The Serpent's Shadow / Page 16

Page 16


“Fine,” I said. “Hold on.”

A year ago, if I’d faced a fight like this, I would have curled into a ball and tried to hide. Even our battle at the Red Pyramid last Christmas seemed minor compared to dive-bombing an army of demons with no backup except one sick guy and a slightly dysfunctional griffin.

But a lot had happened in the past year. Now this was just another bad day in the life of the Kane family.

Freak came screaming down out of the night sky and banked hard to the right, shooting across the side of the pyramid. He gulped down smaller demons and shredded the larger ones with his buzz-saw wings. Some that survived got run over by our boat.

As Freak began to climb again, Walt and I jumped out, scrambling for footing on the glassy slope. Walt threw an amulet. In a flash of light, a golden sphinx appeared, with a lion’s body and the head of a woman. After our experience at the Dallas Museum, I didn’t much care for sphinxes, but thankfully this one was on our side.

Walt jumped on its back and rode into battle. The sphinx snarled and pounced on a reptilian demon, tearing it to pieces. Other monsters scattered. I couldn’t blame them. A massive gold lion would have been scary enough, but the growling woman’s head made it even more horrifying, with merciless emerald eyes, a shining Egyptian crown, and a fanged mouth with way too much lipstick.

As for me, I summoned my khopesh from the Duat. I called on the power of Horus, and the glowing blue avatar of the war god formed around me. Soon I was encased in a twenty-foot-tall hawk-headed apparition.

I stepped forward. The avatar mirrored my movements. I swiped my sword at the nearest demons, and the avatar’s massive glowing blade plowed them down like bowling pins. Two of the monsters actually had bowling pins for heads, so I guess that was appropriate.

The baboons and ibises were slowly making headway against the surge of demons. Freak flew around the pyramid, snapping up winged demons or smacking them out of the air with his boat.

Thoth kept flinging hieroglyphic grenades.

“Bloated!” he cried. The corresponding hieroglyph flew through the air, bursting against a demon’s chest in a spray of light. Instantly, the demon swelled like a water balloon and rolled screaming down the pyramid.

“Flat!” Thoth blasted another demon, who collapsed and shriveled into a monster-shaped doormat.

“Intestinal problems!” Thoth yelled. The poor demon who got zapped with that one turned green and doubled over.

I waded through monsters, tossing them aside and slicing them to dust. Everything was going great until a winged demon did a kamikaze dive into my chest. I toppled backward, slamming against the pyramid with such force that I lost my concentration. My magical armor dissolved. I would’ve skidded all the way down the pyramid if the demon hadn’t grabbed my throat and held me in place.

“Carter Kane,” he hissed. “You are stupidly persistent.”

I recognized that face—like an anatomy-class cadaver with muscle and sinew but no skin. His lidless eyes glowed red. His fangs were bared in a murderous grin.

“You,” I grunted.

“Yes,” the demon chuckled, his claws tightening around my neck. “Me.”

Face of Horror—Set’s lieutenant from the Red Pyramid, and the secret mouthpiece of Apophis. We’d killed him in the shadow of the Washington Monument, but I guess that didn’t mean anything. Now he was back, and, judging by his rasping voice and glowing red eyes, he was still possessed by my least favorite snake.

I didn’t remember his being able to fly, but now leathery bat wings sprouted from his shoulders. He straddled me with his chicken legs, his hands digging into my windpipe. His breath smelled like fermented juice and skunk spray.

“I could have killed you many times,” the demon said. “But you interest me, Carter.”

I tried to fight him off. My arms had turned to lead. I could barely hold my sword.

Around us, the sounds of battle became muted. Freak flew overhead, but his wings beat so sluggishly, I could actually see them. A hieroglyph exploded in slow motion like dye in water. Apophis was dragging me deeper into the Duat.

“I can feel your turmoil,” said the demon. “Why do you fight this hopeless battle? Don’t you realize what will happen?”

Images raced through my mind.

I saw a landscape of shifting hills and fiery geysers. Winged demons turned in the sulfurous sky. Spirits of the dead skittered across the hills, wailing in desperation and clawing for handholds. They were all being pulled in the same direction—toward a blot of darkness on the horizon. Whatever it was, its gravity was as powerful as a black hole. It sucked in the spirits, bending the hills and plumes of fire toward it. Even the demons in the air struggled.

Huddled in the shelter of a cliff, the glowing white form of a woman tried to anchor herself against the dark current. I wanted to cry. The woman was my mother. Other ghosts flew past her, wailing helplessly. My mom tried to reach out, but she couldn’t save them.

The scene shifted. I saw the Egyptian desert at the edge of Cairo under a blazing sun. Suddenly the sands erupted. A giant red serpent rose from the Underworld. He lunged at the sky and somehow, impossibly, swallowed the sun in a single gulp. The world darkened. Frost spread across the dunes. Cracks appeared in the ground. The landscape crumbled. Whole neighborhoods of Cairo sank into chasms. A red ocean of Chaos swelled up from the Nile, dissolving the city and desert, washing away pyramids that had stood for millennia. Soon there was nothing left but a boiling sea under a starless black sky.

“No gods can save you, Carter.” Apophis sounded almost sympathetic. “This fate has been decreed since the beginning of time. Yield to me, and I will spare you and those you love. You will ride the Sea of Chaos. You will be master of your own destiny.”

I saw an island floating across the boiling ocean—a small patch of green earth like an oasis. My family and I could be together on that island. We could survive. We could have anything we wanted just by imagining it. Death would mean nothing.

“All I ask is a token of goodwill,” Apophis urged. “Give me Ra. I know you hate him. He represents everything that is wrong with your mortal world. He has grown senile, rotten, weak, and useless. Surrender him to me. I will spare you. Think on this, Carter Kane. Have the gods promised you anything as fair?”

The visions faded. Face of Horror grinned down at me, but suddenly his features contorted in pain. A fiery hieroglyph burned across his forehead—the symbol for desiccate—and the demon crumbled to dust.

I gasped for breath. My throat felt like it was packed with hot coals.

Thoth stood over me, looking grim and tired. His eyes swirled with kaleidoscopic colors, like portals to another world.

“Carter Kane.” He offered me a hand and helped me up.

All the other demons were gone. Walt stood at the peak of the pyramid with the baboons and ibises, who were climbing over the golden sphinx lady like she was a merry-go-round animal. Freak hovered nearby, looking full and happy from eating so many demons.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Thoth chided. He brushed demon dust off his T-shirt, which had a flaming heart logo and the words HOUSE OF BLUES. “It was much too dangerous, especially for Walt.”

“You’re welcome,” I croaked. “It looked like you needed help.”

“The demons?” Thoth waved dismissively. “They’ll be back just before sunrise. They’ve been attacking every six hours for the past week. Quite annoying.”

“Every six hours?” I tried to imagine that. If Thoth had been fighting off an army like that several times a day for a week…I didn’t see how even a god could have that much power.

“Where are the other gods?” I asked. “Shouldn’t they be helping you?”

Thoth wrinkled his nose as if he smelled a demon with intestinal problems. “Perhaps you and Walt should come inside. Now that you’re here, we have a lot to talk about.”

I’ll say this for Thoth. He knew how to decorate a pyramid.

The former arena’s basketball court was still there, no doubt so his baboons could play. (Baboons love basketball.) The JumboTron still hung from the ceiling, flashing a series of hieroglyphs that announced things like: GO TEAM! DEFENSE! and THOTH 25—DEMONS 0 in Ancient Egyptian.

The stadium seating had been replaced with a series of tiered balconies. Some were lined with computer stations, like mission control for a rocket launch. Others had chemistry tables cluttered with beakers, Bunsen burners, vials of smoking goo, jars of pickled organs, and stranger things. The nosebleed section was devoted to scroll cubbies—a library easily as big as the one in the First Nome. And behind the left backboard rose a three-story-tall whiteboard covered in computations and hieroglyphs.

Hanging from the girders, instead of championship banners and retired numbers, were black tapestries embroidered with gold incantations.

Courtside was Thoth’s living area—a freestanding gourmet kitchen, a plush collection of couches and easy chairs, piles of books, buckets of Legos and Tinker Toys, a dozen flat-screen TVs showing different news programs and documentaries, and a small forest of electric guitars and amplifiers—everything a scatterbrained god needed to be able to do twenty things at once.

Thoth’s baboons took Freak into the locker room to groom him and let him rest. I think they were worried he might eat the ibises, since they did look a bit like turkeys.

Thoth turned to Walt and me, looking us over critically. “You need rest. Then I’ll fix you some dinner.”

“We don’t have time,” I said. “We have to—”

“Carter Kane,” Thoth scolded. “You’ve just battled Apophis, gotten the Horus knocked out of you, been dragged through the Duat and half-strangled. You’re no good to anyone until you get some sleep.”

I wanted to protest, but Thoth pressed his hand to my forehead. Weariness washed over me.

“Rest,” Thoth insisted.

I collapsed on the nearest couch.

I’m not sure how long I slept, but Walt got up first. When I woke, he and Thoth were deep in conversation.

“No,” Thoth said. “It’s never been done. And I’m afraid you don’t have time.…” He faltered when he noticed me sitting up. “Ah. Good, Carter. You’re awake.”

“What did I miss?”

“Nothing,” he said, a little too cheerily. “Come and eat.”

His kitchen counter was laden with fresh-cut brisket, sausage, ribs, and cornbread, plus an industrial-sized dispenser of iced tea. Thoth had once told me that barbecue was a form of magic, and I guess he was right. The smell of food made me temporarily forget my troubles.

I scarfed down a brisket sandwich and drank two glasses of tea. Walt nibbled on a rib, but he didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.

Meanwhile Thoth picked up a Gibson guitar. He struck a power chord that shook the arena floor. He’d gotten better since I’d last heard him. The chord actually sounded like a chord, not like a mountain goat being tortured.

I gestured around with a piece of cornbread. “This place is looking good.”

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