This dreary place
This grave of bold Hyperion
Maw-gaping to the stars
Like chicks newly hatched
Unfledged and rotten.
What new god strides
In gold-flourisher's bright avenues?
What dreadnaught rumor
Has now his laurel crown?
Apollo! Apollo! Thrice-blessed
Sun-eyed, beautiful Apollo.
Unskinned and fiery
No mockery this tomb can bear
Its vain inhabitant sleeps unsoundly.
A dead sun, dreaming,
Entombed in sodden earth.
The alchemist, bent nearly double in the traces of his rattling tinker's cart, was a sorry sight. With his bare callused feet and tattered black guild robes flapping in the wind he looked like nothing so much as an outsize bat that had forgotten, in its senescence, what purpose its wings served. His eyes were a pale, jaundiced yellow, his skin burned and peeling in the hot summer sun. Alone, he made his slow and torturous way across the blistering expanse of the Carcos, the great desert at the heart of Machen. Vultures dogged his steps, floating in slow circles as though they were the needles of a compass and he their sticking point, and callous scavenger saurians black as the idols at the doors of the Maintainer's high temple in Leng watched him from their dens beneath root-riddled overhangs.
Step by weary step the alchemist forged ahead through the stinging wind and scorching heat, his cart creaking along behind him in the ruts of the Via Carcos, the great road that split the desert from Leng at his back to the province of Somnium, which lay many leagues away beyond the Mountains of Madness and the forests of the Bandit Shah. Through the shimmering heat the alchemist walked, his bald head bent into the wind, his robes whipped around him by gusts which carried the mocking scent of the Ocean from the west. Noon came and went. The sun hung low and heavy in the north, vast in the cloudless sky. A smile hitched up the alchemist's thin, dust-scabbed lips. He closed his eyes. His feet slapped against the hardpan in time with the rattle of the steel and copper instruments hanging from the sides of his cart. The wind whistled in his ears.
It was dark when the alchemist opened his eyes. He stopped and shrugged out of the cart's leather traces, sighing as the ache in his back made itself known. The desert was unchanged, save that a single leafless palm stood at the edge of the road like a mourner at the funeral of an unpopular man. The alchemist stretched. He was tall and gaunt, raw-boned in the manner of long-jawed men. He scratched at his jaw with a long, slender finger crossed with a score of thin white scars. From his travel-stained robes he produced a leather waterskin and, uncorking it, drank deeply. He wiped his mouth, stored the waterskin back in its hidden pocket and, taking the trace-straps, drew his cart from the empty road and deposited it in the lone bent spike of shade cast by the leafless palm. The wind had died down with the fall of night and the vultures had abandoned their cyclical progress for their roosts in the hills. The alchemist began to undo the pegs and hawsers and clever latches that kept his cart in one piece for travel, and bit by bit the wooden box unfurled its stiff limbs until it more resembled a crier's kiosk for the wealth of oddments concealed in its stands, its cabinets and drawers. From a large recess in the cart's oak-bound belly the alchemist lifted, with some effort, a little iron stove. He set it down on the ground and crouched before it.
“Will this do, effendi?” the alchemist asked.
“Yes,” said the oven in a lazy, crackling voice.
The alchemist put his hands on his knees and straightened up, spine cracking. “Good,” he said, and without another word he returned to the cart, took up a shovel and began to dig a long, straight trench six inches deep and eight across. The ground was hard, the work punishing. Sweat ran down the alchemist's brow and a blister formed and burst on the heel of his right hand as he labored without pause by the bluish light of the new-risen moon. Hie described over the course of the night a square in the hardpan, ninety steps by ninety steps, and when he had finished he laid down the shovel and walked the perimeter of his work, toeing the ditch's edge clean of dirt and pebbles. Then he wiped his bloodied hands on his robes and said: “That's done.” The sun was just rising in the south and its first flush had turned the desert pink and gold.
“If you've bungled it,” said the stove, “I'll be free to strip the flesh from your bones.”
“You'd be free to try, effendi,” the alchemist admitted, “but I haven't bungled it.” He went to the stove, lifted it with a grunt and carried it to his trench. He placed it with the utmost care at the exact edge of the little channel and unpinned the iron grate that served as its door. Light blurred the iron and rendered transparent the alchemist's hands. From the stove emerged something like a small, bright monkey made all of reddish flames. Its head came first, wise and wrinkled, trailing little bits of ash, and then its clever hands, its shoulders and the rest of it. It dropped down into the ditch and turned its face up to regard the alchemist with eyes like dying coals.
“Someday,” it said, “your hand will slip.”
“Not today, effendi,” the alchemist said, standing. “Now, raise the tower.”
The burning monkey turned its back on its master and sank down cross-legged to the bottom of the ditch. With a soft whoomf of flames fed air, it vanished. All was silent for a long heartbeat, and then the ground began to shake. The alchemist stepped back to watch as from the hardpan rose a lighthouse, a pharos such as might be found along the rocky coast of Machen or on the Lamian Isles in the far south where the sea was red with the light of the Sun Entombed. Sheets of dead earth dropped from the tower's salt-eaten marble walls as the ground buckled and broke. A little wave of seawater sluiced out of nowhere and broke over the alchemist's feet. He savored the coolness even as the desert drank the unhomed water. The rumble of shifting earth ceased. Beside the road from Leng stood a lighthouse, wreathed in dust and blazing brightly. The alchemist produced a black steel key and unlocked the tower's only door, then stepped inside. A silent marble room, floored in black oak, greeted him. A fire burned merrily in the grate. To his left an iron staircase wound its way up around the walls toward the tower's glass-paned crown and the amphora burning there.
The alchemist fell into a high-backed chair before the fire. He sat there, slumped, eyes closed, bloodied hands folded on his lap. After a short while had passed the monkey scampered out of the grate and climbed up the chair to sit hunched above the alchemist's left shoulder. It eyed him hatefully. “I have done as you commanded.”
“Thank you, effendi,” said the alchemist, not opening his eyes.
The fiery monkey's lips twitched, as though it were fighting to remain silent. At last it could restrain itself no longer. “What will you do now?”
“Wait,” said the alchemist. “Study. Watch.” He opened his eyes and the fireplace drew them, pulling at his attention like a lover. He gazed into the crackling, jumping flames that burned without fuel or tinder in the marble grate. “The moth is coming, effendi.”
The monkey said nothing.