The Serpent's Shadow
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[Stop laughing, Carter.]
You might not expect this in the middle of Brooklyn, but our campus was like a park, with acres of green lawns, well-tended trees and hedges, even a small lake with ducks and swans.
The dance was held in the pavilion in front of the administration building. A band played in the gazebo. Lights were strung in the trees. Teacher chaperones walked the perimeter on “bush patrol,” making sure none of the older students sneaked off into the shrubbery.
I tried not to think about it, but the music and crowd reminded me of Dallas the night before—a very different sort of party, which had ended badly. I remembered JD Grissom clasping my hand, wishing me luck before he ran off to save his wife.
Horrible guilt welled inside me. I forced it down. It wouldn’t do the Grissoms any good for me to start crying in the middle of the dance. It certainly wouldn’t help my friends enjoy themselves.
As our group dispersed into the crowd, I turned to Carter, who was fiddling with his tie.
“Right,” I said. “You need to dance.”
Carter looked at me in horror. “What?”
I called over one of my mortal friends, a lovely girl named Lacy. She was a year younger than I, so she looked up to me greatly. (I know, it’s hard not to.) She had cute blond pigtails, a mouthful of braces, and was possibly the only person at the dance more nervous than my brother. She’d seen pictures of Carter before, however, and seemed to find him hot. I didn’t hold that against her. In most ways, she had excellent taste.
“Lacy—Carter,” I introduced them.
“You look like your pictures!” Lacy grinned. The bands of her braces were alternating pink and white to match her dress.
Carter said, “Uh—”
“He doesn’t know how to dance,” I told Lacy. “I’d be ever so grateful if you’d teach him.”
“Sure!” she squealed. She grabbed my brother’s hand and swept him away.
I started to feel better. Perhaps I could have fun tonight, after all.
Then I turned and found myself face-to-face with one of my not-so-favorite mortals—Drew Tanaka, head of the popular girl clique, with her supermodel goon squad in tow.
“Sadie!” Drew threw her arm around me. Her perfume was a mixture of roses and tear gas. “So glad you’re here, sweetie. If I’d known you were coming, you could’ve ridden in the limo with us!”
Her friends made sympathetic “Aww” sounds and grinned to show they were not at all sincere. They were dressed more or less the same, in the latest silky designer bits their parents had no doubt commissioned for them during the last Fashion Week. Drew was the tallest and most glamorous (I use the word as an insult) with awful pink eyeliner and frizzy black curls that were apparently Drew’s own personal crusade to bring back the 1980s perm. She wore a pendant—a glittering platinum and diamond D—possibly her initial, or her grade average.
I gave her a tight smile. “A limo, wow. Thanks for that. But between you, your friends, and your egos, I doubt there would’ve been extra room.”
Drew pouted. “That’s not nice, hon! Where is Walt? Is the poor baby still sick?”
Behind her, some of the girls coughed into their fists, mimicking Walt.
I wanted to pull my staff from the Duat and turn them all into worms for the ducks. I was pretty sure I could manage that, and I doubted anyone would miss them, but I kept my temper.
Lacy had warned me about Drew the first day of school. Apparently the two of them had gone to some summer camp together—blah, blah, I didn’t really listen to the details—and Drew had been just as much of a tyrant there.
That did not, however, mean she could be a tyrant with me.
“Walt’s at home,” I said. “I did tell him you’d be here. Funny, that didn’t seem to motivate him much.”
“What a shame,” Drew sighed. “You know, maybe he’s not really sick. He might just be allergic to you, hon. That does happen. I should go to his place with some chicken soup or something. Where does he live?”
She smiled sweetly. I didn’t know if she actually fancied Walt or if she just pretended because she hated me. Either way, the idea of turning her into an earthworm was becoming more appealing.
Before I could do anything rash, a familiar voice behind me said, “Hello, Sadie.”
The other girls let out a collective gasp. My pulse quickened from “slow walk” to “fifty-meter dash.” I turned and found that—yes, indeed—the god Anubis had crashed our dance.
He had the nerve to look amazing, as usual. He’s so annoying that way. He wore skinny black trousers with black leather boots, and a biker’s jacket over an Arcade Fire T-shirt. His dark hair was naturally disheveled as if he’d just woken up, and I fought the urge to run my fingers through it. His brown eyes glittered with amusement. Either he was happy to see me, or he enjoyed seeing me flustered.
“Oh…my…god,” Drew whimpered. “Who…”
Anubis ignored her (bless him for that) and held out his elbow for me—a sweet old-fashioned gesture. “May I have this dance?”
“I suppose,” I said, as noncommittally as I could.
I looped my arm through his, and we left the Plastic Bags behind us, all of them muttering, “Oh my god! Oh my god!”
No, actually, I wanted to say. He’s my amazingly hot boy god. Find your own.
The uneven paving stones made for a dangerous dance floor. All around us, kids were tripping over each other. Anubis didn’t help matters, as all the girls turned and gawked at him as he led me through the crowd.
I was glad Anubis had my arm. My emotions were so jumbled, I felt dizzy. I was ridiculously happy that he was here. I felt crushingly guilty that poor Walt was at home alone while I strolled arm in arm with Anubis. But I was relieved that Walt and Anubis weren’t both here together. That would’ve been beyond awkward. The relief made me feel guiltier, and so on. Gods of Egypt, I was a mess.
As we reached the middle of the dance floor, the band suddenly switched from a dance number to a love ballad.
“Was that your doing?” I asked Anubis.
He smiled, which wasn’t much of an answer. He put one hand on my hip and clasped my other hand, like a proper gentleman. We swayed together.
I’d heard of dancing on air, but it took me a few steps to realize we were actually levitating—a few millimeters off the ground, not enough for anyone to notice, just enough for us to glide across the stones while others stumbled.
A few meters away, Carter looked quite awkward as Lacy showed him how to slow-dance. [Really, Carter, it isn’t quantum physics.]
I gazed up at Anubis’s warm brown eyes and his exquisite lips. He’d kissed me once—for my birthday, last spring—and I’d never quite got over it. You’d think a god of death would have cold lips, but that wasn’t the case at all.
I tried to clear my head. I knew Anubis must be here for some reason, but it was awfully hard to focus.
“I thought…Um,” I gulped and barely managed not to drool on myself.
Oh, brilliant, Sadie, I thought. Let’s try for a complete sentence, now, shall we?
“I thought you could only appear in places of death,” I said.
Anubis laughed gently. “This is a place of death, Sadie. The Battle of Brooklyn Heights, 1776. Hundreds of American and British troops died right where we’re dancing.”
“How romantic,” I muttered. “So we’re dancing on their graves?”
Anubis shook his head. “Most never received proper burials. That’s why I decided to visit you here. These ghosts could use a night of entertainment, just like your initiates.”
Suddenly, spirits were twirling all around us—luminous apparitions in eighteenth-century clothes. Some wore the red uniforms of British regulars. Others had ragtag militia outfits. They pirouetted with lady ghosts in plain farm dresses or fancy silk. A few of the posh women had piles of curly hair that would have made even Drew jealous. The ghosts seemed to be dancing to a different song. I strained my ears and could faintly hear violins and a cello.
None of the regular mortals seemed to notice the spectral invasion. Even my friends from Brooklyn House were oblivious. I watched as a ghostly couple waltzed straight through Carter and Lacy. As Anubis and I danced, Brooklyn Academy seemed to fade and the ghosts became more real.
One soldier had a musket wound in his chest. A British officer had a tomahawk sticking out of his powdered wig. We danced between worlds, waltzing side by side with smiling, gruesomely slaughtered phantoms. Anubis certainly knew how to show a girl a good time.
“You’re doing it again,” I said. “Taking me out of phase, or whatever you call it.”
“A little,” he admitted. “We need privacy to talk. I promised you I’d visit in person—”
“And you did.”
“—but it’s going to cause trouble. This may be the last time I can see you. There’s been grumbling about our situation.”
I narrowed my eyes. Was the god of the dead blushing?
“Our situation,” I repeated.
The word set my ears buzzing. I tried to keep my voice even. “As far as I’m aware, there is no official ‘us.’ Why would this be the last time we can talk?”
He was definitely blushing now. “Please, just listen. There’s so much I need to tell you. Your brother has the right idea. The shadow of Apophis is your best hope, but only one person can teach you the magic you need. Thoth may guide you somewhat, but I doubt he’ll reveal the secret spells. It’s too dangerous.”
“Hold on, hold on.” I was still reeling from the comment about us. And the idea that this might be the last time I saw Anubis.…That sent my brain cells into panic mode, thousands of tiny Sadies running around in my skull, screaming and waving their arms.
I tried to focus. “You mean Apophis does have a shadow? It could be used to execrate—”
“Please don’t use that word.” Anubis grimaced. “But yes, all intelligent entities have souls, so all of them have shadows, even Apophis. I know this much, being the guide of the dead. I have to make souls my business. Could his shadow be used against him? In theory, yes. But there are many dangers.”
Anubis twirled me through a pair of colonial ghosts. Other students watched us, whispering as we danced, but their voices sounded distant and distorted, as if they were on the far side of a waterfall.
Anubis studied me with a sort of tender regret. “Sadie, I wouldn’t set you on this path if there was another way. I don’t want you to die.”
“I can agree with that,” I said.
“Even talking about this sort of magic is forbidden,” he warned. “But you need to know what you’re dealing with. The sheut is the least understood part of the soul. It’s…how to explain…a soul of last resort, an afterimage of the person’s life force. You’ve heard that the souls of the wicked are destroyed in the Hall of Judgment—”
“When Ammit devours their hearts,” I said.