The Serpent's Shadow / Page 31

Page 31


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“The bull moves?” I asked.

Setne narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t I mention that? I got the idea from this holiday we used to have in the old days, the Festival of Sed. Awesome fun! You ever been to that Running of the Bulls in, what is it, Spain?”

“Pamplona,” I said. Another wave of resentment got the best of me. My dad had taken me to Pamplona once, but he hadn’t let me go out in the street while the bulls were running through town. He’d said it was too dangerous—as if his secret life as a magician weren’t way more dangerous than that.

“Right, Pamplona,” Setne agreed. “Well, you know where that tradition started? Egypt. The pharaoh would do this ritual race with the Apis Bull to renew his kingly power, prove his strength, get blessed by the gods—all that junk. In later times, it became just a charade, no real danger. But at the beginning, it was the real thing. Life and death.”

On the word death, the bull statue moved. He bent his legs stiffly. Then he lowered his head and glared at me, snorting out a cloud of dust.

“Setne!” I reached for my sword, but of course it wasn’t there. “Make that thing stop, or I’ll wrap you in ribbons so fast—”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Setne warned. “See, I’m the only one who can pick up the book without getting zapped by about sixteen different curses.”

Between the bull’s horns, its golden sun disk flashed. On its forehead, the cobra writhed to life, hissing and spitting gobs of fire.

Zia drew her wand. Was it my imagination, or was her scarab necklace starting to steam? “Call off that creature, Setne. Or I swear—”

“I can’t, doll. Sorry.” He grinned at us from behind the bull’s dais. He didn’t look very sorry. “This is part of the security system, see? If you want the book, you’ve got to distract the bull and get it out of here, while I open the dais and grab the Book of Thoth. I have complete faith in you.”

The bull pawed his pedestal and leaped off. Zia pulled me back into the hallway.

“That’s it!” Setne shouted. “Just like the Sed Festival. Prove you’re worthy of the pharaoh’s throne, kid. Run or die!”

The bull charged.

A sword would’ve been really nice. I would’ve settled for a matador’s cape and a spear. Or an assault rifle. Instead, Zia and I ran back through the catacombs and quickly realized that we were lost. Letting Setne lead us into the maze had been a stupid idea. I should’ve dropped breadcrumbs or marked the walls with hieroglyphs or something.

I hoped the tunnels would be too narrow for the Apis Bull. No such luck. I heard rock walls rumbling behind us as the bull shouldered his way through. There was another sound I liked even less—a deep hum followed by an explosion. I didn’t know what that was, but it was good incentive to run faster.

We must have passed through a dozen halls. Each had twenty or thirty sarcophagi. I couldn’t believe how many Apises had been mummified down here—centuries’ worth of bull. Behind us, our monstrous stone friend bellowed as he smashed his way through the tunnels.

I glanced back once and was sorry I did. The bull was closing fast, the cobra on his forehead spewing fire.

“This way!” Zia cried.

She pulled me down a side corridor. At the far end, what looked like daylight spilled from an open doorway. We sprinted toward it.

I was hoping for an exit. Instead we stumbled into another circular chamber. There was no bull statue in the middle, but spaced around the circumference were four giant stone sarcophagi. The walls were painted with pictures of bovine paradise—cows being fed, cows frolicking in meadows, cows being worshipped by silly little humans. The daylight streamed from a shaft in the domed ceiling, twenty feet above. A beam of sunshine sliced through the dusty air and hit the middle of the floor like a spotlight, but there was no way we could use the shaft to escape. Even if I turned into a falcon, the opening was too narrow, and I wasn’t about to leave Zia alone.

“Dead end,” she said.

“HRUUUFF!” The Apis Bull loomed in the doorway, blocking our exit. His hood ornament cobra hissed.

We backed into the room until we stood in the warm sunlight. It seemed cruel to die here, stuck under thousands of tons of rock but able to see the sun.

The bull pawed the floor. He took a step forward, then hesitated, as if the sunlight bothered him.

“Maybe I can talk to him,” I said. “He’s connected to Osiris, right?”

Zia looked at me like I was crazy—which I was—but I didn’t have any better ideas.

She readied her wand and staff. “I’ll cover you.”

I stepped toward the monster and showed my empty hands. “Nice bull. I’m Carter Kane. Osiris is my dad, sort of. How about we call a truce and—”

The cobra spewed fire in my face.

It would’ve turned me into an extra-crispy Carter, but Zia shouted a command. As I stumbled backward, her staff absorbed the blast, sucking in the flames like a vacuum cleaner. She sliced the air with her wand, and a shimmering red wall of fire erupted around the Apis Bull. Unfortunately, the bull just stood there and glared at us, completely unharmed.

Zia cursed. “We seem to be at an impasse with the fire magic.”

The bull lowered its horns.

My war god instincts took control. “Take cover!”

Zia dove one way. I dove the other. The bull’s sun disk glowed and hummed, then shot a golden beam of heat right where we’d been standing. I barely made it behind a sarcophagus. My clothes were steaming. The bottoms of my shoes were melted. Where the beam had hit, the floor was blackened and bubbling, as if the rock had reached boiling point.

“Cows with laser beams?” I protested. “That’s completely unfair!”

“Carter!” Zia called from across the room. “You okay?”

“We’ll have to split up!” I shouted back. “I’ll distract it. You get out of here!”

“What? No!”

The bull turned toward the sound of her voice. I had to move fast.

My avatar wouldn’t be much good in an enclosed space like this, but I needed the war god’s strength and speed. I summoned the power of Horus. Blue light flickered around me. My skin felt as thick as steel, my muscles as powerful as hydraulic pistons. I rose to my feet, smashed my fists into the sarcophagus, and reduced it to a pile of stone and mummy dust. I picked up a chunk of the lid—a three-hundred-pound stone shield—and charged at the bull.

We smashed into each other. Somehow I held my ground, but it took every bit of my magical strength. The bull bellowed and pushed. The cobra spit flames that rolled over the top of my shield.

“Zia, get out of here!” I shouted.

“I’m not leaving you!”

“You’ve got to! I can’t—”

The hairs on my arms stood up even before I heard the humming sound. My slab of stone disintegrated in a flash of gold, and I flew backward, crashing into another sarcophagus.

My vision blurred. I heard Zia shout. When my eyes could focus again, I saw her standing in the middle of the room, wrapped in sunlight, chanting a spell I didn’t recognize. She’d gotten the bull’s attention, which had probably saved my life. But before I could cry out, the bull aimed his sun disk and shot a superheated laser beam straight at Zia.

“No!” I screamed.

The light blinded me. The heat sucked all the oxygen out of my lungs. There was no way Zia could have survived that hit.

But when the golden light faded, Zia was still there. Around her burned a massive shield shaped like…like a scarab shell. Her eyes glowed with orange fire. Flames swirled around her. She looked at the bull and spoke a deep rasping voice that definitely wasn’t hers: “I am Khepri, the rising sun. I will not be denied.”

Only later did I realize that she’d spoken in Ancient Egyptian.

She thrust out her hand. A miniature comet shot toward the Apis Bull and the monster burst into flames, turning and stomping, suddenly panicked. His legs crumbled. He collapsed and broke into a smoking pile of charred rubble.

The room was suddenly quiet. I was afraid to move. Zia was still wreathed in fire, and it seemed to be getting hotter—burning yellow, then white. She stood as if in a trance. The golden scarab around her neck was definitely smoking now.

“Zia!” My head throbbed, but I managed to rise.

She turned toward me and hefted another fireball.

“Zia, no!” I said. “It’s me. Carter.”

She hesitated. “Carter…?” Her expression turned to confusion, then fear. The orange flames faded in her eyes, and she collapsed in the pool of sunlight.

I ran to her. I tried to gather her in my arms, but her skin was too hot to touch. The golden scarab had left a nasty burn on her throat.

“Water,” I muttered to myself. “I need water.”

I’d never been good at divine words, but I shouted: “Maw!”

The symbol blazed above us:

Several cubic gallons of water materialized in midair and crashed down on us. Zia’s face steamed. She coughed and spluttered, but she didn’t wake. Her fever still felt dangerously high.

“I’ll get you out of here,” I promised, lifting her in my arms.

I didn’t need the strength of Horus. I had so much adrenaline coursing through my body, I didn’t feel any of my own injuries. I ran right by Setne when he passed me in the hall.

“Hey, pal!” He turned and jogged along next to me, waving a thick papyrus scroll. “Good job! I got the Book of Thoth!”

“You almost killed Zia!” I snapped. “Get us out of here—NOW!”

“Okay, okay,” Setne said. “Calm down.”

“I’m taking you back to my dad’s courtroom,” I growled. “I’m going to personally stuff you down Ammit’s mouth, like a branch into a wood chipper.”

“Whoa, big man.” Setne led me up a sloping passage back to the electrical lighting of the excavated tunnels. “How about we get you out of here first, huh? Remember, you still need me to decipher this book and find the serpent’s shadow. Then we’ll see about the wood chipper, okay?”

“She can’t die,” I insisted.

“Right, I got that.” Setne led me through more tunnels, picking up speed. Zia seemed to weigh nothing. My headache had disappeared. Finally we burst into the sunlight and ran for the Egyptian Queen.

I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking straight.

When we got back on board, Bloodstained Blade reported on the ship’s repairs, but I barely heard him. I plowed right past him and carried Zia inside to the nearest cabin. I set her on the bed and rummaged through my pack for medical supplies—a water bottle, some magic salve Jaz had given me, a few written charms. I was no rekhet like Jaz. My healing powers consisted mostly of bandages and aspirin, but I began to work.

“Come on,” I mumbled. “Come on, Zia. You’re going to be fine.”

She was so warm, her drenched clothes had almost dried. Her eyes were rolled back in her head. She started muttering, and I could’ve sworn she said, “Dung balls. Time to roll the dung balls.”


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