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The Lorelei Signal


Army of One

Written by Mike Morgan / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow


Malekim ul Insawati stood before the repository of her magical strength and let the energy flow into her. With every spark of eldritch power coursing into her body, she felt her potency increasing. About to craft the greatest spell of her life, she needed every iota of magic stored in the sixteen-foot-tall obelisk.


She caught movement in the corner of her eye. Flashes of translucent power still coruscating about her imposing frame, she turned to see Worm shuffling into her sacrarium. Her servant, her creation, paused halfway into the vaulted stone chamber and vomited forth a tangle of partially digested human remains.


“Thank you, Worm.” She assumed the bones being disgorged belonged to an intruder.


Her servant did not seem dangerous—being a human-shaped mass of writhing worms held together and imbued with a rudimentary intelligence by dint of her sorcery—but he was excellent at keeping out unwanted guests. There were many who desired the sacred, magic-suffused objects ensconced here in her sacrarium, safe atop her citadel on the outskirts of the great city of Sursaitwan. None so far had succeeded in taking them.


Her creature consuming a thief was a fortuitous turn of events. She needed human bones for the ritual. Now, there was no need for her to send Worm out to obtain any.


Malekim waited until she absorbed the last of the obelisk’s energies, then stepped away. Her light brown skin almost glowed with infused vitality. She ordered Worm to clean and grind the bones.


Her eyes turned to the white trails of powder half poured out on the floor on the far side of the chamber: sigils for her impending act of revolutionary magic. The freshly powdered bones would be excellent material for completing the circle of symbols. Tremulous excitement filled her—she was less than an hour from achieving a spell of exquisite complexity; one no one had completed before. Well, not without it killing them in the attempt.


She was certain she would be the one to succeed at it. She was a rare being. A magician with the gift to perceive the unseen world and the courage to bend it to her will. Every ruler of the Eastern Lands sought her skills. Her fame stretched into every corner of the world, even to distant Ionnia. Her wealth was equally great.


She wanted more.


She wanted more than precious jewels and golden coins. She wanted more than fine clothes and a stout tower of well-crafted stone. Malekim wanted more magic.


There were secrets still hidden from her. The need for that knowledge tormented her, drove her on, drove her to risk her own destruction.


The next eruption of the Source neared. The moment when the ethereal energies of the world would surge from the ancient caldera once more. With this spell, Malekim would be ready. She would set forth from this citadel and take that power for herself.


The wellspring of all magic was guarded, so she needed an army. That was the purpose of the spell, of course. To provide her with one, composed of people she knew would never betray her. Her gaze flickered to the shambling Worm carrying out the thief’s acid-bleached bones—not an army of suchlike monstrosities. No, they were too slow. Something far superior.


An army of herself.

~ * ~


Seven Malekims stood on the long barren approach to the Source, the fierce sun beating down upon their heads. The Malekim who had cast the spell and six others brought here to assist.


The Monks of the Source were parsimonious with the energies the caldera contained. They turned away those they deemed unworthy, rejecting any amount of gold. Twice they had refused her requests. Malekim was done asking.


Her army was the result of a spell that bent time back upon itself.


For one week, the incantation brought her future selves into this time and place. One was from next year. Another from five years hence, another from ten. The others hailed from fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years into the future.


They varied in strength, evidencing hardships yet to come. All agreed to the plan now they were here, seeing the wisdom of it. None remembered how the assault had fared. Until they made the assault upon the volcano, the future was not yet written, memories not yet settled.


Malekim of this time also suffered from imperfect recall. There was an earlier part of her life beyond her recall. A time in her youth when a spell went awry and robbed her of her reason for a while. Or so she assumed—she couldn’t imagine what else might have been the cause.


She was beyond such failures now. In her fourth decade she was a master of magic, no longer its victim.


Drained after the efforts of her time-warping magic, Malekim could not pause. She had a campaign to wage and no time to waste.


She checked the defensive talismans on her war-mage armor and, satisfied she was both resplendent and heavily protected, addressed her Army of One. “We are of one mind in this endeavor. We attack and take what we need by right of conquest!”


Faces flushed with confidence, they followed her towering frame.


~ * ~


For a full day and night, they stole along the dry, straight track, with no cover to disguise their progress. On the second day, the monks lining the foothills saw them and sent a holy man in greeting. The most aged of the Malekims slaughtered him with an arrow of eldritch fire.


The defenders on the craggy formations retaliated. Malekim of five years from now turned the monks’ crossbow bolts to ash while Malekim of next year conjured deadly pillars of suffocating fumes.


They breached the outer defenses. Malekim of this age smiled with glee. She had six days left before her army snapped back to their own times. Long enough to reach the Source by the date of its cyclical eruption.


They climbed the volcano’s foothills.


~ * ~


The next line of defense was more robust. The monks stationed at these wooden fences knew how to wield magic.


The oldest of the Malekims fell, her heart rotted by a curse that the others could only admire for its technical sophistication.


By the end of the third day, the six remaining members of the Army of One broke through. They faced the next level of the volcano’s battlements, confidence battered but resolve undiminished.


The loss of their oldest iteration stung, speaking to the eventual fate of them all.


Malekim mulled over that future as she stared up at the night stars, wondering if it could yet be avoided. She traced the familiar constellations with her eyes: the troll’s club, the northern wheel, the sky chariot.


They were stories written in the sky. She yearned to leave a legacy so great generations as yet unborn would stare up at the infinite abyss and trace a constellation named in her honor. Carving the manner of her death in the stone of the past was a high price to pay for power, for knowledge.


Nonetheless, Malekim thought, the prize was worth the cost.


~ * ~


On the fourth day, they encountered defenses made of granite. The guards here possessed trained sky-lizards, called tellgarven in the local tongue, creatures native to the desolate region. While the Malekim from twenty years hence blasted lightning bolts at the thick stone fortifications, the others fought to hold back the giant reptilian horrors.


Malekim of fifteen years from now died in the jaws of a swooping tellgarven. Immediately, the older Malekim evaporated. After hours of desperate fighting, the sky-lizards lay just as dead, and the walls were blasted asunder.


Malekim’s army numbered four.


She thought of her future self, from only fifteen years hence, consumed in the maw of the beast. One violent end supplanted by another.


Her days to come were growing shorter the closer she got to her goal.


~ * ~


The fifth and sixth days were harder still. The walls ringing the caldera grew more difficult to split. These guards set other types of dire beasts loose upon them. Malekim of ten years from now was brought down by a pack of giant wolves. Malekim of five years in the future was caught by an ordinary arrow.


The cost of her obsession was terrible, indeed. But who else could she have enlisted? The only person she could trust was herself.


Coated with dirt and blood, the two living Malekims ascended the steep sides of the volcano’s final slope.


Five years, that was all she had left to exist.


She would use that time to leave a legacy greater than any before.


~ * ~


On the seventh day, the two remaining Malekims achieved the smoke-wreathed summit. They scrambled into the shallow bowl of the crater, the magician of the now and the one from one year from now.


There, on the rocky ground near the mundane hole leading to the Source, stood the final defenders.


By battle’s end, Malekim’s future self was slain, surrounded by the corpses of the monks. Malekim truly was an Army of One.


She too had paid a price. Blood seeped from her side.


She was wounded, but she had won. Nothing stood between her and the Source. The eruption of magic was due any moment. In that instant, she would absorb the power and heal.


Before her, another Malekim appeared from nowhere.


To her astonishment, this apparition was younger, not older.


As youthful as when Malekim had lost her memory.


“Thank you for clearing my path.” This younger her frowned. “I imagine you’re confused. That is to be expected. When I sent myself ahead in time, you were newly wrought, not yet able to understand what you saw and heard. I doubt you remember your first few moments of life.”


“What are you saying?”


This other her was muttering how the dislocation in time had all but exhausted her reserves of power, how she would recharge from the Source. Malekim’s question reclaimed her attention, causing her to sneer, “You’re the copy I left behind.”


Malekim shook her head in incomprehension.


The fresh-faced youth tried again to explain. “You’re a fake.” Her tone was dismissive. “I made you. Surely you don’t doubt my abilities in that regard? You know I made Worm, yes? Making life is not so hard. Nor is filling a creation with the urge to attack the Source on this date. To kill the monks for me. To take all the risk. All the versions lying dead upon these rocky slopes—they’re your potential futures, not mine.”


She laughed, and horror clasped at Malekim’s heart. It couldn’t be true. It mustn’t be true.


Malekim lurched forward, her dagger held out straight.


“No,” choked the original Malekim, the blade finding its target. “You fool. You aren’t real. Your spell is set to expire. You’re all used up, about to vanish anyway.”


The magicians died there in the smoke-filled crater.


Malekim, hailed as the greatest of sorceresses, was now reduced to an Army of None.


~ * ~


When the monks from the city arrived, long after the eruption, they found only their own dead and the young mage’s lifeless form. The magician, it seemed, had bled to death, unable to cast a healing spell in her weakened state. There was no one else there.


Like everything in the caldera, the interloper’s body was coated with the long-cooled lava of the Source—magic in physical form, stronger than iron, black as obsidian.


Malekim, they concluded, had found the power she had sought. She was entombed within it forevermore, tiny sparks of energy glittering in its depths.


Practical as ever, the monks broke up the rock and sold the pieces. They did keep the head, mounting it on a plinth in their temple in the city, both as a warning to those who would seek to imitate the sorceress but also because it was a thing of surpassing beauty.


In death, they remarked to all who came to gaze upon the trophy, Malekim had somehow been rejuvenated, for the stone head was plainly that of a young woman. It was a mystery to them how this had happened, and over the passing of the years they came to accept it as a mystery of the Source and proof of its great power.


And so her name passed into legend. A legend that was retold in place after place, spreading across the world, even unto the halls of fair Ionnia and further still, into the western steppes.


So famous did the tale become that, in time, people gazed up at the night sky and traced the outline of stars that made the shape of a woman’s head and said, their voices edged with awe, “Look! There she is! There’s Malekim, who died in the Source and who was made young forever.” 

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Mike Morgan was born in London, but not in any of the interesting parts. He moved to Japan at the age of 30 and lived there for many years. Nowadays, he's based in Iowa, and enjoys family life with his wife and two young children. If you like his writing, be sure to check out his website:

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