“I told you! We’re all mixed up, not pure Roman ghost, not proper ba. If I had wings, believe me, I’d fly out of here! By the way, what year is it? Who’s the emperor now?”
“Oh, his name is—” Walt coughed, then rushed on: “You know, Claude, I’m sure we can help you.”
“We can?” I said. “Oh, right! We can!”
Walt nodded encouragingly. “The thing is, we have to find something first.”
“A scroll,” I put in. “Part of the Book of Ra.”
Claude scratched his considerable jowls. “And this will help you send our souls to the next life?”
“Well…” I said.
“Yes,” Walt said.
“Possibly,” I said. “We don’t really know until we find it. It’s supposed to wake Ra, you see, which will help the Egyptian gods. I’d think that would improve your chances at getting into the afterlife. Besides, I’m on good terms with the Egyptian gods. They pop over for tea from time to time. If you helped us, I could put in a word.”
Honestly, I’d just been making up things to say. I’m sure this will surprise you, but I sometimes ramble when I get nervous.
[Oh, stop laughing, Carter.]
At any rate, Mad Claude’s expression became shrewder. He studied us as if assessing our bank accounts. I wondered if the Roman Empire had used chariot salesmen, and if Mad Claude had been one. I imagined him on a Roman commercial in a cheap plaid toga: I must be crazy to be giving away chariots at these prices!
“On good terms with the Egyptian gods,” he mused. “Put in a word, you say.”
Then he turned to Walt. Claude’s expression was so calculating, so eager, it made my skin crawl. “If the scroll you seek is ancient, it would be in the oldest section of the catacombs. Some natives were buried there, you know, long before we Romans came along. Their bas have all moved on now. No trouble getting into the Duat for them. But their burial sites are still intact, lots of relics and so on.”
“You’d be willing to show us?” Walt asked, with much more excitement than I could’ve managed.
“Oh, yes.” Mad Claude gave us his best “used chariot salesman” smile. “And later, we’ll talk about an appropriate fee, eh? Come along, my friends. It’s not far.”
Note to self: When a ghost offers to guide you deeper into a burial site and his name includes the word Mad, it’s best to say no.
As we passed through tunnels and chambers, Mad Claude gave us a running commentary on the various mummies. Caligula the date merchant: “Horrible name! But once you’re named for an emperor, even a psychotic one, you can’t do much about it. He died betting someone he could kiss a scorpion.” Varens the slaver: “Disgusting man. Tried to go into the gladiator business. If you give a slave a sword, well…you can guess how he died!” Octavia the legion commander’s wife: “Went completely native! Had her cat mummified. She even believed she had the blood of the pharaohs and tried to channel the spirit of Isis. Her death, needless to say, was painful.”
He grinned at me like this was extremely funny. I tried not to look horrified.
What struck me most was the sheer number and variety of the mummies. Some were wrapped in real gold. Their portraits were so lifelike, their eyes seemed to follow me as we passed. They sat on ornately carved marble slabs surrounded by valuables: jewelry, vases, even some shabti. Other mummies looked as if nursery school children had made them in art class. They were crudely wrapped, painted with shaky hieroglyphs and little stick-figure gods. Their portraits were not much better than I could’ve done—which is to say, dreadful. Their bodies were stuffed three-deep in shallow niches, or simply piled in the corners of the room.
When I asked about them, Mad Claude was dismissive. “Commoners. Wannabes. Didn’t have money for artists and funeral rites, so they tried the do-it-yourself approach.”
I looked down at the portrait of the nearest mummy, her face a crude finger-painted image. I wondered if her grieving children had made it—one last gift for their mother. Despite the bad quality, I found it rather sweet. They had no money and no artistic skill, but they’d done their best to lovingly send her to the afterlife. Next time I saw Anubis, I would ask him about this. A woman like that deserved a chance at happiness in the next world, even if she couldn’t pay. We had quite enough snobbery in this world without exporting it to the hereafter.
Walt trailed behind us, not speaking. He’d shine his light on this mummy or that, as if pondering each one’s fate. I wondered if he was thinking of King Tut, his famous ancestor, whose tomb had been in a cavern not too different from this.
After several more long tunnels and crowded mummy rooms, we arrived in a burial chamber that was clearly much older. The wall paintings had faded, but they looked more authentically Egyptian, with the sideways-walking people and hieroglyphs that actually formed words, rather than simply providing decoration. Instead of realistic facial portraits, the mummies had the generic wide-eyed, smiling faces I’d seen on most Egyptian death masks. A few had crumbled to dust. Others were encased in stone sarcophagi.
“Natives,” Mad Claude confirmed. “Egyptian nobles from before Rome took over. What you’re looking for should be somewhere in this area.”
I scanned the room. The only other doorway was blocked with boulders and debris. While Walt began searching, I remembered what Bes had said—that the first two scrolls of Ra might help me find the third. I pulled them from my bag, hoping they would point the way like a dowsing rod, but nothing happened.
From the other side of the room, Walt called, “What’s this?”
He was standing in front of some sort of shrine—a niche set into the wall, with the statue of a man wrapped like a mummy. The figure was carved from wood, decorated with jewels and precious metals. His wrappings glistened like pearl in the light of the torch. He held a golden staff with a silver djed symbol on top. Around his feet stood several golden rodents—rats, perhaps. The skin of his face gleamed turquoise blue.
“It’s my dad,” I guessed. “Er…I mean Osiris, isn’t it?”
Mad Claude arched his eyebrows. “Your dad?”
Fortunately, Walt saved me from explaining. “No,” he said. “Look at his beard.”
The statue’s beard was rather unusual. It was pencil thin from his sideburns around his jaw line, with a perfectly straight bit coming down for a goatee—as if someone had traced the beard with a grease pen, then stuck the pen on his chin.
“And the collar,” Walt continued. “It’s got a tassel thing hanging down in back. You don’t see that with Osiris. And those animals at his feet…are those rats? I remember some story about rats—
“I thought you were priests,” Mad Claude grumped. “Obviously, the god is Ptah.”
“Ptah?” I’d heard quite a few odd Egyptian god names, but this was a new one for me. “Ptah, son of Pitooey? Is he the god of spitting?”
Claude glared at me. “Are you always so irreverent?”
“A novice and a heretic,” he said. “Just my luck. Well, girl, I shouldn’t have to teach you about your own gods, but as I understand it, Ptah was the god of craftsmen. We compared him to our Roman god Vulcan.”
“Then what’s he doing in a tomb?” Walt asked.
Claude scratched his nonexistent head. “I’ve never been sure, actually. You don’t see him in most Egyptian funeral rites.”
Walt pointed to the statue’s staff. When I looked more closely, I realized the djed symbol was combined with something else, a curved top that looked strangely familiar.
“That’s the symbol was,” Walt said. “It means power. Lots of the gods had staffs like that, but I never realized it looks like—”
“Yes, yes,” Claude said impatiently. “The priest’s ceremonial knife for opening the mouth of the dead. Honestly, you Egyptian priests are hopeless. No wonder we conquered you so easily.”
My hand acted quite on its own, reaching into my bag and bringing out the black netjeri blade Anubis had given me.
Mad Claude’s eyes glinted. “Ah, so you’re not hopeless. That’s perfect! With that knife and the proper spell, you should be able to touch my mummy and release me into the Duat.”
“No,” I said. “No, there’s more to it. The knife, the Book of Ra, this statue of the spit god. It all fits together somehow.”
Walt’s face lit up. “Sadie, Ptah was more than the craftsman god, right? Didn’t they call him the God of Opening?”
“I thought you taught us that. Or maybe it was Carter.”
“Boring bit of information? Probably Carter.”
“But it’s important,” Walt insisted. “Ptah was a creation god. In some legends, he created the souls of mankind just by speaking a word. He could revive any soul, and open any door.”
My eyes drifted to the debris-filled doorway, the only other exit from the room. “Open any door?”
I held up the two scrolls of Ra and walked toward the collapsed tunnel. The scrolls became uncomfortably warm.
“The last scroll is on the other side,” I said. “We need to get past this rubble.”
I held the black knife in one hand and the scrolls in the other. I spoke the command for Open. Nothing happened. I went back to the statue of Ptah and tried the same thing. No luck.
“Hullo, Ptah?” I called. “Sorry about the spit comment. Look, we’re trying to get the third scroll of Ra, which is on the other side, there. I suppose you were placed here to open a path. So would you mind terribly?”
Still nothing happened.
Mad Claude gripped the trim of his toga as if he wanted to strangle us with it. “Look, I don’t know why you need this scroll to free us if you’ve got the knife. But why don’t you try an offering? All gods need offerings.”
Walt rummaged through his supplies. He placed a juice pouch and a bit of beef jerky at the foot of the statue. The statue did nothing. Even the gold rats at his feet apparently didn’t want our beef jerky.
“Bloody spit god.” I threw myself down on the dusty ground. I had a mummy on either side of me, but I didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t believe we were so close to the last scroll, after fighting demons, gods, and Russian assassins, and now we’d been stopped by a pile of rocks.
“I hate to suggest it,” Walt said, “but you could blast through with the ha-di spell.”
“And bring down the ceiling on top of us?” I said.
“You’d die,” Claude agreed. “Which isn’t an experience I’d recommend.”
Walt knelt next to me. “There’s got to be something…” He took stock of his amulets.
Mad Claude paced the room. “I still don’t understand. You’re priests. You have the ceremonial knife. Why can’t you release us?”
“The knife isn’t for you!” I snapped. “It’s for Ra!”