“I’m so proud of you both,” she said. “Come, we’ve prepared a feast.”
I was in a daze as they led us ashore. Bes took charge of carrying the sun god, who seemed in a good mood after head-butting the mast and taking a nap. Ra gave everyone a toothless grin and said, “Oh, pretty. Feast? Zebras?”
Ghostly servants in Ancient Egyptian clothes ushered us toward an outdoor pavilion lined with life-size statues of the gods. We crossed a footbridge over a moat full of albino crocodiles, which made me think about Philip of Macedonia, and what might be happening back at Brooklyn House.
Then I stepped inside the pavilion, and my jaw dropped.
A feast was spread out on a long mahogany table—our old dining table from the house in L.A. I could even see the notch I’d carved in the wood with my first Swiss Army knife—the only time I recall my dad getting really mad at me. The chairs were stainless steel with leather seats, just like I remembered; and when I looked outside, the view shimmered back and forth —now the grassy hills and glittering blue sky of the afterlife, now the white walls and huge glass windows of our old house.
“Oh…” Sadie said in a small voice. Her eyes were fixed on the center of the table. Among platters of pizza, bowls of sugarcoated strawberries, and every other kind of food you could imagine was a white-and-blue ice-cream cake, the exact same cake that we’d exploded on Sadie’s sixth birthday.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Mom said. “I thought it was a shame you never got to taste it. Happy birthday, Sadie.”
“Please, sit.” Dad spread his arms. “Bes, old friend, would you put Lord Ra at the head of the table?”
I started to sit in the chair farthest from Ra, since I didn’t want him slobbering all over me while he gummed his food, but Mom said, “Oh, not there, dear. Sit by me. That chair is for…another guest.”
She said the last two words like they left a bitter taste in her mouth.
I looked around the table. There were seven chairs and only six of us. “Who else is coming?”
“Anubis?” Sadie asked hopefully.
Dad chuckled. “Not Anubis, though I’m sure he’d be here if he could.”
Sadie slumped as if someone had let the air out of her. [Yes, Sadie, you were that obvious.]
“Where is he, then?” she asked.
Dad hesitated just long enough for me to sense his discomfort. “Away. Let’s eat, shall we?”
I sat down and accepted a slice of birthday cake from a ghostly waiter. You wouldn’t think I’d be hungry, with the world ending and our mission failed, sitting in the Land of the Dead at a dinner table from my past with my mom’s ghost next to me and my dad the color of a blueberry. But my stomach didn’t care about that. It let me know that I was still alive, and I needed food. The cake was chocolate with vanilla ice cream. It tasted perfect. Before I knew it, I’d polished off my slice and was loading my plate with pepperoni pizza. The statues of the gods stood behind us—Horus, Isis, Thoth, Sobek—all keeping silent watch as we ate. Outside the pavilion, the lands of Aaru spread out as if the cavern were endless—green hills and meadows, herds of fat cattle, fields of grain, orchards full of date trees. Streams cut the marshes into a patchwork of islands, just like the Nile Delta, with picture-perfect villages for the blessed dead. Sailboats cruised the river.
“This is what it looks like to the Ancient Egyptians,” Dad said, as if reading my thoughts. “But each soul sees Aaru slightly differently.”
“Like our house in L.A.?” I asked. “Our family back together around a dining table? Is this even real?”
Dad’s eyes turned sad, the way they used to whenever I’d ask about Mom’s death.
“The birthday cake is good, eh?” he asked. “My little girl, thirteen. I can’t believe—”
Sadie swept her plate off the table. It shattered against the stone floor. “What does it matter?” she shouted. “The bloody sundial—the stupid gates—we failed!”
She buried her face in her arms and began to sob.
“Sadie.” Mom hovered next to her like a friendly fog bank. “It’s all right.”
“Moon pie,” Ra said helpfully, a beard of cake frosting smeared around his mouth. He started to fall out of his chair, and Bes pushed him back into place.
“Sadie’s right,” I said. “Ra’s in worse shape than we imagined. Even if we could get him back to the mortal world, he could never defeat Apophis—unless Apophis laughs to death.”
Dad frowned. “Carter, he is still Ra, pharaoh of the gods. Show some respect.”
“Don’t like bubbles!” Ra swatted at a glowing servant light that was trying to wipe his mouth.
“Lord Ra,” Dad said, “do you remember me? I’m Osiris. You dined here at my table every night, resting before your journey toward the dawn. Do you recall?”
“Want a weasel,” Ra said.
Sadie slapped the table. “What does that even mean?”
Bes scooped up a fistful of chocolate-covered things—I was afraid they might be grasshoppers—and tossed them into his mouth. “We haven’t finished the Book of Ra. We’d need to find Khepri.”
Dad stroked his goatee. “Yes, the scarab god, Ra’s form as the rising sun. Perhaps if you found Khepri, Ra could be fully reborn. But you would need to pass through the gates of the Eighth House.”
“Which are closed,” I said. “We’d have to, like, reverse time.”
Bes stopped munching grasshoppers. His eyes widened like he’d just had a revelation. He looked at my dad incredulously. “Him? You invited him?”
“Who?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
I stared at my dad, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Dad, what is it?” I demanded. “There’s a way through the gates? Can you teleport us to the other side or something?”
“I wish I could, Carter. But the journey must be followed. It is part of Ra’s rebirth. I can’t interfere with that. However, you’re right: you need extra time. There might be a way, though I’d never suggest it if the stakes weren’t so high—”
“It’s dangerous,” our mom warned. “I think it’s too dangerous.”
“What’s too dangerous?” Sadie asked.
“Me, I suppose,” said a voice behind me.
I turned and found a man standing with his hands on the back of my chair. Either he’d approached so silently, I hadn’t heard him, or he’d materialized out of thin air.
He looked about twenty, thin and tall and kind of glamorous. His face was totally human, but his irises were silver. His head was shaven except for a glossy black ponytail on one side of his head, like Ancient Egyptian youth used to wear. His silvery suit looked to have been tailored in Italy (I only know that because Amos and my dad both paid a lot of attention to suits). The fabric shimmered like some bizarre mix of silk and aluminum foil. His shirt was black and collarless, and several pounds of platinum chains hung around his neck. The biggest piece of bling was a silver crescent amulet. When his fingers drummed on the back of my chair, his rings and platinum Rolex flashed. If I’d seen him in the mortal world, I might’ve guessed he was a young Native American billionaire casino owner. But here in the Duat, with that crescent-shaped amulet around his neck…
“Moon pie!” Ra cackled with delight.
“You’re Khonsu,” I guessed. “The moon god.”
He gave me a wolfish grin, looking at me as if I were an appetizer.
“At your service,” he said. “Care to play a game?”
“Not you,” Bes growled.
Khonsu spread his arms in a big air hug. “Bes, old buddy! How’ve you been?”
“Don’t ‘old buddy’ me, you scam artist.”
“I’m hurt!” Khonsu sat down on my right and leaned toward me conspiratorially. “Poor Bes gambled with me ages ago, you see. He wanted more time with Bast. He wagered a few feet of his height. I’m afraid he lost.”
“That’s not what happened!” Bes roared.
“Gentlemen,” my father said in his sternest Dad tone. “You are both guests at my table. I won’t have any fighting.”
“Absolutely, Osiris.” Khonsu beamed at him. “I’m honored to be here. And these are your famous children? Wonderful! Are you ready to play, kids?”
“Julius, they don’t understand the risks,” our mother protested. “We can’t let them do this.”
“Hang on,” Sadie said. “Do what, exactly?”
Khonsu snapped his fingers, and all the food on the table disappeared, replaced by a glowing silver senet board. “Haven’t you heard about me, Sadie? Didn’t Isis tell you some stories? Or Nut? Now, there was a gambler! The sky goddess wouldn’t stop playing until she’d won five whole days from me. Do you know the odds against winning that much time? Astronomical! Of course, she’s covered with stars, so I suppose she is astronomical.”
Khonsu laughed at his own joke. He didn’t seem bothered that no one joined him.
“I remember,” I said. “You gambled with Nut, and she won enough moonlight to create five extra days, the Demon Days. That let her get around Ra’s commandment that her five children couldn’t be born on any day of the year.”
“Nuts,” Ra muttered. “Bad nuts.”
The moon god raised an eyebrow. “Dear me, Ra is in bad shape, isn’t he? But yes, Carter Kane. You’re absolutely right. I’m the moon god, but I also have some influence over time. I can lengthen or shorten the lives of mortals. Even gods can be affected by my powers. The moon is changeable, you see. Its light waxes and wanes. In my hands, time can also wax and wane. You need—what, about three extra hours? I can weave that for you out of moonlight, if you and your sister are willing to gamble for it. I can make it so that the gates of the Eighth House have not yet closed.”
I didn’t understand how he could possibly do that—back up time, insert three extra hours into the night—but for the first time since Sunny Acres, I felt a small spark of hope. “If you can help, why not just give us the extra time? The fate of the world is at stake.”
Khonsu laughed. “Good one! Give you time! No, seriously. If I started giving away something that valuable, Ma’at would crumble. Besides, you can’t play senet without gambling. Bes can tell you that.”
Bes spit a chocolate grasshopper leg out of his mouth. “Don’t do it, Carter. You know what they said about Khonsu in the old days? Some of the pyramids have a poem about him carved into the stones. It’s called the ‘Cannibal Hymn.’ For a price, Khonsu would help the pharaoh slay any gods who were bothering him. Khonsu would devour their souls and gain their strength.”
The moon god rolled his eyes. “Ancient history, Bes! I haven’t devoured a soul in…what month is this? March? At any rate, I’ve completely adapted to this modern world. I’m quite civilized now. You should see my penthouse at the Luxor in Las Vegas. I mean, Thank you! America has a proper civilization!”