“The combination of water over fire could also mask Zia’s powers. If Iskandar was trying to hide her from Apophis…” His eyes widened. “Holy Mother Nut. Is that the crook and flail?”
“Yeah, I think.” I wasn’t sure why he acted so shocked. “Didn’t a lot of important people get buried with those?”
Bes gave me an incredulous look. “You don’t understand, kid. Those are the original crook and flail, the royal instruments of Ra.”
Suddenly I felt like I’d swallowed a marble. I don’t think I could’ve been more surprised if Bes had said By the way, you’re leaning against a hydrogen bomb. The crook and flail of Ra were the most powerful symbols of the most powerful Egyptian god. Yet in Zia’s hands they didn’t appear to be anything special. The crook looked like an oversize gold and blue candy cane. The flail was a wooden rod with three spiked chains at the end. They didn’t glow or say PROPERTY OF RA.
“Why would they be here?” I asked.
“Dunno,” Bes said, “but that’s them. Last I heard they were locked in the First Nome’s vaults. Only the Chief Lector had access. I guess Iskandar buried them with your friend here.”
“To protect her?”
Bes shrugged, clearly baffled. “That’d be like wiring your home security system to a nuclear missile. Complete overkill. No wonder Apophis hasn’t been able to attack her. That’s some serious protection against Chaos.”
“What happens if I wake her?”
“The spells shielding her will be broken. That could be why Apophis led you here. Once Zia’s out of that sarcophagus, she’s an easier target. As to why Apophis would want her dead, or why Iskandar would go to such trouble to guard her—your guess is as good as mine.”
I studied Zia’s face. For three months, I’d dreamed of finding her. Now I was almost too scared to wake her. By breaking the sleep spell, I might accidentally hurt her, or leave her open to an attack from Apophis. Even if I succeeded, what if she woke up and decided that she hated me? I wanted to believe she possessed shared memories with her shabti, so that she would remember the times we’d had together. But if she hadn’t, I wasn’t sure I could stand the rejection.
I touched the water coffin.
“Careful, kid,” Bes warned.
Magic energy rippled through me. It was subtle—like looking in the face of the water demon—but I could sense Zia’s thoughts. She was trapped in a dream of drowning. She was trying to hold on to her last good memory: Iskandar’s kindly face as he placed the crook and flail in her hands: Keep these, my dear. You will need them. And do not fear. Dreams will not bother you.
But Iskandar had been wrong. Nightmares had invaded her sleep. The voice of Apophis hissed in the darkness: I destroyed your family. And I am coming for you. Zia saw the demolition of her village over and over, while Aphophis laughed, and the spirit of Nephthys churned uncomfortably inside her. Iskandar’s magic had trapped the goddess too in an enchanted sleep, and she tried to protect Zia, calling on the Nile to cover this chamber and shield them both from the Serpent. Still, she couldn’t stop the dreams. Zia had been having the same chaotic nightmare for three months, and her sanity was crumbling.
“I have to free her,” I said. “She’s partially conscious.”
Bes sucked air through his teeth. “That shouldn’t be possible, but if it’s true—”
“She’s in serious trouble.” I sank my hand deeper into the sarcophagus. I channeled the same kind of magic I’d used to part the river, only on a smaller scale. Slowly the water lost its shape, melting like an ice cube. Before Zia could spill off the dais, I caught her in my arms. She dropped the crook and flail. Her staff and wand clattered to the floor.
As the last of the sarcophagus trickled away, Zia’s eyes flew open. She tried to breathe but couldn’t seem to inhale.
“Bes, what’s wrong with her?” I said. “What do I do?”
“The goddess,” he said. “Zia’s body is rejecting the spirit of Nephthys. Get her to the river!”
Zia’s face started to turn blue. I gathered her in my arms and raced up the slippery stairs, which wasn’t easy with Zia kicking and hitting me all the way. I managed to make it across the mud without falling and eased her down next to the riverbank.
She clawed at her throat, her eyes full of fear; but as soon as her body touched the Nile, a blue aura flickered around her. Her face turned back to its normal color. Water gushed from her mouth like she’d turned into a human fountain. Looking back on it, I suppose that was pretty gross, but at the time I was too relieved to care.
From the surface of the river rose the watery form of a woman in a blue dress. Most Egyptian gods grew weak in running water, but Nephthys was clearly an exception. She glowed with power. She wore a silver Egyptian crown on her long black hair. Her regal face reminded me of Isis, but this woman had a gentler smile and kinder eyes.
“Hello, Bes.” Her voice was soft and rustling, like a breeze through the river grass.
“Nephthys,” said the dwarf. “Long time.”
The water goddess looked down at Zia, who was shivering in my arms, still gasping for breath.
“I am sorry for using her as a host,” Nephthys said. “It was a poor choice, which almost destroyed us both. Guard her well, Carter Kane. She has a good heart, and an important destiny.”
“What destiny?” I asked. “How do I protect her?”
Instead of answering, the spirit of Nephthys melted into the Nile.
Bes grunted with approval. “The Nile’s where she should be. That’s her proper body.”
Zia sputtered and doubled over.
“She still can’t breathe!” I did the only thing I could think of. I tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Yes, okay, I know how that sounds, but I wasn’t thinking straight.
[Stop laughing, Sadie.]
Honestly, I wasn’t trying to take advantage. I was just trying to help.
Zia didn’t see it that way. She punched me in the chest so hard, I made a sound like a squeaky toy. Then she turned to one side and retched.
I didn’t think my breath was that bad.
When she focused on me again, her eyes blazed with anger —just like old times.
“Don’t you dare kiss me!” she managed.
“I wasn’t—I didn’t—”
“Where’s Iskandar?” she demanded. “I thought…” Her eyes lost their focus. “I had a dream that…” She started to tremble. “Eternal Egypt, he’s not… He can’t be—”
“Zia—” I tried to put my hand on her shoulder, but she pushed me away. She turned toward the river and began to sob, her fingers clawing the mud.
I wanted to help her. I couldn’t stand to see her in pain. But I looked at Bes, and he tapped his bloody nose, as if warning me: Go slow, or she’ll give you one of these.
“Zia, we’ve got a lot to talk about,” I said, trying not to sound heartbroken. “Let’s get you away from the river.”
She sat on the steps of her own tomb and hugged her arms. Her clothes and hair were starting to dry, but in spite of the warm night and the dry wind from the desert, she still trembled.
At my request, Bes brought up her staff and wand from the tomb, along with the crook and flail, but he didn’t look happy about it. He handled the items as if they were toxic.
I tried to explain things to Zia: about the shabti, Iskandar’s death, Desjardins’ becoming the Chief Lector, and what had transpired in the last three months since the battle with Set, but I’m not sure how much she heard. She kept shaking her head, pressing her hands over her ears.
“Iskandar can’t be dead.” Her voice quavered. “He wouldn’t have…he wouldn’t have done this to me.”
“He was trying to protect you,” I said. “He didn’t know you’d have nightmares. I’ve been looking for you—”
“Why?” she demanded. “What do you want from me? I remember you from London, but after that—”
“I met your shabti in New York. She—you—took Sadie and me to the First Nome. You started our training. We worked together in New Mexico, then at the Red Pyramid—”
“No.” She shut her eyes tight. “No, that wasn’t me.”
“But you can remember what the shabti did. Just try—”
“You’re a Kane!” she cried. “You’re all outlaws. And you’re here with—with that.” She gestured at Bes.
“That has a name,” Bes grumbled. “I’m starting to wonder why I drove halfway across Egypt to wake you.”
“You’re a god!” Zia said. Then she turned to me. “And if you summoned him, you’ll be put to death!”
“Listen, girl,” Bes said. “You were hosting the spirit of Nephthys. So if anyone gets put to death—”
Zia snatched up her staff. “Be gone!”
Fortunately, she wasn’t back to full strength. She managed to shoot a weak column of fire at Bes’s face, but the dwarf god easily swatted the flames aside.
I grabbed the end of her staff. “Zia, stop! He’s not the enemy.”
“Can I punch her?” Bes asked. “You punched me, kid. Seems only fair.”
“No punching,” I said. “No blasting with flames. Zia, we’re on the same side. The equinox starts tomorrow at sunset, and Apophis will break out of his prison. He means to destroy you. We’re here to rescue you.”
The name Apophis hit her hard. She struggled to breathe, as if her lungs were filling with water again. “No. No, it isn’t possible. Why should I believe you?”
“Because…” I hesitated. What could I say? Because we’d fallen for each other three months ago? Because we’ve been through so much together and saved each other’s lives? Those memories weren’t hers. She remembered me—sort of. But our time together was like a movie she’d watched, with an actress playing her role, doing things she never would’ve done.
“You don’t know me,” she said bitterly. “Now, go, before I’m forced to fight you. I’ll make my own way back to the First Nome.”
“Maybe she’s right, kid,” Bes said. “We should leave. We’ve worked enough magic here to send up all kinds of alarm bells.”
I clenched my fists. My worst fears had come true. Zia didn’t like me. Everything we’d shared had crumbled with her ceramic replica. But as I may have mentioned, I get stubborn when I’m told I can’t do something.
“I’m not leaving you.” I gestured at the ruins of her village. “Zia, this place was destroyed by Apophis. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t your dad’s fault. The Serpent was targeting you. Iskandar raised you because he sensed you had an important destiny. He hid you with the pharaoh’s crook and flail for the same reason—not just because you were hosting a goddess, but because he was dying and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to protect you anymore. I don’t know what your destiny is, exactly, but—”
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