The Serpent's Shadow / Page 37

Page 37


Toward the bow of the ship, I heard the crank, crank, crank of the gangplank lowering. I glanced over and saw Setne strolling calmly across as the river churned beneath him. He stopped at the edge of the plank and waited as the boat raced toward the black sand beach. He was preparing to jump to safety. And tucked under his arm was a large papyrus scroll—the Book of Thoth.

“Setne!” I screamed.

He turned and waved, smiling pleasantly. “It’ll be fine, Carter! I’ll be right back!”

“Tas!” I yelled.

Instantly the Ribbons of Hathor encased him, scroll and all, and Setne pitched overboard into the water.

I hadn’t planned on that, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. Bloodstained Blade charged, his left foot going clump, BONG!, clump, BONG! I rolled sideways as his ax head cut the floor, but he recovered more quickly than I could. My ribs felt like they’d been dipped in acid. My arm was too weak to lift Ra’s flail. I raised the crook for defense, but I had no idea how to use it.

Bloodstained Blade loomed over me, humming with evil glee. I knew I couldn’t evade another attack. I was about to become two separate halves of Carter Kane.

“We are done!” he bellowed.

Suddenly, he erupted in a column of fire. His body vaporized. His metal ax head dropped, impaling itself in the deck between my feet.

I blinked, wondering if this was some sort of demon trick, but Bloodstained Blade was truly and completely gone. Beside the ax head, all that remained were his polished boots, a slightly melted alarm bell, and some charred goose feathers floating in the air.

A few feet away, Zia leaned against the wheelhouse. Her right hand was wrapped in flames.

“Yes,” Zia muttered to the smoking ax blade. “We’re done.”

She extinguished her fire, then stumbled over and embraced me. I was so relieved I could almost ignore the searing pain in my side.

“You’re okay,” I said, which sounded dumb under the circumstances, but she rewarded me with a smile.

“Fine,” she said. “Had a moment of panic. Woke up with blue energy all around me, but—”

I happened to glance behind her, and my stomach turned inside out.

“Hold on!” I yelled.

The Egyptian Queen rammed into the shore at full speed.

I now understand the whole thing about wearing seat belts.

Hanging on did absolutely no good. The boat ran aground with such force, Zia and I shot into the air like human cannonballs. The hull cracked apart behind us with an almighty ka-blam! The landscape hurtled toward my face. I had half a second to contemplate whether I would die by smacking into the ground or falling into a flaming crevice. Then, from above me, Zia grabbed my arm and hoisted me skyward.

I caught a glimpse of her, grim-faced and determined, holding on to me with one hand and hanging from the talons of a giant vulture with the other. Her amulet. I hadn’t thought about it in months, but Zia had a vulture amulet. She’d somehow managed to activate it, because she’s just awesome that way.

Unfortunately, the vulture wasn’t strong enough to hold two people aloft. It could only slow our fall, so instead of being smashed flat, Zia and I rolled hard against the black sandy soil, tumbling over each other right to the edge of a fiery crevice.

My chest felt like it had been stomped flat. Every muscle in my body ached, and I had double vision. But to my amazement, the sun god’s crook and flail were clasped tightly in my right hand. I hadn’t even realized I still had them.

Zia must’ve been in better shape than me (of course, I’d seen roadkill in better shape than me). She found the strength to drag me away from the fissure and down toward the beach.

“Ouch,” I said.

“Lie still.” She spoke a command word, and her vulture shrank back into a charm. She rummaged through her backpack.

She brought out a small ceramic jar and began rubbing blue paste on the cuts, burns, and bruises that covered my upper body. The pain in my side eased immediately. The wounds disappeared. Zia’s hands were smooth and warm. The magical unguent smelled like blossoming honeysuckle. It wasn’t the worst experience I’d had all day.

She scooped another dollop of salve and looked at the long cut across my stomach. “Um…you should do this part.”

She scraped the salve onto my fingers and let me apply it. The gash mended. I sat up slowly and took care of the glass cuts on my legs. Inside my chest, I swear I could feel my ribs mending. I took a deep breath and was relieved to find it didn’t hurt.

“Thank you,” I said. “What is that stuff?”

“Nefertem’s Balm,” she said.

“It’s a bomb?”

Her laughter made me feel almost as good as the salve. “Healing balm, Carter. It’s made of blue lotus flower, coriander, mandrake, ground malachite, and a few other special ingredients. Very rare, and this is my only jar. So don’t get injured anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I was pleased that my head had stopped spinning. My double vision was returning to normal.

The Egyptian Queen wasn’t in such good shape. The remains of the hull were scattered across the beach—boards and railings, ropes and glass, mixed with the bones that had already been there. The wheelhouse had imploded. Fire curled from the broken windows. The fallen smokestacks bubbled golden smoke into the river.

As we watched, the stern cracked off and slid underwater, dragging the glowing orbs of light with it. Maybe the magical crew was bound to the boat. Maybe they weren’t even alive. But I still felt sorry for them as they disappeared under the murky surface.

“We won’t be going back that way,” I said.

“No,” Zia agreed. “Where are we? What happened to Setne?”

Setne. I’d almost forgotten about that ghostly scumbag. I would’ve been fine with his sinking to the bottom of the river, except that he’d taken the Book of Thoth.

I scanned the beach. To my surprise, I spotted a slightly battered pink mummy about twenty yards down the shore, squirming and struggling through the flotsam, apparently trying to inchworm his way to freedom.

I pointed him out to Zia. “We could leave him like that, but he’s got the Book of Thoth.”

She gave me one of those cruel smiles that made me glad she wasn’t my enemy. “No hurry. He won’t get far. How about a picnic?”

“I like the way you think.”

We spread out our supplies and tried to clean up as best we could. I busted out some bottled water and protein bars—yeah, look at me, the Boy Scout.

We ate and drank and watched our gift-wrapped pink ghost try to crawl away.

“How did we get here, exactly?” Zia asked. Her golden scarab still glittered at her throat. “I remember the serapeum, the Apis Bull, the room with the sunlight. After that, it’s fuzzy.”

I described what had happened as best I could—her magic scarab shield, her suddenly awesome powers from Khepri, the way she’d fried the Apis Bull and almost combusted herself. I explained how I’d gotten her back to the ship, and how Bloodstained Blade had turned psycho.

Zia winced. “You granted Setne permission to give Bloodstained Blade orders?”

“Yeah. Maybe not my best idea.”

“And he brought us here—to the Land of Demons, the most dangerous part of the Duat.”

I’d heard of the Land of Demons, but I didn’t know much about it. At the moment, I didn’t want to learn. I’d already escaped death so many times today, I just wanted to sit here, rest, and talk with Zia—and maybe enjoy watching Setne struggle to get somewhere in his cocoon.

“You, uh, feeling okay?” I asked Zia. “I mean, about the stuff with the sun god…”

She gazed across the pitted landscape of black sand, bones, and fire. Not many people can look good in the light of superheated volcanic gas plumes. Zia managed.

“Carter, I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was frightened.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I was the Eye of Horus. I understand.”

Zia pursed her lips. “Ra is different, though. He’s much older, much more dangerous to channel. And he’s trapped in that old husk of a body. He can’t restart his cycle of rebirth.”

“That’s why he needs you,” I guessed. “He woke up talking about zebras—you. He offered you that scarab when he first met you. He wants you to be his host.”

A crevice spewed fire. The reflection in Zia’s eyes reminded me of how she’d looked when she merged with Khepri—her pupils filled with orange flames.

“When I was entombed in that…that sarcophagus,” Zia said, “I almost lost my mind, Carter. I still have nightmares. And when I tap into Ra’s power, I have the same sense of panic. He feels imprisoned, helpless. Reaching out to him is like…it’s like trying to save somebody who’s drowning. They grab on to you and take you down with them.” Zia shook her head. “Maybe that doesn’t make sense. But his power tries to escape through me, and I can barely control it. Every time I black out, it gets worse.”

“Every time?” I said. “Then you’ve blacked out before?”

She explained what had happened in the House of Rest when she’d tried to destroy the nursing home with her fireballs. Just a minor little detail Sadie forgot to tell me.

“Ra is too powerful,” she said. “I’m too weak to control him. In the catacombs with the Apis Bull, I might’ve killed you.”

“But you didn’t,” I said. “You saved my life—again. I know it’s hard, but you can control the power. Ra needs to break out of his prison. The whole shadow magic idea that Sadie wants to try with Bes? I get the feeling that won’t work with Ra. The sun god needs rebirth. You understand what that’s like. I think that’s why he gave you Khepri, the rising sun.” I pointed to her scarab amulet. “You’re the key to bringing him back.”

Zia took a bite of her protein bar. “This tastes like Styrofoam.”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “Not as good as Macho Nachos. I still owe you that date at the mall food court.”

She laughed weakly. “I wish we could do that right now.”

“Usually girls aren’t so eager to go out with me. Um…not that I’ve ever asked—”

She leaned over and kissed me.

I’d imagined this many times, but I was so unprepared, I didn’t act very cool about it. I dropped my protein bar and breathed in her cinnamon fragrance. When she pulled away, I was gaping like a fish. I said something like “Hum-uh-huh.”

“You are kind, Carter,” she said. “And funny. And despite the fact you were just pushed out a window and hurled from an explosion, you’re even handsome. You’ve also been very patient with me. But I’m afraid. I’ve never been able to hold on to anyone I cared about—my parents, Iskandar.…If I’m too weak to control the power of Ra and I end up hurting you—”

“No,” I said immediately. “No, you won’t, Zia. Ra didn’t choose you because you’re weak. He chose you because you’re strong. And, um…” I looked down at the crook and flail lying at my side. “These just sort of appeared.…I think they showed up for a reason. You should take them.”

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