“Yeah, okay,” he sighed. “I’m right behind you.”
Before I could chicken out, I put one boot in the river and sank up to my ankle.
“Gross.” I waded out, my feet making sounds like a cow chewing gum.
A little too late, I realized how poorly prepared I was. I didn’t have my sword, because I’d lost it in St. Petersburg. I hadn’t been able to summon it back. For all I knew, the Russian magicians had melted it down. I still had my wand, but that was mostly for defensive spells. If I had to go on the offense, I’d be at a serious disadvantage.
I pulled an old stick out of the mud and used it to poke around. Bes and I trudged through the shallows, trying to find anything useful. We kicked over some bricks, discovered a few intact sections of walls, and brought up some pottery shards. I thought about the story Zia had told me—how her dad caused the destruction of the village by unearthing a demon trapped in a jar. For all I knew, these were shards of that same jar.
Nothing attacked us except mosquitoes. We didn’t find any traps. But every splash in the river made me think of crocodiles (and not the nice albino kind like Philip back in Brooklyn) or the big toothy tiger fish Zia had shown me once in the First Nome. I imagined them swimming around my feet, trying to decide which leg looked the tastiest.
Out of the corner of my eye I kept seeing ripples and tiny whirlpools like something was following me. When I stabbed the water with my stick, there was nothing there.
After an hour of searching, the sun had almost set. We were supposed to make it back to Alexandria to meet up with Sadie by morning, which left us almost no time to find Zia. And twenty-four hours from now, the next time the sun went down, the equinox would begin.
We kept looking, but didn’t find anything more interesting than a muddy deflated soccer ball and a set of dentures. [Yes, Sadie, they were even more disgusting than Gramps’s.] I stopped to swat the mosquitoes off my neck. Bes snatched something out of the water—a wriggly fish or a frog—and stuck it in his mouth.
“Do you have to?” I asked.
“What?” he said, still chewing. “It’s dinnertime.”
I turned in disgust and poked my stick in the water.
I struck something harder than mud brick or wood. This was stone.
I traced my stick along the bottom. It wasn’t a rock. It was a flat row of hewn blocks. The edge dropped off to another row of stones about a foot lower: like stairs, leading down.
“Bes,” I called.
He waded over. The water came up almost to his armpits. His form shimmered in the current like he might disappear any minute.
I showed him what I’d found.
“Huh.” He dunked his head underwater. When he came back up, his beard was covered in muck and weeds. “Stairs, all right. Reminds me of the entrance to a tomb.”
“A tomb,” I said, “in the middle of a village?”
Off to my left, there was another splash.
Bes frowned. “Did you see that?”
“Yeah. Ever since we got into the water. You haven’t noticed?”
Bes stuck his finger in the water as if testing the temperature. “We should hurry.”
“Probably nothing.” He lied even worse than my dad. “Let’s get a look at this tomb. Part the river.”
He said that as if it were a perfectly normal request, like Pass the salt.
“I’m a combat magician,” I said. “I don’t know how to part a river.”
Bes looked offended. “Oh, come on. That’s standard stuff. Back in Khufu’s day I knew a magician who parted the Nile just so he could climb to the bottom and retrieve a girl’s necklace. Then there was that Israelite fellow, Mickey.”
“Yeah, him,” Bes said. “Anyway, you should totally be able to part the water. We gotta hurry.”
“If it’s so easy, why don’t you do it?”
“Now he gets an attitude. I told you, kid, running water interferes with godly power. Probably one of the reasons Iskandar hid your friend down there, if that’s where she is. You can do this. Just—”
He suddenly tensed. “Get to the shore.”
“But you said—”
Before we could move, the river erupted around us. Three separate waterspouts blasted upward, and Bes was pulled underwater.
I tried to run, but my feet stuck in the mud. The waterspouts surrounded me. They swirled into human shapes with heads, shoulders, and arms made from ribbons of churning water, as if they were mummies created from the Nile.
Twenty feet downstream, Bes broke to the surface. “Water demons!” he spluttered. “Ward them off!”
“How?” I shouted.
Two of the water demons veered toward Bes. The dwarf god tried to keep his footing, but the river boiled into whitewater rapids, and he was already up to his armpits.
“Come on, kid!” he yelled. “Every shepherd used to know charms against water demons!”
“Well, find me a shepherd, then!”
Bes yelled, “BOO!” and the first water demon evaporated. He turned toward the second, but before he could scare it, the water demon blasted him in the face.
Bes choked and stumbled, water shooting out his nostrils. The demon crashed over him, and Bes went under again.
“Bes!” I yelled.
The third demon surged toward me. I raised my wand and managed a weak shield of blue light. The demon slammed against it, knocking me backward.
Its mouth and eyes spun like miniature whirlpools. Looking in its face was like using a scrying bowl. I could sense the thing’s endless hunger, its hatred for humans. It wanted to break every dam, devour every city, and drown the world in a sea of chaos. And it would start by killing me.
My concentration faltered. The thing rushed me, shattering my shield and pulling me underwater.
Ever get water up your nose? Imagine an entire wave up your nose—an intelligent wave that knows exactly how to drown you. I lost my wand. My lungs filled with liquid. All rational thought dissolved into panic.
I thrashed and kicked, knowing I was only in three or four feet of water, but I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t see anything through the murk. My head broke the surface, and I saw a fuzzy image of Bes getting tossed around atop a waterspout, screaming, “Boo, already! Be more scared!”
Then I went under again, my hands clawing at the mud.
My heart pounded. My vision started to go dark. Even if I could have thought of a spell, I couldn’t have spoken it. I wished I had sea god powers, but they weren’t exactly Horus’s specialty.
I was losing consciousness when something gripped my arm. I punched at it wildly, and my fist connected with a bearded face.
I broke the surface again, gasping for breath. Bes was half-drowning next to me, yelling: “Stupid—glub, glub—trying to save your glub glub.”
The demon pulled me under again, but suddenly my thoughts were clearer. Maybe that last mouthful of oxygen had done the trick. Or maybe punching Bes had snapped me out of my panic.
I remembered Horus had been in a situation like this before. Set had once tried to drown him, pulling him into the Nile.
I latched on to that memory and made it my own.
I reached into the Duat and channeled the power of the war god into my body. Rage filled me. I would not be pinned down. I followed the Path of Horus. I would not let a stupid liquid mummy drown me in three feet of water.
My vision turned red. I screamed, expelling the water from my lungs in one huge blast.
WHOOOM! The Nile exploded. I collapsed on a field of mud.
At first I was too tired to do anything but cough. When I managed to stagger to my feet and wipe the silt out of my eyes, I saw that the river had changed its course. It now curved around the ruins of the village. Exposed in the glistening red mud were bricks and boards, trash, old clothes, the fender of a car, and bones that might’ve been animal or human. A few fish flopped around, wondering where the river had gone. There was no sign of the water demons. About ten feet away, Bes was scowling at me in annoyance. He had a bloody nose and was buried up to his waist in mud.
“Usually when you part a river,” he grumbled, “it doesn’t involve punching a dwarf. Now, get me out of here!”
I managed to pry him free, which caused a sucking noise so impressive that I wished I had recorded it. [And no, Sadie, I’m not going to try to make it for the microphone.]
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean to—”
He waved aside the apology. “You handled the water demons. That’s what matters. Now we gotta see if you can handle that.”
I turned and saw the tomb.
It was a rectangular pit about the size of a walk-in closet, lined with stone blocks. Steps led down to a closed stone door etched with hieroglyphs. The largest was the symbol for the House of Life:
“Those demons were guarding the entrance,” Bes said. “There may be worse inside.”
Underneath the symbol, I recognized a row of phonetic hieroglyphs:
“Z—I—A,” I read. “Zia’s inside.”
“And that,” Bes muttered, “is what we call in the magic business a trap. Last chance to change your mind, kid.”
But I wasn’t really listening. Zia was down there. Even if I’d known what was about to happen, I don’t think I could’ve stopped myself. I climbed down the steps and pushed open the door.
14. At the Tomb of Zia Rashid
THE SARCOPHAGUS was made of water.
It was an oversize human figure with rounded feet, wide shoulders, and a larger-than-life smiling face, like other Egyptian coffins I’d seen; but the whole thing was sculpted from pure glowing liquid. It sat on a stone dais in the middle of a square chamber. Egyptian art decorated the walls, but I didn’t pay too much attention to that.
Inside the sarcophagus, Zia Rashid floated in white robes. Her arms were crossed over her chest. In her hands she gripped a shepherd’s crook and a war flail, the symbols of a pharaoh. Her staff and wand floated at her side. Her short black hair drifted around her face, which was just as beautiful as I remembered. If you’ve ever seen the famous sculpture of Queen Nefertiti, Zia reminded me of her, with the raised eyebrows, high cheekbones, graceful nose, and perfect red lips.
[Sadie says I’m overdoing it with the description, but it’s true. There’s a reason Nefertiti was called the most beautiful woman in the world.]
As I approached the sarcophagus, the water began to shimmer. A current rippled down the sides, tracing the same symbol over and over:
Bes made a rumbling sound in his throat. “You didn’t tell me she was a godling.”
I hadn’t thought to mention it, but of course that’s why Iskandar had hidden Zia away. When our dad unleashed the gods at the British Museum, one of them—the river goddess Nephthys—had chosen Zia for a host.
“That’s the symbol of Nephthys?” I guessed.
Bes nodded. “Didn’t you say this girl was a fire elementalist?”
“Hmph. Not a good combination. No wonder the Chief Lector put her in suspended animation. A fire magician hosting a water goddess—that could kill her, unless…huh, that’s pretty clever.”