The Serpent's Shadow / Page 41

Page 41


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“Zia?” I said. “Your powers from Khepri are still working. Can you get us out of here?”

She clutched her scarab amulet. “I don’t think so. All Khepri’s energy is being spent shielding us from Chaos. He can’t do any more.”

I considered running back to the white obelisk. Maybe we could use it to open a portal. But I quickly dismissed the idea. The demons would be on us before we ever got there.

“We’re not going to get out of this,” I decided. “Can we cast the execration on Apophis right now?”

Zia and Sadie spoke in unison: “No.”

I knew they were right. We had to stand face-to-face with Apophis for the spell to work. But I couldn’t believe we’d come all this way, just to be stopped now.

“At least we can go out fighting.” I unhooked the crook and flail from my belt.

Sadie and Zia readied their staffs and wands.

Then, at the other end of the field, a wave of confusion spread through the demons’ ranks. They slowly began turning away from us, running in different directions. Behind the demon army, fireballs lit the sky. Plumes of smoke rose from newly opened craters in the ground. A battle seemed to be breaking out at the wrong end of the field.

“Who are they fighting?” I asked. “Each other?”

“No.” Zia pointed, a smile spreading across her face. “Look.”

It was hard to see through the hazy air, but a wedge of combatants was slowly forcing its way through the back ranks of the demons. Their numbers were smaller—maybe a hundred or so—but the demons gave way to them. Those that didn’t were cut down, trampled, or blown up like fireworks.

“It’s the gods!” Sadie said.

“That’s impossible,” I said. “The gods wouldn’t march into the Duat to rescue us!”

“Not the big gods, no.” She grinned at me. “But the old forgotten ones from the House of Rest would! Anubis said he was calling for reinforcements.”

“Anubis?” I was really confused now. When had she seen Anubis?

“There!” Sadie shouted. “Oh—!”

She seemed to forget how to speak. She just waved her finger toward our new friends. The battle lines opened momentarily. A sleek black car barreled into combat. The driver had to be a maniac. He plowed down demons, going out of his way to hit them. He jumped over fiery crevices and spun in circles, flashing his lights and honking his horn. Then he came straight at us, until the front ranks of demons started to scatter. Only a few brave winged demons had the nerve to chase him.

As the car got closer, I could see it was a Mercedes limo. It climbed the hill, trailed by bat demons, and screeched to a stop in a cloud of red dust. The driver’s door opened, and a small hairy man in a blue Speedo stepped out.

I had never been so happy to see someone so ugly.

Bes, in all his horrible warty glory, climbed onto the roof of his car. He turned to face the bat demons. His eyes bulged. His mouth opened impossibly wide. His hair stood out like porcupine quills, and he yelled, “BOO!”

The winged demons screamed and disintegrated.

“Bes!” Sadie ran toward him.

The dwarf god broke into a grin. He slid down to the hood, so he was almost Sadie’s height when she hugged him.

“There’s my girl!” he said. “And, Carter, get your sorry hide over here!”

He hugged me, too. I didn’t even mind him rubbing his knuckles on my head.

“And, Zia Rashid!” Bes cried generously. “I got a hug for you too—”

“I’m good,” Zia said, stepping back. “Thanks.”

Bes bellowed with laughter. “You’re right. Time for warm and fuzzy later. We gotta get you guys out of here!”

“The—the shadow spell?” Sadie stammered. “It actually worked?”

“Of course it worked, you crazy kid!” Bes thumped his hairy chest, and suddenly he was wearing a chauffeur’s uniform. “Now, get in the car!”

I turned to grab Setne…and my heart nearly stopped. “Oh, holy Horus…” The magician was gone. I scanned the terrain in every direction, hoping he’d just inchwormed away. There was no sign of him.

Zia blasted fire at the spot where he’d been lying. Apparently, the ghost hadn’t merely become invisible, because there was no scream.

“Setne was right there!” Zia protested. “Tied up in the Ribbons of Hathor! How could he just disappear?”

Bes frowned. “Setne, eh? I hate that weasel. Have you got the serpent’s shadow?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but Setne has the Book of Thoth.”

“Can you cast the execration without it?” Bes asked.

Sadie and I exchanged looks.

“Yes,” we both said.

“Then we’ll have to worry about Setne later,” Bes said. “We don’t have much time!”

I guess if you have to travel through the Land of Demons, a limo is the way to go. Unfortunately, Bes’s new sedan was no cleaner than the one we’d left at the bottom of the Mediterranean last spring. I wondered if he pre-ordered them already littered with old Chinese-food containers, stomped-on magazines, and dirty laundry.

Sadie rode shotgun. Zia and I climbed in back. Bes slammed the accelerator and played a game of hit-the-demon.

“Five points if you can hit that bloke with the cleaver head!” Sadie screamed.

Boom! Cleaver-head went flying over the hood.

Sadie applauded. “Ten points if you can hit those two dragonfly things at once.”

Boom, boom! Two very large bugs hit the windshield.

Sadie and Bes laughed like crazy. Me, I was too busy yelling, “Crevice! Look out! Flaming geyser! Go left!”

Call me practical. I wanted to live. I grabbed Zia’s hand and tried to hang on.

As we approached the heart of the battle, I could see the gods pushing back the demons. It looked like the entire Sunny Acres Godly Retirement Community had unleashed their geriatric wrath on the forces of darkness. Tawaret the hippo goddess was in the lead, wearing her nurse’s outfit and high heels, swinging a flaming torch in one hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. She bonked one demon on the head, then injected another in the rump, causing him to pass out immediately.

Two old guys in loincloths were hobbling around, throwing fireballs into the sky and incinerating flying demons. One of the old dudes kept screaming, “My pudding!” for no apparent reason.

Heket the frog goddess leaped around the battlefield, knocking out monsters with her tongue. She seemed to have a special fondness for the demons with insect heads. A few yards away, the senile cat goddess Mekhit was smashing demons with her walker, yelling, “Meow!” and hissing.

“Should we help them?” Zia asked.

Bes chuckled. “They don’t need help. This is the most fun they’ve had in centuries. They have a purpose again! They’re going to cover our retreat while I get you to the river.”

“But we don’t have a ship anymore!” I protested.

Bes raised a furry eyebrow. “You sure about that?” He slowed the Mercedes and rolled down the window. “Hey, sweetie! You okay here?”

Tawaret turned and gave him a huge hippo smile. “We’re fine, honeycakes! Good luck!”

“I’ll be back!” he promised. He blew her a kiss, and I thought Tawaret was going to faint from happiness.

The Mercedes peeled out.

“Honeycakes?” I asked.

“Hey, kid,” Bes growled, “do I criticize your relationships?”

I didn’t have the guts to look at Zia, but she squeezed my hand. Sadie stayed quiet. Maybe she was thinking about Walt.

The Mercedes leaped one last flaming chasm and slammed to a stop on the beach of bones.

I pointed to the wreckage of the Egyptian Queen. “See? No boat.”

“Oh, yeah?” Bes asked. “Then what’s that?”

Upriver, light blazed in the darkness.

Zia inhaled sharply. “Ra,” she said. “The sun boat approaches.”

As the light got closer, I saw she was right. The gold-and-white sail gleamed. Glowing orbs flitted around the deck of a boat. The crocodile-headed god Sobek stood at the bow, knocking aside random river monsters with a big pole. And sitting in a fiery throne in the middle of the sun barque was the old god Ra.

“Halllloooooo!” he yelled across the water. “We have cooooookies!”

Sadie kissed Bes on the cheek. “You’re brilliant!”

“Hey, now,” the dwarf mumbled. “You’re gonna make Tawaret jealous. It just so happened the timing was right. If we’d missed the sun boat, we’d have been out of luck.”

That thought made me shudder.

For millennia, Ra had followed this cycle—sailing into the Duat at sunset, traveling along the River of Night until he emerged into the mortal world again at sunrise. But it was a one-way trip, and the boat kept to a tight schedule. As Ra passed through the various Houses of the Night, their gates closed until the next evening, making it easy for mortal travelers like us to get stranded. Sadie and I had experienced that once before, and it hadn’t been fun.

As the sun boat drifted toward the shore, Bes gave us a lopsided grin. “Ready, kids? I got a feeling things up in the mortal world aren’t going to be pretty.”

That was the first unsurprising thing I’d heard all day.

The glowing lights extended the boat’s gangplank, and we climbed aboard for what might be the last sunrise in history.

17. Brooklyn House Goes to War

I WAS SORRY TO LEAVE THE LAND OF DEMONS.

[Yes, Carter, I’m quite serious.]

After all, I’d had a rather successful visit there. I’d saved Zia and my brother from that horrid ghost Setne. I’d captured the serpent’s shadow. I’d witnessed the Charge of the Old Folks’ Brigade in all its glory, and most of all, I’d been reunited with Bes. Why wouldn’t I have fond memories of the place? I might even take a beach holiday there someday, rent a cabana on the Sea of Chaos. Why not?

The flurry of activity also distracted me from less pleasant thoughts. But once we arrived at the riverbank and I had a few moments to breathe, I started thinking about how I’d learned the spell to rescue Bes’s shadow. My elation turned to despair.

Walt—oh, Walt. What had he done?

I remembered how lifeless and cold he’d been, cradled in my arms amid the mud-brick ruins. Then suddenly he had opened his eyes and gasped.

Look, he’d said to me.

On the surface, I’d seen Walt as I’d always known him. But in the Duat…the boy god Anubis shimmered, his ghost-gray aura sustaining Walt’s life.

Still me, they had said in unison. Their double voice had made my skin tingle.

I’ll meet you at sunrise, they had promised, at the First Nome, if you’re sure you don’t hate me.

Did I hate him? Or was it them? Gods of Egypt, I wasn’t even sure what to call him anymore! I certainly didn’t know how I felt, or if I wanted to see him again.

I tried to put those thoughts aside. We still needed to defeat Apophis. Even with his captured shadow, there was no guarantee we would succeed in casting the spell. I doubted Apophis would stand idly by while we tried to obliterate him from the universe. And it was entirely possible that the execration would require more magic than Carter and I had, combined. If we burned up, my dilemma with Walt would hardly be a problem.


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