[Great response, I know. But what do you say to a story like that?]
On the dais next to Horus, the empty throne of the pharaoh seemed to undulate in the purple light. That chair had always intimidated me. Long ago, the pharaoh had been the most powerful ruler in the world. He had controlled an empire that lasted twenty times longer than my own country, the U.S., had existed. How could I be worthy of sitting there?
“You can do it, Carter,” Horus urged. “You can take control. Why take the risk of summoning Ra? Your sister will have to read the Book, you know. You saw what happened to Menshikov when just one scroll backfired. Can you imagine if three times that much power is unleashed on your sister?”
My mouth went dry. Bad enough I’d let Sadie go off to find the last scroll without me. How could I let her take a risk that might scar her like Vlad the Inhaler, or worse?
“You see the truth now,” Horus said. “Claim the crook and flail for yourself. Take the throne. Together, we can defeat Apophis. We can return to Brooklyn and protect your friends and your home.”
Home. That sounded so tempting. And our friends were in terrible danger. I’d seen firsthand what Vlad Menshikov could do. I imagined little Felix or timid Cleo trying to fight against that kind of magic. I imagined Menshikov turning our young initiates into helpless snakes. I wasn’t even sure Amos could stand against him. With the weapons of Ra, I could protect Brooklyn House.
Then I looked at the purple images flickering against the wall—two figures fighting before the fiery throne. That was our future. The key to success wasn’t me, or even Horus—it was Ra, the original king of Egyptian gods. Next to the fiery throne of Ra, the pharaoh’s seat seemed about as important as a La-Z-Boy recliner.
“We’re not enough,” I told Horus. “We need Ra.”
The god fixed me with his gold and silver eyes like I was a small bit of prey miles below him, and he was considering whether or not I was worth diving for.
“You do not understand the threat,” he decided. “Stay, Carter. And listen to your enemies plan your death.”
I heard footsteps in the shadows behind the throne, then familiar raspy breathing. I hoped my ba was invisible. Vladimir Menshikov stepped into the light, half-carrying his boss, Desjardins.
“Almost there, my lord,” Menshikov said.
The Russian looked well rested in a new white suit. The only sign of our recent fight was the bandage on his neck from where I’d crooked him. Desjardins, however, looked like he’d aged a decade in a few hours. He stumbled along, leaning on Menshikov. His face was gaunt. His hair had turned stark white, and I didn’t think it was all because he had seen Bes in a Speedo.
Menshikov tried to ease him onto the pharaoh’s throne, but Desjardins protested. “Never, Vladimir. The step. The step.”
“But surely, lord, in your condition—”
“Never!” Desjardins settled on the steps at the foot of the throne. I couldn’t believe how much worse he looked.
“Ma’at is failing.” Desjardins held out his hand. A weak cloud of hieroglyphs drifted from his fingertips into the air. “The power of Ma’at once sustained me, Vladimir. Now it seems to be sapping my life force. It is all I can do…” His voice trailed off.
“Fear not, my lord,” Menshikov said. “Once the Kanes are dealt with, all will be well.”
“Will it?” Desjardins looked up, and for a moment his eyes flared with anger like they used to. “Don’t you ever have doubts, Vladimir?”
“No, my lord,” said the Russian. “I have given my life to fighting the gods. I will continue to do so. If I may be so bold, Chief Lector, you should not have allowed Amos Kane into your presence. His words are like poison.”
Desjardins caught a hieroglyph from the air and studied it as it revolved in his palm. I didn’t recognize the symbol, but it reminded me of a traffic light with a stick figure guy standing next to it.
“Menhed,” Desjardins said. “The scribe’s palette.”
I looked at the dimly flickering symbol, and I could see the resemblance to the writing tools in my supply bag. The rectangle was the palette, with places for black and red ink. The stick figure on one side was a writing stylus, attached with a string.
“Yes, my lord,” Menshikov said. “How…interesting.”
“It was my grandfather’s favorite symbol,” Desjardins mused. “Jean-Fran?ois Champollion, you know. He broke the code of hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone—the first man outside the House of Life to do so.”
“Indeed, my lord. I have heard the story.” A thousand times, his expression seemed to say.
“He rose from nothing to become a great scientist,” Desjardins continued, “and a great magician—respected by mortals and magicians alike.”
Menshikov smiled like he was humoring a child who was becoming annoying. “And now you are Chief Lector. He would be proud.”
“Would he?” Desjardins wondered. “When Iskandar accepted my family into the House of Life, he said he welcomed the new blood and new ideas. He hoped we would reinvigorate the House. Yet what did we contribute? We changed nothing. We questioned nothing. The House has grown weak. We have fewer initiates every year.”
“Ah, my lord.” Menshikov bared his teeth. “Let me show you we are not weak. Your attack force is assembled.”
He clapped his hands. At the far end of the hall, the huge bronze doors opened. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, but as the small army marched toward us, I got more and more alarmed.
The dozen magicians were the least scary part of the group. They were mostly older men and women in traditional linen robes. Many had kohl around their eyes and hieroglyphic tattoos on their hands and faces. Some wore more amulets than Walt. The men had shaved heads; the women wore their hair short or tied back in ponytails. All of them had grim expressions, like an angry mob of peasants out to burn the Frankenstein monster, except instead of pitchforks they were armed with staffs and wands. Several had swords, too.
Marching on either side of them were demons—about twenty in all. I’d fought demons before, but something about these was different. They moved with more confidence, like they shared a sense of purpose. They radiated evil so strongly my ba felt like it was getting a suntan. Their skin was every color from green to black to violet. Some were dressed in armor, some in animal hides, some in flannel pajamas. One had a chain saw for a head. Another had a guillotine. A third had a foot sprouting between his shoulders.
Even scarier than the demons were the winged snakes. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking: “Not more snakes!” Believe me, after getting bit by the tjesu heru in St. Petersburg, I wasn’t happy to see them either. These weren’t three-headed, and they weren’t any bigger than normal snakes, but just looking at them gave me the creeps. Imagine a cobra with the wings of an eagle. Now imagine it zipping through the air, exhaling long jets of fire like a flamethrower. Half a dozen of these monsters circled the attack squad, darting in and out and spitting fire. It was a miracle none of the magicians got torched.
As the group approached, Desjardins struggled to his feet. The magicians and demons knelt before him. One of the winged snakes flew in front of the Chief Lector, and Desjardins snatched it out of the air with surprising speed. The snake wriggled in his fist, but didn’t try to strike.
“A uraeus?” Desjardins asked. “This is dangerous, Vladimir. These are creatures of Ra.”
Menshikov inclined his head. “They once served the temple of Amun-Ra, Chief Lector, but do not worry. Because of my ancestry, I can control them. I thought it fitting, using creatures of the sun god to destroy those who would wake him.”
Desjardins released the snake, which spouted fire and flew away.
“And the demons?” Desjardins asked. “Since when do we use creatures of Chaos?”
“They are well controlled, my lord.” Menshikov’s voice sounded strained, as if he were growing tired of humoring his boss. “These mages know the proper binding spells. I handpicked them from nomes around the world. They have great skill.”
The Chief Lector focused on an Asian man in blue robes. “Kwai, isn’t it?”
The man nodded.
“As I recall,” Desjardins said, “you were exiled to the Three-Hundredth Nome in North Korea for murdering a fellow magician. And you, Sarah Jacobi”—he pointed to a woman with white robes and spiky black hair—“you were sent to Antarctica for causing the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.”
Menshikov cleared his throat. “My lord, many of these magicians have had issues in the past, but—”
“They are ruthless murderers and thieves,” Desjardins said. “The worst of our House.”
“But they are anxious to prove their loyalty,” Menshikov assured him. “They are happy to do it!”
He grinned at his minions, as if encouraging them to look happy. None of them did.
“Besides, my lord,” Menshikov continued quickly, “if you want Brooklyn House destroyed, we must be ruthless. It is for the good of Ma’at.”
Desjardins frowned. “And you, Vladimir? Will you lead them?”
“No, my lord. I have full confidence that this, ah, fine group can deal with Brooklyn on their own. They will attack at sunset. As for me, I will follow the Kanes into the Duat and deal with them personally. You, my lord, should stay here and rest. I will send a scryer to your quarters so you may observe our progress.”
“‘Stay here,’” Desjardins quoted bitterly. “‘And observe.’”
Menshikov bowed. “We will save the House of Life. I swear it. The Kanes will be destroyed, the gods put back into exile. Ma’at will be restored.”
I hoped Desjardins would come to his senses and call off the attack. Instead, his shoulders slumped. He turned his back on Menshikov and stared at the empty throne of the pharaoh.
“Go,” he said wearily. “Get those creatures out of my sight.”
Menshikov smiled. “My lord.”
He turned and marched down the Hall of Ages with his personal army in tow.
Once they were gone, Desjardins held up his hand. An orb of light fluttered from the ceiling and rested on his palm.
“Bring me the Book of Overcoming Apophis,” Desjardins told the light. “I must consult it.”
The magic orb dipped as if bowing, then raced off.
Desjardins turned toward the purple curtain of light—the image of two figures fighting over a throne of fire.
“I will ‘observe,’ Vladimir,” he murmured to himself. “But I will not ‘stay and rest.’”
The scene faded, and my ba returned to my body.
18. Gambling on Doomsday Eve
FOR THE SECOND TIME THAT WEEK, I woke on a sofa in a hotel room with no idea how I’d gotten there.
The room wasn’t nearly as nice as the Four Seasons Alexandria. The walls were cracked plaster. Exposed beams sagged along the ceiling. A portable fan hummed on the coffee table, but the air was as hot as a blast furnace. Afternoon light streamed through the open windows. From below came the sounds of cars honking and merchants hawking their wares in Arabic. The breeze smelled of exhaust, animal manure, and apple sisha—the fruity molasses scent of water-pipe smoke. In other words, I knew we must be in Cairo.