The staff of serapis, p.3
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       The Staff of Serapis, p.3
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         Part #2 of Percy Jackson & Kane Chronicles Crossover series by Rick Riordan
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  she seemed.

  ‘The storm isn’t completely random,’ Annabeth said. ‘See there? And there? Bits of material are coming together, forming some kind of structure inside the building.’

  Sadie frowned. ‘Looks like bricks in a blender to me.’

  Annabeth wasn’t sure how to explain it, but she’d studied architecture and engineering long enough to recognize the details. Copper piping was reconnecting like arteries and veins in a circulatory system. Sections of old walls were piecing themselves together to form a new jigsaw puzzle. Every so often, more bricks or girders peeled off the outer walls to join the tornado.

  ‘He’s cannibalizing the building,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how long the outer walls will last.’

  Sadie swore under her breath. ‘Please tell me he’s not building a pyramid. Anything but that.’

  Annabeth wondered why an Egyptian magician would hate pyramids, but she shook her head. ‘I’d guess it’s some kind of conical tower. There’s only one way to know for sure.’

  ‘Ask the builder.’ Sadie gazed up at the remnant of the thirtieth floor.

  The man on the ledge hadn’t moved, but Annabeth could swear he’d grown larger. Red light swirled around him. In silhouette, he looked like he was wearing a tall angular top hat à la Abe Lincoln.

  Sadie shouldered her backpack. ‘So, if that’s our mystery god, where’s the –’

  Right on cue, a three-part howl cut through the din. At the opposite end of the building, a set of metal doors burst open and the crab monster loped inside.

  Unfortunately, the beast now had all three heads – wolf, lion and dog. Its long spiral shell glowed with Greek and hieroglyphic inscriptions. Completely ignoring the flying debris, the monster clambered inside on its six forelegs, then leaped into the air. The storm carried it upward, spiralling through the chaos.

  ‘It’s heading for its master,’ Annabeth said. ‘We have to stop it.’

  ‘Lovely,’ Sadie grumbled. ‘This is going to drain me.’

  ‘What will?’

  Sadie raised her staff. ‘N’dah.’

  A golden hieroglyph blazed in the air above them:

  And suddenly they were surrounded in a sphere of light.

  Annabeth’s spine tingled. She’d been encased in a protective bubble like this once before, when she, Percy and Grover had used magic pearls to escape the Underworld. The experience had been … claustrophobic.

  ‘This will shield us from the storm?’ she asked.

  ‘Hopefully.’ Sadie’s face was now beaded with sweat. ‘Come on.’

  She led the way up the steps.

  Immediately, their shield was put to the test. A flying kitchen counter would have decapitated them, but it shattered against Sadie’s force field. Chunks of marble swirled harmlessly around them.

  ‘Brilliant,’ Sadie said. ‘Now, hold the staff while I turn into a bird.’

  ‘Wait. What?’

  Sadie rolled her eyes. ‘We’re thinking on our feet, remember? I’ll fly up there and stop the staff monster. You try to distract that god … whoever he is. Get his attention.’

  ‘Fine, but I’m no magician. I can’t maintain a spell.’

  ‘The shield will hold for a few minutes, as long as you use the staff.’

  ‘But what about you? If you’re not inside the shield –’

  ‘I have an idea. It might even work.’

  Sadie fished something out of her pack – a small animal figurine. She curled her fingers round it, then began to change form.

  Annabeth had seen people turn into animals before, but it never got easier to watch. Sadie shrank to a tenth of her size. Her nose elongated into a beak. Her hair and clothes and backpack melted into a sleek coat of feathers. She became a small bird of prey – a kite, maybe – her blue eyes now brilliant gold. With the little figurine still clutched in her talons, Sadie spread her wings and launched herself into the storm.

  Annabeth winced as a cluster of bricks ploughed into her friend – but somehow the debris went straight through without turning Sadie into feather puree. Sadie’s form just shimmered as if she were travelling under a deep layer of water.

  Sadie was in the Duat, Annabeth realized – flying on a different level of reality.

  The idea made Annabeth’s mind heat up with possibilities. If a demigod could learn to pass through walls like that, run straight through monsters …

  But that was a conversation for another time. Right now she needed to move. She charged up the steps and into the maelstrom. Metal bars and copper pipes clanged against her force field. The golden sphere flashed a little more dimly each time it deflected debris.

  She raised Sadie’s staff in one hand and her new dagger in the other. In the magical torrent, the Celestial bronze blade guttered like a dying torch.

  ‘Hey!’ she yelled at ledge far above. ‘Mr God Person!’

  No response. Her voice probably couldn’t carry over the storm.

  The shell of the building started to groan. Mortar trickled from the walls and swirled into the mix like candy-floss tufts.

  Sadie the hawk was still alive, flying towards the three-headed monster as it spiralled upward. The beast was about halfway to the top now, flailing its legs and glowing ever more brightly, as if soaking up the power of the tornado.

  Annabeth was running out of time.

  She reached into her memory, sifting through old myths, the most obscure tales Chiron had ever told her at camp. When she was younger, she’d been like a sponge, soaking up every fact and name.

  The three-headed staff. The god of Alexandria, Egypt.

  The god’s name came to her. At least, she hoped she was right.

  One of the first lessons she’d learned as a demigod: Names have power. You never said the name of a god or monster unless you were prepared to draw its attention.

  Annabeth took a deep breath. She shouted at the top of her lungs: ‘SERAPIS!’

  The storm slowed. Huge sections of pipe hovered in midair. Clouds of bricks and timber froze and hung suspended.

  Becalmed in the middle of the tornado, the three-headed monster tried to stand. Sadie swooped overhead, opened her talons and dropped her figurine, which instantly grew into a full-sized camel.

  The shaggy dromedary slammed into the monster’s back. Both creatures tumbled out of the air and crashed to the floor in a tangle of limbs and heads. The staff monster continued to struggle, but the camel lay on top of it with its legs splayed, bleating and spitting and basically going limp like a thousand-pound toddler throwing a tantrum.

  From the thirtieth-floor ledge, a man’s voice boomed: ‘WHO DARES INTERRUPT MY TRIUMPHAL RISE?’

  ‘I do!’ yelled Annabeth. ‘Come down and face me!’

  She didn’t like taking credit for other people’s camels, but she wanted to keep the god focused on her so Sadie could do … whatever Sadie decided to do. The young magician clearly had some good tricks up her sleeve.

  The god Serapis leaped from his ledge. He plummeted thirty storeys and landed on his feet in the middle of the ground floor, an easy dagger throw away from Annabeth.

  Not that she was tempted to attack.

  Serapis stood fifteen feet tall. He wore only a pair of swimming trunks in a Hawaiian floral pattern. His body rippled with muscles. His bronze skin was covered in shimmering tattoos of hieroglyphs, Greek letters and other languages Annabeth didn’t recognize.

  His face was framed with long, nappy hair like Rastafarian dreadlocks. A curly Greek beard grew down to his collarbone. His eyes were sea green – so much like Percy’s that Annabeth got goosebumps.

  Normally she didn’t like hairy bearded dudes, but she had to admit this god was attractive in an older, wild-surfer kind of way.

  His headgear, however, ruined the look. What Annabeth had taken for a stovepipe hat was actually a cylindrical wicker basket embroidered with images of pansies.

  ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Is that a flowerpot on your head?’

Serapis raised his bushy brown eyebrows. He patted his head as if he’d forgotten about the basket. A few wheat seeds spilled from the top. ‘That’s a modius, silly girl. It’s one of my holy symbols! The grain basket represents the Underworld, which I control.’

  ‘Uh, you do?’

  ‘Of course!’ Serapis glowered. ‘Or I did, and soon I will again. But who are you to criticize my fashion choices? A Greek demigod, by the smell of you, carrying a Celestial bronze weapon and an Egyptian staff from the House of Life. Which are you – hero or magician?’

  Annabeth’s hands trembled. Flowerpot hat or no, Serapis radiated power. Standing so near him, Annabeth felt watery inside, as if her heart, her stomach and her courage were all melting.

  Get a hold of yourself, she thought. You’ve met plenty of gods before.

  But Serapis was different. His presence felt fundamentally wrong – as if simply by being here he was pulling Annabeth’s world inside out.

  Twenty feet behind the god, Sadie the bird landed and changed back to human form. She gestured to Annabeth: finger to lips (shh), then rolled her hand (keep him talking). She began rooting quietly through her bag.

  Annabeth had no idea what her friend was planning, but she forced herself to meet Serapis’s eyes. ‘Who says I’m not both – magician and demigod? Now, explain why you’re here!’

  Serapis’s face darkened. Then, to Annabeth’s surprise, he threw back his head and laughed, spilling more grain from his modius. ‘I see! Trying to impress me, eh? You think yourself worthy of being my high priestess?’

  Annabeth gulped. There was only one answer to a question like that. ‘Of course I’m worthy! Why, I was once the magna mater of Athena’s cult! But are you worthy of my service?’

  ‘HA!’ Serapis grinned. ‘A big mother of Athena’s cult, eh? Let’s see how tough you are.’

  He flicked his hand. A bathtub flew out of the air, straight at Annabeth’s force field. The porcelain burst into shrapnel against the golden sphere, but Sadie’s staff became so hot that Annabeth had to drop it. The white wood burned to ashes.

  Great, she thought. Two minutes, and I’ve already ruined Sadie’s staff.

  Her protective shield was gone. She faced a fifteen-foot-tall god with only her usual weapons – a tiny dagger and a lot of attitude.

  To Annabeth’s left, the three-headed monster was still struggling to get out from under the camel, but the camel was heavy, stubborn and fabulously uncoordinated. Every time the monster tried to push it off, the camel farted with gusto and splayed its legs even further.

  Meanwhile, Sadie had taken a piece of chalk from her bag. She scribbled furiously on the concrete floor behind Serapis, perhaps writing a nice epitaph to commemorate their imminent death.

  Annabeth recalled a quote her friend Frank had once shared with her – something from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

  When weak, act strong.

  Annabeth stood straight and laughed in Serapis’s face. ‘Throw things at me all you want, Lord Serapis. I don’t even need a staff to defend myself. My powers are too great! Or perhaps you want to stop wasting my time and tell me how I may serve you, assuming I agree to become your new high priestess.’

  The god’s face glowed with outrage.

  Annabeth was sure he would drop the entire whirlwind of debris on her, and there was no way she’d be able to stop it. She considered throwing her dagger at the god’s eye, the way her friend Rachel had once distracted the Titan Kronos, but Annabeth didn’t trust her aim.

  Finally Serapis gave her a twisted smile. ‘You have courage, girl. I’ll grant you that. And you did make haste to find me. Perhaps you can serve. You will be the first of many to give me your power, your life, your very soul!’

  ‘Sounds fun.’ Annabeth glanced at Sadie, wishing she would hurry up with that chalk art.

  ‘But first,’ Serapis said, ‘I must have my staff!’

  He gestured towards the camel. A red hieroglyph burned on the creature’s hide, and, with one final fart, the poor dromedary dissolved into a pile of sand.

  The three-headed monster got to its forepaws, shaking off the sand.

  ‘Hold it!’ Annabeth yelled.

  The monster’s three heads snarled at her.

  Serapis scowled. ‘What now, girl?’

  ‘Well, I should … you know, present the staff to you, as your high priestess! We should do things properly!’

  Annabeth lunged for the monster. It was much too heavy for her to pick up, but she stuck her dagger in her belt and used both hands to grab the end of the creature’s conical shell, dragging it backwards, away from the god.

  Meanwhile, Sadie had drawn a big circle about the size of a hula-hoop on the concrete. She was now decorating it with hieroglyphs, using several different colours of chalk.

  By all means, Annabeth thought with frustration. Take your time and make it pretty!

  She managed to smile at Serapis while holding back the staff monster that was still trying to claw its way forward.

  ‘Now, my lord,’ Annabeth said, ‘tell me your glorious plan! Something about souls and lives?’

  The staff monster howled in protest, probably because it could see Sadie hiding behind the god, doing her top-secret pavement art. Serapis didn’t seem to notice.

  ‘Behold!’ He spread his muscular arms. ‘The new centre of my power!’

  Red sparks blazed through the frozen whirlwind. A web of light connected the dots until Annabeth saw the glowing outline of the structure Serapis was building: a massive tower three hundred feet tall, designed in three tapering tiers – a square bottom, an octagonal middle and a circular top. At the zenith blazed a fire as bright as a Cyclops’s forge.

  ‘A lighthouse,’ Annabeth said. ‘The Lighthouse of Alexandria.’

  ‘Indeed, my young priestess.’ Serapis paced back and forth like a teacher giving a lecture, though his floral-print shorts were pretty distracting. His wicker-basket hat kept tilting to one side or the other, spilling grain. Somehow he still failed to notice Sadie squatting behind him, scribbling pretty pictures with her chalk.

  ‘Alexandria!’ the god cried. ‘Once the greatest city in the world, the ultimate fusion of Greek and Egyptian power! I was its supreme god, and now I have risen again. I will create my new capital here!’

  ‘Uh … in Rockaway Beach?’

  Serapis stopped and scratched his beard. ‘You have a point. That name won’t do. We will call it … Rockandria? Serapaway? Well, we’ll figure that out later! Our first step is to complete my new lighthouse. It will be a beacon to the world – drawing the deities of Ancient Greece and Egypt here to me just as it did in the old days. I shall feed on their essence and become the most powerful god of all!’

  Annabeth felt as if she’d swallowed a tablespoon of salt. ‘Feed on their essence. You mean, destroy them?’

  Serapis waved dismissively. ‘Destroy is such an ugly word. I prefer incorporate. You know my history, I hope? When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt –’

  ‘He tried to merge the Greek and Egyptian religions,’ Annabeth said.

  ‘Tried and failed.’ Serapis chuckled. ‘Alexander chose an Egyptian sun god, Amun, to be his main deity. That didn’t work too well. The Greeks didn’t like Amun. Neither did the Egyptians of the Nile Delta. They saw Amun as an upriver god. But when Alexander died his general took over Egypt.’

  ‘Ptolemy the First,’ Annabeth said.

  Serapis beamed, obviously pleased. ‘Yes … Ptolemy. Now, there was a mortal with vision!’

  It took all of Annabeth’s will not to stare at Sadie, who had now completed her magic circle and was tapping the hieroglyphs with her finger, muttering something under her breath as if to activate them.

  The three-headed staff monster snarled in disapproval. It tried to lunge forward, and Annabeth barely managed to hold him back. Her fingers were weakening. The creature’s aura was as nauseating as ever.

  ‘Ptolemy created a new god,’ she said, straining with effort. ‘He
created you.’

  Serapis shrugged. ‘Well, not from scratch. I was once a minor village god. Nobody had even heard of me! But Ptolemy discovered my statue and brought it to Alexandria. He had the Greek and Egyptian priests do auguries and incantations and whatnot. They all agreed that I was the great god Serapis, and I should be worshipped above all other gods. I was an instant hit!’

  Sadie rose within her magic circle. She unlatched her silver necklace and began swinging it like a lasso.

  The three-headed monster roared what was probably a warning to its master: Look out!

  But Serapis was on a roll. As he spoke, the hieroglyphic and Greek tattoos on his skin glowed more brightly.

  ‘I became the most important god of the Greeks and Egyptians!’ he said. ‘As more people worshipped me, I drained the power of the older gods. Slowly but surely, I took their place. The Underworld? I became its master, replacing both Hades and Osiris. The guard dog Cerberus transformed into my staff, which you now hold. His three heads represent the past, present and future – all of which I will control when the staff is returned to my grasp.’

  The god held out his hand. The monster strained to reach him. Annabeth’s arm muscles burned. Her fingers began to slip.

  Sadie was still swinging her pendant, muttering an incantation.

  Holy Hecate, Annabeth thought, how long does it take to cast a stupid spell?

  She caught Sadie’s gaze and saw the message in her eyes: Hold on. Just another few seconds.

  Annabeth wasn’t sure she had a few more seconds.

  ‘The Ptolemaic dynasty …’ She gritted her teeth. ‘It fell centuries ago. Your cult was forgotten. How is it that you’re back now?’

  Serapis sniffed. ‘That’s not important. The one who awakened me … well, he has delusions of grandeur. He thinks he can control me just because he found some old spells in the Book of Thoth.’

  Behind the god, Sadie flinched as if she’d been smacked between the eyes. Apparently, this ‘Book of Thoth’ struck a chord with her.

  ‘You see,’ Serapis continued, ‘back in the day, King Ptolemy decided it wasn’t enough to make me a major god. He wanted to become immortal, too. He declared himself a god, but his magic backfired. After his death, his family was cursed for generations. The Ptolemaic line grew weaker and weaker until that silly girl Cleopatra committed suicide and gave everything to the Romans.’

  The god sneered. ‘Mortals … always so greedy. The magician who awakened me this time thinks he can do better than Ptolemy. Raising me was only one of his experiments with hybrid Greek-Egyptian magic. He wishes to make himself a god, but he has overstepped himself. I am awake now. I will control the universe.’

  Serapis fixed Annabeth with his brilliant green eyes. His features seemed to shift, reminding Annabeth of many different Olympians: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades. Something about his smile even reminded Annabeth of her mother, Athena.

  ‘Just think, little demigod,’ Serapis said, ‘this lighthouse will draw the gods to me like moths to a candle. Once I have consumed their power, I will raise a great city. I will build a new Alexandrian library with all the knowledge of the ancient world, both Greek and Egyptian. As a child of Athena, you should appreciate this. As my high priestess, think of all the power you will have!’

  A new Alexandrian library.

  Annabeth couldn’t pretend that the idea didn’t thrill her. So much knowledge of the ancient world had been destroyed when that library had burned.

  Serapis must have seen the hunger in her eyes.

  ‘Yes.’ He extended his hand. ‘Enough talk, girl. Give me my staff!’

  ‘You’re right,’ Annabeth croaked. ‘Enough talk.’

  She drew her dagger and plunged it into the monster’s shell.

  So many things could have gone wrong. Most of them did.

  Annabeth was hoping the knife would split the shell, maybe even destroy the monster. Instead, it opened a tiny fissure that spewed red magic as hot as a line of magma. Annabeth stumbled back, her eyes stinging.

  Serapis bellowed, ‘TREACHERY!’ The staff creature howled and thrashed, its three heads trying in vain to reach the knife stuck in its back.

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