The Serpent's Shadow / Page 28

Page 28


The creature was easily as big as our riverboat. Its skin glistened purple and gray. As it rose near the bow, it fixed its eyes on me with unmistakable malice and opened a maw the size of an airplane hangar. Its bottom peglike teeth were taller than me. Looking down the creature’s throat, I felt like I was seeing a bright pink tunnel straight to the Underworld. The monster could have eaten me right there, along with the front half of the boat. I would have been too paralyzed to react.

Instead, the hippo bellowed. Imagine someone revving a dirt bike, then blowing a trumpet. Now imagine those sounds amplified twenty times, coming at you in a blast of breath that smells of rotten fish and pond scum. That’s what a giant hippo’s war cry is like.

Somewhere behind me, Zia yelled, “Hippo!” Which I thought was a little late.

She stumbled toward me over the rocking deck, the tip of her staff on fire. Our ghostly pal Setne floated behind her, grinning with delight.

“There it is!” Setne shook his diamond pinky rings. “Told ya Apophis would send a monster to kill you.”

“You’re so smart!” I shouted. “Now, how do we stop it?”

“BRRRAAHHHHH!” The hippo shoved its face against the Egyptian Queen. I tumbled backward and slammed against the deckhouse.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Zia blast a column of fire at the creature’s face. The flames went straight up its left nostril, which just made the hippo mad. It snorted smoke and bashed the ship harder, catapulting Zia into the river.

“No!” I staggered to my feet. I tried to summon the avatar of Horus, but my head was throbbing. My focus was shot.

“Want some advice?” Setne wafted next to me, unaffected by the rocking of the ship. “I could give you a spell to use.”

His evil smile didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

“Just stay put!” I pointed at his hands and yelled, “Tas!”

The Ribbons of Hathor tied his wrists together.

“Oh, come on!” he complained. “How am I supposed to comb my hair like this?”

The hippo peered at me over the rail—its eye like a greasy black dinner plate. Up in the wheelhouse, Bloodstained Blade rang the alarm bell and shouted at the crew, “Hard to port! Hard to port!”

Somewhere over the side, I heard Zia choking and splashing, which at least meant she was alive, but I had to keep the hippo away from her and give the Egyptian Queen time to disengage. I grabbed my sword, charged up the tilting deck, and leaped straight onto the monster’s head.

My first discovery: hippos are slippery. I scrambled for a handhold—not easy while wielding a sword—and almost slid off the other side of the hippo’s head before I hooked my free arm around its ear.

The hippo roared and shook me like a dangle earring. I caught a glimpse of a fishing boat sailing calmly by as if nothing were wrong. The crew orbs of the Egyptian Queen zipped around a large crack in the stern. Just for a moment, I saw Zia floundering in the water, about twenty yards downstream. Then her head went under. I summoned all my strength and drove my sword into the hippo’s ear.

“BRRRAAHHHHH!” The monster thrashed its head. I lost my grip and went sailing across the river like a three-point shot.

I would’ve hit the water hard, but at the last second I changed into a falcon.

I know…that sounds crazy. Oh, by the way, I just happened to change into a falcon. But it was fairly easy magic for me, since the falcon was Horus’s sacred animal. Suddenly, instead of falling, I was soaring over the Nile. My vision was so sharp I could see field mice in the marshes. I could see Zia struggling in the water, as well as every bristle on the hippo’s massive snout.

I dove at the monster’s eye, raking it with my claws. Unfortunately it was heavily lidded and covered with some kind of membrane. The hippo blinked and bellowed in annoyance, but I could tell that I hadn’t done any real damage.

The monster snapped at me. I was much too fast. I flew to the ship and perched on the wheelhouse roof, trying to catch my breath. The Egyptian Queen had managed to turn. It was slowly putting distance between itself and the monster, but the hull had taken serious damage. Smoke billowed from the cracks in the stern. We were listing to starboard, and Bloodstained Blade kept ringing his alarm bell, which was really annoying.

Zia was working to stay afloat, but she’d drifted farther downstream from the hippo and didn’t seem to be in immediate danger. She tried to summon fire—which isn’t easy to do when you’re floundering in a river.

The hippo lumbered back and forth, apparently looking for the pesky bird that had poked it in the eye. The monster’s ear was still bleeding, though my sword was no longer there—maybe at the bottom of the river somewhere. Finally the hippo turned its attention to the ship.

Setne materialized next to me. His arms were still tied, but he looked like he was enjoying himself. “You ready for that advice now, pal? I can’t cast the spell myself ’cause I’m dead and all, but I can tell you what to say.”

The hippo charged. It was less than fifty yards away, closing fast. If it hit the ship at that speed, the Egyptian Queen would break into kindling.

Time seemed to slow down. I tried to gather my focus. Emotions are bad for magic, and I was completely panicked; but I knew I’d only get one shot at this. I spread my wings and flew straight at the hippo. Halfway there, I transformed back into a human, dropped like a stone, and summoned the avatar of Horus.

If it hadn’t worked, I would’ve ended my life as an insignificant grease spot on the chest of a charging hippo.

Thankfully, the blue aura flickered around me. I landed in the river encased in the glowing body of a twenty-foot-tall hawk-headed warrior. Compared to the hippo, I was still tiny, but I got its attention when I drove my fist into its snout.

That worked really well for about two seconds. The monster forgot all about the ship. I sidestepped and made it turn toward me, but I was way too slow. Wading through the river in avatar form was about as easy as running through a room full of bouncy balls.

The monster lunged. It twisted its head and clamped its mouth around my waist. I staggered, trying to break free, but its jaws were like a vise grip. Its teeth sank into the magical shielding. I didn’t have my sword. All I could do was pummel its head with my glowing blue fists, but my power was fading rapidly.

“Carter!” Zia screamed.

I had maybe ten seconds to live. Then the avatar would collapse, and I’d be swallowed or bitten in half.

“Setne!” I yelled. “What’s that spell?”

“Oh, now you want the spell,” Setne called from the ship. “Repeat after me: Hapi, u-ha ey pwah.”

I didn’t know what that meant. Setne might’ve been tricking me into self-destructing or transforming into a chunk of Swiss cheese. But I was out of options. I shouted: “Hapi, u-ha ey pwah!”

Blue hieroglyphs—brighter than I’d ever summoned—blazed above the hippo’s head:

Seeing them written out, I suddenly understood their meaning: Hapi, arise and attack. But what did that mean?

At least they distracted the hippo. It let go of me and snapped at the hieroglyphs. My avatar failed. I plunged into the water, my magic exhausted, my defenses gone—just tiny little Carter Kane in the shadow of a sixteen-ton hippo.

The monster swallowed the hieroglyphs and snorted. It shook its head as if it had just gulped down a chili pepper.

Great, I thought. Setne’s awesome magic summoned an appetizer for the devil hippo.

Then, from the boat, Setne yelled, “Wait for it! Three, two, one…”

The Nile boiled around me. A huge mass of brown seaweed erupted beneath me and lifted me skyward. Instinctively I held on, slowly realizing that the seaweed wasn’t seaweed. It was hair on top of a colossal head. The giant man rose from the Nile, higher and higher, until the hippo looked almost cute in comparison. I couldn’t tell much about the giant from the top of his head, but his skin was darker blue than my father’s. He had shaggy brown hair full of river muck. His belly was hugely swollen, and he seemed to be wearing nothing but a loincloth made of fish scales.

“BRRRAAHHHHH!” The hippo lunged, but the blue giant grabbed its bottom teeth and stopped it cold. The force of the impact nearly shook me off his head.

“Yay!” the blue giant bellowed. “Hippo toss! I love this game!” He swung his arms in a golf swing motion and launched the monster out of the water.

Few things are stranger than watching a giant hippo fly. It careened wildly, kicking its stubby legs as it sailed over the marshlands. Finally it crashed into a limestone cliff in the distance, causing a minor avalanche. Boulders collapsed on top of the hippo. When the dust settled, there was no sign of the monster. Cars kept driving down the river road. Fishing boats went about their business, as if blue giants fighting hippos was nothing remarkable on this stretch of the Nile.

“Fun!” the blue giant cheered. “Now, who summoned me?”

“Up here!” I yelled.

The giant froze. He carefully patted his scalp until he found me. Then he picked me up with two fingers, waded over to the riverbank, and gently set me down.

He pointed to Zia, who was struggling to reach the shore, and the Egyptian Queen, which was drifting downstream, listing and smoking from the stern. “Are those friends of yours?”

“Yes,” I said. “Could you help them?”

The giant grinned. “Be right back!”

A few minutes later the Egyptian Queen was safely moored. Zia sat next to me on the shore, wringing Nile water out of her hair.

Setne hovered next to us, looking quite smug, even though his arms were still tied. “So maybe next time you’ll trust me, Carter Kane!” He nodded at the giant, who loomed over us, still grinning like he was really excited to be here. “May I present my old friend Hapi!”

The blue giant waved at us. “Hi!”

His eyes were completely dilated. His teeth were brilliant white. A mass of stringy brown hair fell around his shoulders, and his skin rippled in different shades of watery blue. His belly was much too big for his body. It sagged over his fish-scale skirt like he was either pregnant or had swallowed a blimp. He was, without a doubt, the tallest, fattest, bluest, most cheerful hippie giant I had ever met.

I tried to place his name, but I couldn’t.

“Hapi?” I asked.

“Why, yes, I am happy!” Hapi beamed. “I’m always happy because I’m Hapi! Are you happy?”

I glanced at Setne, who seemed to find this terribly amusing.

“Hapi is the god of the Nile,” the ghost explained. “Along with his other duties, Hapi is the provider of bountiful harvests and all good things, and so he is always—”

“Happy,” I guessed.

Zia frowned up at the giant. “Does he have to be so big?”

The god laughed. Immediately he shrank down to human size, though the crazy cheerful look on his face was still pretty unnerving.

“So!” Hapi rubbed his hands with anticipation. “Anything else I can do for you kids? It’s been centuries since anybody summoned me. Since they built that stupid Aswan Dam, the Nile doesn’t flood every year like it used to. Nobody depends on me anymore. I could kill those mortals!”

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