch. They wanted you.”
“They wanted the kids,” she clarified.
She shook her head. “I think this entire attack was to distract every mage in the city. Someone wants the magic-gifted children. For something nasty, no doubt. Goblins don’t do nice. Keep hidden, no matter what you hear, until I say otherwise.”
She padded to one of the windows, weaving her way between shelves and bloody bodies. Sometimes, she had to skip over them. Her head was swimming. She had to make an effort to stay upright. Goran followed her.
No changes manifested on the streets, no roaming enemy soldiers, no corpses. “Someone let this group in, specifically to get you,” she said. “Go back to the other kids and stay hidden.”
“You’re bleeding,” Goran said. “I’ll keep another grimoire ready.”
“Yes, do that. Go.”
He didn’t look thrilled by her order but he obeyed. He inserted his hand into his paper box and disappeared.
Ninele shuffled to the librarian’s desk. She didn’t tell Goran she was out of weapons, and he didn’t check her basket. She didn’t tell him she was close to fainting either. He couldn’t help anyway. She set the empty basket on the desk. What would she do if another company showed up and demanded the kids? Should she lead them somewhere? To the cellars maybe? Could she walk that far? They would kill her for sure, so the question was moot.
Fighting nausea, she searched for something to bind her aching, bleeding hand. Perhaps she should’ve stockpile bandages in a desk drawer. She eyed her dress. Her sash should serve as a bandage. It was long if not very clean. She untied it awkwardly, her fingers slick with blood, and bandaged her injured hand. Then she collapsed into her chair and surveyed the damage.
There was surprisingly little, most of it to the wooden floor. Puddles of drying blood marred the painted wooden slats. A few chairs were overturned in the reading area, and some desks shoved aside. From her station, she could see two bodies lying on the floor, unmoving. Did her paper sheets kill them?
None of the goblins even twitched, but she didn’t feel the horror at so much death. She thought about overturned chairs instead of slain enemies. Was it what soldiers felt after a battle: numb and deeply tired? Her brain felt sluggish, loaded with fatigue.
Alistair would admire her resourcefulness, she was sure. If he ever learned of it. Like him, she fought the enemies, albeit in her small paper way. Her heart pounded. Maybe when this was over, he would finally notice her. A smile touched her lips briefly and fled. Pain pulsated in her hand. She wanted to cry. Was she loosing blood? She wasn’t sure she could stand up again without falling on her nose. Sinking deeper into her chair, she rested her head on its back.
When Alistair strode into the library a few minutes later, as if conjured by her dreams, she didn’t at first believe it. “Alistair? What are you doing here?” He should be on the walls, like everyone else, but his caftan was as immaculate as ever, the buttons shining, his face and hands clean. He didn’t look as if he participated in the fighting at all. Why? Her thoughts turned fuzzy.
He surveyed the library, the chairs with their legs up, the blood, and the inert bodies on the floor. “Where are the children?”
Ninele started. It was the exact same question the mercenary had asked her. Alistair? No, he couldn’t be a traitor.
“What happened here?” He came to the desk, towering over Ninele. “Who did this?” He motioned with his head towards the enemies. He didn’t ask what happened to her hand, limp on the desk. The sash was soaked with her blood. She probably needed stitches.
“I did this,” she said as loudly as she could. “Paper cuts. The children are hidden. You can’t find them.” Of course, he could. If he knew she had used the amplification spell on the hiding boxes, he could easily cancel her spell. Her magic was no match for his. Hopefully, he wouldn’t guess.
His beautiful azure eyes narrowed, as he frowned. “Ninele, where are the brats? I need to take them some place else.”
Her disillusionment in him hurt worse than her hand. Her heart felt like it was bleeding. “You know,” she said quietly. “That mercenary asked me the same question you just did. He wanted the children, too. He couldn’t find them either. Why, Alistair? What do you want with them?”
He watched her for a few moments. “If you tell me where they are, nobody is going to get hurt.” His sky-blue eyes gleamed.
“I can’t,” Ninele whispered. “I don’t know. I told them to hide.”
“You used magic on the goblins but you can’t use your puny magic on me.”
“No,” she agreed. “I can’t.” From the corner of her eye, she noticed the red box with the second heaviest grimoire floating silently under the high ceiling, heading their way. A small white paper box shadowed it below. She looked Alistair in the eyes, lest he wise up to what was happening. His magic could squash Goran.
“I loved you,” she said. Her cheeks heated, but she didn’t care. His vanity might give Goran one additional moment.
Alistair laughed. “You?” Something ugly shimmered in his cerulean eyes. “You little library rodent.”
“Silly me, I know,” Ninele said. Her lips crimped. In a moment, she would start weeping. Let him kill her now. She deserved it for her stupid infatuation. She had been so blind. Maybe Goran would succeed with his grimoire.
Alistair lifted his hand, and a fire ball materialized in his palm. “I’ll find them,” he said menacingly, admiring his fire ball.
The red box stopped under the high ceiling, exactly above his head, and fell. It hit Alistair’s head with a dull thump.
“Huh?” he said. His hand, still holding the fire ball, lifted to his head. The fire ball fizzled out. Alistair blinked, swayed, but didn’t lose consciousness yet. The red box whizzed up to the ceiling and dropped again, faster, as if in irritation. This time, Alistair dropped with the box. His temple hit a corner of Ninele’s oak desk, before he slid down to the floor. The box hurtled up and down the third time, and the crack behind her desk seemed very loud. Ninele wondered what was broken—Alistair’s head or the wooden box—but she didn’t have the strength to get up and investigate.
It probably wasn’t blood loss, she mused, floating between a swoon and lucidity. She just overtaxed her magic. She wasn’t sure, never having experienced such a phenomenon before, but all the descriptions she had read fit. Too many spells, even weak paper spells, could sap her life force as surely as blood loss. She closed her eyes and drifted off.
“Ninele,” Goran’s voice said some time later. “The head librarian is on the street, coming this way. Some soldiers in the tsarina’s army uniform are coming with him. Ninele, wake up. I think we have won. What do I do with Alistair?”
“Tell them what happened,” Ninele murmured without opening her eyes. She didn’t even have the energy to feel happy. “I need to sleep. Alistair is a rat. Hit him with the grimoire again.”
“Sure,” Goran said.
Paper Cuts first appeared in Devilfish Review - March 2017
Olga Godim is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her articles appear regularly in local newspapers but her passion is speculative fiction. Her short fantasy and sci-fi stories have been published in multiple internet and print magazines. Her fantasy novels ALMOST ADEPT and EAGLE EN GARDE were published by Champagne/Burst. A collection of her short urban fantasy stories SQUIRREL OF MAGIC is available at Smashwords and Amazon.
Her author's website and blog is https://olgagodim.wordpress.com