The Serpent's Shadow / Page 14

Page 14


Our footsteps echoed in the silent tunnels. We crossed one of the subterranean rivers, then wound our way through the library quarter and the Chamber of Birds.

(Carter says I should tell you why it’s called that. It’s a cave full of all sorts of birds. Again—duh. [Carter, why are you banging your head against the table?])

I brought my Russian friend down a long corridor, past a sealed tunnel that had once led up to the Great Sphinx of Giza, and finally to the bronze doors of the Hall of Ages. It was my uncle’s hall now, so I strolled right in.

Impressive place? Certainly. If you filled it with water, the hall would’ve been large enough for a pod of whales. Running down the middle, a long blue carpet glittered like the River Nile. Along either side marched rows of columns, and between them shimmered curtains of light displaying scenes from Egypt’s past—all sorts of horrible, wonderful, heart-wrenching events.

I tried to avoid looking at them. I knew from experience that those images could be dangerously absorbing. Once I’d made the mistake of touching the lights, and the experience had almost turned my brain into oatmeal.

The first section of light was gold—the Age of the Gods. Farther along, the Old Kingdom glowed silver, then the Middle Kingdom in coppery brown, and so on.

Several times as we walked, I had to pull Leonid back from scenes that caught his eye. Honestly, I wasn’t much better.

I got teary-eyed when I saw a vision of Bes entertaining the other gods by doing cartwheels in a loincloth. (I cried because I missed seeing him so full of life, I mean, though the sight of Bes in a loincloth is enough to make anyone’s eyes burn.)

We passed the bronze curtain of light for the New Kingdom. I stopped abruptly. In the shifting mirage, a thin man in priestly robes held a wand and a knife over a black bull. The man muttered as if blessing the animal. I couldn’t tell much about the scene, but I recognized the man’s face—a beaky nose, high forehead, thin lips that twisted in a wicked smile as he ran the knife along the poor animal’s throat.

“That’s him,” I muttered.

I walked toward the curtain of light.

“Nyet.” Leonid grabbed my arm. “You tell me the lights are bad, stay away.”

“You—you’re right,” I said. “But that’s Uncle Vinnie.”

I was positive it was the same face that had appeared in the wall at the Dallas Museum, but how could that be? The scene I was looking at must have happened thousands of years ago.

“Not Vinnie,” Leonid said. “Khaemwaset.”

“Sorry?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him correctly, or even in what language he’d spoken. “Is that a name?”

“He is…” Leonid slipped into Russian, then sighed in exasperation. “Too difficult to explain. Let us see Amos, who will not eat my face.”

I forced myself to look away from the image. “Good idea. Let’s keep going.”

At the end of the hall, the curtains of red light for the Modern Age changed to dark purple. Supposedly this marked the beginning of a new age, though none of us knew exactly what sort of era it would be. If Apophis destroyed the world, I guessed it would be the Age of Extremely Short Lives.

I’d expected to see Amos sitting at the foot of the pharaoh’s throne. That was the traditional place for the Chief Lector, symbolizing his role as the pharaoh’s main advisor. Of course, the pharaohs rarely needed advising these days, as they’d all been dead for several thousand years.

The dais was empty.

That stumped me. I’d never considered where the Chief Lector hung out when he wasn’t on display. Did he have a dressing room, possibly with his name and a little star on the door?

“There.” Leonid pointed.

Once again, my clever Russian friend was right. On the back wall, behind the throne, a faint line of light shone along the floor—the bottom edge of a door.

“A creepy secret entrance,” I said. “Well done, Leonid.”

On the other side, we found a sort of war room. Amos and a young woman in camouflage clothes stood at opposite ends of a large table inlaid with a full-color world map. The table’s surface was crowded with tiny figurines—painted ships, monsters, magicians, cars, and markers with hieroglyphs.

Amos and the camouflage girl were so engrossed in their work, moving figurines across the map, they didn’t notice us at first.

Amos wore traditional linen robes. With his barrel-shaped figure, they made him look a bit like Friar Tuck, except with darker skin and cooler hair. His braided locks were decorated with gold beads. His round glasses flashed as he studied the map. Draped around his shoulders was the leopard-skin cape of the Chief Lector.

As for the young woman…oh, gods of Egypt. It was Zia.

I’d never seen her in modern clothes before. She wore camouflage cargo pants, hiking boots, and an olive-colored tank top that flattered her coppery skin. Her black hair was longer than I remembered. She looked so much more grown-up and gorgeous than she’d been six months ago, I was glad Carter hadn’t come along. He would’ve had difficulty picking up his jaw from the floor.

[Yes, you would have, Carter. She looked quite stunning, in a Commando Girl sort of way.]

Amos moved one of the figurines across the map. “Here,” he told Zia.

“All right,” she said. “But that leaves Paris undefended.”

I cleared my throat. “Are we interrupting?”

Amos turned and broke into a grin. “Sadie!”

He crushed me in a hug, then rubbed my head affectionately.

“Ow,” I said.

He chuckled. “I’m sorry. It’s just so good to see you.” He glanced at Leonid. “And this is—”

Zia cursed. She wedged herself between Amos and Leonid. “He’s one of the Russians! Why is he here?”

“Calm down,” I told her. “He’s a friend.”

I explained about Leonid’s appearance at the dance. Leonid tried to help, but he kept slipping into Russian.

“Wait,” Amos said. “Let’s make this easier.”

He touched Leonid’s forehead. “Med-wah.”

In the air above us, the hieroglyph for Speak burned red:

“There,” Amos said. “That should help.”

Leonid’s eyebrows shot up. “You speak Russian?”

Amos smiled. “Actually for the next few minutes, we’ll all be speaking Ancient Egyptian, but it will sound to each of us like our native tongue.”

“Brilliant,” I said. “Leonid, you’d best make the most of your time.”

Leonid took off his army cap and fidgeted with the brim. “Sarah Jacobi and her lieutenant, Kwai…they mean to attack you.”

“We know that,” Amos said dryly.

“No, you don’t understand!” Leonid’s voice trembled with fear. “They are evil! They are working with Apophis!”

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but when he said that name, several figurines on the world map sparked and melted. My heart felt much the same way.

“Hold on,” I said. “Leonid, how do you know this?”

His ears turned pink. “After the death of Menshikov, Jacobi and Kwai came to our nome. We gave them refuge. Soon Jacobi took over, but my comrades did not object. They, ah, hate the Kanes very much.” He looked at me guiltily. “After you broke into our headquarters last spring…well, the other Russians blame you for Menshikov’s death and the rise of Apophis. They blame you for everything.”

“Quite used to that,” I said. “You didn’t feel the same?”

He pinched his oversized cap. “I saw your power. You defeated the tjesu-heru monster. You could have destroyed me, but you didn’t. You did not seem evil.”

“Thanks for that.”

“After we met, I became curious. I began reading old scrolls, learning to channel the power of the god Shu. I have always been a good air elementalist.”

Amos grunted. “That took courage, Leonid. Exploring the path of the gods on your own in the middle of the Russian nome? You were brave.”

“I was foolhardy.” Leonid’s forehead was damp with sweat. “Jacobi has killed magicians for lesser crimes. One of my friends, an old man named Mikhail, he once made the mistake of saying all Kanes might not be bad. Jacobi arrested him for treason. She gave him to Kwai, who does magic with—with lightning…terrible things. I heard Mikhail screaming in the dungeon for three nights before he died.”

Amos and Zia exchanged grave looks. I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time they’d heard about Kwai’s torture methods.

“I’m so sorry,” Amos said. “But how can you be sure Jacobi and Kwai are working for Apophis?”

The young Russian glanced at me for reassurance.

“You can trust Amos,” I promised. “He’ll protect you.”

Leonid chewed his lip. “Yesterday I was in one of the chambers deep under the Hermitage, a place I thought was secret. I was studying a scroll to summon Shu—very forbidden magic. I heard Jacobi and Kwai approaching, so I hid. I overheard the two of them speaking, but their voices were…splintered. I don’t know how to explain.”

“They were possessed?” Zia asked.

“Worse,” Leonid said. “They were each channeling dozens of voices. It was like a war council. I heard many monsters and demons. And presiding over the meeting was one voice, deeper and more powerful than the rest. I’d never heard anything like it, as if darkness could speak.”

“Apophis,” Amos said.

Leonid had gone very pale. “Please understand, most magicians in St. Petersburg, they are not evil. They are only scared and desperate to survive. Jacobi has convinced them she will save them. She has misled them with lies. She says the Kanes are demons. But she and Kwai…they are the monsters. They are no longer human. They have set up a camp at Abu Simbel. From there, they will lead the rebels against the First Nome.”

Amos turned to his map. He traced his finger south along the River Nile to a small lake. “I sense nothing at Abu Simbel. If they are there, they’ve managed to hide themselves completely from my magic.”

“They are there,” Leonid promised.

Zia scowled. “Under our very noses, within easy striking distance. We should’ve killed the rebels at Brooklyn House when we had the chance.”

Amos shook his head. “We are servants of Ma’at—order and justice. We don’t kill our enemies for things they might do in the future.”

“And now our enemies will kill us,” Zia said.

On the table map, two more figurines sparked and melted in Spain. A miniature ship broke into pieces off the coast of Japan.

Amos grimaced. “More losses.”

He chose a cobra figurine from Korea and pushed it toward the shipwreck. He swept away the melted magicians from Spain.

“What is that map?” I asked.

Zia moved a hieroglyph token from Germany to France. “Iskandar’s war map. As I once told you, he was an expert at statuary magic.”

I remembered. The old Chief Lector had been so good, he’d made a replica of Zia herself…but I decided not to bring that up.

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