The Serpent's Shadow / Page 30

Page 30


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The catacombs seemed to go on forever. Hallways split off in different directions, all of them lined with sarcophagi for holy cows. After descending a long slope, we ducked through a secret passage behind an illusionary wall.

On the other side, there were no electric lights. No steel beams braced the cracked ceiling. Zia summoned fire at the tip of her staff and burned away a canopy of cobwebs. Our footprints were the only marks on the dusty floor.

“Are we close?” I asked.

Setne chuckled. “It’s just getting good.”

He led us farther into the maze. Every so often, he stopped to deactivate traps with a command or a touch. Sometimes he made me do it—supposedly because he couldn’t cast certain spells, being dead—though I got the feeling he thought it would be incredibly funny if I failed and died.

“How come you can touch some things but not other things?” I asked. “You seem to have a real selective ability.”

Setne shrugged. “I don’t make the rules of the spirit world, pal. We can touch money and jewelry. Picking up trash and messing with poison spikes, no. We get to leave that dirty work to the living.”

Whenever the traps were disabled, hidden hieroglyphs glowed and vanished. Sometimes we had to jump over pits that opened in the floor, or swerve when arrows shot from the ceiling. Paintings of gods and pharaohs peeled off the walls, formed into ghostly guardians, and faded. The whole time, Setne kept a running commentary.

“That curse would’ve made your feet rot off,” he explained. “This one over here? That summons a plague of fleas. And this one—oh, man. This is one of my favorites. It turns you into a dwarf! I hate those short little guys.”

I frowned. Setne was shorter than me, but I decided to let it go.

“Yes, indeed,” he continued. “You’re lucky to have me along, pal. Right now, you’d be a flea-bitten dwarf with no feet. And you haven’t even seen the worst of it! Right this way.”

I wasn’t sure how Setne remembered so many details about this place from so long ago, but he was obviously proud of these catacombs. He must have relished designing horrible traps to kill intruders.

We turned down another corridor. The floor sloped again. The ceiling got so low, I had to stoop. I tried to stay calm, but I was having trouble breathing. All I could think about were those tons of stone over my head, ready to collapse at any moment.

Zia took my hand. The tunnel was so narrow, we were walking single file; but I glanced back at her.

“You okay?” I asked.

She mouthed the words: Watch him.

I nodded. Whatever trap Hapi had warned us about, I had a feeling we hadn’t seen it yet, even though we were surrounded by traps. We were alone with a murderous ghost, deep underground in his home territory. I didn’t have my khopesh anymore. For some reason I hadn’t been able to summon it from the Duat. And I couldn’t use my warrior avatar in such a tiny tunnel. If Setne turned on us, my options would be limited.

Finally the corridor widened. We reached a dead end—a solid wall flanked by two statues of my dad…I mean, Osiris.

Setne turned. “Okay, here’s the score, you guys. I’m gonna have to cast a disenchantment to open this wall. The spell takes a few minutes. I don’t want you freaking out halfway through and wrapping me in pink ribbons, or things could get ugly. Half-finished magic right here, and this whole tunnel could collapse on top of us.”

I managed to avoid screaming like a little girl—but only barely.

Zia cranked the fire on her staff to white-hot. “Careful, Setne. I know what a proper disenchantment sounds like. If I suspect you’re casting anything else, I’ll blast you into ectoplasmic dust.”

“Relax, doll.” Setne cracked his knuckles. His diamond pinky rings flashed in the firelight. “You gotta keep that scarab under control, or you’re gonna turn yourself into ashes.”

I frowned. “Scarab?”

Setne glanced back and forth between us and laughed. “You mean she hasn’t told you? And you haven’t figured it out? You kids today! I love the ignorance!”

He turned toward the wall and began to chant. Zia’s fire ebbed to a cooler red flame. I gave her a questioning look.

She hesitated—then touched the base of her throat. She hadn’t been wearing a necklace before. I was sure of that. But when she touched her throat, an amulet blinked into existence—a glittering golden scarab on a gold chain. She must have hidden it with a glamor—a magical illusion like Setne had done with the Ribbons of Hathor.

The scarab looked metal, but I realized I’d seen it before, and I’d seen it alive. Back when Ra had imprisoned Apophis in the Underworld, he’d given up part of his soul—his incarnation as Khepri, scarab of the morning sun—to keep his enemy confined. He’d buried Apophis under a landslide of living beetles.

By the time Sadie and I had found that prison last spring, millions of scarabs had been reduced to desiccated shells. When Apophis broke free, only one golden beetle survived: the last remnant of Khepri’s power.

Ra had tried to swallow that scarab. (Yes, disgusting. I know.) When that didn’t work…he’d offered it to Zia.

I didn’t remember Zia taking the scarab, but somehow I knew that amulet was the same bug.

“Zia—”

She shook her head adamantly. “Later.”

She gestured at Setne, who was in the middle of his spell.

Okay, probably not a good time to talk. I didn’t want the tunnel coming down on us. But my mind was reeling.

You haven’t figured it out? Setne had taunted me.

I knew Ra was fascinated with Zia. She was his favorite babysitter. Setne mentioned that Zia was having temperature control problems. The old man is getting to you, he’d said. And Ra had given Zia that scarab—literally a piece of his soul—as if she were his high priestess…or maybe someone even more important.

The tunnel rumbled. The dead-end wall dissolved into dust, revealing a chamber beyond.

Setne glanced back at us with a smile. “Showtime, kids.”

We followed him into a circular room that reminded me of the library at Brooklyn House. The floor was a sparkling mosaic of pastures and rivers. On the walls, painted priests were adorning painted cows with flowers and feathery headdresses for some kind of festival, while Ancient Egyptians waved palm fronds and shook bronze noisemakers called sistrums. The domed ceiling depicted Osiris on his throne, passing judgment over a bull. For an absurd moment, I wondered if Ammit devoured the hearts of wicked cows, and if he liked the beefy taste.

In the middle of the chamber, on a coffin-shaped pedestal, stood a life-sized statue of the Apis Bull. It was made of dark stone—basalt, maybe—but painted so skillfully, it looked alive. Its eyes seemed to follow me. Its hide glistened black except for a small white diamond on the front of its chest, and over its back was a gold blanket cut and embroidered to resemble a hawk’s wings. Between its horns sat a Frisbee of gold—a sun disk crown. Beneath that, sticking out of the bull’s forehead like a curly unicorn horn, was a rearing cobra.

A year ago I would’ve said, “Freaky, but at least it’s just a statue.” Now, I’d had lots of experience with Egyptian statues coming to life and trying to stomp the ankh out of me.

Setne didn’t seem worried. He strolled right up to the stone bull and patted its leg. “The Shrine of Apis! I built this chamber just for my chosen priests and me. Now all we have to do is wait.”

“Wait for what?” Zia asked. Being a smart girl, she was hanging back by the entrance with me.

Setne checked his nonexistent watch. “It won’t be long. Just a timer, sort of. Come on in! Make yourself comfortable.”

I edged my way inside. I waited for the doorway to solidify behind me, but it stayed open. “You sure the book is still here?”

“Oh, yeah.” Setne walked around the statue, checking the base. “I just need to remember which of these panels on the dais is going to pop open. I wanted to make this entire room out of gold, you know? That would’ve been much cooler. But Dad cut back on my funding.”

“Your dad.” Zia stepped next to me and slipped her hand into mine, which I didn’t mind. The golden scarab necklace glinted around her neck. “You mean Ramses the Great?”

Setne’s mouth twisted in a cruel sneer. “Yeah, that’s how his PR department branded him. Me, I liked to call him Ramses II, or Ramses Number Two.”

“Ramses?” I said. “Your dad is the Ramses?”

I suppose I hadn’t processed how Setne fit into Egyptian history. Looking at this scrawny little guy with his greasy hair, his shoulder-padded jacket, and his ridiculous bling, I couldn’t believe he was related to a ruler so famous. Even worse, it made him related to me, since our mom’s side of the family traced its magic heritage from Ramses the Great.

(Sadie says she can see the family resemblance between Setne and me. [Shut up, Sadie.])

I guess Setne didn’t like my looking surprised. He stuck his beaky nose in the air. “You should know what it’s like, Carter Kane—growing up in the shadow of a famous dad. Always trying to live up to his legend. Look at you, son of the great Dr. Julius Kane. You finally make a name for yourself as a big-shot magician, what does your dad do? He goes and becomes a god.”

Setne laughed coldly. I’d never felt any resentment toward my father before; I’d always thought it was cool being Dr. Kane’s son. But Setne’s words rolled over me, and anger started to build in my chest.

He’s playing with you, said the voice of Horus.

I knew Horus was right, but that didn’t make me feel better.

“Where’s the book, Setne?” I asked. “Enough delays.”

“Don’t warp your wand, pal. It won’t be much longer.” He gazed at the picture of Osiris on the ceiling. “There he is! The blue dude himself. I’m telling you, Carter, you and I are a lot alike. I can’t go anywhere in Egypt without seeing my dad’s face, either. Abu Simbel? There’s Papa Ramses glaring down at me—four copies of him, each sixty feet tall. It’s like a nightmare. Half the temples in Egypt? He commissioned them and put up statues of himself. Is it any wonder I wanted to be the world’s biggest magician?” He puffed up his scrawny chest. “And I made it, too. What I don’t understand, Carter Kane, is why you haven’t taken the pharaoh’s throne yet. You’ve got Horus on your side, itching for power. You should merge with the god, become the pharaoh of the world, and, ah…” He patted the Apis statue. “Take the bull by the horns.”

He’s right, Horus said. This human has wisdom.

Make up your mind, I complained.

“Carter, don’t listen to him,” Zia said. “Setne, whatever you’re up to—stop. Now.”

“What I’m up to? Look, doll—”

“Don’t call me that!” Zia said.

“Hey, I’m on your side,” Setne promised. “The book’s right here in the dais. As soon as the bull moves—”


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