Teri McLaren

Song of Time

Ancient Sumifa 3000 BCE

The white marble face of sumfa's monumental sundial brightened by small degrees as the red sun rose above the crawling dunes of the distant high desert. A tall, thin, basalt head of Caelus Nin, Sumifan god of time and patron of the ancestors formed the sundial's double-faced gnomon and stood silent entry at the village's main gate. The eastern face's weathered expression looked fiercely into the burning light, a full hourglass in its knotted hands, while the equally severe western face remained cloaked in cold darkness.

Samor the Collector moved quietly to his study, locked the door, and opened the only copy of the Holy Book of the Confessors, forbidden by Mishra since the first day he had seized power in Almaaz. Since it was written in a language that he himself could not read, Mishra did not trust the Book, or its followers. He feared their teachings almost as much as he feared losing his power to his brother Urza.

Samor raised his head, sang the oath of the Circle aloud and waited, while all over the countryside, certain mages, members of Mishra's court and highest counselors every one, stopped their work, their breakfasts, their conversations, and withdrew to quiet places, making ready to receive the words only they could hear. When he sensed their expectancy, Samor sang from the precious Book its message for the day. 'Fear not,' the spirit of the Book had commanded, its voice insistently echoing in Samor's mind, the urgency more personal than usual. Puzzled, Samor released the Circle, closed the book, and retired to the courtyard to ponder the words.

But before he could meditate on the message, there came an odd summons, a message from Mishra borne by Porros, one of the younger mages, who came racing in on a thundercloud through the early morning sky. Porros dropped to earth inside the courtyard and handed Samor a message written on a torn corner of a campaign map in three faint, sand-scrubbed words- 'Trouble. Come now.'-with Mishra's royal imprint as signature. A small circle around the Borderlands marked the location.

'We fly to Mount Sarrazan. I will guide you,' shouted Porros, dusting the sand from his robes into the high winds. Samor caught a mouthful of it and turned his head as Porros went on obliviously. 'Call all of the others to attend us. Mishra has need of our greatest strength. It is a cockatrice, Samor. It seems you were right; they are, indeed, real'

'Mishra is there? Why would he lead troops to fight over a ch'mina crop? Does he yet live? It is said that all who meet the gaze of such a beast die. And who summoned this creature?' the Collector cried in alarm.

'It is Urza's doing. A trap for his brother. Urza must have a spy in our midst; our lord Mishra was tricked into leading the troops himself,' Porros replied, his eyes strangely fixed on the Collector's several gold rings. 'But there is no time. You are the only one who knows the song. And the only one who knows every member of the Circle and can bring us all.' The unnatural storm raged around them, whipping the palm fronds in every direction, threatening to denude the carefully attended gardens.

His robes tangling around his legs, Samor looked hard at the young man, but Porros refused to meet his eyes. 'Wait here.' The Collector ran to his study to gather and warn the Circle about the cockatrice. But he called only a handful of them, those whose voices would blend toward the old spell he hurriedly copied from his bestiary. He rejoined Porros and, quickly lifted by the dark magic of the thundercloud, they flew over the desert toward Mount Sarraza.

As they glided to earth, the beast flew around the other side of the mountain. The Circle's mages appeared one by one in winds of their own, each marking with unbelieving eyes a twenty-foot-deep crater, with a wide ring of split rocks and melted earth at its perimeter, as they set down in the confusion and din of the battlefield. Samor silently noted the arrival of everyone he had called as they scattered into a loose network across the torn land and began tending the wounded. When they were all in place, Samor gathered their strength to his own, each second passing in expectancy of the beast's return.

He had not long to wait. The beast tore around the peak with a scream that sent a hard chill down Samor's spine. When he lifted his eyes to gauge the creature's distance and, he had to admit, to see what sort of creature had caused the damage smoldering before them, he expected a huge monster, at least as large as Mishra's tower. But the cockatrice, winging around the mountaintop with seemingly impossible speed, was only the size of a large horse. Samor nearly forgot his caution and continued to look at it, his curiosity was so instantly fired by how the red-and-green-scaled creature could have ravaged such a huge portion of the fertile mountainside in such a small amount of time. But then he broke his stare and looked again at the battlefield, suddenly sure that he had never seen such ruin, even when the brothers had fought before, even after they had stripped whole Almaazan forests of timber, or mined great open wounds into the earth. The cockatrice had already laid waste to an entire village and a mountainside; the precious ch'mina crop Urza and Mishra had gathered to fight over lay in total ruin. Even the elves' water source, the headwaters of the Sarrazan River, ran foul and dark.

Samor covered his eyes as the creature circled again high above them. 'How did it do such harm, POTTOS?' he shouted over the din on the field.

'Three hours before dawn it came,' said Porros, 'and at first we thought it one of Urza's machines. At the turn of every new glass, it changed subtly in shape, direction, and tactics. We could not see clearly what threatened us until dawn. Most of those who died from its stare must have looked upon it before the light came. Apparently, it mutated the acids in its breath and the fire in its eyes, countering all spells the novice mages tried to work on it. By dawn, its breath had slain hundreds and its gaze turned to stone hundreds more. As you see, the brothers continue to glare at each other over their failing armies and their defeated magicians. They have no answers. We had to let the women and men who fought the creature drop in their tracks, their bravery unmarked, the battle raging over their bodies,' Porros cried bitterly. 'Finally, Mishra sent me to fetch you.'

Samor blotted his brow, wondering now if the old song he had taken from the bestiary's pages really would work. Again, he had little time to question; high above them, the beast circled the peak, gathering speed, winding its path outward like a clockspring. If he did not act now, soon all of Almaaz would look like Mount Sarraza.

'Shield your eyes!' Samor reminded the mages as they heard the beast shrieking back down the mountain. 'Look not upon it!' Porros took the word on down the lines. Samor finally saw Mishra and moved to his side.

'I know of only one song for such a creature, and that unpracticed,' pleaded the Collector blindly to his lord as the hot wind rushed upon them.

'Well, use it or be damned with the rest of us!' Mishra bellowed from under his gauntlet, its bronze arm guard held hard against his face.)ust then, the cockatrice swooped low over them, its glance vaporizing an unprepared warrior in his armor, the empty, seared plates falling to the ground in a molten heap. The beast crowed its exultation, exhaling a great gasp, its hot, foul breath splitting several huge boulders in its path, circling its rounded furrow again and again. As he waited for it to come near enough, Samor felt a sudden, overwhelming temptation to view the beast up close, just one time, to collect information, to get a look at it for the sake of giving the sketch in his bestiary the proper scale. Realizing his foolishness, Samor shook his head, chasing the feeling away.

Upon the next turn, with the cockatrice's brilliant red eyes shining through his sleeve, beckoning to him, unable to remember all the words or follow the unfamiliar music, the Collector sang for the first time the most intricate protection spell he had ever attempted. His heart beat painfully out of time with the music as the song filled the air. Some of the Circle linked their silent magic in protection, while Samor's oldest friends, risking discovery, joined their voices with his and amplified the music until the beast's crowing was lost in the song.

At first, nothing much changed; the beast only swerved and rolled in the air, righting itself and lashing out madly with its beak and claws. Then abruptly the sky cleared of its dark confusion, the waters of the elves' small lake stirred and leapt as the bright notes charged across their waves as their cascading tones interrupted the beast's flight, tangling its wings. A moment more, Samor thought, and we'll have him down and dead.

Then a sharp, foul note peeled out over the true ones. Samor's voice broke in surprise as the song was altered, its power diverted and fouled with dark energy. Struck to earth by the music, the beast lay thrashing, merely confused. And far from dead.

Can it be? he wondered in amazement. Someone has sung untrue. We have only sent it to sleep! His eyes

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