The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 33

  We didn’t crash. We didn’t hit bottom. The boat simply flipped direction, like down had become sideways, and we sailed into a cavern that glowed with harsh red light. The magical pressure was so intense that my ears rang. I was nauseated and I could barely think straight, but I recognized the shoreline up ahead: a beach made of millions of dead scarab shells, shifting and surging as a force underneath—a massive serpentine shape—struggled to break free. Dozens of demons were digging through the scarab shells with shovels. And standing on the shore, waiting for us patiently, was Vlad Menshikov, his clothes charred and smoking, his staff glowing with green fire.

  “Welcome, children,” he called across the water. “Come. Join me for the end of the world.”

  C A R T E R

  22. Friends in the Strangest Places

  MENSHIKOV LOOKED LIKE HE’D SWUM through the Lake of Fire without a magic shield. His curly gray hair had been reduced to black stubble. His white suit was shredded and peppered with burn holes. His whole face was blistered, so his ruined eyes didn’t seem out of place. As Bes might’ve said, Menshikov was wearing his ugly outfit.

  The memory of Bes made me angry. Everything we’d gone through, everything we’d lost, was all Vlad Menshikov’s fault.

  The sun boat ground to a halt on the scarab-shell beach.

  Ra warbled, “Hel-lo-o-o-o-o!” and stumbled to his feet. He began chasing a blue servant orb around the deck as if it were a pretty butterfly.

  The demons dropped their shovels and assembled on the shore. They looked at each other uncertainly, no doubt wondering if this were some sort of clever trick. Surely this doddering old fool could not be the sun god.

  “Wonderful,” Menshikov said. “You brought Ra, after all.”

  It took me a moment to realize what was different about his voice. The gravelly breathing was gone. His tone was a deep, smooth baritone.

  “I was worried,” he continued. “You took so long in the Fourth House, I thought you’d be trapped for the night. We could have freed Lord Apophis without you, of course, but it would’ve been so inconvenient to hunt you down later. This is much better. Lord Apophis will be hungry when he wakes. He’ll be most pleased that you brought him a snack.”

  “Wheee, snack,” Ra giggled. He hobbled around the boat, trying to smash the servant light with his flail.

  The demons began to laugh. Menshikov gave them an indulgent smile.

  “Yes, quite amusing,” he said. “My grandfather entertained Peter the Great with a dwarf wedding. I will do even better. I will entertain the Lord of Chaos himself with a senile sun god!”

  The voice of Horus spoke urgently in my mind: Take back the weapons of the pharaoh. This is your last chance!

  Deep inside, I knew it was a bad idea. If I claimed the weapons of the pharaoh now, I’d never return them. And the powers I’d gain wouldn’t be enough to defeat Apophis. Still, I was tempted. It would feel so good to grab the crook and flail from that stupid old god Ra and smash Menshikov into the ground.

  The Russian’s eyes glittered with malice. “A rematch, Carter Kane? By all means. I notice you don’t have your dwarf babysitter this time. Let’s see what you can do on your own.”

  My vision turned red, and it had nothing to do with the light in the cavern. I stepped off the boat and summoned the hawk god’s avatar. I’d never tried the spell so deep in the Duat before. I got more than I asked for. Instead of being encased in a glowing holograph, I felt myself growing taller and stronger. My eyesight grew sharper.

  Sadie made a strangled sound. “Carter?”

  “Large bird!” Ra said.

  I looked down and found I was a flesh-and-blood giant, fifteen feet tall, dressed in the battle armor of Horus. I brought my enormous hands to my head and patted feathers instead of hair. My mouth was a razor-sharp beak. I shouted with elation, and it came out as a screech, echoing through the cavern. The demons scrambled back nervously. I looked down at Menshikov, who now seemed as insignificant as a mouse. I was ready to pulverize him, but Menshikov sneered and pointed his staff.

  Whatever he was planning, Sadie was faster. She threw down her own staff, and it transformed into a kite (the bird of prey kind) as large as a pterodactyl.

  Typical. I pull something really cool like morphing into a hawk warrior, and Sadie has to show me up. Her kite buffeted the air with its massive wings. Menshikov and his demons went somersaulting backward across the beach.

  “Two large birds!” Ra started to clap.

  “Carter, guard me!” Sadie pulled out the Book of Ra. “I need to start the spell.”

  I thought the giant kite was doing a pretty good job with guard duty, but I stepped forward and got ready to fight.

  Menshikov rose to his feet. “By all means, Sadie Kane, start your little spell. Don’t you understand? The spirit of Khepri created this prison. Ra gave part of his own soul, his ability to be reborn, to keep Apophis chained.”

  Sadie looked like he’d slapped her in the face. “‘The last scarab—’”

  “Exactly,” Menshikov agreed. “All these scarabs were multiplied from one—Khepri, the third soul of Ra. My demons will find it eventually, digging through the shells. It’s one of the only scarabs still alive now, and once we crush it, Apophis will be free. Even if you summon it back to Ra, Apophis will still be freed! Either way, Ra is too weak to fight. Apophis will devour him, as the ancient prophecies predicted, and Chaos will destroy Ma’at once and for all. You can’t win.”

  “You’re insane,” I said, my voice much deeper than usual. “You’ll be destroyed too.”

  I saw the fractured light in his eyes, and I realized something that shocked me to the core. Menshikov didn’t want this any more than we did. He’d lived with grief and despair so long that Apophis had twisted his soul, made him a prisoner of his own hateful feelings. Vladimir Menshikov pretended to gloat, but he didn’t feel any sense of triumph. Inside he was terrified, defeated, miserable. He was enslaved by Apophis. I almost felt sorry for him.

  “We’re already dead, Carter Kane,” he said. “This place was never meant for humans. Don’t you feel it? The power of Chaos is seeping into our bodies, withering our souls. But I have bigger plans. A host can live indefinitely, no matter what sickness he may have, no matter how injured he may be.

  Apophis has already healed my voice. Soon I will be whole again. I will live forever!”

  “A host…” When I realized what he meant, I almost lost control of my new giant form. “You’re not serious. Menshikov, stop this before it’s too late.”

  “And die?” he asked.

  Behind me, a new voice said, “There are worse things than death, Vladimir.”

  I turned and saw a second boat gliding toward the shore —a small gray skiff with a single magic oar that rowed itself. The eye of Horus was painted on the boat’s prow, and its lone passenger was Michel Desjardins. The Chief Lector’s hair and beard were now white as snow. Glowing hieroglyphs floated from his cream-colored robes, making a trail of divine words behind him.

  Desjardins stepped ashore. “You toy with something much worse than death, my old friend. Pray that I kill you before you succeed.”

  Of all the weird things I’d experienced that night, Desjardins stepping up to fight on our side was definitely the weirdest.

  He walked between my giant hawk warrior and Sadie’s mega-kite like they were no big deal, and planted his staff in the dead scarabs.

  “Surrender, Vladimir.”

  Menshikov laughed. “Have you looked at yourself lately, my lord? My curses have been sapping your strength for months, and you didn’t even realize it. You’re nearly dead now. I am the most powerful magician in the world.”

  It was true that Desjardins didn’t look good. His face was almost as gaunt and wrinkled as the sun god’s. But the cloud of hieroglyphs seemed stronger around him. His eyes blazed with intensity, just as they had months ago in New Mexico, when he’d battled us in the streets of Las Cruces and vowed to destroy us. He took
another step forward, and the mob of demons edged away. I suppose they recognized the leopard-skin cape around his shoulders as a mark of power.

  “I have failed in many things,” Desjardins admitted. “But I will not fail in this. I will not let you destroy the House of Life.”

  “The House?” Menshikov’s voice turned shrill. “It died centuries ago! It should’ve been disbanded when Egypt fell.” He kicked at the dried scarab shells. “The House has as much life as these hollow bug husks. Wake up, Michel! Egypt is gone, meaningless, ancient history. It’s time to destroy the world and start anew. Chaos always wins.”

  “Not always.” Desjardins turned to Sadie. “Begin your spell. I will deal with this wretch.”

  The ground surged under us, trembling as Apophis tried to rise.

  “Think first, children,” Menshikov warned. “The world will end no matter what you do. Mortals can’t leave this cavern alive, but the two of you have been godlings. Combine with Horus and Isis again, pledge to serve Apophis, and you could survive this night. Desjardins has always been your enemy. Slay him for me now and present his body as a gift to Apophis! I will assure you both positions of honor in a new world ruled by Chaos, unrestricted by any rules. I can even give you the secret of curing Walt Stone.”

  He smiled at Sadie’s stunned expression. “Yes, my girl. I do know how. The remedy was passed down for generations among the priests of Amun-Ra. Kill Desjardins, join Apophis, and the boy you love will be spared.”

  I’ll be honest. His words were persuasive. I could imagine a new world where anything was possible, where no laws applied, not even the laws of physics, and we could be anything we wanted.

  Chaos is impatient. It’s random. And above all it’s selfish. It tears down everything just for the sake of change, feeding on itself in constant hunger. But Chaos can also be appealing. It tempts you to believe that nothing matters except what you want. And there was so much that I wanted. Menshikov’s restored voice was smooth and confident, like Amos’s tone whenever he used magic to persuade mortals.

  That was the problem. Menshikov’s promise was a trick. His words weren’t even his own. They were being forced out of him. His eyes moved like they were reading a teleprompter. He spoke the will of Apophis, but when he finished he locked eyes with me, and just briefly I saw his real thoughts—a tortured plea he would’ve screamed if he had control of his own mouth: Kill me now. Please.

  “I’m sorry, Menshikov,” I said, and I sincerely meant it. “Magicians and gods have to stand together. The world may need fixing, but it’s worth preserving. We won’t let Chaos win.”

  Then a lot of things happened at once. Sadie opened her scroll and began to read. Menshikov screamed, “Attack!” and the demons rushed forward. The giant kite spread its wings, deflecting a blast of green fire from Menshikov’s staff that probably would’ve incinerated Sadie on the spot. I charged to protect her, while Desjardins summoned a whirlwind around his body and flew toward Vlad Menshikov.

  I waded through demons. I knocked over one with a razor-blade head, grabbed his ankles, and swung him around like a weapon, slicing his allies into piles of sand. Sadie’s giant kite picked up two more in its claws and tossed them into the river.

  Meanwhile Desjardins and Menshikov rose into the air, locked inside a tornado. They whirled around each other, firing blasts of fire, poison, and acid. Demons who got too close melted instantly.

  In the midst of all this, Sadie read from the Book of Ra. I didn’t know how she could concentrate, but her words rang out clear and loud. She invoked the dawn and the rise of a new day. Golden mist began to spread around her feet, weaving through the dried shells as if searching for life. The entire beach shuddered, and far underground, Apophis roared in outrage.

  “Oh, noes!” Ra yelled behind me. “Vegetables!”

  I turned and saw one of the largest demons boarding the sun boat, wicked knives in all four of his hands. Ra gave him the raspberry and scampered away, hiding behind his fiery throne.

  I threw Razor-blade Head into a crowd of his friends, grabbed a spear from another demon, and threw it toward the boat.

  If it had just been me throwing, my complete lack of long-shot skills might have caused me to impale the sun god, which would have been pretty embarrassing. Fortunately, my new giant form had aim worthy of Horus. The spear hit the four-armed demon square in the back. He dropped his knives, staggered to the edge of the boat, and fell into the River of Night.

  Ra leaned over the side and gave him one last raspberry for good measure.

  Desjardins’ tornado still spun him around, locked in combat with Menshikov. I couldn’t tell which magician had the upper hand. Sadie’s kite was doing its best to protect her, impaling demons with its beak and crushing them in its huge claws. Somehow Sadie kept her concentration. The golden mist thickened as it spread over the beach.

  The remaining demons began to pull back as Sadie spoke the last words of her spell: “‘Khepri, the scarab who rises from death, the rebirth of Ra!’”

  The Book of Ra vanished in a flash. The ground rumbled, and from the mass of dead shells, a single scarab rose into the air, a living golden beetle that floated toward Sadie and came to rest in her hands.

  Sadie smiled triumphantly. I almost dared to hope we’d won. Then hissing laughter filled the cavern. Desjardins lost control of his whirlwind, and the Chief Lector went flying toward the sun boat, slamming into the prow so hard he broke the rail and lay absolutely still.

  Vladimir Menshikov dropped to the ground, landing in a crouch. Around his feet, the dead scarab shells dissolved, turning into bloodred sand.

  “Brilliant,” he said. “Brilliant, Sadie Kane!”

  He stood, and all the magical energy in the cavern seemed to race toward his body—golden mist, red light, glowing hieroglyphs—all of it collapsing into Menshikov as if he’d taken on the gravity of a black hole.

  His ruined eyes healed. His blistered face became smooth, young, and handsome. His white suit mended itself, then the fabric turned dark red. His skin rippled, and I realized with a chill that he was growing snake scales.

  On the sun boat, Ra muttered, “Oh, noes. Need zebras.”

  The entire beach turned to red sand.

  Menshikov held out his hand to my sister. “Give me the scarab, Sadie. I will have mercy on you. You and your brother will live. Walt will live.”

  Sadie clutched the scarab. I got ready to charge. Even in the body of a giant hawk warrior, I could feel the Chaos energy getting stronger and stronger, sapping my strength. Menshikov had warned us that no mortal could survive this cavern, and I believed him. We didn’t have much time, but we had to stop Apophis. In the back of my mind, I accepted the fact that I would die. I was acting now for the sake of our friends, for the Kane family, for the whole mortal world.

  “You want the scarab, Apophis?” Sadie’s voice was full of loathing. “Then come and get it, you disgusting—” She called Apophis some words so bad, Gran would’ve washed her mouth out with soap for a year. [And no, Sadie, I’m not going to say them into the microphone.]

  Menshikov stepped toward her. I picked up a shovel one of the demons had dropped. Sadie’s giant kite flew at Menshikov, its talons poised to strike, but Menshikov flicked his hand like he was shooing away a fly. The monster dissolved into cloud of feathers.

  “Do you take me for a god?” Menshikov roared.

  As he focused on Sadie, I skirted behind him, doing my best to sneak closer—which is not easy when you’re a fifteen-foot-tall birdman.

  “I am Chaos itself!” Menshikov bellowed. “I will unknit your bones, dissolve your soul, and send you back to the primordial ooze you came from. Now, give me the scarab!”

  “Tempting,” Sadie said. “What do you think, Carter?”

  Menshikov realized the trap too late. I lunged forward and hit him upside the head with the shovel. Menshikov crumpled. I body-slammed him into the sand, then stood up and stomped him in a little deeper. I buried him as best I c
ould, then Sadie pointed at his burial site and spoke the glyph for fire. The sand melted, hardening into a coffin-size block of solid glass.

  I would’ve spit on it, too, but I wasn’t sure I could do that with a falcon beak.

  The surviving demons did the sensible thing. They fled in panic. A few jumped into the river and let themselves dissolve, which was a real time-saver for us.

  “That wasn’t so hard,” Sadie said, though I could tell the Chaos energy was starting to wear her down, too. Even when she was five and had pneumonia, I don’t think she looked this bad.

  “Hurry,” I said. My adrenaline was fading quickly. My avatar form was starting to feel like an extra five hundred pounds of dead weight. “Get the scarab to Ra.”

  She nodded, and ran toward the sun boat; but she’d only made it halfway when Menshikov’s glass grave blew up.

  The most powerful explosive magic I’d ever seen was Sadie’s ha-di spell. This blast was about fifty times more powerful.

  A high-powered wave of sand and glass shards knocked me off my feet and shredded my avatar. Back in my regular body, blind and in pain, I crawled away from the laughing voice of Apophis.

  “Where did you go, Sadie Kane?” Apophis called, his voice now as deep as a cannon shot. “Where is that bad little girl with my scarab?”

  I blinked the sand out of my eyes. Vlad Menshikov—no, he might look like Vlad, but he was Apophis now—was about fifty feet away, stalking around the rim of the crater he’d made in the beach. He either didn’t see me, or he assumed I was dead. He was looking for Sadie, but she was nowhere. The blast must’ve buried her in the sand, or worse.

  My throat closed up. I wanted to get to my feet and tackle Apophis, but my body wouldn’t work. My magic was depleted. The power of Chaos was sapping my life force. Just from being near Apophis I felt like I was coming undone—my brain synapses, my DNA, everything that made me Carter Kane was slowly dissolving.