The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 21

  I can now attest that magic camels spit like, poo like, drool like, bite like, eat like, and, most disgustingly, smell like normal camels. If anything, their disgustingness is magically enhanced.

  We didn’t start with the camels, of course. We worked our way up to them in a series of progressively more horrible modes of transportation. First we took a bus to a small town west of Alexandria—a bus without air conditioning, packed with men who had not discovered the benefits of underarm deodorant. Then we hired a driver to take us to Bahariya—a driver who first had the nerve to play ABBA’s greatest hits and eat raw onions, then drove us to the middle of nowhere and—surprise!—introduced us to his friends, the bandits, who were keen to rob defenseless American teenagers. I was delighted to show them how my staff turned into a large hungry lion. As far as I know, the bandits and driver are still running. However, the car had stopped, and no amount of magic would revive the engine.

  At that point, we decided it was best to stay off the grid. I could deal with dirty looks from the locals. I could deal with attracting attention as an oddity—an American/British girl with purple-streaked hair, traveling alone with a boy who did not look like her brother. In fact, that fairly well described my life. But after the highway robbery incident, Walt and I realized just how much the locals were watching us, marking us as a target. I had no desire to be singled out by more bandits, or Egyptian police, or, even worse, any magicians who might be lurking undercover. So we summoned the magic camels, charmed a handful of sand to point the way to Bahariya, and set out across the desert.

  How was the desert, Sadie? You might wonder.

  Thanks for asking. It was hot.

  And another thing: Why do deserts have to be so bloody huge? Why can’t they be a few hundred meters wide, just enough to give you the idea of sandy, dry, and miserable, then yield to some proper landscape, like a meadow with a river, or a high street with shops?

  No such luck for us. The desert went on forever. I could imagine Set, the god of the wastelands, laughing at us as we trudged over endless dunes. If this was his home, I didn’t think much of the way he’d decorated.

  I named my camel Katrina. She was a natural disaster. She slobbered everywhere and seemed to think the purple streak in my hair was some kind of exotic fruit. She was obsessed with trying to eat my head. I named Walt’s camel Hindenburg. He was almost as large as a zeppelin and definitely as full of gas.

  As we rode side by side, Walt seemed lost in thought, peering at the horizon. He’d rushed to my aid in Alexandria without hesitation. As I’d suspected, our shen amulets were connected. With a little concentration, I’d been able to send him a mental message about our predicament. With a bit more effort, I’d been able to literally pull him through the Duat to my side. Quite a handy magic item: instant hot guy.

  Once here, though, he’d grown increasingly quiet and uncomfortable. He was dressed like a normal American teen on an outdoor excursion—a black workout top that fit him quite well, hiking pants, and boots. But if you looked more closely, you could tell he’d come equipped with every magic item he’d ever made. Around his neck hung a veritable zoo of animal amulets. Three rings glinted on each hand. Around his waist was a corded belt I’d never seen before, so I assumed it had magic powers. He also carried a backpack, no doubt stuffed with more handy bits and bobs. Despite this personal arsenal, Walt seemed awfully nervous.

  “Lovely weather,” I prompted.

  He frowned, coming out of his daze. “Sorry. I was…thinking.”

  “You know, sometimes talking helps. For instance, oh, I don’t know. If I had a major problem, something life-threatening, and I’d only confided to Jaz…and if Bes knew what was going on, but wasn’t telling…and if I’d agreed to come on an adventure with a good friend, and had hours to chat as we crossed the desert, I might be tempted to tell her what was wrong.”

  “Hypothetically,” he said.

  “Yes. And if this girl were the last person on earth to know what was wrong with me, and really cared…well, I can imagine she’d get quite frustrated at being kept in the dark. And she might hypothetically strangle you—I mean me. Hypothetically.”

  Walt managed a faint smile. Though I can’t say his eyes melted me like Anubis’s, he did have a gorgeous face. He looked nothing like my father, but he had the same sort of strength and rugged handsomeness—a kind of gentle gravity that made me feel safer, and a bit more firmly planted on the earth.

  “It’s hard for me to talk about,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hide anything from you.”

  “Fortunately, it’s not too late.”

  Our camels plodded along. Katrina tried to kiss, or possibly spit on Hindenburg, and Hindenburg farted in response. I found this a depressing commentary on boy-girl relationships.

  At last Walt said, “It has to do with the blood of the pharaohs. You guys—I mean the Kanes—you combine two powerful royal lines, Narmer and Ramesses the Great, right?”

  “So I’ve been told. Sadie the Great does have a nice ring to it.”

  Walt didn’t respond to that. Perhaps he was imagining me as a pharaoh, which I’ll admit is a rather frightening concept.

  “My royal line…” He hesitated. “How much do you know about Akhenaton?”

  “Off the top of my head, I’d say he was a pharaoh. Probably of Egypt.”

  Walt laughed, which was good. If I could keep his mood from getting too serious, it might be easier for him to open up.

  “Top of the class,” he said. “Akhenaton was the pharaoh who decided to do away with all the old gods and just worship Aten, the sun.”

  “Oh…right.” The story vaguely rang a bell, which alarmed me, as it made me feel like almost as much of an Egyptian geek as Carter. “He’s the chap who moved the capital, eh?”

  Walt nodded. “He built an entirely new city at Amarna. He was kind of a weird dude, but he was the first one who had the idea that the old gods were bad. He tried to ban their worship, shut down their temples. He wanted to worship only one god, but he made a strange choice for the one god. He thought it was the sun. Not the sun god Ra—the actual sun disk, Aten. Anyway, the old priests and magicians, especially the priests of Amun-Ra—”

  “Another name for Ra?” I guessed.

  “More or less,” Walt said. “So the priests of Amun-Ra’s temple weren’t too happy with Akhenaton. After he died, they defaced his statues, tried to wipe out his name from all the monuments and stuff. Amarna was completely abandoned. Egypt went back to the old ways.”

  I let that sink in. Thousands of years before Iskandar had issued a rule exiling the gods, a pharaoh had had the same idea.

  “And this was your great-great-whatever grandfather?” I asked.

  Walt wrapped the camel’s reins around his wrist. “I’m one of Akhenaton’s descendants. Yeah. We’ve got the same aptitude for magic as most royal lines, but…we’ve got problems, too. The gods weren’t happy with Akhenaton, as you can imagine. His son Tutankhamen—”

  “King Tut?” I asked. “You’re related to King Tut?”

  “Unfortunately,” Walt said. “Tutankhamen was the first to suffer the curse. He died at nineteen. And he was one of the luckier ones.”

  “Hang on. What curse?”

  That’s when Katrina came to a screeching halt. You may protest that camels can’t screech, but you’re quite wrong. As she reached the top of a massive sand dune, Katrina made a wet screechy sound much worse than a car’s brakes. Hindenburg came to more of a farting halt.

  I looked down the other side of the dune. Below us, in the middle of the desert, a hazy valley of green fields and palm trees sprawled out, roughly the size of central London. Birds flew overhead. Small lakes sparkled in the afternoon sun. Smoke rose from cooking fires at a few dwellings dotted here and there. After so long in the desert, my eyes hurt from looking at all the colors, like when you come out of a dark cinema into a bright afternoon.

  I understood how ancient travelers must’ve felt, discovering an oas
is like this after days in the wilderness. It was the closest thing I’d ever seen to the Garden of Eden.

  The camels hadn’t stopped to admire the beautiful scenery, though. A trail of tiny footprints wound through the sand, all the way from the edge of the oasis to our dune. And coming up the hill was a very disgruntled-looking cat.

  “It’s about time,” said the cat.

  I slid off Katrina’s back and stared at the cat in amazement. Not because it spoke—I’d seen stranger things—but because I recognized the voice.

  “Bast?” I said. “What are you doing inside that—what is that, exactly?”

  The cat stood on its hind legs and spread its front paws like: Voilà! “An Egyptian mau, of course. Beautiful leopard spots, bluish fur—”

  “It looks like it’s been through a blender!”

  I wasn’t just being harsh. The cat was terribly beaten up. Large chunks of its fur were missing. It might once have been beautiful, but I was more inclined to think it had always been feral. Its remaining fur was dirty and matted, and its eyes were swollen and scarred almost as badly as Vlad Menshikov’s.

  Bast—or the cat—or whatever was in charge—dropped back on all fours and sniffed indignantly. “Sadie, dear, I believe we’ve talked about battle scars on cats. This old tom is a warrior!”

  A warrior who loses, I thought, but I decided not to say that.

  Walt slid off Hindenburg’s back. “Bast, how—where are you?”

  “Still deep in the Duat.” She sighed. “It’ll be another day at least before I can find my way out. Things down here are a bit…chaotic.”

  “Are you all right?” I asked.

  The cat nodded. “I just have to be careful. The abyss is teeming with enemies. All the regular paths and river ways are guarded. I’ll have to take a long detour to get back safely, and since the equinox starts tomorrow at sunset, the timing is going to be tight. I thought I’d better send you a message.”

  “So…” Walt knit his eyebrows. “That cat isn’t real?”

  “Of course it’s real,” Bast said. “Just controlled by a sliver of my ba. I can speak through cats easily, you know, at least for a few minutes at a time, but this is the first time you’ve been close to one. Did you realize that? Unbelievable! You really need to hang around more cats. By the way, this mau will need a reward when I’m gone. Some nice fish, perhaps, or some milk—”

  “Bast,” I interrupted. “You said you had a message?”

  “Right. Apophis is waking.”

  “We knew that!”

  “But it’s worse than we thought,” she said. “He’s got a legion of demons working on his cage, and he’s timing his release to coincide with your waking Ra. In fact, he’s counting on your freeing Ra. It’s part of his plan.”

  My head felt like it was turning to jelly, though that may have been because Katrina the camel was sucking on my hair. “Apophis wants us to free his archenemy? That makes no sense.”

  “I can’t explain it,” Bast said, “but as I got closer to his cage, I could glean his thoughts. I suppose because we fought so many centuries we have some sort of connection. At any rate, the equinox begins tomorrow at sunset, as I said. The following dawn, the morning of March twenty-first, Apophis intends to rise from the Duat. He plans to swallow the sun and destroy the world. And he believes your plan to awaken Ra will help him do that.”

  Walt frowned. “If Apophis wants us to succeed, why is he trying so hard to stop us?”

  “Is he?” I asked.

  A dozen small things that had bothered me over the past few days suddenly clicked together: why had Apophis only scared Carter in the Brooklyn Museum, when the Arrows of Sekhmet could have destroyed him? How had we escaped so easily from St. Petersburg? Why had Set volunteered the location of the third scroll?

  “Apophis wants chaos,” I said. “He wants to divide his enemies. If Ra comes back, it could throw us into a civil war. The magicians are already divided. The gods would be fighting each other. There would be no clear ruler. And if Ra isn’t reborn in a strong new form—if he’s as old and feeble as I saw in my vision—”

  “So we shouldn’t awaken Ra?” Walt asked.

  “That’s not the answer either,” I said.

  Bast tilted her head. “I’m confused.”

  My mind was racing. Katrina the camel was still chewing on my hair, turning it into a slimy mess, but I hardly noticed. “We have to stick to the plan. We need Ra. Ma’at and Chaos have to balance, right? If Apophis rises, Ra has to as well.”

  Walt twisted his rings. “But if Apophis wants Ra awakened, if he thinks it will help him destroy the world—”

  “We have to believe Apophis is wrong.” I remembered something Jaz’s ren had told me: We choose to believe in Ma’at.

  “Apophis can’t imagine that anyone could unite the gods and magicians,” I said. “He thinks the return of Ra will weaken us even further. We have to prove him wrong. We have to make order from chaos. That’s what Egypt has always done. It’s a risk—a huge risk—but if we do nothing because we fear we’ll fail, we play right into Apophis’s hands.”

  It’s hard to give a rousing speech with a camel licking your head, but Walt nodded. The cat didn’t look quite so enthusiastic. Then again, cats rarely do.

  “Don’t underestimate Apophis,” Bast said. “You haven’t fought him. I have.”

  “Which is why we need you back quickly.” I told her about Vlad Menshikov’s conversation with Set, and his plans to destroy Brooklyn House. “Bast, our friends are in terrible danger. Menshikov is possibly even more insane than Amos realizes. As soon as you’re able, go to Brooklyn. I have a feeling our last stand is going to be there. We’ll get the third scroll and find Ra.”

  “I don’t like last stands,” the cat said. “But you’re right. It sounds bad. By the way, where are Bes and Carter?” She looked suspiciously at the camels. “You didn’t turn them into those, did you?”

  “The idea is appealing,” I said. “But, no.”

  I told her briefly what Carter was up to.

  Bast hissed with distaste. “A foolish detour! I’ll have words with that dwarf about letting you go off on your own.”

  “What am I, invisible?” Walt protested.

  “Sorry, dear, I didn’t mean—” The cat’s eyes twitched. It coughed like it had a hairball. “My connection is failing. Good luck, Sadie. The best entrance to the tombs is on a small date farm just to the southeast. Look for a black water tower. And do watch out for the Romans. They’re quite—”

  The cat puffed up its tail. Then it blinked and looked around in confusion.

  “What Romans?” I asked. “They’re quite what?”

  “Mrow.” The cat stared at me with an expression that said: Who are you and where is the food?

  I swatted the camel’s nose away from my slimy hair. “Come on, Walt,” I grumbled. “Let’s go find some mummies.”

  We provided the cat with bits of beef jerky and some water from our supplies. It wasn’t as good as fish and milk, but the cat seemed happy enough. As it was in sight of the oasis and obviously knew its way around better than we did, we left it to finish its meal. Walt turned the camels back into amulets, thank goodness, and we trudged into Bahariya on foot.

  The date farm wasn’t difficult to find. The black water tower sat at the edge of the property, and it was the tallest structure in sight. We made our way toward it, weaving through acres of palm trees, which provided some shade from the sun. An adobe farmhouse stood in the distance, but we didn’t see any people. Probably the Egyptians knew better than to be out in the afternoon heat.

  When we reached the water tower, I didn’t see any obvious tomb entrance. The tower looked quite old—four rusty steel posts holding a round tank the size of a garage about fifteen meters in the air. The tank had a slow leak. Every few seconds water dropped from the sky and smacked against the hard-packed sand underneath. There wasn’t much else in sight except for more palm trees, a few tarnished farm tools, an
d a weathered plywood sign lying on the ground. The sign was spray-painted in Arabic and English, probably from some attempt by the farmer to sell his wares in the market. The English read: Dates—best price. Cold Bebsi.

  “Bebsi?” I asked.

  “Pepsi,” Walt said. “I read about that on the Internet. There’s no ‘p’ in Arabic. Everyone here calls soda Bebsi.”

  “So you have to have Bebsi with your bizza?”


  I snorted. “If this is a famous dig site, shouldn’t there be more activity? Archaeologists? Ticket booths? Souvenir merchants?”

  “Maybe Bast sent us to a secret entrance,” Walt said. “Better than sneaking past a bunch of guards and caretakers.”

  A secret entrance sounded quite intriguing, but unless the water tower was a magic teleporter, or one of the date trees had a concealed door, I wasn’t sure where this oh-so-helpful entrance might be. I kicked the Bebsi sign. There was nothing underneath except more sand, slowly turning to mud from the drip, drip, drip of the leaky tower.

  Then I looked more closely at the wet spot on the ground.

  “Hang on.” I knelt. The water was pooling in a little canal, as if the sand were seeping into a subterranean crack. The crevice was about a meter long and no wider than a pencil, but much too straight to be natural. I dug in the sand. Six centimeters down, my fingernails scraped stone.

  “Help me clear this,” I told Walt.

  A minute later we’d uncovered a flat paving stone about one meter square. I tried to work my fingers under the wet edges, but the stone was too thick and much too heavy to lift.

  “We can use something as a lever,” Walt suggested. “Pry it up.”

  “Or,” I said, “stand back.”

  Walt looked ready to protest, but when I brought out my staff, he knew enough to get out of the way. With my new understanding of godly magic, I didn’t so much think about what I needed as feel a connection to Isis. I remembered a time when she’d found her husband’s coffin grown into the trunk of a cypress tree, and in her anger and desperation she blew the tree apart. I channeled those emotions and pointed at the stone. “Ha-di!”