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The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire 6

He stood, clearly indicating that the meeting was over.

  “I think that’s enough for one morning,” he said. “The main thing is for all of you to continue your training, and don’t despair. We’ll need you in top shape to defend Brooklyn House. We will prevail. With the gods on our side, Ma’at will overcome Chaos, as it always has before.”

  The trainees still looked uneasy, but they stood and began to clear their dishes. Carter gave me one more angry look, then stormed inside.

  That was his problem. I was determined not to feel guilty. I would not have my birthday ruined. Still, as I stared down at my cold tea and uneaten pain au chocolat, I had a horrible feeling I might never sit at this table again.

  An hour later I was ready for London.

  I’d chosen a new staff from the arsenal and stowed it in the Duat along with my other supplies. I left the magic Bullwinkle scroll with Carter, who wouldn’t even talk to me, then checked on Jaz in the infirmary and found her still in a coma. An enchanted washcloth kept her forehead cool. Healing hieroglyphs floated around her bed, but she still looked so frail. Without her usual smile, she seemed like a different person.

  I sat next to her and held her hand. My heart felt as heavy as a bowling ball. Jaz had risked her life to protect us. She’d gone up against a mob of bau with only a few weeks of training. She’d tapped into the energy of her patron goddess, Sekhmet, just as we’d taught her, and the effort had almost destroyed her.

  What had I sacrificed lately? I’d thrown a tantrum because I might miss my birthday party.

  “I’m so sorry, Jaz.” I knew she couldn’t hear me, but my voice quavered. “I just…I’ll go mad if I don’t get away. We’ve already had to save the bloody world once, and now I have to do it again….”

  I imagined what Jaz would say—something reassuring, no doubt: It’s not your fault, Sadie. You deserve a few hours.

  That just made me feel worse. I should never have allowed Jaz to put herself in danger. Six years ago, my mother had died channeling too much magic. She’d burned up closing the gate to Apophis’s prison. I’d known that, and yet I’d allowed Jaz, who had much less experience, to risk her life to save ours.

  As I said…I’m a horrid teacher.

  Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I squeezed Jaz’s hand, told her to get better soon, and left the infirmary. I climbed to the roof, where we kept our relic for opening portals—a stone sphinx from the ruins of Heliopolis.

  I tensed when I noticed Carter at the other end of the roof, feeding a pile of roasted turkeys to the griffin. Since last night, he’d constructed quite a nice stable for the monster, so I guessed it would be staying with us. At least that would keep the pigeons off the roof.

  I almost hoped Carter would ignore me. I wasn’t in the mood for another argument. But when he saw me, he scowled, wiped the turkey grease off his hands, and walked over.

  I braced myself for a scolding.

  Instead he grumbled, “Be careful. I got you a birthday gift, but I’ll wait until…you come back.”

  He didn’t add the word alive, but I thought I heard it in his tone.

  “Look, Carter—”

  “Just go,” he said. “It’s not going to help us to argue.”

  I wasn’t sure whether to feel guilty or angry, but I supposed he had a point. We didn’t have a very good history with birthdays. One of my earliest memories was fighting with Carter on my sixth birthday, and my cake exploding from the magical energy we stirred up. Perhaps, considering that, I should’ve left well enough alone. But I couldn’t quite do it.

  “I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I know you blame me for picking up the scroll last night, and for Jaz’s getting hurt, but I feel as if I’m falling apart—”

  “You’re not the only one,” he said.

  A lump formed in my throat. I’d been so worried about Carter’s being mad at me, I hadn’t paid attention to his tone. He sounded absolutely miserable.

  “What is it?” I asked. “What happened?”

  He wiped his greasy hands on his trousers. “Yesterday at the museum…one of those spirits—one of them talked to me.”

  He told me about his odd encounter with the flaming bau, how time had seemed to slow down and the bau had warned Carter our quest would fail.

  “He said…” Carter’s voice broke. “He said Zia was asleep at the Place of Red Sands, whatever that is. He said if I didn’t give up the quest and rescue her, she would die.”

  “Carter,” I said carefully, “did this spirit mention Zia by name?”

  “Well, no…”

  “Could he have meant something else?”

  “No, I’m sure. He meant Zia.”

  I tried to bite my tongue. Honestly, I did. But the subject of Zia Rashid had become an unhealthy obsession for my brother.

  “Carter, not to be unkind,” I said, “but the last few months you’ve been seeing messages about Zia everywhere. Two weeks ago, you thought she was sending you a distress call in your mashed potatoes.”

  “It was a Z! Carved right in the potatoes!”

  I held up my hands. “Fine. And your dream last night?”

  His shoulders tensed. “What do you mean?”

  “Oh, come on. At breakfast, you said Apophis would escape from his prison on the equinox. You sounded completely certain, as if you’d seen proof. You’d already talked to Bast and convinced her to check Apophis’s prison. Whatever you saw…it must’ve been bad.”

  “I…I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

  “I see.” My irritation rose. So Carter didn’t want to tell me. We were back to keeping secrets from each other? Fine.

  “We’ll continue this later, then,” I said. “See you tonight.”

  “You don’t believe me,” he said. “About Zia.”

  “And you don’t trust me. So we’re even.”

  We glared at each other. Then Carter turned and stomped off toward the griffin.

  I almost called him back. I hadn’t meant to be so cross with him. On the other hand, apologizing is not my strong suit, and he was rather impossible.

  I turned to the sphinx and summoned a gateway. I’d got rather good at it, if I do say so myself. Instantly a swirling funnel of sand appeared in front of me, and I jumped through.

  A heartbeat later, I tumbled out at Cleopatra’s Needle on the bank of the River Thames.

  Six years before, my mother had died here; it wasn’t my favorite Egyptian monument. But the Needle was the closest magic portal to Gran and Gramps’s flat.

  Fortunately, the weather was miserable and there was no one about, so I brushed the sand off my clothes and headed for the Underground station.

  Thirty minutes later, I stood on the steps of my grandparents’ flat. It seemed so odd to be…home? I wasn’t even sure I could call it that anymore. For months I’d been longing for London—the familiar city streets, my favorite shops, my mates, my old room. I’d even been homesick for the dreary weather. But now everything seemed so different, so foreign.

  Nervously, I knocked on the door.

  No answer. I was sure they were expecting me. I knocked again.

  Perhaps they were hiding, waiting for me to come in. I imagined my grandparents, Liz, and Emma crouching behind the furniture, ready to jump out and yell “Surprise!”

  Hmm…Gran and Gramps crouching and jumping. Not bloody likely.

  I fished out my key and unlocked the door.

  The living room was dark and empty. The stairwell light was off, which Gran would never allow. She was mortally afraid of falling down stairs. Even Gramps’s television was switched off, which wasn’t right. Gramps always kept the rugby matches on, even if he wasn’t watching.

  I sniffed the air. Six in the evening London time, yet no smell of burning biscuits from the kitchen. Gran should’ve burned at least one tray of biscuits for teatime. It was a tradition.

  I got out my phone to call Liz and Emma, but the phone was dead. I knew I’d charged the battery.

  My mind was
just beginning to process a thought—I am in danger—when the front door slammed shut behind me. I spun, grabbing for my wand, which I didn’t have.

  Above me, at the top of the dark stairwell, a voice that was definitely not human hissed, “Welcome home, Sadie Kane.”

  C A R T E R

  5. I Learn to Really Hate Dung Beetles

  THANKS A LOT, SADIE.

  Hand me the mic right when you get to a good part.

  So yeah, Sadie left on her birthday trip to London. The world was ending in four days, we had a quest to complete, and she goes off to party with her friends. Really had her priorities straight, huh? Not that I was bitter, or anything.

  On the bright side, Brooklyn House was pretty quiet once she left, at least until the three-headed snake showed up. But first I should tell you about my vision.

  Sadie thought I was hiding something from her at breakfast, right? Well, that was sort of true. Honestly, though, what I saw during the night terrified me so badly I didn’t want to talk about it, especially on her birthday. I’d experienced some bizarre stuff since I started learning magic, but this took the Nobel Prize for Weird.

  After our trip to the Brooklyn Museum, I had a tough time getting to sleep. When I finally managed, I awoke in a different body.

  It wasn’t soul travel or a dream. I was Horus the Avenger.

  I’d shared a body with Horus before. He’d been in my head for almost a week at Christmas, whispering suggestions and otherwise being annoying. During the fight at the Red Pyramid, I’d even experienced a perfect melding of his thoughts and mine. I’d become what Egyptians called the “Eye” of the god—all of his power at my command, our memories mixing together, human and god working as one. But I’d still been in my own body.

  This time, things were reversed. I was a guest in Horus’s body, standing at the prow of a boat on the magical river that wound through the Duat. My eyesight was as sharp as a falcon’s. Through the fog, I could see shapes moving in the water—scaly reptilian backs and monstrous fins. I saw ghosts of the dead drifting along either shore. Far above, the cavern ceiling glistened red, as if we were sailing down the throat of a living beast.

  My arms were bronze and muscular, circled with bands of gold and lapis lazuli. I was dressed for battle in leather armor, a javelin in one hand and a khopesh in the other. I felt strong and powerful like…well, a god.

  Hello, Carter, said Horus, which felt like talking to myself.

  “Horus, what’s up?” I didn’t tell him I was irritated by his intrusion into my sleep. I didn’t need to. I was sharing his mind.

  I answered your questions, Horus said. I told you where to find the first scroll. Now you must do something for me. There is something I wish to show you.

  The boat lurched forward. I grabbed the railing of the navigator’s platform. Looking back, I could see the boat was a pharaoh’s barque, about sixty feet long and shaped like a massive canoe. In the middle, a tattered pavilion covered an empty dais where a throne might once have sat. A single mast held a square sail that had once been decorated, but was now faded and hanging in shreds. Port and starboard, sets of broken oars dangled uselessly.

  The boat must’ve been abandoned for centuries. The rigging was covered in cobwebs. The lines were rotten. The planks of the hull groaned and creaked as the boat picked up speed.

  It is old, like Ra, Horus said. Do you really want to put this boat back into service? Let me show you the threat you face.

  The rudder turned us into the current. Suddenly we were racing downstream. I’d sailed on the River of Night before, but this time we seemed to be much deeper in the Duat. The air was colder, the rapids faster. We jumped a cataract and went airborne. When we splashed down again, monsters began attacking. Horrible faces rose up—a sea dragon with feline eyes, a crocodile with porcupine bristles, a serpent with the head of a mummified man. Each time one rose up, I raised my sword and cut it down, or speared it with my javelin to keep it away from the boat. But they just kept coming, changing forms, and I knew that if I hadn’t been Horus the Avenger—if I had just been Carter Kane trying to deal with these horrors —I would go crazy, or die, or both.

  Every night, this was the journey, Horus said. It was not Ra who fended off the creatures of Chaos. We other gods kept him safe. We held back Apophis and his minions.

  We plunged over another waterfall and crashed headlong into a whirlpool. Somehow, we managed not to capsize. The boat spun out of the current and floated toward the shore.

  The riverbank here was a field of glistening black stones —or so I thought. As we got closer, I realized they were bug shells—millions and millions of dried-up beetle carapaces, stretching into the gloom as far as I could see. A few living scarabs moved sluggishly among the empty shells, so it seemed like the whole landscape was crawling. I’m not even going to try to describe the smell of several million dead dung beetles.

  The Serpent’s prison, Horus said.

  I scanned the darkness for a jail cell, chains, a pit or something. All I saw was an endless expanse of dead beetles.

  “Where?” I asked.

  I am showing you this place in a way you can understand, Horus said. If you were here in person, you would burn to ashes. If you saw this place as it really is, your limited mortal senses would melt.

  “Great,” I muttered. “I just love having my senses melted.”

  The boat scraped against the shore, stirring up a few live scarabs. The whole beach seemed to squirm and writhe.

  Once, all these scarabs were alive, Horus said, the symbol of Ra’s daily rebirth, holding back the enemy. Now only a few remain. The Serpent slowly devours his way out.

  “Wait,” I said. “You mean…”

  In front of me, the shoreline swelled as something underneath pushed upward—a vast shape straining to break free.

  I gripped my sword and javelin; but even with all the strength and courage of Horus, I found myself trembling. Red light glowed beneath the scarab shells. They crackled and shifted as the thing below surged toward the surface. Through the thinning layer of dead bugs, a ten-foot-wide red circle stared up at me—a serpent’s eye, full of hatred and hunger. Even in my godly form, I felt the power of Chaos washing over me like lethal radiation, cooking me from the inside out, eating into my soul—and I believed what Horus had said. If I were here in the flesh, I would be burned to ashes.

  “It’s breaking free.” My throat started closing up with panic. “Horus, it’s getting out—”

  Yes, he said. Soon…

  Horus guided my arm. I raised my spear and thrust it into the Serpent’s eye. Apophis howled with rage. The riverbank trembled. Then Apophis sank beneath the dead scarab shells, and the red glow faded.

  But not today, Horus said. On the equinox, the bonds will weaken enough for the Serpent to break free at last. Become my avatar again, Carter. Help me lead the gods into battle. Together we may be able to stop the rise of Apophis. But if you awaken Ra and he takes back the throne, will he have the strength to rule? Is this boat in any shape to sail the Duat again?

  “Why did you help me find the scroll, then?” I asked. “If you don’t want Ra awakened—”

  It must be your choice, Horus said. I believe in you, Carter Kane. Whatever you decide, I will support you. But many of the other gods do not feel the same. They think our chances would be better with me as their king and general, leading them into battle against the Serpent. They see your plan to awaken Ra as foolish and dangerous. It is all I can do to prevent open rebellion. I may not be able to stop them from attacking you and trying to prevent you.

  “Just what we need,” I said. “More enemies.”

  It does not have to be that way, Horus said. Now you have seen the enemy. Who do you think has the best chance to stand against the Lord of Chaos—Ra or Horus?

  The boat pushed away from the dark shore. Horus released my ba, and my consciousness floated back to the mortal world like a helium balloon. The rest of the night, I dreamed about a lands
cape of dead scarabs, and a red eye glaring from the depths of a weakening prison.

  If I acted a little shaken up the next morning, now you know why.

  I spent a lot of time wondering why Horus had showed me that vision. The obvious answer: Horus was now king of the gods. He didn’t want Ra coming back to challenge his authority. Gods tend to be selfish. Even when they’re helpful, they always have their own motives. That’s why you have to be careful about trusting them.

  On the other hand, Horus had a point. Ra had been old five thousand years ago. No one knew what kind of shape he was in now. Even if we managed to wake him, there was no guarantee he would help. If he looked as bad as his boat, I didn’t see how Ra could defeat Apophis.

  Horus had asked me who stood the best chance against the Lord of Chaos. Scary truth: when I searched my heart, the answer was none of us. Not the gods. Not the magicians. Not even all of us working together. Horus wanted to be the king and lead the gods into battle, but this enemy was more powerful than anything he’d ever faced. Apophis was as ancient as the universe, and he only feared one enemy: Ra.

  Bringing Ra back might not work, but my instincts told me it was our only shot. And frankly, the fact that everyone kept telling me it was a bad idea—Bast, Horus, even Sadie—made me more certain it was the right thing to do. I’m kind of stubborn that way.

  The right choice is hardly ever the easy choice, my dad had often told me.

  Dad had defied the entire House of Life. He’d sacrificed his own life to unleash the gods because he was sure it was the only way to save the world. Now it was time for me to make the difficult choice.

  Fast-forward past breakfast and my argument with Sadie. After she jumped through the portal, I stayed on the roof with no company but my new friend the psychotic griffin.

  He screamed “FREEEEK!” so much that I decided to call him Freak; plus, it fit his personality. I’d expected him to disappear overnight—to either fly away or return to the Duat—but he seemed happy in his new roost. I’d feathered it with a stack of morning newspapers, all of them featuring headlines about the bizarre sewer gas eruption that had swept through Brooklyn the night before. According to the reports, the gas had ignited ghostly fires across the borough, caused extensive damage at the museum, and overwhelmed some people with nausea, dizziness, and even hallucinations of rhinoceros-size hummingbirds. Stupid sewer gas.