I didn’t see why. The gates of the Eighth House were already closed. Menshikov had sailed on and left us behind.
Maybe that had been his plan all along. He’d let us wake Ra only partially so the sun god remained old and feeble. Then Menshikov would leave us trapped in the Duat while he used whatever evil magic he’d planned to free Apophis. When the dawn came, there would be no sunrise, no return of Ra. Instead Apophis would rise and destroy civilization. Our friends would have fought all night at Brooklyn House for nothing. Twenty-four hours from now, when we finally managed to leave the Duat, we’d find the world a dark, frozen wasteland, ruled by Chaos. Everything we cared about would be gone. Then Apophis could swallow Ra and complete his victory.
Why should we keep charging forward when the battle was lost?
A general never shows despair, Horus said. He instills confidence in his troops. He leads them forward, even into the mouth of death.
You’re Mr. Cheerful, I thought. Who invited you back into my head?
But as irritating as Horus was, he had a point. Sadie had talked about hope—about believing that we could make Ma’at out of Chaos, even if it seemed impossible. Maybe that was all we could do: keep on trying, keep on believing we could salvage something from the disaster.
Amos, Zia, Walt, Jaz, Bast, and our young trainees…all of them were counting on us. If our friends were still alive, I couldn’t give up. I owed them better than that.
Tawaret escorted us to the sun boat while a couple of her shabti carried Ra aboard.
“Bes, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I wish there was more I could do.”
“It’s not your fault.” Bes held out his hand like he wanted to shake, but when their fingers touched, he clasped hers. “Tawaret, it was never your fault.”
She sniffled. “Oh, Bes…”
“Wheee!” Ra interrupted as the shabti set him in the boat. “See zebras! Wheee!”
Bes cleared his throat.
Tawaret let go of his hands. “You—you should go. Perhaps Aaru will provide an answer.”
“Aaru?” I asked. “Who’s that?”
Tawaret didn’t exactly smile, but her eyes softened with kindness. “Not who, my dear. Where. It’s the Seventh House. Tell your father hello.”
My spirits lifted just a little. “Dad will be there?”
“Good luck, Carter and Sadie.” Tawaret kissed us both on the cheek, which felt sort of like getting sideswiped by a friendly, bristly, slightly moist blimp.
The goddess looked at Bes, and I was sure she was going to cry. Then she turned and hurried up the steps, her shabti behind her.
“Weasels are sick,” Ra said thoughtfully.
On that bit of godly wisdom, we boarded the ship. The glowing crew lights manned the oars, and the sun boat pulled away from the docks.
“Eat.” Ra began gumming a piece of rope.
“No, you can’t eat that, you old git,” Sadie chided.
“Uh, kid?” Bes said. “Maybe you shouldn’t call the king of the gods an old git.”
“Well, he is,” Sadie said. “Come on, Ra. Come into the tent. I want to see something.”
“No tent,” he muttered. “Zebras.”
Sadie tried to grab his arm, but he crawled away from her and stuck out his tongue. Finally she took the pharaoh’s crook from my belt (without asking, of course) and waved it like a dog bone. “Want the crook, Ra? Nice tasty crook?”
Ra grabbed for it weakly. Sadie backed up and eventually managed to coax Ra into the pavilion. As soon as he reached the empty dais, a brilliant light exploded around him, completely blinding me.
“Carter, look!” Sadie cried.
“I wish I could.” I blinked the yellow spots out of my eyes.
On the dais stood a chair of molten gold, a fiery throne carved with glowing white hieroglyphs. It looked just like Sadie had described from her vision, but in real life it was the most beautiful and terrifying piece of furniture I’d ever seen. The crew lights buzzed around it in excitement, brighter than ever.
Ra didn’t seem to notice the chair, or he didn’t care. His hospital gown had changed into regal robes with a collar of gold, but he still looked like the same withered old man.
“Have a seat,” Sadie told him.
“Don’t wanna chair,” he muttered.
“That was almost a complete sentence,” I said. “Maybe it’s a good sign?”
“Zebras!” Ra grabbed the crook from Sadie and hobbled across the deck, yelling, “Wheee! Wheee!”
“Lord Ra!” Bes called. “Careful!”
I considered tackling the sun god before he could fall out of the boat, but I didn’t know how the crew would react to that. Then Ra solved our problem for us. He smacked into the mast and crumpled to the deck.
We all rushed forward, but the old god seemed only dazed.
He drooled and muttered as we dragged him back into the pavilion and set him on his throne. It was tricky, because the throne gave off heat of about a thousand degrees, and I didn’t want to catch fire (again); but the heat didn’t seem to bother Ra.
We stepped back and looked at the king of the gods, slumped in his chair snoring, and cradling his crook like a teddy bear. I placed the war flail across his lap, hoping it might make a difference—maybe complete his powers or something. No such luck.
“Sick weasels,” Ra muttered.
“Behold,” Sadie said bitterly. “The glorious Ra.”
Bes shot her an irritated look. “That’s right, kid. Make fun. We gods just love to have mortals laughing at us.”
Sadie’s expression softened. “I’m sorry, Bes. I didn’t mean—”
“Whatever.” He stormed to the prow of the boat.
Sadie gave me a pleading look. “Honestly, I didn’t—”
“He’s just stressed,” I told her. “Like all of us. It’ll be okay.”
Sadie brushed a tear from her cheek. “The world is about to end, we’re stuck in the Duat, and you think it’ll be okay?”
“We’re going to see Dad.” I tried to sound confident, even though I didn’t feel it. A general never shows despair. “He’ll help us.”
We sailed through the Lake of Fire until the shores narrowed, and the flaming current turned back into water. The glow of the lake faded behind us. The river got swifter, and I knew we’d entered the Fifth House.
I thought about Dad, and whether or not he’d really be able to help us. The last few months he’d been strangely silent. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me, since he was the Lord of the Underworld now. He probably didn’t get good cell phone reception down here. Still, the idea of seeing him at the moment of my biggest failure made me nervous.
Even though the river was dark, the throne of fire was almost too bright to look at. Our boat cast a warm glow over the shores.
On either side of the river, ghostly villages appeared out of the gloom. Lost souls ran to the riverbank to watch us pass. After so many millennia in the darkness, they looked stunned to see the sun god. Many tried to shout for joy, but their mouths made no sound. Others stretched out their arms toward Ra. They smiled as they basked in his warm light. Their forms seemed to solidify. Color returned to their faces and their clothes. As they faded behind us in the darkness, I was left with the image of their grateful faces and outstretched hands.
Somehow that made me feel better. At least we’d shown them the sun one last time before Chaos destroyed the world.
I wondered if Amos and our friends were still alive, defending Brooklyn House against Vlad Menshikov’s attack squad and waiting for us to show up. I wished I could see Zia again, if only to apologize for failing her.
The Fifth and Sixth houses passed quickly, though I couldn’t be sure how much time actually went by. We saw more ghost villages, beaches made of bones, entire caverns where winged ba flew around in confusion, bonking into walls and swarming the sun boat like moths around a porch light. We navigated some scary rapids, though the glowing crew lights made it look easy. A few times dragonlike monsters rose out of the river, but Bes yelled, “Boo!” and the monsters whimpered and sank beneath the water. Ra slept through it all, snoring fitfully on his burning throne.
Finally the river slowed and widened. The water turned as smooth as melted chocolate. The sun boat entered a new cavern, and the ceiling overhead blazed with blue crystals, reflecting Ra’s light so it looked like the regular sun was crossing a brilliant blue sky. Marsh grass and palm trees lined the shore. Farther away, rolling green hills were dotted with cozy-looking white adobe cottages. A flock of geese flew overhead. The air smelled like jasmine and fresh-baked bread. My whole body relaxed—the way you might feel after a long trip, when you walk into your house and finally get to collapse on your bed.
“Aaru,” Bes announced. He didn’t sound as grumpy now. The worry lines on his face faded. “The Egyptian afterlife. The Seventh House. I suppose you’d call it Paradise.”
“Not that I’m complaining,” Sadie said. “It’s much nicer than Sunny Acres, and I smell decent food at last. But does this mean we’re dead?”
Bes shook his head. “This was a regular part of Ra’s nightly route—his pit stop, I guess you’d say. He would hang out for a while with his host, eat, drink, and rest up before the last stretch of his journey, which was the most dangerous.”
“His host?” I asked, though I was pretty sure whom Bes meant.
Our boat turned toward a dock, where a man and a woman stood waiting for us. Dad wore his usual brown suit. His skin glowed with a bluish tint. Mom shimmered in ghostly white, her feet not quite touching the boards.
“Of course,” Bes said. “This is the House of Osiris.”
“Sadie, Carter.” Dad pulled us into a hug like we were still little kids, but neither of us protested.
He felt solid and human, so much like his old self that it took all my willpower not to break down in tears. His goatee was neatly trimmed. His bald head gleamed. Even his cologne smelled the same: the faint scent of amber.
He held us at arm’s length to examine us, his eyes shining. I could almost believe he was still a regular mortal, but if I looked closely, I could see another layer to his appearance, like a fuzzy superimposed image: a blue-skinned man in white robes and the crown of a pharaoh. Around his neck was a djed amulet, the symbol of Osiris.
“Dad,” I said. “We failed.”
“Shhh,” he said. “None of that. This is a time to rest and renew.”
Mom smiled. “We’ve been watching your progress. You’ve both been so brave.”
Seeing her was even harder than seeing Dad. I couldn’t hug her because she had no physical substance, and when she touched my face, it felt like nothing more than a warm breeze. She looked exactly as I remembered—her blond hair loose around her shoulders, her blue eyes full of life—but she was only a spirit now. Her white dress seemed to be woven from mist. If I looked directly at her, she seemed to dissolve in the light of the sun boat.