That might explain how I’d blasted open the doors at the Hermitage with the Fist of Horus—a spell I’d never been able to do on my own. Without thinking about it, without needing to combine souls with Horus, I’d tapped into his emotions. We both hated feeling confined. I’d used that simple connection to invoke a spell and break the chains. Now, if I could just figure out how to do stuff like that more reliably, it might save us in the coming battles….
We traveled for miles in the Bedouins’ truck. The Nile snaked through green and brown fields to our left. We had nothing to drink but water from an old plastic jug that tasted like Vaseline. The goat meat wasn’t sitting well in my stomach. Every once in a while I’d remember the poison that had coursed through my body, and my shoulder would start to ache where the tjesu heru had bitten me.
Around six in the evening we got our first lead. An old fellahin, a peasant farmer selling dates on the roadside, said he knew the village we were seeking. When he heard the name Makan al-Ramal al-Hamrah he made a protective sign against the Evil Eye, but since Bes was the one asking, the old man told us what he knew.
He said Red Sands was an evil place, very badly cursed. No one ever visited nowadays. But the old man remembered the village from before it had been destroyed. We would find it ten kilometers south, at a bend in the river where the sand turned bright red.
Well, duh, I thought, but I couldn’t help being excited.
The Bedouins decided to make camp for the night. They wouldn’t be going with us the rest of the way, but they said they’d be honored if Bes and I borrowed their truck.
A few minutes later, Bes and I were cruising along in the pickup. Bes wore a floppy hat almost as ugly as his Hawaiian shirt. It was pulled so low, I wasn’t sure he could see anything, especially since he was barely eye-level with the dashboard.
Every time we hit a bump, Bedouin trinkets jangled on the rearview mirror—a metal disk etched with Arabic calligraphy, a Christmas-tree–shaped pine air freshener, some animal teeth on a leather strap, and a little icon of Elvis Presley for reasons I didn’t understand. The truck had no suspension and hardly any padding on the seats. I felt like I was riding a mechanical bull. Even without the jostling, my stomach would’ve been upset. After months of searching and hoping, I couldn’t believe I was so close to finding Zia.
“You look terrible,” Bes said.
“I mean magically speaking. You don’t look ready for a fight. Whatever’s waiting for us, you understand it isn’t going to be friendly?”
Under the brim of his hat, his jaw jutted out like he was bracing for an argument.
“You think this is a mistake,” I said. “You think I should’ve stayed with Sadie.”
He shrugged. “I think if you were looking at it straight, you’d see this has TRAP written all over it. The old Chief Lector—Iskandar—he wouldn’t have hidden your girlfriend—”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“—without putting some protective spells around her. Set and Apophis apparently both want you to find this place, which means it cannot be good for you. You’re leaving your sister and Walt on their own. On top of all that, we’re traipsing through Desjardins’ backyard, and after that stunt in St. Petersburg, Menshikov won’t rest until he finds you. So, yeah, I’d say this isn’t your brightest idea.”
I stared out the windshield. I wanted to be mad at Bes for calling me stupid, but I was afraid he might be right. I’d been hoping for a happy reunion with Zia. The chances were I’d never make it through tonight alive.
“Maybe Menshikov is still recovering from his head injuries,” I said hopefully.
Bes laughed. “Take it from me, kid. Menshikov is already after you. He never forgets an insult.”
His voice smoldered with anger, like it did in St. Petersburg when he’d told us about the dwarf wedding. I wondered what had really happened to Bes in that palace, and why he was still brooding over it three hundred years later.
“Was it Vlad?” I asked. “Was he the one who captured you?”
It didn’t seem so far-fetched. I’d met several magicians who were centuries old. But Bes shook his head.
“His grandfather, Prince Alexander Menshikov.” Bes said the name like it was a major insult. “He was secretly the head of the Eighteenth Nome. Powerful. Cruel. A lot like his grandson. I’d never dealt with a magician like that. It was the first time I’d been captured.”
“But didn’t the magicians lock all you gods in the Duat after Egypt fell?”
“Most of us,” Bes agreed. “Some slept the entire two millennia until your dad unleashed us. Others broke out from time to time and the House of Life would track them down and put them back. Sekhmet broke out in 1918. Big influenza epidemic. But a few of the gods like me stayed in the mortal world the entire time. Back in the ancient days, I was just, you know, a friendly guy. I scared away spirits. The commoners liked me. So when Egypt fell, the Romans adopted me as one of their gods. Then, in the Middle Ages, the Christians modeled gargoyles after me, to protect their cathedrals and whatnot. They made up legends about gnomes, dwarves, helpful leprechauns—all based on me.”
He scowled. “You don’t think I’m helpful? I look good in green tights.”
“I didn’t need that image.”
Bes huffed. “Anyway, the House of Life was never serious about tracking me down. I just kept a low profile and stayed out of trouble. I was never captured until Russia. Probably still be a prisoner there if it wasn’t for—” He stopped himself, as if realizing he’d said too much.
He turned off the road. The truck rattled over hard-packed sand and rocks, heading for the river.
“Someone helped you escape?” I guessed. “Bast?”
The dwarf’s neck turned bright red. “No…not Bast. She was stuck in the abyss fighting Apophis.”
“The point is, I got free, and I got my revenge. I managed to get Alexander Menshikov convicted on corruption charges. He was disgraced, stripped of his wealth and titles. His whole family was shipped off to Siberia. Best day of my life. Unfortunately, his grandson Vladimir made a comeback. Eventually he moved back to St. Petersburg, rebuilt his grandfather’s fortune, and took over the Eighteenth Nome. If Vlad had the chance to capture me…”
Bes shifted in the driver’s seat like the springs were getting uncomfortable. “I guess why I’m telling you this… You’re okay, kid. The way you stood up for your sister on Waterloo Bridge, ready to take me on—that took guts. And trying to ride a tjesu heru? That was plenty brave. Stupid, but brave.”
“You remind me of myself,” Bes continued, “back when I was a young dwarf. You got a stubborn streak. When it comes to girl problems, you’re clueless.”
“Girl problems?” I thought nobody could embarrass me as much as Sadie did when she learned my secret name, but Bes was doing a pretty good job. “This isn’t just a girl problem.”
Bes regarded me like I was a poor lost puppy. “You want to save Zia. I get that. You want her to like you. But when you rescue somebody…it complicates things. Don’t get starry-eyed about somebody you can’t have, especially if it blinds you to somebody who’s really important. Don’t…don’t make my mistakes.”
I heard the pain in his voice. I knew he was trying to help, but it still felt weird getting guy advice from a four-foot-tall god in an ugly hat.
“The person who rescued you,” I said. “It was a goddess, wasn’t it? Someone besides Bast—somebody you were involved with?”
His knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. “Kid.”
“I’m glad we had this talk. Now, if you value your teeth—”
“I’ll shut up.”
“That’s good.” Bes put his foot on the brake. “Because I think we’re here.”
The sun was going down at our backs. Everything in front of us was bathed in red light—the sand, the water of the Nile, the hills on the horizon. Even the fronds of the palm trees looked like they were tinged with blood.
Set would love this place, I thought.
There was no sign of civilization—just a few gray herons flying overhead and an occasional splash in the river: maybe fish or a crocodile. I imagined this part of the Nile hadn’t looked too different in the time of the pharaohs.
“Come on,” Bes said. “Bring your stuff.”
Bes didn’t wait for me. When I caught up to him, he was standing on the riverbank, sifting sand through his fingers.
“It’s not just the light,” I realized. “That stuff is really red.”
Bes nodded. “You know why?”
My mom would have said iron oxide or something like that. She’d had a scientific explanation for everything. But something told me Bes wasn’t looking for that kind of answer.
“Red is the color of evil,” I said. “The desert. Chaos. Destruction.”
Bes dusted off his hands. “This was a bad place to build a village.”
I looked around for any sign of a settlement. The red sand stretched in either direction for about a hundred yards. Thick grass and willow trees bordered the area, but the sand itself was completely barren. The way it glittered and shifted under my feet reminded me of the mounds of dried scarab shells in the Duat, holding back Apophis. I really wished I hadn’t thought of that.
“There’s nothing here,” I said. “No ruins. Nothing.”
“Look again.” Bes pointed to the river. Old dead reeds stuck up here and there over an area the size of a soccer field. Then I realized the reeds weren’t reeds—they were decaying boards and wooden poles, the remains of simple dwellings. I walked to the edge of the water. A few feet out, it was calm and shallow enough that I could make out a line of submerged mud bricks: the foundation of a wall slowly dissolving into silt.
“The whole village sank?”
“It was swallowed,” Bes said. “The Nile is trying to wash away the evil that happened here.”
I shivered. The fang wounds on my shoulder started throbbing again. “If it’s such an evil place, why would Iskandar hide Zia here?”
“Good question,” Bes said. “You want to find the answer, you’ll have to wade out there.”
Part of me wanted to run back to the truck. The last time I’d waded into a river—the Rio Grande in El Paso—it hadn’t gone so well. We’d battled the crocodile god Sobek and barely gotten away with our lives. This was the Nile. Gods and monsters would be much stronger here.
“You’re coming too, aren’t you?” I asked Bes.
The corner of his eye twitched. “Running water’s not good for gods. Loosens our connection to the Duat…”
He must have seen the look of desperation on my face.