The staff of serapis, p.2
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       The Staff of Serapis, p.2

         Part #2 of Percy Jackson & Kane Chronicles Crossover series by Rick Riordan
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  Annabeth still hesitated. She’d sampled potions before, brewed by the children of Hecate. Usually they tasted like pond-scum soup, but at least they were made to work on demigods. Whatever was in this vial, it definitely wasn’t.

  ‘I’m not sure I should try,’ she said. ‘I’m … not like you.’

  ‘No one is like me,’ Sadie agreed. ‘My amazingness is unique. But if you mean you’re not a magician, well, I can see that. Usually we fight with staff and wand.’ She patted the carved white pole and the ivory boomerang lying next to her. ‘Still, I think my potions should work on you. You wrestled a monster. You survived that train wreck. You can’t be normal.’

  Annabeth laughed weakly. She found the other girl’s brashness sort of refreshing. ‘No, I’m definitely not normal. I’m a demigod.’

  ‘Ah.’ Sadie tapped her fingers on her curved wand. ‘Sorry, that’s a new one on me. A demon god?’

  ‘Demigod,’ Annabeth corrected. ‘Half god, half mortal.’

  ‘Oh, right.’ Sadie exhaled, clearly relieved. ‘I’ve hosted Isis in my head quite a few times. Who’s your special friend?’

  ‘My – no. I don’t host anybody. My mother is a Greek goddess, Athena.’

  ‘Your mother.’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘A goddess. A Greek goddess.’

  ‘Yeah.’ Annabeth noticed that her new friend had gone pale. ‘I guess you don’t have that kind of thing, um, where you come from.’

  ‘Brooklyn?’ Sadie mused. ‘No. I don’t think so. Or London. Or Los Angeles. I don’t recall meeting Greek demigods in any of those places. Still, when one has dealt with magical baboons, goddess cats and dwarfs in Speedos, one can’t be surprised very easily.’

  Annabeth wasn’t sure she’d heard right. ‘Dwarfs in Speedos?’

  ‘Mmm.’ Sadie glanced at the dog monster, still writhing in its golden bonds. ‘But here’s the rub. A few months ago my mum gave me a warning. She told me to beware of other gods and other types of magic.’

  The vial in Annabeth’s hands seemed to grow warmer. ‘Other gods. You mentioned Isis. She’s the Egyptian goddess of magic. But … she’s not your mom?’

  ‘No,’ Sadie said. ‘I mean, yes. Isis is the goddess of Egyptian magic. But she’s not my mum. My mum’s a ghost. Well … she was a magician in the House of Life, like me, but then she died, so –’

  ‘Just a sec.’ Annabeth’s head throbbed so badly she figured nothing could make it worse. She uncorked the potion and drank it down.

  She’d been expecting pond-scum consommé, but it actually tasted like warm apple juice. Instantly, her vision cleared. Her stomach settled.

  ‘Wow,’ she said.

  ‘Told you.’ Sadie smirked. ‘Jaz is quite the apothecary.’

  ‘So you were saying … House of Life. Egyptian magic. You’re like the kid my boyfriend met.’

  Sadie’s smile eroded. ‘Your boyfriend … met someone like me? Another magician?’

  A few feet away, the dog creature snarled and struggled. Sadie didn’t appear concerned, but Annabeth was worried about how dimly the magic rope was glowing now.

  ‘This was a few weeks ago,’ Annabeth said. ‘Percy told me a crazy story about meeting a boy out near Moriches Bay. Apparently this kid used hieroglyphs to cast spells. He helped Percy battle a big crocodile monster.’

  ‘The Son of Sobek!’ Sadie blurted. ‘But my brother battled that monster. He didn’t say anything about –’

  ‘Is your brother’s name Carter?’ Annabeth asked.

  An angry golden aura flickered around Sadie’s head – a halo of hieroglyphs that resembled frowns, fists and dead stick men.

  ‘As of this moment,’ Sadie growled, ‘my brother’s name is Punching Bag. Seems he hasn’t been telling me everything.’

  ‘Ah.’ Annabeth had to fight the urge to scoot away from her new friend. She feared those glowing angry hieroglyphs might explode. ‘Awkward. Sorry.’

  ‘Don’t be,’ Sadie said. ‘I’ll rather enjoy bashing my brother’s face in. But first tell me everything – about yourself, demigods, Greeks and whatever it might have to do with our evil canine friend here.’

  Annabeth told her what she could.

  Usually she wasn’t so quick to trust, but she’d had a lot of experience reading people. She liked Sadie immediately: the combat boots, the purple highlights, the attitude … In Annabeth’s experience, untrustworthy people weren’t so up-front about wanting to bash someone’s face in. They certainly didn’t help an unconscious stranger and offer a healing potion.

  Annabeth described Camp Half-Blood. She recounted some of her adventures battling gods and giants and Titans. She explained how she’d spotted the two-headed lion-wolf-crab at the West Fourth Street station and decided to follow it.

  ‘So here I am,’ Annabeth summed up.

  Sadie’s mouth quivered. She looked as if she might start yelling or crying. Instead, she broke down in a fit of the giggles.

  Annabeth frowned. ‘Did I say something funny?’

  ‘No, no …’ Sadie snorted. ‘Well … it is a bit funny. I mean, we’re sitting on the beach talking about Greek gods. And a camp for demigods, and –’

  ‘It’s all true!’

  ‘Oh, I believe you. It’s too ridiculous not to be true. It’s just that each time my world gets stranger, I think: Right. We’re at maximum oddness now. At least I know the full extent of it. First, I find out my brother and I are descended from the pharaohs and have magic powers. All right. No problem. Then I find out my dead father has merged his soul with Osiris and become the lord of the dead. Brilliant! Why not? Then my uncle takes over the House of Life and oversees hundreds of magicians around the world. Then my boyfriend turns out to be a hybrid magician boy/immortal god of funerals. And all the while I’m thinking, Of course! Keep calm and carry on! I’ve adjusted! And then you come along on a random Thursday, la-di-da, and say, Oh, by the way, Egyptian gods are just one small part of the cosmic absurdity. We’ve also got the Greeks to worry about! Hooray!’

  Annabeth couldn’t follow everything Sadie had said – a funeral god boyfriend? – but she had to admit that giggling about it was healthier than curling into a ball and sobbing.

  ‘Okay,’ she admitted. ‘It all sounds a little crazy, but I guess it makes sense. My teacher Chiron … for years he’s been telling me that ancient gods are immortal because they’re part of the fabric of civilization. If Greek gods can stick around all these millennia, why not the Egyptians?’

  ‘The more the merrier,’ Sadie agreed. ‘But, erm, what about this little doggie?’ She picked up a tiny seashell and bounced it off the head of the Labrador monster, which snarled in irritation. ‘One minute it’s sitting on the table in our library – a harmless artefact, a stone fragment from some statue, we think. The next minute it comes to life and breaks out of Brooklyn House. It shreds our magical wards, ploughs through Felix’s penguins and shrugs off my spells like they’re nothing.’

  ‘Penguins?’ Annabeth shook her head. ‘No. Forget I asked.’

  She studied the dog creature as it strained against its bonds. Red Greek letters and hieroglyphs swirled around it as if trying to form new symbols – a message Annabeth could almost read.

  ‘Will those ropes hold?’ she asked. ‘They look like they’re weakening.’

  ‘No worries,’ Sadie assured her. ‘Those ropes have held gods before. And not small gods, mind you. Extra-large ones.’

  ‘Um, okay. So you said the dog was part of a statue. Any idea what statue?’

  ‘None.’ Sadie shrugged. ‘Cleo, our librarian, was just researching that question when Fido here woke up.’

  ‘But it has to be connected to the other monster – the wolf and the lion heads. I got the impression they’d just come to life, too. They’d fused together and weren’t used to working as a team. They got on that train searching for something – probably this dog.’

  Sadie fiddled with her silver pendant. ‘A monster with three heads: a l
ion, a wolf and a dog. All sticking out of … what was that conical thing? A shell? A torch?’

  Annabeth’s head started to spin again. A torch.

  She flashed on a distant memory – maybe a picture she’d seen in a book. She hadn’t considered that the monster’s cone might be something you could hold, something that belonged in a massive hand. But a torch wasn’t right …

  ‘It’s a sceptre,’ she realized. ‘I don’t remember which god held it, but the three-headed staff was his symbol. He was … Greek, I think, but he was also from somewhere in Egypt –’

  ‘Alexandria,’ Sadie guessed.

  Annabeth stared at her. ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Well, granted, I’m not a history nut like my brother, but I have been to Alexandria. I recall something about it being the capital when the Greeks ruled Egypt. Alexander the Great, wasn’t it?’

  Annabeth nodded. ‘That’s right. Alexander conquered Egypt and, after he died, his general Ptolemy took over. He wanted the Egyptians to accept him as their pharaoh, so he mashed the Egyptian gods and Greek gods together and made up new ones.’

  ‘Sounds messy,’ Sadie said. ‘I prefer my gods unmashed.’

  ‘But there was one god in particular … I can’t remember his name. The three-headed creature was at the top of his sceptre …’

  ‘Rather large sceptre,’ Sadie noted. ‘I don’t fancy meeting the bloke who could carry it around.’

  ‘Oh, gods.’ Annabeth sat up. ‘That’s it! The staff isn’t just trying to reassemble itself – it’s trying to find its master.’

  Sadie scowled. ‘I’m not in favour of that at all. We need to make sure –’

  The dog monster howled. The magical ropes exploded like a grenade, spraying the beach with golden shrapnel.

  The blast knocked Sadie across the dunes like tumbleweed.

  Annabeth slammed into the ice-cream truck. Her limbs turned to lead. All the air was forced out of her lungs.

  If the dog creature had wanted to kill her, it could have, easily.

  Instead, it bounded inland, disappearing in the weeds.

  Annabeth instinctively grabbed for a weapon. Her fingers closed round Sadie’s curved wand. Pain made her gasp. The ivory burned like dry ice. Annabeth tried to let go, but her hand wouldn’t obey. As she watched, the wand steamed, changing form until the burn subsided and Annabeth held a Celestial bronze dagger – just like the one she’d carried for years.

  She stared at the blade. Then she heard groaning from the nearby dunes.

  ‘Sadie!’ Annabeth staggered to her feet.

  By the time she reached the magician, Sadie was sitting up, spitting sand out of her mouth. She had bits of seaweed in her hair, and her backpack was wrapped round one of her combat boots, but she looked more outraged than injured.

  ‘Stupid Fido!’ she snarled. ‘No dog biscuits for him!’ She frowned at Annabeth’s knife. ‘Where did you get that?’

  ‘Um … it’s your wand,’ Annabeth said. ‘I picked it up and … I don’t know. It just changed into the kind of dagger I usually use.’

  ‘Huh. Well, magic items do have a mind of their own. Keep it. I’ve got more at home. Now, which way did Fido go?’

  ‘Over there.’ Annabeth pointed with her new blade.

  Sadie peered inland. Her eyes widened. ‘Oh … right. Towards the storm. That’s new.’

  Annabeth followed her gaze. Past the subway tracks, she saw nothing except an abandoned apartment tower, fenced off and forlorn against the late afternoon sky. ‘What storm?’

  ‘You don’t see it?’ Sadie asked. ‘Hold on.’ She disentangled her backpack from her boot and rummaged through her supplies. She brought out another ceramic vial, this one stubby and wide like a face-cream jar. She pulled off the lid and scooped out some pink goo. ‘Let me smear this on your eyelids.’

  ‘Wow, that sounds like an automatic no.’

  ‘Don’t be squeamish. It’s perfectly harmless … well, for magicians. Probably for demigods, too.’

  Annabeth wasn’t reassured, but she closed her eyes. Sadie smeared on the gloop, which tingled and warmed like menthol rub.

  ‘Right,’ Sadie said. ‘You can look now.’

  Annabeth opened her eyes and gasped.

  The world was awash in colour. The ground had turned translucent – gelatinous layers descending into darkness below. The air rippled with shimmering veils, each one vibrant but slightly out of sync, as if multiple high-definition videos had been superimposed on top of one another. Hieroglyphs and Greek letters swirled around her, fusing and bursting as they collided. Annabeth felt as if she were seeing the world on the atomic level. Everything invisible had been revealed, painted with magic light.

  ‘Do – do you see like this all the time?’

  Sadie snorted. ‘Gods of Egypt, no! It would drive me bonkers. I have to concentrate to see the Duat. That’s what you’re doing – peering into the magical side of the world.’

  ‘I …’ Annabeth faltered.

  Annabeth was usually a confident person. Whenever she dealt with regular mortals, she carried a smug certainty that she possessed secret knowledge. She understood the world of gods and monsters. Mortals didn’t have a clue. Even with other demigods, Annabeth was almost always the most seasoned veteran. She’d done more than most heroes had ever dreamed of, and she’d survived.

  Now, looking at the shifting curtains of colours, Annabeth felt like a six-year-old kid again, just learning how terrible and dangerous her world really was.

  She sat down hard in the sand. ‘I don’t know what to think.’

  ‘Don’t think,’ Sadie advised. ‘Breathe. Your eyes will adjust. It’s rather like swimming. If you let your body take over, you’ll know what to do instinctively. Panic, and you’ll drown.’

  Annabeth tried to relax.

  She began to discern patterns in the air: currents flowing between the layers of reality, vapour trails of magic streaming off cars and buildings. The site of the train wreck glowed green. Sadie had a golden aura with misty plumes spreading behind her like wings.

  Where the dog monster once lay, the ground smouldered like live coals. Crimson tendrils snaked away from the site, following the direction in which the monster had fled.

  Annabeth focused on the derelict apartment building in the distance, and her heartbeat doubled. The tower glowed red from the inside – light seeping through the boarded-up windows, shooting through cracks in the crumbling walls. Dark clouds swirled overhead, and more tendrils of red energy flowed towards the building from all over the landscape, as if being drawn into the vortex.

  The scene reminded Annabeth of Charybdis, the whirlpool-inhaling monster she’d once encountered in the Sea of Monsters. It wasn’t a happy memory.

  ‘That apartment building,’ she said. ‘It’s attracting red light from all over the place.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Sadie said. ‘In Egyptian magic, red is bad. It means evil and chaos.’

  ‘So that’s where the dog monster is heading,’ Annabeth guessed. ‘To merge with the other piece of the sceptre –’

  ‘And to find its master, I’d wager.’

  Annabeth knew she should get up. They had to hurry. But, looking at the swirling layers of magic, she was afraid to move.

  She’d spent her whole life learning about the Mist – the magical boundary that separated the mortal world from the world of Greek monsters and gods. But she’d never thought of the Mist as an actual curtain.

  What had Sadie called it – the Duat?

  Annabeth wondered if the Mist and the Duat were related, or maybe even the same thing. The number of veils she could see was overwhelming – like a tapestry folded in on itself a hundred times.

  She didn’t trust herself to stand. Panic, and you’ll drown.

  Sadie offered her hand. Her eyes were full of sympathy. ‘Look, I know it’s a lot, but nothing has changed. You’re still the same tough-skinned, rucksack-wielding demigod you’ve always been. And now you have a lovely dag
ger as well.’

  Annabeth felt the blood rise to her face. Normally she would’ve been the one giving the pep talk.

  ‘Yeah. Yeah, of course.’ She accepted Sadie’s hand. ‘Let’s go find a god.’

  A chain-link fence ringed the building, but they squeezed through a gap and picked their way across a field of spear grass and broken concrete.

  The enchanted gloop on Annabeth’s eyes seemed to be wearing off. The world no longer looked so multilayered and kaleidoscopic, but that was fine with her. She didn’t need special vision to know the tower was full of bad magic.

  Up close, the red glow in the windows was even more radiant. The plywood rattled. The brick walls groaned. Hieroglyphic birds and stick figures formed in the air and floated inside. Even the graffiti seemed to vibrate on the walls, as if the symbols were trying to come alive.

  Whatever was inside the building, its power tugged at Annabeth too, the same way Crabby had on the train.

  She gripped her new bronze dagger, realizing it was too small and too short to provide much offensive power. But that’s why Annabeth liked daggers: they kept her focused. A child of Athena should never rely on a blade if she could use her wits instead. Intelligence won wars, not brute force.

  Unfortunately, Annabeth’s wits weren’t working very well at the moment.

  ‘Wish I knew what we were dealing with,’ she muttered as they crept towards the building. ‘I like to do research first – arm myself with knowledge.’

  Sadie grunted. ‘You sound like my brother. Tell me, how often do monsters give you the luxury of Googling them before they attack?’

  ‘Never,’ Annabeth admitted.

  ‘Well, there you are. Carter – he would love to spend hours in the library, reading up on every hostile demon we might face, highlighting the important bits and making flash cards for me to study. Sadly, when demons attack, they don’t give us any warning, and they rarely bother to identify themselves.’

  ‘So what’s your standard operating procedure?’

  ‘Forge ahead,’ Sadie said. ‘Think on my feet. When necessary, blast enemies into teeny-tiny bits.’

  ‘Great. You’d fit right in with my friends.’

  ‘I’ll take that as a compliment. That door, you think?’

  A set of steps led to a basement entrance. A single two-by-four was nailed across the doorway in a half-hearted attempt to keep out trespassers, but the door itself was slightly ajar.

  Annabeth was about to suggest scouting the perimeter. She didn’t trust such an easy way in, but Sadie didn’t wait. The young magician trotted down the steps and slipped inside.

  Annabeth’s only choice was to follow.

  As it turned out, if they’d come through any other door, they would have died.

  The whole interior of the building was a cavernous shell, thirty storeys tall, swirling with a maelstrom of bricks, pipes, boards and other debris, along with glowing Greek symbols, hieroglyphs and red neon tufts of energy. The scene was both terrifying and beautiful – as if a tornado had been caught, illuminated from within and put on permanent display.

  Because they’d entered on the basement level, Sadie and Annabeth were protected in a shallow stairwell – a kind of trench in the concrete. If they’d walked into the storm on ground level, they would’ve been ripped to shreds.

  As Annabeth watched, a twisted steel girder flew overhead at race-car speed. Dozens of bricks sped by like a school of fish. A fiery red hieroglyph slammed into a flying sheet of plywood, and the wood ignited like tissue paper.

  ‘Up there,’ Sadie whispered.

  She pointed to the top of the building, where part of the thirtieth floor was still intact – a crumbling ledge jutting out into the void. It was hard to see through the swirling rubble and red haze, but Annabeth could discern a bulky humanoid shape standing at the precipice, his arms spread as if welcoming the storm.

  ‘What’s he doing?’ Sadie murmured.

  Annabeth flinched as a helix of copper pipes spun a few inches over her head. She stared into the debris and began noticing patterns like she had with the Duat: a swirl of boards and nails coming together to form a platform frame, a cluster of bricks assembling like Lego to make an arch.

  ‘He’s building something,’ she realized.

  ‘Building what, a disaster?’ Sadie asked. ‘This place reminds me of the Realm of Chaos. And, believe me, that was not my favourite holiday spot.’

  Annabeth glanced over. She wondered if Chaos meant the same thing for Egyptians as it did for Greeks. Annabeth had had her own close call with Chaos, and if Sadie had been there, too … well, the magician must be even tougher than
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