The Serpent's Shadow / Page 47

Page 47


“We’re running out of gods!” Sadie cried.

Finally we reached the middle of the Chaos storm. Walls of red and gray smoke swirled around us, but the roar died in the center as if we’d stepped into the eye of a hurricane. Above us rose the true head of the serpent—or at least the manifestation that held most of his power.

How did I know this? His skin looked more solid, glistening with golden red scales. His mouth was a pink cavern with fangs. His eyes glowed, and his cobra’s hood spread so wide, it blocked a quarter of the sky.

Before him stood Ra, a shining apparition too bright to look at directly. If I glanced from the corner of my eye, however, I could see Zia at the center of the light. She now wore the clothes of an Egyptian princess—a silky dress of white and gold, a golden necklace and armbands. Even her staff and wand were gilded. Her image danced in the hot vapor, causing the serpent to misjudge her location every time he struck.

Zia shot tracers of red flame toward Apophis—blinding his eyes and burning away patches of his skin—but the damage seemed to heal almost instantly. He was growing stronger and larger. Zia wasn’t so fortunate. If I concentrated, I could sense her life force, her ka, growing weaker. The luminous glow at the center of her chest was becoming smaller and more concentrated, like a flame reduced to a pilot light.

Meanwhile, our feline friend Bast was doing her best to distract her old enemy. Over and over she jumped on the serpent’s back, slashing with her knives and mewling in anger, but Apophis just shook her off, throwing her back into the storm.

Sadie scanned the area with alarm. “Where’s Bes?”

The dwarf god had disappeared. I was beginning to fear the worst when a small grumpy voice near the edge of the storm called, “Some help, maybe?”

I hadn’t paid much attention to the ruins around us. The plains of Giza were littered with big stone blocks, trenches, and old building foundations from previous excavations. Under a nearby car-sized wedge of limestone, the dwarf god’s head was sticking out.

“Bes!” Sadie cried as we ran to his side. “Are you all right?”

He glared up at us. “Do I look all right, kid? I have a ten-ton block of limestone on my chest. Snake-breath over there knocked me flat and dropped this thing on top of me. Most blatant act of dwarf cruelty ever!”

“Can you move it?” I asked.

He gave me a look almost as ugly as his Boo! face. “Gee, Carter, I didn’t think of that. It’s so comfortable under here. Of course I can’t move it, you dolt! Blocks of stone don’t scare easily. Help a dwarf out, huh?”

“Stand back,” I told Sadie.

I summoned the strength of Horus. Blue light encased my hand, and I karate-chopped the stone. It cracked right down the middle, falling on either side of the dwarf god.

It would’ve been more impressive if I hadn’t yelped like a puppy and cradled my fingers. Apparently I needed to work on the karate trick more, because my hand felt like it was boiling in oil. I was pretty sure I’d broken some bones in there.

“All right?” Sadie asked.

“Yeah,” I lied.

Bes climbed to his feet. “Thanks, kid. Now it’s time for some snake-bashing.”

We ran to help Zia, which turned out to be a bad idea. She glanced over and saw us—and, just for a moment, she was distracted.

“Carter, thank the gods!” She spoke in two-part harmony—partly her, partly the deep commanding voice of Ra, which was a little hard to take. Call me close-minded, but hearing my girlfriend talk like a five-thousand-year-old male god was not on my top ten list of Things I Find Attractive. Still, I was so glad to see her, I almost didn’t care.

She lobbed another fireball down the throat of Apophis. “You’re just in time. Our snaky friend is getting stro—”

“Look out!” Sadie screamed.

This time, Apophis wasn’t fazed by the fire. He struck immediately—and he didn’t miss. His mouth hit like a wrecking ball.

When Apophis rose again, Zia was gone. There was a crater in the sand where she’d been standing, and a human-sized lump illuminated the snake’s gullet from the inside, glowing as it traveled down his throat.

Sadie tells me that I went a little insane. Honestly, I don’t remember. The next thing I can recall, my voice was raw from screaming, and I was staggering away from Apophis, my magic almost exhausted, my broken hand throbbing, my crook and flail smoking with red-gray ooze—the blood of Chaos.

Apophis had three gashes in his neck that weren’t closing. Otherwise, he looked fine. It’s hard to tell if a snake has an expression, but I was pretty sure he was gloating.

“As it was foretold!” He spoke aloud, and the earth shook. Cracks spread across the desert as if it had suddenly become thin ice. The sky turned black, lit only by stars and streaks of red lightning. The temperature began to drop. “You cannot cheat destiny, Carter Kane! I have swallowed Ra. Now the end of the world is at hand!”

Sadie fell to her knees and sobbed. Despair swept over me, worse than the cold. I felt Horus’s power fail, and I was just Carter Kane again. All around us, in different levels of the Duat, gods and magicians stopped battling as terror spread through their ranks.

With catlike agility, Bast landed next to me, breathing hard. Her hair was puffed out so much, it looked like a sea urchin covered with sand. Her bodysuit was ripped and torn. She had a nasty bruise on the left side of her jaw. Her knives were steaming and pitted with corrosion from the serpent’s poison.

“No,” she said firmly. “No, no, no. What’s our plan?”

“Plan?” I tried to make sense of her question. Zia was gone. We’d failed. The ancient prophecy had come true, and I would die knowing that I was a complete and utter loser. I looked at Sadie, but she seemed just as shell-shocked.

“Wake up, kid!” Bes waddled up to me and kicked me in the kneecap, which was as high as he could reach.

“Ow!” I protested.

“You’re the leader now,” he growled. “So you’d better have a plan. I didn’t come back to life to get killed again!”

Apophis hissed. The ground continued to crack, shaking the foundations of the pyramids. The air was so cold, my breath turned to mist.

“Too late, poor children.” The serpent’s red eyes stared down at me. “Ma’at has been dying for centuries. Your world was only a temporary speck in the Sea of Chaos. All that you built meant nothing. I am your past and your future! Bow to me now, Carter Kane, and perhaps I will spare you and your sister. I will enjoy having survivors to witness my triumph. Is that not preferable to death?”

My limbs felt heavy. Somewhere inside, I was a scared little boy who wanted to live. I’d lost my parents. I’d been asked to fight a war that was way too big for me. Why should I keep going when it was hopeless? And if I could save Sadie…

Then I focused on the serpent’s throat. The glow of the swallowed sun god sank lower and lower into Apophis’s gullet. Zia had given her life to protect us.

Never fear, she’d said. I will hold Apophis until you come.

Anger cleared my thoughts. Apophis was trying to sway me, the way he’d corrupted Vlad Menshikov, Kwai, Sarah Jacobi, and even Set, the god of evil himself. Apophis was the master of eroding reason and order, of destroying everything that was good and admirable. He was selfish, and he wanted me to be selfish as well.

I remembered the white obelisk rising from the Sea of Chaos. It had stood for thousands of years, against all odds. It represented courage and civilization, making the right choice instead of the easy choice. If I failed today, that obelisk would finally crumble. Everything humans had built since the first pyramids of Egypt would be for nothing.

“Sadie,” I said, “you have the shadow?”

She got to her feet, her shocked expression turning to rage. “I thought you’d never ask.”

From her bag she produced the granite figurine, now midnight black with the shadow of Apophis.

The serpent recoiled, hissing. I thought I detected fear in his eyes.

“Don’t be foolish,” Apophis snarled. “That ridiculous spell will not work—not now, when I am triumphant! Besides, you are too weak. You would never survive the attempt.”

Like all effective threats, it had the ring of truth. My magic reserves were nearly tapped out. Sadie’s couldn’t be much better. Even if the gods helped, we would likely burn ourselves up casting an execration.

“Ready?” Sadie asked me, her tone defiant.

“Attempt it,” Apophis warned, “and I will raise your souls from Chaos again and again, just so I can kill you slowly. I will do the same for your father and mother. You will know an eternity of pain.”

I felt like I’d swallowed one of Ra’s fireballs. My fists clenched around the crook and flail, despite the throbbing pain in my hand. The power of Horus surged back into me—and once again we were in absolute agreement. I was his Eye. I was the Avenger.

“Mistake,” I told the serpent. “You should never threaten my family.”

I threw the crook and flail. They smashed into Apophis’s face and erupted in a column of fire like a nuclear blast.

The serpent howled in pain, engulfed in flames and smoke; but I suspected I’d only bought us a few seconds.

“Sadie,” I said, “are you ready?”

She nodded and offered me the figurine. Together, we held it and prepared for what might be the last spell of our lives. There was no need to consult a scroll. We’d been practicing for this execration for months. We both knew the words by heart. The only question was whether the shadow would make the difference. Once we started, there would be no stopping. And whether we failed or succeeded, we would probably burn up.

“Bes and Bast,” I said, “can you two keep Apophis away from us?”

Bast smiled and hefted her knives. “Protect my kittens? You don’t even need to ask.” She glanced at Bes. “And in case we die, I’m sorry about all the times I toyed with your emotions. You deserved better.”

Bes snorted. “That’s okay. I finally came to my senses and found the right girl. Besides, you’re a cat. It’s your nature to think you’re the center of the universe.”

She stared at him blankly. “But I am the center of the universe.”

Bes laughed. “Good luck, kids. Time to bring on the ugly.”

“DEATH!” Apophis screamed, emerging from the column of fire with his eyes blazing.

Bast and Bes—the two greatest friends and protectors we’d ever had—charged to meet Apophis.

Sadie and I began the spell.


20. I Take a Chair


Doing one right requires unbroken concentration, correct pronunciation, and perfect timing. Otherwise you’re liable to destroy yourself and everyone within ten feet, or turn yourself into some form of marsupial.

Trying to cast a spell with someone else—that’s doubly hard.

Sure, Sadie and I had studied the words, but it’s not like we could actually do the execration in advance. With a spell like that, you only get one shot.

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