He gestured toward the door of darkness. Just to show him I wasn’t afraid, I marched through first.
On the other side, we found ourselves in the throne room of the gods. A crowd of assembled deities turned to face us. The palace seemed even grander than the last time we’d been there. The columns were taller, more intricately painted. The polished marble floor swirled with constellation designs, as if we were stepping across the galaxy. The ceiling blazed like one giant fluorescent panel. The dais and throne of Horus had been moved to one side, so it looked more like an observer’s chair now, rather than the main event.
In the center of the room, the sun boat glowed in dry dock scaffolding. Its light-orb crew fluttered about, cleaning the hull and checking the rigging. Uraei circled the throne of fire, where Ra sat dressed in the raiment of an Egyptian king, his flail and crook in his lap. His chin was on his chest, and he snored loudly.
A muscular young man in leather armor stepped toward us. He had a shaven head and two different-colored eyes—one silver, one gold.
“Welcome, Carter and Sadie,” Horus said. “We are honored.”
His words didn’t match his tone, which was stiff and formal. The other gods bowed respectfully to us, but I could feel their hostility simmering just below the surface. They were all dressed in their finest armor and looked quite imposing. Sobek the crocodile god (not my favorite) wore glittering green chain mail and carried a massive staff that flowed with water. Nekhbet looked about as cleaned-up as a vulture can, her feathered black cloak silky and plush. She inclined her head to me, but her eyes told me she still wanted to tear me apart. Babi the baboon god had gotten his teeth brushed and his fur combed. He was holding a rugby ball—possibly because Gramps had infected him with the obsession.
Khonsu stood in his glittery silver suit, tossing a coin in the air and smiling. I wanted to punch him, but he nodded as if we were old friends. Even Set was there, in his devilish red disco suit, leaning against a column at the back of the crowd, holding his black iron staff. I remembered that he’d promised not to kill me only until we freed Ra, but at the moment, he seemed relaxed. He tipped his hat and grinned at me as if enjoying my discomfort.
Thoth the knowledge god was the only one who hadn’t dressed up. He wore his usual jeans and lab coat covered with scribbles. He studied me with his strange kaleidoscope eyes, and I got the feeling he was the only one in the room who actually pitied my discomfort.
Isis stepped forward. Her long black hair was braided down behind the shoulders of her gossamer dress. Her rainbow wings shimmered behind her. She bowed to me formally, but I could feel the waves of cold coming off her.
Horus turned to the assembled gods. I realized he was no longer wearing the pharaoh’s crown.
“Behold!” he told the crowd. “Carter and Sadie Kane, who awakened our king! Let there be no doubt: Apophis the enemy has risen. We must unite behind Ra.”
Ra muttered in his sleep, “Fish, cookie, weasel,” then went back to snoring.
Horus cleared his throat. “I pledge my loyalty! I expect you all to do the same. I will protect Ra’s boat as we pass through the Duat tonight. Each of you shall take turns with this duty until the sun god is…fully recovered.”
He sounded absolutely unconvinced this would ever happen.
“We will find a way to defeat Apophis!” he said. “Now, celebrate the return of Ra! I embrace Carter Kane as a brother.”
Music began to play, echoing through the halls. Ra, still on his throne on his boat, woke up and started clapping. He grinned as gods swirled around him, some in human form, some dissolving into wisps of cloud, flame, or light.
Isis took my hands. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Sadie,” she said in a frigid voice. “Our greatest enemy rises, and you have dethroned my son and made a senile god our leader.”
“Give it a chance,” I said, though my ankles felt like they were turning to butter.
Horus clasped Carter’s shoulders. His words weren’t any friendlier.
“I am your ally, Carter,” Horus promised. “I will lend you my strength whenever you ask. You will revive the path of my magic in the House of Life, and we will fight together to destroy the Serpent. But make no mistake: you have cost me a throne. If your choice costs us the war, I swear my last act before Apophis swallows me will be to crush you like a gnat. And if it comes to pass that we win this war without Ra’s help, if you have disgraced me for nothing, I swear that the death of Cleopatra and the curse of Akhenaton will look like nothing compared to the wrath I will visit on you and your family for all time. Do you understand?”
To Carter’s credit, he held up under the gaze of the war god.
“Just do your part,” Carter said.
Horus laughed for the audience as if he and Carter had just shared a good joke. “Go now, Carter. See what your victory has cost. Let us hope all your allies do not share such a fate.”
Horus turned his back on us and joined the celebration. Isis smiled at me one last time and dissolved into a sparkling rainbow.
Bast stood at my side, holding her tongue, but she looked as if she wanted to shred Horus like a scratching post.
Anubis looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Sadie. The gods can be—”
“Ungrateful?” I asked. “Infuriating?”
His face flushed. I supposed he thought I was referring to him.
“We can be slow to realize what is important,” he said at last. “Sometimes, it takes us a while to appreciate something new, something that might change us for the better.”
He fixed me with those warm eyes, and I wanted to melt into a puddle.
“We should go,” Bast interrupted. “One more stop, if you’re up for it.”
“The cost of victory,” Carter remembered. “Bes? Is he alive?”
Bast sighed. “Difficult question. This way.”
The last place I wanted to see again was Sunny Acres.
Nothing much had changed in the nursing home. No renewing sunlight had helped the senile gods. They were still wheeling their IV poles around, banging into walls, singing ancient hymns as they searched in vain for temples that no longer existed.
A new patient had joined them. Bes sat in a hospital gown in a wicker chair, gazing out the window at the Lake of Fire.
Tawaret knelt at his side, her tiny hippo eyes red from crying. She was trying to get him to drink from a glass.
Water dribbled down his chin. He gazed blankly at the fiery waterfall in the distance, his craggy face awash in red light. His curly hair was newly combed, and he wore a fresh blue Hawaiian shirt and shorts, so he looked quite comfortable. But his brow was furrowed. His fingers gripped the armrests, as if he knew he should remember something, but couldn’t.
“That’s all right, Bes.” Tawaret’s voice quivered as she dabbed a napkin under his chin. “We’ll work on it. I’ll take care of you.”
Then she noticed us. Her expression hardened. For a kindly goddess of childbirth, Tawaret could look quite scary when she wanted to.
She patted the dwarf god’s knee. “I’ll be right back, dear Bes.”
She stood, which was quite an accomplishment with her swollen belly, and steered us away from his chair. “How dare you come here! As if you haven’t done enough!”
I was about to break into tears and apologize when I realized her anger wasn’t aimed at Carter or me. She was glaring at Bast.
“Tawaret…” Bast turned up her palms. “I didn’t want this. He was my friend.”
“He was one of your cat toys!” Tawaret shouted so loudly, a few of the patients started crying. “You’re as selfish as all your kind, Bast. You used him and discarded him. You knew he loved you, and took advantage of it. You played with him like a mouse under your paw.”
“That’s not fair,” Bast murmured, but her hair started to puff up as it does when she’s scared. I couldn’t blame her. There’s almost nothing more frightening than an enraged hippo.
Tawaret stomped her foot so hard, her high heel broke. “Bes deserved better than this. He deserved better than you. He had a good heart. I—I never forgot him!”
I sensed a very violent, one-sided cat–hippo fight about to begin. I don’t know if I spoke up to save Bast, or to spare the traumatized patients, or to assuage my own guilt, but I stepped between the goddesses. “We’ll fix this,” I blurted out. “Tawaret, I swear on my life. We will find a way to heal Bes.”
She looked at me, and the anger drained from her eyes until there was nothing left but pity. “Child, oh child…I know you mean well. But don’t give me false hope. I’ve lived with false hopes too long. Go—see him if you must. See what’s happened to the best dwarf in the world. Then leave us alone. Don’t promise me what can’t happen.”
She turned and hobbled on her broken shoe to the nurses’ desk. Bast lowered her head. She wore a very uncatlike expression: shame.
“I’ll wait here,” she announced.
I could tell that was her final answer, so Carter and I approached Bes by ourselves.
The dwarf god hadn’t moved. He sat in his wicker chair, his mouth slightly open, his eyes fixed on the Lake of Fire.
“Bes.” I put my hand on his arm. “Can you hear me?”
He didn’t answer, of course. He wore a bracelet on his wrist with his name written in hieroglyphs, lovingly decorated, probably by Tawaret herself.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “We’ll get your ren back. We’ll find a way to heal you. Won’t we, Carter?”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, and I can assure you he was not acting very macho at that moment. “Yeah, I swear it, Bes. If it’s…”
He was probably going to say if it’s the last thing we do, but he wisely decided against it. Given the impending war with Apophis, it was best not to think about how soon our lives might end.
I leaned down and kissed Bes’s forehead. I remembered how we’d met at Waterloo Station, when he’d chauffeured Liz and Emma and me to safety. I remembered how he’d scared away Nekhbet and Babi in his ridiculous Speedo. I thought about the silly chocolate Lenin head he’d bought in St. Petersburg, and how he’d pulled Walt and me to safety from the portal at Red Sands. I couldn’t think of him as small. He had an enormous, colorful, ludicrous, wonderful personality—and it seemed impossible that it was gone forever. He’d given his immortal life to buy us one extra hour.
I couldn’t help sobbing. Finally Carter had to pull me away. I don’t remember how we got back home, but I remember feeling as if we were falling rather than ascending—as if the mortal world had become a deeper and sadder place than anywhere in the Duat.
That evening I sat alone on my bed with the windows open. The first night of spring had turned surprisingly warm and pleasant. Lights glittered along the riverfront. The neighborhood bagel factory filled the air with the scent of baking bread. I was listening to my SAD playlist and wondering how it was possible that my birthday had been only a few days ago.
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