By Anne E. Johnson
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 was 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?
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