He was right. It didn’t. Then again, I had no idea how time flowed in the Duat. One House of the Night might not correspond exactly to one mortal hour in the world above.
Anubis once told me he’d been in the Land of the Dead for five thousand years, but he still felt like a teenager, as if no time had passed.
I shuddered. What if we popped out on the other side of the River of Night and found that several eons had passed? I’d just turned thirteen. I wasn’t ready to be thirteen hundred.
I also wished I hadn’t thought of Anubis. I touched the shen amulet on my necklace. After all that had happened with Walt, the idea of seeing Anubis made me feel strangely guilty, but also a bit excited. Perhaps Anubis would help us on our journey. Perhaps he’d whisk me away to some private spot for a chat as he had last time we’d visited the Duat—a romantic little graveyard, dinner for two at the Coffin Café…
Snap out of it, Sadie, I thought. Concentrate.
I pulled the Book of Ra from my bag and scanned the instructions again. I’d read them several times already, but they were cryptic and confusing—much like a maths textbook. The scroll was chock-full of terms like “first from Chaos,” “breath into clay,” “the night’s flock” “reborn in fire,” “the acres of the sun,” “the kiss of the knife,” “the gambler of light,” and “the last scarab”—most of which made no sense to me.
I gathered that as we passed through the twelve stages of the river, I’d have to read the three sections of the Book of Ra at three separate locations, probably to revive the different aspects of the sun god, and each of three aspects would present us with some sort of challenge. I knew that if I failed—if I so much as stumbled over one word while reading the spells—I would end up worse than Vlad Menshikov. The idea terrified me, but I couldn’t dwell on the possibility of failure. I simply had to hope that when the time came, the scroll’s gibberish would make sense.
The current accelerated. So did the leaking of the boat. Carter demonstrated his combat magic skill by summoning a bucket and bailing out water, while I concentrated on keeping the crew in line. The deeper we sailed into the Duat, the more rebellious the glowing orbs became. They chafed against my will, remembering how much they wanted to incinerate me.
It’s unnerving to float down a magic river with voices whispering in your head: Die, traitor, die. Every so often I’d get the feeling we were being followed. I’d turn and think I could see a whitish smudge against the black, like the afterimage of a flash, but I decided it must be my imagination. Even more unnerving was the darkness ahead—no shoreline, no landmarks, no visibility at all. The crew could’ve steered us straight into a boulder or the mouth of a monster, and we would’ve had absolutely no warning. We just kept sailing through the dark empty void.
“Why is it so…nothing?” I murmured.
Carter emptied his bucket. He made an odd sight—a boy dressed as a pharaoh with the royal crook and flail, bailing water from a leaky boat.
“Maybe the Houses of the Night follow human sleep patterns,” he suggested.
“Sleep patterns. Mom used to tell us about them before bedtime. Remember?”
I didn’t. Then again, I’d only been six when our mum died. She’d been a scientist as well as a magician, and had thought nothing of reading us Newton’s laws or the periodic table as bedtime stories. Most of it had gone over my head, but I wanted to remember. I’d always been irritated that Carter remembered Mum so much better than I did.
“Sleep has different stages,” Carter said. “Like, the first few hours, the brain is almost in a coma—a really deep sleep with hardly any dreams. Maybe that’s why this part of the river is so dark and formless. Then later in the night, the brain goes through R.E.M.—rapid eye movement. That’s when dreams happen. The cycles get more rapid and more vivid. Maybe the Houses of the Night follow a pattern like that.”
It seemed a bit far-fetched to me. Then again, Mum had always told us science and magic weren’t mutually exclusive. She’d called them two dialects of the same language. Bast had once told us there were millions of different channels and tributaries to the Duat’s river. The geography could change with each journey, responding to the traveler’s thoughts. If the river was shaped by all the sleeping minds in the world, if its course got more vivid and crazy as the night went along, then we were in for a rough ride.
The river eventually narrowed. A shoreline appeared on either side—black volcanic sand sparkling in the lights of our magic crew. The air turned colder. The underside of the boat scraped against rocks and sandbars, which made the leaks worse. Carter gave up on the pail and pulled wax from his supply bag. Together we tried to plug the leaks, speaking binding spells to hold the boat together. If I’d had any chewing gum, I would’ve used that as well.
We didn’t pass any signposts—NOW ENTERING THE THIRD HOUSE, SERVICES NEXT EXIT—but we’d clearly entered a different section of the river. Time was slipping away at an alarming rate, and still we hadn’t done anything.
“Perhaps the first challenge is boredom,” I said. “When will something happen?”
I should’ve known better than to say that aloud. Right in front of us, a shape loomed out of the darkness. A sandaled foot the size of a water bed planted itself on the prow of our ship and stopped us dead in the water.
It wasn’t an attractive foot, either. Definitely male. Its toes were splattered with mud, and its toenails were yellow, cracked, and overgrown. The leather sandal straps were covered in lichen and barnacles. In short, the foot looked and smelled very much like it had been standing on the same rock in the middle of the river, wearing the same sandal, for several thousand years.
Unfortunately, it was attached to a leg, which was attached to a body. The giant leaned down to look at us.
“You are bored?” his voice boomed, not in an unfriendly way. “I could kill you, if that would help.”
He wore a kilt like Carter’s, except that the giant’s skirt could have supplied enough fabric to make ten ship sails. His body was humanoid and muscular, covered with man-fur—the sort of gross body hair that makes me want to start a charity waxing foundation for overly fuzzy men. He had the head of a ram: a white snout with a brass ring in his nose and long curly horns hung with dozens of bronze bells. His eyes were set far apart, with luminous red irises and vertical slits for pupils. I suppose that all sounds rather frightening, but the ram man didn’t strike me as devilish. In fact he looked quite familiar, for some reason. He seemed more melancholy than threatening, as if he’d been standing on his little rock island in the middle of the river for so long, he’d forgotten why he was there.
[Carter asks when I became a ram whisperer. Do shut up, Carter.]
I honestly felt sorry for the ram man. His eyes were full of loneliness. I couldn’t believe he would hurt us—until he drew from his belt two very large knives with curly blades like his horns.
“You’re silent,” he noted. “Is that a yes for the killing?”
“No, thanks!” I said, trying to sound grateful for the offer. “One word and one question, please. The word is pedicure. The question is: Who are you?”
“Ahhh-ha-ha-ha,” he said, bleating like a sheep. “If you knew my name, we wouldn’t need introductions, and I could let you pass. Unfortunately, no one ever knows my name. A shame, too. I see you’ve found the Book of Ra. You’ve revived his crew and managed to sail his boat to the gates of the Fourth House. No one’s ever gotten this far before. I’m terribly sorry I have to slice you to pieces.”
He hefted his knives, one in each hand. Our glowing orbs swarmed in a frenzy, whispering, Yes! Slice her! Yes!
“Just a mo’,” I called up to the giant. “If we name you, we can pass?”
“Naturally.” He sighed. “But no one ever can.”
I glanced at Carter. This wasn’t the first time we’d been stopped on the River of Night and challenged to name a guardian on pain of death. Apparently, it was quite a common experience for Egyptian souls and magicians passing through the Duat. But I couldn’t believe we’d get such an easy test. I was sure now that I recognized the ram man. We’d seen his statue in the Brooklyn Museum.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” I asked Carter. “The chap who looks like Bullwinkle?”
“Don’t call him Bullwinkle!” Carter hissed. He looked up at the giant ram man and said, “You’re Khnum, aren’t you?”
The ram man made a rumbling sound deep in his throat. He scraped one of his knives against the ship’s rail. “Is that a question? Or is that your final answer?”
Carter blinked. “Um—”
“Not our final answer!” I yelped, realizing that we’d almost stepped into a trap. “Not even close. Khnum is your common name, isn’t it? You want us to say your true name, your ren.”
Khnum tilted his head, the bells on his horns jingling. “That would be nice. But, alas, no one knows it. Even I have forgotten it.”
“How can you forget your own name?” Carter asked. “And, yes, that’s a question.”
“I am part of Ra,” said the ram god. “I am his aspect in the underworld—a third of his personality. But when Ra stopped making his nightly journey, he no longer needed me. He left me here at the gates of the Fourth House, discarded like an old coat. Now I guard the gates…I have no other purpose. If I could recover my name, I could yield my spirit to whoever frees me. They could reunite me with Ra, but until then I cannot leave this place.”
He sounded horribly depressed, like a little lost sheep, or rather a ten-meter-tall lost sheep with very large knives. I wanted to help him. Even more than that, I wanted to find a way not to get myself sliced to bits.
“If you don’t remember your name,” I said, “why couldn’t we just tell you any old name? How would you know whether it was the right answer or not?”
Khnum let his knives trail in the water. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Carter glared at me as if to say Why did you tell him?
The ram god bleated. “I think I will know my ren when I hear it,” he decided, “though I cannot be sure. Being only part of Ra, I am not sure of much. I’ve lost most of my memories, most of my power and identity. I am no more than a husk of my former self.”
“Your former self must’ve been enormous,” I muttered.
The god might have smiled, though it was hard to tell with the ram face. “I’m sorry you don’t have my ren. You’re a bright girl. You’re the first to make it this far. The first and the best.” He sighed forlornly. “Ah, well. I suppose we should get to the killing.”
The first and the best. My mind started racing.
“Wait,” I said. “I know your name.”
Carter yelped. “You do? Tell him!”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com