He smiled at me, his silver eyes flashing like a shark’s. “So what do you say, Carter? Sadie? Play me at senet. Three pieces for me, three for you. You’ll need three hours of moonlight, so you two will need one additional person to stake a wager. For every piece your team manages to move off the board, I’ll grant you an extra hour. If you win, that’s three extra hours—just enough time to make it past the gates of the Eighth House.”
“And if we lose?” I asked.
“Oh…you know.” Khonsu waved his hand as if this were an annoying technicality. “For each piece I move off the board, I’ll take a ren from one of you.”
Sadie sat forward. “You’ll take our secret names—as in, we have to share them with you?”
“Share…” Khonsu stroked his ponytail, as if trying to remember the meaning of that word. “No, no sharing. I’ll devour your ren, you see.”
“Erase part of our souls,” Sadie said. “Take our memories, our identity.”
The moon god shrugged. “On the bright side, you wouldn’t die. You’d just—”
“Turn into a vegetable,” Sadie guessed. “Like Ra, there.”
“Don’t want vegetables,” Ra muttered irritably. He tried to chew on Bes’s shirt, but the dwarf god scooted away.
“Three hours,” I said. “Wagered against three souls.”
“Carter, Sadie, you don’t have to do this,” my mother said. “We don’t expect you to take this risk.”
I’d seen her so many times in pictures and in my memories, but for the first time it really struck me how much she looked like Sadie—or how much Sadie was starting to look like her. They both had the same fiery determination in their eyes. They both tilted their chins up when they were expecting a fight. And they both weren’t very good at hiding their feelings. I could tell from Mom’s shaky voice that she realized what had to happen. She was telling us we had options, but she knew very well that we didn’t.
I looked at Sadie, and we came to a silent agreement.
“Mom, it’s okay,” I said. “You gave your life to close Apophis’s prison. How can we back out?”
Khonsu rubbed his hands. “Ah, yes, Apophis’s prison! Your friend Menshikov is there right now, loosening the Serpent’s bonds. I have so many bets on what will happen! Will you get there in time to stop him? Will you return Ra to the world? Will you defeat Menshikov? I’m giving a hundred to one on that!”
Mom turned desperately to my father. “Julius, tell them! It’s too dangerous.”
My dad was still holding a plate of half-eaten birthday cake. He stared at the melting ice cream as if it were the saddest thing in the world.
“Carter and Sadie,” he said at last, “I brought Khonsu here so that you’d have the choice. But whatever you do, I’m still proud of you both. If the world ends tonight, that won’t change.”
He met my eyes, and I could see how much it hurt him to think about losing us. Last Christmas at the British Museum, he’d sacrificed his life to release Osiris and restore balance to the Duat. He’d left Sadie and me alone, and I’d resented him a long time for that. Now I realized what it was like to be in his position. He’d been willing to give up everything, even his life, for a bigger purpose.
“I understand, Dad,” I told him. “We’re Kanes. We don’t run from hard choices.”
He didn’t answer, but he nodded slowly. His eyes burned with fierce pride.
“For once,” Sadie said, “Carter’s right. Khonsu, we’ll play your stupid game.”
“Excellent!” Khonsu said. “That’s two souls. Two hours to win. Ah, but you’ll need three hours to get through the gates on time, won’t you? Hmm. I’m afraid you can’t use Ra. He’s not in his right mind. Your mother is already dead. Your father is the judge of the underworld, so he’s disqualified from soul wagering….”
“I’ll do it,” Bes said. His face was grim but determined.
“Old buddy!” Khonsu cried. “I’m delighted.”
“Stuff it, moon god,” Bes said. “I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
“Bes,” I said, “you’ve done enough for us. Bast would never expect you—”
“I’m not doing it for Bast!” he grumbled. Then he took a deep breath. “Look, you kids are the real deal. Last couple of days—for the first time in ages I’ve felt wanted again. Important. Not like a sideshow attraction. If things go wrong, just tell Tawaret…” He cleared his throat and gave Sadie a meaningful look. “Tell her I tried to turn back the clock.”
“Oh, Bes.” Sadie got up and ran around the table. She hugged the dwarf god and kissed his cheek.
“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Don’t go sappy on me. Let’s play this game.”
“Time is money,” Khonsu agreed.
Our parents stood.
“We cannot stay for this,” Dad said. “But, children…”
He didn’t seem to know how to complete the thought. Good luck probably wouldn’t have cut it. I could see the guilt and worry in his eyes, but he was trying hard not to show it. A good general, Horus would have said.
“We love you,” our mother finished. “You will prevail.”
With that, our parents turned to mist and vanished. Everything outside the pavilion darkened like a stage set. The senet game began to glow brighter.
“Shiny,” Ra said.
“Three blue pieces for you,” Khonsu said. “Three silver pieces for me. Now, who’s feeling lucky?”
The game started well enough. Sadie had skill at tossing the sticks. Bes had several thousand years of gaming experience. And I got the job of moving the pieces and making sure Ra didn’t eat them.
At first it wasn’t obvious who was winning. We just rolled and moved, and it was hard to believe we were playing for our souls, or true names, or whatever you want to call them.
We bumped one of Khonsu’s pieces back to start, but he didn’t seem upset. He seemed delighted by just about everything.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked at one point. “Devouring innocent souls?”
“Not really.” He polished his crescent amulet. “Why should it?”
“But we’re trying to save the world,” Sadie said, “Ma’at, the gods—everything. Don’t you care if the world crumbles into Chaos?”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Khonsu said. “Change comes in phases, Ma’at and Chaos, Chaos and Ma’at. Being the moon god, I appreciate variation. Now, Ra, poor guy—he always stuck to a schedule. Same path every night. So predictable and boring. Retiring was the most interesting thing he ever did. If Apophis takes over and swallows the sun, well—I suppose the moon will still be there.”
“You’re insane,” Sadie said.
“Ha! I’ll bet you five extra minutes of moonlight that I’m perfectly sane.”
“Forget it,” Sadie said. “Just roll.”
Khonsu tossed the sticks. The bad news: he made alarming progress. He rolled a five and got one of his pieces almost to the end of the board. The good news: the piece got stuck at the House of Three Truths, which meant he could only roll a three to get it out.
Bes studied the board intently. He didn’t seem to like what he saw. We had one piece way back at the start and two pieces on the last row of the board.
“Careful now,” Khonsu warned. “This is where it gets interesting.”
Sadie rolled a four, which gave us two options. Our lead piece could go out. Or our second piece could bump Khonsu’s piece from the House of Three Truths and send it back to Start.
“Bump him,” I said. “It’s safer.”
Bes shook his head. “Then we’re stuck in the House of Three Truths. The chances of him rolling a three are slim. Take your first piece out. That way you’ll be assured of at least one extra hour.”
“But one extra hour won’t do it,” Sadie said.
Khonsu seemed to be enjoying our indecision. He sipped wine from a silvery goblet and smiled. Meanwhile Ra entertained himself by trying to pick the spikes off his war flail. “Ow, ow, ow.”
My forehead beaded with sweat. How was I sweating in a board game? “Bes, are you sure?”
“It’s your best bet,” he said.
“Bes best?” Khonsu chuckled. “Nice!”
I wanted to smack the moon god, but I kept my mouth shut. I moved our first piece out of play.
“Congratulations!” Khonsu said. “I owe you one hour of moonlight. Now it’s my turn.”
He tossed the sticks. They clattered on the dining table, and I felt like someone had snipped an elevator cable in my chest, plunging my heart straight down a shaft. Khonsu had rolled a three.
“Whoopsie!” Ra dropped his flail.
Khonsu moved his piece out of play. “Oh, what a shame. Now, whose ren do I collect first?”
“No, please!” Sadie said. “Trade back. Take the hour you owe us instead.”
“Those aren’t the rules,” Khonsu chided.
I looked down at the gouge I’d made in the table when I was eight. I knew that memory was about to disappear, like all my others. If I gave my ren to Khonsu, at least Sadie could still cast the final part of the spell. She would need Bes to protect her and advise her. I was the only expendable one.
I started to say, “I—”
“Me,” said Bes. “The move was my idea.”
“Bes, no!” Sadie cried.
The dwarf stood. He planted his feet and balled his fists, like he was getting ready to let loose with a BOO. I wished he’d do that and scare away Khonsu, but instead he looked at us with resignation. “It was part of the strategy, kids.”
“What?” I asked. “You planned this?”
He slipped off his Hawaiian shirt and folded it carefully, setting it on the table. “Most important thing is getting all three of your pieces off the board, and losing no more than one. This was the only way to do it. You’ll beat him easily now. Sometimes you have to lose a piece to win a game.”
“So true,” Khonsu said. “What a delight! A god’s ren. Are you ready, Bes?”
“Bes, don’t,” I pleaded. “This isn’t right.”
He scowled at me. “Hey, kid, you were willing to sacrifice. Are you saying I’m not as brave as some pipsqueak magician? Besides, I’m a god. Who knows? Sometimes we come back. Now, win the game and get out of here. Kick Menshikov in the knee for me.”
I tried to think of something to say, something that would stop this, but Bes said, “I’m ready.”
Khonsu closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, like he was enjoying some fresh mountain air. Bes’s form flickered. He dissolved into a montage of lightning-fast images—a troupe of dwarves dancing at a temple in the firelight; a crowd of Egyptians partying at a festival, carrying Bes and Bast on their shoulders; Bes and Tawaret in togas at some Roman villa, eating grapes and laughing together on a sofa; Bes dressed like George Washington in a powdered wig and silk suit, doing cartwheels in front of some British redcoats; Bes in the olive fatigues of a U.S. Marine, scaring away a demon in a World War II Nazi uniform.
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