In the distance, sirens wailed. Somebody had called the police, which didn’t exactly cheer me up. It just meant more mortals were racing here as fast as they could to volunteer as crocodile snacks.
I backed up to the curb and tried—ridiculously—to stare down the monster. “Stay, boy.”
The crocodile snorted. His hide shed water like the grossest fountain in the world, making my shoes slosh as I walked. His lamp-yellow eyes filmed over, maybe from happiness. He knew I was done for.
I thrust my hand into my backpack. The only thing I found was a clump of wax. I didn’t have time to build a proper shabti, but I had no better idea. I dropped my pack and started working the wax furiously with both hands, trying to soften it.
“Percy?” I called.
“I can’t unlock the clasp!” he yelled. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the croc’s, but in my peripheral vision I could see Percy pounding his fist against the base of the necklace. “Some kind of magic?”
That was the smartest thing he’d said all afternoon (not that he’d said a lot of smart things to choose from). The clasp was a hieroglyphic cartouche. It would take a magician to figure it out and open it. Whatever and whoever Percy was, he was no magician.
I was still shaping the clump of wax, trying to make it into a figurine, when the crocodile decided to stop savoring the moment and just eat me. As he lunged, I threw my shabti, only half formed, and barked a command word.
Instantly the world’s most deformed hippopotamus sprang to life in midair. It sailed headfirst into the crocodile’s left nostril and lodged there, kicking its stubby back legs.
Not exactly my finest tactical move; but having a hippo shoved up his nose must have been sufficiently distracting. The crocodile hissed and stumbled, shaking his head, as Percy dropped off and rolled away, barely avoiding the crocodile’s stomping feet. He ran to join me at the curb.
I stared in horror as my wax creature, now a living (though very misshapen) hippo, either tried to wriggle free of the croc’s nostril or work its way farther into the reptile’s sinus cavity—I wasn’t sure which.
The crocodile whipped around, and Percy grabbed me just in time, pulling me out of the trampling path.
We jogged to the opposite end of the cul-de-sac, where the mortal kids had gathered. Amazingly, none of them seemed to be hurt. The crocodile kept thrashing and wiping out homes as it tried to clear its nostril.
“You okay?” Percy asked me.
I gasped for air but nodded weakly.
One of the kids offered me his Super Soaker. I waved him off.
“You guys,” Percy told the kids, “you hear those sirens? You’ve got to run down the road and stop the police. Tell them it’s too dangerous up here. Stall them!”
For some reason, the kids listened. Maybe they were just happy to have something to do, but the way Percy spoke, I got the feeling he was used to rallying outnumbered troops. He sounded a bit like Horus—a natural commander.
After the kids raced off, I managed to say, “Good call.”
Percy nodded grimly. The crocodile was still distracted by its nasal intruder, but I doubted the shabti would last much longer. Under that much stress, the hippo would soon melt back to wax.
“You’ve got some moves, Carter,” Percy admitted. “Anything else in your bag of tricks?”
“Nothing,” I said dismally. “I’m running on empty. But if I can get to that clasp, I think I can open it.”
Percy sized up the petsuchos. The cul-de-sac was filling with water that poured from the monster’s hide. The sirens were getting louder. We didn’t have much time.
“Guess it’s my turn to distract the croc,” he said. “Get ready to run for that necklace.”
“You don’t even have your sword,” I protested. “You’ll die!”
Percy managed a crooked smile. “Just run in there as soon as it starts.”
“As soon as what starts?”
Then the crocodile sneezed, launching the wax hippo across Long Island. The petsuchos turned toward us, roaring in anger, and Percy charged straight at him.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to ask what kind of distraction Percy had in mind. Once it started, it was pretty obvious.
He stopped in front of the crocodile and raised his arms. I figured he was planning some kind of magic, but he spoke no command words. He had no staff or wand. He just stood there and looked up at the crocodile as if to say: Here I am! I’m tasty!
The crocodile seemed momentarily surprised. If nothing else, we would die knowing that we’d confused this monster many, many times.
Croc sweat kept pouring off his body. The brackish stuff was up to the curb now, up to our ankles. It sloughed into the storm drains but just kept spilling from the croc’s skin.
Then I saw what was happening. As Percy raised his arms, the water began swirling counterclockwise. It started around the croc’s feet and quickly built speed until the whirlpool encompassed the entire cul-de-sac, spinning strongly enough that I could feel it pulling me sideways.
By the time I realized I’d better start running, the current was already too fast. I’d have to reach the necklace some other way.
One last trick, I thought.
I feared the effort might literally burn me up, but I summoned my final bit of magical energy and transformed into a falcon—the sacred animal of Horus.
Instantly, my vision was a hundred times sharper. I soared upward, above the rooftops, and the entire world switched to high-definition 3-D. I saw the police cars only a few blocks away, the kids standing in the middle of the street, waving them down. I could make out every slimy bump and pore on the crocodile’s hide. I could see each hieroglyph on the clasp of the necklace. And I could see just how impressive Percy’s magic trick was.
The entire cul-de-sac was engulfed in a hurricane. Percy stood at the edge, unmoved, but the water was churning so fast now that even the giant crocodile lost his footing. Wrecked cars scraped along the pavement. Mailboxes were pulled out of lawns and swept away. The water increased in volume as well as speed, rising up and turning the entire neighborhood into a liquid centrifuge.
It was my turn to be stunned. A few moments ago, I’d decided Percy was no magician. Yet I’d never seen a magician who could control so much water.
The crocodile stumbled and struggled, shuffling in a circle with the current.
“Any time now,” Percy muttered through gritted teeth. Without my falcon hearing, I never would’ve heard him through the storm, but I realized he was talking to me.
I remembered I had a job to do. No one, magician or otherwise, could control that kind of power for long.
I folded my wings and dove for the crocodile. When I reached the necklace’s clasp, I turned back to human and grabbed hold. All around me, the hurricane roared. I could barely see through the swirl of mist. The current was so strong now, it tugged at my legs, threatening to pull me into the flood.
I was so tired. I hadn’t felt this pushed beyond my limits since I’d fought the Chaos lord, Apophis himself.
I ran my hand over the hieroglyphs on the clasp. There had to be a secret to unlocking it.
The crocodile bellowed and stomped, fighting to stay on its feet. Somewhere to my left, Percy yelled in rage and frustration, trying to keep up the storm; but the whirlpool was starting to slow.
I had a few seconds at best until the crocodile broke free and attacked. Then Percy and I would both be dead.
I felt the four symbols that made up the god’s name:
The last symbol didn’t actually represent a sound, I knew. It was the hieroglyph for god, indicating that the letters in front of it—SBK—stood for a deity’s name.
When in doubt, I thought, hit the god button.
I pushed on the fourth symbol, but nothing happened.
The storm was failing. The crocodile started to turn against the current, facing Percy. Out of the corner of my eye, through the haze and mist, I saw Percy drop to one knee.
My fingers passed over the third hieroglyph—the wicker basket (Sadie always called it the “teacup”) that stood for the K sound. The hieroglyph felt slightly warm to the touch—or was that my imagination?
No time to think. I pressed it. Nothing happened.
The storm died. The crocodile bellowed in triumph, ready to feed.
I made a fist and slammed the basket hieroglyph with all my strength. This time the clasp made a satisfying click and sprang open. I dropped to the pavement, and several hundred pounds of gold and gems spilled on top of me.
The crocodile staggered, roaring like the guns of a battleship. What was left of the hurricane scattered in an explosion of wind, and I shut my eyes, ready to be smashed flat by the body of a falling monster.
Suddenly, the cul-de-sac was silent. No sirens. No crocodile roaring. The mound of gold jewelry disappeared. I was lying on my back in mucky water, staring up at the empty blue sky.
Percy’s face appeared above me. He looked like he’d just run a marathon through a typhoon, but he was grinning.
“Nice work,” he said. “Get the necklace.”
“The necklace?” My brain still felt sluggish. Where had all that gold gone? I sat up and put my hand on the pavement. My fingers closed around the strand of jewelry, now normal-size…well, at least normal for something that could fit around the neck of an average crocodile.
“The—the monster,” I stammered. “Where—?”
Percy pointed. A few feet away, looking very disgruntled, stood a baby crocodile not more than three feet long.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
“Maybe somebody’s abandoned pet?” Percy shrugged. “You hear about those on the news sometimes.”
I couldn’t think of a better explanation, but how had a baby croc gotten hold of a necklace that turned him into a giant killing machine?
Down the street, voices started yelling: “Up here! There’s these two guys!”
It was the mortal kids. Apparently they’d decided the danger was over. Now they were leading the police straight toward us.
“We have to go.” Percy scooped up the baby crocodile, clenching one hand around his little snout. He looked at me. “You coming?”
Together, we ran back to the swamp.
Half an hour later, we were sitting in a diner off the Montauk Highway. I’d shared the rest of my healing potion with Percy, who for some reason insisted on calling it nectar. Most of our wounds had healed.
We’d tied the crocodile out in the woods on a makeshift leash, just until we could figure out what to do with it. We’d cleaned up as best we could, but we still looked like we’d taken a shower in a malfunctioning car wash. Percy’s hair was swept to one side and tangled with pieces of grass. His orange shirt was ripped down the front.
I’m sure I didn’t look much better. I had water in my shoes, and I was still picking falcon feathers out of my shirtsleeves (hasty transformations can be messy).
We were too exhausted to talk as we watched the news on the television above the counter. Police and firefighters had responded to a freak sewer event in a local neighborhood. Apparently pressure had built up in the drainage pipes, causing a massive explosion that unleashed a flood and eroded the soil so badly, several houses on the cul-de-sac had collapsed. It was a miracle that no residents had been injured. Local kids were telling some wild stories about the Long Island Swamp Monster, claiming it had caused all the damage during a fight with two teenage boys; but of course the officials didn’t believe this. The reporter admitted, however, that the damaged houses looked like “something very large had sat on them.”