The Serpent's Shadow / Page 39

Page 39


Zia frowned at Setne. “You’re not affected?”

The ghost magician turned. For once his expression was grim. His color was paler, his clothes and jewelry bleached out. “Let’s just keep moving, huh? I hate this place.”

I froze. Ahead of us stood a cliff I recognized—the same one I’d seen in the vision Apophis had shown me. Except now there were no spirits huddled in its shelter.

“My mother was there,” I said.

Zia seemed to understand. She took my hand. “It might be a different cliff. The landscape is always changing.”

Somehow I knew it was the same place. I had the feeling Apophis had left it intact just to taunt me.

Setne twisted his pinky rings. “The serpent’s shadow feeds on spirits, pal. None of them last long. If your mom was here—”

“She was strong,” I insisted. “A magician, like you. If you can fight it, she could too.”

Setne hesitated. Then he shrugged. “Sure, pal. We’re close now. Better keep going.”

Soon I heard a roar in the distance. The horizon glowed red. We seemed to be moving faster, as if we’d stepped on an automated walkway.

Then we came over the crest of a hill, and I saw our destination.

“There you go,” Setne said. “The Sea of Chaos.”

Before us spread an ocean of mist, fire, or water—it was impossible to tell which. Grayish-red matter churned, boiling and smoking, surging just like my stomach. It stretched as far as I could see—and something told me it had no end.

The ocean’s edge wasn’t so much a beach as a reverse waterfall. Solid ground poured into the sea and disappeared. A house-sized boulder trundled over the hill to our right, slid down the beach, and dissolved in the surf. Chunks of solid ground, trees, buildings, and statues constantly flew over our heads and sailed into the ocean, vaporizing as they touched the waves. Even the demons weren’t immune. A few winged ones strayed over the beach, realized too late that they’d flown too close, and disappeared screaming into the swirling misty soup.

It was pulling us, too. Instead of walking forward, I was instinctively backpedaling now, just to stay in one place. If we got any closer, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Only one thing gave me hope. A few hundred yards to the north, jutting into the waves, was a single solid strip of land like a jetty. At the far end rose a white obelisk like the Washington Monument. The spire glowed with light. I had a feeling it was ancient—even older than the gods. As beautiful as the obelisk was, I couldn’t help thinking of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the River Thames, where my mother had died.

“We can’t go down there,” I said.

Setne laughed. “The Sea of Chaos? That’s where we all came from, pal. Haven’t you heard how Egypt was formed?”

“It rose from this sea,” Zia said, almost in a trance. “Ma’at appeared from Chaos—the first land, creation from destruction.”

“Yep,” Setne said. “The two great forces of the universe. And there they are.”

“That obelisk is…the first land?” I asked.

“Dunno,” Setne said. “I wasn’t there. But it’s the symbol of Ma’at, for sure. Everything else, that’s Apophis’s power, always chewing away at creation, always eating and destroying. You tell me, which force is more powerful?”

I tried to swallow. “Where is Apophis’s shadow?”

Setne chuckled. “Oh, it’s here. But to see it, to catch it, you’ll have to cast the spell from out there—at the edge of the jetty.”

“We’ll never make it,” Zia said. “One false step—”

“Sure,” Setne agreed cheerfully. “It’ll be fun!”


16. Sadie Rides Shotgun (Worst. Idea. Ever.)

HERE’S SOME FREE ADVICE: Don’t walk toward Chaos.

With every step, I felt like I was being dragged into a black hole. Trees, boulders, and demons flew past us and were sucked into the ocean, while lightning flickered through the red-gray mist. Under our feet, chunks of the ground kept cracking and sliding into the tide.

I grasped the crook and flail in one hand and held Zia’s hand with the other. Setne whistled and floated along beside us. He tried to act cool, but from the way his colors were fading and his greased hair pointed toward the ocean like a comet’s tail, I figured he was having a tough time holding his ground.

Once I lost my balance. I almost tumbled into the surf, but Zia pulled me back. A few steps later, a fish-headed demon flew out of nowhere and slammed into me. He grabbed my leg, trying desperately to avoid getting sucked in. Before I could decide whether or not to help him, he lost his grip and disappeared into the sea.

The most horrible thing about the journey? Part of me was tempted to give up and let Chaos draw me in. Why keep struggling? Why not end the pain and the worry? So what, if Carter Kane dissolved into trillions of molecules?

I knew those thoughts weren’t really mine. The voice of Apophis was whispering in my head, tempting me as it had before. I concentrated on the glowing white obelisk—our lighthouse in the storm of Chaos. I didn’t know if that spire was really the first part of creation, or how that myth jibed with the Big Bang, or with God creating the world in seven days, or whatever else people might believe. Maybe the obelisk was just a manifestation of something larger—something my mind couldn’t comprehend. Whatever the case, I knew the obelisk stood for Ma’at, and I had to focus on it. Otherwise I was lost.

We reached the base of the jetty. The rocky path felt reassuringly solid under my feet, but the pull of Chaos was strong on either side. As we inched forward, I remembered photos I’d seen of construction workers building skyscrapers back in the old days, fearlessly walking across girders six hundred feet in the air with no safety harnesses.

I felt like that now, except I wasn’t fearless. The winds buffeted me. The jetty was ten feet wide, but I still felt like I was going to lose my balance and pitch into the waves. I tried not to look down. The stuff of Chaos churned and crashed against the rocks. It smelled like ozone, car exhaust, and formaldehyde mixed together. The fumes alone were almost enough to make me pass out.

“Just a little farther,” Setne said.

His form flickered unevenly. Zia’s green demon disguise blinked in and out. I held up my arm and saw my glamor shimmering in the wind, threatening to collapse. I didn’t mind losing the shocking-purple bottle-opening chimp look, but I hoped the wind would tear away only the illusion, not my actual skin.

Finally, we reached the obelisk. It was carved with tiny hieroglyphs, thousands of them, white on white, so they were almost impossible to read. I spotted the names of gods, enchantments to invoke Ma’at, and some divine words so powerful, they almost blinded me. Around us, the Sea of Chaos heaved. Each time the wind blew, a glowing shield in the shape of a scarab flickered around Zia—the magical carapace of Khepri, sheltering us all. I suspected it was the only thing keeping us from instant death.

“What now?” I asked.

“Read the spell,” Setne said. “You’ll see.”

Zia handed me the scroll. I tried to find the right lines, but I couldn’t see straight. The glyphs blurred together. I should have anticipated this problem. Even when I wasn’t standing next to the Sea of Chaos, I’d never been good at incantations. I wished Sadie were there.

[Yes, Sadie. I actually said that. Don’t gasp so loud.]

“I—I can’t read it,” I admitted.

“Let me help.” Zia traced her finger down the scroll. When she found the hieroglyphs she wanted, she frowned.

“This is a simple summoning spell.” She glared at Setne. “You said the magic was complicated. You said we’d need your help. How could you lie while holding the Feather of Truth?”

“I didn’t lie!” Setne protested. “The magic is complicated for me. I’m a ghost! Some spells—like summoning spells—I can’t cast at all. And you did need my help to find the shadow. You needed the Book of Thoth for that, and you needed me to interpret it. Otherwise, you’d still be shipwrecked at the river.”

I hated to admit it, but I said, “He’s got a point.”

“Sure I do,” Setne said. “Now that you’re here, the rest isn’t so bad. Just force the shadow to show itself, and then I—er—you can capture it.”

Zia and I exchanged a nervous look. I imagined she felt the same way I did. Standing at the edge of creation, facing an endless Sea of Chaos, the last thing I wanted to do was cast a spell that would summon part of Apophis’s soul. It was like shooting off a flare gun, signaling, Hey, big nasty shadow! Here we are! Come and kill us!

I didn’t see that we had much choice, though.

Zia did the honors. It was an easy invocation, the kind a magician might use to summon a shabti, or an enchanted dust mop, or pretty much any minor creature from the Duat.

When Zia finished, a tremor spread in all directions, as if she’d dropped a massive stone into the Sea of Chaos. The disturbance rippled up the beach and over the hills.

“Um…what was that?” I asked.

“Distress signal,” Setne said. “I’m guessing the shadow just called on the forces of Chaos to protect it.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “We’d better hurry, then. Where’s the—? Oh…”

The sheut of Apophis was so large, it took me a moment to understand what I was looking at. The white obelisk seemed to cast a shadow across the sea; but as the shadow darkened, I realized that it wasn’t the silhouette of the obelisk. Rather, the shadow writhed across the surface of the water like the body of a giant snake. The shadow grew until the head of the serpent almost reached the horizon. It lashed across the sea, darting its tongue, and biting at nothing.

My hands shook. My insides felt like I’d just chugged a big glass of Chaos water. The serpent’s shadow was so massive, radiating so much power, that I didn’t see how we could possibly capture it. What had I been thinking?

Only one thing kept me from total panic.

The serpent wasn’t completely free. Its tail seemed to be anchored to the obelisk, as if someone had driven a spike to keep it from escaping.

For a disturbing moment, I felt the serpent’s thoughts. I saw things from Apophis’s point of view. It was trapped by the white obelisk—seething and in pain. It hated the world of mortals and gods, which pinned it down and constricted its freedom. Apophis despised creation the way I might despise a rusty nail driven through my foot, keeping me from walking.

All Apophis wanted was to snuff out the obelisk’s blinding light. He wanted to annihilate the earth, so he could go back to the darkness and swim forever in the unrestricted expanses of Chaos. It took all of my willpower not to feel sorry for the poor little world-destroying, sun-devouring serpent.

“Well,” I said hoarsely. “We found the shadow. Now what do we do with it?”

Setne chuckled. “Oh, I can take it from here. You guys did great. Tas!”

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