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 landscape 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.
I was tossing Freak more roasted turkeys (jeez, he had an appetite) when Bast appeared next to me.
“Normally, I enjoy birds,” she said. “But that thing is disturbing.”
“FREEEEK!” said Freak. He and Bast regarded each other as if each was wondering what the other would taste like for lunch.
Bast sniffed. “You’re not going to keep it, are you?”
“Well, he’s not tied up or anything,” I said. “He could leave if he wanted to. I think he likes it here.”
“Wonderful,” Bast muttered. “One more thing that might kill you while I’m gone.”
Personally, I thought Freak and I were getting along pretty well, but I figured nothing I said would reassure Bast.
She was dressed for travel. Over her usual leopard-skin bodysuit she wore a long black coat embroidered with protective hieroglyphs. When she moved, the fabric shimmered, making her fade in and out of sight.
“Be careful,” I told her.
She smiled. “I’m a cat, Carter. I can look after myself. I’m more worried about you and Sadie while I’m gone. If your vision is accurate and Apophis’s prison is close to breaking…? Well, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. If my vision was accurate, we were all in deep trouble.
“I may be out of touch for a couple of days,” she continued. “My friend should get here before you and Sadie leave on your quest tomorrow. He’ll make sure you two stay alive.”
“Can’t you at least tell me his name?”
Bast gave me a look that was either amused or nervous—possibly both. “He’s a little hard to explain. I’d better let him introduce himself.”
With that, Bast kissed me on the forehead. “Take care, my kit.”
I was too stunned to respond. I thought of Bast as Sadie’s protector. I was just kind of an add-on. But her voice held such affection, I probably blushed. She ran to the edge of the roof and jumped.
I wasn’t worried about her, though. I was pretty sure she’d land on her feet.
I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for the trainees, so I led my usual morning class. I called it Magic Problem-Solving 101. The trainees called it Whatever Works.
I gave the trainees a problem. They could solve it any way they wanted. As soon as they succeeded, they could go.
I guess this wasn’t much like real school, where you have to stay until the end of the day even if you’re just doing busywork; but I’d never been to a real school. All those years homeschooling with my dad, I’d learned at my own pace. When I finished my assignments to my dad’s satisfaction, the school day was over. The system worked for me, and the trainees seemed to like it, too.
I also thought Zia Rashid would approve. The first time Sadie and I trained with Zia, she’d told us that magic couldn’t be learned from classrooms and textbooks. You had to learn by doing. So for Magic Problem-Solving 101, we headed to the training room and blew stuff up.
Today I had four students. The rest of the trainees would be off researching their own paths of magic, practicing enchantments, or doing regular schoolwork under the supervision of our college-age initiates. As our main adult chaperone while Amos was gone, Bast had insisted we keep everyone up-to-speed on the regular subjects like math and reading, although she did sometimes add her own elective courses, such as Advanced Cat Grooming, or Napping. There was a waiting list to get into Napping.
Anyway, the training room took up most of the second floor. It was about the size of a basketball court, which is what we used it for in the evenings. It had a hardwood floor, god statues lining the walls, and a vaulted ceiling with pictures of Ancient Egyptians rocking that sideways walk they always do. On the baseline walls, we’d stuck falcon-headed statues of Ra perpendicular to the floor, ten feet up, and hollowed out their sun-disk crowns so we could use them as basketball hoops. Probably blasphemous—but hey, if Ra didn’t have a sense of humor, that was his problem.
Walt was waiting for me, along with Julian, Felix, and Alyssa. Jaz almost always showed up for these sessions, but of course Jaz was still in a coma…and that was a problem none of us knew how to solve.
I attempted to put on my confident teacher-face. “Okay, guys. Today we’ll try some combat simulations. We’ll start simple.”
I pulled four shabti figurines from my bag and placed them in different corners of the room. I stationed one trainee in front of each. Then I spoke a command word. The four statuettes grew into full-size Egyptian warriors armed with swords and shields. They weren’t super-realistic. Their skin looked like glazed ceramic, and they moved slower than real humans; but they’d be good enough for starters.
“Felix?” I called. “No penguins.”
Felix believed that the answer to every problem involved penguins; but it wasn’t fair to the birds, and I was getting tired of teleporting them back home. Somewhere in Antarctica, a whole flock of Magellanic penguins was undergoing psychotherapy.
“Begin!” I yelled, and the shabti attacked.
Julian, a big seventh grader who’d already decided on the path of Horus, went straight into battle. He hadn’t quite mastered summoning a combat avatar, but he encased his fist in golden energy like a wrecking ball and punched the shabti. It flew backward into wall, cracking to pieces. One down.
Alyssa had been studying the path of Geb, the earth god. Nobody at Brooklyn House was an expert in earth magic, but Alyssa rarely needed help. She’d grown up in a family of potters in North Carolina, and had been working with clay since she was a little girl.