The Serpent's Shadow / Page 32

Page 32


It might’ve been funny—except for the fact that she was dying.

“That’s Khepri talking,” Setne explained. “He’s the divine dung beetle, rolling the sun across the sky.”

I didn’t want to process that—the idea that the girl I liked had been possessed by a dung beetle and was now having dreams about pushing a giant sphere of flaming poo across the sky.

But there was no question: Zia had used the path of the gods. She’d called on Ra—or at least one of his incarnations, Khepri.

Ra had chosen her, the way Horus had chosen me.

Suddenly it made sense that Apophis had destroyed Zia’s village when she was young, and that the old Chief Lector Iskandar had gone to such lengths to train her and then hide her in a magical sleep. If she held the secret to reawakening the sun god…

I dabbed some ointment on her throat. I pressed a cold washcloth to her forehead, but it didn’t seem to help.

I turned to Setne. “Heal her!”

“Oh, um…” He winced. “See, healing magic isn’t really my thing. But at least you’ve got the Book of Thoth! If she dies, it wasn’t for nothing—”

“If she dies,” I warned, “I will…I will…” I couldn’t think of a torture painful enough.

“I see you need some time,” Setne said. “No problem. How about I go tell your captain where we’re heading? We should get back to the Duat, back onto the River of Night as soon as possible. Do I have your permission to give him orders?”

“Fine,” I snapped. “Just get out of my sight.”

I don’t know how much time passed. Zia’s fever seemed to subside. She started breathing more easily and slipped into a gentler sleep. I kissed her forehead and stayed by her side, holding her hand.

I was dimly aware of the ship’s moving. We dropped into a momentary free-fall, then hit water with a shudder and a loud splash. I felt a river rolling under the hull once again, and from the tingling in my gut, I guessed we were back in the Duat.

The door creaked open behind me, but I kept my eyes on Zia.

I waited for Setne to say something—probably to brag about how well he’d done navigating us back to the River of Night—but he stayed silent.

“Well?” I asked.

The sound of splintering wood made me jump.

Setne wasn’t at the door. Instead, Bloodstained Blade loomed over me, his ax head having just split the doorframe. His fists were clenched.

He spoke in an angry, cold hum: “Lord Kane, it’s time to die.”

13. A Friendly Game of Hide-and-Seek (with Bonus Points for Painful Death!)

I SEE. LEAVE OFF WITH THE AX-MURDERING DEMON. Trying to make my part of the story seem boring, eh? Carter, you are such an attention hog.

Well, as you were cruising down the Nile in a lavishly appointed riverboat, Walt and I were traveling in a bit less style.

From the realm of the dead, I ventured another conversation with Isis to negotiate a doorway into the Nile Delta. Isis must have been cross with me (I can’t imagine why) because she deposited Walt and me waist-deep in a swamp, our feet completely stuck in the mud.

“Thanks!” I yelled at the sky.

I tried to move but couldn’t. Clouds of mosquitoes gathered around us. The river was alive with bubbling and splashing noises, which made me think of pointy-toothed tiger fish and the water elementals Carter had once described to me.

“Any ideas?” I asked Walt.

Now that he was back in the mortal world, he seemed to have lost his vitality. He looked…I suppose the phrase would be hollowed out. His clothes fit more loosely. The whites of his eyes were tinted an unhealthy yellow. His shoulders hunched, as if the amulets around his neck weighed him down. Seeing him like this made me want to cry—which is not something I do easily.

“Yeah,” he said, digging through his bag. “I have just the thing.”

He brought out a shabti—a white wax figurine of a crocodile.

“Oh, you didn’t,” I said. “You wonderfully naughty boy.”

Walt smiled. For a moment he almost looked like his old self. “Everyone was abandoning Brooklyn House. I figured it wasn’t right to leave him behind.”

He tossed the figurine in the river and spoke a command word. Philip of Macedonia erupted from the water.

Being surprised by a giant crocodile in the Nile is something you usually want to avoid, but Philip was a welcome sight. He smiled at me with his massive croc teeth, his pink eyes gleaming and his white scaly back floating just above the surface.

Walt and I grabbed hold. In no time, Philip had pulled us free of the muck. Soon we were perched on his back, making our way upriver. I rode in front, straddling Philip’s shoulders. Walt sat behind at Philip’s midsection. Philip was such a roomy crocodile that this left considerable space between Walt and me—possibly more than I would’ve preferred. Nevertheless we had a lovely ride, except for being drenched, caked in mud, and swarmed by mosquitoes.

The landscape was a maze of waterways, grassy islands, reed beds, and muddy shoals. It was impossible to tell where the river ended and the land began. Occasionally in the distance we saw plowed fields or the rooftops of small villages, but mostly we had the river to ourselves. We saw several crocodiles, but they all steered clear of us. They would be quite insane to bother Philip.

Like Carter and Zia, we’d got a late start leaving the Underworld. I was alarmed at how far the sun had already climbed in the sky. The heat turned the air into a soupy haze. My shirt and trousers were soaked through. I wished I’d brought a change of clothes, though it wouldn’t have made much difference, as my pack was damp, too. Also, with Walt around, there was no place to change.

After a while, I got bored with watching the Delta. I turned and sat cross-legged, facing Walt. “If we had some wood, we could start a campfire on Philip’s back.”

Walt laughed. “I don’t think he’d like that. Plus, I’m not sure we want to send up smoke signals.”

“You think we’re being watched?”

His expression turned serious. “If I were Apophis, or even Sarah Jacobi…”

He didn’t need to finish that thought. Any number of villains wanted us dead. Of course they’d be looking for us.

Walt rummaged through his collection of necklaces. I didn’t notice the gentle curves of his mouth at all, or how his shirt clung to his chest in the humid air. No—all business, that’s me.

He chose an amulet shaped like an ibis—Thoth’s sacred animal. Walt whispered to it and threw it into the air. The charm expanded into a beautiful white bird with a long curved beak and black-tipped wings. It circled above us, buffeting my face with wind, then flew off slowly and gracefully over the wetlands. It reminded me of a stork from those old cartoons—the birds who bring babies in bundles. For some ridiculous reason, that thought made me blush.

“You’re sending it to scout ahead?” I guessed.

Walt nodded. “It’ll look for the ruins of Saïs. Hopefully they’re close by.”

Unless Isis sent us to the wrong end of the Delta, I thought.

Isis didn’t reply, which was proof enough she was miffed.

We glided upstream on Crocodile Cruise Line. Normally I wouldn’t have felt uncomfortable having so much face time with Walt, but there was so much to say, and no good way to say it. Tomorrow morning, one way or another, our long fight against Apophis would be over.

Of course I was worried about all of us. I’d left Carter with the sociopathic ghost of Uncle Vinnie. I hadn’t even got up the courage to tell him that Zia occasionally became a fireball-lobbing maniac. I worried about Amos and his struggle with Set. I worried about our young initiates, virtually alone at the First Nome and no doubt terrified. I felt heartbroken for my father, who sat on his Underworld throne grieving for our mother—yet again—and of course I feared for my mother’s spirit, on the verge of destruction somewhere in the Duat.

More than anything, I was concerned about Walt. The rest of us had some chance of surviving, however slim. Even if we prevailed, Walt was doomed. According to Setne, Walt might not even survive our trip to Saïs.

I didn’t need anyone to tell me that. All I had to do was lower my vision into the Duat. A gray sickly aura swirled around Walt, growing weaker and weaker. How long, I wondered, before he turned into the mummified vision I’d seen in Dallas?

Then again, there was the other vision I’d seen at the Hall of Judgment. After talking to the jackal guardian, Walt had turned to me, and just for a moment, I thought he was…

“Anubis wanted to be there,” Walt interrupted my thoughts. “I mean, in the Hall of Judgment—he wanted to be there for you, if that’s what you were wondering about.”

I scowled. “I was wondering about you, Walt Stone. You’re running out of time, and we haven’t had a proper talk about it.”

Even saying that much was difficult.

Walt trailed his feet in the water. He’d set his shoes to dry on Philip’s tail. Boys’ feet are not something I find attractive, especially when they’ve just been removed from mucky trainers. However, Walt’s feet were quite nice. His toes were almost the same color as the swirling silt in the Nile.

(Carter is complaining about my comments on Walt’s feet. Well, pardon me. It was easier to focus on his toes than on the sad look on his face!)

“Tonight at the latest,” he said. “But, Sadie, it’s okay.”

Anger swelled inside me, taking me quite by surprise.

“Stop it!” I snapped. “It’s not anywhere close to okay! Oh, yes, you’ve told me how grateful you are to have known me, and learned magic at Brooklyn House, and helped with the fight against Apophis. All very noble. But it’s not—” My voice broke. “It’s not okay.”

I pounded my fist on Philip’s scaly back, which wasn’t fair to the crocodile. Yelling at Walt wasn’t fair either. But I was tired of tragedy. I wasn’t designed for all this loss and sacrifice and horrible sadness. I wanted to throw my arms around Walt, but there was a wall between us—this knowledge that he was doomed. My feelings for him were so mixed up, I didn’t know whether I was driven by simple attraction, or guilt, or (dare I say it) love—or stubborn determination not to lose someone else I cared about.

“Sadie…” Walt gazed across the marshes. He looked quite helpless, and I suppose I couldn’t blame him. I was being rather impossible. “If I die for something I believe in…that’s okay with me. But death doesn’t have to be the end. I’ve been talking with Anubis, and—”

“Gods of Egypt, not that again!” I said. “Please don’t talk about him. I know exactly what he’s been telling you.”

Walt looked startled. “You do? And…you don’t like the idea?”

“Of course not!” I yelled.

Walt looked absolutely crestfallen.

“Oh, come off it!” I said. “I know Anubis is the guide for the dead. He’s been preparing you for the afterlife. He’s told you that it’ll be right. You’ll die a noble death, get a speedy trial, and go straight into Ancient Egyptian Paradise. Bloody wonderful! You’ll be a ghost like my poor mother. Perhaps it’s not the end of the world for you. If it makes you feel better about your fate, then fine. But I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t need another…another person I can’t be with.”

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