Excerpted from Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
by R.L. LaFevers:
December 17, 1906
I don’t trust Clive Fagenbush.
How can you trust a person who has eyebrows as thick and black as hairbrushes and smells of boiled cabbages and pickled onions? Besides, I’m beginning to suspect he’s up to something. What’s worse, I think he suspects I’m up to something. Which I usually am.
Not that anyone would take the word of an eleven-year-old girl against that of the Second Assistant Curator—even if that girl just happens to be the daughter of the Head Curator of the museum and is rather cleverer than most (or so I’ve been told; oddly, I don’t think they meant it as a compliment). As far as I can tell, it doesn’t make any difference to adults how clever children are. They always stick together. Unless you are sick or dying or mortally wounded, they will always side with the other adult.
That’s certainly the case here, anyway. My father oversees the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, the second largest museum in London. As a result, I spend most of my time clattering around this old place. I don’t mind. Really. Well, not much anyway. Though it would be nice if Father remembered I was here once in a while. . . . However, I’ve got plenty to do. The museum’s got loads of secrets, and I’ve discovered I’m very good at ferreting out secrets. And curses. You’d be surprised at how many things come into the museum loaded with curses—bad ones. Ancient, dark, Egyptian-magic ones.
Take this morning, for example, when a crate arrived from Mum.
At the sound of the buzzer, I hurried down to Receiving. Dolge and Sweeny, the museum’s two hired hands, were just opening the doors to the loading area. Yellow fog began oozing into the room like a runny pudding. Outside, I could make out the drayman, blowing on his fingers and stamping his feet, trying to stay warm as he waited next to his cart. His carriage lanterns were lit and looked like two fuzzy halos in the thick fog. Sweeny hopped off the dock and together they lifted a crate from the back of the cart and carried it inside. As they made their way past me, I craned forward to read the label. It was from Thebes! Which meant it had to be from Mum. Her first shipment from the Valley of the Kings! The first of many, most likely.
Once they’d placed the crate on an empty worktable, the drayman tipped his cap and hurried back to his cart, anxious to be on his way. Dolge closed the door behind him with a resounding clang.
By this time, all the curators had arrived, and we all gathered round to watch Father open the crate. As I inched closer, I saw that, once again, he wasn’t wearing any gloves. My own gloved fingers twitched in dismay.
He paused, his hands hovering over the crate. “Yes, Theodosia?”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get splinters?” Everyone turned to stare at me oddly. “Nonsense!” he said, never taking his eyes from the crate.
Of course, I didn’t give a fig about splinters. They were the least of my worries. But I didn’t dare tell him that.
With everyone’s attention once again focused on the crate, I shuffled closer to Father’s side, trying to reach him before he actually touched whatever it was that Mum had sent. I made it past Dolge and Sweeny with no problem, but I had to hold my breath as I sidled past Fagenbush. He glared at me, and I glared back.
When I reached Father’s side, I dipped my hand into the pocket of my pinafore just as he plunged his hands into the crate. As unobtrusively as possible, I slipped a small amulet of protection out of my pocket and into his. Unfortunately, my action did not go unnoticed. He paused and scowled at me. “What on earth are you doing?”
“I just wanted to get a good look, Father. I am the shortest one in the room, you know.” To turn his attention from me back to the crate, I leaned forward and peered in. “What do you think she’s sent us this time?”
“Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out.” His voice was tinged with exasperation. Then luckily he forgot all about me as, with great ceremony, he reached into the crate and lifted out an absolutely fetching black statue of a cat: Bastet, the Egyptian fertility goddess.
The moment I laid eyes on it, I felt as if a parade of icy-footed beetles were marching down my spine. My cat, Isis, who’d been skulking under the workmen’s bench, took one look at the statue, meowed loudly, then streaked off for parts unknown. I shuddered. Once again Mother had sent us an artifact positively dripping with ancient, evil curses.
“Are you all right, Theo?” Nigel Bollingsworth, the First Assistant Curator, asked. “You’re not taking a chill, are you?”
He peered at me in concern. Next to him, Fagenbush studied me as if I were something nasty my cat had dragged in. “No, Mr. Bollingsworth. I’m fine.”
Well, except for the black magic rolling off the new cursed object. Of course, Mother never realized it was cursed. Nor did Father. Neither one of them ever seemed able to tell.
None of the assistant curators seemed to notice anything, either. Except for that rat Fagenbush. He eyed the statue with his face aglow and his long, bony fingers twitching. Problem was, he looked like that half the time, so it was hard to know if it was the artifact or he was just being his own horrid self.
As far as I knew, I was the only one able to detect the black magic still clinging to the ancient objects. Therefore, it was up to me to discover the nature of this statue’s curse and how to remove it.
When Mother arrived tomorrow, she was sure to have loads of new artifacts with her. Even more crates would trickle in over the next few weeks. Who knew how many of the items would be cursed? I could be busy for months! The only good thing about that is it would keep me out of Mother and Father’s way. They tend to get annoyed when I’m underfoot and then begin talking of sending me to school. This way, at least I’d be able to spend some time with Mum.
Still, while hunches and gut instinct were all well and good for a First Level Test, I had to be logical and scientific about this. I needed to conduct a Level Two Test as soon as possible.
My chance came when everyone had cleared out of the receiving bay and returned to their duties. Since I didn’t have any duties to return to, I was able to hang back unnoticed.
I went over to one of the shelves that lined the receiving area and took down a small, battered Canopic jar. It had come in badly damaged, and since it wasn’t particularly valuable, no one had taken the time to restore it. I had begun using it for collecting wax (old candle stubs, sealing wax, that kind of thing), which I used extensively in my Second Level Test. Wax is very good at absorbing heka, or evil magic.
I removed some of the wax bits from the jar and carefully set them in a circle around the base of the statue.
By dinnertime, the entire circle of wax bits was a foul greeny-black color. Drat! I don’t think the wax has ever turned dark that quickly before. Now I had to come back and conduct a Third Level Test. Unfortunately, in order to do that, I needed moonlight. Moonlight is the only way to make the inscribed curses visible to the human eye.
Of course, the only way to view something in moonlight is at night.
And I loathe the museum at night.