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The Throne of Fire
The Throne of Fire 32
“I remember,” I said. “You gambled with Nut, and she won enough moonlight to create five extra days, the Demon Days. That let her get around Ra’s commandment that her five children couldn’t be born on any day of the year.”
“Nuts,” Ra muttered. “Bad nuts.”
The moon god raised an eyebrow. “Dear me, Ra is in bad shape, isn’t he? But yes, Carter Kane. You’re absolutely right.
I’m the moon god, but I also have some influence over time. I can lengthen or shorten the lives of mortals. Even gods can be affected by my powers. The moon is changeable, you see. Its light waxes and wanes. In my hands, time can also wax and wane. You need—what, about three extra hours? I can weave that for you out of moonlight, if you and your sister are willing to gamble for it. I can make it so that the gates of the Eighth House have not yet closed.”
I didn’t understand how he could possibly do that—back up time, insert three extra hours into the night—but for the first time since Sunny Acres, I felt a small spark of hope. “If you can help, why not just give us the extra time? The fate of the world is at stake.”
Khonsu laughed. “Good one! Give you time! No, seriously. If I started giving away something that valuable, Ma’at would crumble. Besides, you can’t play senet without gambling. Bes can tell you that.”
Bes spit a chocolate grasshopper leg out of his mouth. “Don’t do it, Carter. You know what they said about Khonsu in the old days? Some of the pyramids have a poem about him carved into the stones. It’s called the ‘Cannibal Hymn.’ For a price, Khonsu would help the pharaoh slay any gods who were bothering him. Khonsu would devour their souls and gain their strength.”
The moon god rolled his eyes. “Ancient history, Bes! I haven’t devoured a soul in…what month is this? March? At any rate, I’ve completely adapted to this modern world. I’m quite civilized now. You should see my penthouse at the Luxor in Las Vegas. I mean, Thank you! America has a proper civilization!”
He smiled at me, his silver eyes flashing like a shark’s. “So what do you say, Carter? Sadie? Play me at senet. Three pieces for me, three for you. You’ll need three hours of moonlight, so you two will need one additional person to stake a wager. For every piece your team manages to move off the board, I’ll grant you an extra hour. If you win, that’s three extra hours—just enough time to make it past the gates of the Eighth House.”
“And if we lose?” I asked.
“Oh…you know.” Khonsu waved his hand as if this were an annoying technicality. “For each piece I move off the board, I’ll take a ren from one of you.”
Sadie sat forward. “You’ll take our secret names—as in, we have to share them with you?”
“Share…” Khonsu stroked his ponytail, as if trying to remember the meaning of that word. “No, no sharing. I’ll devour your ren, you see.”
“Erase part of our souls,” Sadie said. “Take our memories, our identity.”
The moon god shrugged. “On the bright side, you wouldn’t die. You’d just—”
“Turn into a vegetable,” Sadie guessed. “Like Ra, there.”
“Don’t want vegetables,” Ra muttered irritably. He tried to chew on Bes’s shirt, but the dwarf god scooted away.
“Three hours,” I said. “Wagered against three souls.”
“Carter, Sadie, you don’t have to do this,” my mother said. “We don’t expect you to take this risk.”
I’d seen her so many times in pictures and in my memories, but for the first time it really struck me how much she looked like Sadie—or how much Sadie was starting to look like her.
They both had the same fiery determination in their eyes. They both tilted their chins up when they were expecting a fight. And they both weren’t very good at hiding their feelings. I could tell from Mom’s shaky voice that she realized what had to happen. She was telling us we had options, but she knew very well that we didn’t.
I looked at Sadie, and we came to a silent agreement.
“Mom, it’s okay,” I said. “You gave your life to close Apophis’s prison. How can we back out?”
Khonsu rubbed his hands. “Ah, yes, Apophis’s prison! Your friend Menshikov is there right now, loosening the Serpent’s bonds. I have so many bets on what will happen! Will you get there in time to stop him? Will you return Ra to the world? Will you defeat Menshikov? I’m giving a hundred to one on that!”
Mom turned desperately to my father. “Julius, tell them! It’s too dangerous.”
My dad was still holding a plate of half-eaten birthday cake. He stared at the melting ice cream as if it were the saddest thing in the world.
“Carter and Sadie,” he said at last, “I brought Khonsu here so that you’d have the choice. But whatever you do, I’m still proud of you both. If the world ends tonight, that won’t change.”
He met my eyes, and I could see how much it hurt him to think about losing us. Last Christmas at the British Museum, he’d sacrificed his life to release Osiris and restore balance to the Duat. He’d left Sadie and me alone, and I’d resented him a long time for that. Now I realized what it was like to be in his position. He’d been willing to give up everything, even his life, for a bigger purpose.
“I understand, Dad,” I told him. “We’re Kanes. We don’t run from hard choices.”
He didn’t answer, but he nodded slowly. His eyes burned with fierce pride.
“For once,” Sadie said, “Carter’s right. Khonsu, we’ll play your stupid game.”
“Excellent!” Khonsu said. “That’s two souls. Two hours to win. Ah, but you’ll need three hours to get through the gates on time, won’t you? Hmm. I’m afraid you can’t use Ra. He’s not in his right mind. Your mother is already dead. Your father is the judge of the underworld, so he’s disqualified from soul wagering….”
“I’ll do it,” Bes said. His face was grim but determined.
“Old buddy!” Khonsu cried. “I’m delighted.”
“Stuff it, moon god,” Bes said. “I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
“Bes,” I said, “you’ve done enough for us. Bast would never expect you—”
“I’m not doing it for Bast!” he grumbled. Then he took a deep breath. “Look, you kids are the real deal. Last couple of days—for the first time in ages I’ve felt wanted again. Important. Not like a sideshow attraction. If things go wrong, just tell Tawaret…” He cleared his throat and gave Sadie a meaningful look. “Tell her I tried to turn back the clock.”
“Oh, Bes.” Sadie got up and ran around the table. She hugged the dwarf god and kissed his cheek.
“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Don’t go sappy on me. Let’s play this game.”
“Time is money,” Khonsu agreed.
Our parents stood.
“We cannot stay for this,” Dad said. “But, children…”
He didn’t seem to know how to complete the thought. Good luck probably wouldn’t have cut it. I could see the guilt and worry in his eyes, but he was trying hard not to show it. A good general, Horus would have said.
“We love you,” our mother finished. “You will prevail.”
With that, our parents turned to mist and vanished. Everything outside the pavilion darkened like a stage set. The senet game began to glow brighter.
“Shiny,” Ra said.
“Three blue pieces for you,” Khonsu said. “Three silver pieces for me. Now, who’s feeling lucky?”
The game started well enough. Sadie had skill at tossing the sticks. Bes had several thousand years of gaming experience. And I got the job of moving the pieces and making sure Ra didn’t eat them.
At first it wasn’t obvious who was winning. We just rolled and moved, and it was hard to believe we were playing for our souls, or true names, or whatever you want to call them.
We bumped one of Khonsu’s pieces back to start, but he didn’t seem upset. He seemed delighted by just about everything.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked at one point. “Devouring innocent souls?”
“Not really.” He polished his crescent amulet. “Why should it?”
“But we’re trying to save the world,” Sadie said, “Ma’at, the gods—everything. Don’t you care if the world crumbles into Chaos?”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Khonsu said. “Change comes in phases, Ma’at and Chaos, Chaos and Ma’at. Being the moon god, I appreciate variation. Now, Ra, poor guy—he always stuck to a schedule. Same path every night. So predictable and boring. Retiring was the most interesting thing he ever did. If Apophis takes over and swallows the sun, well—I suppose the moon will still be there.”
“You’re insane,” Sadie said.
“Ha! I’ll bet you five extra minutes of moonlight that I’m perfectly sane.”
“Forget it,” Sadie said. “Just roll.”
Khonsu tossed the sticks. The bad news: he made alarming progress. He rolled a five and got one of his pieces almost to the end of the board. The good news: the piece got stuck at the House of Three Truths, which meant he could only roll a three to get it out.
Bes studied the board intently. He didn’t seem to like what he saw. We had one piece way back at the start and two pieces on the last row of the board.
“Careful now,” Khonsu warned. “This is where it gets interesting.”
Sadie rolled a four, which gave us two options. Our lead piece could go out. Or our second piece could bump Khonsu’s piece from the House of Three Truths and send it back to Start.
“Bump him,” I said. “It’s safer.”
Bes shook his head. “Then we’re stuck in the House of Three Truths. The chances of him rolling a three are slim. Take your first piece out. That way you’ll be assured of at least one extra hour.”
“But one extra hour won’t do it,” Sadie said.
Khonsu seemed to be enjoying our indecision. He sipped wine from a silvery goblet and smiled. Meanwhile Ra entertained himself by trying to pick the spikes off his war flail. “Ow, ow, ow.”
My forehead beaded with sweat. How was I sweating in a board game? “Bes, are you sure?”
“It’s your best bet,” he said.
“Bes best?” Khonsu chuckled. “Nice!”
I wanted to smack the moon god, but I kept my mouth shut. I moved our first piece out of play.
“Congratulations!” Khonsu said. “I owe you one hour of moonlight. Now it’s my turn.”
He tossed the sticks. They clattered on the dining table, and I felt like someone had snipped an elevator cable in my chest, plunging my heart straight down a shaft. Khonsu had rolled a three.
“Whoopsie!” Ra dropped his flail.
Khonsu moved his piece out of play. “Oh, what a shame. Now, whose ren do I collect first?”
“No, please!” Sadie said. “Trade back. Take the hour you owe us instead.”
“Those aren’t the rules,” Khonsu chided.
I looked down at the gouge I’d made in the table when I was eight. I knew that memory was about to disappear, like all my others. If I gave my ren to Khonsu, at least Sadie could still cast the final part of the spell. She would need Bes to protect her and advise her. I was the only expendable one.
I started to say, “I—”
“Me,” said Bes. “The move was my idea.”
“Bes, no!” Sadie cried.
The dwarf stood. He planted his feet and balled his fists, like he was getting ready to let loose with a BOO. I wished he’d do that and scare away Khonsu, but instead he looked at us with resignation. “It was part of the strategy, kids.”
“What?” I asked. “You planned this?”
He slipped off his Hawaiian shirt and folded it carefully, setting it on the table. “Most important thing is getting all three of your pieces off the board, and losing no more than one. This was the only way to do it. You’ll beat him easily now. Sometimes you have to lose a piece to win a game.”
“So true,” Khonsu said. “What a delight! A god’s ren. Are you ready, Bes?”
“Bes, don’t,” I pleaded. “This isn’t right.”
He scowled at me. “Hey, kid, you were willing to sacrifice. Are you saying I’m not as brave as some pipsqueak magician? Besides, I’m a god. Who knows? Sometimes we come back. Now, win the game and get out of here. Kick Menshikov in the knee for me.”
I tried to think of something to say, something that would stop this, but Bes said, “I’m ready.”
Khonsu closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, like he was enjoying some fresh mountain air. Bes’s form flickered. He dissolved into a montage of lightning-fast images—a troupe of dwarves dancing at a temple in the firelight; a crowd of Egyptians partying at a festival, carrying Bes and Bast on their shoulders; Bes and Tawaret in togas at some Roman villa, eating grapes and laughing together on a sofa; Bes dressed like George Washington in a powdered wig and silk suit, doing cartwheels in front of some British redcoats; Bes in the olive fatigues of a U.S. Marine, scaring away a demon in a World War II Nazi uniform.
As his silhouette melted, more recent images flickered past: Bes in a chauffeur’s uniform with a placard that read kane; Bes pulling us out of our sinking limo in the Mediterranean; Bes casting spells on me in Alexandria when I was poisoned, trying desperately to heal me; Bes and me in the back of the Bedouins’ pickup truck, sharing goat meat and Vaseline-flavored water as we traveled along the bank of the Nile. His last memory: two kids, Sadie and me, looking at him with love and concern. Then the image faded, and Bes was gone. Even his Hawaiian shirt had disappeared.
“You took all of him!” I yelled. “His body—everything. That wasn’t the deal!”
Khonsu opened his eyes and sighed deeply. “That was lovely.” He smiled at us as if nothing had happened. “I believe it’s your turn.”
His silver eyes were cold and luminous, and I had a feeling that for the rest of my life, I would hate looking at the moon.
Maybe it was rage, or Bes’s strategy, or maybe we just got lucky, but the rest of the game Sadie and I destroyed Khonsu easily. We bumped his pieces at every opportunity. Within five minutes, our last piece was off the board.
Khonsu spread his hands. “Well done! Three hours are yours. If you hurry, you can make the gates of the Eighth House.”
“I hate you,” Sadie said. It was the first she’d spoken since Bes disappeared. “You’re cold, calculating, horrible—”
“And I’m just what you needed.” Khonsu took off his platinum Rolex and wound back the time—one, two, three hours. All around us, the statues of the gods flickered and jumped like the world was being slammed into reverse.
“Now,” Khonsu said, “would you like to spend your hard-earned time complaining? Or do you want to save this poor old fool of a king?”
“Zebras?” Ra muttered hopefully.
“Where are our parents?” I asked. “At least let us say good-bye.”
Khonsu shook his head. “Time is precious, Carter Kane. You should’ve learned that lesson. It’s best that I send you on your way; but if you ever want to gamble with me again—for seconds, hours, even days—just let me know. Your credit is good.”
I couldn’t stand it. I lunged at Khonsu, but the moon god vanished. The whole pavilion faded, and Sadie and I were standing on the deck of the sun boat again, sailing down the dark river. The glowing crew lights buzzed around us, manning the oars and trimming the sail. Ra sat on his fiery throne, playing with his crook and flail like they were puppets having an imaginary conversation.
In front of us, a pair of enormous stone gates loomed out of the darkness. Eight massive snakes were carved into the rock, four on each side. The gates were slowly closing, but the sun boat slipped through just in time, and we passed into the Eighth House.
I have to say, the House of Challenges didn’t seem very challenging. We fought monsters, yes. Serpents loomed out of the river. Demons arose. Ships full of ghosts tried to board the sun boat. We destroyed them all. I was so angry, so devastated at losing Bes, that I imagined every threat was the moon god Khonsu. Our enemies d
idn’t stand a chance.
Sadie cast spells I’d never seen her use. She summoned sheets of ice that probably matched her emotions, leaving several demon icebergs in our wake. She turned an entire shipful of pirate ghosts into Khonsu bobble-heads, then vaporized them in a miniature nuclear explosion. Meanwhile, Ra played happily with his toys while the light servants flittered around the deck in agitation, apparently sensing that our journey was reaching a critical phase. The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Houses passed in a blur. From time to time I heard a splash in the water behind us, like the oar of another boat. I looked back, wondering if Menshikov had somehow gotten on our tail again, but I didn’t see anything. If something was following us, it knew better than to show itself.
At last I heard a roar up ahead, like another waterfall or a stretch of rapids. The light orbs worked furiously taking down the sail, pushing on the oars, but we kept gaining speed.
We passed under a low archway carved like the goddess Nut, her starry limbs stretched out protectively and her face smiling in welcome. I got the feeling we were entering the Twelfth House, the last part of the Duat before we emerged into a new dawn.
I hoped to see light at the end of the tunnel, literally, but instead our path had been sabotaged. I could see where the river was supposed to go. The tunnel continued ahead, slowly winding out of the Duat. I could even smell fresh air—the scent of the mortal world. But the far end of the tunnel had been drained to a field of mud. In front of us, the river plunged into a massive pit, like an asteroid had punched a hole in the earth and diverted the water straight down. We were racing toward the drop.
“We could jump,” Sadie said. “Abandon ship…”
But I think we came to the same conclusion. We needed the sun boat. We needed Ra. We had to follow the course of the river wherever it led.
“It’s a trap,” Sadie said. “The work of Apophis.”
“I know,” I said. “Let’s go tell him we don’t like his work.”
We both grabbed the mast as the ship plunged into the maelstrom.
It seemed like we fell forever. You know the feeling when you dive to the bottom of a deep pool, like your nose and ears are going to explode, and your eyes are going to pop out of your head? Imagine that feeling a hundred times worse. We were sinking into the Duat deeper than we’d ever been—deeper than any mortal was supposed to go. The molecules of my body felt like they were heating up, buzzing so fast they might fly apart.