I suppose my friends thought I’d summoned him by magic. Before I could tell them differently, Emma said, “Come on!” and they sprinted toward the little man. I had no choice but to follow. I remembered what Anubis had said about sending my “driver” to meet me. I supposed this must be him, but the closer we got, the less eager I was to meet him.
He was shorter than me by half, stouter than my Uncle Amos, and uglier than anyone else on the planet. His facial features were positively Neanderthal. Under his thick furry mono-brow, one eye was bigger than the other. His beard looked as if it had been used to scrape greasy pots. His skin was poxy with red welts, and his hair looked like a bird’s nest that had been set on fire then stomped out.
When he saw me, he scowled, which did nothing to help his appearance.
“About time!” His accent was American. He belched into his fist, and the smell of curry nearly knocked me over. “Bast’s friend? Sadie Kane?”
“Um…possibly.” I decided to have a serious talk with Bast about her choice of friends. “Just by the way, we have two gods trying to kill us.”
The warty little man smacked his lips, clearly unimpressed. “Guess you’ll want a bridge, then.”
He turned toward the curb and yelled, “BOO!”
A black Mercedes limousine appeared out of nowhere, as if it had been scared into existence.
The chauffeur glanced back at me and arched his brow. “Well? Get in!”
I’d never been in a limousine before. I hope most are nicer than the one we took. The backseat was littered with takeaway curry containers, old fish-and-chip paper, crisps bags, and various dirty socks. Despite this, Emma, Liz, and I crammed together in the back, because none of us dared ride up front.
You may think I was mad to get in a car with a strange man. You’re right, of course. But Bast had promised us help, and Anubis had told me to expect a driver. The fact that our promised help was a little man with bad hygiene and a magical limousine did not particularly surprise me. I’d seen stranger things.
Also, I didn’t have much choice. The potion had worn off, and the strain of releasing so much magic had made me lightheaded and wobbly-legged. I wasn’t sure I could’ve walked to Waterloo Bridge without passing out.
The chauffeur floored the gas and barreled out of the station. The police had cordoned it off, but our limo swerved around the barricades, past a cluster of BBC news vans and a mob of spectators, and no one paid us any attention.
The chauffeur started whistling a tune that sounded like “Short People.” His head barely reached the headrest. All I could see of him was a grubby nest of hair and a set of furry hands on the wheel.
Stuck in the sun visor was an identification card with his picture—sort of. It had been taken at point-blank range, showing only an out-of-focus nose and a hideous mouth, as if he’d been trying to eat the camera. The card read: Your Driver is BES.
“You’re Bes, I guess?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Your car’s a mess,” Liz muttered.
“If one more person rhymes,” Emma grumbled, “I’ll throw up.”
“Is it Mr. Bes?” I asked, trying to place his name from Egyptian mythology. I was fairly sure they hadn’t had a god of chauffeurs. “Lord Bes? Bes the Extremely Short?”
“Just Bes,” he grunted. “One s. And no, it’s NOT a girl’s name. Call me Bessie, and I’ll have to kill you. As for being short, I’m the dwarf god, so what do you expect? Oh, there’s bottled water for you back there if you’re thirsty.”
I looked down. Rolling about at my feet were two partially empty bottles of water. One had lipstick on the cap. The other looked as if it had been chewed on.
“Not thirsty,” I decided.
Liz and Emma murmured agreement. I was surprised they weren’t absolutely catatonic after the evening’s events, but then again, they were my mates. I didn’t hang out with weak-willed girls, did I? Even before I discovered magic, it took a strong constitution and a fair amount of adaptability to be my friend. [And no comment from you, Carter.]
Police vehicles were blocking Waterloo Bridge, but Bes swerved around them, jumped the pavement, and kept driving. The police didn’t even blink.
“Are we invisible?” I asked.
“To most mortals.” Bes belched. “They’re pretty dense, aren’t they? Present company excepted, et cetera.”
“You’re really a god?” Liz asked.
“Huge,” Bes said. “I’m huge in the world of gods.”
“A huge god of dwarves,” Emma marveled. “You mean as in Snow White, or—”
“All dwarves.” Bes waved his hands expansively, which made me a bit nervous as he took both of them off the wheel. “Egyptians were smart. They honored people who were born unusual. Dwarves were considered extremely magical. So yeah, I’m the god of dwarves.”
Liz cleared her throat. “Isn’t there a more polite term we’re supposed to use nowadays? Like…little person, or vertically challenged, or—”
“I’m not going to call myself the god of vertically challenged people,” Bes grumbled. “I’m a dwarf! Now, here we are, just in time.”
He spun the car to a stop in the middle of the bridge. Looking behind us, I almost lost the contents of my stomach. A winged black shape was circling over the riverbank. At the end of the bridge, Babi was taking care of the barricade in his own fashion. He was throwing police cars into the River Thames while the officers scattered and fired their weapons, though the bullets seemed to have no effect on the baboon god’s steely fur.
“Why are we stopping?” Emma asked.
Bes stood on his seat and stretched, which he could do quite easily. “It’s a river,” he said. “Good place to fight gods, if I do say so myself. All that force of nature flowing underneath our feet makes it hard to stay anchored in the mortal world.”
Looking at him more closely, I could see what he meant. His face was shimmering like a mirage.
A lump formed in my throat. This was the moment of truth. I felt sick from the potion and from fear. I wasn’t at all sure I had enough magic to combat those two gods. But I had no choice.
“Liz, Emma,” I said. “We’re getting out.”
“Getting…out?” Liz whimpered.
Emma swallowed. “Are you sure—”
“I know you’re scared,” I said, “but you’ll need to do exactly as I say.”
They nodded hesitantly and opened the car doors. The poor things. Again I wished I’d left them behind; but honestly, after seeing my grandparents possessed, I couldn’t stand the idea of letting my friends out of my sight.
Bes stifled a yawn. “Need my help?”
Babi was lumbering toward us. Nekhbet circled over him, shrieking orders. If the river was affecting them at all, they didn’t show it.
I didn’t see how a dwarf god could stand against those two, but I said, “Yes. I need help.”
“Right.” Bes cracked his knuckles. “So get out.”
“I can’t change clothes with you in the car, can I? I have to put on my ugly outfit.”
“Go!” the dwarf commanded. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
It didn’t take much encouragement. None of us wanted to see any more of Bes than we had to. We got out, and Bes locked the doors behind us. The windows were heavily tinted, so I couldn’t see in. For all I knew Bes would be relaxing, listening to music while we got slaughtered. I certainly didn’t have much hope that a wardrobe change was going to defeat Nekhbet and Babi.
I looked at my frightened mates, then at the two gods charging toward us.
“We’ll make our last stand here.”
“Oh, no, no,” Liz said. “I really don’t like the term ‘last stand.’”
I rummaged through my bag and took out a piece of chalk and the four sons of Horus. “Liz, put these statues at the cardinal points—North, South, and so on. Emma, take the chalk. Draw a circle connecting the statues. We only have a few seconds.”
I traded her the chalk for my staff, then had a horrible flash of déjà vu. I’d just ordered my friends into action exactly as Zia Rashid had bossed me the first time we’d faced an enemy god together.
I didn’t want to be like Zia. On the other hand, I realized for the first time just how much courage she must’ve had to stand up to a goddess while protecting two complete novices. I hate to say it, but it gave me a newfound respect for her. I wished I had her bravery.
I raised my staff and wand and tried to focus. Time seemed to slow down. I reached out with my senses until I was aware of everything around me—Emma scrawling with chalk to finish the circle, Liz’s heart beating too fast, Babi’s massive feet pounding on the bridge as he ran toward us, the Thames flowing under the bridge, and the currents of the Duat flowing around me just as powerfully.
Bast once told me the Duat was like an ocean of magic under the surface of the mortal world. If that was true, then this place—a bridge over moving water—was like a jet stream. Magic flowed more strongly here. It could drown the unwary. Even gods might be swept away.
I tried to anchor myself by concentrating on the landscape around me. London was my city. From here I could see everything—the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, even Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, where my mother had died. If I failed now, so close to where my mother had worked her last magic—No. I couldn’t let it come to that.
Babi was only a meter away when Emma finished the circle. I touched my staff to the chalk, and golden light flared up.
The baboon god slammed into my protective force field like it was a metal wall. He staggered backward. Nekhbet swerved away at the last second and flew around us, cawing in frustration.
Unfortunately, the circle’s light began to flicker. My mum had taught me at a very young age: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That applied to magic as well as science. The force of Babi’s assault left me seeing black spots. If he attacked again, I wasn’t sure I could hold the circle.
I wondered if I should step outside it, make myself the target. If I channeled energy into the circle first, it might maintain itself for a while, even if I died. At least, my friends would live.
Zia Rashid had probably been thinking the same thing last Christmas when she stepped outside her circle to protect Carter and me. She really had been annoyingly brave.
“Whatever happens to me,” I told my friends, “stay inside the circle.”
“Sadie,” Emma said, “I know that tone of voice. Whatever you’re planning, don’t.”
“You can’t leave us,” Liz pleaded. Then she shouted at Babi in a squeaky voice: “G-go away, you horrible foamy ape! My friend here doesn’t want to destroy you, but—but she will!”
Babi snarled. He was rather foamy, thanks to the Body Shop attack, and he smelled wonderful. Several different colors of shampoo foam and bath beads were matted in his silver fur.