As his silhouette melted, more recent images flickered past: Bes in a chauffeur’s uniform with a placard that read KANE; Bes pulling us out of our sinking limo in the Mediterranean; Bes casting spells on me in Alexandria when I was poisoned, trying desperately to heal me; Bes and me in the back of the Bedouins’ pickup truck, sharing goat meat and Vaseline-flavored water as we traveled along the bank of the Nile. His last memory: two kids, Sadie and me, looking at him with love and concern. Then the image faded, and Bes was gone. Even his Hawaiian shirt had disappeared.
“You took all of him!” I yelled. “His body—everything. That wasn’t the deal!”
Khonsu opened his eyes and sighed deeply. “That was lovely.” He smiled at us as if nothing had happened. “I believe it’s your turn.”
His silver eyes were cold and luminous, and I had a feeling that for the rest of my life, I would hate looking at the moon.
Maybe it was rage, or Bes’s strategy, or maybe we just got lucky, but the rest of the game Sadie and I destroyed Khonsu easily. We bumped his pieces at every opportunity. Within five minutes, our last piece was off the board.
Khonsu spread his hands. “Well done! Three hours are yours. If you hurry, you can make the gates of the Eighth House.”
“I hate you,” Sadie said. It was the first she’d spoken since Bes disappeared. “You’re cold, calculating, horrible—”
“And I’m just what you needed.” Khonsu took off his platinum Rolex and wound back the time—one, two, three hours. All around us, the statues of the gods flickered and jumped like the world was being slammed into reverse.
“Now,” Khonsu said, “would you like to spend your hard-earned time complaining? Or do you want to save this poor old fool of a king?”
“Zebras?” Ra muttered hopefully.
“Where are our parents?” I asked. “At least let us say good-bye.”
Khonsu shook his head. “Time is precious, Carter Kane. You should’ve learned that lesson. It’s best that I send you on your way; but if you ever want to gamble with me again—for seconds, hours, even days—just let me know. Your credit is good.”
I couldn’t stand it. I lunged at Khonsu, but the moon god vanished. The whole pavilion faded, and Sadie and I were standing on the deck of the sun boat again, sailing down the dark river. The glowing crew lights buzzed around us, manning the oars and trimming the sail. Ra sat on his fiery throne, playing with his crook and flail like they were puppets having an imaginary conversation.
In front of us, a pair of enormous stone gates loomed out of the darkness. Eight massive snakes were carved into the rock, four on each side. The gates were slowly closing, but the sun boat slipped through just in time, and we passed into the Eighth House.
I have to say, the House of Challenges didn’t seem very challenging. We fought monsters, yes. Serpents loomed out of the river. Demons arose. Ships full of ghosts tried to board the sun boat. We destroyed them all. I was so angry, so devastated at losing Bes, that I imagined every threat was the moon god Khonsu. Our enemies didn’t stand a chance.
Sadie cast spells I’d never seen her use. She summoned sheets of ice that probably matched her emotions, leaving several demon icebergs in our wake. She turned an entire shipful of pirate ghosts into Khonsu bobble-heads, then vaporized them in a miniature nuclear explosion. Meanwhile, Ra played happily with his toys while the light servants flittered around the deck in agitation, apparently sensing that our journey was reaching a critical phase. The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Houses passed in a blur. From time to time I heard a splash in the water behind us, like the oar of another boat. I looked back, wondering if Menshikov had somehow gotten on our tail again, but I didn’t see anything. If something was following us, it knew better than to show itself.
At last I heard a roar up ahead, like another waterfall or a stretch of rapids. The light orbs worked furiously taking down the sail, pushing on the oars, but we kept gaining speed.
We passed under a low archway carved like the goddess Nut, her starry limbs stretched out protectively and her face smiling in welcome. I got the feeling we were entering the Twelfth House, the last part of the Duat before we emerged into a new dawn.
I hoped to see light at the end of the tunnel, literally, but instead our path had been sabotaged. I could see where the river was supposed to go. The tunnel continued ahead, slowly winding out of the Duat. I could even smell fresh air—the scent of the mortal world. But the far end of the tunnel had been drained to a field of mud. In front of us, the river plunged into a massive pit, like an asteroid had punched a hole in the earth and diverted the water straight down. We were racing toward the drop.
“We could jump,” Sadie said. “Abandon ship…”
But I think we came to the same conclusion. We needed the sun boat. We needed Ra. We had to follow the course of the river wherever it led.
“It’s a trap,” Sadie said. “The work of Apophis.”
“I know,” I said. “Let’s go tell him we don’t like his work.”
We both grabbed the mast as the ship plunged into the maelstrom.
It seemed like we fell forever. You know the feeling when you dive to the bottom of a deep pool, like your nose and ears are going to explode, and your eyes are going to pop out of your head? Imagine that feeling a hundred times worse. We were sinking into the Duat deeper than we’d ever been—deeper than any mortal was supposed to go. The molecules of my body felt like they were heating up, buzzing so fast they might fly apart.
We didn’t crash. We didn’t hit bottom. The boat simply flipped direction, like down had become sideways, and we sailed into a cavern that glowed with harsh red light. The magical pressure was so intense that my ears rang. I was nauseated and I could barely think straight, but I recognized the shoreline up ahead: a beach made of millions of dead scarab shells, shifting and surging as a force underneath—a massive serpentine shape—struggled to break free. Dozens of demons were digging through the scarab shells with shovels. And standing on the shore, waiting for us patiently, was Vlad Menshikov, his clothes charred and smoking, his staff glowing with green fire.
“Welcome, children,” he called across the water. “Come. Join me for the end of the world.”
22. Friends in the Strangest Places
MENSHIKOV LOOKED LIKE HE’D SWUM through the Lake of Fire without a magic shield. His curly gray hair had been reduced to black stubble. His white suit was shredded and peppered with burn holes. His whole face was blistered, so his ruined eyes didn’t seem out of place. As Bes might’ve said, Menshikov was wearing his ugly outfit.
The memory of Bes made me angry. Everything we’d gone through, everything we’d lost, was all Vlad Menshikov’s fault.
The sun boat ground to a halt on the scarab-shell beach.
Ra warbled, “Hel-lo-o-o-o-o!” and stumbled to his feet. He began chasing a blue servant orb around the deck as if it were a pretty butterfly.
The demons dropped their shovels and assembled on the shore. They looked at each other uncertainly, no doubt wondering if this were some sort of clever trick. Surely this doddering old fool could not be the sun god.
“Wonderful,” Menshikov said. “You brought Ra, after all.”
It took me a moment to realize what was different about his voice. The gravelly breathing was gone. His tone was a deep, smooth baritone.
“I was worried,” he continued. “You took so long in the Fourth House, I thought you’d be trapped for the night. We could have freed Lord Apophis without you, of course, but it would’ve been so inconvenient to hunt you down later. This is much better. Lord Apophis will be hungry when he wakes. He’ll be most pleased that you brought him a snack.”
“Wheee, snack,” Ra giggled. He hobbled around the boat, trying to smash the servant light with his flail.
The demons began to laugh. Menshikov gave them an indulgent smile.
“Yes, quite amusing,” he said. “My grandfather entertained Peter the Great with a dwarf wedding. I will do even better. I will entertain the Lord of Chaos himself with a senile sun god!”
The voice of Horus spoke urgently in my mind: Take back the weapons of the pharaoh. This is your last chance!
Deep inside, I knew it was a bad idea. If I claimed the weapons of the pharaoh now, I’d never return them. And the powers I’d gain wouldn’t be enough to defeat Apophis. Still, I was tempted. It would feel so good to grab the crook and flail from that stupid old god Ra and smash Menshikov into the ground.
The Russian’s eyes glittered with malice. “A rematch, Carter Kane? By all means. I notice you don’t have your dwarf babysitter this time. Let’s see what you can do on your own.”
My vision turned red, and it had nothing to do with the light in the cavern. I stepped off the boat and summoned the hawk god’s avatar. I’d never tried the spell so deep in the Duat before. I got more than I asked for. Instead of being encased in a glowing holograph, I felt myself growing taller and stronger. My eyesight grew sharper.
Sadie made a strangled sound. “Carter?”
“Large bird!” Ra said.
I looked down and found I was a flesh-and-blood giant, fifteen feet tall, dressed in the battle armor of Horus. I brought my enormous hands to my head and patted feathers instead of hair. My mouth was a razor-sharp beak. I shouted with elation, and it came out as a screech, echoing through the cavern. The demons scrambled back nervously. I looked down at Menshikov, who now seemed as insignificant as a mouse. I was ready to pulverize him, but Menshikov sneered and pointed his staff.
Whatever he was planning, Sadie was faster. She threw down her own staff, and it transformed into a kite (the bird of prey kind) as large as a pterodactyl.
Typical. I pull something really cool like morphing into a hawk warrior, and Sadie has to show me up. Her kite buffeted the air with its massive wings. Menshikov and his demons went somersaulting backward across the beach.
“Two large birds!” Ra started to clap.
“Carter, guard me!” Sadie pulled out the Book of Ra. “I need to start the spell.”
I thought the giant kite was doing a pretty good job with guard duty, but I stepped forward and got ready to fight.
Menshikov rose to his feet. “By all means, Sadie Kane, start your little spell. Don’t you understand? The spirit of Khepri created this prison. Ra gave part of his own soul, his ability to be reborn, to keep Apophis chained.”
Sadie looked like he’d slapped her in the face. “‘The last scarab—’”
“Exactly,” Menshikov agreed. “All these scarabs were multiplied from one—Khepri, the third soul of Ra. My demons will find it eventually, digging through the shells. It’s one of the only scarabs still alive now, and once we crush it, Apophis will be free. Even if you summon it back to Ra, Apophis will still be freed! Either way, Ra is too weak to fight. Apophis will devour him, as the ancient prophecies predicted, and Chaos will destroy Ma’at once and for all. You can’t win.”
“You’re insane,” I said, my voice much deeper than usual. “You’ll be destroyed too.”