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The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 26


  Menshikov bowed. “We will save the House of Life. I swear it. The Kanes will be destroyed, the gods put back into exile. Ma’at will be restored.”

  I hoped Desjardins would come to his senses and call off the attack. Instead, his shoulders slumped. He turned his back on Menshikov and stared at the empty throne of the pharaoh.

  “Go,” he said wearily. “Get those creatures out of my sight.”

  Menshikov smiled. “My lord.”

  He turned and marched down the Hall of Ages with his personal army in tow.

  Once they were gone, Desjardins held up his hand. An orb of light fluttered from the ceiling and rested on his palm.

  “Bring me the Book of Overcoming Apophis,” Desjardins told the light. “I must consult it.”

  The magic orb dipped as if bowing, then raced off.

  Desjardins turned toward the purple curtain of light—the image of two figures fighting over a throne of fire.

  “I will ‘observe,’ Vladimir,” he murmured to himself. “But I will not ‘stay and rest.’”

  The scene faded, and my ba returned to my body.

  C A R T E R

  18. Gambling on Doomsday Eve

  FOR THE SECOND TIME THAT WEEK, I woke on a sofa in a hotel room with no idea how I’d gotten there.

  The room wasn’t nearly as nice as the Four Seasons Alexandria. The walls were cracked plaster. Exposed beams sagged along the ceiling. A portable fan hummed on the coffee table, but the air was as hot as a blast furnace. Afternoon light streamed through the open windows. From below came the sounds of cars honking and merchants hawking their wares in Arabic. The breeze smelled of exhaust, animal manure, and apple sisha—the fruity molasses scent of water-pipe smoke. In other words, I knew we must be in Cairo.

  At the window, Sadie, Bes, Walt, and Zia were sitting around a table, playing a board game like old friends. The scene was so bizarre, I thought I must still be dreaming.

  Then Sadie noticed I was awake. “Well, well. Next time you take an extended ba trip, Carter, do let us know in advance. It’s not fun carrying you up three flights of stairs.”

  I rubbed my throbbing head. “How long was I out?”

  “Longer than me,” Zia said.

  She looked amazing—calm and rested. Her freshly washed hair was swept behind her ears, and she wore a new white sleeveless dress that made her bronze skin glow.

  I guess I was staring at her pretty hard, because she dropped her gaze. Her throat turned red.

  “It’s three in the afternoon,” she said. “I’ve been up since ten this morning.”

  “You look—”

  “Better?” She raised her eyebrows, like she was challenging me to deny it. “You missed the excitement. I tried to fight. I tried to escape. This is our third hotel room.”

  “The first one caught fire,” Bes said.

  “The second one exploded,” Walt said.

  “I said I was sorry.” Zia frowned. “At any rate, your sister finally calmed me down.”

  “Which took several hours,” Sadie said, “and all my diplomatic skill.”

  “You have diplomatic skill?” I asked.

  Sadie rolled her eyes. “As if you’d notice, Carter!”

  “Your sister is quite intelligent,” Zia said. “She convinced me to reserve judgment on your plans until you woke up and we could talk. She’s quite persuasive.”

  “Thank you,” Sadie said smugly.

  I stared at them both, and a feeling of terror set in. “You’re getting along? You can’t get along! You and Sadie can’t stand each other.”

  “That was a shabti, Carter,” Zia said, though her neck was still bright red. “I find Sadie…admirable.”

  “You see?” Sadie said. “I’m admirable!”

  “This is a nightmare.” I sat up and the blankets fell away. I looked down and found I was wearing Pokémon pajamas.

  “Sadie,” I said, “I’m going to kill you.”

  She batted her eyes innocently. “But the street merchant gave us a very good deal on those. Walt said they would fit you.”

  Walt raised his hands. “Don’t blame me, man. I tried to stick up for you.”

  Bes snorted, then did a pretty good imitation of Walt’s voice: “‘At least get the extra-large ones with Pikachu.’ Carter, your stuff’s in the bathroom. Now, are we playing senet, or not?”

  I stumbled into the bathroom and was relieved to find a set of normal clothes waiting for me—fresh underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt that did not feature Pikachu. The shower made a sound like a dying elephant when I tried to turn it on, but I managed to run some rusty-smelling water in the sink and wash up as best I could.

  When I came out again, I didn’t exactly feel good as new, but at least I didn’t smell like dead fish and goat meat.

  My four companions were still playing senet. I’d heard of the game—supposedly one of the oldest in the world—but I’d never seen it played. The board was a rectangle with blue-and-white-checkered squares, three rows of ten spaces each. The game pieces were white and blue circles. Instead of dice, you threw four strips of ivory like Popsicle sticks, blank on one side and marked with hieroglyphs on the other.

  “I thought the rules of this game were lost,” I said.

  Bes raised an eyebrow. “Maybe to you mortals. The gods never forgot.”

  “It’s quite easy,” Sadie said. “You make an S around the board. First team to get all their pieces to the end wins.”

  “Ha!” Bes said. “There’s much more to it than that. It takes years to master.”

  “Is that so, dwarf god?” Zia tossed the four sticks, and all of them came up marked. “Master that!”

  Sadie and Zia gave each other a high five. Apparently, they were a team. Sadie moved a blue piece and bumped a white piece back to start.

  “Walt,” Bes grumbled, “I told you not to move that piece!”

  “It isn’t my fault!”

  Sadie smiled at me. “It’s girls versus boys. We’re playing for Vlad Menshikov’s sunglasses.”

  She held up the broken white shades that Set had given her in St. Petersburg.

  “The world is about to end,” I said, “and you’re gambling over sunglasses?”

  “Hey, man,” Walt said. “We’re totally multitasking. We’ve been talking for like, six hours, but we had to wait for you to wake up to make any decisions, right?”

  “Besides,” Sadie said, “Bes assures us that you cannot play senet without gambling. It would shake the foundations of Ma’at.”

  “That’s true,” said the dwarf. “Walt, roll, already.”

  Walt threw the sticks and three came up blank.

  Bes cursed. “We need a two to move out of the House of Re-Atoum, kid. Did I not explain that?”

  “Sorry!”

  I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I pulled up a chair.

  The view out the window was better than I’d realized. About a mile away, the Pyramids of Giza gleamed red in the afternoon light. We must’ve been in the southwest outskirts of the city—near El Mansoria. I’d been through this neighborhood a dozen times with my dad on our way to various dig sites, but it was still disorienting to see the pyramids so close.

  I had a million questions. I needed to tell my friends about my ba vision. But before I could get up the nerve, Sadie launched into a long explanation of what they’d been up to while I was unconscious. Mostly she concentrated on how funny I looked when I slept, and the various whimpering noises I’d made as they pulled me out of the first two burning hotel rooms. She described the excellent fresh-baked flat bread, falafel, and spiced beef they’d had for lunch (“Oh, sorry, we didn’t save you any.”) and the great deals they’d gotten shopping in the souk, the local open-air market.

  “You went shopping?” I said.

  “Well, of course,” she said. “We can’t do anything until sunset, anyway. Bes said so.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Bes tossed the sticks and moved one of his pieces to the hom
e space. “The equinox, kid. We’re close enough now—all the portals in the world will shut down except for two times: sunset and sunrise, when night and day are perfectly balanced.”

  “At any rate,” Sadie said, “if we want to find Ra, we’ll have to follow his journey, which means going into the Duat at sunset and coming back out at sunrise.”

  “How do you know that?” I asked.

  She pulled a scroll from her bag—a cylinder of papyrus much thicker than the ones we’d collected. The edges glowed like fire.

  “The Book of Ra,” she said. “I put it together. You may thank me now.”

  My head started to spin. I remembered what Horus had said in my vision about the scroll burning Menshikov’s face. “You mean you read it without…without any trouble?”

  She shrugged. “Just the introduction: warnings, instructions, that sort of thing. I won’t read the actual spell until we find Ra, but I know where we’re going.”

  “If we decide to go,” I said.

  That got everyone’s attention.

  “If?” Zia asked. She was so close it was painful, but I could feel the distance she was putting between us: leaning away from me, tensing her shoulders, warning me to respect her space. “Sadie told me you were quite determined.”

  “I was,” I said, “until I learned what Menshikov is planning.”

  I told them what I’d seen in my vision—about Menshikov’s strike force heading to Brooklyn at sunset, and his plans to track us personally through the Duat. I explained what Horus said about the dangers of waking Ra, and how I could use the crook and flail instead to fight Apophis.

  “But those symbols are sacred to Ra,” Zia said.

  “They belong to any pharaoh who is strong enough to wield them,” I said. “If we don’t help Amos in Brooklyn—”

  “Your uncle and all your friends will be destroyed,” Bes said. “From what you’ve described, Menshikov has put together a nasty little army. Uraei—the flaming snakes—they’re very bad news. Even if Bast gets back in time to help—”

  “We need to let Amos know,” Walt said. “At least warn him.”

  “You have a scrying bowl?” I asked.

  “Better.” He pulled out a cell phone. “What do I tell him? Are we going back?”

  I wavered. How could I leave Amos and my friends alone against an evil army? Part of me was itching to take up the pharaoh’s weapons and smash our enemies. Horus’s voice was still inside me, urging me to take charge.

  “Carter, you can’t go to Brooklyn.” Zia meet my eyes, and I realized the fear and panic hadn’t left her. She was holding those feelings back, but they were still bubbling under the surface. “What I saw at Red Sands…that disturbed me too much.”

  I felt like she’d just stomped on my heart. “Look, I’m sorry about the avatar thing, the crook and flail. I didn’t mean to freak you out, but—”

  “Carter, you didn’t disturb me. Vlad Menshikov did.”

  “Oh…Right.”

  She took a shaky breath. “I never trusted that man. When I graduated from initiate training, Menshikov requested I be assigned to his nome. Thankfully, Iskandar declined.”

  “So…why can’t I go to Brooklyn?”

  Zia examined the senet board as if it were a war map. “I believe you’re telling the truth. Menshikov is a traitor. What you described in your vision…I think Desjardins is being affected by evil magic. It’s not Ma’at’s failing that’s draining his life force.”

  “It’s Menshikov,” Sadie guessed.

  “I believe so….” Zia’s voice became hoarse. “And I believe my old mentor, Iskandar, was trying to protect me when he put me into that tomb. It was not a mistake that he let me hear the voice of Apophis in my dreams. It was some sort of warning—one last lesson. He hid the crook and flail with me for a reason. Perhaps he knew you would find me. At any rate, Menshikov must be stopped.”

  “But you just said I couldn’t go to Brooklyn,” I protested.

  “I meant that you can’t abandon your quest. I think Iskandar foresaw this path. He believed the gods must unite with the House of Life, and I trust his judgment. You have to awaken Ra.”

  Hearing Zia say it, I felt for the first time like our quest was real. And crucial. And very, very crazy. But I also felt a little spark of hope. Maybe she didn’t hate me completely.

  Sadie picked up the senet sticks. “Well, that’s sorted, then. At sunset, we’ll open a portal at the top of the Great Pyramid. We’ll follow the sun boat’s old course down the River of Night, find Ra, wake him, and bring him out again at dawn. And possibly find someplace for dinner along the way, because I’m hungry again.”

  “It’ll be dangerous,” Bes said. “Reckless. Probably fatal.”

  “So, an average day for us,” I summed up.

  Walt frowned, still holding his phone. “Then what should I tell Amos? He’s on his own?”

  “Not quite,” Zia said. “I’ll go to Brooklyn.”

  I almost choked. “You?”

  Zia gave me a cross look. “I am good at magic, Carter.”

  “That’s not what I meant. It’s just—”

  “I want to speak with Amos myself,” she said. “When the House of Life appears, perhaps I can intervene, stall for time. I have some influence with other magicians…at least I did when Iskandar was alive. Some of them might listen to reason, especially if Menshikov isn’t there egging them on.”

  I thought about the angry mob I’d seen in my vision. Reasonable wasn’t the first word that came to mind.

  Apparently Walt was thinking the same thing.

  “If you teleport in at sunset,” he said, “you’ll arrive at the same time as the attackers. It’s going to be chaos, not much time for talking. What if you have to fight?”

  “Let’s hope,” Zia said, “it doesn’t come to that.”

  Not a very reassuring answer, but Walt nodded. “I’ll go with you.”

  Sadie dropped her senet sticks on the floor. “What? Walt, no! In your condition—”

  She clamped her mouth shut, too late.

  “What condition?” I asked.

  If Walt had had an Evil Eye spell, I think he would’ve used it on my sister just then.

  “My family history,” he said. “Something I told Sadie…in confidence.”

  He didn’t sound happy about it, but he explained the curse on his family, the bloodline of Akhenaton, and what it meant for him.

  I just sat there, stunned. Walt’s secretive behavior, his talks with Jaz, his moodiness—all of it made sense now. My own problems suddenly seemed a lot less significant.

  “Oh, man,” I mumbled. “Walt—”

  “Look, Carter, whatever you’re going to say, I appreciate the sentiment. But I’m through with sympathy. I’ve been living with this disease for years. I don’t want people pitying me or treating me as though I’m special. I want to help you guys. I’ll take Zia back to Brooklyn. That way, Amos will know she comes in peace. We’ll try to stall the attack, hold them off until sunrise so you can come back with Ra. Besides…” He shrugged. “If you fail, and we don’t stop Apophis, we’re all going to die tomorrow anyway.”

  “That’s looking on the bright side,” I said. Then something occurred to me: a thought so jarring it was like a tiny nuclear reaction in my head. “Hold up. Menshikov said he was descended from the priests of Amun-Ra.”

  Bes snorted disdainfully. “Hated those guys. They were so full of themselves. But what does that have to do with anything?”

  “Weren’t those the same priests that fought Akhenaton and cursed Walt’s ancestors?” I asked. “What if Menshikov has the secret of the curse? What if he could cure—”

  “Stop.” The anger in Walt’s voice took me by surprise. His hands were shaking. “Carter, I’ve come to terms with my fate. I won’t get my hopes up for nothing. Menshikov is the enemy.

  Even if he could help, he wouldn’t. If you cross paths with him, don’t try to make any deals. Don’t try to reason with hi
m. Do what you need to. Take him down.”

  I glanced at Sadie. Her eyes were gleaming, like I’d finally done something right.

  “Okay, Walt,” I said. “I won’t mention it again.”

  But Sadie and I had a very different silent conversation. For once, we were in total agreement. We were going to visit the Duat. And while we were there, we’d turn the tables on Vlad Menshikov. We’d find him, beat the crud out of him, and force him to tell us how to cure Walt. Suddenly, I felt a whole lot better about this quest.

  “So we’ll leave at sunset,” Zia said. “Walt and I for Brooklyn. You and Sadie for the Duat. It’s settled.”

  “Except for one thing.” Bes glared at the senet sticks Sadie had dropped on the floor. “You did not roll that. It’s impossible!”

  Sadie looked down. A grin spread across her face. She’d accidentally rolled a three, just what she needed to win.

  She moved her last piece home, then picked up Menshikov’s white glasses and tried them on. They looked creepy on her. I couldn’t help thinking about Menshikov’s burned voice and his scarred eyes, and what might happen to my sister if she tried to read the Book of Ra.

  “Impossible is my specialty,” she said. “Come on, brother, dear. Let’s get ready for the Great Pyramid.”

  If you ever visit the pyramids, here’s a tip: the best place to see them is from far away, like the horizon. The closer you get, the more disappointed you’ll be.

  That may sound harsh, but first of all, up close, the pyramids are going to seem smaller than you thought. Everybody who sees them says that. Sure, they were the tallest structures on the earth for thousands of years, but compared to modern buildings, they don’t seem so impressive. They’ve been stripped of the white casing stones and golden capstones that made them really cool in ancient times. They’re still beautiful, especially when they’re lit up at sunset, but you can appreciate them better from far away without getting caught in the tourist scene.

  That’s the second thing: the mobs of tourists and vendors. I don’t care where you go on vacation: Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, or the Roman Coliseum. It’s always the same, with vendors selling cheap T-shirts and trinkets, and hordes of sweating tourists complaining and shuffling around trying to take pictures. The pyramids are no different, except the crowds are bigger and the vendors are really, really pushy. They know a lot of English words, but “no” isn’t one of them.