“Working fine.” I turned back to Walt. “How are you feeling?”
For some reason, his whole body tensed. He looked at me like I was trying to corner him. “What do you mean?”
“The training room incident. The three-headed snake. What did you think I meant?”
The tendons in his neck relaxed. “Right…sorry, just a weird morning. Did Amos have an explanation?”
I wondered what I’d said to upset him, but I decided to let it pass. I filled him in on my conversation with Amos. Walt was usually pretty calm about stuff. He was a good listener. But he still seemed guarded, on edge.
When I was done talking, he stepped over to the railing where Khufu was perched. “Apophis let that thing loose in the house? If we hadn’t stopped it—”
“Amos thinks the serpent didn’t have much power. It was just here to deliver a message and scare us.”
Walt shook his head in dismay. “Well…now it knows our abilities, I guess. It knows Felix throws a mean shoe.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. Except that wasn’t the ability I was thinking of. That gray light you blasted the snake with…and the way you handled the shabti practice dummy, turning it to dust—”
“How did I do it?” Walt shrugged helplessly. “Honest, Carter, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and…it was just instinctive. At first I thought maybe the shabti had some kind of self-destruct spell built into it, and I accidentally triggered it. Sometimes I can do that with magic items—cause them to activate or shut down.”
“But that wouldn’t explain how you did it again with the serpent.”
“No,” he agreed. He seemed even more distracted by the incident than I was. Khufu started grooming Walt’s hair, looking for bugs, and Walt didn’t even try to stop him.
“Walt…” I hesitated, not wanting to push him. “This new ability, turning things to dust—it wouldn’t have anything to do with…you know, whatever you were telling Jaz?”
There it was again: that caged-animal look.
“I know,” I said quickly, “it’s none of my business. But you’ve been acting upset lately. If there’s anything I can do…”
He stared down at the river. He looked so depressed, Khufu grunted and patted him on the shoulder.
“Sometimes I wonder why I came here,” Walt said.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “You’re great at magic. One of the best! You’ve got a future here.”
He pulled something out of his pocket—one of the dried-up scarabs from the practice room. “Thanks. But the timing…it’s like a bad joke. Things are complicated for me, Carter. And the future…I don’t know.”
I got the feeling he was talking about more than our four-day deadline to save the world.
“Look, if there’s a problem…” I said. “If it’s something about the way Sadie and I are teaching—”
“Of course not. You’ve been great. And Sadie—”
“She likes you a lot,” I said. “I know she can come on a little strong. If you want her to back off…”
[Okay, Sadie. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But you aren’t exactly subtle when you like somebody. I figured it might be making the guy uncomfortable.]
Walt actually laughed. “No, it’s nothing about Sadie. I like her, too. I’m just—”
“Agh!” Khufu barked so loudly, it made me jump. He bared his fangs. I turned and realized that he was snarling at the scrying bowl.
The scene was still Gran and Gramps’s living room. But as I studied it more closely, I realized something was wrong. The lights and TV were off. The sofa had been tipped over.
I got a metallic taste in my mouth.
I concentrated on shifting the image until I could see the front door. It had been smashed to pieces.
“What’s wrong?” Walt came up next to me. “What is it?”
“Sadie…” I focused all my willpower on finding her. I knew her so well that I could usually locate her instantly, but this time the oil turned black. A sharp pain stabbed behind my eyes, and the surface of the oil erupted in flames.
Walt pulled me back before my face could get burned. Khufu barked in alarm and tipped the bronze saucer over the railing, sending it hurtling toward the East River.
“What happened?” Walt asked. “I’ve never seen a bowl do—”
“Portal to London.” I coughed, my nostrils stinging with burned olive oil. “Nearest one. Now!”
Walt seemed to understand. His expression hardened with resolve. “Our portal’s still on cool-down. We’ll need to go back to the Brooklyn Museum.”
“The griffin,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m coming too.”
I turned to Khufu. “Go tell Amos we’re leaving. Sadie’s in trouble. No time to explain.”
Khufu barked and leaped straight over the side of the balcony—taking the express elevator down.
Walt and I bolted from my room, racing up the stairs to the roof.
7. A Gift from the Dog-headed Boy
WELL, YOU TALKED LONG ENOUGH, brother dear.
As you’ve been babbling on, everyone’s been imagining me frozen in the doorway of Gran and Gramps’s flat, screaming “AAHHHHH!”
And the fact that you and Walt bolted off to London, assuming I needed to be rescued—men!
Yes, fair enough. I did need help. But that’s not the point.
Back to the story: I’d just heard a voice hissing from upstairs: “Welcome home, Sadie Kane.”
Of course, I knew this was bad news. My hands tingled as if I’d stuck my fingers in a light socket. I tried to summon my staff and wand, but as I may have mentioned, I’m rubbish at retrieving things from the Duat on short notice. I cursed myself for not coming prepared—but really, I couldn’t have been expected to wear linen pajamas and lug around a magic duffel bag for a night on the town with my mates.
I considered fleeing, but Gran and Gramps might be in danger. I couldn’t leave without knowing that they were safe.
The stairwell creaked. At the top, the hem of a black dress appeared, along with sandaled feet that weren’t quite human. The toes were gnarled and leathery, with overgrown nails like a bird’s talons. As the woman descended into full view, I made a very undignified whimpering noise.
She looked a hundred years old, hunched over and emaciated. Her face, earlobes, and neck sagged with folds of wrinkly pink skin, as if she’d melted under a sunlamp. Her nose was a drooping beak. Her eyes gleamed in their cavernous sockets, and she was almost bald—just a few greasy black tufts like weeds pushing through her craggy scalp.
Her dress, however, was absolutely plush. It was midnight black, fluffy, and huge like a fur coat six sizes too big. As she stepped toward me, the material shifted, and I realized that it wasn’t fur. The dress was made from black feathers.
Her hands appeared from her sleeves—clawlike fingers beckoning me forward. Her smile revealed teeth like broken bits of glass. And did I mention the smell? Not just old person smell—old dead person smell.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said the hag. “Fortunately, I’m very patient.”
I grasped the air for my wand. Of course, I had no luck. Without Isis in my head, I couldn’t simply speak words of power anymore. I had to have my tools. My only chance was to stall for time and hope I could collect my thoughts enough to access the Duat.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Where are my grandparents?”
The hag reached the foot of the stairs. From two meters away, her feathery dress appeared to be covered with bits of…egad, was that meat?
“Don’t you recognize me, dear?” Her image flickered. Her dress turned into a flowered housecoat. Her sandals became fuzzy green slippers. She had curly gray hair, watery blue eyes, and the expression of a startled rabbit. It was Grandmother’s face.
“Sadie?” Her voice sounded weak and confused.
Her image changed back to the black-feathered hag, her horrible melted face grinning maliciously. “Yes, dear. Your family is blood of the pharaohs, after all—perfect hosts for the gods. Don’t make me strain myself, though. Your grandmother’s heart isn’t what it used to be.”
My whole body began to shake. I’d seen possession before, and it was always hideous. But this—the idea of some Egyptian hag taking over my poor old Gran—this was horrifying. If I had any blood of the pharaohs, it was turning to ice.
“Leave her alone!” I meant to shout, but I’m afraid my voice was more of a terrified squeak. “Get out of her!”
The hag cackled. “Oh, I can’t do that. You see, Sadie Kane, some of us doubt your strength.”
“Some of who—the gods?”
Her face rippled, momentarily changing into a horrible bird’s head, bald and scaly pink with a long sharp beak. Then she morphed back into the grinning hag. I really wished she would make up her mind.
“I don’t bother the strong, Sadie Kane. In the old days, I even protected the pharaoh if he proved himself worthy. But the weak… Ah, once they fall under the shadow of my wings, I never let them go. I wait for them to die. I wait to feed. And I think, my dear, that you will be my next meal.”
I pressed my back to the door.
“I know you,” I lied. Frantically, I ran down my mental list of Egyptian gods, trying to place the old hag. I still wasn’t half as good as Carter at remembering all those odd names. [And no, Carter. That’s not a compliment. It simply means you’re a bigger nerd.] But after weeks of teaching our trainees, I’d gotten better.
Names held power. If I could figure out my enemy’s name, that was a good first step to defeating her. A grisly black bird…A bird that feeds on the dead…
To my amazement, I actually remembered something.
“You’re the vulture goddess,” I said triumphantly. “Neckbutt, is it?”
The old hag snarled. “Nekhbet!”
All right, so I was close.
“But you’re supposed to be a good goddess!” I protested.
The goddess spread her arms. They turned into wings—black, matted plumage buzzing with flies and smelling of death. “Vultures are very good, Sadie Kane. We remove the sickly and weak. We circle them until they die, then feed on their carcasses, cleaning the world of their stench. You, on the other hand, would bring back Ra, that wizened old carcass of a sun god. You would place a weak pharaoh on the throne of the gods. It goes against nature! Only the strong should live. The dead should be eaten.”
Her breath smelled like roadkill.
Despicable creatures, vultures: without a doubt the most disgusting birds ever. I supposed they served their purpose, but did they have to be so greasy and ugly? Couldn’t we have cute fuzzy rabbits that cleaned up roadkill instead?
“Right,” I said. “First, get out of my Gran. Then, if you’re a good vulture, I’ll buy you some breath mints.”