The crown of ptolemy, p.3
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       The Crown of Ptolemy, p.3

         Part #3 of Percy Jackson & Kane Chronicles Crossover series by Rick Riordan
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  really, she’s not very nice. Possessed my gran, chased me across London …’

  ‘So what’s the plan?’ Carter asked. ‘Maybe a flanking manoeuvre?’

  ‘Or,’ Annabeth said, ‘we could try a diversionary –’

  ‘Charge!’ Sadie barrelled into the clearing, her staff in one hand and her Greek scroll in the other.

  I glanced at Annabeth. ‘Your new friend is awesome.’

  Then I followed Sadie.

  My plan was pretty simple: run at Setne and kill him. Even with my heavy new sword, I outpaced Sadie. Two vultures dived at me. I sliced them out of the air.

  I was five feet from Setne and imagining the satisfaction of slicing him in half when he turned and noticed me. The magician vanished. My blade cut through empty air.

  I stumbled, off-balance and angry.

  Ten feet to my left, Sadie smacked a vulture with her staff. The bird exploded into white sand. Annabeth jogged towards us, giving me one of those annoyed expressions like, If you get yourself killed, I’m going to murder you. Carter, being invisible, was nowhere to be seen.

  With a bolt of white fire, Sadie blasted another vulture out of the sky. The remaining birds scattered in the storm.

  Sadie scanned the field for Setne. ‘Where is the skinny old git?’

  The skinny old git appeared right behind her. He spoke a single word from his scroll of nasty surprises, and the ground exploded.

  When I regained my senses, I was still standing, which was a minor miracle. The force of the spell had pushed me away from Setne, so my shoes had made trenches in the mud.

  I looked up, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. Around Setne, the earth had ruptured in a ten-foot-diameter ring, splitting open like a seedpod. Plumes of dirt had sprayed outward and were frozen in midair. Tendrils of red sand coiled around my legs and brushed against my face as they snaked in all directions. It looked like somebody had stopped time while slinging red mud from a giant salad spinner.

  Sadie lay flat on the ground to my left, her legs buried under a blanket of mud. She struggled but couldn’t seem to get free. Her staff was knocked out of reach. Her scroll was a muddy rag in her hand.

  I stepped towards her, but the coils of sand pushed me back.

  Somewhere behind me, Annabeth yelled my name. I turned and saw her just outside the explosion zone. She was trying to charge in, but the earthen tendrils moved to block her, whipping around like octopus arms.

  There was no sign of Carter. I could only hope he hadn’t got caught in this stupid web of floating dirt.

  ‘Setne!’ I yelled.

  The magician brushed the lapels of his smoking jacket. ‘You really should stop interrupting me, demigod. The deshret crown was originally a gift to the pharaohs from the earth god Geb, you know. It can defend itself with some cool earth magic!’

  I gritted my teeth. Annabeth and I had recently done battle with Gaia the Earth Mother. More dirt sorcery was the last thing I needed.

  Sadie struggled, her legs still encased in mud. ‘Clean up all this dirt right now, young man. Then give us that crown and go to your room.’

  The magician’s eyes glittered. ‘Ah, Sadie. Delightful as always. Where’s your brother? Did I accidentally blow him up? You can thank me for that later. Right now, I must get on with business.’

  He turned his back on us and resumed chanting.

  The wind picked up. Rain whipped around him. The floating lines of sand began to stir and shift.

  I managed to step forward, but it was like wading through wet cement. Behind me, Annabeth wasn’t having much more luck. Sadie managed to pull one of her legs free, minus her combat boot. She cursed worse than my immortal horse friend Arion (which is pretty bad) as she retrieved the boot.

  Setne’s weird earth spell was loosening, but not fast enough. I’d only managed two more steps when Setne finished his incantation.

  In front of him, a wisp of darkness grew into the form of a queenly woman. Rubies embroidered the collar of her black dress. Gold bands circled her upper arms. Her face had an imperious, timeless quality that I’d learned to recognize. It meant I’m a goddess; deal with it. Perched atop her braided black hair was a white conical crown, and I couldn’t help wondering why a powerful immortal being would choose to wear a headpiece shaped like a bowling pin.

  ‘You!’ she snarled at Setne.

  ‘Me!’ he agreed. ‘Wonderful to see you again, Nekhbet. Sorry we don’t have longer to chat, but I can’t keep these mortals pinned down forever. We’ll have to make this brief. The hedjet, please.’

  The vulture goddess spread her arms, which grew into huge black wings. Around her, the air turned dark as smoke. ‘I do not yield to upstarts like you. I am the protector of the crown, the shield of the pharaoh, the –’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Setne said. ‘But you’ve yielded to upstarts plenty of times. The history of Egypt is basically a list of which upstarts you’ve yielded to. So let’s have the crown.’

  I didn’t know vultures could hiss, but Nekhbet did. Smoke billowed from her wings.

  All around the clearing, Setne’s earth magic shattered. The tendrils of red sand fell to the ground with a loud slosh, and suddenly I could move again. Sadie struggled to her feet. Annabeth ran to my side.

  Setne didn’t seem concerned about us.

  He gave Nekhbet a mock bow. ‘Very impressive. But watch this!’

  He didn’t need to read from the scroll this time. He shouted a combination of Greek and Egyptian – words I recognized from the spell he’d used back at the fort.

  I locked eyes with Annabeth. I could tell we were thinking the same thing. We couldn’t let Setne consume the goddess.

  Sadie raised her muddy piece of papyrus. ‘Annabeth, you and Percy get Nekhbet out of here. GO!’

  No time to argue. Annabeth and I ploughed into the goddess like linebackers and pushed her across the field, away from Setne.

  Behind us, Sadie yelled, ‘Ke-rau-noh!’

  I didn’t see the explosion, but it must have been impressive.

  Annabeth and I were thrown forward. We landed on top of Nekhbet, who let out an indignant squawk. (By the way, I would not recommend stuffing your pillow with vulture feathers. They’re not very comfy.)

  I managed to get up. Where Setne had been standing was a smoking crater.

  Sadie’s hair was singed at the tips. Her scroll was gone. Her eyes were wide with surprise. ‘That was brilliant. Did I get him?’

  ‘Nope!’ Setne appeared a few feet away, stumbling a little. His clothes were smouldering, but he looked more dazed than hurt.

  He knelt and picked up something conical and white … Nekhbet’s crown, which must’ve rolled off when we tackled her.

  ‘Thanks for this.’ Setne spread his arms triumphantly – the white crown in one hand, the Book of Thoth in the other. ‘Now, where was I? Oh, right! Consuming all of you!’

  Across the field, Carter’s voice yelled: ‘STAHP!’

  I guess stahp is actually a word in Ancient Egyptian. Who knew?

  A bright blue hieroglyph scythed through the air, cutting off Setne’s right hand at the wrist.

  Setne shrieked in pain. The Book of Thoth dropped into the grass.

  Twenty feet away from me, Carter appeared out of thin air, holding Annabeth’s Yankees cap. He wasn’t in giant-chicken mode, but, since he’d just saved our lives, I wasn’t going to complain.

  Setne glanced down at the Book of Thoth, still in his severed hand, but I lunged forward, thrusting the point of my new sword under his nose. ‘I don’t think so.’

  The magician snarled. ‘Take the book, then! I don’t need it any more!’

  He vanished in a whirl of darkness.

  On the ground behind me, the vulture goddess Nekhbet thrashed and pushed Annabeth aside. ‘Get off me!’

  ‘Hey, lady –’ Annabeth rose – ‘I was trying to keep you from being devoured. You’re welcome.’

  The vulture goddess got to her feet.

/>   She didn’t look nearly as impressive without her crown. Her hairdo was a mud-and-grass salad. Her black dress had turned into a smock of moulting feathers. She looked shrivelled and hunched over, with her neck sticking out like … well, a vulture. All she needed was a cardboard sign saying, HOMELESS, ANYTHING HELPS, and I totally would have given her my spare change.

  ‘You miserable children,’ she grumbled. ‘I could have destroyed that magician!’

  ‘Not so much,’ I said. ‘A few minutes ago, we watched Setne inhale a cobra goddess. She was a lot more impressive than you.’

  Nekhbet’s eyes narrowed. ‘Wadjet? He inhaled Wadjet? Tell me everything.’

  Carter and Sadie joined us as we briefed the goddess on what had happened so far.

  When we were done, Nekhbet wailed in outrage. ‘This is unacceptable! Wadjet and I were the symbols of unity in Ancient Egypt. We were revered as the Two Ladies! That upstart Setne has stolen my other Lady!’

  ‘Well, he didn’t get you,’ Sadie said. ‘Which I suppose is a good thing.’

  Nekhbet bared her teeth, which were pointy and red like a row of little vulture beaks. ‘You Kanes. I should’ve known you’d be involved. Always mucking about in godly affairs.’

  ‘Oh, so now it’s our fault?’ Sadie hefted her staff. ‘Listen here, buzzard breath –’

  ‘Let’s stay focused,’ Carter said. ‘At least we got the Book of Thoth. We stopped Setne from devouring Nekhbet. So what’s Setne’s next move, and how do we stop him?’

  ‘He has both parts of the pschent!’ said the vulture goddess. ‘Without my essence, the white crown is not as powerful as it would be, true, but it’s still enough for Setne’s purposes. He needs only to complete the deification ceremony while wearing the crown of Ptolemy. Then he will become a god. I hate it when mortals become gods! They always want thrones. They build garish McPalaces. They don’t respect the rules in the gods’ lounge.’

  ‘The gods’ lounge?’ I asked.

  ‘We must stop him!’ Nekhbet yelled.

  Sadie, Carter, Annabeth and I exchanged uneasy looks. Normally when a god says, We must stop him, it means, You must stop him while I sit back and enjoy a cold beverage. But Nekhbet seemed serious about joining the gang.

  That didn’t make me any less nervous. I try to avoid teaming up with goddesses who eat roadkill. It’s one of my personal boundaries.

  Carter knelt. He pulled the Book of Thoth from Setne’s severed hand. ‘Can we use the scroll? It has powerful magic.’

  ‘If that’s true,’ Annabeth said, ‘why would Setne leave it behind? I thought it was the key to his immortality.’

  ‘He said he was done with it,’ I recalled. ‘I guess he, like, passed the test, so he threw away his notes.’

  Annabeth looked horrified. ‘Are you crazy? You throw away your notes after a test?’

  ‘Doesn’t everybody, Miss Brainiac?’

  ‘Guys!’ Sadie interrupted. ‘It’s terribly cute watching you two snipe at each other, but we have business.’ She turned to Nekhbet. ‘Now, your Scavenging Highness, is there a way to stop Setne?’

  Nekhbet curled her talon fingernails. ‘Possibly. He’s not a full god yet. But, without my crown, my own powers are greatly diminished.’

  ‘What about the Book of Thoth?’ Sadie asked. ‘It may be no further use to Setne, but it did help us defeat Apophis.’

  At the mention of that name, Nekhbet’s face blanched. Three feathers fell from her dress. ‘Please don’t remind me of that battle. But you’re correct. The Book of Thoth contains a spell for imprisoning gods. It would take a great deal of concentration and preparation …’

  Carter coughed. ‘I’m guessing Setne won’t stand around quietly while we get ready.’

  ‘No,’ Nekhbet agreed. ‘At least three of you would be required to set a proper trap. A circle must be drawn. A rope must be enchanted. The earth must be consecrated. Other parts of the spell would have to be improvised. I hate Ptolemaic magic. Mixing Greek and Egyptian power is an abomination. However –’

  ‘It works,’ Annabeth said. ‘Carter was able to go invisible using my hat. Sadie’s explosion scroll at least dazed Setne.’

  ‘But we’ll need more,’ Sadie said.

  ‘Yes …’ The vulture goddess fixed her eyes on me like I was a tasty dead possum on the side of the highway. ‘One of you will have to fight Setne and keep him unbalanced while the others prepare the trap. We need a very potent hybrid attack, an abomination even Ptolemy would approve of.’

  ‘Why are you looking at me?’ I asked. ‘I’m not abominable.’

  ‘You are a son of Poseidon,’ the goddess noted. ‘That would be a most unexpected combination.’

  ‘Combination? What –’

  ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ Sadie raised her hands. She looked horrified, and anything that could scare that girl I did not want to know about. ‘Nekhbet, you can’t be serious. You want a demigod to host you? He’s not even a magician. He doesn’t have the blood of the pharaohs!’

  Carter grimaced. ‘That’s her point, Sadie. Percy isn’t the usual kind of host. If the pairing worked, he could be very powerful.’

  ‘Or it could melt his brain!’ Sadie said.

  ‘Hold it,’ Annabeth said. ‘I prefer my boyfriend with an unmelted brain. What exactly are we talking about here?’

  Carter wagged the Yankees cap at me. ‘Nekhbet wants Percy to be her host. That’s one way the Egyptian gods maintain a presence in the mortal world. They can inhabit mortals’ bodies.’

  My stomach jackknifed. ‘You want her –’ I pointed at the frazzled old vulture goddess – ‘to inhabit me? That sounds …’

  I tried to think of a word that would convey my complete disgust without offending the goddess. I failed.

  ‘Nekhbet –’ Annabeth stepped forward – ‘join with me instead. I’m a child of Athena. I might be better –’

  ‘Ridiculous!’ The goddess sneered. ‘Your mind is too wily, girl – too stubborn and intelligent. I couldn’t steer you as easily.’

  ‘Steer me?’ I protested. ‘Hey, lady, I’m not a Toyota.’

  ‘My host needs a certain level of simplicity,’ the goddess continued. ‘Percy Jackson is perfect. He is powerful, yet his mind is not overly crowded with plans and ideas.’

  ‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Really feeling the love here.’

  Nekhbet rounded on me. ‘There is no time to argue! Without a physical anchor, I cannot remain in the mortal world much longer. If you want to stop Setne from becoming immortal, you need the power of a god. We must act now. Together, we will triumph! We will feast upon that upstart magician’s carcass!’

  I swallowed. ‘I’m actually trying to cut back on carcass feasting.’

  Carter gave me a sympathetic look that only made me feel worse. ‘Unfortunately, Nekhbet is right. Percy, you’re our best shot. Sadie and I couldn’t host Nekhbet even if she wanted us to. We already have patron gods.’

  ‘Who, conveniently, have gone silent,’ Sadie noted. ‘Scared of getting their essences sucked up, I suppose.’

  Nekhbet fixed her glittery black eyes on me. ‘Do you consent to hosting me, demigod?’

  I could think of a million ways to say no. The word yes simply wouldn’t pass my lips. I glanced at Annabeth for support, but she looked as alarmed as I felt.

  ‘I – I don’t know, Percy,’ she confessed. ‘This is way beyond me.’

  Suddenly the rainstorm fizzled out. In the eerie muggy quiet, a red glow lit the middle of the island, as if somebody had started a bonfire on the soccer fields.

  ‘That would be Setne,’ Nekhbet said. ‘He has begun his ascension to godhood. What is your answer, Percy Jackson? This will only work properly if you consent.’

  I took a deep breath. I told myself that hosting a goddess couldn’t be worse than all the other weird horrible things I’d experienced in my demigod career … Besides, my friends needed my help. And I did not want that skinny Elvis impersonator to become a god and build a McPalace in
my neighbourhood.

  ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Vulture me up.’

  Nekhbet dissolved into black smoke. She swirled around me – filling my nostrils with a smell like boiling tar.

  What was it like merging with a god?

  If you want the full details, read my Yelp review. I don’t feel like going into it again. I gave the experience half a star.

  For now, let’s just say that being possessed by a vulture goddess was even more disturbing than I’d imagined.

  Thousands of years of memories flooded my mind. I saw pyramids rising from the desert, the sun glittering on the River Nile. I heard priests chanting in the cool shadows of a temple and smelled myrrh incense on the air. I soared over the cities of Ancient Egypt, circling the palace of the pharaoh. I was the vulture goddess Nekhbet – protector of the king, shield of the strong, scourge of the weak and dying.

  I also had a burning desire to find a nice warm hyena carcass, stick my face right in there and –

  Okay, basically I wasn’t myself.

  I tried to focus on the present. I stared at my shoes … the same old pair of Brooks, yellow shoelace on the left, black shoelace on the right. I raised my sword arm to make sure I could still control my muscles.

  Relax, demigod. The voice of Nekhbet spoke in my mind. Let me take charge.

  ‘I don’t think so,’ I said aloud. I was relieved that my voice still sounded like my voice. ‘We do this together or not at all.’

  ‘Percy?’ Annabeth asked. ‘Are you okay?’

  Looking at her was disorientating. The ‘Percy’ part of me saw my usual awesome girlfriend. The ‘Nekhbet’ part of me saw a young woman surrounded by a powerful ultraviolet aura – the mark of a Greek demigod. The sight filled me with disdain and fear. (For the record: I have my own healthy fear of Annabeth. She has kicked my butt on more than one occasion. But disdain? Not so much. That was all Nekhbet.)

  ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I was talking to the vulture in my head.’

  Carter walked a circle around me, frowning like I was an abstract sculpture. ‘Percy, try to strike a balance. Don’t let her take over, but don’t fight her, either. It’s kind of like running a three-legged race. You have to get in a rhythm with your partner.’

  ‘But if you have to choose,’ Sadie said, ‘smack her down and stay in control.’

  I snarled. ‘Stupid girl! Do not tell me –’ I forced my lips closed. The taste of rotting jackal filled my mouth. ‘Sorry, Sadie,’ I managed. ‘That was Nekhbet talking, not me.’

  ‘I know.’ Sadie’s expression tightened. ‘I wish we had more time for you to get used to hosting a goddess. However –’

  Another red flash illuminated the treetops.

  ‘The sooner I get this goddess out of my head, the better,’ I said. ‘Let’s go smash Setne’s face.’

  Setne really could not decide on his wardrobe.

  He strutted around the soccer field in black bell-bottomed slacks, a frilly white shirt and a glittery purple trench coat – all of which clashed with his newly combined red and white crown. He looked like Prince from one of my mom’s old album covers, and, judging from the magic lights swirling around him, Setne was getting ready to party like it was 1999 B.C.E.

  Having only one hand didn’t seem to bother him. He waved his stump conductor-style, chanting in Greek and Egyptian while fog rose at his feet. Bursts of light danced and bobbed around him, as if a thousand kids were writing their names with sparklers.

  I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but Nekhbet did. Having her sight, I recognized the Duat – the magical dimension that existed beneath the mortal realm. I saw layers of reality, like strata of glowing multicoloured jelly, plunging down into infinity. On the surface, where the mortal and immortal worlds met, Setne was whipping the Duat into a storm – churning waves of colour and frothy white plumes of smoke.

  After Annabeth’s adventure on Rockaway Beach, she’d told me how frightening it was to see the Duat. She wondered whether the Egyptian Duat was somehow related to the Greek concept of Mist – the magical veil that kept mortals from recognizing gods and monsters.

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