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The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 36


  To Carter’s credit, he held up under the gaze of the war god.

  “Just do your part,” Carter said.

  Horus laughed for the audience as if he and Carter had just shared a good joke. “Go now, Carter. See what your victory has cost. Let us hope all your allies do not share such a fate.”

  Horus turned his back on us and joined the celebration. Isis smiled at me one last time and dissolved into a sparkling rainbow.

  Bast stood at my side, holding her tongue, but she looked as if she wanted to shred Horus like a scratching post.

  Anubis looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Sadie. The gods can be—”

  “Ungrateful?” I asked. “Infuriating?”

  His face flushed. I supposed he thought I was referring to him.

  “We can be slow to realize what is important,” he said at last. “Sometimes, it takes us a while to appreciate something new, something that might change us for the better.”

  He fixed me with those warm eyes, and I wanted to melt into a puddle.

  “We should go,” Bast interrupted. “One more stop, if you’re up for it.”

  “The cost of victory,” Carter remembered. “Bes? Is he alive?”

  Bast sighed. “Difficult question. This way.”

  The last place I wanted to see again was Sunny Acres.

  Nothing much had changed in the nursing home. No renewing sunlight had helped the senile gods. They were still wheeling their IV poles around, banging into walls, singing ancient hymns as they searched in vain for temples that no longer existed.

  A new patient had joined them. Bes sat in a hospital gown in a wicker chair, gazing out the window at the Lake of Fire.

  Tawaret knelt at his side, her tiny hippo eyes red from crying. She was trying to get him to drink from a glass.

  Water dribbled down his chin. He gazed blankly at the fiery waterfall in the distance, his craggy face awash in red light. His curly hair was newly combed, and he wore a fresh blue Hawaiian shirt and shorts, so he looked quite comfortable. But his brow was furrowed. His fingers gripped the armrests, as if he knew he should remember something, but couldn’t.

  “That’s all right, Bes.” Tawaret’s voice quivered as she dabbed a napkin under his chin. “We’ll work on it. I’ll take care of you.”

  Then she noticed us. Her expression hardened. For a kindly goddess of childbirth, Tawaret could look quite scary when she wanted to.

  She patted the dwarf god’s knee. “I’ll be right back, dear Bes.”

  She stood, which was quite an accomplishment with her swollen belly, and steered us away from his chair. “How dare you come here! As if you haven’t done enough!”

  I was about to break into tears and apologize when I realized her anger wasn’t aimed at Carter or me. She was glaring at Bast.

  “Tawaret…” Bast turned up her palms. “I didn’t want this. He was my friend.”

  “He was one of your cat toys!” Tawaret shouted so loudly, a few of the patients started crying. “You’re as selfish as all your kind, Bast. You used him and discarded him. You knew he loved you, and took advantage of it. You played with him like a mouse under your paw.”

  “That’s not fair,” Bast murmured, but her hair started to puff up as it does when she’s scared. I couldn’t blame her. There’s almost nothing more frightening than an enraged hippo.

  Tawaret stomped her foot so hard, her high heel broke. “Bes deserved better than this. He deserved better than you. He had a good heart. I—I never forgot him!”

  I sensed a very violent, one-sided cat–hippo fight about to begin. I don’t know if I spoke up to save Bast, or to spare the traumatized patients, or to assuage my own guilt, but I stepped between the goddesses. “We’ll fix this,” I blurted out. “Tawaret, I swear on my life. We will find a way to heal Bes.”

  She looked at me, and the anger drained from her eyes until there was nothing left but pity. “Child, oh child…I know you mean well. But don’t give me false hope. I’ve lived with false hopes too long. Go—see him if you must. See what’s happened to the best dwarf in the world. Then leave us alone. Don’t promise me what can’t happen.”

  She turned and hobbled on her broken shoe to the nurses’ desk. Bast lowered her head. She wore a very uncatlike expression: shame.

  “I’ll wait here,” she announced.

  I could tell that was her final answer, so Carter and I approached Bes by ourselves.

  The dwarf god hadn’t moved. He sat in his wicker chair, his mouth slightly open, his eyes fixed on the Lake of Fire.

  “Bes.” I put my hand on his arm. “Can you hear me?”

  He didn’t answer, of course. He wore a bracelet on his wrist with his name written in hieroglyphs, lovingly decorated, probably by Tawaret herself.

  “I’m so sorry,” I said. “We’ll get your ren back. We’ll find a way to heal you. Won’t we, Carter?”

  “Yeah.” He cleared his throat, and I can assure you he was not acting very macho at that moment. “Yeah, I swear it, Bes. If it’s…”

  He was probably going to say if it’s the last thing we do, but he wisely decided against it. Given the impending war with Apophis, it was best not to think about how soon our lives might end.

  I leaned down and kissed Bes’s forehead. I remembered how we’d met at Waterloo Station, when he’d chauffeured Liz and Emma and me to safety. I remembered how he’d scared away Nekhbet and Babi in his ridiculous Speedo. I thought about the silly chocolate Lenin head he’d bought in St. Petersburg, and how he’d pulled Walt and me to safety from the portal at Red Sands. I couldn’t think of him as small. He had an enormous, colorful, ludicrous, wonderful personality—and it seemed impossible that it was gone forever. He’d given his immortal life to buy us one extra hour.

  I couldn’t help sobbing. Finally Carter had to pull me away. I don’t remember how we got back home, but I remember feeling as if we were falling rather than ascending—as if the mortal world had become a deeper and sadder place than anywhere in the Duat.

  That evening I sat alone on my bed with the windows open. The first night of spring had turned surprisingly warm and pleasant. Lights glittered along the riverfront. The neighborhood bagel factory filled the air with the scent of baking bread. I was listening to my sad playlist and wondering how it was possible that my birthday had been only a few days ago.

  The world had changed. The sun god had returned. Apophis was free from his cage, and although he’d been banished to some deep part of the abyss, he’d be working his way back very quickly. War was coming. We had so much work to do. Yet I was sitting here, listening to the same songs as before, staring at my poster of Anubis and feeling helplessly conflicted about something as trivial and infuriating as…yes, you guessed it. Boys.

  There was a knock at the door.

  “Come in,” I said without much enthusiasm. I assumed it was Carter. We often chatted at the end of the day, just to debrief. Instead, it was Walt, and suddenly I was very aware that I was wearing a ratty old T-shirt and pajama bottoms. My hair no doubt looked as horrible as Nekhbet’s. Carter’s seeing me this way wouldn’t be a problem. But Walt? Bad.

  “What are you doing here?” I yelped, a bit too loudly.

  He blinked, obviously surprised by my lack of hospitality. “Sorry, I’ll go.”

  “No! I mean…that’s all right. You just surprised me. And —you know…we have rules about boys’ being in the girls’ rooms without, um, supervision.”

  I realize that sounded terribly stodgy of me, almost Carteresque. But I was nervous.

  Walt folded his arms. They were very nice arms. He was wearing his basketball jersey and running shorts, his usual collection of amulets around his neck. He looked so healthy, so athletic, it was difficult to believe he was dying of an ancient curse.

  “Well, you’re the instructor,” he said. “Can you supervise me?”

  No doubt I was blushing horribly. “Right. I suppose if you leave the door ajar…Er, what brings you here?”

&n
bsp; He leaned against the closet door. With some horror, I realized it was still open, revealing my poster of Anubis.

  “There’s so much going on,” Walt said. “You’ve got enough to worry about. I don’t want you worrying about me as well.”

  “Too late,” I admitted.

  He nodded, as if he shared my frustration. “That day in the desert, at Bahariya…would you think I’m crazy if I tell you that was the best day of my life?”

  My heart fluttered, but I tried to stay calm. “Well, Egyptian public transportation, roadside bandits, smelly camels, psychotic Roman mummies, and possessed date farmers…Gosh, it was quite a day.”

  “And you,” he said.

  “Yes, well…I suppose I belong in that list of catastrophes.”

  “That’s not what I meant.”

  I was feeling like quite a bad supervisor—nervous and confused, and having very un-supervisory thoughts. My eyes strayed to the closet door. Walt noticed.

  “Oh.” He pointed to Anubis. “You want me to close this?”

  “Yes,” I said. “No. Possibly. I mean, it doesn’t matter. Well, not that it doesn’t matter, but—”

  Walt laughed as if my discomfort didn’t bother him at all. “Sadie, look. I just wanted to say, whatever happens, I’m glad I met you. I’m glad I came to Brooklyn. Jaz is working on a cure for me. Maybe she’ll find something, but either way…it’s okay.”

  “It’s not okay!” I think my anger surprised me more than it did him. “Walt, you’re dying of a bloody curse. And—and I had Menshikov right there, ready to tell me the cure, and…I failed you. Like I failed Bes. I didn’t even bring back Ra properly.”

  I was furious with myself for crying, but I couldn’t help it. Walt came over and sat next to me. He didn’t try to put his arm around me, which was just as well. I was already confused enough.

  “You didn’t fail me,” he said. “You didn’t fail anybody. You did what was right, and that takes sacrifice.”

  “Not you,” I said. “I don’t want you to die.”

  His smile made me feel as if the world had been reduced to just two people.

  “Ra’s return may not have cured me,” he said, “but it still gave me new hope. You’re amazing, Sadie. One way or another, we’re going to make this work. I’m not leaving you.”

  That sounded so good, so excellent, and so impossible. “How can you promise that?”

  He eyes drifted to the picture of Anubis, then back to me. “Just try not to worry about me. We have to concentrate on defeating Apophis.”

  “Any idea how?”

  He gestured toward my bedside table, where my beaten-up old tape recorder sat—a gift from my grandparents ages ago.

  “Tell people what really happened,” he said. “Don’t let Jacobi and the others spread lies about your family. I came to Brooklyn because I got your first message—the recording about the Red Pyramid, the djed amulet. You asked for help, and we answered. It’s time to ask for help again.”

  “But how many magicians did we really reach the first time —twenty?”

  “Hey, we did pretty well last night.” Walt held my eyes. I thought he might kiss me, but something made us both hesitate—a sense that it would only make things more uncertain, more fragile. “Send out another tape, Sadie. Just tell the truth. When you talk…” He shrugged, and then stood to leave. “Well, you’re pretty hard to ignore.”

  A few moments after he left, Carter came in, a book tucked under his arm. He found me listening to my sad music, staring at the tape recorder on the dresser.

  “Was that Walt coming out of your room?” he asked. A little brotherly protectiveness crept into his voice. “What’s up?”

  “Oh, just…” My eyes fixed on the book he was carrying. It was a tattered old textbook, and I wondered if he meant to assign me some sort of homework. But the cover looked so familiar: the diamond design, the multicolored foil letters. “What is that?”

  Carter sat next to me. Nervously, he offered me the book. “It’s, um…not a gold necklace. Or even a magic knife. But I told you I had a birthday present for you. This—this is it.”

  I ran my fingers over the title: Blackley’s Survey of the Sciences for First-Year College, Twelfth Edition. Then I opened the book. On the inside cover, a name was written in lovely cursive: Ruby Kane.

  It was Mum’s college textbook—the same one she used to read to us from at bedtime. The very same copy.

  I blinked back tears. “How did you—”

  “The retrieval shabti in the library,” Carter said. “They can find any book. I know it’s…kind of a lame present. It didn’t cost me anything, and I didn’t make it, but—”

  “Shut up, you idiot!” I flung my arms around him. “It’s an amazing birthday present. And you’re an amazing brother!”

  [Fine, Carter. There it is, recorded for all time. Just don’t get a big head. I spoke in a moment of weakness.]

  We turned the pages, smiling at the crayon mustache Carter had drawn on Isaac Newton and the outdated diagrams of the solar system. We found an old food stain that was probably my applesauce. I loved applesauce. We ran our hands over the margin notes done in Mum’s beautiful cursive.

  I felt closer to my mother just holding the book, and amazed by Carter’s thoughtfulness. Even though I’d learned his secret name and supposed I knew everything about him, the boy had still managed to surprise me.

  “So, what were saying about Walt?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

  Reluctantly, I closed Blackley’s Survey of the Sciences. And yes, that’s probably the only time in my life I’d ever closed a textbook with reluctance. I rose and set the book on my dresser. Then I picked up my old cassette recorder.

  “We have work to do,” I told Carter. I tossed him the microphone.

  So now you know what really happened on the equinox, how the old Chief Lector died, and how Amos took his place. Desjardins sacrificed his life to buy us time, but Apophis is quickly working his way out of the abyss. We may have weeks, if we’re lucky. Days, if we’re not.

  Amos is trying to assert himself as the leader of the House of Life, but it’s not going to be easy. Some nomes are in rebellion. Many believe the Kanes have taken over by force.

  We’re sending out this tape to set the record straight.

  We don’t have all the answers yet. We don’t know when or where Apophis will strike. We don’t know how to heal Ra, or Bes, or even Walt. We don’t know what role Zia will play, or if the gods can be trusted to help us. Most important, I am completely torn between two amazing guys—one who’s dying and another who’s the god of death. What sort of choice is that, I ask you?

  [Right, sorry…getting off track again.]

  The point is, wherever you are, whatever type of magic you practice, we need your help. Unless we unite and learn the path of the gods quickly, we don’t stand a chance.

  I hope Walt is right and you’ll find me hard to ignore, because the clock is ticking. We’ll keep a room ready for you at Brooklyn House.

  AUTHOR’S NOTE

  Before publishing such an alarming transcript, I felt compelled to do some fact-checking on Sadie and Carter’s story. I wish I could tell you they had made all this up. Unfortunately, it appears that much of what they have reported is based on fact.

  The Egyptian relics and locations they mention in America, England, Russia, and Egypt do exist. Prince Menshikov’s Palace in St. Petersburg is real, and the story of the dwarf wedding is true, though I can find no mention that one of the dwarves might have been a god, or that the prince had a grandson named Vladimir.

  All the Egyptian gods and monsters Carter and Sadie met are attested to in ancient sources. Many different accounts survive of Ra’s nightly journey through the Duat, and while the stories vary greatly, Carter and Sadie’s account closely fits what we know from Egyptian mythology.

  In short, I believe they might be telling the truth. Their call for help is genuine. Should further audio recordings fall into my
hands, I will relay the information; but if Apophis truly is rising, there may no opportunity. For the sake of the entire world, I hope I’m wrong.

  GLOSSARY

  Commands used by Carter and Sadie

  A’max “Burn”

  Ha-di “Destroy”

  Ha-tep “Be at peace”

  Heh-sieh “Turn back”

  Heqat Summons a staff

  Hi-nehm “Join”

  L’mun “Hide”

  N’dah “Protect”

  Sa-per “Miss”

  W’peh “Open”

  Other Egyptian Terms

  Aaru the Egyptian afterlife, paradise

  Aten the sun (the physical object, not the god)

  Ba soul

  Barque the pharaoh’s boat

  Bau an evil spirit

  Duat magical realm

  Hieroglyphics the writing system of Ancient Egypt, which used symbols or pictures to denote objects, concepts, or sounds

  Khopesh a sword with a hook-shaped blade

  Ma’at order of the universe

  Menhed the scribe’s palette

  Netjeri blade a knife made from meteoric iron for the opening of the mouth in a ceremony

  Pharaoh a ruler of Ancient Egypt

  Ren name, identity

  Sarcophagus a stone coffin, often decorated with sculpture and inscriptions

  Sau a charm maker

  Scarab beetle