“Uh-huh.” I rubbed my temples. “Do you have any headache medicine behind that nurses’ station?”
“It’s not that confusing,” said Carter, just to be annoying. “It’s like a revolving door. You have to wait for an opening and jump in.”
“More or less,” Tawaret agreed. “There is a little wiggle room with most of the Houses. You can leave the Fourth House, for instance, pretty much whenever you want. But certain gates are impossible to pass unless you time it exactly right. You can only enter the First House at sunset. You can only exit the Twelfth House at dawn. And the gates of the Eighth House, the House of Challenges…can only be entered during the eighth hour.”
“House of Challenges?” I said. “I hate it already.”
“Oh, you have Bes with you.” Tawaret stared at him dreamily. “The challenges won’t be a problem.”
Bes shot me a panicked look, like, Save me!
“But if you take too long,” Tawaret continued, “the gates will close before you can get there. You’ll be locked in the Duat until tomorrow night.”
“And if we don’t stop Apophis,” I said, “there won’t be a tomorrow night. That part I understand.”
“So can you help us?” Carter asked Tawaret. “Where is Ra?”
The goddess fidgeted with her hair. Her hands were a cross between human and hippo, with short stubby fingers and thick nails.
“That’s the problem, dear,” she said. “I don’t know. The Fourth House is enormous. Ra is probably here somewhere, but the hallways and doors go on forever. We have so many patients.”
“Don’t you keep track of them?” Carter asked. “Isn’t there a map or something?”
Tawaret shook her head sadly. “I do my best, but it’s just me, the shabti and the servant lights…. And there are thousands of old gods.”
My heart sank. I could barely keep track of the ten or so major gods I’d met, but thousands? In this room alone, I counted a dozen patients, six hallways leading off in different directions, two staircases, and three elevators. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed as if some of the hallways had appeared since we’d entered the room.
“All these old folks are gods?” I asked.
Tawaret nodded. “Most were minor deities even in ancient times. The magicians didn’t consider them worth imprisoning. Over the centuries, they’ve wasted away, lonely and forgotten. Eventually they made their way here. They simply wait.”
“To die?” I asked.
Tawaret got a faraway look in her eyes. “I wish I knew. Sometimes they disappear, but I don’t know if they simply get lost wandering the halls, or find a new room to hide in, or truly fade to nothing. The sad truth is it amounts to the same thing. Their names have been forgotten by the world above. Once your name is no longer spoken, what good is life?”
She glanced at Bes, as if trying to tell him something.
The dwarf god looked away quickly. “That’s Mekhit, isn’t it?” He pointed to the old lion woman who was making her way around in a wheelchair. “She had a temple near Abydos, I think. Minor lion goddess. Always got confused with Sekhmet.”
The lioness snarled weakly when Bes said the name Sekhmet. Then she went back to rolling her chair, muttering, “Meow, meow.”
“Sad story,” Tawaret said. “She came here with her husband, the god Onuris. They were a celebrity couple in the old days, so romantic. He once traveled all the way to Nubia to rescue her. They got married. Happy ending, we all thought. But they were both forgotten. They came here together. Then Onuris disappeared. Mekhit’s mind began to go quickly after that. Now she rolls her chair around the room aimlessly all day. She can’t remember her own name, though we keep reminding her.”
I thought about Khnum, whom we’d met on the river, and how sad he’d seemed, not knowing his secret name. I looked at the old goddess Mekhit, meowing and snarling and scooting along with no memory of her former glory. I imagined trying to care for a thousand gods like that—senior citizens who never got better and never died.
“Tawaret, how can you stand it?” I said in awe. “Why do you work here?”
She touched her nurse’s cap self-consciously. “A long story, dear. And we have very little time. I wasn’t always here. I was once a protector goddess. I scared away demons, though not as well as Bes.”
“You were plenty scary,” Bes said.
The hippo goddess sighed with adoration. “That’s so sweet. I also protected mothers giving birth—”
“Because you’re pregnant?” Carter asked, nodding at her enormous belly.
Tawaret looked mystified. “No. Why would you think that?”
“So!” I broke in. “You were explaining why you take care of aging gods.”
Tawaret checked the sundial, and I was alarmed to see how fast the shadow was creeping toward six. “I’ve always liked to help people, but in the world above, well…it became clear I wasn’t needed anymore.”
She was careful not to look at Bes, but the dwarf god blushed even more.
“Someone was needed to look after the aging gods,” Tawaret continued. “I suppose I understand their sadness. I understand about waiting forever—”
Bes coughed into his fist. “Look at the time! Yes, about Ra. Have you seen him since you’ve been working here?”
Tawaret considered. “It’s possible. I saw a falcon-headed god in a room in the southeast wing, oh, ages ago. I thought it was Nemty, but it’s possible it could have been Ra. He sometimes liked to go about in falcon form.”
“Which way?” I pleaded. “If we can get close, the Book of Ra may be able to guide us.”
Tawaret turned to Bes. “Are you asking me for this, Bes? Do you truly believe it’s important, or are you just doing it because Bast told you to?”
“No! Yes!” He puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. “I mean, yes, it’s important. Yes, I’m asking. I need your help.”
Tawaret pulled a torch from the nearest sconce. “In that case, right this way.”
We wandered the halls of an infinite magic nursing home, led by a hippo nurse with a torch. Really, just an ordinary night for the Kanes.
We passed so many bedrooms I lost count. Most of the doors were closed, but a few were open, showing frail old gods in their beds, staring at the flickering blue light of televisions or simply lying in the dark crying. After twenty or thirty such rooms, I stopped looking. It was too depressing.
I held the Book of Ra, hoping it would get warmer as we approached the sun god, but no such luck. Tawaret hesitated at each intersection. I could tell she felt uncertain about where she was leading us.
After a few more hallways and still no change in the scroll, I began to feel frantic. Carter must’ve noticed.
“It’s okay,” he promised. “We’ll find him.”
I remembered how fast the sundial had been moving at the nurses’ station. And I thought about Vlad Menshikov. I wanted to believe he’d been turned into a deep-fried Russian when he fell into the Lake of Fire, but that was probably too much to hope for. If he was still hunting us, he couldn’t be far behind.
We turned down another corridor and Tawaret froze. “Oh, dear.”
In front of us, an old woman with the head of a frog was jumping around—and when I say jumping, I mean she leaped ten feet, croaked a few times, then leaped against the wall and stuck there before leaping to the opposite wall. Her body and limbs looked human, dressed in a green hospital gown, but her head was all amphibian—brown, moist, and warty. Her bulbous eyes turned in every direction, and by the distressed sound of her croaking, I guessed she was lost.
“Heket’s got out again,” Tawaret said. “Excuse me a moment.”
She hurried over to the frog woman.
Bes pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. He dabbed his forehead nervously. “I wondered what had ever happened to Heket. She’s the frog goddess, you know.”
“I never would’ve guessed,” Carter said.
I watched as Tawaret tried to calm down the old goddess. She spoke in soothing tones, promising to help Heket find her room if she’d just stop bouncing off the walls.
“She’s brilliant,” I said. “Tawaret, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Bes said. “Yeah, she’s fine.”
“Fine?” I said. “Clearly, she likes you. Why are you so…”
Suddenly the truth smacked me in the face. I felt almost as thick as Carter.
“Oh, I see. She mentioned a horrible time at a palace, didn’t she? She’s the one who freed you in Russia.”
Bes mopped his neck with the handkerchief. He really was sweating quite a lot. “Wh-what makes you say that?”
“Because you’re so embarrassed around her! Like…” I was about to say “like she’s seen you in your underpants,” but I doubted that would mean much to the God of Speedos. “Like she’s seen you at your worst, and you want to forget it.”
Bes stared at Tawaret with a pained expression, the way he had stared at Prince Menshikov’s palace in St. Petersburg.
“She’s always saving me,” he said bitterly. “She’s always wonderful, nice, kind. Back in ancient times, everyone assumed we were dating. They always said we were a cute couple—the two demon-scaring gods, the two misfits, whatever. We did go out a few times, but Tawaret was just too—too nice. And I was kind of obsessed with somebody else.”
“Bast,” Carter guessed.
The dwarf god’s shoulders slumped. “That obvious, huh? Yeah, Bast. She was the most popular goddess with the common folk. I was the most popular god. So, you know, we’d see each other at festivals and such. She was…well, beautiful.”
Typical man, I thought. Only seeing the surface. But I kept my mouth shut.
“Anyway,” Bes sighed, “Bast treated me like a little brother. She still does. Has no interest in me at all, but it took me a long time to realize that. I was so obsessed, I wasn’t very good to Tawaret over the years.”
“But she came to get you in Russia,” I said.
He nodded. “I sent out distress calls. I thought Bast would come to my aid. Or Horus. Or somebody. I didn’t know where they all were, you understand, but I had a lot of friends back in the old days. I figured somebody would show up. The only one who did was Tawaret. She risked her life sneaking into the palace during the dwarf wedding. She saw the whole thing—saw me humiliated in front of the big folk. During the night, she broke my cage and freed me. I owe her everything. But once I was free…I just fled. I was so ashamed, I couldn’t look at her. Every time I think of her, I think about that night, and I hear the laughing.”
The pain in his voice was raw, as if he were describing something that had happened yesterday, not three centuries ago.
“Bes, it isn’t her fault,” I said gently. “She cares about you. It’s obvious.”