“Stop!” She reignited the tip of her staff. It blazed more brightly this time. “You’re twisting my thoughts. You’re just like the nightmares.”
“You know I’m not.” I probably should’ve shut up, but I couldn’t believe Zia would actually incinerate me. “Before he died, Iskandar realized the old ways had to be brought back. That’s why he let Sadie and me live. Gods and the magicians have to work together. You—your shabti realized that, when we fought together at the Red Pyramid.”
“Kid,” Bes said more urgently. “We really should go.”
“Come with us,” I told Zia. “I know you’ve always felt alone. You never had anyone but Iskandar. I get that, but I’m your friend. We can protect you.”
“No one protects me!” She shot to her feet. “I am a scribe in the House of Life!”
Flames shot from her staff. I grabbed for my wand, but of course I’d lost it in the river. Instinctively my hands closed around the symbols of the pharaoh—the shepherd’s crook and the war flail. I held them up in a defensive X, and Zia’s staff shattered instantly. The fire dissipated.
Zia stumbled backward, smoke curling from her hands.
She stared at me in absolute shock. “You dare to use the symbols of Ra?”
I probably looked just as surprised. “I—I didn’t mean to! I just want to talk. You’ve got to be hungry. We’ve got food and water back at the pickup truck—”
“Carter!” Bes tensed. “Something’s wrong…”
He turned too late. A blinding white light exploded around him. When the spots cleared from my eyes, Bes was frozen in a cage of bars glowing like fluorescent tubes. Standing next to him were the two people I least wanted to see:
Michel Desjardins and Vlad the Inhaler.
Desjardins looked even older than he had in my vision. His graying hair and forked beard were long and unkempt. His cream-colored robes hung loosely on him. The leopard-skin cloak of the Chief Lector was slipping off his left shoulder.
Vlad Menshikov, on the other hand, looked well rested and ready for a good game of Torture-the-Kane. He wore a fresh white linen suit and carried a new serpent staff. His silver snake necklace glinted against his tie. On his curly gray hair sat a white fedora, probably to cover the head injuries Set had given him. He smiled as if he were delighted to see me, which might’ve been convincing—except he didn’t have his sunglasses anymore. Through the wreckage of scar tissue and red welts, those horrible eyes gleamed with hatred.
“As I told you, Chief Lector,” Menshikov rasped, “Kane’s next move would be to find this poor girl and attempt to turn her.”
“Desjardins, listen,” I said. “Menshikov’s a traitor. He summoned Set. He’s trying to free Apophis—”
“You see?” Menshikov cried. “As I predicted, the boy tries to blame his illegal magic on me.”
“What?” I said. “No!”
The Russian turned to examine Bes, who was still frozen in his glowing cage. “Carter Kane, you claim to be innocent, and yet we find you here consorting with gods. Who have we here? Bes the dwarf! Fortunately, my grandfather taught me an excellent binding spell for this particular creature. Grandfather also taught me many spells of torment which were…quite effective on the dwarf god. I’ve always wanted to try them.”
Desjardins wrinkled his nose in distaste, but I couldn’t tell whether it was because of me or of Menshikov.
“Carter Kane,” said the Chief Lector, “I knew you desired the pharaoh’s throne. I knew you were scheming with Horus. But now I find you holding the crook and flail of Ra, which were recently discovered to be missing from our vaults. Even for you, this is a brazen act of aggression.”
I looked down at the weapons in my hands. “It’s not like that. I just found them…”
I stopped. I couldn’t tell him the symbols had been buried with Zia. Even if he believed me, it might get Zia in trouble.
Desjardins nodded as if I’d confessed. To my surprise, he looked a little sad about it. “As I thought. Amos assured me you were an honorable servant of Ma’at. Instead, I find you are both a godling and thief.”
“Zia.” I turned toward her. “You’ve got to listen. You’re in danger. Menshikov is working for Apophis. He’ll kill you.”
Menshikov did a good job of looking offended. “Why would I wish to harm her? I sense she is free of Nephthys now. It’s not her fault the goddess invaded her form.” He held out his hand to Zia. “I am glad to see you safe, child. You are not to blame for Iskandar’s odd decisions in his final days—hiding you here, softening his attitude toward these Kane criminals. Come away from the traitor. Come home with us.”
Zia hesitated. “I had…I had strange dreams….”
“You are confused,” Desjardins said gently. “This is natural. Your shabti was relaying its memories to you. You saw Carter Kane and his sister make a pact with Set at the Red Pyramid. Rather than destroy the Red Lord, they let him go. Do you remember?”
Zia studied me warily.
“Remember why we did it,” I pleaded. “Chaos is rising. Apophis will break free in less than twenty-four hours. Zia…I…”
The words stuck in my throat. I wanted to tell her how I felt about her, but her eyes hardened like amber.
“I don’t know you,” she murmured. “I’m sorry.”
Menshikov smiled. “Of course you don’t, child. You have no business with traitors. Now, with Lord Desjardins’ permission, we will bring this young heretic back to the First Nome, where he will be given a fair trial”—Menshikov turned toward me, his ruined eyes burning with triumph—“and then, executed.”
15. Camels Are Evil…
YES, CARTER, THE WHOLE BUSINESS with the water demons must’ve been horrible. But I feel no sympathy for you, as 1) you brought that trip entirely on yourself, and 2) while you were rescuing Zia, I was dealing with camels.
Camels are disgusting.
You may think But, Sadie, these were magical camels, summoned by one of Walt’s amulets. Clever Walt! Surely magic camels are not as bad as normal camels.
I can now attest that magic camels spit like, poo like, drool like, bite like, eat like, and, most disgustingly, smell like normal camels. If anything, their disgustingness is magically enhanced.
We didn’t start with the camels, of course. We worked our way up to them in a series of progressively more horrible modes of transportation. First we took a bus to a small town west of Alexandria—a bus without air conditioning, packed with men who had not discovered the benefits of underarm deodorant. Then we hired a driver to take us to Bahariya—a driver who first had the nerve to play ABBA’s greatest hits and eat raw onions, then drove us to the middle of nowhere and—surprise!—introduced us to his friends, the bandits, who were keen to rob defenseless American teenagers. I was delighted to show them how my staff turned into a large hungry lion. As far as I know, the bandits and driver are still running. However, the car had stopped, and no amount of magic would revive the engine.
At that point, we decided it was best to stay off the grid. I could deal with dirty looks from the locals. I could deal with attracting attention as an oddity—an American/British girl with purple-streaked hair, traveling alone with a boy who did not look like her brother. In fact, that fairly well described my life. But after the highway robbery incident, Walt and I realized just how much the locals were watching us, marking us as a target. I had no desire to be singled out by more bandits, or Egyptian police, or, even worse, any magicians who might be lurking undercover. So we summoned the magic camels, charmed a handful of sand to point the way to Bahariya, and set out across the desert.
How was the desert, Sadie? You might wonder.
Thanks for asking. It was hot.
And another thing: Why do deserts have to be so bloody huge? Why can’t they be a few hundred meters wide, just enough to give you the idea of sandy, dry, and miserable, then yield to some proper landscape, like a meadow with a river, or a high street with shops?
No such luck for us. The desert went on forever. I could imagine Set, the god of the wastelands, laughing at us as we trudged over endless dunes. If this was his home, I didn’t think much of the way he’d decorated.
I named my camel Katrina. She was a natural disaster. She slobbered everywhere and seemed to think the purple streak in my hair was some kind of exotic fruit. She was obsessed with trying to eat my head. I named Walt’s camel Hindenburg. He was almost as large as a zeppelin and definitely as full of gas.
As we rode side by side, Walt seemed lost in thought, peering at the horizon. He’d rushed to my aid in Alexandria without hesitation. As I’d suspected, our shen amulets were connected. With a little concentration, I’d been able to send him a mental message about our predicament. With a bit more effort, I’d been able to literally pull him through the Duat to my side. Quite a handy magic item: instant hot guy.
Once here, though, he’d grown increasingly quiet and uncomfortable. He was dressed like a normal American teen on an outdoor excursion—a black workout top that fit him quite well, hiking pants, and boots. But if you looked more closely, you could tell he’d come equipped with every magic item he’d ever made. Around his neck hung a veritable zoo of animal amulets. Three rings glinted on each hand. Around his waist was a corded belt I’d never seen before, so I assumed it had magic powers. He also carried a backpack, no doubt stuffed with more handy bits and bobs. Despite this personal arsenal, Walt seemed awfully nervous.
“Lovely weather,” I prompted.
He frowned, coming out of his daze. “Sorry. I was…thinking.”
“You know, sometimes talking helps. For instance, oh, I don’t know. If I had a major problem, something life-threatening, and I’d only confided to Jaz…and if Bes knew what was going on, but wasn’t telling…and if I’d agreed to come on an adventure with a good friend, and had hours to chat as we crossed the desert, I might be tempted to tell her what was wrong.”
“Hypothetically,” he said.
“Yes. And if this girl were the last person on earth to know what was wrong with me, and really cared…well, I can imagine she’d get quite frustrated at being kept in the dark. And she might hypothetically strangle you—I mean me. Hypothetically.”
Walt managed a faint smile. Though I can’t say his eyes melted me like Anubis’s, he did have a gorgeous face. He looked nothing like my father, but he had the same sort of strength and rugged handsomeness—a kind of gentle gravity that made me feel safer, and a bit more firmly planted on the earth.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hide anything from you.”
“Fortunately, it’s not too late.”
Our camels plodded along. Katrina tried to kiss, or possibly spit on Hindenburg, and Hindenburg farted in response. I found this a depressing commentary on boy-girl relationships.