Nekhbet hadn’t fared so well. She perched atop a nearby lamppost, looking as if she’d been assaulted by the entire contents of the West Cornwall Pasty Company. Bits of ham, cheese, and potato splattered her feathery cloak, giving testament to the brave enchanted meatpies that had given their brief lives to delay her. Her hair was decorated with plastic forks, napkins, and bits of pink newsprint. She looked quite keen to tear me to shreds.
The only good news: Babi’s minions evidently hadn’t made it out of the train station. I imagined a troop of pasty-splattered baboons shoved against police cars and handcuffed. It lifted my spirits somewhat.
Nekhbet snarled. “You surprised us at the station, Sadie Kane. I’ll admit that was well done. And bringing us to this bridge—a good try. But we are not so weak. You don’t have the strength to fight us any longer. If you cannot defeat us, you have no business raising Ra.”
“You lot should be helping me,” I said. “Not trying to stop me.”
“Uhh!” Babi barked.
“Indeed,” agreed the vulture goddess. “The strong survive without help. The weak must be killed and eaten. Which are you, child? Be honest.”
The truth? I was about to drop. The bridge seemed to be spinning beneath me. Sirens wailed on both banks of the river. More police had arrived at the barricades, but for now they made no effort to advance.
Babi bared his fangs. He was so close, I could smell his shampooed fur and his horrid breath. Then I looked at Gramps’s glasses still stuck on his head, and all my anger came back.
“Try me,” I said. “I follow the path of Isis. Cross me, and I’ll destroy you.”
I managed to light my staff. Babi stepped back. Nekhbet fluttered on her lamppost. Their forms shimmered briefly. The river was weakening them, loosening their connection to the mortal world like interference on a mobile phone line. But it wasn’t enough.
Nekhbet must’ve seen the desperation in my face. She was a vulture. She specialized in knowing when her prey was finished.
“A good last effort, child,” she said, almost with appreciation, “but you have nothing left. Babi, attack!”
The baboon god reared up on his back legs. I got ready to charge and deliver one final burst of energy—to tap into my own life source and hopefully vaporize the gods. I had to make sure Liz and Emma survived.
Then the limo’s door opened behind me. Bes announced: “No one is attacking anyone! Except me, of course.”
Nekhbet shrieked in alarm. I turned to see what was going on. Immediately, I wished I could burn my eyes out of my head.
Liz made a gagging sound. “Lord, no! That’s wrong!”
“Agh!” Emma shouted, in perfect baboon-speak. “Make him stop!”
Bes had indeed put on his ugly outfit. He climbed onto the roof of the limo and stood there, legs planted, arms akimbo, like Superman—except with only the underwear.
For those faint of heart, I won’t go into great detail, but Bes, all of a meter tall, was showing off his disgusting physique —his potbelly, hairy limbs, awful feet, gross flabby bits—and wearing only a blue Speedo. Imagine the worst looking person you’ve ever seen on a public beach—the person for whom swimwear should be illegal. Bes looked worse than that.
I wasn’t sure what to say except: “Put on some clothes!”
Bes laughed—the sort of guffaw that says Ha-ha! I’m amazing!
“Not until they leave,” he said. “Or I’ll be forced to scare them back to the Duat.”
“This is not your affair, dwarf god!” Nekhbet snarled, averting her eyes from his horribleness. “Go away!”
“These children are under my protection,” Bes insisted.
“I don’t know you,” I said. “I never met you before today.”
“Nonsense. You expressly asked for my protection.”
“I didn’t ask for the Speedo Patrol!”
Bes leaped off the limo and landed in front of my circle, placing himself between Babi and me. The dwarf was even more horrible from behind. His back was so hairy it looked like a mink coat. And on the back of his Speedo was printed DWARF PRIDE.
Bes and Babi circled each other like wrestlers. The baboon god swiped at Bes, but the dwarf was agile. He scrambled up Babi’s chest and head-butted him in the nose. Babi staggered backward as the dwarf continued pounding away, using his face as a deadly weapon.
“Don’t hurt him!” I yelled. “It’s my Gramps in there!”
Babi slumped against the railing. He blinked, trying to regain his bearings, but Bes breathed on him, and the smell of curry must’ve been too much. The baboon’s knees buckled. His body shimmered and began to shrink. He crumpled on the pavement and melted into a stocky gray-haired pensioner in a tattered cardigan.
“Gramps!” I couldn’t stand it. I left the protective circle and ran to his side.
“He’ll be fine,” Bes promised. Then he turned toward the vulture goddess. “Now it’s your turn, Nekhbet. Leave.”
“I stole this body fair and square!” she wailed. “I like it in here!”
“You asked for it.” Bes rubbed his hands, took a deep breath, and did something I will never be able to erase from my memory.
If I simply said he made a face and yelled BOO, that would be technically correct, but it wouldn’t begin to convey the horror.
His head swelled. His jaw unhinged until his mouth was four times too big. His eyes bulged like grapefruits. His hair stuck straight up like Bast’s. He shook his face and waggled his slimy green tongue and roared BOOOO! so loudly, the sound rolled across the Thames like a cannon shot. This blast of pure ugly blew the feathers off Nekhbet’s cloak and drained all the color from her face. It ripped away the essence of the goddess like tissue paper in a storm. The only thing left was a dazed old woman in a flower-print dress, squatting on the lamppost.
“Oh, dear…” Gran fainted.
Bes jumped up and caught her before she could topple into the river. The dwarf’s face went back to normal—well, normally ugly, at least—as he eased Gran onto the pavement next to Gramps.
“Thank you,” I told Bes. “Now, will you please put on some clothes?”
He gave me a toothy grin, which I could have lived without. “You’re all right, Sadie Kane. I see why Bast likes you.”
“Sadie?” my grandfather groaned, his eyelids fluttering open.
“I’m here, Gramps.” I stroked his forehead. “How do you feel?”
“Strange craving for mangoes.” He went cross-eyed. “And possibly insects. You…you saved us?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “My friend here—”
“Certainly she saved you,” Bes said. “Brave girl you have here. Quite a magician.”
Gramps focused on Bes and scowled. “Bloody Egyptian gods in their bloody revealing swimwear. This is why we don’t do magic.”
I sighed with relief. Once Gramps started complaining, I knew he was going to be all right. Gran was still passed out, but her breathing seemed steady. The color was coming back into her cheeks.
“We should go,” Bes said. “The mortals are ready to storm the bridge.”
I glanced toward the barricades and saw what he meant. An assault team was gathering—heavily armored men with rifles, grenade launchers, and probably many other fun toys that could kill us.
“Liz, Emma!” I called. “Help me with my grandparents.”
My friends ran over and started to help Gramps sit up, but Bes said, “They can’t come.”
“What?” I demanded. “But you just said—”
“They’re mortals,” Bes said. “They don’t belong on your quest. If we’re going to get the second scroll from Vlad Menshikov, we need to leave now.”
“You know about that?” Then I remembered that he’d spoken with Anubis.
“Your grandparents and friends are in less danger here,” Bes said. “The police will question them, but they won’t see old people and children as a threat.”
“We’re not children,” Emma grumbled.
“Vultures…” Gran whispered in her sleep. “Meatpies…”
Gramps coughed. “The dwarf is right, Sadie. Go. I’ll be tiptop in a moment, though it’s a pity that baboon chap couldn’t leave me some of his power. Haven’t felt that strong in ages.”
I looked at my bedraggled grandparents and friends. My heart felt it was being stretched in more directions than Bes’s face. I realized the dwarf was right: they’d be safer here facing an assault team than going with us. And I realized, too, that they didn’t belong on a magic quest. My grandparents had chosen long ago not to use their ancestral abilities. And my friends were just mortals—brave, mad, ridiculous, wonderful mortals. But they couldn’t go where I had to go.
“Sadie, it’s fine.” Emma adjusted her broken glasses and tried for a smile. “We can handle the police. Won’t be the first time we’ve had to do some quick talking, eh?”
“We’ll take care of your gran and gramps,” Liz promised.
“Don’t need taking care of,” Gramps complained. Then he broke down in a fit of coughing. “Just go, my dear. That baboon god was in my head. I can tell you—he means to destroy you. Finish your quest before he comes after you again. I couldn’t even stop him. I couldn’t…” He looked resentfully at his shaky old hands. “I never would’ve forgiven myself. Now, off with you!”
“I’m sorry,” I told them all. “I didn’t mean—”
“Sorry?” Emma demanded. “Sadie Kane, that was the most brilliant birthday party ever! Now, go!”
She and Liz both hugged me, and before I could start crying, Bes shepherded me into the Mercedes.
We drove north toward the Victoria Embankment. We were almost to the barricades when Bes slowed down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Can’t we go past invisibly?”
“It’s not the mortals I’m worried about.” He pointed.
All the police, reporters, and spectators around the barricades had fallen asleep. Several military-types in body armor were curled on the pavement, cuddling their assault rifles like teddy bears.
Standing in front of the barricades, blocking our car, were Carter and Walt. They were disheveled and breathing heavily, as if they’d run here all the way from Brooklyn. They both had wands at the ready. Carter stepped forward, pointing his sword at the windshield.
“Let her go!” he yelled at Bes. “Or I’ll destroy you!”
Bes glanced back at me. “Should I frighten him?”
“No!” I said. That was something I didn’t need to see again. “I’ll handle it.”
I stepped out of the limo. “Hello, boys. Brilliant timing.”
Walt and Carter frowned.
“You’re not in danger?” Walt asked me.
Carter lowered his sword reluctantly. “You mean the ugly guy—”