“A chance,” Walt said. “Assuming we can find Ra and wake him, and the rest of the House of Life doesn’t destroy us first.”
Amos nodded. “But if we can awaken Ra, that would be a feat more difficult than any magician has ever accomplished. It would make Desjardins think twice. The Chief Lector…well, it would seem he’s not thinking clearly, but he’s no fool. He recognizes the danger of Apophis rising. We must convince him that we’re on the same side, that the path of the gods is the only way to defeat Apophis. I would rather do this than fight him.”
Personally, I wanted to punch Desjardins in the face and set his beard on fire, but I supposed Amos had a point.
Cleo, poor thing, had gone as green as a frog. She’d come all the way from Brazil to Brooklyn to study the path of Thoth, god of knowledge, and we’d already pegged her as our future librarian; but when the dangers were real, and not just in the pages of books…well, she had a tender stomach. I hoped she could make it to the edge of the terrace if she needed to.
“The—the scroll,” she managed, “you said there are two other parts?”
I took the scroll. In the daylight it looked more fragile—brittle and yellow and likely to crumble. My fingers trembled. I could feel magic humming in the papyrus like a low-voltage current. I felt an overwhelming desire to open it.
I began to unroll the cylinder. Carter tensed.
Amos said, “Sadie…”
No doubt they expected Brooklyn to catch fire again, but nothing happened. I spread out the scroll and found it was written in gibberish—not hieroglyphics, not any language I could recognize. The end of the papyrus was a jagged line, as if it had been ripped.
“I imagine the pieces graft together,” I said. “It will be readable only when all three sections are combined.”
Carter looked impressed. But honestly, I do know some things. During our last adventure I’d read a scroll to banish Set, and it had worked much the same way.
Khufu looked up from his Jell-O. “Agh!” He put three slimy grapes on the table.
“Exactly,” Bast agreed. “As Khufu says, the three sections of the book represent the three aspects of Ra—morning, noon, and night. That scroll there is the spell of Khnum. You’ll need to find the other two now.”
How Khufu fit all of that into a single grunt, I didn’t know; but I wished I could take all my classes from baboon teachers. I’d have middle school and high school finished in a week.
“So the other two grapes,” I said, “I mean, scrolls…according to my vision last night, they won’t be easy to find.”
Amos nodded. “The first section was lost eons ago. The middle section is in the possession of the House of Life. It has been moved many times, and is always kept under tight security. Judging from your vision, I’d say the scroll is now in the hands of Vladimir Menshikov.”
“The ice cream man,” I guessed. “Who is he?”
Amos traced something on the table—perhaps a protective hieroglyph. “The third-most powerful magician in the world. He’s also one of Desjardins’ strongest supporters. He runs the Eighteenth Nome, in Russia.”
Bast hissed. Being a cat, she was quite good at that. “Vlad the Inhaler. He’s got an evil reputation.”
I remembered his ruined eyes and wheezing voice. “What happened to his face?”
Bast was about to answer, but Amos cut her off.
“Just realize that he’s quite dangerous,” he warned. “Vlad’s main talent is silencing rogue magicians.”
“You mean he’s an assassin?” I asked. “Wonderful. And Desjardins just gave him permission to hunt Carter and me if we leave Brooklyn.”
“Which you’ll have to do,” Bast said, “if you want to seek the other sections of the Book of Ra. You have only four days.”
“Yes,” I muttered, “you may have mentioned that. You’ll be coming with us, won’t you?”
Bast looked down at her Fancy Feast.
“Sadie…” She sounded miserable. “Carter and I were talking and…well, someone has to check on Apophis’s prison. We have to know what’s going on, how close it is to breaking, and if there’s a way to stop it. That requires a firsthand look.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. “You’re going back there? After all my parents did to free you?”
“I’ll only approach the prison from the outside,” she promised. “I’ll be careful. I am a creature of stealth, after all. Besides, I’m the only one who knows how to find his cell, and that part of the Duat would be lethal to a mortal. I—I must do this.”
Her voice trembled. She’d once told me that cats weren’t brave, but going back to her old prison seemed like quite a courageous thing to do.
“I won’t leave you undefended,” she promised. “I have a…a friend. He should arrive from the Duat by tomorrow. I’ve asked him to find you and protect you.”
“A friend?” I asked.
Bast squirmed. “Well…sort of.”
That didn’t sound encouraging.
I looked down at my street clothes. A sour taste filled my mouth. Carter and I had a quest to undertake, and it was unlikely we would come back alive. Another responsibility on my shoulders, another unreasonable demand for me to sacrifice my life for the greater good. Happy birthday to me.
Khufu belched and pushed away his empty plate. He bared his Jell-O–stained fangs as if to say Well, that’s settled! Good breakfast!
“I’ll get packed,” Carter said. “We can leave in an hour.”
“No,” I said. I’m not sure who was more surprised—me or my brother.
“No?” Carter asked.
“It’s my birthday,” I said, which probably made me sound like a seven-year-old brat—but at the moment I didn’t care.
The trainees looked astonished. Several mumbled their good wishes. Khufu offered me his empty Jell-O bowl as a present. Felix halfheartedly started singing “Happy Birthday,” but no one joined him, so he gave up.
“Bast said her friend won’t arrive until tomorrow,” I continued. “Amos said it would take Desjardins some time to prepare any sort of attack. Besides, I’ve been planning my trip to London for ages. I think I have time for one bloody day off before the world ends.”
The others stared at me. Was I selfish? All right, yes. Irresponsible? Perhaps. So why did I feel so strongly about putting my foot down?
This may come as a shock to you, but I don’t like feeling controlled. Carter was dictating what we would do, but as usual he hadn’t told me everything. He’d obviously consulted Amos and Bast already and made a game plan. The three of them had decided what was best without bothering to ask me. My one constant companion, Bast, was leaving me to embark on a horribly dangerous mission. And I’d be stuck with my brother on my birthday, tracking down another magical scroll that might set me on fire or worse.
Sorry. No thanks. If I was going to die, then it could wait until tomorrow morning.
Carter’s expression was part anger, part disbelief. Normally, we tried to keep things civil in front of our trainees. Now I was embarrassing him. He’d always complained how I rushed into things without thinking. Last night he’d been irritated with me for grabbing that scroll, and I suspected in the back of his mind he blamed me for things going wrong—for Jaz’s getting hurt. No doubt he saw this as another example of my reckless nature.
I was quite prepared for a knockdown fight, but Amos interceded.
“Sadie, a visit to London is dangerous.” He held up his hand before I could protest. “However, if you must…” He took a deep breath, as if he didn’t like what he was about to say. “…then at least promise you’ll be careful. I doubt Vlad Menshikov will be ready to move against us so quickly. You should be all right as long as you use no magic, do nothing to attract attention.”
“Amos!” Carter protested.
Amos cut him off with a stern look. “While Sadie is gone, we can begin planning. Tomorrow morning, the two of you can begin your quest. I will take over your teaching duties with our trainees, and oversee the defense of Brooklyn House.”
I could see in Amos’s eyes he didn’t want me to go. It was foolish, dangerous, and rash—in other words, rather typical of me. But I could also sense his sympathy for my predicament. I remembered how fragile Amos had looked after Set took over his body last Christmas. When he’d gone to the First Nome for healing, I knew he’d felt guilty about leaving us alone. Still, it had been the right choice for his sanity. Amos, of all people, knew what it was like to need to get away. If I stayed here, if I left on a quest straightaway without even time to breathe, I felt I would explode.
Besides, I felt better knowing Amos would be covering for us at Brooklyn House. I was relieved to give up my teaching duties for a while. Truth be told, I’m a horrid teacher. I simply have no patience for it.
[Oh, be quiet, Carter. You weren’t supposed to agree with me.]
“Thank you, Amos,” I managed.
He stood, clearly indicating that the meeting was over.
“I think that’s enough for one morning,” he said. “The main thing is for all of you to continue your training, and don’t despair. We’ll need you in top shape to defend Brooklyn House. We will prevail. With the gods on our side, Ma’at will overcome Chaos, as it always has before.”
The trainees still looked uneasy, but they stood and began to clear their dishes. Carter gave me one more angry look, then stormed inside.
That was his problem. I was determined not to feel guilty. I would not have my birthday ruined. Still, as I stared down at my cold tea and uneaten pain au chocolat, I had a horrible feeling I might never sit at this table again.
An hour later I was ready for London.
I’d chosen a new staff from the arsenal and stowed it in the Duat along with my other supplies. I left the magic Bullwinkle scroll with Carter, who wouldn’t even talk to me, then checked on Jaz in the infirmary and found her still in a coma. An enchanted washcloth kept her forehead cool. Healing hieroglyphs floated around her bed, but she still looked so frail. Without her usual smile, she seemed like a different person.
I sat next to her and held her hand. My heart felt as heavy as a bowling ball. Jaz had risked her life to protect us. She’d gone up against a mob of bau with only a few weeks of training. She’d tapped into the energy of her patron goddess, Sekhmet, just as we’d taught her, and the effort had almost destroyed her.
What had I sacrificed lately? I’d thrown a tantrum because I might miss my birthday party.
“I’m so sorry, Jaz.” I knew she couldn’t hear me, but my voice quavered. “I just…I’ll go mad if I don’t get away. We’ve already had to save the bloody world once, and now I have to do it again….”
I imagined what Jaz would say—something reassuring, no doubt: It’s not your fault, Sadie. You deserve a few hours.