The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 30

  Tawaret considered. “It’s possible. I saw a falcon-headed god in a room in the southeast wing, oh, ages ago. I thought it was Nemty, but it’s possible it could have been Ra. He sometimes liked to go about in falcon form.”

  “Which way?” I pleaded. “If we can get close, the Book of Ra may be able to guide us.”

  Tawaret turned to Bes. “Are you asking me for this, Bes? Do you truly believe it’s important, or are you just doing it because Bast told you to?”

  “No! Yes!” He puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. “I mean, yes, it’s important. Yes, I’m asking. I need your help.”

  Tawaret pulled a torch from the nearest sconce. “In that case, right this way.”

  We wandered the halls of an infinite magic nursing home, led by a hippo nurse with a torch. Really, just an ordinary night for the Kanes.

  We passed so many bedrooms I lost count. Most of the doors were closed, but a few were open, showing frail old gods in their beds, staring at the flickering blue light of televisions or simply lying in the dark crying. After twenty or thirty such rooms, I stopped looking. It was too depressing.

  I held the Book of Ra, hoping it would get warmer as we approached the sun god, but no such luck. Tawaret hesitated at each intersection. I could tell she felt uncertain about where she was leading us.

  After a few more hallways and still no change in the scroll, I began to feel frantic. Carter must’ve noticed.

  “It’s okay,” he promised. “We’ll find him.”

  I remembered how fast the sundial had been moving at the nurses’ station. And I thought about Vlad Menshikov. I wanted to believe he’d been turned into a deep-fried Russian when he fell into the Lake of Fire, but that was probably too much to hope for. If he was still hunting us, he couldn’t be far behind.

  We turned down another corridor and Tawaret froze. “Oh, dear.”

  In front of us, an old woman with the head of a frog was jumping around—and when I say jumping, I mean she leaped ten feet, croaked a few times, then leaped against the wall and stuck there before leaping to the opposite wall. Her body and limbs looked human, dressed in a green hospital gown, but her head was all amphibian—brown, moist, and warty. Her bulbous eyes turned in every direction, and by the distressed sound of her croaking, I guessed she was lost.

  “Heket’s got out again,” Tawaret said. “Excuse me a moment.”

  She hurried over to the frog woman.

  Bes pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. He dabbed his forehead nervously. “I wondered what had ever happened to Heket. She’s the frog goddess, you know.”

  “I never would’ve guessed,” Carter said.

  I watched as Tawaret tried to calm down the old goddess. She spoke in soothing tones, promising to help Heket find her room if she’d just stop bouncing off the walls.

  “She’s brilliant,” I said. “Tawaret, I mean.”

  “Yeah,” Bes said. “Yeah, she’s fine.”

  “Fine?” I said. “Clearly, she likes you. Why are you so…”

  Suddenly the truth smacked me in the face. I felt almost as thick as Carter.

  “Oh, I see. She mentioned a horrible time at a palace, didn’t she? She’s the one who freed you in Russia.”

  Bes mopped his neck with the handkerchief. He really was sweating quite a lot. “Wh-what makes you say that?”

  “Because you’re so embarrassed around her! Like…” I was about to say “like she’s seen you in your underpants,” but I doubted that would mean much to the God of Speedos. “Like she’s seen you at your worst, and you want to forget it.”

  Bes stared at Tawaret with a pained expression, the way he had stared at Prince Menshikov’s palace in St. Petersburg.

  “She’s always saving me,” he said bitterly. “She’s always wonderful, nice, kind. Back in ancient times, everyone assumed we were dating. They always said we were a cute couple—the two demon-scaring gods, the two misfits, whatever. We did go out a few times, but Tawaret was just too—too nice. And I was kind of obsessed with somebody else.”

  “Bast,” Carter guessed.

  The dwarf god’s shoulders slumped. “That obvious, huh? Yeah, Bast. She was the most popular goddess with the common folk. I was the most popular god. So, you know, we’d see each other at festivals and such. She was…well, beautiful.”

  Typical man, I thought. Only seeing the surface. But I kept my mouth shut.

  “Anyway,” Bes sighed, “Bast treated me like a little brother. She still does. Has no interest in me at all, but it took me a long time to realize that. I was so obsessed, I wasn’t very good to Tawaret over the years.”

  “But she came to get you in Russia,” I said.

  He nodded. “I sent out distress calls. I thought Bast would come to my aid. Or Horus. Or somebody. I didn’t know where they all were, you understand, but I had a lot of friends back in the old days. I figured somebody would show up. The only one who did was Tawaret. She risked her life sneaking into the palace during the dwarf wedding. She saw the whole thing—saw me humiliated in front of the big folk. During the night, she broke my cage and freed me. I owe her everything. But once I was free…I just fled. I was so ashamed, I couldn’t look at her. Every time I think of her, I think about that night, and I hear the laughing.”

  The pain in his voice was raw, as if he were describing something that had happened yesterday, not three centuries ago.

  “Bes, it isn’t her fault,” I said gently. “She cares about you. It’s obvious.”

  “It’s too late,” he said. “I’ve hurt her too much. I wish I could turn back the clock, but…”

  He faltered. Tawaret was walking toward us, leading the frog goddess by the arm.

  “Now, dear,” Tawaret said, “just come with us, and we’ll find your room. No need for leaping.”

  “But it’s a leap of faith,” Heket croaked. (I mean she made that sound; she didn’t die in front of us, thankfully.) “My temple is around here somewhere. It was in Qus. Lovely city.”

  “Yes, dear,” Tawaret said. “But your temple is gone now. All our temples are gone. You have a nice bedroom, though—”

  “No,” Heket murmured. “The priests will have sacrifices for me. I have to…”

  She fixed her large yellow eyes on me, and I understood how a fly must feel right before it’s zapped by a frog tongue.

  “That’s my priestess!” Heket said. “She’s come to visit me.”

  “No, dear,” Tawaret said. “That’s Sadie Kane.”

  “My priestess.” Heket patted my shoulder with her moist webbed hand, and I did my best not to cringe. “Tell the temple to start without me, will you? I’ll be along later. Will you tell them?”

  “Um, yeah,” I said. “Of course, Lady Heket.”

  “Good, good.” Her eyes became unfocused. “Very sleepy now. Hard work, remembering…”

  “Yes, dear,” Tawaret said. “Why don’t you lie down in one of these rooms for now?”

  She shepherded Heket into the nearest vacant room.

  Bes followed her with sad eyes. “I’m a terrible dwarf.”

  Perhaps I should’ve reassured him, but my mind was racing on to other matters. Start without me, Heket had said. A leap of faith.

  Suddenly I found it hard to breathe.

  “Sadie?” Carter asked. “What’s wrong?”

  “I know why the scroll isn’t guiding us,” I said. “I have to start the second part of the spell.”

  “But we’re not there yet,” Carter said.

  “And we won’t be unless I start the spell. It’s part of finding Ra.”

  “What is?” Tawaret appeared at Bes’s side and almost scared the dwarf out of his Hawaiian shirt.

  “The spell,” I said. “I have to take a leap of faith.”

  “I think the frog goddess infected her,” Carter fretted.

  “No, you dolt!” I said. “This is the only way to find Ra. I’m sure of it.”

  “Hey, kid,” Bes said, “if you
start that spell, and we don’t find Ra by the time you’re finished reading it—”

  “I know. The spell will backfire.” When I said backfire, I meant it quite literally. If the spell didn’t find its proper target, the power of the Book of Ra might blow up in my face.

  “It’s the only way,” I insisted. “We don’t have time to wander the halls forever, and Ra will only appear if we invoke him. We have to prove ourselves by taking the risk. You’ll have to lead me. I can’t stumble on the words.”

  “You have courage, dear.” Tawaret held up her torch. “Don’t worry, I’ll guide you. Just do your reading.”

  I opened the scroll to the second section. The rows of hieroglyphs, which had once seemed like disconnected phrases of rubbish, now made perfect sense.

  “‘I invoke the name of Ra,’” I read aloud, “‘the sleeping king, lord of the noonday sun, who sits upon the throne of fire…’”

  Well, you get the idea. I described how Ra rose from the sea of Chaos. I recalled his light shining on the primordial land of Egypt, bringing life to the Nile Valley. As I read, I felt warmer.

  “Sadie,” Carter said, “you’re smoking.”

  Hard not to panic when someone makes a comment like that, but I realized Carter was right. Smoke was curling off my body, forming a column of gray that drifted down the hallway.

  “Is it my imagination,” Carter asked, “or is the smoke showing us the way? Ow!”

  He said that last part because I stomped his foot, which I could do quite well without breaking my concentration. He got the message: Shut up and start walking.

  Tawaret took my arm and guided me forward. Bes and Carter flanked us like security guards. We followed the trail of smoke down two more corridors and up a flight of stairs. The Book of Ra became uncomfortably warm in my hands. The smoke from my body began obscuring the letters.

  “You’re doing well, Sadie,” Tawaret said. “This hallway looks familiar.”

  I don’t know how she could tell, but I stayed focused on the scroll. I described Ra’s sun boat sailing across the sky. I spoke of his kingly wisdom and the battles he’d won against Apophis.

  A bead of sweat trickled down my face. My eyes began to burn. I hoped they weren’t literally on fire.

  When I came to the line, “Ra, the sun’s zenith…” I realized we’d stopped in front of a door.

  It didn’t look any different from any other door, but I pushed it open and stepped inside. I kept reading, though I was quickly approaching the end of the spell.

  Inside, the room was dark. In the sputtering light of Tawaret’s torch, I saw the oldest man in the world sleeping in bed—his face shriveled, his arms like sticks, his skin so translucent, I could see every vein. Some of the mummies in Bahariya had looked more alive than this old husk.

  “‘The light of Ra returns,’” I read. I nodded at the heavily curtained windows, and fortunately Bes and Carter got my meaning. They yanked back the curtains, and red light from the Lake of Fire flooded the room. The old man didn’t move. His mouth was pursed like his lips had been sewn together.

  I moved to his bedside and kept reading. I described Ra awakening at dawn, sitting in his throne as his boat climbed the sky, the plants turning toward the warmth of the sun.

  “It’s not working,” Bes muttered.

  I began to panic. There were only two lines left. I could feel the power of the spell backing up, beginning to overheat my body. I was still smoking, and I didn’t like the smell of flame-broiled Sadie. I had to awaken Ra or I’d burn alive.

  The god’s mouth…Of course.

  I set the scroll on Ra’s bed and did my best to hold it open with one hand. “‘I sing the praises of the sun god.’”

  I stretched out my free hand to Carter and snapped my fingers.

  Thank goodness, Carter understood.

  He rummaged through my bag and passed me the obsidian netjeri blade from Anubis. If ever there was a moment for Opening the Mouth, this was it.

  I touched the knife to the old man’s lips and spoke the last line of the spell: “‘Awake, my king, with the new day.’”

  The old man gasped. Smoke spiraled into his mouth like he’d become a vacuum cleaner, and the magic of the spell funneled into him. My temperature dropped to normal. I almost collapsed with relief.

  Ra’s eyes fluttered open. With horrified fascination, I watched as blood began to flow through his veins again, slowly inflating him like a hot air balloon.

  He turned toward me, his eyes unfocused and milky with cataracts. “Uh?”

  “He still looks old,” Carter said nervously. “Isn’t he supposed to look young?”

  Tawaret curtsied to the sun god (which you should not try at home if you are a pregnant hippo in heels) and felt Ra’s forehead. “He isn’t whole yet,” she said. “You’ll need to complete the night’s journey.”

  “And the third part of the spell,” Carter guessed. “He’s got one more aspect, right? The scarab?”

  Bes nodded, though he didn’t look terribly optimistic. “Khepri, the beetle. Maybe if we find the last part of his soul, he’ll be reborn properly.”

  Ra broke into a toothless grin. “I like zebras!”

  I was so tired, I wondered if I’d heard him correctly. “Sorry, did you say zebras?”

  He beamed at us like a child who’d just discovered something wonderful. “Weasels are sick.”

  “O-h-h-kay,” Carter said. “Maybe he needs these…”

  Carter took the crook and flail from his belt. He offered them to Ra. The old god pulled the crook to his mouth and began gumming it like a pacifier.

  I started to feel uneasy, and not just because of Ra’s condition. How much time had passed, and where was Vlad Menshikov?

  “Let’s get him to the boat,” I said. “Bes, can you—”

  “Yep. Excuse me, Lord Ra. I’ll have to carry you.” He scooped the sun god out of bed and we bolted from the room. Ra couldn’t have weighed very much, and Bes didn’t have any difficulty keeping up despite his short legs. We ran down the corridor, retracing our steps, as Ra warbled, “Wheeee! Wheeee! Wheeee!”

  Perhaps he was having a good time, but I was mortified. We’d been through so much trouble, and this was the sort of god we’d woken? Carter looked as grim as I felt.

  We raced past other decrepit gods, who all got quite excited. Some pointed and made gurgling noises. One old jackal-headed god rattled his IV pole and yelled, “Here comes the sun! There goes the sun!”

  We burst into the lobby, and Ra said, “Uh-oh. Uh-oh on the floor.”

  His head lolled. I thought he wanted to get down. Then I realized he was looking at something. On the floor next to my foot lay a glittering silver necklace: a familiar amulet shaped like a snake.

  For someone who’d been smoking hot only a few minutes before, I suddenly felt terribly chilly. “Menshikov,” I said. “He was here.”

  Carter drew his wand and scanned the room. “But where is he? Why would he just drop that and walk away?”

  “He left it on purpose,” I guessed. “He wants to taunt us.”

  As soon as I said it, I knew it was true. I could almost hear Menshikov laughing as he continued his journey downriver, leaving us behind.

  “We have to get to the boat!” I said. “Hurry, before—”

  “Sadie.” Bes pointed to the nurses’ station. His expression was grim.

  “Oh, no,” Tawaret said. “No, no, no…”

  On the sundial, the needle’s shadow was pointing to eight. That meant even if we could still leave the Fourth House, even if we could get through the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Houses, it wouldn’t matter. According to what Tawaret had told us, the gates of the Eighth House would already be closed.

  No wonder Menshikov had left us here without bothering to fight us.

  We’d already lost.

  C A R T E R

  21. We Buy Some Time

  AFTER SAYING GOOD-BYE TO Zia at the Great Pyramid, I didn’t think I could possibl
y get more depressed. I was wrong.

  Standing on the docks of the Lake of Fire, I felt like I might as well do a cannonball into the lava.

  It wasn’t fair. We’d come all this way and risked so much just to be beaten by a time limit. Game over. How was anyone supposed to succeed in bringing back Ra? It was impossible.

  Carter, this isn’t a game, the voice of Horus said inside my head. It isn’t supposed to be possible. You must keep going.

  I didn’t see why. The gates of the Eighth House were already closed. Menshikov had sailed on and left us behind.

  Maybe that had been his plan all along. He’d let us wake Ra only partially so the sun god remained old and feeble. Then Menshikov would leave us trapped in the Duat while he used whatever evil magic he’d planned to free Apophis. When the dawn came, there would be no sunrise, no return of Ra. Instead Apophis would rise and destroy civilization.

  Our friends would have fought all night at Brooklyn House for nothing. Twenty-four hours from now, when we finally managed to leave the Duat, we’d find the world a dark, frozen wasteland, ruled by Chaos. Everything we cared about would be gone. Then Apophis could swallow Ra and complete his victory.

  Why should we keep charging forward when the battle was lost?

  A general never shows despair, Horus said. He instills confidence in his troops. He leads them forward, even into the mouth of death.

  You’re Mr. Cheerful, I thought. Who invited you back into my head?

  But as irritating as Horus was, he had a point. Sadie had talked about hope—about believing that we could make Ma’at out of Chaos, even if it seemed impossible. Maybe that was all we could do: keep on trying, keep on believing we could salvage something from the disaster.

  Amos, Zia, Walt, Jaz, Bast, and our young trainees…all of them were counting on us. If our friends were still alive, I couldn’t give up. I owed them better than that.

  Tawaret escorted us to the sun boat while a couple of her shabti carried Ra aboard.

  “Bes, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I wish there was more I could do.”

  “It’s not your fault.” Bes held out his hand like he wanted to shake, but when their fingers touched, he clasped hers. “Tawaret, it was never your fault.”