James tucked the ancient manuscript back onto the shelf and headed out for lunch. He paused outside his office to loosen his tie and wipe a smudge from his silver-rimmed glasses when a window on the building across the road exploded. Something - no, somebody - crashed through the glass and plummeted onto a car. Everyone in sight stopped and stared in horror. Instinctively, James sprinted across the street. The car's alarm blared and whooped. Shards of glass crunched under James' feet. In the middle of the destruction, a boy lay on the crumpled roof of the car. James reached towards the body. The boy rolled over and blinked a few times, meeting James' gaze with big, brown, puppy-dog eyes. A crowd started to gather, murmuring and chattering.
“Does anybody know him?”
“He came right out of that window.”
“Somebody call the police.”
“I'm calling an ambulance!”
“Are you okay?” James asked.
“I think so.” The boy sat up. James grabbed him and eased him back down. “Don't move. If you've broken something, you'll just make it worse. An ambulance should be here soon.”
“I'm fine!” The boy brushed James' hands away and slid off the car. He dusted himself down and ran his hands through the short, frizzy curls of hair on his head. While the boy wiped away the debris, James checked him over. No cuts, no bruises, nothing missing. The boy looked fine – hell, he looked better than fine.
“What's your name?” James asked.
“Tem.” The boy reached back up on the car, retrieved a backpack from the rubble and gave it the same quick clean.
“What happened to you?”
“I had to- Oh no.” Tem stared past James, wide eyed and pale. “They're coming. You've got to get me out of here, mister!”
“What? No, we have to wait for the ambulance.” James turned, following Tem's gaze through the crowd. Two very large and less than patient looking men barged their way to the front.
“That was very naughty, Tem.” One of them said, flashing his jagged teeth. The men were twins, dark skinned like Tem but without the boyish innocence.
“Do you know him?” James asked. He felt Tem huddling behind his legs. The big man who had spoken stepped up toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with James, glaring down at him and nearly poking James in the eye with his long, pointed nose.
“That's none of your business.” He said. The other one started around James. James side-stepped and cut him off.
“Look, it might not be my business but he's just fallen out a window. He needs to go to the hospital.”
“No, you look-” The man grabbed James by the collar. James gave the man his toughest, bravest look and prayed they wouldn't hit him too hard, too many times. Before the man could finish his sentence, Tem ducked between them and kicked the man in the shin.
The man hollered and hopped up and down, rubbing his bruised leg. James took the opening and shoved him into his brother. Both stumbled and flailed about off balance. Tem grabbed James and pulled. They bolted through the crowd, away from the twins. James heard them shouting and then their voices disappeared into the droning white noise of the city and the pounding, thumping of his heart. Had he really just done that? Just one of those thugs could eat him alive. He didn't even know Tem. What was he thinking?
He heard the shouting again. He looked back over his shoulder. The twins were coming and coming fast, running in strides twice as long as James' legs could manage.
“Bring it back, Tem!” One of them shouted. James put his head down and powered forward. Tem yanked his arm, pulling him over the road. A taxi screeched to a halt. Another car swerved around them, swiping James with its mirror. Tem stopped. James tripped. Tem pulled him back. A bus whooshed past his nose. James started to contemplate his brush with death, then he heard the shouting again. Another car screeched behind him. Tem ran and James ran with him.
They hit the pavement and weaved through the crowd. Tem ducked and dodged his way forward. James crashed through, knocking shoulders with one pedestrian after the another. Every time he looked over his shoulder, the Twins had gained more ground.
“Down here!” Tem jumped out in front of James and grabbed him, dragging him down a flight of steps, into the subway, straight for the ticket gates. A sudden gust of wind whipped through the subway. A woman at the gates lost her ticket. She chased after it, leaving the gate clear.
“Tem, wait, we don't have a ticket!”
“Keep running.” A train pulled into the subway. Tem let James go and slid under the barrier. James charged straight into it, flipping arse-over-head and landing on the ground. Tem grabbed him and pulled him up. The train doors opened. Tem and James pushed through the crowd onto the train.
Safe on board, James turned back towards the gates. His eyes met the furious faces of the twins as they reached the bottom of the stairs and kept coming. They leapt clean over the barriers and sprinted towards the train.
“They just don't give up.” Tem sighed and took James by the hand. James kept staring in disbelief until Tem pulled him onwards. They moved towards the front of the carriage, keeping one eye on their pursuers. The train doors closed. The twins slipped through by a hair. Tem stopped and squatted low. The train started moving. James stumbled over Tem. He steadied himself on another passenger and looked down at the boy.
“What are you doing?”
“Get down!” Tem tugged on his arm.
“There they are!” One of the twins shouted. James looked up and locked eyes with the twins. They started towards him. Tem stood up and said:
“When I say jump, jump.”
“What?” James asked.
“Ready...” Tem peered through the crowd at the twins lumbering towards them, pushing aside anybody in their way.
“Nowhere to go now, Tem. It's time to go-”
“Jump!” Tem jumped. James jumped. They floated in the air. The twins, the train and all its passengers rushed through James, in one side and out the other. James watched the last train carriage zip past him as if he was a ghost and then vanish into the subway tunnels. Then, when everything was quiet, he and Tem dropped back to the ground.
Numb, confused and terrified, James stood in the middle of the tracks stuttering.
“What- How- But-”
“Don't stand on the tracks like that, another train will run you over!” Tem called from a nearby door. James nodded at the boy and walked mechanically over the tracks, following Tem into a well-lit maintenance tunnel.
“What just happened?” James finally got out as Tem closed the door.
“It was just a little magic to get us out of there.”
“Magic?” James stared at his hands and prodded his body. He was solid again or at least he thought he was. He pinched himself. It hurt. He did it again to be sure.
“No. No no no.” James slumped against the wall. “That's not possible. A train just went through me.”
“It went through me too.”
“That's not any better!”
“Why do you mortals always get so loud whenever you see a bit of magic?” Tem shrugged and dropped his backpack by the door.
“Mortals? What are you talking about? Who are you?” James slid down the wall until he was sitting. He wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to think things through. None of it made any sense and Tem definitely wasn't helping.
“I'm Tem. I said that already!”
“Well, can you please tell me something else? What's going on?”
“All right all right. Yeesh, you'd think Sobek just crawled up your butt or something.” Tem rolled his eyes and sat down opposite James.
“Sobek? Like the crocodile?”
Tem slapped his forehead. “Of course like the crocodile.”
“What does that have to do with the guys chasing us?”
“Nothing. They work for my dad. They're mean but not nearly as mean as my dad can get. Today my dad was in a really bad mood so I had to get away.”
“Mean, huh?” James softened. Sure, this was all weird but weird or not Tem was still just a kid who needed help.
“Yeah. Whenever my dad is in a mean mood I go visit my uncle. I usually have to sneak away but today I got busted and I had to run like mad to get away. That's why I jumped out the window.”
“Your uncle, huh? Where does he live?”
“He lives down town. It's not far by train. If we can just get to another station, I'm sure we can get to my uncle's apartment.”
“All right.” James mulled it over. He felt pretty sure he didn't want anything to do with stray wizard kids or their angry fathers, but he couldn't just leave Tem to wander around. James checked his watch. He'd already lost nearly half an hour of his lunch break; he had to get back to the office. He still had a hundred pages of Hebrew to translate, and he couldn't do that if he took Tem to his uncle's place, and he definitely couldn't do that if the twins were beating his face into a pulp.
But if he let Tem, a kid no older than nine, go wandering around the city alone, then he deserved to be beaten into a pulp.
“We'd better go see your Uncle, then.” James said.
“Really? Thanks, mister!”
“That's alright.” James pushed himself up. He picked up Tem's bag and slung it over his shoulder. “And call me James.” He offered his hand to Tem. Tem slapped him five and started walking.
“Let's go. This corridor should lead to another station somewhere”
James shrugged and followed. The corridor led them past storage cupboards and maintenance offices and eventually out into another subway station. As they stepped out of the tunnels, a train pulled in and opened its doors. Commuters flooded the platform and swarmed towards the exits. Tem walked straight into the crowd, disappearing in a sea of legs and brief-cases.
“Hold on, Tem.” James called after him. He pulled the door to the tunnels closed and chased after the boy. James waded through the concourse, offering excuse mes and sorrys as he shuffled through the cluster of people. “Tem!” He called. “Tem, where did you go?” James spun on the spot until he had orientated himself towards the train and forced his way towards it. As he battled against the tide of people, the doors closed. James watched the train roll away from him.
Somebody tapped his shoulder. James spun around and looked right into the chest of tall, dark and mean twin number 1. He looked up at the brute, trembling and forced a sheepish smile. He felt hands grasp his shoulders from behind. The last of the crowd marched up the stairs, leaving James alone with the twins.
“Let's talk.” The thug behind him said. James opened his mouth to answer. The other twin hit him square in the jaw. The lights went out.
The water that woke James was cold. He shook his hair out of his eyes and spat the streams of water from his mouth. He shivered from head to foot. James shook his whole body and became aware that he was tied up. The chair rocked side to side, then came to rest again. Looking up, James saw a single light in the ceiling above him, the twins in front of him and four concrete walls around him, blank except for a single door.
“Where am I?” James asked.
“This is the boss's new house.” One of the twins said.
“This is a house?”
“It's not done, yet. We didn't want to mess up the carpet at his other place.”
“Yeah. Do we look inconsiderate to you?” The other twin asked.
James thought about it, then said: “No. You're right. That was a stupid thing to ask. My bad.”
“Right.” The first twin went on. “Now, where's the book?”
“The book the kid stole.”
“The book the kid stole?” James searched his brain for an answer. He couldn't remember ever seeing a book. “I don't know.”
The first twin punched him. James yelped in pain. His chair rocked. The twins grabbed him before he went over.
“Wrong answer. Where's the book?”
“I had his bag. Check the bag.” James looked around for the bag. They hit him again. James gritted his teeth and waited for the chair to stop rocking. Then he waited for the world to stop rocking.
“We already looked in the bag. You think we wouldn't look in the bag? What are we stupid?”
The first twin struck him again, this time driving his fist into James' gut.
“Ow! You didn't even let me finish.”
“The book, pal. Where's the book?”
James didn't answer. He tried to come up with something – anything – they might believe but his mind just kept screaming you're about to die oh god they're going to kill you and bury you in a shallow grave.
The twins swapped a look and then hit him one more time. The blow sent the chair over. James' head hit the floor with an agonising crack. He screamed again and struggled against his bonds. The ropes held him tight in place.
“We're going to go get some things that might help you remember. Wait here.” One of the twins said. James couldn't tell which one. He heard the door open and then slam shut.
“Damn it! Oh, that hurts. Son of a-” James tried to focus and put his mind to escape but he couldn't get through the pain. The twins mentioned tools. What did they mean? He didn't want to know. Whatever they meant, it would be bad news. Their fists were the size of grapefruits, wasn't that enough? James tried to remember a book but he kept coming back to the pain.
“Psst.” James looked up. “James.” He followed the sound to an open air duct in the ceiling. “James!” He could have sworn it was closed before.
“Tem?” James asked. “Tem, help me.”
“You won't fit through here. But I've got something that will help you.”
“Tem, if it's the book they want, then just give it to them.”
“Nuh-uh. It's mine. But you can borrow it. Use it to get out.”
“Tem, I don't-” Tem dropped a thick, leather book through air duct. It slammed down beside James and fell open to a marked page. James craned his neck up to see the text. Little pictures in black ink adorned the pages. James recognised the hieroglyphics immediately.
“Just read it aloud. I'll be waiting for you outside.”
“Tem, these are Egyptian hieroglyphics. Nobody knows how to speak ancient Egyptian!”
No answer came.
“Tem?” Only silence followed. James shuffled himself closer to the book and ran his eyes over the text. He thought back to his university days and his Egyptology lessons. One at a time, James put meaning to the symbols in front of him. The script at the top of the page read The Sun Breaks Free of The Horizon and followed with a short chant, calling on the powers of gods for divine intervention of some kind. But Tem had told him to speak it aloud and nobody in the world could speak Ancient Egyptian. Perhaps he could do the next best thing, though. James knew Coptic about as well as he knew Ancient Egyptian but he could speak Coptic and Egyptian was Egyptian, after all.
James read aloud from the book. As he chanted, he felt a shimmer in the air as though the room brimmed with static electricity. He felt a sudden flash of hot air down his back, around his wrists and ankles and then he felt the ropes disintegrate. He rolled out of the chair and scrambled to his knees. It worked! No wonder the twins wanted the book. They'd be back any second for it, too. James crept over to the door and pressed his ear against it. He heard voices on the other side, growing louder. He rushed back to the book and flipped through the pages. He translated as fast as he could but the the author had written everything with impenetrable symbolism.
The doorknob turned. James stopped on a random page: The Phoenix Carries Thought. It had to do. James chanted the spell. The final word came out, followed by a brief shot of fire. The flame grew, spreading wings and taking shape. The fire crashed against the door, shattering it and blasting the twins off their feet.
“What was that?” Asked one twin.
“He's got the Book of Thoth!” The other twin answered. “Let's get out of here!”
“Oh no you don't.” James flipped over the page. Beckon to the Judge. It sounded good enough. James chanted.
A blinding white light flooded the room.
“Behold, I am The Timeless. I am The Thrice Great Pacifier of The Gods. I am Thoth, self-begotten and author of all knowledge. I am judge, scribe, sorcerer and creator.” The light faded and in the middle of the room stood a tall figure, pale as the moon. His body resembled a man, slender and strong but the white feathered head of an Ibis sat on his shoulders. Trembling and frozen in place, the twins traded frightened glances. James stared at the figure, slack jawed and struck with awe.
“Come forth, Tem.” Thoth commanded. Tem slid out of the air duct and dropped down in front of Thoth.
“Hello.” Tem smiled but Thoth scowled. The room seemed to darken, as though even the light feared his anger. “You stole my book, Tem.”
“I just wanted to-”
“My magic is not for the trifling entertainment of half-mortals, Tem.”
Tem bowed his head. “I'm sorry.”
“It is only by fortune that the mortal called me here. Do you know what would happen if my magic fell into the wrong hands?”
Tem didn't answer.
“Return home. I am sure your father will want words with you.”
“Okay.” Tem sulked out the door and down the hall. Thoth turned to the twins.
“Return to Duat. Tell your master of this.” He said. The twins nodded and promptly vanished in a flash of black smoke. Finally, Thoth turned to James.
“I think this is yours.” He said.
“Yes.” Thoth replied. The book vanished from James' hands.
“Can, uh, can you tell me-”
“Yes, James. I now know all and I will tell. Tem is the child of Anubis and a mortal lover. He has a fascination with magic and so he stole my spell book and brought it to your world to study. When he found out what his son had done, Anubis sent his servants to retrieve the book from Tem.”
“Oh.” James said, lacking any better response to the impossible story.
“But it does not matter. These things are not for you to know. I will erase today's events from your mind and send you home. But I leave you a gift, an apology for the trouble we've caused you.” All said, the god disappeared, leaving James staring dumbfounded into the magnificent white light.
James woke up, stumbled out of bed and into his kitchen. He felt unusually alert, as though he'd slept a whole day. The red light flashed on his answering machine. He clicked play and turned his attention to breakfast.
“Hi James. I got your message.” His boss' voice from the machine caught his attention. “That's fine. Go home and get some rest. I hope you feel better tomorrow. If not, just let me know. Oh yeah, I went to check how far you'd got on the Hebrew job. I can't believe you finished it already! This is great work, too. Next time something like this comes in, you're heading up the project. Anyway, seeya.”
James scratched his head, tried to remember, then shrugged it off. Yesterday was a blur but he wasn't about to argue with a good thing.