The Lorelei Signal
Written by Anne E. Johnson / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
Kindra spun. She was like a top, a coin, an axle high above Rennis City. Ribbons of golden light poured from her outstretched arms. They landed crisscrossed over each district, rich and poor, marble and cardboard. In Rennis City, everyone had light. That is, until Gar Metchin cast his awful spell.
The day of the sorcerer’s attack started in an ordinary way. The Lightbringers swirled from their metallic hammocks strung in a circle around the city’s Central Navel. Bedra, the oldest, took the first turn. She rose to the blessed measure, two hundred hands above the Navel, and let her red copper rays roll over the buildings of sandstone.
Second sister Lemmia floated up to replace Bedra. Her light’s hue was a bit gentler, more of a rosy glow. When the streets glinted with her pinkness, the Songbringers started the day’s music. These choristers, clad in filmy robes, sat on perches surrounding Rennis City. Decades of training made their voices carry exactly as needed to blanket the streets with the sweetest sound. The words they sang were so ancient that no one understood them, yet everyone was born able to sing along.
The melody rose and fell like waves on the Gesperon Sea when a north wind blowing. As the song woke up the city, the third Lightbringer went to work. This was Kindra, the youngest and brightest. Her yellow-gold light brought the city to life, amplified by the Songbringers’ harmony, and made every resident glad to start the day.
Kindra spun. She glowed. Rennis City shone. And then the world went dark.
~ * ~
Gar Metchin wanted power. At least, that’s what he told himself.
The walls of his sorcery workshop dripped with the gloom of heartache and loneliness. There had once been love warming those walls, but fate had stolen Gar’s wife from him when she was still young and glowing. No more would he speak her name. His sadness hardened his heart, his organs, even his brain. Eventually, his thoughts, breaths, and the words he uttered seemed to be made of stone.
“I must douse the Lightbringers,” he said to his servant, Merrida. “The whole of Rennis City shall be in darkness. Bring the book.”
“Yes, Master Gar,” said Merrida, interlacing her long, brown fingers and nodding her head.
“There shall be darkness everywhere.”
An itch, an urge, peppery energy in his belly — Gar felt these annoying things when he looked at Merrida’s sculpted cheekbones. He noticed how she somehow seemed amused although the corners of her mouth were turned down. “What?” he snapped. “If you have something to say, then say it.”
Merrida’s eyes looked like planets through a telescope, or so it seemed to Gar. Her amused frown turned into a smile. “If my master wants darkness, he shall have it.”
“Yes, indeed. Now, bring me the environmental spell book.”
She bowed slightly and left the cluttered room through an arched doorway.
When she was out of earshot, he said, “I should punish you for your insolence, Merrida.” They both knew he would not. He had never treated her cruelly in the five years she had served him. In fact, she had joined his household through an act of kindness. Her husband had been cruel. Gar had found her shivering on the side of the road a week after she’d run from her husband’s mansion. How frightened she had been, but with such strength in her spirit!
Gar shook the memory from his head and took comfort in the dark thoughts that were now a habit. He shuddered at the thought of the Lightbringers’ beautiful glow and the Songbringers’ harmony. Painful beauty – it made him feel too much, distracted him from his work.
“The city could flourish,” he called out, letting his voice ring against the lumpy stone walls. “Such things we could accomplish. Enough with these meaningless traditions. Starting the day with artificial peace, a balm for the air? This does not prepare us for the harsh reality of life.”
Gar imagined himself addressing his persuasive words to the Rennis City High Council, which met every new moon in the purple marble room beneath the Central Navel. For years Gar had resolved to apply for a time slot to address the city leaders. For years he had been honing and polishing his speech. His plan was to shock them, politely ignoring their looks of shame and self-loathing when he pointed out their responsibility for overturning the Rennis City morning ordinances.
“The average person functions better when quite agitated,” he would tell them as they nodded and mumbled to each other. After his speech, the leaders would rise to their feet, shouting, “Gar Metchin! Gar Metchin!”
And they would all resign from their posts, making him sole leader of Rennis City. The darkened, silent metropolis would become a pinnacle of earnest efficiency under his command. And all the people would thank him. And love him. Gar Metchin — beloved by all.
“Master Gar? Here’s the book.”
“Eh? What?” He turned to find Merrida holding out a tiny volume. Its emerald-green satin binding was dulled by age. Gar never had asked to be heard by the High Council, nor, he knew deep inside his heart, would he ever find the courage. His only hope to rule over Rennis City was by magic. The spell he sought from the green book was complex, even painful to execute properly — but easier for someone like Gar than addressing a room full of pompous leaders.
He reached for the book. Merrida astonished him by yanking it just beyond arm’s length. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Am I sure? You dare to ask this?” He puffed out his chest, forced back his shoulders, and arched his brow in what he thought was a threatening manner.
Merrida did not flinch. Her face remained calm. Her eyes once again smiled on their own. “This is a big decision,” she said. “It will affect, well, everybody, perhaps forever. Whether they want it to or not.”
“I know that.” Gar tried not to show the doubt that bubbled up in his heart. “Don’t you think that’s the whole point?” He waited, genuinely wondering what she had to say.
Her only response was, “As you wish, Master Gar,” and she handed him the book. But those eyes of hers, they sparkled with responses she did not say.
Shaken, Gar spoke gruffly: “Prepare the work table.”
~ * ~
Bringing light usually made Kindra think of velvet. The air felt soft, lush as a luxurious cloth when she spun, releasing her golden-yellow beams over the city. The sharp, stinging air — that’s how she first knew something was wrong. Needles seemed to scrape grooves in her rib cage. The more she spun, the deeper the needles dug, until they felt more like knives.
Kindra’s light dimmed, then sputtered out. Coughing, she sank quickly to the ground.
“What happened?” Bedra asked, wrapping Kindra in a shawl. “Are you ill?” Kindra only whimpered.
“The city. The city.” Lemmia’s voice cracked like dry leaves. “The city is dark.”
Even the effort of raising her eyes caused Kindra pain. That was nothing compared to the pain in her heart when she saw the darkness above them.
Even scarier was the sound. The Songbringers’ sweet tone had changed to muffled screams.
“What’s happening?” Kindra gasped. Lemmia’s arms shook as she held her. Only Bedra seemed calm. She raised her chin and pulled a breath in through her nostrils. “Smell that? The bitter scent in the wind?”
Because Kindra was crying, all she did was sniffle.
Lemmia whispered, “Is that the smell of bad magic?” It wasn’t a topic polite people talked about. “I’ve heard of it – thought it was a scary story to make kids behave.”
Bedra shook her head. “Mama told me it was real. She was a little girl in the last days of the Time of No Seeking. She said the wind was always tainted and bitter until the truth-haters were overthrown.”
“But how do you know this is the same scent?” Kindra asked.
“Lift your hand,” said Bedra. “Try to light the path home.”
Kindra barely managed a weak golden glow on her left hand, and when she raised it like a torch, the light went out. “What’s wrong with me?”
“It’s not just you,” said Bedra as Lemmia tested her own lights with no success. “The city’s been cursed.”
“Who would do this?” Kindra paused to hear the moaning and crashing of a city unaccustomed to being awake in the dark. “And why?”
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting this.” Lemmia tried to light her raised hand over and over until Bedra pulled her arm down.
“It’s useless, dear sister. Let us feel our way home, like everyone else, and hope the High Council can unearth the source of this destructive magic.
Kindra held Bedra’s right hand and Lemmia’s left. As the youngest sister, hers was considered the most valuable life; she was the future of light. So she let them lead her past frightened citizens, outraged citizens, confused citizens.
The source for the Lightbringers’ shining was a vortex of magic remnants. It had accumulated over the centuries high above the city’s Central Navel, where it floated, beyond the clouds. Only natural-born practitioners could turn its roiling bits of spell into light. During the dark hours, when the sisters slept, it gave off the faintest blue glow. That was all that illuminated the city now. People trying to light torches groaned with frustration when their flames fizzled out almost instantly. The Street of Honor, leading south from the Central Navel, sparkled with fast-dying torches, like phosphorescent ferries sprinting in and out of trees.
With every step, the darkness became darker. With every step, the same unspeakable question ran through Kindra’s mind: was this a return to the Time of No Seeking?
~ * ~
Merrida had never imagined Gar Metchin would really turn the city dark. She thought he would come to his senses at the last minute. Or maybe the complexity of the spell would frustrate him and he’d give up. She had only stood by — even assisted him — because she wanted this obsession out of his system.
What had occurred was quite different from her expectation:
“Hold the book open,” Gar instructed. His voice came out pinched and stressed. A vial of gray liquid released crackling steam when he pulled out its cork stopper.
“What is that?” Merrida asked. The look he flashed her was supposed to be a warning, but she wasn’t afraid. Nothing could shake her conviction that his heart was good. Sure enough, his words were softer than his eyes. “It is Bitter Darkening.” He set the vial on the worktable and opened a blue glass bottle next to it. “I shall mix it with a wind swirl and speak a forever spell as it disperses over Rennis City. Light will die. I shall emerge as the leader.”
“You ask too many questions.”
“That is how I learned, master. How will darkness make you the leader of Rennis City?”
“Unlike others here, I am prepared for the darkness.” Gar widened his stance and raised both arms. “I shall allow the people to see!” A glint of madness in his grin kept Merrida from asking, “Why not simply leave the light, so they can see?” Instead she asked, “How will you let them see?”
“The book, the book!”
Merrida held the little green spell book open to an illuminated page.
“You shall be amazed at my magic,” said Gar. “I shall make sight without light. Is that not astonishing? Breathtaking?” He looked at her with glistening eyes, like a dog hoping to be told it was a good boy.
Merrida said nothing and turned her eyes away. She thought of warning him that people might die. But she knew such words would hurt him, which she could not bear. “Do you need flame to read the spell by?” She was aware of the irony of her question, but Gar only nodded. She pulled a candle closer.
He poured the Bitter Darkening into an agate bowl. Into its swirling steam he dripped a drop of Wind Swirl, viscous, almost black. When the pops and cracks died down, Gar said the spell: “Beams of phosphorescence, tides of effervescence, succumb, succumb! Light of the bringers’ hearts, begone!” A low rumble from every direction grew slowly to a growl, as if the gods were furious.
Gar arched his back, arms straight out. “Generous enabler of sight, succumb! One who changes night to day, begone!”
The magical mixture bubbled so furiously that the agate bowl cracked. Merrida ran to safety behind a large trunk, letting her candle fall to the floor and sputter out. The room was lit only by the swirling purple-black glow of the spreading puddle of goo.
“Comforter of children, succumb! Banisher of nightmares, begone!” The moment Gar called the word “nightmare”, a rivulet of the mixture reached his left sandal. Each second it pooled there, the louder his shouts became.
Desperate to help him, Merrida took two steps from her hiding place, but tripped in the thick mists of magic. The only thing visible in the room was the lower part of Garvey’s legs and the oozing compound. The atmospheric growl turned into a roar. Merrida wondered if the whole building would split, like the little agate bowl.
“I… I…” The mixture on the floor barely lit Gar’s face as he bent over it. “I… I…”
“What do you need, Gar?” It was the first time she had ever left off the “Master.” But he wasn’t a master now. Merrida crawled toward him. “Are you sick? Injured? What can I do?”
“I… I am…”
“You are what?”
Gar took a reedy breath. “I am sorry.”
“I know. I forgive you. Can you stop the spell?”
He shook his head slowly, then drop his face to the floor. Merrida had no choice but to leave him there and seek help. She felt her way to the door, trying to ignore the burning, vibrating air and the crying heavens. The one she sought had more power than anyone else in Rennis City. And was barely more than a child.
~ * ~
“How long has it been?” Kindra asked her sisters. “I can’t tell day from night. I can’t see. I need to see!”
“Hush, hush.” Bedra took her left hand. “Try to stay calm, dearest.” Lemmia took her right hand. The sisters had not made it home after the darkening, but huddled with strangers in some building. Bedra thought it was a tailor’s shop because they were leaning on what felt like bolts of cloth.
Kendra couldn’t care less what type of shop it was. Painful tremors wracked her body. Her hands, which should have poured forth light, sputtered uselessly like candle flames drowning in wax. Nausea rose in waves at the unnatural sensation.
Voices of the many citizens huddled on the floor tumbled together in confusion when the shop’s bell clanged. “It’s me,” said a baritone voice. “I found some bread. Follis is behind me of a jug of water.”
“Here I am,” said Follis, a woman who had braved the darkness to get supplies several times already. “Let the Lightbringers eat and drink first.”
“No, no,” said Lemmia.
“Yes, indeed,” said an old man near them. “Your lives and our city’s light are one. We must keep you strong, so you can fight the evil darkness.”
“Eat, Kindra,” Bedra urge. Kindra felt a hunk of bread pressed into her hand. With concentration that nearly split her skull, she made that hand pulse out a weak light. Then it went dark again. “I can’t eat now.” Her sense of uselessness stunned her. When the shop door opened again, she hoped it was Death.
“Kindra? Is Kindra here?” The strange woman’s voice was surprisingly gentle.
“I’m here,” Kindra replied, ignoring her sisters’ urgent shushing.
The woman who crawled towards her smelled of patchouli and bitterness. She wasn’t death — she was a sorceress. “Away from me!” Kindra cried. “Are you the bringer of darkness? I see magic and guilt hanging around you like fog.”
The stranger did not resist when several citizens grabbed her arms. Kindra sensed a softening in her. And a great sadness. “Wait. Speak your mind, sorceress.”
“Thank you, Lightbringer. I mean you no harm.”
“Did you bring about this darkness?” Lemmia asked, holding her hand near the visitor’s face. A faint glow showed goodness and tears in her eyes. “Are you holding light for ransom? Do you have demands?”
“Not at all.” Her voice was breathy. “I am Merrida, amanuensis of master sorcerer Gar Metchin. My master…” Merida lowered her head. Her black, kinked hair absorbed Lemmia’s poor light. “Gar Metchin, my friend – he wants to rule the city. He wants the High Council to beg him for guidance.”
“Lies,” Bedra said. “Why is Sorcerer Gar not out among us? Why is he not trumpeting his power and proclaiming that he is our leader? Why does he merely send his servant, and why does she come before the Lightbringers, whom he has crippled?”
Merrida sobbed so hard she could not speak. Laying her hand on the sorceress’ bowed head, Kindra understood her pain. “You want the light, in defiance of your master.”
“Yes!” Merrida gasped. Words gushed from her like bats from a cave at twilight. “Master Gar, my Gar, he doesn’t want to lead the city. And he doesn’t want darkness. Not really. Only, there is so much darkness shadowing his heart, confusing him.”
“He loves you,” Kindra said. “You love him.”
“Yes.” Merrida said the word as if it were weightless. “But he can’t see it through his fear. I think he hopes his own darkness will frighten him less if you remove the lights all around him.”
“And he hopes you will notice.”
Merrid’s tears reflected what little luminescence the sisters’ hands still provided. “You are wise for one so young. I knew you would be. That’s why I came here.”
“What can I do?” Kindra asked.
“Beware of her,” said Lemmia. “Remember, she’s a sorceress,” said Bedra.
But Kindra sensed the light of truth burning in Merrida. She repeated, “What can I do?”
“Help me undo the spell. Gar mixed Bitter Darkening and Wind Swirl and spoke the verses of light-banishment.
“We are not sorceresses.”
“But I know how bright your light is, how strong your power. I know you can overcome this artificial night.”
Other people gathered closer in the shop. “Can you help us, Lightbringers?” “Can you undo the curse on our city?” “The youngest one is the strongest.”
With a protective arm around Kindra’s chest, Lemmia said, “We don’t know how to help. Leave her alone. Her lightsource may be strong, but she has never fought the force of darkness. She might die, or lose her light forever.”
Kindra gently pushed her sister’s arm away and struggled to her feet. “Love is light, and this curse in steeped in love. If I can help, I will.”
“Oh, blessings on you. Come back to the Central Naval with me,” said Merrida.
The sisters moved to join them, but Kindra said, “I feel this is my duty alone.”
“This will help you stay calm while you wait for your little sister.” From the sleeve of her robe, Merrida pulled a ball of wishing putty. Holding it to her forehead, she muttered, “Light and peaceful scent.”
The putty glowed silver-green, painting eerie highlights on Bedra’s and Lemmia’s faces. The whole shop filled with the smell of cinnamon and lavender.
“You look even more magical than usual,” said Kindra, hoping they could see her smile. “I’ll be back soon. Watch the skies and pray for light.” Kindra heard the Songbringers’ morning chant in her mind. Already her fingers itched to release their pent-up rays.
~ * ~
The air itself seemed to rip like worn-out silk. The rending burned across Gar’s brain. He had kept his face pressed to the floor since Merrida left. Abandoned him. The ache threatening to disintegrate his bones seemed like the just punishment for his blindness and stupidity. “I ruined the world,” he said in a keening voice heavy with misery. “I have ruined everything.”
Chunks of the workshop’s limestone walls cracked loose and fell. The screams of terrified citizens rang as loudly as the roar of misspent magic, upsetting the atmosphere. Dragging his head up, Gar called to the mystical forces, “I was supposed to fix everything. I was going to be the leader. The savior.” He let his head fall forward onto the stone tiles with a smack that shot stars across his vision. “I’m no leader,” he murmured. “Who was I fooling? I can’t even tell a woman I love her.”
A hand pressed against his back, right between his shoulder blades. Even through a shirt and cloak, Gar sensed it was Merrida. His taut sinews loosened under her touch, but he still could not get his tongue to move. The scent of patchouli tickle his nostrils when her ringlets of hair brushed his cheek.
“I brought someone to help us. Gar? Can you hear me?”
Gar turned his head enough to see thin, amber feet in golden sandals, faintly luminous. “She is Kindra, the gold. You’ve brought the youngest to save the city.”
With a great effort, he rolled onto his back. It was not to see the filmy dress of the Lightbringer. It was to stare into the face of sweet Merrida, who had returned to his side to help him even after he committed an unthinkable wrong.
She held out a sphere of glowing wish putty. “Why?” she asked him. Her reflective eyes were not angry. “Why did you douse the light? I wish to hear the truth, Gar.”
That truth, summoned so plainly, fought its way through his clenched jaw. “So that you would see me, love me for my power. It was wrong, and I am sorry.”
“But I already saw you, Gar. You remain in my mind’s eye both in darkness and in light.” A subtle smile creased Merrida’s lips as she addressed the Lightbringer. “It is as I told you.”
Kindra nodded solemnly. “Can you help us fight the darkness, Sorcerer?”
“For the sake of truth, love, and Merrida? I can.” Gar marveled at Kindra’s fantastical aura. “Will it cause you pain, Lightbringer?”
He could barely hear her answer: “Yes.”
~ * ~
Kindra spun. The darkness twisted around her neck like shards of glass woven into twine. Yet on she spun, arms out to her sides. She listened for the counter-spell. The words would only have power if Kindra kept spinning. Above the Central Navel, above gloomy Rennis City, she knew she must keep spinning. For her sisters. For the citizens. For light’s future and the future’s light.
Gar and Merrida raised their voices in unison, calling out the words Kindra had taught them: “Light the air, light the stone, light the water, light the blood, light the heart, light the soul.”
After she’d heard the text three times, Kindra could breathe more easily. After three more times, the pricking pain in her ribs dulled to a scratching. Thrice more, and the heat of light warmed her as it thrummed through her veins. Twelve times they said those words. And the last time, they added a line. “Lightbringer, bring the light!”
Kindra spun. Golden rays poured from her hands. Rennis City shone. The ancient chant of the Songbringers rang out, echoing through the streets. Kindra’s sisters blew her kisses from the ground. And near them, two sorcerers embraced as lovers. She saw them clearly in the blessed daylight.
Anne E. Johnson lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes fiction, poetry, and music journalism. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Martian Wave, FrostFire Worlds, and Young Explorer's Adventure Guide. She is also a musician and music teacher, specializing in the songs and tunes of the Irish tradition. Her website is anneejohnson.com.