The Serpent's Shadow / Page 4

Page 4


“Sadie, it’s all right.” Walt’s voice sounded deeper and more confident, as if he were older in the Duat. “Speak your spell. Hurry.”

The criosphinx flexed its jaws. The gold chains groaned. The other criosphinx had backed Carter against a wall. Felix was on his knees, his purple aura failing in a swirl of dark spirits. Alyssa was losing her battle against the crumbling room as chunks of the ceiling fell around her. The Anubis statue grabbed Khufu’s tail and held him upside down while the baboon howled and wrapped his arms around the gold cabinet.

Now or never: I had to restore order.

I channeled the power of Isis, drawing so deeply on my own magic reserves, I could feel my soul start to burn. I forced myself to focus, and I spoke the most powerful of all divine words: “Ma’at.”

The hieroglyph burned in front of me—small and bright like a miniature sun:

“Good!” Walt said. “Keep at it!” Somehow he’d managed to pull in the chains and grab the sphinx’s snout. While the creature bore down on him with all its force, Walt’s strange gray aura was spreading across the monster’s body like an infection. The criosphinx hissed and writhed. I caught a whiff of decay like the air from a tomb—so strong that I almost lost my concentration.

“Sadie,” Walt urged, “maintain the spell!”

I focused on the hieroglyph. I channeled all my energy into that symbol for order and creation. The word shone brighter. The coils of the serpent burned away like fog in sunlight. The two criosphinxes crumbled to dust. The canopic jars fell and shattered. The Anubis statue dropped Khufu on his head. The army of shabti froze around Alyssa, and her earth magic spread through the room, sealing cracks and shoring up walls.

I felt Apophis retreating deeper into the Duat, hissing in anger.

Then I promptly collapsed.

“I told you she could do it,” said a kindly voice.

My mother’s voice…but of course that was impossible. She was dead, which meant I spoke with her only occasionally, and only in the Underworld.

My vision returned, hazy and dim. Two women hovered over me. One was my mum—her blond hair clipped back, her deep blue eyes sparkling with pride. She was transparent, as ghosts tend to be; but her voice was warm and very much alive. “It isn’t the end yet, Sadie. You must carry on.”

Next to her stood Isis in her white silky gown, her wings of rainbow light flickering behind her. Her hair was glossy black, woven with strands of diamonds. Her face was as beautiful as my mum’s, but more queenly, less warm.

Don’t misunderstand. I knew from sharing Isis’s thoughts that she cared for me in her own way, but gods are not human. They have trouble thinking of us as more than useful tools or cute pets. To gods, a human life span doesn’t seem much longer than that of the average gerbil.

“I would not have believed it,” Isis said. “The last magician to summon Ma’at was Hatshepsut herself, and even she could only do it while wearing a fake beard.”

I had no idea what that meant. I decided I didn’t want to know.

I tried to move but couldn’t. I felt as if I were floating at the bottom of a bathtub, suspended in warm water, the two women’s faces rippling at me from just above the surface.

“Sadie, listen carefully,” my mother said. “Don’t blame yourself for the deaths. When you make your plan, your father will object. You must convince him. Tell him it’s the only way to save the souls of the dead. Tell him…” Her expression turned grim. “Tell him it’s the only way he’ll see me again. You must succeed, my sweet.”

I wanted to ask what she meant, but I couldn’t seem to speak.

Isis touched my forehead. Her fingers were as cold as snow. “We must not tax her any further. Farewell for now, Sadie. The time rapidly approaches when we must join together again. You are strong. Even stronger than your mother. Together we will rule the world.”

“You mean, Together we will defeat Apophis,” my mother corrected.

“Of course,” Isis said. “That’s what I meant.”

Their faces blurred together. They spoke in a single voice: “I love you.”

A blizzard swept across my eyes. My surroundings changed, and I was standing in a dark graveyard with Anubis. Not the musty old jackal-headed god as he appeared in Egyptian tomb art, but Anubis as I usually saw him—a teenaged boy with warm brown eyes, tousled black hair, and a face that was ridiculously, annoyingly gorgeous. I mean, please—being a god, he had an unfair advantage. He could look like anything he wanted. Why did he always have to appear in this form that twisted my insides to pretzels?

“Wonderful,” I managed to say. “If you’re here, I must be dead.”

Anubis smiled. “Not dead, though you came close. That was a risky move.”

A burning sensation started in my face and worked its way down my neck. I wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment, anger, or delight at seeing him.

“Where have you been?” I demanded. “Six months, not a word.”

His smile melted. “They wouldn’t let me see you.”

“Who wouldn’t let you?”

“There are rules,” he said. “Even now they’re watching; but you’re close enough to death that I can manage a few moments. I need to tell you: you have the right idea. Look at what isn’t there. It’s the only way you might survive.”

“Right,” I grumbled. “Thanks for not speaking in riddles.”

The warm sensation reached my heart. It began to beat, and suddenly I realized I’d been without a heartbeat since I’d passed out. That probably wasn’t good.

“Sadie, there’s something else.” Anubis’s voice became watery. His image began to fade. “I need to tell you—”

“Tell me in person,” I said. “None of this ‘death vision’ nonsense.”

“I can’t. They won’t let me.”

“You still sound like a little boy. You’re a god, aren’t you? You can bloody well do what you like.”

Anger smoldered in his eyes. Then, to my surprise, he laughed. “I’d forgotten how irritating you are. I’ll try to visit…briefly. We have something to discuss.” He reached out and brushed the side of my face. “You’re waking now. Good-bye, Sadie.”

“Don’t leave.” I grasped his hand and held it against my cheek.

The warmth spread throughout my body. Anubis faded away.

My eyes flew open. “Don’t leave!”

My burned hands were bandaged, and I was gripping a hairy baboon paw. Khufu looked down at me, rather confused. “Agh?”

Oh, fab. I was flirting with a monkey.

I sat up groggily. Carter and our friends gathered around me. The room hadn’t collapsed, but the entire King Tut exhibit was in ruins. I had a feeling we would not be invited to join the Friends of the Dallas Museum anytime soon.

“Wh-what happened?” I stammered. “How long—?”

“You were dead for two minutes,” Carter said, his voice shaky. “I mean, no heartbeat, Sadie. I thought…I was afraid…”

He choked up. Poor boy. He really would have been lost without me.

[Ouch, Carter! Don’t pinch.]

“You summoned Ma’at,” Alyssa said in amazement. “That’s like…impossible.”

I suppose it was rather impressive. Using divine words to create an object like an animal or a chair or a sword—that’s hard enough. Summoning an element like fire or water is even trickier. But summoning a concept, like Order—that’s just not done. At the moment, however, I was in too much pain to appreciate my own amazingness. I felt as if I’d just summoned an anvil and dropped it on my head.

“Lucky try,” I said. “What about the golden cabinet?”

“Agh!” Khufu gestured proudly to the gilded box, which sat nearby, safe and sound.

“Good baboon,” I said. “Extra Cheerios for you tonight.”

Walt frowned. “But the Book of Overcoming Apophis was destroyed. How will a cabinet help us? You said it was some kind of clue…?”

I found it hard to look at Walt without feeling guilty. My heart had been torn between him and Anubis for months now, and it just wasn’t fair of Anubis to pop into my dreams, looking all hot and immortal, when poor Walt was risking his life to protect me and getting weaker by the day. I remembered how he had looked in the Duat, in his ghostly gray mummy linen.…

No. I couldn’t think about that. I forced myself to concentrate on the golden cabinet.

Look at what isn’t there, Anubis had said. Bloody gods and their bloody riddles.

The face in the wall—Uncle Vinnie—had told me the box would give us a hint about how to defeat Apophis, if I was smart enough to understand it.

“I’m not sure what it means yet,” I admitted. “If the Texans let us take it back to Brooklyn House…”

A horrible realization settled over me. There were no more sounds of explosions outside. Just eerie silence.

“The Texans!” I yelped. “What’s happened to them?”

Felix and Alyssa bolted for the exit. Carter and Walt helped me to my feet, and we ran after them.

The guards had all disappeared from their stations. We reached the museum foyer, and I saw columns of white smoke outside the glass walls, rising from the sculpture garden.

“No,” I murmured. “No, no.”

We tore across the street. The well-kept lawn was now a crater as big as an Olympic pool. The bottom was littered with melted metal sculptures and chunks of stone. Tunnels that had once led into the Fifty-first Nome’s headquarters had collapsed like a giant anthill some bully had stepped on. Around the rim of the crater were bits of smoking evening wear, smashed plates of tacos, broken champagne glasses, and the shattered staffs of magicians.

Don’t blame yourself for the deaths, my mother had said.

I moved in a daze to the remains of the patio. Half the concrete slab had cracked and slid into the crater. A charred fiddle lay in the mud next to a gleaming bit of silver.

Carter stood next to me. “We—we should search,” he said. “There might be survivors.”

I swallowed back a sob. I wasn’t sure how, but I sensed the truth with absolute certainty. “There aren’t any.”

The Texas magicians had welcomed us and supported us. JD Grissom had shaken my hand and wished me luck before running off to save his wife. But we’d seen the work of Apophis in other nomes. Carter had warned JD: The serpent’s minions don’t leave any survivors.

I knelt down and picked up the gleaming piece of silver—a half-melted Lone Star belt buckle.

“They’re dead,” I said. “All of them.”


3. We Win a Box Full of Nothing

ON THAT HAPPY NOTE, Sadie hands me the microphone. [Thanks a lot, sis.]

I wish I could tell you that Sadie was wrong about the Fifty-first Nome. I’d love to say we found all the Texas magicians safe and sound. We didn’t. We found nothing except the remnants of a battle: burned ivory wands, a few shattered shabti, scraps of smoldering linen and papyrus. Just like in the attacks on Toronto, Chicago, and Mexico City, the magicians had simply vanished. They’d been vaporized, devoured, or destroyed in some equally horrible way.

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