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The Crown of Ptolemy

Rick Riordan


  Nothing happened.

  Next to me, pressed against the wall of the old fort, Annabeth peered into the rain, waiting for magical teenagers to fall out of the sky.

  ‘Are you doing it right?’ she asked me.

  ‘Gee¸ I dunno. I’m pretty sure his name is pronounced Carter.’

  ‘Try tapping the hieroglyph multiple times.’

  ‘That’s stupid.’

  ‘Just try it.’

  I stared at my hand. There wasn’t even a trace of the hieroglyph that Carter Kane had drawn on my palm almost two months back. He’d assured me that the magic couldn’t be washed away, but, with my luck, I’d accidentally wiped it off on my jeans or something.

  I tapped my palm. ‘Carter. Hello, Carter. Percy to Carter. Paging Carter Kane. Testing, one, two, three. Is this thing on?’

  Still nothing.

  Usually I wouldn’t panic if the cavalry failed to show. Annabeth and I had been in a lot of bad situations without any backup. But usually we weren’t stranded on Governors Island in the middle of a hurricane, surrounded by fire-breathing death snakes.

  (Actually, I have been surrounded by fire-breathing death snakes before, but not ones with wings. Everything is worse when it has wings.)

  ‘All right.’ Annabeth wiped the rain out of her eyes, which didn’t help, since it was pouring buckets. ‘Sadie’s not answering her phone. Carter’s hieroglyph isn’t working. I guess we have to do this ourselves.’

  ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘But what do we do?’

  I peeked around the corner. At the far end of an arched entryway, a grass courtyard stretched about a hundred yards square, surrounded by redbrick buildings. Annabeth had told me this place was a fort or something from the Revolutionary War, but I hadn’t listened to the details. Our main problem was the guy standing in the middle of the lawn doing a magic ritual.

  He looked like a runty Elvis Presley, strutting back and forth in skinny black jeans, a powder-blue dress shirt and a black leather jacket. His greasy pompadour hairdo seemed impervious to the rain and the wind.

  In his hands he held an old scroll, like a treasure map. As he paced, he read aloud from it, occasionally throwing back his head and laughing. Basically the dude was in full-on crazy mode.

  If that wasn’t creepy enough, flying around him were half a dozen winged serpents, blowing flames in the rain.

  Overhead, lightning flashed. Thunder shook my molars.

  Annabeth pulled me back.

  ‘That’s got to be Setne,’ she said. ‘The scroll he’s reading from is the Book of Thoth. Whatever spell he’s casting, we have to stop him.’

  At this point I should probably back up and explain what the heck was going on.

  Only problem: I wasn’t sure what the heck was going on.

  A couple of months ago, I fought this giant crocodile on Long Island. A kid named Carter Kane showed up, said he was a magician and proceeded to help me by blowing up stuff with hieroglyphs and turning into a giant glowing chicken-headed warrior. Together we defeated the crocodile, which Carter explained was a son of Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god. Carter postulated that some strange Egyptian–Greek hybrid stuff was happening. (Gee, I never would’ve guessed.) He wrote a magical hieroglyph on my hand and told me to call his name if I ever needed help.

  Fast-forward to last month: Annabeth ran into Carter’s sister, Sadie Kane, on the A train to Rockaway. They fought some godly dude named Serapis, who had a three-headed staff, and a cereal bowl for a hat. Afterwards, Sadie told Annabeth that an ancient magician named Setne might be behind all the weirdness. Apparently this Setne had come back from the dead, snagged an ultra-powerful sorcery cheat sheet called the Book of Thoth and was playing around with Egyptian and Greek magic, hoping to find a way to become a god himself. Sadie and Annabeth had exchanged numbers and agreed to keep in touch.

  Today, four weeks later, Annabeth showed up at my apartment at ten in the morning and announced that she’d had a bad dream – a vision from her mom.

  (By the way: her mom is Athena, the goddess of wisdom. My dad is Poseidon. We’re Greek demigods. Just thought I should mention that, you know, in passing.)

  Annabeth decided that, instead of going to the movies, we should spend our Saturday slogging down to the bottom of Manhattan and taking the ferry to Governors Island, where Athena had told her that trouble was brewing.

  As soon as we got there, a freak hurricane slammed into New York Harbor. All the mortals evacuated Governors Island, leaving Annabeth and me stranded at an old fort with Crazy Elvis and the Flying Death Snakes.

  Make sense to you?

  Me neither.

  ‘Your invisibility cap,’ I said. ‘It’s working again, right? How about I distract Setne while you sneak up behind him? You can knock the book out of his hands.’

  Annabeth knitted her eyebrows. Even with her blonde hair plastered to the side of her face, she looked cute. Her eyes were the same colour as the storm clouds.

  ‘Setne is supposedly the world’s greatest magician,’ she said. ‘He might be able to see through invisibility. Plus, if you run out there, he’ll probably zap you with a spell. Believe me, Egyptian magic is not something you want to get zapped with.’

  ‘I know. Carter walloped me with a glowing blue fist once. But unless you have a better idea …’

  Unfortunately, she didn’t offer one. She pulled her New York Yankees cap from her backpack. ‘Give me a minute’s head start. Try to take out those flying snakes first. They should be softer targets.’

  ‘Got it.’ I raised my ballpoint pen, which doesn’t sound like an impressive weapon, but it turns into a magic sword when I uncap it. No, seriously. ‘Will a Celestial bronze blade kill them?’

  Annabeth frowned. ‘It should. At least … my bronze dagger worked on the staff of Serapis. Of course, that bronze dagger was made from an Egyptian wand, so …’

  ‘I’m getting a headache. Usually when I get a headache it’s time to stop talking and attack something.’

  ‘Fine. Just remember: our main goal is to get that scroll. According to Sadie, Setne can use it to turn himself immortal.’

  ‘Understood. No bad guys turning immortal on my watch.’ I kissed her, because 1) when you’re a demigod going into battle, every kiss might be your last, and 2) I like kissing her. ‘Be careful.’

  She put on her Yankees cap and vanished.

  I’d love to tell you that I walked in and killed the snakes, Annabeth stabbed Elvis in the back and took his scroll, and we went home happy.

  You’d figure once in a while things would work out the way we planned.

  But noooooo.

  I gave Annabeth a few seconds to sneak into the courtyard.

  Then I uncapped my pen, and Riptide sprang to full length – three feet of razor-sharp Celestial bronze. I strolled into the courtyard and sliced the nearest serpent out of the air.

  Nothing says Hi, neighbour! like killing a guy’s flying reptile.

  The snake didn’t disintegrate like most monsters I’d fought. Its two halves just landed in the wet grass. The half with wings flopped around aimlessly.

  Crazy Elvis didn’t notice. He kept pacing back and forth, engrossed in his scroll, so I moved further into the courtyard and sliced another snake.

  The storm made it hard to see. Normally I can stay dry when submersed in water, but rain is trickier. It needled my skin and got in my eyes.

  Lightning flashed. By the time my vision cleared, two more snakes were dive-bombing me from either side. I jumped backwards just as they blew fire.

  FYI, jumping backwards is hard when you’re holding a sword. It’s even harder when the ground is muddy.

  Long story short: I slipped and landed on my bu

  Flames shot over my head. The two snakes circled above me like they were too surprised to attack again. Probably they were wondering, Did that guy just fall on his butt on purpose? Should we laugh before we kill him? Would that be mean?

  Before they could decide what to do, Crazy Elvis called out, ‘Leave him!’

  The snakes darted off to join their brethren, who were orbiting ten feet above the magician.

  I wanted to get up and face Setne, but my rear end had other ideas. It wanted to stay where it was and be in extreme pain. Butts are like that sometimes. They can be, well, butts.

  Setne rolled up his scroll. He sauntered towards me, the rain parting around him like a bead curtain. His winged snakes followed, their flames making plumes of steam in the storm.

  ‘Hi, there!’ Setne sounded so casual and friendly I knew I was in trouble. ‘You’re a demigod, I suppose?’

  I wondered how Setne knew that. Maybe he could ‘smell’ a demigod’s aura the way Greek monsters could. Or maybe my prankster friends the Stoll brothers had written I’M A DEMIGOD on my forehead in permanent marker and Annabeth had decided not to tell me. That happened occasionally.

  Setne’s smile made his face look even gaunter. Dark eyeliner rimmed his eyes, giving him a hungry, feral stare. Around his neck glittered a golden chain of interlocking ankhs, and from his left ear dangled an ornament that looked like a human finger bone.

  ‘You must be Setne.’ I managed to get to my feet without killing myself. ‘Did you get that outfit at the Halloween Store?’

  Setne chuckled. ‘Look, nothing personal, but I’m a little busy at the moment. I’m going to ask you and your girlfriend to wait while I finish my incantation, okay? Once I’ve summoned the deshret, we can chat.’

  I tried to look confused, which is one of my most convincing expressions. ‘What girlfriend? I’m alone. Also, why are you summoning a dishrag?’

  ‘It’s deshret.’ Setne patted his pompadour. ‘The red crown of Lower Egypt. As for your girlfriend …’

  He wheeled and pointed behind him, shouting something like ‘Sun-AH!’

  Red hieroglyphs burned in the air where Setne pointed:

  Annabeth turned visible. I’d never actually seen her wearing her Yankees cap before, since she vanished every time she put it on, but there she was – wide-eyed with surprise, caught in the act of sneaking up on Setne.

  Before she could react, the red glowing hieroglyphs turned into ropes like liquorice whips and lashed out, wrapping around her, pinning her arms and legs with such force that she toppled over.

  ‘Hey!’ I yelled. ‘Let her go!’

  The magician grinned. ‘Invisibility magic. Please. I’ve been using invisibility spells since the pyramids were under warranty. Like I said, this is nothing personal, demigods. I just can’t spare the energy to kill you … at least not until the summons is over. I hope you understand.’

  My heart hammered. I’d seen Egyptian magic before, when Carter helped me fight the giant crocodile on Long Island, but I had no idea how to stop it, and I couldn’t stand to see it used against Annabeth.

  I charged at Setne. He just waved his hand and muttered, ‘Hu-Ai.’

  More stupid hieroglyphs flashed in front of me.

  I fell on my face.

  My face did not appreciate that. I got mud in my nostrils and blood in my mouth from biting my tongue. When I blinked, the red hieroglyphs burned on the insides of my eyelids.

  I groaned. ‘What was that spell?’

  ‘Fall,’ Setne said. ‘One of my favourites. Don’t get up. You’ll just hurt yourself more.’

  ‘Setne!’ Annabeth shouted through the storm. ‘Listen to me. You can’t make yourself into a god. It won’t work. You’ll just destroy –’

  The coil of magical red ropes expanded, covering Annabeth’s mouth.

  ‘I appreciate your concern,’ said the magician. ‘Really, I do. But I’ve got this figured out. That business with Serapis … when you destroyed my hybrid god? I learned quite a bit from that. I took excellent notes.’

  Annabeth struggled uselessly.

  I wanted to run to her, but I had a feeling I’d just end up with my face in the mud again. I’d have to play this smart … which was not my usual style.

  I tried to steady my breathing. I scooted sideways, just to see if I could.

  ‘So you were watching in Rockaway Beach?’ I asked Setne. ‘When Annabeth and Sadie took down Serapis, that was all an experiment to you?’

  ‘Of course!’ Setne looked very pleased with himself. ‘I jotted down the incantations Serapis used while he tried to raise his new Alexandrian lighthouse. Then it was just a matter of cross-referencing those with the older magic in the Book of Thoth, and voilà! I found exactly the spell combo I need to make myself into a god. It’s going to be great. Watch and see!’

  He opened his scroll and started chanting again. His winged serpents spiralled through the rain. Lightning flashed. The ground rumbled.

  On Setne’s left, about fifteen feet away from me, the grass split open. A geyser of flames spewed upward, and the winged serpents flew straight into it. Earth, fire, rain and serpents swirled into a tornado of elements, merging and solidifying into one huge shape: a coiled cobra with a female human head.

  Her reptilian hood was easily six feet across. Her eyes glittered like rubies. A forked tongue flickered between her lips, and her dark hair was plaited with gold. Resting on her head was a sort of crown – a red pillbox-looking thing with a curlicue ornament on the front.

  Now, personally, I’m not fond of huge snakes, especially ones with human heads and stupid hats. If I’d summoned this thing, I would’ve cast a spell to send it back, super quick.

  But Setne just rolled up his scroll, slipped it in his jacket pocket and grinned. ‘Awesome!’

  The cobra lady hissed. ‘Who dares summon me? I am Wadjet, queen of cobras, protector of Lower Egypt, eternal mistress of –’

  ‘I know!’ Setne clapped his hands. ‘I’m a huge fan!’

  I crawled towards Annabeth. Not that I could help much with the fall spell keeping me off my feet, but I wanted to be close to her if something went down with this eternal cobra queen of whatever, blah, blah, blah. Maybe I could at least use Riptide to cut those red cords and give Annabeth a fighting chance.

  ‘Oh, this is so great,’ Setne continued. He fished something out of his jeans … a cell phone.

  The goddess bared her fangs. She sprayed Setne with a cloud of green mist – poison, I guessed – but he repelled it like the nose cone of a rocket repelled heat.

  I kept crawling towards Annabeth, who was struggling helplessly in her red-liquorice cocoon. Her eyes blazed with frustration. She hated being sidelined worse than just about anything.

  ‘Okay, where’s the camera icon?’ Setne fumbled with his phone. ‘We have to get a picture together before I destroy you.’

  ‘Destroy me?’ demanded the cobra goddess. She lashed out at Setne, but a sudden gust of rain and wind pushed her back.

  I was ten feet away from Annabeth. Riptide’s blade glowed as I dragged it through the mud.

  ‘Let’s see.’ Setne tapped his phone. ‘Sorry, this is new to me. I’m from the Nineteenth Dynasty. Ah, okay. No. Darn it. Where did the screen go? Ah! Right! So what do modern folks call this … a snappie?’ He leaned in towards the cobra goddess, held out his phone at arm’s length and took a picture. ‘Got it!’


  ‘Selfie!’ said the magician. ‘That’s right! Thanks. And now I’ll take your crown and consume your essence. Hope you don’t mind.’

  ‘WHAT?’ The cobra goddess reared and bared her fangs again, but the rain and wind restrained her like a seat belt. Setne shouted something in a mixture of Egyptian and Ancient Greek. A few of the Greek words I understood: soul and bind and possibly butter (though I could be wrong about the last one). The cobra goddess began to writhe.

  I reached Annabeth just as Setne finished his spell.

  The cobra goddess imploded, with a noise like the world’s largest straw finishing the world’s largest milkshake. Wadjet was sucked into her own red crown, along with Setne’s four winged serpents and a five-foot-wide circle of lawn where Wadjet had been coiled.

  The crown dropped into the smoking, muddy crater.

  Setne laughed in delight. ‘PERFECT!’

  I had to agree, if by perfect he meant so horrifying I want to vomit and I have to get Annabeth out of here right now.

  Setne clambered into the pit to retrieve the crown as I frantically started cutting Annabeth’s bonds. I’d only managed to ungag her mouth before the bindings blared like an air horn.

  My ears popped. My vision went black.

  When the sound died and my vertigo faded, Setne was standing over us, the red crown now atop his pompadour.

  ‘The ropes scream if you cut them,’ he advised. ‘I guess I should’ve mentioned that.’

  Annabeth wriggled, trying to free her hands. ‘What – what did you do to the cobra goddess?’

  ‘Hmm? Oh.’ Setne tapped the curlicue at the front of the crown. ‘I devoured her essence. Now I have the power of Lower Egypt.’

  ‘You … devoured a god,’ I said.

  ‘Yep!’ From his jacket, he pulled the Book of Thoth and wagged it at us. ‘Amazing what kind of knowledge is in here. Ptolemy the First had the right idea, making himself a god, but by the time he became king of Alexandria Egyptian magic was diluted and weak. He definitely didn’t have access to prime source material like the Book of Thoth. With this baby, I’m cooking with spice! Now that I’ve got the crown of Lower Egypt –’

  ‘Let me guess,’ Annabeth said. ‘You’ll go for the crown of Upper Egypt. Then you’ll put them together and rule the world.’

  He grinned. ‘Smart girl. But first I have to destroy you two. Nothing personal. It’s just that when you’re doing hybrid Greek–Egyptian magic, I’ve found that a little demigod blood is a great catalyst. Now, if you’ll just hold still –’

  I lunged forward and jabbed him with my sword.

  Amazingly, Riptide went straight into his gut.

  I so rarely succeed that I just crouched there, stunned, my hand trembling on the hilt.

  ‘Wow.’ Setne looked down at the blood on his powder-blue shirt. ‘Nice job.’

  ‘Thanks.’ I tried to yank out Riptide, but it seemed to be stuck. ‘So … you can die now, if it’s not too much trouble.’

  Setne smiled apologetically. ‘About that … I’m beyond dying now. At this point –’ He tapped the blade. ‘Get it? This point? I’m afraid all you can do is make me stronger!’

  His red crown began to glow.

  For once, my instincts saved my life. Despite the klutz spell Setne had hexed me with, I somehow managed to get to my feet, grab Annabeth and haul her as far from the magician as possible.

  I dropped to the ground at the archway as a massive roar shook the courtyard. Trees were uprooted. Windows shattered. Bricks peeled off the wall, and everything in sight hurtled towards Setne as if he’d become the new centre of gravity. Even Annabeth’s magical bonds were stripped away. It took all my strength to hold her with one arm while gripping the corner of the building with my other hand.

  Clouds of debris spun around the magician. Wood, stone and glass vaporized as they were absorbed into Setne’s body.

  Once gravity returned to normal, I realized I’d left something important behind.

  Riptide was gone. The wound in Setne’s gut had closed.

  ‘HEY!’ I got up, my legs shaking. ‘You ate my sword!’

  My voice sounded shrill – like a little kid who’s just had his lunch money stolen. The thing is, Riptide was my most important possession. I’d had it a long time. It had seen me through a lot of scrapes.