The Serpent's Shadow / Page 1

Page 1


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1. We Crash and Burn a Party

SADIE KANE HERE.

If you’re listening to this, congratulations! You survived Doomsday.

I’d like to apologize straightaway for any inconvenience the end of the world may have caused you. The earthquakes, rebellions, riots, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, and of course the giant snake who swallowed the sun—I’m afraid most of that was our fault. Carter and I decided we should at least explain how it happened.

This will probably be our last recording. By the time you’ve heard our story, the reason for that will be obvious.

Our problems started in Dallas, when the fire-breathing sheep destroyed the King Tut exhibit.

That night the Texas magicians were hosting a party in the sculpture garden across the street from the Dallas Museum of Art. The men wore tuxedos and cowboy boots. The women wore evening dresses and hairdos like explosions of candy floss.

(Carter says it’s called cotton candy in America. I don’t care. I was raised in London, so you’ll just have to keep up and learn the proper way of saying things.)

A band played old-timey country music on the pavilion. Strings of fairy lights glimmered in the trees. Magicians did occasionally pop out of secret doors in the sculptures or summon sparks of fire to burn away pesky mosquitoes, but otherwise it seemed like quite a normal party.

The leader of the Fifty-first Nome, JD Grissom, was chatting with his guests and enjoying a plate of beef tacos when we pulled him away for an emergency meeting. I felt bad about that, but there wasn’t much choice, considering the danger he was in.

“An attack?” He frowned. “The Tut exhibit has been open for a month now. If Apophis was going to strike, wouldn’t he have done it already?”

JD was tall and stout, with a rugged, weathered face, feathery red hair, and hands as rough as bark. He looked about forty, but it’s hard to tell with magicians. He might have been four hundred. He wore a black suit with a bolo tie and a large silver Lone Star belt buckle, like a Wild West marshal.

“Let’s talk on the way,” Carter said. He started leading us toward the opposite side of the garden.

I must admit my brother acted remarkably confident.

He was still a monumental dork, of course. His nappy brown hair had a chunk missing on the left side where his griffin had given him a “love bite,” and you could tell from the nicks on his face that he hadn’t quite mastered the art of shaving. But since his fifteenth birthday he’d shot up in height and put on muscle from hours of combat training. He looked poised and mature in his black linen clothes, especially with that khopesh sword at his side. I could almost imagine him as a leader of men without laughing hysterically.

[Why are you glaring at me, Carter? That was quite a generous description.]

Carter maneuvered around the buffet table, grabbing a handful of tortilla chips. “Apophis has a pattern,” he told JD. “The other attacks all happened on the night of the new moon, when darkness is greatest. Believe me, he’ll hit your museum tonight. And he’ll hit it hard.”

JD Grissom squeezed around a cluster of magicians drinking champagne. “These other attacks…” he said. “You mean Chicago and Mexico City?”

“And Toronto,” Carter said. “And…a few others.”

I knew he didn’t want to say more. The attacks we’d witnessed over the summer had left us both with nightmares.

True, full-out Armageddon hadn’t come yet. It had been six months since the Chaos snake Apophis had escaped from his Underworld prison, but he still hadn’t launched a large-scale invasion of the mortal world as we’d expected. For some reason, the serpent was biding his time, settling for smaller attacks on nomes that seemed secure and happy.

Like this one, I thought.

As we passed the pavilion, the band finished their song. A pretty blond woman with a fiddle waved her bow at JD.

“Come on, sweetie!” she called. “We need you on steel guitar!”

He forced a smile. “Soon, hon. I’ll be back.”

We walked on. JD turned to us. “My wife, Anne.”

“Is she also a magician?” I asked.

He nodded, his expression turning dark. “These attacks. Why are you so sure Apophis will strike here?”

Carter’s mouth was full of tortilla chips, so his response was, “Mhm-hmm.”

“He’s after a certain artifact,” I translated. “He’s already destroyed five copies of it. The last one in existence happens to be in your Tut exhibit.”

“Which artifact?” JD asked.

I hesitated. Before coming to Dallas, we’d cast all sorts of shielding spells and loaded up on protective amulets to prevent magical eavesdropping, but I was still nervous about speaking our plans aloud.

“Better we show you.” I stepped around a fountain, where two young magicians were tracing glowing I Love You messages on the paving stones with their wands. “We’ve brought our own crack team to help. They’re waiting at the museum. If you’ll let us examine the artifact, possibly take it with us for safekeeping—”

“Take it with you?” JD scowled. “The exhibit is heavily guarded. I have my best magicians surrounding it night and day. You think you can do better at Brooklyn House?”

We stopped at the edge of the garden. Across the street, a two-story-tall King Tut banner hung from the side of the museum.

Carter took out his mobile phone. He showed JD Grissom an image on the screen—a burned-out mansion that had once been the headquarters for the One Hundredth Nome in Toronto.

“I’m sure your guards are good,” Carter said. “But we’d rather not make your nome a target for Apophis. In the other attacks like this one…the serpent’s minions didn’t leave any survivors.”

JD stared at the phone’s screen, then glanced back at his wife, Anne, who was fiddling her way through a two-step.

“Fine,” JD said. “I hope your team is top-notch.”

“They’re amazing,” I promised. “Come on, we’ll introduce you.”

Our crack squad of magicians was busy raiding the gift shop.

Felix had summoned three penguins, which were waddling around wearing paper King Tut masks. Our baboon friend, Khufu, sat atop a bookshelf reading The History of the Pharaohs, which would’ve been quite impressive except he was holding the book upside down. Walt—oh, dear Walt, why?—had opened the jewelry cabinet and was examining charm bracelets and necklaces as if they might be magical. Alyssa levitated clay pots with her earth elemental magic, juggling twenty or thirty at a time in a figure eight.

Carter cleared his throat.

Walt froze, his hands full of gold jewelry. Khufu scrambled down the bookshelf, knocking off most of the books. Alyssa’s pottery crashed to the floor. Felix tried to shoo his penguins behind the till. (He does have rather strong feelings about the usefulness of penguins. I’m afraid I can’t explain it.)

JD Grissom drummed his fingers against his Lone Star belt buckle. “This is your amazing team?”

“Yes!” I tried for a winning smile. “Sorry about the mess. I’ll just, um…”

I pulled my wand from my belt and spoke a word of power: “Hi-nehm!”

I’d got better at such spells. Most of the time, I could now channel power from my patron goddess Isis without passing out. And I hadn’t exploded once.

The hieroglyph for Join together glowed briefly in the air:

Broken bits of pottery flew back together and mended themselves. Books returned to the shelf. The King Tut masks flew off the penguins, revealing them to be—gasp—penguins.

Our friends looked rather embarrassed.

“Sorry,” Walt mumbled, putting the jewelry back in the case. “We got bored.”

I couldn’t stay mad at Walt. He was tall and athletic, built like a basketball player, in workout pants and sleeveless tee that showed off his sculpted arms. His skin was the color of hot cocoa, his face every bit as regal and handsome as the statues of his pharaoh ancestors.

Did I fancy him? Well, it’s complicated. More on that later.

JD Grissom looked over our team.

“Nice to meet you all.” He managed to contain his enthusiasm. “Come with me.”

The museum’s main foyer was a vast white room with empty café tables, a stage, and a ceiling high enough for a pet giraffe. On one side, stairs led up to a balcony with a row of offices. On the other side, glass walls looked out at the nighttime skyline of Dallas.

JD pointed up at the balcony, where two men in black linen robes were patrolling. “You see? Guards are everywhere.”

The men had their staffs and wands ready. They glanced down at us, and I noticed their eyes were glowing. Hieroglyphs were painted on their cheekbones like war paint.

Alyssa whispered to me: “What’s up with their eyes?”

“Surveillance magic,” I guessed. “The symbols allow the guards to see into the Duat.”

Alyssa bit her lip. Since her patron was the earth god Geb, she liked solid things, such as stone and clay. She didn’t like heights or deep water. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the Duat—the magical realm that coexisted with ours.

Once, when I’d described the Duat as an ocean under our feet with layers and layers of magical dimensions going down forever, I thought Alyssa was going to get seasick.

Ten-year-old Felix, on the other hand, had no such qualms. “Cool!” he said. “I want glowing eyes.”

He traced his finger across his cheeks, leaving shiny purple blobs in the shape of Antarctica.

Alyssa laughed. “Can you see into the Duat now?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I can see my penguins much better.”

“We should hurry,” Carter reminded us. “Apophis usually strikes when the moon is at the top of its transit. Which is—”

“Agh!” Khufu held up all ten fingers. Leave it to a baboon to have perfect astronomical sense.

“In ten minutes,” I said. “Just brilliant.”

We approached the entrance of the King Tut exhibit, which was rather hard to miss because of the giant golden sign that read KING TUT EXHIBIT. Two magicians stood guard with full-grown leopards on leashes.

Carter looked at JD in astonishment. “How did you get complete access to the museum?”

The Texan shrugged. “My wife, Anne, is president of the board. Now, which artifact did you want to see?”

“I studied your exhibit maps,” Carter said. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

The leopards seemed quite interested in Felix’s penguins, but the guards held them back and let us pass.

Inside, the exhibit was extensive, but I doubt you care about the details. A labyrinth of rooms with sarcophagi, statues, furniture, bits of gold jewelry—blah, blah, blah. I would have passed it all by. I’ve seen enough Egyptian collections to last several lifetimes, thank you very much.

Besides, everywhere I looked, I saw reminders of bad experiences.

We passed cases of shabti figurines, no doubt enchanted to come to life when called upon. I’d killed my share of those. We passed statues of glowering monsters and gods whom I’d fought in person—the vulture Nekhbet, who’d once possessed my Gran (long story); the crocodile Sobek, who’d tried to kill my cat (longer story); and the lion goddess Sekhmet, whom we’d once vanquished with hot sauce (don’t even ask).


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