The doors of the balcony swung open. A magical breeze swept me into the night. The lights of New York blurred and faded, and I found myself in a familiar underground chamber: the Hall of Ages, in the House of Life’s main headquarters under Cairo.
The room was so long, it could’ve hosted a marathon. Down the middle was a blue carpet that glittered like a river. Between the columns on either side, curtains of light shimmered—holographic images from Egypt’s long history. The light changed color to reflect different eras, from the white glow of the Age of the Gods all the way to the crimson light of modern times.
The roof was even higher than the ballroom at the Brooklyn Museum, the vast space lit by glowing orbs of energy and floating hieroglyphic symbols. It looked as if someone had detonated a few kilos of children’s cereal in zero gravity, all the colorful sugary bits drifting and colliding in slow motion.
I floated to the end of the room, just above the dais with the pharaoh’s throne. It was an honorary seat, empty since the fall of Egypt, but on the step below it sat the Chief Lector, master of the First Nome, leader of the House of Life, and my least favorite magician: Michel Desjardins.
I hadn’t seen Monsieur Delightful since our attack on the Red Pyramid, and I was surprised how much he’d aged. He’d only become Chief Lector a few months ago, but his slick black hair and forked beard were now streaked with gray. He leaned wearily on his staff, as if the Chief Lector’s leopard-skin cape across his shoulders was as heavy as lead.
I can’t say I felt sorry for him. We hadn’t parted as friends. We’d combined forces (more or less) to defeat the god Set, but he still considered us dangerous rogue magicians. He’d warned us that if we continued studying the path of the gods (which we had) he would destroy us the next time we met. That hadn’t given us much incentive to invite him over for tea.
His face was gaunt, but his eyes still glittered evilly. He studied the bloodred images in the curtains of light as if he were waiting for something.
“Est-il allé?” he asked, which my grammar school French led me to believe meant either “Is he gone?” or possibly “Have you repaired the island?”
Fine…it was probably the first one.
For a moment I was afraid he was talking to me. Then from behind the throne, a raspy voice answered, “Yes, my lord.”
A man stepped out of the shadows. He was dressed completely in white—suit, scarf, even white reflective sunglasses. My first thought was: My god, he’s an evil ice cream vendor.
He had a pleasant smile and chubby face framed in curly gray hair. I might’ve mistaken him as harmless, even friendly —until he took off his glasses.
His eyes were ruined.
I’ll admit I’m squeamish about eyes. A video of retinal surgery? I’ll run out of the room. Even the idea of contact lenses makes me cringe.
But the man in white looked as if his eyes had been splashed with acid, then repeatedly clawed by cats. His eyelids were masses of scar tissue that didn’t close properly. His eyebrows were burned away and raked with deep grooves. The skin above his cheekbones was a mask of red welts, and the eyes themselves were such a horrible combination of blood red and milky white that I couldn’t believe he was able to see.
He inhaled, wheezing so badly, the sound made my chest hurt. Glittering against his shirt was a silver pendant with a snake-shaped amulet.
“He used the portal moments ago, my lord,” the man rasped. “Finally, he has gone.”
That voice was as horrible as his eyes. If he had been splashed with acid, some of it must have gotten into his lungs. Yet the man kept smiling, looking calm and happy in his crisp white suit as if he couldn’t wait to sell ice cream to the good little children.
He approached Desjardins, who was still staring at the curtains of light. The ice cream man followed his gaze. I did the same and realized what the Chief Lector was looking at. At the last pillar, just next to the throne, the light was changing. The reddish tint of the modern age was darkening to a deep purple, the color of bruises. On my first visit to the Hall of Ages, I’d been told that the room grew longer as the years passed, and now I could actually see it happening. The floor and walls rippled like a mirage, expanding ever so slowly, and the sliver of purple light widened.
“Ah,” said the ice cream man. “It’s much clearer now.”
“A new age,” Desjardins murmured. “A darker age. The color of the light has not changed for a thousand years, Vladimir.”
An evil ice cream man named Vladimir? All right, then.
“It is the Kanes, of course,” said Vladimir. “You should’ve killed the elder one while he was in our power.”
My ba feathers ruffled. I realized he was talking about Uncle Amos.
“No,” Desjardins said. “He was under our protection. All who seek healing must be given sanctuary—even Kane.”
Vladimir took a deep breath, which sounded like a clogged vacuum cleaner. “But surely now that he has left, we must act. You heard the news from Brooklyn, my lord. The children have found the first scroll. If they find the other two—”
“I know, Vladimir.”
“They humiliated the House of Life in Arizona. They made peace with Set rather than destroy him. And now they seek the Book of Ra. If you would allow me to deal with them—”
The top of Desjardins’ staff erupted in purple fire. “Who is Chief Lector?” he demanded.
Vladimir’s pleasant expression faltered. “You are, my lord.”
“And I will deal with the Kanes in due time, but Apophis is our greatest threat. We must divert all our power to keeping down the Serpent. If there is any chance the Kanes can help us restore order—”
“But, Chief Lector,” Vladimir interrupted. His tone had a new intensity—an almost magical force to it. “The Kanes are part of the problem. They have upset the balance of Ma’at by awakening the gods. They are teaching forbidden magic. Now they would restore Ra, who has not ruled since the beginning of Egypt! They will throw the world into disarray. This will only help Chaos.”
Desjardins blinked, as if confused. “Perhaps you’re right.
I…I must think on this.”
Vladimir bowed. “As you wish, my lord. I will gather our forces and await your orders to destroy Brooklyn House.”
“Destroy…” Desjardins frowned. “Yes, you will await my orders. I will choose the time to attack, Vladimir.”
“Very good, my lord. And if the Kane children seek the other two scrolls to awaken Ra? One is beyond their reach, of course, but the other—”
“I will leave that to you. Guard it as you think best.”
Vladimir’s eyes were even more horrible when he got excited—slimy and glistening behind those ruined eyelids. They reminded me of Gramps’s favorite breakfast: soft-boiled eggs with Tabasco sauce.
[Well, I’m sorry if it’s disgusting, Carter. You shouldn’t try to eat while I’m narrating, anyway!]
“My lord is wise,” Vladimir said. “The children will seek the scrolls, my lord. They have no choice. If they leave their stronghold and come into my territory—”
“Didn’t I just say we will dispose of them?” Desjardins said flatly. “Now, leave me. I must think.”
Vladimir retreated into the shadows. For someone dressed in white, he managed to disappear quite well.
Desjardins returned his attention to the shimmering curtain of light. “A new age…” he mused. “An age of darkness…”
My ba swirled into the currents of the Duat, racing back to my sleeping form.
“Sadie?” a voice said.
I sat up in bed, my heart pounding. Gray morning light filled the windows. Sitting at the foot of my bed was…
“Uncle Amos?” I stammered.
He smiled. “Happy birthday, my dear. I’m sorry if I scared you. You didn’t answer your door. I was concerned.”
He looked back to full health and as fashionably dressed as ever. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, a porkpie hat, and a black wool Italian suit that made him seem a bit less short and stout. His long hair was braided in cornrows decorated with pieces of glittering black stone—obsidian, perhaps. He might’ve passed for a jazz musician (which he was) or an African American Al Capone (which he wasn’t).
I started to ask, “How—?” Then my vision from the Hall of Ages—the implications of what I’d seen—sank in.
“It’s all right,” Amos said. “I’ve just returned from Egypt.”
I tried to swallow, my breath almost as labored as that ghastly man Vladimir’s. “So have I, Amos. And it’s not all right. They’re coming to destroy us.”
4. A Birthday Invitation to Armageddon
AFTER EXPLAINING MY HORRIBLE VISION, only one thing would do: a proper breakfast.
Amos looked shaken, but he insisted we wait to discuss matters until we’d assembled the entire Twenty-first Nome (as our branch of the House of Life was called). He promised to meet me on the veranda in twenty minutes.
After he’d gone, I showered and considered what to wear. Normally, I would teach Sympathetic Magic on Mondays, which would require proper magician’s linen. However, my birthday was supposed to be a day off.
Given the circumstances, I doubted Amos, Carter, and Bast would let me go to London, but I decided to think positive. I put on some ripped jeans, my combat boots, a tank top, and my leather jacket—not good for magic, but I was feeling rebellious.
I stuffed my wand and the mini-Carter figure into my magic supply bag. I was about to sling it over my shoulder when I thought—No, I’ll not be lugging this about on my birthday.
I took a deep breath and concentrated on opening a space in the Duat. I hate to admit it, but I’m rubbish at this trick. It’s simply not fair that Carter can pull things out of thin air at a moment’s notice, but I normally need five or ten minutes of absolute focus, and even then the effort makes me nauseous. Most of the time, it’s simpler just to keep my bag over my shoulder. If I went out with my mates, however, I didn’t want to be burdened with it, and I didn’t want to leave it behind completely.
At last the air shimmered as the Duat bent to my will. I tossed my bag in front of me, and it disappeared. Excellent —assuming I could figure out how to get it back again later.
I picked up the scroll we’d stolen from Bullwinkle the night before and headed downstairs.
With everyone at breakfast, the mansion was strangely silent. Five levels of balconies faced the Great Room, so normally the place was bustling with noise and activity; but I remembered how empty it had felt when Carter and I first arrived last Christmas.
The Great Room still had many of the same touches: the massive statue of Thoth in the middle, Amos’s collection of weapons and jazz instruments along the wall, the snakeskin rug in front of the garage-size fireplace. But you could tell that twenty young magicians lived here now as well. An assortment of remote controls, wands, iPads, snack food wrappers, and shabti figurines littered the coffee table. Someone with big feet —probably Julian—had left his muddy trainers on the stairs. And one of our hoodlums—I assumed Felix—had magically converted the fireplace into an Antarctic wonderland, complete with snow and a live penguin. Felix does love penguins.