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The Throne of Fire
The Throne of Fire 27
As we pressed through the crowds, the vendors tried to sell us three camel rides, a dozen T-shirts, more amulets than Walt was wearing (Special price! Good magic!), and eleven genuine mummy fingers, which I figured were probably made in China.
I asked Bes if he could scare away the mob, but he just laughed. “Not worth it, kid. Tourists have been here almost as long as the pyramids. I’ll make sure they don’t notice us. Let’s just get to the top.”
Security guards patrolled the base of the Great Pyramid, but no one tried to stop us. Maybe Bes made us invisible somehow, or maybe the guards just chose to ignore us because we were with the dwarf god. Either way, I soon found out why climbing the pyramids wasn’t allowed: it’s hard and dangerous. The Great Pyramid is about four hundred and fifty feet tall. The stone sides were never meant for climbing. As we ascended, I almost fell twice. Walt twisted his ankle. Some of the blocks were loose and crumbling. Some of the “steps” were five feet tall, and we had to hoist one another up. Finally, after twenty minutes of sweaty, difficult work, we reached the top. The smog over Cairo made everything to the east a big fuzzy smudge, but to the west we had a good view of the sun going down on the horizon, turning the desert crimson.
I tried to imagine what the view would’ve looked like from here roughly five thousand years ago, when the pyramid was newly built. Had the pharaoh Khufu stood up here at the top of his own tomb and admired his empire? Probably not. He’d probably been too smart to make that climb.
“Right.” Sadie plopped her bag on the nearest block of limestone. “Bes, keep an eye out. Walt, help me with the portal, will you?”
Zia touched my arm, which made me jump.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
She climbed a little way down the pyramid. My pulse was racing, but I managed to follow without tripping and looking like an idiot.
Zia stared out over the desert. Her face was flushed in the light of the sunset. “Carter, don’t misunderstand. I appreciate your waking me. I know your heart was in the right place.”
My heart didn’t feel in the right place. It felt like it was stuck in my esophagus. “But…?” I asked.
She hugged her arms. “I need time. This is very strange for me. Maybe we can be…closer some day, but for now—”
“You need time,” I said, my voice ragged. “Assuming we don’t all die tonight.”
Her eyes were luminous gold. I wondered if that was the last color a bug saw when it was trapped in amber—and if the bug thought, Wow, that’s beautiful, right before it was frozen forever.
“I’ll do my best to protect your home,” she said. “Promise me, if it comes to a choice, that you’ll listen to your own heart, not the will of the gods.”
“I promise,” I said, though I doubted myself. I still heard Horus in my head, urging me to claim the weapons of the pharaoh. I wanted to say more, to tell her how I felt, but all I could get out was “Um …yeah.”
Zia managed a dry smile. “Sadie’s right. You are…how did she put it? Endearingly clumsy.”
A light flashed above us, and a portal opened at the tip of the pyramid. Unlike most portals, this wasn’t swirling sand. It glowed with purple light—a doorway straight into the Duat.
Sadie turned toward me. “This one’s for us. Coming?”
“Be careful,” Zia said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not so good at that, but—yeah.”
As I trudged to the top, Sadie pulled Walt close and whispered something in his ear.
He nodded grimly. “I will.”
Before I could ask what that was about, Sadie looked at Bes. “Ready?”
“I’ll follow you,” Bes promised. “As soon as I get Walt and Zia through their portal. I’ll meet you on the River of Night, in the Fourth House.”
“The fourth what?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he promised. “Now, go!”
I took one more look at Zia, wondering if this would be the last time I saw her. Then Sadie and I jumped into the churning purple doorway.
The Duat is a strange place.
[Sadie just called me Captain Obvious—but, hey, it’s worth saying.]
The currents of the spirit world interact with your thoughts, pulling you here and there, shaping what you see to fit with what you know. So even though we had stepped into another level of reality, it looked like the quayside of the River Thames below Gran and Gramps’s flat.
“This is rude,” Sadie said.
I understood what she meant. It was hard for her to be back in London after her disastrous birthday trip. Also, last Christmas, we’d started our first journey to Brooklyn here. We’d walked down these steps to the docks with Amos and boarded his magic boat. At the time, I was grieving the loss of my dad, in shock that Gran and Gramps would give us up to an uncle I didn’t even remember, and terrified of sailing into the unknown. Now, all those feelings welled up inside me, as sharp and painful as ever.
The river was shrouded with mist. There were no city lights, just an eerie glow in the sky. The skyline of London seemed fluid—buildings shifting around, rising and melting as if they couldn’t find a comfortable place to settle.
Below us, the mist drifted away from the docks.
“Sadie,” I said, “Look.”
At the bottom of the steps, a boat was moored, but it wasn’t Amos’s. It was the barque of the sun god, just like I’d seen in my vision—a once regal ship with a deckhouse and places for twenty oarsmen—but it was now barely able to stay afloat. The sail was tattered, the oars broken, the rigging covered with cobwebs.
Halfway down the steps, blocking our path, stood Gran and Gramps.
“Them again,” Sadie growled. “Come on.”
She marched straight down the steps until we stood faceto-face with the glowing images of our grandparents.
“Shove off,” Sadie told them.
“My dear.” Gran’s eyes glittered. “Is that any way to address your grandmother?”
“Oh, pardon me,” said Sadie. “This must be the part where I say ‘My, what big teeth you have.’ You’re not my grandmother, Nekhbet! Now, get out of our way!”
The image of Gran shimmered. Her flowery housecoat turned into a cloak of greasy black feathers. Her face shriveled into a saggy wrinkled mask, and most of her hair fell out, which put her at a 9.5 on the Ugly meter, right up there with Bes.
“Show more respect, love,” the goddess cooed. “We’re only here to give you a friendly warning. You’re about to pass the Point of No Return. If you step on that boat, there will be no turning back—no stopping until you’ve passed through all Twelve Houses of the Night, or until you die.”
Gramps barked, “Aghh!”
He scratched his armpits, which might’ve meant he was possessed by the baboon god Babi—or not, since this behavior wasn’t too strange for Gramps.
“Listen to Babi,” Nekhbet urged. “You have no idea what awaits you on the river. You could barely fend off the two of us in London, girl. The armies of Chaos are much worse!”
“She’s not alone this time.” I stepped forward with the crook and flail. “Now, get lost.”
Gramps snarled and backed away.
Nekhbet’s eyes narrowed. “You would wield the pharaoh’s weapons?” Her tone held a hint of grudging admiration. “A bold move, child, but that will not save you.”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “We’re saving you too. We’re saving all of us from Apophis. When we come back with Ra, you’re going to help. You’re going to follow our orders, and you’re going to convince the other gods to do the same.”
“Ridiculous,” Nekhbet hissed.
I raised the crook, and power flowed through me—the power of a king. The crook was the tool of a shepherd. A king leads his people like a shepherd leads his flock. I exerted my will, and the two gods crumpled to their knees.
The images of Nekhbet and Gramps evaporated, revealing the gods’ true forms. Nekhbet was a massive vu
lture with a golden crown on her head and an elaborate jeweled collar around her neck. Her wings were still black and greasy, but they glistened as if she’d been rolling in gold dust. Babi was a giant gray baboon with fiery red eyes, scimitar fangs, and arms as thick as tree trunks.
They both glared at me with pure hatred. I knew if I wavered even for a moment, if I let the power of the crook falter, they would tear me apart.
“Swear loyalty,” I commanded. “When we return with Ra, you will obey him.”
“You’ll never succeed,” Nekhbet said.
“Then it won’t do any harm to pledge your loyalty,” I said. “Swear it!”
I raised the war flail, and the gods cringed.
“Agh,” Babi muttered.
“We swear,” Nekhbet said. “But it is an empty promise. You sail to your death.”
I slashed my crook through the air, and the gods vanished into the mist.
Sadie took a deep breath. “Well done. You sounded confident.”
“A complete act.”
“I know,” she said. “Now the hard part: finding Ra and waking him up. And having a nice dinner along the way, preferably. Without dying.”
I looked down at the boat. Thoth, the god of knowledge, had once told us that we’d always have the power to summon a boat when we needed one, because we were the blood of the pharaohs. But I’d never thought it would be this boat, and in such bad shape. Two kids in a broken-down leaky barge, alone against the forces of Chaos.
“All aboard,” I told Sadie.
S A D I E
19. The Revenge of Bullwinkle the Moose God
I SHOULD MENTION THAT Carter was wearing a skirt.
[Ha! You are not grabbing the microphone. It’s my turn.]
He neglected to tell you that, but as soon as we entered the Duat, our appearances changed, and we found ourselves wearing Ancient Egyptian clothes.
They looked quite good on me. My white silk gown shimmered. My arms were bedecked with gold rings and bracelets. True, the jeweled neck collar was a bit heavy, like one of those lead aprons you might wear for an X ray at the dentist’s, and my hair was plaited with enough hairspray to petrify a major god. But otherwise I’m sure I looked rather alluring.
Carter, on the other hand, was dressed in a man-skirt—a simple linen wrap, with his crook and flail hanging from a utility-belt sort of thing around his waist. His chest was bare except for a golden neck collar, like mine. His eyes were lined with kohl, and he wore no shoes.
To Ancient Egyptians, I’m sure he would’ve looked regal and warlike, a fine specimen of manhood. [You see? I managed to say that without laughing.] And I suppose Carter wasn’t the worst-looking guy with his shirt off, but that didn’t mean I wanted to adventure through the underworld with a brother who was wearing nothing but jewelry and a beach towel.
As we stepped onto the sun god’s boat, Carter immediately got a splinter in his foot.
“Why are you barefooted?” I demanded.
“It wasn’t my idea!” He winced as he plucked a toothpick-size piece of deck from between his toes. “I guess because ancient warriors fought barefoot. Sandals got too slippery from sweat and blood, and all.”
“And the skirt?”
“Let’s just go, all right?”
That proved easier said than done.
The boat drifted away from the docks, then got stuck in a backwater a few meters downstream. We began turning in circles.
“Tiny question,” I said. “Do you know anything about boats?”
“Nothing,” Carter admitted.
Our tattered sail was about as useful as a ripped tissue. The oars were either broken or trailing uselessly in the water, and they looked quite heavy. I didn’t see how the two of us could row a boat meant for a crew of twenty, even if the river stayed calm. On our last trip through the Duat, the ride had been more like a roller coaster.
“What about those glowing balls of light?” I asked. “Like the crew we had on the Egyptian Queen?”
“Can you summon some?”
“Right,” I grumbled. “Throw the hard questions back to me.”
I looked around the boat, hoping to spot a button that read: push here for glowing sailors! I saw nothing so helpful. I knew the sun god’s barque once had had a crew of lights. I’d seen them in my vision. But how to summon them?
The tent pavilion was empty. The throne of fire was gone. The boat was silent except for water gurgling through the cracks in the hull. The spinning of the ship was starting to make me sick.
Then a horrible feeling crept over me. A dozen tiny voices whispered at the base of my skull: Isis. Schemer. Poisoner. Traitor.
I realized my nausea wasn’t just from the spiraling current. The entire ship was sending malicious thoughts my way. The boards under my feet, the railing, the oars and rigging—every part of the sun god’s barque hated my presence.
“Carter, the boat doesn’t like me,” I announced.
“You’re saying the boat has good taste?”
“Ha-ha. I mean, it senses Isis. She poisoned Ra and forced him into exile, after all. This boat remembers.”
“Well…apologize, or something.”
“Hullo, boat,” I said, feeling quite foolish. “Sorry about the poisoning business. But you see—I’m not Isis. I’m Sadie Kane.”
Traitor, the voices whispered.
“I can see why you’d think so,” I admitted. “I probably have that ‘Isis magic’ smell to me, don’t I? But honestly, I sent Isis packing. She doesn’t live here anymore. My brother and I are going to bring back Ra.”
The boat shuddered. The dozen little voices fell silent, as if for the first time in their immortal lives they were truly and properly stunned. (Well, they hadn’t met me yet, had they?)
“That would be good, yes?” I ventured. “Ra back, just like old times, rolling on the river, and so on? We’re here to make things right, but to do that we need to journey through the Houses of the Night. If you could just cooperate—”
A dozen glowing orbs blazed to life. They circled me like an angry swarm of flaming tennis balls, their heat so intense, I thought they’d combust my new dress.
“Sadie,” Carter warned. “They don’t look happy.”
And he wonders why I called him Captain Obvious.
I tried to remain calm.
“Behave,” I told the lights sternly. “This isn’t for me. It’s for Ra. If you want your pharaoh back, you’ll man your stations.”
I thought I’d be roasted like a tandoori chicken, but I stood my ground. Since I was surrounded, I really I had no choice. I exerted my magic and tried to bend the lights to my will—the way I might have done to turn someone into a rat or a lizard.
You will be helpful, I ordered. You will do your work obediently.
There was a collective hiss inside my head, which either meant I’d blown a brain gasket, or the lights were relenting.
The crew scattered. They took up their stations, hauling lines, mending the sail, manning the unbroken oars, and guiding the tiller.
The leaky hull groaned as the boat turned its nose downstream.
Carter exhaled. “Good job. You okay?”
I nodded, but my head felt like it was still spinning in circles. I wasn’t sure if I’d convinced the orbs, or if they were simply biding their time, waiting for revenge. Either way, I wasn’t thrilled to have put our fate in their hands.
We sailed into the dark. The cityscape of London melted away. My stomach got that familiar free-fall sensation as we passed deeper into the Duat.
“We’re entering the Second House,” I guessed.
Carter grabbed the mast to steady himself. “You mean the Houses of the Night, like Bes mentioned? What are they, anyway?”
It felt strange to be explaining Egyptian myths to Carter. I thought he might be teasing me, but he seemed genuinely perplexed.
“Something I read in the Book of Ra,” I said. “Each hour of the night is a ‘House.’ We have to pass through
the twelve stages of the river, representing twelve hours of the night.”
Carter peered into the darkness ahead of us. “So if we’re in the Second House, you mean an hour has already passed? It didn’t feel that long.”
He was right. It didn’t. Then again, I had no idea how time flowed in the Duat. One House of the Night might not correspond exactly to one mortal hour in the world above.
Anubis once told me he’d been in the Land of the Dead for five thousand years, but he still felt like a teenager, as if no time had passed.
I shuddered. What if we popped out on the other side of the River of Night and found that several eons had passed? I’d just turned thirteen. I wasn’t ready to be thirteen hundred.
I also wished I hadn’t thought of Anubis. I touched the shen amulet on my necklace. After all that had happened with Walt, the idea of seeing Anubis made me feel strangely guilty, but also a bit excited. Perhaps Anubis would help us on our journey. Perhaps he’d whisk me away to some private spot for a chat as he had last time we’d visited the Duat—a romantic little graveyard, dinner for two at the Coffin Café…
Snap out of it, Sadie, I thought. Concentrate.
I pulled the Book of Ra from my bag and scanned the instructions again. I’d read them several times already, but they were cryptic and confusing—much like a maths textbook. The scroll was chock-full of terms like “first from Chaos,” “breath into clay,” “the night’s flock” “reborn in fire,” “the acres of the sun,” “the kiss of the knife,” “the gambler of light,” and “the last scarab”—most of which made no sense to me.
I gathered that as we passed through the twelve stages of the river, I’d have to read the three sections of the Book of Ra at three separate locations, probably to revive the different aspects of the sun god, and each of three aspects would present us with some sort of challenge. I knew that if I failed—if I so much as stumbled over one word while reading the spells—I would end up worse than Vlad Menshikov. The idea terrified me, but I couldn’t dwell on the possibility of failure. I simply had to hope that when the time came, the scroll’s gibberish would make sense.