The red pyramid, p.27
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       The Red Pyramid, p.27

         Part #1 of Kane Chronicles series by Rick Riordan
 

  Sadie was shaking my arm. She and Bast stood over me, looking concerned.

  “What?” I asked.

  “We’re here,” Sadie said nervously. She’d changed into a fresh linen outfit, black this time, which matched her combat boots. She’d even managed to redye her hair so the streaks were blue.

  I sat up and realized I felt rested for the first time in a week. My soul may have been traveling, but at least my body had gotten some sleep. I glanced out the stateroom window. It was pitch-black outside.

  “How long was I out?” I demanded.

  “We’ve sailed down most of the Mississippi and into the Duat,” Bast said. “Now we approach the First Cataract.”

  “The First Cataract?” I asked.

  “The entrance,” Bast said grimly, “to the Land of the Dead.”

  S A D I E

  27. A Demon with Free Samples

  ME? I SLEPT LIKE THE DEAD, which I hoped wasn’t a sign of things to come.

  I could tell Carter’s soul had been wandering through some frightening places, but he wouldn’t talk about them.

  “Did you see Zia?” I asked. He looked so rattled I thought his face would fall off. “Knew it,” I said.

  We followed Bast up to the wheelhouse, where Bloodstained Blade was studying a map while Khufu manned—er, babooned—the wheel.

  “The baboon is driving,” I noted. “Should I be worried?”

  “Quiet, please, Lady Kane.” Bloodstained Blade ran his fingers over a long stretch of papyrus map. “This is delicate work. Two degrees to starboard, Khufu.”

  “Agh!” Khufu said.

  The sky was already dark, but as we chugged along, the stars disappeared. The river turned the color of blood. Darkness swallowed the horizon, and along the riverbanks, the lights of towns changed to flickering fires, then winked out completely.

  Now our only lights were the multicolored servant fires and the glittering smoke that bloomed from the smokestacks, washing us all in a weird metallic glow.

  “Should be just ahead,” the captain announced. In the dim light, his red-flecked axe blade looked scarier than ever.

  “What’s that map?” I asked.

  “Spells of Coming Forth by Day,” he said. “Don’t worry. It’s a good copy.”

  I looked at Carter for a translation.

  “Most people call it The Book of the Dead,” he told me. “Rich Egyptians were always buried with a copy, so they could have directions through the Duat to the Land of the Dead. It’s like an Idiot’s Guide to the Afterlife.”

  The captain hummed indignantly. “I am no idiot, Lord Kane.”

  “No, no, I just meant...” Carter’s voice faltered. “Uh, what is that?”

  Ahead of us, crags of rock jutted from the river like fangs, turning the water into a boiling mass of rapids.

  “The First Cataract,” Bloodstained Blade announced. “Hold on.”

  Khufu pushed the wheel to the left, and the steamboat skidded sideways, shooting between two rocky spires with only centimeters to spare. I’m not much of a screamer, but I’ll readily admit that I screamed my head off. [And don’t look at me like that, Carter. You weren’t much better.]

  We dropped over a stretch of white water—or red water—and swerved to avoid a rock the size of Paddington Station. The steamboat made two more suicidal turns between boulders, did a three-sixty spin round a swirling vortex, launched over a ten-meter waterfall, and came crashing down so hard, my ears popped like a gunshot.

  We continued downstream as if nothing had happened, the roar of the rapids fading behind us.

  “I don’t like cataracts,” I decided. “Are there more?”

  “Not as large, thankfully,” said Bast, who was also looking seasick. “We’ve crossed over into—”

  “The Land of the Dead,” Carter finished.

  He pointed to the shore, which was shrouded in mist. Strange things lurked in the darkness: flickering ghost lights, giant faces made of fog, hulking shadows that seemed unconnected to anything physical. Along the riverbanks, old bones dragged themselves through the mud, linking with other bones in random patterns.

  “I’m guessing this isn’t the Mississippi,” I said.

  “The River of Night,” Bloodstained Blade hummed. “It is every river and no river—the shadow of the Mississippi, the Nile, the Thames. It flows throughout the Duat, with many branches and tributaries.”

  “Clears that right up,” I muttered.

  The scenes got stranger. We saw ghost villages from ancient times—little clusters of reed huts made of flickering smoke. We saw vast temples crumbling and reconstructing themselves over and over again like a looped video. And everywhere, ghosts turned their faces towards our boat as we passed. Smoky hands reached out. Shades silently called to us, then turned away in despair as we passed.

  “The lost and confused,” Bast said. “Spirits who never found their way to the Hall of Judgment.”

  “Why are they so sad?” I asked.

  “Well, they’re dead,” Carter speculated.

  “No, it’s more than that,” I said. “It’s like they’re...expecting someone.”

  “Ra,” Bast said. “For eons, Ra’s glorious sun boat would travel this route each night, fighting off the forces of Apophis.” She looked round nervously as if remembering old ambushes. “It was dangerous: every night, a fight for existence. But as he passed, Ra would bring sunlight and warmth to the Duat, and these lost spirits would rejoice, remembering the world of the living.”

  “But that’s a legend,” Carter said. “The earth revolves around the sun. The sun never actually descends under the earth.”

  “Have you learned nothing of Egypt?” Bast asked. “Conflicting stories can be equally true. The sun is a ball of fire in space, yes. But its image you see as it crosses the sky, the life-giving warmth and light it brings to the earth—that was embodied by Ra. The sun was his throne, his source of power, his very spirit. But now Ra has retreated into the heavens. He sleeps, and the sun is just the sun. Ra’s boat no longer travels on its cycle through the Duat. He no longer lights the dark, and the dead feel his absence most keenly.”

  “Indeed,” Bloodstained Blade said, though he didn’t sound very upset about it. “Legend says the world will end when Ra gets too tired to continue living in his weakened state. Apophis will swallow the sun. Darkness will reign. Chaos will overcome Ma’at, and the Serpent will reign forever.”

  Part of me thought this was absurd. The planets would not simply stop spinning. The sun would not cease to rise.

  On the other hand, here I was riding a boat through the Land of the Dead with a demon and a god. If Apophis was real too, I didn’t fancy meeting him.

  And to be honest, I felt guilty. If the story Thoth told me was true, Isis had caused Ra to retreat into the heavens with that secret name business. Which meant, in a ridiculous, maddening way, the end of the world would be my fault. Bloody typical. I wanted to punch myself to get even with Isis, but I suspected it would hurt.

  “Ra should wake up and smell the sahlab,” I said. “He should come back.”

  Bast laughed without humor. “And the world should be young again, Sadie. I wish it could be so....”

  Khufu grunted and gestured ahead. He gave the captain back the wheel and ran out of the wheelhouse and down the stairs.

  “The baboon is right,” said Bloodstained Blade. “You should get to the prow. A challenge will be coming soon.”

  “What sort of challenge?” I asked.

  “It’s hard to tell,” Bloodstained Blade said, and I thought I detected smug satisfaction in his voice. “I wish you luck, Lady Kane.”

  “Why me?” I grumbled.

  Bast, Carter, and I stood at the prow of the boat, watching the river appear out of the darkness. Below us, the boat’s painted eyes glowed faintly in the dark, sweeping beams of light across the red water. Khufu had climbed to the top of the gangplank, which stood straight up when retracted, and cupped his hand over his eyes li
ke a sailor in a crow’s-nest.

  But all that vigilance didn’t do much good. With the dark and the mist, our visibility was nil. Massive rocks, broken pillars, and crumbling statues of pharaohs loomed out of nowhere, and Bloodstained Blade yanked the wheel to avoid them, forcing us to grab hold of the rails. Occasionally we’d see long slimy lines cutting through the surface of the water, like tentacles, or the backs of submerged creatures—I really didn’t want to know.

  “Mortal souls are always challenged,” Bast told me. “You must prove your worth to enter the Land of the Dead.”

  “Like it’s such a big treat?”

  I’m not sure how long I stared into the darkness, but after a good while a reddish smudge appeared in the distance, as if the sky were becoming lighter.

  “Is that my imagination, or—”

  “Our destination,” Bast said. “Strange, we really should’ve been challenged by now—”

  The boat shuddered, and the water began to boil. A giant figure erupted from the river. I could see him only from the waist up, but he towered several meters over the boat. His body was humanoid—bare-chested and hairy with purplish skin. A rope belt was tied around his waist, festooned with leather pouches, severed demon heads, and other charming bits and bobs. His head was a strange combination of lion and human, with gold eyes and a black mane done in dreadlocks. His blood-splattered mouth was feline, with bristly whiskers and razor-sharp fangs. He roared, scaring Khufu right off the gangplank. The poor baboon did a flying leap into Carter’s arms, which knocked them both to the deck.

  “You had to say something,” I told Bast weakly. “This a relative of yours, I hope?”

  Bast shook her head. “I cannot help you with this, Sadie. You are the mortals. You must deal with the challenge.”

  “Oh, thanks for that.”

  “I am Shezmu!” the bloody lion man said.

  I wanted to say, “Yes, you certainly are.” But I decided to keep my mouth shut.

  He turned his golden eyes on Carter and tilted his head. His nostrils quivered. “I smell the blood of pharaohs. A tasty treat...or do you dare to name me?”

  “N-name you?” Carter sputtered. “Do you mean your secret name?”

  The demon laughed. He grabbed a nearby spire of rock, which crumpled like old plaster in his fist.

  I looked desperately at Carter. “You don’t happen to have his secret name lying around somewhere?”

  “It may be in The Book of the Dead,” Carter said. “I forgot to check.”

  “Well?” I said.

  “Keep him busy,” Carter replied, and scrambled off to the wheelhouse.

  Keep a demon busy, I thought. Right. Maybe he fancies a game of tiddlywinks.

  “Do you give up?” Shezmu bellowed.

  “No!” I yelled. “No, we don’t give up. We will name you. Just...Gosh, you’re quite well muscled, aren’t you? Do you work out?”

  I glanced at Bast, who nodded approval.

  Shezmu rumbled with pride and flexed his mighty arms. Never fails with men, does it? Even if they’re twenty meters tall and lion-headed.

  “I am Shezmu!” he bellowed.

  “Yes, you might’ve mentioned that already,” I said. “I’m wondering, um, what sort of titles you’ve earned over the years, eh? Lord of this and that?”

  “I am Osiris’s royal executioner!” he yelled, smashing a fist into the water and rocking our boat. “I am the Lord of Blood and Wine!”

  “Brilliant,” I said, trying not to get sick. “Er, how are blood and wine connected, exactly?”

  “Garrr!” He leaned forward and bared his fangs, which were not any prettier up close. His mane was matted with nasty bits of dead fish and river moss. “Lord Osiris lets me behead the wicked! I crush them in my wine press, and make wine for the dead!”

  I made a mental note never to drink the wine of the dead.

  You’re doing well. Isis’s voice gave me a start. She’d been quiet so long, I’d almost forgotten her. Ask him about his other duties.

  “And what are your other duties...O powerful wine demon guy?”

  “I am Lord of...” He flexed his muscles for maximum effect. “Perfume!”

  He grinned at me, apparently waiting for terror to set it.

  “Oh, my!” I said. “That must make your enemies tremble.”

  “Ha, ha, ha! Yes! Would you like to try a free sample?” He ripped a slimy leather pouch off his belt, and brought out a clay pot filled with sweet-smelling yellow powder. “I call this...Eternity!”

  “Lovely,” I gagged. I glanced behind me, wondering where Carter had gone to, but there was no sign of him.

  Keep him talking, Isis urged.

  “And, um...perfume is part of your job because...wait, I’ve got it, you squeeze it out of plants, like you squeeze wine...”

  “Or blood!” Shezmu added.

  “Well, naturally,” I said. “The blood goes without saying.”

  “Blood!” he said.

  Khufu yelped and covered his eyes.

  “So you serve Osiris?” I asked the demon.

  “Yes! At least...” He hesitated, snarling in doubt. “I did. Osiris’s throne is empty. But he will return. He will!”

  “Of course,” I said. “And so your friends call you what...Shezzy? Bloodsiekins?”

  “I have no friends! But if I did, they would call me Slaughterer of Souls, Fierce of Face! But I don’t have any friends, so my name is not in danger. Ha, ha, ha!”

  I looked at Bast, wondering if I’d just gotten as lucky as I thought. Bast beamed at me.

  Carter came stumbling down the stairs, holding The Book of the Dead. “I’ve got it! Somewhere here. Can’t read this part, but—”

  “Name me or be eaten!” Shezmu bellowed.

  “I name you!” I shouted back. “Shezmu, Slaughterer of Souls, Fierce of Face!”

  “GAAAAHHHHH!” He writhed in pain. “How do they always know?”

  “Let us pass!” I commanded. “Oh, and one more thing...my brother wants a free sample.”

  I just had time to step away, and Carter just had time to look confused before the demon blew yellow dust all over him. Then Shezmu sank under the waves.

  “What a nice fellow,” I said.

  “Pah!” Carter spit perfume. He looked like a piece of breaded fish. “What was that for?”

  “You smell lovely,” I assured him. “What’s next, then?”

  I was feeling very pleased with myself until our boat rounded a bend in the river. Suddenly the reddish glow on the horizon became a blaze of light. Up in the wheelhouse, the captain rang the alarm bell.

  Ahead of us, the river was on fire, rushing through a steaming stretch of rapids towards what looked like a bubbling volcanic crater.

  “The Lake of Fire,” Bast said. “This is where it gets interesting.”

  S A D I E

  28. I Have a Date with the God of Toilet Paper

  BAST HAD AN INTERESTING DEFINITION of interesting: a boiling lake several miles wide that smelled like burning petrol and rotten meat. Our steamboat stopped short where the river met the lake, because a giant metal gate blocked our path. It was a bronze disk like a shield, easily as wide as our boat, half submerged in the river. I wasn’t sure how it avoided melting in the heat, but it made going forward impossible. On either bank of the river, facing the disk, was a giant bronze baboon with its arms raised.

  “What is this?” I asked.

  “The Gates of the West,” Bast said. “Ra’s sunboat would pass through and be renewed in the fires of the lake, then pass through to the other side and rise through the Gates of the East for a new day.”

  Looking up at the huge baboons, I wondered if Khufu had some sort of secret baboon code that would get us in. But instead he barked at the statues and cowered heroically behind my legs.

  “How do we get past?” I wondered.

  “Perhaps,” a new voice said, “you should ask me.”

  The air shimmered. Carter backed up quickly,
and Bast hissed.

  In front of me appeared a glowing bird spirit: a ba. It had the usual combination of human head and killer turkey body, with its wings tucked back and its entire form glowing, but something about this ba was different. I realized I knew the spirit’s face—an old bald man with brown, papery skin, milky eyes, and a kindly smile.

  “Iskandar?” I managed.

  “Hello, my dear.” The old magician’s voice echoed as if from the bottom of a well.

  “But...” I found myself tearing up. “You’re really dead, then?”

  He chuckled. “Last I checked.”

  “But why? I didn’t make you—”

  “No, my dear. It wasn’t your fault. It was simply the right time.”

  “It was horrible timing!” My surprise and sadness abruptly turned to anger. “You left us before we got trained or anything, and now Desjardins is after us and—”

  “My dear, look how far you’ve come. Look how well you have done. You didn’t need me, nor would more training have helped. My brethren would have found out the truth about you soon enough. They are excellent at sniffing out godlings, I fear, and they would not have understood.”

  “You knew, didn’t you? You knew we were possessed by gods.”

  “Hosts of the gods.”

  “Whatever! You knew.”

  “After our second meeting, yes. My only regret is that I did not realize it sooner. I could not protect you and your brother as much as—”

  “As much as who?”

  Iskandar’s eyes became sad and distant. “I made choices, Sadie. Some seemed wise at the time. Some, in retrospect...”

  “Your decision to forbid the gods. My mum convinced you it was a bad idea, didn’t she?”

  His spectral wings fluttered. “You must understand, Sadie. When Egypt fell to the Romans, my spirit was crushed. Thousands of years of Egyptian power and tradition toppled by that foolish Queen Cleopatra, who thought she could host a goddess. The blood of the pharaohs seemed weak and diluted—lost forever. At the time I blamed everyone—the gods who used men to act out their petty quarrels, the Ptolemaic rulers who had driven Egypt into the ground, my own brethren in the House for becoming weak and greedy and corrupt. I communed with Thoth, and we agreed: the gods must be put away, banished. The magicians must find their way without them. The new rules kept the House of Life intact for another two thousand years. At the time, it was the right choice.”

 
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