The Serpent's Shadow / Page 6

Page 6


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As Sadie and I came down the stairs, the guys on the couch got to their feet.

“How did it go?” Julian asked. “Walt just came through, but he wouldn’t say—”

“Our team is safe,” I said. “The Fifty-first Nome…not so lucky.”

Julian winced. He knew better than to ask for details in front of the little kids. “Did you find anything helpful?”

“We’re not sure yet,” I admitted.

I wanted to leave it at that, but our youngest ankle-biter, Shelby, toddled over to show me her crayon masterpiece. “I kill a snake,” she announced. “Kill, kill, kill. Bad snake!”

She’d drawn a serpent with a bunch of knives sticking out of its back and X’s in its eyes. If Shelby had made that picture at school, it probably would’ve earned her a trip to the guidance counselor; but here even the littlest ones understood something serious was happening.

She gave me a toothy grin, shaking her crayon like a spear. I stepped back. Shelby might’ve been a kindergartner, but she was already an excellent magician. Her crayons sometimes morphed into weapons, and the things she drew tended to peel off the page—like the red, white, and blue unicorn she had summoned for the Fourth of July.

“Awesome picture, Shelby.” I felt like my heart was being wrapped tight in mummy linen. Like all the littlest kids, Shelby was here with her parents’ consent. The parents understood that the fate of the world was at stake. They knew Brooklyn House was the best and safest place for Shelby to master her powers. Still, what kind of childhood was this for her, channeling magic that would destroy most adults, learning about monsters that would give anybody nightmares?

Julian ruffled Shelby’s hair. “Come on, sweetie. Draw me another picture, okay?”

Shelby said, “Kill?”

Julian steered her away. Sadie, Bast, and I headed to the library.

The heavy oaken doors opened to a staircase that descended into a huge cylindrical room like a well. Painted on the domed ceiling was Nut, the sky goddess, with silver constellations glittering on her dark blue body. The floor was a mosaic of her husband, Geb, the earth god, his body covered with rivers, hills, and deserts.

Even though it was late, our self-appointed librarian, Cleo, still had her four shabti statues at work. The clay men rushed around, dusting shelves, rearranging scrolls, and sorting books in the honeycombed compartments along the walls. Cleo herself sat at the worktable, jotting notes on a papyrus scroll while she talked to Khufu, who squatted on the table in front of her, patting our new antique cabinet and grunting in Baboon, like: Hey, Cleo, wanna buy a gold box?

Cleo wasn’t much in the bravery department, but she had an incredible memory. She could speak six languages, including English, her native Portuguese (she was Brazilian), Ancient Egyptian, and a few words of Baboon. She’d taken it upon herself to create a master index to all our scrolls, and had been gathering more scrolls from all over the world to help us find information on Apophis. It was Cleo who’d found the connection between the serpent’s recent attacks and the scrolls written by the legendary magician Setne.

She was a great help, though sometimes she got exasperated when she had to make room in her library for our school texts, Internet stations, large artifacts, and Bast’s back issues of Cat Fancy magazine.

When Cleo saw us coming down the stairs, she jumped to her feet. “You’re alive!”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Sadie muttered.

Cleo chewed her lip. “Sorry, I just…I’m glad. Khufu came in alone, so I was worried. He was trying to tell me something about this gold box, but it’s empty. Did you find the Book of Overcoming Apophis?”

“The scroll burned,” I said. “We couldn’t save it.”

Cleo looked like she might scream. “But that was the last copy! How could Apophis destroy something so valuable?”

I wanted to remind Cleo that Apophis was out to destroy the entire world, but I knew she didn’t like to think about that. It made her sick from fear.

Getting outraged about the scroll was more manageable for her. The idea that anybody could destroy a book of any kind made Cleo want to punch Apophis in the face.

One of the shabti jumped onto the table. He tried to stick a scanner label on the golden cabinet, but Cleo shooed the clay man away.

“All of you, back to your places!” She clapped her hands, and the four shabti returned to their pedestals. They reverted to solid clay, though one was still wearing rubber gloves and holding a feather duster, which looked a little odd.

Cleo leaned in and studied the gold box. “There’s nothing inside. Why did you bring it?”

“That’s what Sadie, Bast, and I need to discuss,” I said. “If you don’t mind, Cleo.”

“I don’t mind.” Cleo kept examining the cabinet. Then she realized we were all staring at her. “Oh…you mean privately. Of course.”

She looked a little upset about getting kicked out, but she took Khufu’s hand. “Come on, babuinozinho. We’ll get you a snack.”

“Agh!” Khufu said happily. He adored Cleo, possibly because of her name. For reasons none of us quite understood, Khufu loved things that ended in -O, like avocados, Oreos, and armadillos.

Once Cleo and Khufu were gone, Sadie, Bast, and I gathered around our new acquisition.

The cabinet was shaped like a miniature school locker. The exterior was gold, but it must’ve been a thin layer of foil covering wood, because the whole thing wasn’t very heavy. The sides and top were engraved with hieroglyphs and pictures of the pharaoh and his wife. The front was fitted with latched double doors, which opened to reveal…well, not much of anything. There was a tiny pedestal marked by gold footprints, as if an Ancient Egyptian Barbie doll had once stood there.

Sadie studied the hieroglyphs along the sides of the box. “It’s all about Tut and his queen, wishing them a happy afterlife, blah, blah. There’s a picture of him hunting ducks. Honestly? That was his idea of paradise?”

“I like ducks,” Bast said.

I moved the little doors back and forth on their hinges. “Somehow I don’t think the ducks are important. Whatever was inside here, it’s gone now. Maybe grave robbers took it, or—”

Bast chuckled. “Grave robbers took it. Sure.”

I frowned at her. “What’s so funny?”

She grinned at me, then Sadie, before apparently realizing we didn’t get the joke. “Oh…I see. You actually don’t know what this is. I suppose that makes sense. Not many have survived.”

“Not many what?” I asked.

“Shadow boxes.”

Sadie wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that a sort of school project? Did one for English once. Deadly boring.”

“I wouldn’t know about school projects,” Bast said haughtily. “That sounds suspiciously like work. But this is an actual shadow box—a box to hold a shadow.”

Bast didn’t sound like she was kidding, but it’s hard to tell with cats.

“It’s in there right now,” she insisted. “Can’t you see it? A little shadowy bit of Tut. Hello, shadow Tut!” She wriggled her fingers at the empty box. “That’s why I laughed when you said grave robbers might have stolen it. Ha! That would be a trick.”

I tried to wrap my mind around this idea. “But…I’ve heard Dad lecture on, like, every possible Egyptian artifact. I never once heard him mention a shadow box.”

“As I told you,” Bast said, “not many have survived. Usually the shadow box was buried far away from the rest of the soul. Tut was quite silly to have it placed in his tomb. Perhaps one of the priests put it there against his orders, out of spite.”

I was totally lost now. To my surprise, Sadie was nodding enthusiastically.

“That must’ve been what Anubis meant,” she said. “Pay attention to what’s not there. When I looked into the Duat, I saw darkness inside the box. And Uncle Vinnie said it was a clue to defeating Apophis.”

I made a “Time out” T with my hands. “Back up. Sadie, where did you see Anubis? And since when do we have an uncle named Vinnie?”

She looked a little embarrassed, but she described her encounter with the face in the wall, then the visions she’d had of our mom and Isis and her godly almost-boyfriend Anubis. I knew my sister’s attention wandered a lot, but even I was impressed by how many mystical side trips she’d managed, just walking through a museum.

“The face in the wall could’ve been a trick,” I said.

“Possibly…but I don’t think so. The face said we would need his help, and we had only two days until something happened to him. He told me this box would show us what we needed. Anubis hinted I was on the right track, saving this cabinet. And Mum…” Sadie faltered. “Mum said this was the only way we’d ever see her again. Something is happening to the spirits of the dead.”

Suddenly I felt like I was back in the Duat, wrapped in freezing fog. I stared at the box, but I still didn’t see anything. “How do shadows tie in to Apophis and spirits of the dead?”

I looked at Bast. She dug her fingernails into the table, using it like a scratching post, the way she does when she’s tense. We go through a lot of tables.

“Bast?” Sadie asked gently.

“Apophis and shadows,” Bast mused. “I’d never considered…” She shook her head. “These are really questions you should ask Thoth. He’s much more knowledgeable than I.”

A memory surfaced. My dad had given a lecture at a university somewhere…Munich, maybe? The students had asked him about the Egyptian concept of the soul, which had multiple parts, and my dad mentioned something about shadows.

Like one hand with five fingers, he’d said. One soul with five parts.

I held up my own fingers, trying to remember. “Five parts of the soul…what are they?”

Bast stayed silent. She looked pretty uncomfortable.

“Carter?” Sadie asked. “What does that have to do—?”

“Just humor me,” I said. “The first part is the ba, right? Our personality.”

“Chicken form,” Sadie said.

Trust Sadie to nickname part of your soul after poultry, but I knew what she meant. The ba could leave the body when we dreamed, or it could come back to the earth as a ghost after we died. When it did, it appeared as a large glowing bird with a human head.

“Yeah,” I said. “Chicken form. Then there’s the ka, the life force that leaves the body when it dies. Then there’s the ib, the heart—”

“The record of good and bad deeds,” Sadie agreed. “That’s the bit they weigh on the scales of justice in the afterlife.”

“And fourth…” I hesitated.

“The ren,” Sadie supplied. “Your secret name.”

I was too embarrassed to look at her. Last spring she’d saved my life by speaking my secret name, which had basically given her access to my most private thoughts and darkest emotions. Since then she’d been pretty cool about it, but still…that’s not the kind of leverage you want to give your little sister.


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