They travelled all day, and at night came to rest by one of the large rocks that jut from the desert. The last caveat to voyagers before the plains of windswept sand.
Here is what the boy heard:
“Long ago, almost fifty years by official counting, there was a boy named Alladin living in the alleyways of the city, a scavenger, thief, and trickster.
“When he had seen seventeen summers pass, he thought it high time he sought out his fortune. So, with all the arrogance and strength of youth at his side, he set out for the mountain caves where the sorcerers were said to live.
“When he asked to join them he was turned away. He was too young, too inexperienced. Full of anger he left, swearing revenge.”
The rest was . . . vague. The djinn seemed to have slipped into another language, one the boy didn’t know. The little he was able to make out made little sense. He caught the words “punishment” and “fools” and “beloved,” but aside from that . . .
Eventually the djinn’s tirade subsided and he continued:
“The guardians told him what the place was, who I was, but that only seemed to encourage him. He killed them, and entered the chamber. He freed me from my shackles . . . and bound me again. In a lamp. Cheap copper bought from a trader. To contain me.
“For the next forty-eight years he kept me a slave. Had me kill the magicians and build him his kingdom and win your mother’s heart. Forced to do his bidding, for . . . forty-eight years . . .”
Two hundred years in chains, overall.
The djinn looked up at the night sky to clear his eyes from the smoke. Two tears slipped down his chin to lie in the sand. My love, he thought sadly. He glanced at the boy, asleep curled up like a cat.
“Sleep well,” he said. “Tomorrow we go to kill the sun.”
• • • •
The desert stretched out before them. Waves of sand rolled across the vista under a blue, empty sky, boiling in the heat of the sun. Every breath the djinn took felt like fire in his lungs. He shifted in his saddle and glanced at the boy. He was slumped over the back of his camel as the beast plodded its way along. His lips were cracked and bleeding. If they didn’t find water quickly . . .
He looked to the horizon, ignoring the shimmering mirages, and his heart lightened as he saw a dark blot perhaps two miles away. As they got closer it became clearer: a cluster of reddish rocks shaped like a pyramid, twice his height, one side open to reveal darkness and the sound of cool, flowing water.
The boy wasn’t asleep, but he had been struck hard by the heat. The djinn made him lie down in the shade of the structure and ventured inside.
It had been made by human hands a long time ago, for weathered steps cut into the rock descended into darkness. But those would have to wait. The dripping sound he had heard came from a tiny well set into the floor. A crudely excavated hollow flung the echoes of the flowing stream upwards, one of the many that crisscrossed the desert just like the caravans. There was no bucket, so the djinn called forth the water with magic, using only the barest amount of energy required. He would need it all later. He filled both waterskins and took them to the boy.
The lad was so tired he couldn’t even sit up, so the djinn forced water in between his lips and washed his dusty face. Somewhat rejuvenated, the boy sat up and drank by himself.
“Slowly now, not too much all at once.” He took the chance to water both himself and the camels and to chew a strip of dried meat, tough as leather between his jaws. The boy ate what little he could and promptly fell asleep with his head on his chest. Let him sleep. I’ll be long enough.
He took off his cloak, covered the boy with it, and disappeared into the cave. The steps were steep and there was no light to see by, which didn’t really bother him. He’d spent half a century languishing in a prison far darker than this.
He couldn’t tell how far down they went, or how long he descended, but it felt like hours. When the steps leveled out into a long corridor, the djinn cast a small spell and summoned a little light for him to see by. A flickering will-o’-the-wisp hung suspended over his head.
At the far end there was a large stone chamber, directly below the stream he had heard earlier. A tiny trickle of water had wormed its way through and laid a sheet of water on the floor. Drip. Drip.
Standing in the center of the room was a figure that stood head and shoulders above him, and human save for two dappled wings emerging from his back. They shimmered in a translucence of rainbow hues.
Ifreet. The djinn had heard stories of them in his youth, but he had never believed them. They were all dead. Yet here one was.
The legendary being looked at him with eyes filled with yellow flames. The djinn watched as two shimmering wings spread to either side. They were so long they almost touched the walls.
But it was old. Its face was deeply lined and haggard, its beard tangled and grey, and it stood hunchbacked. Naked, its feet were longer than his and twisted backwards like the old minister his jailer had kept, the one who’d danced so nicely with the pokes from the djinn’s sword.
“How strange,” the ifreet said, “to see another of my kind here, after all these years.”
“Not your kind, old one. Your kind died out a long time ago.”
He received a soft, toothless smile. “Yes. They did. But you are my kin, are you not? The children of my children of my children’s children. How long have I been here?”
“The last of your kind died out over three thousand years ago.”
The ifreet’s eyes changed colour, the fire turning red, and the djinn felt something probe his mind, checking his memories.
“You speak the truth.”
Here was his chance. “That is why I have come. You have knowledge that is long gone. Tell me how to kill the sun.”
A dry chuckle. “Kill the sun? Has the heat addled your brain? How can you kill the sun?”
The ifreet gave him a curious glance. “Why do you want to know?”
Its eyes flared vermilion, and its voice gained a harsher, stronger edge. “I see you, sorcerer. I see what you desire. And why.”
“I will bring her back.”
“Is that it? Is that why you want this knowledge? Or is it greed? I see you, sorcerer. Even after all this time, after your punishment? Oh, young one, have you learned nothing?”
A blast of hot desert wind rushed through the chamber, stirring the dust and, for a second, the ifreet staggered. “Still your tongue and tell me what I want to know! . . . Tell me . . . and I will free you from this place.”
The ifreet’s hollow eyes grew large in wonder. The djinn listened carefully to what it told him.
When he emerged, the sun had crept past the horizon. The blue stripe across the world was as thick and bold as a master-painter’s stroke. He checked on the animals; they were almost dead, poor things. He’d been forced to draw the energy from them to summon the wind. They wouldn’t be able to be ridden.
The djinn drew on the last vestiges of their energy to cast a spell. Then he took a long drink of water, topped up both waterskins again, and picked up the sleeping boy. He slung one pack on each shoulder and carried the boy on his back. He bunched a headcloth behind his neck to serve as a pillow. Checked the faint stars, and began to walk east.
When they were no more than a dot on the horizon, the spell began to take effect. The pyramid began to sink beneath the sands. Within seconds, what had once been the tomb of an ifreet was a sand dune like any other. Streaks of sand were silver under the moon. Only a tiny pebble remained to mark the spot, and when a gale blew and moved a fine layer of material, even that too was covered. Silent dunes were the only land under the moonwashed sky.
• • • •
It was a small town, but essential for trading. All the caravans stopped at the oasis, so it was natural that a town should spring up there. The water was strictly rationed and the food was often scarce, but the people made up for it by trading what they had in excess with what they needed from the caravans.
The boy and the djinn arrived with the latest caravan, which bore news of the king’s death. The djinn pulled the boy into an alleyway and told him to hush while he listened to what the leader was saying to the crowd that had gathered. He murmured a spell that would prevent the child from hearing what was said.
“The king and queen are dead! They were both found stabbed in the heart. All the ministers and castle guards were slain too!”
“What of the prince?” someone shouted.
“He is missing. For now, the Captain of the Guard holds the throne as Regent.” His voice fell. “Brothers and sisters, darkness has fallen over the land. There is chaos in the capital. No one knows what will happen next. I urge you all to take caution and prepare for the worst. We may be the last caravan to pass by here in a very long time.” He whipped his camel and led the procession out of the town to a restless series of murmurs and conversations.
We must move fast. The djinn broke the spell and pulled the boy deeper into the alleyway.
• • • •
The beggar was taking a nap behind a stall in the marketplace. He had his bowl in front of him, just in case, and his hat over his eyes to protect from the sun. Just when he thought he was going to get some rest, he heard the chink of coins landing in his bowl, and someone saying, “Beggar. Look at me.”
Cursing in his native tongue, he pushed his wide-brimmed hat back and squinted at the man. He was tall, with almond skin and a black, neatly trimmed beard.
“What do you want?”
As always, he received a shocked look. Qian was from fairer, and wetter, lands to the East, and the fact that one of his people was here always seemed to surprise the natives. But the man quickly became solemn again. “You speak our tongue very well,” he said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve met one of your people.”
“So you’ve met us, eh? And no doubt you think we’re barbarians?” He scowled.
“Not at all. I admire your people deeply. When I was younger, I journeyed east myself, and I met the philosopher Kong Qiu. He was a very wise man, though we often disagreed on his ideals on family.”
“You . . .” Then it dawned on him: The stranger was telling a joke. He laughed. “You’re a funny one,” he admitted, “but don’t tell me you’ve come to make jokes.”
The stranger fixed him with a long flat stare, and then squatted to look at him in the face. He looked at the coins in the bowl, and Qian saw him mumble something. The bowl rocked to one side, as if pushed, and a rat jumped out and scurried away.
Qian’s face paled. As a child, his mother had told him stories. His grandmother had told him stories. He knew them all. But, he had never truly believed them.
“Wizard,” he breathed, unconsciously slipping into his own tongue.
“Not exactly,” the stranger replied in the same tongue, “but close enough.”
Qian had a thousand questions, but the first one that came to his lips was, “Kong Qiu? Truly?”
“What . . . what do you want with me?” He was almost afraid to know the answer.
“I want the thing you have hidden in your robes.”
“This?” He held up a large lodestone. It was nothing special, just the last of his trinkets nobody wanted to buy. A child’s toy.
The stranger’s eyes brightened. “Yes. I will buy it from you. What do you want for it?”
Qian was dumbfounded. He’d come to this land two years ago, and for a while had made a living selling and trading curiosities and trifles like the lodestone. Later, when he’d had enough money, he began trading weapons, foodstuffs, spices, and jewels. He used to be rich. But six months ago he’d lost everything on a business venture that went horribly wrong. The lodestone was the only thing he’d kept, simply because its properties fascinated. They were almost like magic.
And now this stranger wanted to buy it from him. A sorcerer, as they called them here. He would use this opportunity.
“Home. Take me home.”
The stranger’s gaze softened, and he sat down beside Qian. He asked, “How long have you been away, my friend?”
“Long enough. I want to go back now. I want to get away from this place. If I were back in my village, I wouldn’t have to trade; I could simply grow my crops and live easily. I might even find myself a pretty wife, who knows? Start a family, cultivate plants, and every year I’d thank the gods for their bounty with a portion of the harvest and enough wine to drown a cow.” He glanced up at the sun, cresting its arc at the zenith. “But here, here no plants grow. What little isn’t sand is dry and arid. And no woman even wants to look at me.”
“And the wine?”
Qian shook a clay bottle. “All gone,” he said.
The stranger laughed, drawing looks from people nearby. “Very well,” he said, smiling, “I agree to your price.” He held out a hand for the lodestone.
Qian handed it over. It was a rough chunk of black stone larger than a man’s hand. When it was brought near iron, it would pull the metal towards it. Magic. But, the stranger could do magic as well. So why would he want it? Why? When he could do—
He was no longer behind a stall in the marketplace, talking to a stranger.
He was standing on a hill, overlooking a valley containing a small village. He could see the cozy homes of the people, and the trails of smoke drifting up to the sky, vanishing against the white clouds. Cheerful sunlight fell on the fields of rice where men were working diligently to feed their families. He could hear laughter piping up from somewhere.
Home. He was home.
Qian broke into a run, dashing down the hill as fast as he could without tripping. He laughed with unrestrained joy, and leapt straight over the fence at the edge of the village. He kicked off his shoes, running barefoot in the soil of his village, and made for the largest building in the center of the town. Entering with sudden speed, he startled the men drinking inside.
Qian stood for a second in the doorway, his face red with exertion and eyes shining with tears. Then, “One cup of your finest wine please!”
• • • •
With the lodestone tucked away safely, the djinn went back to the stall where he had left the boy. The lad was looking at the toys a vendor was selling. The djinn bought him a wooden horse, and asked for directions to the Plaza of the Alchemists. He brooded as he walked.
The ifreet had told him where to find the trinket-seller, and what he would ask for the lodestone. He’d prepared the power beforehand, but still . . .
The metal is vital, it said. But I find it hard to believe something that looks so plain will help me kill the sun. And the lodestone wasn’t enough on its own—its power needed enhancement. He had the rock in his robes, could feel the weight of it as he walked. The beggar’s price had seemed just to him. He knew what it was like to pine for a home you could not return to.
There was only one alchemist in the small, walled oasis, and he made his stall in the corner of the plaza, hidden from view. Everyone knew of his reputation and he received visitors from many lands, ferrying gifts of jewels and silver in exchange for a favor: a tonic to heal the sick, some parchment bearing a spell for power, stolen from the tomb of a long-dead king . . . and for the power to turn lead into gold. He turned them all away, claiming if they wanted magic, they should see a magician. This was what he was doing when the djinn and boy approached.
A thin voice shrieked from inside the tent. “A philter?! You want me to brew you a PHILTER?! No I will not stay quiet, if you cannot woo this girl, then go to some godforsaken magician! Bah! A warrior like you, with a sword like that! And you cannot even hold your own . . . Pfah! Get out! Get out, you stupid boy!”
A young man stormed out of the tent with his face burning red and a curved sword strapped to his waist. The djinn watched him exit the plaza to the sniggers of several old men playing at stones. It seemed everyone had heard the outburst.
The alchemist emerged from his tent muttering to himself. “Love potions and beauty spells. What do they think I am?” He had on a dirty old caftan striped with stains. His beard was dirty and bushy and for all the jewels customers brought him, he did not look like a wealthy man. He caught sight of the two and said, “And what do you want? A potion to keep your hair in? A dagger that won’t rust? Something to help your wife, because you can’t . . . oh . . . oh! What are you doing here?” He took two long looks around and grabbed the djinn’s arm and pulled him inside.
It was much larger than it looked. The tent was only a place for him to meet the customers; at the back, the djinn could see a house through the flaps of cloth, presumably where the alchemist lived and did, well, whatever he did.
“Sit, sit. Please.” He waved them towards a couch in the middle of the space and left through the back, returning with a tall woman who the djinn correctly guessed to be his daughter. They were carrying two trays of food and refreshment.
“Uncle, I came to you because I—” the djinn began.
“Oh hush. You must have crossed the desert if you came from the capital. Wash your throats first. Then we’ll talk.” He perched himself in a tall spindly chair with his hands on his knees and watched them intently with his bright eyes as his guests drank wine from small crystal goblets. The boy tore his teeth into fruit and swallowed nuts, but the djinn chose only drink. The woman sat on a chair beside her father. She was very young, and not hard on the eyes. She had the alchemist’s dark brown hair. She reminded the djinn of his wife. These recollections were not unpleasant, but when he remembered how she’d died and felt a pang of grief, he was almost grateful for the sudden outburst: “Did you do it?”
The alchemist opened his mouth to answer, glanced at the boy, and then changed tongues. It was a language of the people to the west. “Did you kill the king and queen?”
The djinn was not surprised that he knew the tongue. He was known as a wise man. “Yes.”
“And is that . . . the prince?”
He sighed. “I won’t presume to judge you; I can only imagine what it must have been like. But for all his faults, he was a good king. The land will be worse without him. The Regent, is he a good man?”
“He is. How did you know me?”
“I have seen enough to know a magician when I see one. And I’ve never met a human sorcerer who could hide things with magic the way you do.”
The djinn’s face fell. Was it that obvious? He sighed and dispelled the illusion. A large purple carpet shimmered into view. There were precious stones and fabulous paintings, tapestries and rare books. All floating on the carpet three feet above the ground. All the things they could sell to start their new life, stolen from the palace.
“Remarkable,” the alchemist said. “But now, why you have come to me?”
The djinn grew serious. “I am on a search for the greatest treasure.”
The man’s face was not unkindly when he said, “The Philosopher’s Stone does not exist. It is a myth, nothing more.” He spread his empty palms. “Brimstone, mercury, and salt. These are my elements. I can shape them, mix them, and break them. But, try as I might, I cannot turn one into the other. I cannot turn lead into gold for you. I am sorry.”
“That is not what I seek: I want the secret of immortality.”
A hardness drew lines on the alchemist’ face. “The Elixir of Life does not exist either. And if it did, it is something that should remain hidden.”
“I know. And that is why I seek immortality from a different place. I go to kill the sun.”
The alchemist looked stunned. He gaped at him for several moments, and then closed his mouth. He stood and up and said to come with him. “My daughter will watch the boy, you need not fear.”
The djinn left the two of them behind and went with the alchemist. They left the tent through the back and entered the house he had noticed earlier. The alchemist kept his work in a small back room.
It was clean, with a large window to one side. Wooden benches held flasks and beakers of strange substances, and there were books everywhere in open piles, many with scribblings in the margins. A notebook lay forgotten on a bench beside a glass chamber, the pen dry and ink smudged. He took a quick peek, and saw it was written in code. There were words in different languages all mixed together and symbols he did not recognize. But he knew enough to see what the alchemist had been investigating. Quintessence, the entry read, remains beyond my grasp. I am convinced of its divine nature, my evidence is undeniable. Yet what baffles me the most is the simple paradox of its existence. How can something exist within a vacuum, yet be solely responsible for the vacuum as well?
“That’s private. I’d rather you didn’t read it.”
The djinn let it go. He opened up a thick book to a page. There was an illustration done in inks. A water bird wading in a river, wings spread before flight.
“The bennu. That’s what you’re looking for? Well I can’t say I have any idea how to kill it, but if anything has power of life and death, it would be an immortal. How are you going to kill it, exactly?” The djinn handed over the lodestone. “Clever,” the alchemist said, “Very clever. But it won’t be enough.” Very intuitive.
“Can you enhance it?”
“I don’t know. This is not my area of expertise. But have a seat and I’ll see what I can do.”
He did, and waited while the alchemist chipped a piece off the lodestone with a stone knife. He poured and distilled, mixed and dissolved and separated and heated various reagents over the fire so the room was filled with odd vapors and unusual flames. The sun dipped and golden light flooded the room while the hours ticked by. Eventually the alchemist said he could not do anything. When the djinn complained of the time he had lost, the alchemist snorted. “What did you think? I could clap my hands and turn lead into gold? Alchemy is a devilishly complex process. It requires time.
“As far as I can tell, there is nothing extraordinary about this lodestone, except where it came from. I don’t know how to enhance it, I’m sorry. But here, take this, it may be of some use to you.” The object he was handed was a cuff of stone, meant to be worn on the wrist. It was made of three broken sections spanned by chains so the girth could be adjusted, and there was a large red bead set into it. “This little bracelet will absorb heat that would otherwise damage your body. But it has a limit, so use it wisely.” When he saw the questioning look the djinn was giving him, he chewed his lip and mumbled, “Maybe I know a little magic.”
They laughed at that.
“What was it like?” the alchemist asked. “Living in the capital?”
“Enjoyable,” the djinn found himself answering.
“The castle was a thing of beauty,” he went on, “all graceful spires and marbled floors. Silken tapestries on the ceilings, huge windows that fed the breezes that came from the lush gardens on the terraces; flowers of so many colours and fragrances. Carpets and silver engravings and geometric patterns of lapis lazuli, jade and blue amber on the ceilings of the domes. It was beautiful at night, with the hundreds of lanterns glowing all over the city, and the sounds of laughter coming from the plazas with their fountains and gardens fed by winding aqueducts. The king always kept the castle smelling nice, with perfumed satin and heady incenses. To cover up the stink of the city, he said. The fruits in the market were bursting with juice and grapes were so rich and so dark that if you got the stain on your clothes, you’d never get it out.
“There were crystals the king had me design so that you could see other places in them. He’d keep them absolutely everywhere, so even the servants could see visions from steaming dense jungles and beautiful pristine islands, barely a scrap of sand in oceans that were the bluest things you’d ever seen. Storytellers used to come from all over, begging to tell the king their latest yarn for a few coppers. And traders, with all their goods, coffee and tea and furs and cotton, His Majesty wrung heavy taxes from all of them.
“It was a place of knowledge, all the scholars came to the great library to study and learn. It was a place of discipline—you should have seen the soldiers, in their polished armor and shields like sunbursts . . . Do you remember the rains two years past?”
“Yes, they were the heaviest in decades.”
“That was His Majesty’s idea. I told him I could only gather the clouds, not make them, so he told me to start three years earlier. There was so much water, the streets were muddy and flooded and the people distraught. ‘Our wares are ruined!’ the merchants said, but when the sun came out, all the dust was gone, and the city was cleaner than it had ever been. There was still muck in the gutters, mind you, and it stank worse than ever wet. But, there were all these seeds he’d had planted, you see, and there were seeds already in the ground. And they were green! So much green! Crops springing from the soil faster than they could be harvested, and flowers everywhere! In the streets and walkways. Every man, young and old, was picking flowers, for their mothers and wives and sisters and for the girl with the pretty hair, because she looked so lovely with the white ones in her hair, they said.”
“You miss it.”
The djinn realized he did: “Yes, I do.” It was a queer thing.
He let the alchemist walk him back to the tent, where the lad was asleep with his head in the alchemist’s daughter’s lap. The remnants of a meal for two were on the table.
“Can I leave our things with you? I’ll collect them on the way back.”
“Can I ride the carpet?”
He chuckled. “Of course.”
“What of the boy, will you take him with you?”
“I . . .” It would be safer. But . . .
“No. You should both go together. You’ll need the company.”
He took the boy in his arms and asked the alchemist where he might buy a camel. The alchemist said they should take the flying carpet instead. “I thought you wanted to ride it?”
“They’ll be time enough for that when you get back. You’ll need speed on your side; it’s a long journey. Don’t worry, I’ve got some spare rooms. Your things should fit.”
They transferred all the items into the rooms and the djinn lay the boy down on the carpet with some blankets and pillows the alchemist provided. He also gave them food and water and a change of clothing. “How will you find the bird?” the alchemist asked.
“By following the desert.”
His daughter said, “Come back swiftly, Uncle. He’s such a sweet boy.” The djinn nodded, thinking sadly that she even sounded like his wife. He bid goodbye to their hosts and gave them his gratitude, and cast a spell of invisibility around both of them. The alchemist was still gaping when they left them.
He waited till they were well beyond the town’s walls and dispelled the magic. He reclined on the pillows and looked up at the night sky streaking past. She might have been old enough to be our daughter. If we’d had a daughter. He looked sidelong at the young prince. If I hadn’t killed her in my folly.
• • • •
Those who came from afar, or spent their entire lives within the walls of the city, thought that the desert was mostly sand. This is false. The sandsea the djinn and the boy had crossed on their way to the oasis was only a minute portion of the desert that spanned the civilized world.
Rocks. Rocks were what made up the desert. Big ones and small ones, everywhere you looked. Even the dunes were built on foundations of stone.
Follow the desert. It was an old magic, but powerful. The phoenix was the bird of the sun, and who knew the sun better than the desert? Keep your mind blank, the ifreet had said, and look for the signs. He doesn’t want to be found, but he leaves a trail. Look for . . .
It wasn’t easy, or one simple path. It wound its ways through different deserts, which were in different worlds. The gates to these realms were open, he realized, but only because they weren’t gates at all, but the connections between the two. Like the pages of a book, they were jumping from page to page along the bindings that held them together.
There were deserts of black, lifeless sands under skies of green and blue clouds. There were plateaus that seemed to circle the globe, long bridges of crumbling sandstone that spanned two cliffs over an empty chasm, on and on and on. And there was sand.
It might have been the next day, or the next year, or a single restful blink of blistering, sand-scarred eyelids, but then they were there.
The djinn and the boy stood all alone in the sands. There was only sand, and wind, all around. And the spire.
At first it was only a pillar of rock. But as they approached, they saw it was massive; several leagues in diameter and many, many more in length. It stretched upwards into the blue, so high the djinn was sure the tips must rake the sky and extend even to the black void beyond.
It was not sandstone, or limestone or marble or any other rock or mineral either had ever seen. It was a uniform brown and red, sprouting irregular handholds that jutted out from it randomly. There were steps, too, smooth and carved right into the stones, spiraling all the way round.
They made camp by the foot of the spire, and ate the food the alchemist had been kind enough to provide them with. The djinn kept looking up at the spire. He hadn’t even enhanced the lodestone yet. He hadn’t even made a weapon of it yet!
He took it out and held it before the flames. If he shaped a blade, it would be very thin. It might even snap. But a spear would work. It would give him more reach, too.
He shaped the metal with whispered words and a gentle touch, and it bowed to his magic and flowed like water. For the shaft of the spear, he used a branch he snapped out of the air. The finished product was seven feet in length, and the spearhead sharp enough to shave with. Yet it still needed enhancing. But how? How did you kill the sun? He had a twig with a rock at the end. It needed power, something mighty and invincible. How would he put out an everburning flame?
And then it hit him. And he laughed.
The answer was all around him.
• • • •
He didn’t sleep, but sat with an excitement he couldn’t contain. Finally he decided it was time and woke the boy. “I’ll be back soon,” he told him. It was still dark when he started to climb the steps of the spire, and it was still dark when he reached the top. Round and round, ever upwards. His hand clenched and unclenched around the shaft of his spear.
The top of the spire was a plateau, much smaller than the base, but large enough to hold the entire oasis town. If there had been clouds, it would have towered over them, but even then there was sky above, a deeper, cleaner blue than he had ever seen. Even the air was thin, and he breathed deeply as if with exhaustion.
A young man was sitting on the edge, dangling his bare feet in the air. He wore a pristine white robe that left his arms and one shoulder bare, and had copper hair that stood up from his skull in sharp peaks. He was handsome and had a gold jeweled collar around his neck, set with rubies that flashed like fire and amber stones. When he turned slowly to view his visitor, the djinn saw his eyes were pure gold, with splashes of red that moved and seethed like lava. Phoenix.
“You have come a long way,” it said. Its voice was rich and beautiful.
“I have come with a purpose,” the djinn replied. “I have come here for the secret you keep.”
“I keep no secrets.”
“I want the secret of life and death.”
The phoenix’s eyes grew softer somewhat. It almost whispered, “I am sorry. But I cannot give you that. I don’t have it, it doesn’t exist. There is no Philosopher’s Stone, no Elixir of Life, no quintessence, no Master Work, no object of divinity. I can see it in your eyes, you want it for your wife. She is gone, djinn, and what is gone cannot be reclaimed.”
The phoenix sighed deeply, and looked out over the horizon again. “How did you find me?” it asked.
“I found an ifreet in a forgotten tomb who told me of you.”
“Truly? An ifreet? That is a wonder; I had though them long dead. And now you say one lives? What has become of him?”
“He is gone now, I freed him. The enchantment was the only thing keeping him alive.”
“That is sad news. But I am glad he is at peace. What did he tell you of me?”
“He told me you were one of us.”
The phoenix nodded. “Aye. I was an ifreet once, long and long ago. I was young, and foolish. I wanted to see all there was to see. I . . . I made mistakes that I should not have. There was a contraption I designed, that would take me elsewhere. And it worked, oh, it worked.
“I found myself floating in the void, with the forges of life and death all around me. I saw the stars as they were made, and planets larger than anything I had ever known spin around each other like dancers. I saw beautiful things and wonders and miracles, and in my haste and folly, I fell into the sun.
“You cannot imagine what it was like. The fire, the heat was incredible. It—it changed me. When I awoke, I was back on land, somehow, and I was no longer an ifreet. I was this; some new being that carried the waters of the sun in his veins.
“I learned quickly how to use my powers, and found that I was still mortal. Yet, when I died, I was reborn. I was a bird the first time, I think, with wings of fire. That was how man first came to know me. In the eons that followed, I have had many forms. I’ve died scores of times and been reborn in so many ways. Every time there was someone new, someone who sought to tell a story about me. That is why I am known my so many names and faces. The bennu, the phoenix, Zhu Que, I can’t even remember them all.”
“I want the secret you keep. I want the secret of life and death.”
“I do not have any such secret.”
The djinn held out the spear. “You are the secret. You are an immortal. I will cut out your heart and use it.”
There was no change in the phoenix’s posture, save a slight tightening around his eyes, and a dangerous tone to its voice when it said, “Take care, djinn,” smooth and soft as woven silk. “For I am still fire; I will tolerate no falsehoods here, not in my eyrie. Speak them, and I will burn your tongue to ash.”
The djinn readied his arm. “This spear,” he said, “is made from a fallen star.”
“You cannot kill me with simple steel, be it from this world or any other.”
“And if this is not simple steel? If it this is from the massive star that fell so long ago and rose a cloud of ash to blanket the sun? When the land was cold, so cold and barren. This spear contains within it that selfsame power, from the endless nights when you were weak and dying. You almost did die, didn’t you? Without the sun, without its fire to sustain you, you are merely a bird.”
The phoenix shrieked in anger, a thin birdlike keel that drove rocks to pebbles below far them. The djinn’s ears stung and he was momentarily deaf. The phoenix was standing now and facing him, its lips moving, but the djinn heard nothing.
There was a flash of heat, and suddenly his hearing returned. Flames roared in his ears and he closed his eyes against the brightness. As he blinked black spots from his eyes he saw the phoenix transformed, now a tall waterbird with reed thin legs and dark feathers, every feather of its wings equal to the weight of a human soul. But its eyes did not change. With another wail, it launched itself at him.
The djinn sidestepped, dodging its razor talons, and swung his spear. It should have cut, but the bennu had feathers like iron. He pulled back and jabbed at the bird’s soft underbelly, just as it rose into the air and grabbed his spear with its claws. Cursing, the djinn pulled it free and rolled out of the way.
Time was lost to him, and seconds seemed to slow as the world faded to a single moment of flashing steel, sweat, and blood. He fought with all the skill he possessed, using magic and spearplay together, yet the fight dragged on. And as he fought, it slowly dawned on him that he could not feel the sun on his back. It should have risen, but it seemed as if the heat was coming from in front of him.
It was, he realized with a start. The phoenix was giving off heat. His looked down to find his clothing scorched and burned away in places, but he himself was unharmed. It was the alchemist’s charm that was keeping him alive. The cuff was still tight on his wrist, but it was becoming looser. And the tip of his beard was beginning to singe . . .
When he finally he manage to stab the bennu, it was just below the wing. The ifreet had told him what would happen when the bird was injured, and he pulled away in time. There was another roar and a heat and wind that drove him balking to his knees, and when the haze cleared, the phoenix had changed form.
Every time you kill it, the ifreet had said, it will be forced to revert back to its previous form. You must keep fighting until you have driven it back to its original shape, then you can slay it permanently.
He lost track of how many forms there were. There were a dozen tiny birds with sharp raking claws, and a creature with the head of a dog and wings of an eagle that hocked fire like phlegm. There was a man, he remembered, with the head of a green bird and armed with a broadsword taller than he was. Its strength was colossal, and when his own spear kissed the flaming blade of his foe, he felt as if his arm would break under the force. It was only through a spell that wound grass tangles through its feet that he was able to win at all. There was a bird that resembled a peacock, in shades of vermillion and orange, with long trailing feathers that stung like acid when they touched him. Firebird, red crow, Zhu Que, Suzaku, all these names, all these forms, and both of them were growing weary.
He was bruised all over, and had broken at least two ribs. The battle was too intense for him to heal his wounds; he sealed a cut here and there when he found respite, but for the most part he was hard-pushed and weary. Once he received a cut above his eye and when the blood began to impede his vision, he grabbed a handful of grit and rubbed it into the wound. It hurt, but absorbed some blood and let him fight on.
It was only when he fought a form that was more manticore than phoenix and serpentine enough to be a basilisk that he succeeded in wounding the beast heavily. This form was slow, weighed down by its heavy plate of scales, and he ducked around its sweeping tail and stabbed downwards. It hissed and tried to fling him off as he pulled his sword free and climbed onto its back. Howling, he stabbed it as fast as he could, again and again. He felt a scale give away, and his spear plunged in so deeply his hand almost went in as well. The beast screamed, reared, and tumbled to the ground with a crash, pinning him between its scaly coils. He shrugged himself free with effort and heaved the spear out of the beast. There was no blood.
It’s over. It’s really over. I did it, I killed the—
HEAT. Heat a thousand times worse than the blazing sands of the desert at noon, fire so bright he was blind, and a force that threw him like dry autumn leaves through the air, to land at the very edge of the plateau, one arm resting over the edge.
He would have screamed if his throat were not burned. He raised a hand to his face, and it came away covered with skin. There was little blood: The fire must have cauterized his wounds or burned all the blood away. He pushed himself up on one elbow, tears forming in his eyes against the pain. He shoved his fingers into his eyes, trying to gather the precious liquid and suck it from his fingertips. The salt only fed the burn.
The cuff the alchemist had given him was broken now. His skin was free to blister and burn, and half his beard was already gone. He was going to die from the heat. It was too much, too much. Then he saw what lay before him, and his bladder released. He was too terrified to feel the cool liquid running down his legs.
The phoenix had taken its final, primal form, and stared him down in all its infernal majesty. It was a bird larger than any he had ever seen, large enough that a house could have stood in the shade of its wings. Its breast and head were scarlet, the light feathers of its belly and legs shot with gold, and the heavy swords that made up its wings ended, not in points, but in flames. Its head was resplendent: pure, virgin white, armed with a beak that could have crushed him whole. Its eyes were jet and gold. And it glowed so strongly the dark felt like day.
“You came for fire, djinn. So why do you hide now? Have your fire . . . HAVE IT ALL.”
It flapped its wings, and another wave of heat washed over the djinn. He groaned deep in his throat and tried to crawl away. The beast only pinned him down with a humongous talon. He could feel it tearing into the flesh of his back, exposed now that his clothes had burned away.
“Don’t run, little mouse. Stay and play a while.”
He felt the claw encircle him and lift him up, almost gently, so he was face-to-face with the phoenix. He stared into its eagle eyes, full of malice. It blinked once, slowly. My spear, he thought weakly, Where is my spear?
The phoenix opened its beak slowly, and for a second the djinn was afraid it was going to eat him, and then it exhaled, and his breast was awash with fire.
“Kill me, will you?” it said over his cries. “Kill the sun? You rat, you scurrying mortal, how dare you?”
Then the fire was gone, and it bent down, and touched him lightly on the forehead with the tip of its beak.
He wanted to scream then. Oh, it would have been sweet to scream, it would have been release. But the fire was now in his mind, scourging him in his most private places. He could feel the fire stripping him of his memories, burning away the very synapses that held his mental self together, a headache so powerful it paralyzed him, left him unable to move or breathe. And pain, in its pure form, without physical malady or injury. Pain was a form of energy, he realized. And it was being poured into him.
He tried to reach for his magic, but the phoenix saw his move and tossed him aside, and there was a wall between him and his magic, a wall he couldn’t reach, because the fire was burning him, burning him all over.
And then it dropped him, and he fell to the ground and broke another fragile rib. In a daze of pain he heard the bird say, “Perhaps that will teach you humility. But you mortals are arrogant by nature, it is not something you can shed easily. Yes, I shall have to find a better way, won’t I?”
It flapped its wings and rose into the sky, circling him, the flames of its wings and tail trailing behind it like the streamers of kites. Then he heard it say, in a voice that froze his heart, “Now what, oh what, do we have here?”
He heard those fearsome wings flap again, and the bird screamed in triumph as it dove.
“NO!” he shouted back, anger lending strength to his lungs. He stood and cast a look for his spear. There it lay, on the far side of the plateau. He thrust out his hand and shouted a spell, and whipped around without seeing if it had worked or not—and jumped off the edge.
He was hurtling through the air, and the bird was still below him, swooping down on the boy who stood helplessly on the ground, watching in absolute terror. He could see the desert spread out before him, in all the predawn colours and the last stars faint above. The vermillion monster was the only source of light in this desert. And the little boy he had come to love so much, even if he was the son of the man who had kept him captive, all those years. The boy’s scream mingled with the phoenix’s cry as he looked up and saw a glint high above him.
The djinn spun and slashed his hand through the air and the spear shot past, looking like a pillar of fire, and slammed into the phoenix in between its two great wings. The gigantic beast jerked, and howled, and rose upwards in a violent reflex motion, and his boots landed right on its back. He grabbed the spear with both hands and shouted the spell that lay dormant within the iron, the enchantment he had hoped to use to kill the thing, and the words seemed to drive all the sound from his ears. He felt the shaft vibrate in his hands, and the bird must have screamed as it jerked and thrashed and slammed into the lone spire that stuck out from the endless desert. He had one last view of the desert, in the blues and purples of the dawn, and his second-to-last thought was whether the child would be safe, and his last sight was the eyrie of red stone, tumbling, breaking, falling, taking him and the monster down with it. I hope sand makes for a soft landing, he thought.
• • • •
When the dust cleared, the djinn was able to push away some of the smaller rocks pinning him down and get to his feet. The phoenix was still trapped somewhere beneath the rubble, but where was the boy?
“Abdullah!” he called, “Where are you?!”
“Here! I’m here, Uncle!” He was clambering up the mountain of rubble, dusty but otherwise unharmed. The djinn held him tightly. “Are you sure?” he asked, “No cuts, no bruises?” The boy said no.
The djinn sighed, and turned to inspect the scree of crushed rocks and boulders. He had to find the phoenix quickly, before it began to regenerate—
He heard a muffled scream and a large rock went sailing over his head. The phoenix pulled its way out of the wreckage, now in its human form. Its robes were in tatters and the jeweled collar it had worn was missing. The djinn’s spear had been pushed down deep, and the star-metal blade emerged clean from between his ribs, bloodless.
The phoenix staggered, and placed a hand against its chest. “What is this?” he said, panting. Its entire body had changed color. It was grey now. As grey as ash.
The djinn stepped up to him and grabbed the tip of the spearhead gingerly. “This is the magic that will finally defeat you.”
“Can you feel it?” the djinn asked, “Can you feel the fire inside you, dying? Can you feel the connection between you and the desert now? It’s only dawn, and the sands are still cool. They will sap your fire, suck it from you, absorb it like they absorb the heat of the sun.” He leaned forward, so his words were better heard. “All the deserts, not just this one. The cold deserts to the north, the rocky deserts to the east, to the west and south and every direction there is, every bit of land, every little rock, is bound to the sword which pierces your heart. Slowly, bit by bit, the fire is dying, choked like a cookfire doused with water. Yes, even the deserts above, cold and black and airless, everything is working against you. You don’t have much time left. The desert sucks up heat quickly, don’t you know?”
He danced around and grabbed the spear from the back and gave it a violent pull. It came out cleanly, and he spun it hand over hand and shoved it back inside, neatly as a key fitting into a lock. The phoenix roared and arched its back in agony, hands clenching at empty air. It took a step forward and staggered, and looked at him hatefully. Then its eyes slipped past him, behind him, and its face lit up with glee. A bolt of red fire shot from its mouth, and the djinn heard the muffled sound of a toppling body from behind him.
He turned and ran, knees slamming into the ground as he came face to face with the boy, and cradled him in his arms. His eyes were closed and a lock of hair had fallen over his brow, and the area directly over his heart was blackened ash. It had burned straight through his clothing and skin and muscle, searing him from the inside and damaging all his vital organs in an instant. There was no chance of survival.
The djinn did nothing but stare at his blank face, till he felt the heat of an explosion wash over his naked back and heard the sound of a final, triumphant, bird-like scream. Gently placing the boy on the ground, he revolved to look at the crater. The fire had been so hot it had turned the sand to glass, and his spearhead had melted to form a depression of mirrors with splotches of silvery grey. In the center of this small hole was a red sphere that glowed dully with heat.
The heart of the sun, the ifreet had said, it is the phoenix’s true connection to fire, and it will remain for a while after it dies. You must take it while it lasts, it will momentarily bear the regenerating life-force of the bird. Use it to return your wife to the realm of the living. He had looked almost sad then, and had said, I hope you find what you seek. Then he crumbled into dust as the djinn released him from his bonds. One more prison without a captive.
The heart of the sun. It looked like a pomegranate, but when he peeled open its tough red skin there was only a single seed inside, ripe and swollen with juice.
It was his. Finally, after two hundred years of dreaming and waiting and plotting, it was his. He could feel the power through his fingers. I can take it. I can take it and become a god. His wife had died in one of his experiments. He’d been looking for a way to live forever.
And now I can. No one will ever bind me, or tell me what to do. No master. Nothing, no one, will ever control me. Nothing . . .
He looked over his shoulder at the boy.
He turned it over in his hands, whispering under his breath. He heard a new voice say, “My beloved.”
She was just as beautiful as he remembered, and stood on the glass floor in the silks and jewels she had worn on the day of their wedding. She reached out and brushed his face, and he began to cry when he felt the warmth in her fingers.
“My beloved,” she went on, “You cannot.”
“It was my fault,” he sobbed, “You only died because I was blinded by my greed. I wanted to live forever and I lost you for it. But I can fix it now! I can be with you again, you can be with me again. My sweet desert rose, we will be together forever.”
She was crying too. “I know, my sweet. I know. But it cannot be. What is gone must stay gone; it would be a perversion of nature for the dead to return to life. Please, my love. Use it wisely. The boy is near death, but he is not yet gone.”
“No, no, I won’t! I won’t lose you again!”
She smiled faintly, and in the light of the oncoming dawn her eyes shimmered with tears. She began to sing, softly. His heart nearly broke when he heard her sing. It was the song she had sung for him when they first met, the song she promised to sing to their children. “Is it me, said the rose, is it mine heart you desire? Or is it my fragrance that soothes your heart, or my petals, red as fire? For in the desert few flowers bloom, and we take what beauty we may. And live our lives on the sands, with each brand new day.”
Still crying, he pulled her close, and held her for a while. He held her till the ache in his heart began to soothe, and he realized his arms were only wrapped around empty air.
He knelt down beside the boy, and held the fruit of the sun over his lips. The djinn crushed it in his fingers, and the bright red juice dribbled down his fingers into the boy’s mouth. The boy’s chest began to heave, and he opened his eyes.
The djinn folded him in his arms, and then he was crying all over again and the boy was looking dumbfounded and asking what happened. The djinn laughed and kissed his forehead. Then the boy asked what he was holding.
All that remained of the fruit was the skin, still wet. He stared at it, wondering . . . and then made up his mind.
The djinn put the fruit back in the glass hollow alongside the leathery skin, and recited a simple summoning spell. Small pouches of cowhide materialized in his hands and he opened them and began to pour the contents into the hollow. Frankincense, camphor, myrrh, vermillion saffron and dark cinnamon, sprigs of lavender and vanilla, twigs from elder, ash and olive. Cardamom and cloves, and jewels from far-off lands that shone in colours he could not name, beaten silverleaf, the juice and oils of fruits. He poured more expensive spices and the roots of ancient trees, and sprinkled it all with a covering of fine, white sand. Then he stood, took a step back, and uttered a single word in a tongue rich in magic.
The light from the blaze was reflected and thrown in a hundred different directions by the facets of glass, and it burned clean and hot and fast. And when the flames died down and the coals smoldered, a beak poked its way out of the ash. With a cry wilder and fiercer than any bird, the new phoenix rose, a falcon with a plumage of silver and wings of dusky midnight-black, and circled twice in the sky before landing on the djinn’s outstretched arm. A silver sun. It looked at him with eyes that were now white swimming in silver, and he fancied he saw a touch of amusement in them.
The djinn turned away, with the reborn bird of fire on his arm, and placed an arm around the boy. He looked out at the horizon, where the sun would begin to rise.
“Come along boy,” he said, “We have much work to do.”