When we reached the water tower, I didn’t see any obvious tomb entrance. The tower looked quite old—four rusty steel posts holding a round tank the size of a garage about fifteen meters in the air. The tank had a slow leak. Every few seconds water dropped from the sky and smacked against the hard-packed sand underneath. There wasn’t much else in sight except for more palm trees, a few tarnished farm tools, and a weathered plywood sign lying on the ground. The sign was spray-painted in Arabic and English, probably from some attempt by the farmer to sell his wares in the market. The English read: Dates—best price. Cold Bebsi.

“Bebsi?” I asked.

“Pepsi,” Walt said. “I read about that on the Internet. There’s no ‘p’ in Arabic. Everyone here calls soda Bebsi.”

“So you have to have Bebsi with your bizza?”

“Brobably.”

I snorted. “If this is a famous dig site, shouldn’t there be more activity? Archaeologists? Ticket booths? Souvenir merchants?”

“Maybe Bast sent us to a secret entrance,” Walt said. “Better than sneaking past a bunch of guards and caretakers.”

A secret entrance sounded quite intriguing, but unless the water tower was a magic teleporter, or one of the date trees had a concealed door, I wasn’t sure where this oh-so-helpful entrance might be. I kicked the Bebsi sign. There was nothing underneath except more sand, slowly turning to mud from the drip, drip, drip of the leaky tower.

Then I looked more closely at the wet spot on the ground.

“Hang on.” I knelt. The water was pooling in a little canal, as if the sand were seeping into a subterranean crack. The crevice was about a meter long and no wider than a pencil, but much too straight to be natural. I dug in the sand. Six centimeters down, my fingernails scraped stone.

“Help me clear this,” I told Walt.

A minute later we’d uncovered a flat paving stone about one meter square. I tried to work my fingers under the wet edges, but the stone was too thick and much too heavy to lift.

“We can use something as a lever,” Walt suggested. “Pry it up.”

“Or,” I said, “stand back.”

Walt looked ready to protest, but when I brought out my staff, he knew enough to get out of the way. With my new understanding of godly magic, I didn’t so much think about what I needed as feel a connection to Isis. I remembered a time when she’d found her husband’s coffin grown into the trunk of a cypress tree, and in her anger and desperation she blew the tree apart. I channeled those emotions and pointed at the stone. “Ha-di!”

Good news: the spell worked even better than in St. Petersburg. The hieroglyph glowed at the end of my staff, and the stone was blasted to rubble, revealing a dark hole underneath.

Bad news: that’s not all I destroyed. Around the hole, the ground began to crumble. Walt and I scrambled backward as more stones fell into the pit, and I realized I’d just destabilized the entire roof of a subterranean room. The hole widened until it reached the support legs of the water tower. The water tower began to creak and sway.

“Run!” Walt yelled.

We didn’t stop until we were hiding behind a palm tree thirty meters away. The water tower sprang a hundred different leaks, wobbled back and forth like a drunken man, then fell toward us and shattered, soaking us from head to toe and sending a flood through the rows of palm trees.

The noise was so deafening, it must’ve been heard throughout the oasis.

“Oops,” I said.

Walt looked at me like I was mad. I suppose I was guilty as charged. But it’s just so bloody tempting to blow things up, isn’t it?

We ran to the Sadie Kane Memorial Crater. It was now the size of a swimming pool. Five meters down, under a pile of sand and rocks, were rows of mummies, all wrapped in old cloth and laid out on stone slabs. The mummies were now flattened, I’m afraid, but I could tell they’d been brightly painted with red, blue, and gold.

“Golden mummies.” Walt looked horrified. “Part of the tomb system that hasn’t been excavated yet. You just ruined—”

“I did say Oops. Now, help me down there, before the owner of this water tower shows up with a shotgun.”

16. …But Not as Evil as Romans

TO BE FAIR, THE MUMMIES in that particular room were mostly ruined already, thanks to the moisture from the leaking tower above. Just add water to mummies for a truly horrible smell.

We climbed over the rubble and found a corridor leading deeper underground. I couldn’t tell whether it was natural or man-made, but it snaked a good forty meters through solid rock before opening into another burial chamber. This room had not been damaged by water. Everything was remarkably well preserved. Walt had brought torches [flashlights, for you Americans], and in the dim light, on stone slabs and in niches carved along the walls, gold-painted mummies glittered. There were at least a hundred in this room alone, and more corridors led off in each direction.

Walt shined his light on three mummies lying together on a central dais. Their bodies were completely wrapped in linen, so they looked rather like bowling pins. Their likenesses were painted on the linen in meticulous detail—hands crossed over their chests, jewelry adorning their necks, Egyptian kilt and sandals, and a host of protective hieroglyphs and images of the gods in a border on each side. All this was typical Egyptian art, but their faces were done in a completely different style —realistic portraits that looked cut-and-pasted onto the mummies’ heads. On the left was a man with a thin, bearded face and sad dark eyes. On the right was a beautiful woman with curly auburn hair. What really pulled at my heart, though, was the mummy in the middle. Its body was tiny—obviously a child. Its portrait showed a boy of about seven years old. He had the man’s eyes and the woman’s hair.

“A family,” Walt guessed. “Buried together.”

There was something tucked under the child’s right elbow —a small wooden horse, possibly his favorite toy. Even though this family had been dead for thousands of years, I couldn’t help getting a bit teary-eyed. It was so bloody sad.

“How did they die?” I wondered.

From the corridor directly in front of us, a voice echoed, “The wasting disease.”

My staff was instantly in my hand. Walt trained his torch on the doorway, and a ghost stepped into the room. At least I assumed he was a ghost, because he was see-through. He was a heavy older man with short-cropped white hair, bulldog jowls, and a cross expression. He wore Roman-style robes and kohl eyeliner, so he looked rather like Winston Churchill—if the old prime minister had thrown a wild toga party and gotten his face painted.

“Newly dead?” He eyed us warily. “Haven’t seen any new arrivals in a long time. Where are your bodies?”

Walt and I glanced at each other.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re wearing them.”

The ghost’s eyebrows shot up. “Di immortales! You’re alive?”

“So far,” Walt said.

“Then you’ve brought offerings?” The man rubbed his hands. “Oh, they said you would come, but we’ve waited ages! Where have you been?”

“Um…” I didn’t want to disappoint a ghost, especially as he was beginning to glow more brightly, which in magic is often a prelude to exploding. “Perhaps we should introduce ourselves. I’m Sadie Kane. This is Walt—”

“Of course! You need my name for the spells.” The ghost cleared his throat. “I am Appius Claudius Iratus.”

I got the feeling I was supposed to be impressed. “Right. That’s not Egyptian, I gather?”

The ghost looked offended. “Roman, of course. Following those cursed Egyptian customs is how we all ended up here to begin with! Bad enough I got stationed in this god-forsaken oasis—as if Rome needs an entire legion to guard some date farms! Then I had the bad luck to fall ill. Told my wife on my deathbed: ‘Lobelia, an old-fashioned Roman burial. None of this local nonsense.’ But no! She never listened. Had to mummify me, so my ba is stuck here forever. Women! She probably moved back to Rome and died in the proper way.”

“Lobelia?” I asked, because really I hadn’t heard much after that. What sort of parents name their child Lobelia?

The ghost huffed and crossed his arms. “But you don’t want to hear me ramble on, do you? You may call me Mad Claude. That’s the translation in your tongue.”

I wondered how a Roman ghost could speak English—or if I simply understood him through some sort of telepathy. Either way, I was not relieved to find out his name was Mad Claude.

“Um…” Walt raised his hand. “Are you mad as in angry? Or mad as in crazy?”

“Yes,” Claude said. “Now, about those offerings. I see staffs, wands, and amulets, so I assume you’re priests with the local House of Life? Good, good. Then you’ll know what to do.”

“What to do!” I agreed heartily. “Yes, quite!”

Claude’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, Jupiter. You’re novices, aren’t you? Did the temple even explain the problem to you?”

“Um—”

He stormed over to the family of mummies we’d been looking at. “This is Lucius, Flavia, and little Purpens. They died of the wasting plague. I’ve been here so long, I could tell you practically everyone’s story!”

“They talk to you?” I stepped away from the mummy family. Suddenly little Purpens didn’t seem so cute.

Mad Claude waved his hand impatiently. “Sometimes, yes. Not as much as in the old days. Their spirits sleep most of the time, now. The point is, no matter how bad a death these people had, their fate after death has been worse! All of us —all these Romans living in Egypt—got an Egyptian burial. Local customs, local priests, mummify the bodies for the next life, et cetera. We thought we were covering our bases—two religions, twice the insurance. Problem was, you foolish Egyptian priests didn’t know what you were doing anymore! By the time we Romans came along, most of your magic knowledge was lost. But did you tell us that? No! You were happy to take our coins and do a shoddy job.”

“Ah.” I backed away a bit more from Mad Claude, who was now glowing quite dangerously. “Well, I’m sure the House of Life has a customer service number for that—”

“You can’t go halfway with these Egyptian rituals,” he grumbled. “We ended up with mummified bodies and eternal souls tethered to them, and no one followed up! No one said the prayers to help us move to the next life. No one made offerings to nourish our bas. Do you know how hungry I am?”

“We’ve got some beef jerky,” Walt offered.

“We couldn’t go to Pluto’s realm like good Romans,” Mad Claude went on, “because our bodies had been prepared for a different afterlife. We couldn’t go to the Duat, because we weren’t given the proper Egyptian rituals. Our souls were stuck here, attached to these bodies. Do you have any idea how boring it is down here?”

“So, if you’re a ba,” I asked, “why don’t you have a bird’s body?”

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