The Lorelei Signal
The Lost Years
Written by Victoria Brun / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
The serpent slithered away, all three feet of it rapidly disappearing into the underbrush. Mara could only stare as the creature’s slender tail vanished under a thicket of leaves.
It had happened so fast, yet not fast enough to obscure the identity of the snake. Its grey-on-black saddleback pattern could only be one snake: the crest bush viper. Six times more venomous than the black-hooded rattlesnake. She’d be dead within the hour.
She let out a shudder and tugged up her trouser leg to reveal two small puncture wounds, each crying a single drop of blood. The bite was less than an inch above her boot. She let the fabric drop and cursed her luck and the snake. Of the ten snake species in the Eastern Crest, eight had no venom, but she had tread on none of those.
She considered her next steps as she tried to ignore the dread filling her stomach like bile, but there were no real options. The nearest village was at least four miles further, but it would not have mattered if it were four feet. No one there could save her, not with bush viper venom burning through her veins.
Few mages could save someone from something this toxic, although she, Mara Hista High Mage of the East, was one of them. But that was a cruel irony. No mage, not even one as powerful as she, could cast magic on herself.
A wave of helplessness crashed over her. She had the sudden and absurd urge to chase the snake and take revenge, but even in this state, she was not so petty. It would not save her, and was it the creature’s fault its camouflage had so effectively fooled her? Still, to have come so far, to have survived the Great War only to be slain by a creature that lived off rodents and crawled on its belly in the dirt—it was a humiliating death.
She took a breath and realized she did not feel ill. Terrified. Angry. But not sick. She considered it may have been a dry bite. Perhaps fate had smiled on her, and the snake had deemed her unworthy of its venom, saving it for a mouse or another more consumable foe. She steadied herself with this thought and decided to continue onward toward the village.
She walked for less than ten minutes before she began to feel ill. Her steps became staggers. She tripped over every rock and root. Her hand became swollen and red. She tugged her rings off with her teeth, struggling to get them over swollen joints. She let all four fall to the ground, even the one with the jade charm. They were of no value to her now. If she survived, she would curse herself for this. She hoped it would come to that.
She did not think it would.
Her body burned, hot and feverish, except her face, which felt strangely numb. Numb and wet. Rivers of sweat ran down her face and her hand. Her clothes felt tight, constricting. Panting for breath, she stopped and tugged up her trouser leg again. Her leg was hideously swollen, and the skin around the bite had turned black.
She sat down. With strangely resigned horror, she realized she was not going to make it to the village. She was not going to make it anywhere. She supposed this awful forest was as good a place as any to die. She’d never had aspirations to die gloriously in battle.
She gazed around the forest, her deathbed. She’d been here once before, traversed this same trail, about five years prior. She remembered how careless she’d been then, yet no snake had struck her.
The memory gave her an idea. It was an absurd, dangerous idea, but she had nothing to lose.
She drew a summoning circle in the dirt with a nearby stick. Her swollen fingers did not want to cooperate. She struggled to hold the stick, yet the circle was perfect. Even when dying, she never settled for anything less than perfect.
She set the ward, weaving the magic meticulously around the circle. She had never cast anything like this before, but she had studied it. Secretly. Always secretly. All temporal magic was illegal—and for good reasons, yet she felt confident in the ward. It was confidence inspired by desperation.
When she finished, she collapsed onto the ground, feeling dizzy. She hoped her envenomed brain was not deceiving her, and the circle and the ward were truly as precise as she thought they were.
She briefly had second thoughts. This ward was dangerous, recklessly dangerous. If her old mentor knew what she was planning—she brushed that thought aside. She had nothing to lose, she reminded herself. She chanted the words to activate the ward.
A figure appeared in the circle.
Mara expected the figure would have a moment of confusion before she attacked, but if that moment occurred, Mara missed it in a flash of dizziness. Still, she blocked the attack with a readied shield ward. It was a fire attack, which was what she had expected. Fire had always been her specialty.
When the fire dispersed, Mara prepared for another attack. She felt the air crackle with magic, but the figure did not attack. She just stared.
Mara stared back. The figure looked younger than Mara remembered. She was unscarred, beautiful. Her hair was still pitch black, without a trace of grey. This was a woman who had not yet experienced war and all its terror.
“Whoa,” the figure said, lowering her hands. “What happened to you, old woman?”
Mara ignored the taunt. She was pleased her younger self caught on so quickly. It would save time, not having to explain it. It was good to deal with someone clever for a change.
“Bush viper,” she said. Her swollen lips made speaking difficult.
“Ah,” her younger self nodded and visibly relaxed, realizing that she was in no danger. Time flowed only in one direction. “And what about that?” She pointed at Mara’s empty left sleeve.
“It does not matter,” Mara said. It was true. It did not matter. She had learned to live without her arm, to cast perfectly without her arm. “I need you to heal me, remove the venom.”
“I suppose that would work,” the younger woman agreed, although her eyes narrowed. “But what’s in it for me?”
Mara blinked. “I’m you.”
“Not now. Not yet.”
“You will be.”
“I still don’t see the benefit for me.”
Mara gaped at her, open mouthed. “The benefit is five years from now you will not die like this.” It was so obvious that she knew something else was going on, but her body was on fire, and her fevered mind did not know what her younger self wanted.
Her younger self gasped. “Five years? Surely it’s been more.”
Mara shook her head.
The younger woman frowned, and then she pointed at the empty sleeve again. “Tell me what happened. Tell me how to avoid that.”
Mara frowned. “We need to create a stable time loop. You cannot change things. You’ll unravel the whole timestream.”
“Don’t lecture me. You’re the one who cast this.”
“We can do it safely,” Mara insisted. “We can create a stable time loop.”
“You want me to get bit by a bush viper?”
“And lose my arm?”
Mara glared at her. Her mind struggled to form a response, but her thoughts slipped by her and disappeared, like the snake in the undergrowth.
“Tell me how to prevent the arm, and I’ll heal you,” the younger woman said.
“That will change the timestream.”
“You’ve already done that! Why are you the only one who gets to benefit?”
Mara could not believe how selfish her younger self was. How selfish she was.
“The arm truly does not matter.”
The younger woman crossed her arms and sat down in the dirt, making it clear she would not be swayed. “I can still create a stable time loop,” she said. “In five years, I’ll go back in time and tell my past self whatever you tell me. I don’t need to lose an arm or get bit by a snake to do so.”
The idea was plausible, but Mara did not like it. It meant she would survive, but she would not be herself. This woman in front of her would become someone else, someone with a different past. But it meant Mara Hista would live in some form. She swallowed and found the movement painful. Her time was running out.
Her younger self, however, was not in any danger, and they both knew it. If Mara died, the summoning circle would break, releasing the younger woman back to her own time. Mara glared at her younger self who smirked back, like she had nothing to lose.
So, Mara told her. She told her about the Battle of the Crossroads, about the bewitched blade, and the young knight who wielded it. The younger woman listened quietly.
By the time she finished, Mara could barely speak. Her lips and tongue felt like foreign objects. Her mind was fevered. Everything was hazy.
Her younger self got to her feet, and Mara wondered whether the woman would even heal her, or if she’d simply watch her die. She wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. If her younger self changed the timestream, wouldn’t she, as she was, cease to exist? She wasn’t sure, despite all her studies. All she knew was—she did not want to die.
The younger woman drew her knife and cut her own forearm. She drew a casting circle on the ground in blood and cast the healing spell.
It burned. It was fire in her veins. Healing always hurt, but this pain was worse than any healing she’d ever experienced before.
“You’ll live, old woman,” the younger woman announced when it was over.
Mara nodded, still burning with pain and barely able to move, but it was a different kind of pain. The swelling in her hand was already abating.
“Release me,” the younger woman ordered.
Mara extended one foot, dragging it through the summoning circle and breaking the ward. Her younger self vanished.
Mara looked around, expecting something—or everything—to be different. She expected herself to be different, but nothing seemed to change. A bird chattered cheerfully above her. The world went on seemingly as it always did.
She wondered whether a fate truly controlled the timestream, keeping the course. Perhaps, history was set and could not be changed. She examined the bite mark. Two tiny puncture wounds were still visible, but the surrounding skin was no longer blackened. She decided to continue to the village. She would collect her rings another time. Or perhaps she would not. She could leave them for some lucky traveler.
She took a few steps and felt her strength returning. She smirked at her own ingenuity. She had defeated death and time. She took another step and then saw double. No, not double. She saw a split world, one where she did not exist and one where she did. She let out a shaky breath, and then the world shifted.
Mara vanished. In fact, Mara Hista did not exist, had not existed for nearly three years. The birds sang on, unaware of the absent mage.
The world shifted again. Mara staggered a step. She was alive. For a single breath, she was just as she had been moments ago, but then she felt something in her essence slip loose, like a frayed thread. Her essence, her magic, her skin, her blood, it all began to unravel.
She mouthed a curse at herself, but she had no mouth.
And from there, the timestream itself unraveled.
Victoria Brun is a writer and project manager at a cancer research laboratory, but perhaps more relevant to this story, her first job was at a reptile nature center, where she was chomped on by several snakes, the occasional turtle, and one sneaky lizard.
Her other work includes a forthcoming piece in Daily Science Fiction.