The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 5

  Everyone else watched me, as if waiting for an explanation.

  “Morning,” I muttered. “Lovely day. Penguin in the fireplace, if anyone’s interested.”

  “Sadie,” Amos said gently, “tell everyone what you told me.”

  I sipped some tea to settle my nerves. Then I tried not to sound terrified as I described my visit to the Hall of Ages.

  When I was done, the only sounds were the fires crackling in the braziers and Philip of Macedonia splashing in his pool.

  Finally nine-year-old Felix asked what was on everyone’s mind: “So we’re all going to die, then?”

  “No.” Amos sat forward. “Absolutely not. Children, I know I’ve just arrived. I’ve hardly met most of you, but I promise we’ll do everything we can to keep you safe. This house is layered with magic protection. You have a major goddess on your side”—he gestured to Bast, who was opening a can of Fancy Feast Tuna Supreme with her fingernails—“and the Kane family to protect you. Carter and Sadie are more powerful than you might realize, and I’ve battled Michel Desjardins before, if it comes to that.”

  Given all the trouble we’d had last Christmas, Amos’s speech seemed a tad optimistic, but the trainees looked relieved.

  “If it comes to that?” Alyssa asked. “It sounds pretty certain they’ll attack us.”

  Amos knitted his brow. “Perhaps, but it troubles me that Desjardins would agree to such a foolish move. Apophis is the real enemy, and Desjardins knows it. He should realize he needs all the help he can get. Unless…” He didn’t finish the sentence. Whatever he was thinking, it apparently troubled him greatly. “At any rate, if Desjardins decides to come after us, he will plan carefully. He knows this mansion will not fall easily. He can’t afford to be embarrassed by the Kane family again. He’ll study the problem, consider his options, and gather his forces. It would take several days for him to prepare —time he should be using to stop Apophis.”

  Walt raised an index finger. I don’t know what it is about him, but he has a sort of gravity that draws the group’s attention when he’s about to speak. Even Khufu looked up from his Jell-O.

  “If Desjardins does attack us,” Walt said, “he’ll be well prepared, with magicians who are a lot more experienced than we are. Can he get through our defenses?”

  Amos gazed at the sliding glass doors, possibly remembering the last time our defenses had been breached. The results hadn’t been good.

  “We must make sure it doesn’t come to that,” he said. “Desjardins knows what we’re attempting, and that we only have five days—well, four days, now. According to Sadie’s vision, Desjardins is aware of our plan and will try to prevent it out of some misguided belief that we are working for the forces of Chaos. But if we succeed, we’ll have bargaining power to make Desjardins back off. ”

  Cleo raised her hand. “Um…We don’t know the plan. Four days to do what?”

  Amos gestured at Carter, inviting him to explain. That was fine with me. Honestly, I found the plan a bit crazy.

  My brother sat up. I must give him credit. Over the last few months, he’d made progress at resembling a normal teenager. After six years of homeschooling and traveling with Dad, Carter had been hopelessly out of touch. He’d dressed like a junior executive, in crisp white shirts and slacks. Now at least he’d learned to wear jeans and T-shirts and the occasional hoodie. He’d let his hair grow out in a curly mess—which looked much better. If he kept on improving, the boy might even get a date some day.

  [What? Don’t poke me. It was a compliment!]

  “We’re going to wake the god Ra,” Carter said, as if it was as easy as getting a snack from the fridge.

  The trainees glanced at one another. Carter wasn’t known for his sense of humor, but they must’ve wondered if he was joking.

  “You mean the sun god,” Felix said. “The old king of the gods.”

  Carter nodded. “You all know the story. Thousands of years ago, Ra got senile and retreated into the heavens, leaving Osiris in charge. Then Osiris got overthrown by Set. Then Horus defeated Set and became pharaoh. Then—”

  I coughed. “Short version, please.”

  Carter gave me a cross look. “The point is, Ra was the first and most powerful king of the gods. We believe Ra is still alive. He’s just asleep somewhere deep in the Duat. If we can wake him—”

  “But if he retired because he was senile,” Walt said, “wouldn’t that mean he’s really, really senile now?”

  I’d asked the same thing when Carter first told me his idea. The last thing we needed was an all-powerful god who couldn’t remember his own name, smelled like old people, and drooled in his sleep. And how could an immortal being get senile in the first place? No one had given me a satisfactory answer.

  Amos and Carter looked at Bast, which made sense, as she was the only Egyptian god present.

  She frowned at her uneaten Fancy Feast. “Ra is the god of the sun. In olden times, he aged as the day aged, then sailed through the Duat on his boat each night and was reborn with the sunrise each morning.”

  “But the sun isn’t reborn,” I put in. “It’s just the rotation of the earth—”

  “Sadie,” Bast warned.

  Right, right. Myth and science were both true—simply different versions of the same reality, blah, blah. I’d heard that lecture a hundred times, and I didn’t want to hear it again.

  Bast pointed at the scroll, which I’d set next to my teacup. “When Ra stopped making his nightly journey, the cycle was broken, and Ra faded into permanent twilight—at least, so we think. He meant to sleep forever. But if you could find him in the Duat—and that’s a big if—it’s possible he might be brought back and reborn with the right magic. The Book of Ra describes how this might be done. Ra’s priests created the book in ancient times and kept it secret, dividing it into three parts, to be used only if the world was ending.”

  “If…the world was ending?” Cleo asked. “You mean Apophis is really going to…to swallow the sun?”

  Walt looked at me. “Is that possible? In your story about the Red Pyramid, you said Apophis was behind Set’s plan to destroy North America. He was trying to cause so much chaos that he could break out of his prison.”

  I shivered, remembering the apparition that had appeared in the sky over Washington, D.C.—a writhing giant snake.

  “Apophis is the real problem,” I agreed. “We stopped him once, but his prison is weakening. If he manages to escape—”

  “He will,” Carter said. “In four days. Unless we stop him. And then he’ll destroy civilization—everything humans have built since the dawn of Egypt.”

  That put a chill over breakfast table.

  Carter and I had talked privately about the four-day deadline, of course. Horus and Isis had both discussed it with us. But it had seemed like a horrible possibility rather than absolute certainty. Now, Carter sounded sure. I studied his face and realized he’d seen something during the night—possibly a vision even worse than mine. His expression said, Not here. I’ll tell you later.

  Bast was digging her claws into the dining table. Whatever the secret was, she must be in on it.

  At the far end of the table, Felix counted on his fingers. “Why four days? What’s so special about…um, March twenty-first?”

  “The spring equinox,” Bast explained. “A powerful time for magic. The hours of day and night are exactly balanced, meaning the forces of Chaos and Ma’at can be easily tipped one way or the other. It’s the perfect time to awaken Ra. In fact, it’s our only chance until the fall equinox, six months from now. But we can’t wait that long.”

  “Because unfortunately,” Amos added, “the equinox is also the perfect time for Apophis to escape his prison and invade the mortal world. You can be sure he has minions working on that right now. According to our sources among the gods, Apophis will succeed, which is why we have to awaken Ra first.”

  I’d heard all this before, but discussing it in the open, in front of all our trainees,
and seeing the devastated looks on their faces, it all seemed much more frightening and real.

  I cleared my throat. “Right…so when Apophis breaks out, he’ll try to destroy Ma’at, the order of the universe. He’ll swallow the sun, plunge the earth into eternal darkness, and otherwise make us have a very bad day.”

  “Which is why we need Ra.” Amos modulated his tone, making it calm and reassuring for our trainees. He projected such composure, even I felt a little less terrified. I wondered if this was a kind of magic, or if he was just better at explaining Armageddon than I was.

  “Ra was Apophis’s archenemy,” he continued. “Ra is the Lord of Order, whereas Apophis is the Lord of Chaos. Since the beginning of time, these two forces have been in a perpetual battle to destroy one another. If Apophis returns, we have to make sure we have Ra on our side to counteract him. Then we stand a chance.”

  “A chance,” Walt said. “Assuming we can find Ra and wake him, and the rest of the House of Life doesn’t destroy us first.”

  Amos nodded. “But if we can awaken Ra, that would be a feat more difficult than any magician has ever accomplished. It would make Desjardins think twice. The Chief Lector…well, it would seem he’s not thinking clearly, but he’s no fool. He recognizes the danger of Apophis rising. We must convince him that we’re on the same side, that the path of the gods is the only way to defeat Apophis. I would rather do this than fight him.”

  Personally, I wanted to punch Desjardins in the face and set his beard on fire, but I supposed Amos had a point.

  Cleo, poor thing, had gone as green as a frog. She’d come all the way from Brazil to Brooklyn to study the path of Thoth, god of knowledge, and we’d already pegged her as our future librarian; but when the dangers were real, and not just in the pages of books…well, she had a tender stomach. I hoped she could make it to the edge of the terrace if she needed to.

  “The—the scroll,” she managed, “you said there are two other parts?”

  I took the scroll. In the daylight it looked more fragile—brittle and yellow and likely to crumble. My fingers trembled. I could feel magic humming in the papyrus like a low-voltage current. I felt an overwhelming desire to open it.

  I began to unroll the cylinder. Carter tensed.

  Amos said, “Sadie…”

  No doubt they expected Brooklyn to catch fire again, but nothing happened. I spread out the scroll and found it was written in gibberish—not hieroglyphics, not any language I could recognize. The end of the papyrus was a jagged line, as if it had been ripped.

  “I imagine the pieces graft together,” I said. “It will be readable only when all three sections are combined.”

  Carter looked impressed. But honestly, I do know some things. During our last adventure I’d read a scroll to banish Set, and it had worked much the same way.

  Khufu looked up from his Jell-O. “Agh!” He put three slimy grapes on the table.

  “Exactly,” Bast agreed. “As Khufu says, the three sections of the book represent the three aspects of Ra—morning, noon, and night. That scroll there is the spell of Khnum. You’ll need to find the other two now.”

  How Khufu fit all of that into a single grunt, I didn’t know; but I wished I could take all my classes from baboon teachers. I’d have middle school and high school finished in a week.

  “So the other two grapes,” I said, “I mean, scrolls…according to my vision last night, they won’t be easy to find.”

  Amos nodded. “The first section was lost eons ago. The middle section is in the possession of the House of Life. It has been moved many times, and is always kept under tight security. Judging from your vision, I’d say the scroll is now in the hands of Vladimir Menshikov.”

  “The ice cream man,” I guessed. “Who is he?”

  Amos traced something on the table—perhaps a protective hieroglyph. “The third-most powerful magician in the world. He’s also one of Desjardins’ strongest supporters. He runs the Eighteenth Nome, in Russia.”

  Bast hissed. Being a cat, she was quite good at that. “Vlad the Inhaler. He’s got an evil reputation.”

  I remembered his ruined eyes and wheezing voice. “What happened to his face?”

  Bast was about to answer, but Amos cut her off.

  “Just realize that he’s quite dangerous,” he warned. “Vlad’s main talent is silencing rogue magicians.”

  “You mean he’s an assassin?” I asked. “Wonderful. And Desjardins just gave him permission to hunt Carter and me if we leave Brooklyn.”

  “Which you’ll have to do,” Bast said, “if you want to seek the other sections of the Book of Ra. You have only four days.”

  “Yes,” I muttered, “you may have mentioned that. You’ll be coming with us, won’t you?”

  Bast looked down at her Fancy Feast.

  “Sadie…” She sounded miserable. “Carter and I were talking and…well, someone has to check on Apophis’s prison. We have to know what’s going on, how close it is to breaking, and if there’s a way to stop it. That requires a firsthand look.”

  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. “You’re going back there? After all my parents did to free you?”

  “I’ll only approach the prison from the outside,” she promised. “I’ll be careful. I am a creature of stealth, after all. Besides, I’m the only one who knows how to find his cell, and that part of the Duat would be lethal to a mortal. I—I must do this.”

  Her voice trembled. She’d once told me that cats weren’t brave, but going back to her old prison seemed like quite a courageous thing to do.

  “I won’t leave you undefended,” she promised. “I have a…a friend. He should arrive from the Duat by tomorrow. I’ve asked him to find you and protect you.”

  “A friend?” I asked.

  Bast squirmed. “Well…sort of.”

  That didn’t sound encouraging.

  I looked down at my street clothes. A sour taste filled my mouth. Carter and I had a quest to undertake, and it was unlikely we would come back alive. Another responsibility on my shoulders, another unreasonable demand for me to sacrifice my life for the greater good. Happy birthday to me.

  Khufu belched and pushed away his empty plate. He bared his Jell-O–stained fangs as if to say Well, that’s settled! Good breakfast!

  “I’ll get packed,” Carter said. “We can leave in an hour.”

  “No,” I said. I’m not sure who was more surprised—me or my brother.

  “No?” Carter asked.

  “It’s my birthday,” I said, which probably made me sound like a seven-year-old brat—but at the moment I didn’t care.

  The trainees looked astonished. Several mumbled their good wishes. Khufu offered me his empty Jell-O bowl as a present. Felix halfheartedly started singing “Happy Birthday,” but no one joined him, so he gave up.

  “Bast said her friend won’t arrive until tomorrow,” I continued. “Amos said it would take Desjardins some time to prepare any sort of attack. Besides, I’ve been planning my trip to London for ages. I think I have time for one bloody day off before the world ends.”

  The others stared at me. Was I selfish? All right, yes. Irresponsible? Perhaps. So why did I feel so strongly about putting my foot down?

  This may come as a shock to you, but I don’t like feeling controlled. Carter was dictating what we would do, but as usual he hadn’t told me everything. He’d obviously consulted Amos and Bast already and made a game plan. The three of them had decided what was best without bothering to ask me. My one constant companion, Bast, was leaving me to embark on a horribly dangerous mission. And I’d be stuck with my brother on my birthday, tracking down another magical scroll that might set me on fire or worse.

  Sorry. No thanks. If I was going to die, then it could wait until tomorrow morning.

  Carter’s expression was part anger, part disbelief. Normally, we tried to keep things civil in front of our trainees. Now I was embarrassing him. He’d always complained how I rushed into things without thinking
. Last night he’d been irritated with me for grabbing that scroll, and I suspected in the back of his mind he blamed me for things going wrong—for Jaz’s getting hurt. No doubt he saw this as another example of my reckless nature.

  I was quite prepared for a knockdown fight, but Amos interceded.

  “Sadie, a visit to London is dangerous.” He held up his hand before I could protest. “However, if you must…” He took a deep breath, as if he didn’t like what he was about to say. “…then at least promise you’ll be careful. I doubt Vlad Menshikov will be ready to move against us so quickly. You should be all right as long as you use no magic, do nothing to attract attention.”

  “Amos!” Carter protested.

  Amos cut him off with a stern look. “While Sadie is gone, we can begin planning. Tomorrow morning, the two of you can begin your quest. I will take over your teaching duties with our trainees, and oversee the defense of Brooklyn House.”

  I could see in Amos’s eyes he didn’t want me to go. It was foolish, dangerous, and rash—in other words, rather typical of me. But I could also sense his sympathy for my predicament. I remembered how fragile Amos had looked after Set took over his body last Christmas. When he’d gone to the First Nome for healing, I knew he’d felt guilty about leaving us alone. Still, it had been the right choice for his sanity. Amos, of all people, knew what it was like to need to get away. If I stayed here, if I left on a quest straightaway without even time to breathe, I felt I would explode.

  Besides, I felt better knowing Amos would be covering for us at Brooklyn House. I was relieved to give up my teaching duties for a while. Truth be told, I’m a horrid teacher. I simply have no patience for it.

  [Oh, be quiet, Carter. You weren’t supposed to agree with me.]

  “Thank you, Amos,” I managed.