The lines of magic reached my feet. They wove like vines up the avatar’s legs until I was tangled to the waist. They squeezed against my shielding, draining my magic, and I heard Menshikov’s voice forcing its way into my mind.
Snake, the voice whispered. You are a slithering reptile.
I fought back my terror. I’d been turned into an animal against my will once before, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. This time, it was happening in slow motion. The combat avatar fought to maintain its form, but Menshikov’s magic was strong. The glowing white vines kept rising, encircling my chest.
I swiped at Menshikov with my crook. The invisible force hooked him around the neck and lifted him off the ground.
“Do it!” he choked out. “Show me—your power—godling!”
I raised my flail. One good hit, and I could smash Vlad Menshikov like a bug.
“Won’t matter!” he gasped, clawing at his neck. “Spell will —defeat you anyway. Show us you’re—a murderer, Kane!”
I glanced at Zia’s terrified face, and I hesitated too long. The white vines encircled my arms. The combat avatar crumpled to its knees, and I dropped Menshikov.
Pain wracked my body. My blood turned cold. The avatar’s limbs shrank, the hawk’s head slowly changing into the head of a serpent. I could feel my heart slowing, my vision darkening. The taste of venom filled my mouth.
Zia cried out. “Stop it! This is too much!”
“On the contrary,” Menshikov said, rubbing his chafed neck. “He deserves worse. Chief Lector, you saw how this boy threatened you. He wants the pharaoh’s throne. He must be destroyed.”
Zia tried to run to me, but Desjardins held her back.
“Discontinue the spell, Vladimir,” he said. “The boy can be contained in more humane ways.”
“Humane, my lord? He’s barely human!”
The two magicians locked eyes. I don’t know what would’ve happened—but just then a portal opened under Bes’s cage.
I’ve seen plenty of portals, but none like this. The whirlpool opened level with the ground, sucking down a trampoline-size area of red sand, dead fish, old lumber, pottery shards, and one glowing fluorescent cage containing a dwarf god. As the cage entered the vortex, the bars broke into splinters of light. Bes unfroze, found himself halfway submerged in sand, and did some creative cursing. Then my sister and Walt shot straight up out of the portal, suspended horizontally, as if they were running toward the sky. When gravity took over, they waved their arms and fell back into the sand. They might’ve been pulled under except Bes grabbed them both and managed to haul them out of the whirlpool.
Bes dumped them on firm ground. Then he turned to Vlad Menshikov, planted his feet, and ripped off his Hawaiian shirt and shorts like they were made of tissue. His eyes blazed with anger. His Speedo was embroidered with the words Dwarf Pride, which was something I really didn’t need to see.
Menshikov only had time to say, “How—”
“BOO!” yelled Bes.
The sound was like the blast of an H-bomb—or a U-bomb, for Ugly. The ground shook. The river rippled. My avatar collapsed, and Menshikov’s spell dissolved with it—the venom taste in my mouth subsiding, the pressure lifting so I could breathe again. Sadie and Walt were already on the ground. Zia had quickly backed away. But Menshikov and Desjardins got a full blast of ugly right in their faces.
Their expressions turned to astonishment, and they disintegrated on the spot.
After a moment of shock, Zia gasped. “You killed them!”
“Nah.” Bes dusted off his hands. “Just scared ’em back home. They may be unconscious for a few hours while their brains try to process my magnificent physique, but they’ll live. More important—” He scowled at Sadie and Walt. “You two had the nerve to anchor a portal on me? Do I look like a relic?”
Sadie and Walt wisely didn’t answer that. They got to their feet, brushing off the sand.
“It wasn’t our idea!” Sadie protested. “Ptah sent us here to help you.”
“Ptah?” I said. “Ptah, the god?”
“No, Ptah the date farmer. I’ll tell you later.”
“What’s wrong with your hair?” I asked. “It looks like a camel licked it.”
“Shut up.” Then she noticed Zia. “My god, is that her? The real Zia?”
Zia stumbled back, trying to light up her staff. “Get away!” The fire spluttered weakly.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Sadie promised.
Zia’s legs shook. Her hands trembled. Then she did the only logical thing for someone who’d been through her kind of day after a three-month coma. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she passed out.
Bes grunted. “Strong girl. She held up under a full frontal BOO! Still…we’d better pick her up and get out of here. Desjardins won’t stay gone forever.”
“Sadie,” I said, “did you get the scroll?”
She pulled all three scrolls out of her bag. Part of me was relieved. Part of me was frightened.
“We need to get to the Great Pyramid,” she said. “Please tell me you have a car.”
Not only did we have a car, we had a whole bunch of Bedouins. We returned their truck well after dark, but the Bedouins seemed happy to see us, even though we’d brought three extra people, one of them unconscious. Somehow Bes made a deal with them to drive us to Cairo. After a few minutes talking in their tent, he emerged wearing new robes. The Bedouins came out ripping the remains of his Hawaiian shirt into strips, which they carefully wrapped around their arms, their radio antenna, and their rearview mirror as good luck talismans.
We piled into the back of the truck. It was too crowded and noisy to talk much as we drove to Cairo. Bes told us to get some sleep while he kept watch. He promised he’d be nice to Zia if she woke up.
Sadie and Walt went straight to sleep, but I stared at the stars for a while. I was painfully aware of Zia—the real Zia—sleeping fitfully right next to me, and the magic weapons of Ra, the crook and the flail, now stashed in my bag. My body was still buzzing from the battle. Menshikov’s spell had been broken, but I could still hear his voice in my head, trying to turn me into a cold-blooded reptile—sort of like him.
Finally, I managed to close my eyes. Without magical protection, my ba drifted as soon as I fell asleep.
I found myself in the Hall of Ages, in front of the pharaoh’s throne. Between the columns on either side, holographic images shimmered. Just as Sadie had described, the edge of the magic curtain was turning from red to deep purple —indicating a new age. The images in purple were hard to make out, but I thought I saw two figures grappling in front of a burning chair.
“Yes,” said the voice of Horus. “The battle approaches.”
He appeared in a ripple of light, standing on the steps of the dais where the Chief Lector usually sat. He was in human form, a muscular young man with bronze skin and a shaved head. Jewels glinted on his leather battle armor, and his khopesh hung at his side. His eyes gleamed—one gold, one silver.
“How did you get here?” I asked. “Isn’t this place shielded against gods?”
“I’m not here, Carter. You are. But we were once joined. I am an echo in your mind—the part of Horus that never left you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just listen. Your situation has changed. You stand on the threshold of greatness.”
He pointed at my chest. I looked down and realized I wasn’t in my usual ba form. Instead of a bird, I was a human, dressed like Horus in Egyptian armor. In my hands were the crook and flail.
“These aren’t mine,” I said. “They were buried with Zia.”
“They could be yours,” Horus said. “They are the symbols of the pharaoh—like staff and wand, only a hundred times more powerful. Even with no practice, you were able to channel their power. Imagine what we could do together.” He gestured to the empty throne. “You could unite the House of Life as its leader. We could crush our enemies.”
I won’t deny: part of me felt a thrill. Months ago, the idea of being a leader scared me to death. Now things had changed. My own understanding of magic had grown. I’d spent three months teaching and turning our initiates into a team. I understood the threat we were facing more clearly, and I was beginning to understand how to channel the power of Horus without being overwhelmed. What if Horus was right, and I could lead the gods and magicians against Apophis? I liked the idea of smashing our enemies, getting back at the forces of Chaos that had turned our lives upside down.
Then I remembered the way Zia had looked at me when I was about to kill Vlad Menshikov—like I was the monster. I remembered what Desjardins had said about the bad old days when magician fought magician. If Horus was an echo in my mind, maybe I was being affected by his desire to rule. I knew Horus well now. He was a good guy in many ways—brave, honorable, righteous. But he was also ambitious, greedy, jealous, and single-minded when it came to his goals. And his biggest desire was to rule the gods.
“The crook and flail belong to Ra,” I said. “We have to wake him.”
Horus tilted his head. “Even though Apophis wants that to happen? Even though Ra is weak and old? I warned you about the divisions between the gods. You saw how Nekhbet and Babi tried to take matters into their own hands. The strife will only get worse. Chaos feeds on weak leaders, divided loyalties. That’s what Vladimir Menshikov is after.”
The Hall of Ages trembled. Along either wall, the curtain of purple light expanded. As the holographic scene widened, I could tell that the chair was a fiery throne, like the one Sadie had described in her vision of Ra’s boat. Two shadowy figures were locked in combat, grappling like wrestlers, but I couldn’t tell if they were trying to push each other into the chair, or trying to keep each other out of it.
“Did Menshikov really try to destroy the Book of Ra?” I asked.
Horus’s silver eye glinted. It always seemed a little brighter than his golden one, which made me feel disoriented, like the whole world was listing to one side. “Like most things Menshikov says, it was a partial truth. He once believed as you do. He thought he could bring back Ra and restore Ma’at. He imagined himself as the high priest of a glorious new temple, even more powerful than his ancestors. In his pride, he thought he could reconstruct the Book of Ra from the one scroll in his possession. He was wrong. Ra had taken great pains not to be wakened. The curses on the scroll burned Menshikov’s eyes. Sun fire seared his throat because he dared to read the words of the spell. After that, Menshikov turned bitter. At first he plotted to destroy the Book of Ra, but he did not have the power. Then he hit upon a new plan. He would awaken Ra, but for revenge. That’s what he’s been waiting for, all these years. That’s why he wants you to collect the scrolls and reconstruct the Book of Ra. Menshikov wants to see the old god swallowed by Apophis. He wants to see the world plunged into darkness and chaos. He is quite insane.”