The Serpent's Shadow
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Not being much of an artist, Sadie had fashioned a vaguely human figure out of red ceramic flowerpots, held together by magic, string, and duct tape. The face was an upside-down pot with a smiley face drawn in black marker.
“About time.” The pot creature was waiting in my room when Walt and I came in. Its mouth didn’t move, but Sadie’s voice echoed from inside the face pot as if she were trapped within the shabti. That thought made me happy.
“Stop smiling!” she ordered. “I can see you, Carter. Oh…and, uh, hullo, Walt.”
The pot monster made squeaky grinding noises as it stood up straight. One clunky arm rose and tried to fix Sadie’s nonexistent hair. Leave it to Sadie to be self-conscious around boys, even when she’s made out of pots and duct tape.
We traded stories. Sadie told us about the impending attack on the First Nome that was supposed to go down at sunrise on the equinox, and the alliance between Sarah Jacobi’s forces and Apophis. Wonderful news. Just great.
In return, I told Sadie about our visit with Thoth. I shared the visions Apophis had shown me about our mother’s precarious situation in the Duat (which made the pot monster shudder) and the end of the world (which didn’t seem to surprise her at all). I didn’t tell Sadie about Apophis’s offer to spare me if I gave up Ra. I didn’t feel comfortable announcing that with Ra just outside the door, singing songs about cookies. But I told her about the evil ghost Setne, whose trial would start at sunset in the Hall of Judgment.
“Uncle Vinnie,” Sadie said.
“Pardon?” I asked.
“The face that spoke to me at the Dallas Museum,” she said. “It was obviously Setne himself. He warned me that we would need his help to understand the shadow execration spell. He said we’d have to ‘pull some strings’ and free him before sunset tonight. He meant the trial. We’ll have to convince Dad to free him.”
“I did mention that Thoth said he’s a murderous psychopath, right?”
The pot monster made a clucking sound. “Carter, it’ll be fine. Befriending psychopaths is one of our specialties.”
She turned her flowerpot head toward Walt. “You’ll be coming along, I hope?”
Her tone had a hint of reproach, like she was still upset that Walt hadn’t attended the school dance/mass blackout party.
“I’ll be there,” he promised. “I’m fine.”
He shot me a warning look, but I wasn’t going to contradict him. Whatever he and Anubis were plotting, I could wait for him to explain it to Sadie. Jumping in the middle of the whole Sadie-Walt-Anubis drama sounded about as much fun as diving into a food processor.
“Right,” Sadie said. “We’ll meet you two at the Hall of Judgment before sunset tonight. That should give us time to finish up.”
“Finish up?” I asked. “And who is us?”
It’s hard to read expressions on a smiley-face pot, but Sadie’s hesitation told me enough. “You aren’t in the First Nome anymore,” I guessed. “What are you doing?”
“A small errand,” Sadie said. “I’m off to see Bes.”
I frowned. Sadie went to see Bes in his nursing home almost every week, which was fine and all, but why now? “Uh, you do understand we’re in a hurry.”
“It’s necessary,” she insisted. “I’ve got an idea that might help us with our shadow project. Don’t fret. Zia’s with me.”
“Zia?” It was my turn to feel self-conscious. If I were a flowerpot, I would’ve checked my hair. “That’s why Bast is watching Ra today? Why exactly are you and Zia—?”
“Stop worrying,” Sadie chided. “I’ll take good care of her. And no, Carter, she hasn’t been talking about you. I have no idea how she feels about you.”
“What?” I wanted to punch Sadie Junior in her ceramic face. “I didn’t say anything like that!”
“Now, now,” she chided. “I don’t think Zia cares what you wear. It’s not a date. Just please brush your teeth for once.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I said.
“Love you too, brother, dear. Ta!”
The pottery creature crumbled into pieces, leaving a mound of shards and a red clay face smiling up at me.
Walt and I joined Bast outside my room. We leaned on the rail overlooking the Great Room while Ra skipped back and forth on the balcony, singing nursery songs in Ancient Egyptian.
Down below, our initiates were getting ready for the school day. Julian had a breakfast sausage sticking out of his mouth as he rummaged through his backpack. Felix and Sean were arguing over who stole whose math textbook. Little Shelby was chasing the other ankle-biters with a fistful of crayons that shot rainbow-colored sparks.
I’d never had a big family, but living at Brooklyn House, I felt like I had a dozen brothers and sisters. Despite the craziness, I enjoyed it…which made my next decision even harder.
I told Bast about our plan to visit the Hall of Judgment.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
Walt managed a laugh. “Is there a plan you’d like better?”
She tilted her head. “Now that you mention it, no. I don’t like plans. I’m a cat. Still, if half the things I’ve heard about Setne are true—”
“I know,” I said. “But it’s our only shot.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You don’t want me to come along? You’re sure? Maybe I could get Nut or Shu to watch Ra—”
“No,” I said. “Amos is going to need help at the First Nome. He doesn’t have the numbers to fend off an attack from both the rebel magicians and Apophis.”
Bast nodded. “I can’t enter the First Nome, but I can patrol outside. If Apophis shows himself, I will engage him in battle.”
“He’ll be at full strength,” Walt warned. “He’s getting stronger by the hour.”
She lifted her chin defiantly. “I’ve fought him before, Walt Stone. I know him better than anyone. Besides, I owe it to Carter’s family. And to Lord Ra.”
“Kitty!” Ra appeared behind us, patted Bast on the head, and skipped away. “Meow, meow, meow!”
Watching him prance around, I wanted to scream and throw things. We’d risked everything to revive the old sun god, hoping we’d get a divine pharaoh who could stand toe-to-toe with Apophis. Instead we got a wrinkly, bald troll in a loincloth.
Give me Ra, Apophis had urged. I know you hate him.
I tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn’t quite shake that image of an island in the Sea of Chaos—a personal paradise where the people I loved would be safe. I knew it was a lie. Apophis would never deliver on that promise. But I could understand how Sarah Jacobi and Kwai might be tempted.
Besides, Apophis knew how to strike a nerve. I did resent Ra for being so weak. Horus agreed with me.
We don’t need the old fool. The war god’s voice spoke inside my head. I’m not saying you should give him to Apophis, but he is useless. We should put him aside and take the throne of the gods for ourselves.
He made it sound so tempting—such an obvious solution.
But, no. If Apophis wanted me to give up Ra, then Ra must be valuable in some way. The sun god still had a role to play. I just had to figure out what it was.
“Carter?” Bast frowned. “I know you’re worried about me, but your parents saved me from the abyss for a reason. Your mother foresaw that I would make a difference in the final battle. I will fight Apophis to the death if necessary. He won’t get past me.”
I wavered. Bast had already helped us so much. She had almost been destroyed fighting the crocodile god Sobek. She’d enlisted her friend Bes to help us, and then seen him reduced to an empty shell. She’d helped us restore her old master, Ra, to the world, and now she was stuck babysitting him. I didn’t want to ask her to face Apophis again, but she was right. She knew the enemy better than anyone—except maybe Ra, when he was in his right mind.
“All right,” I said. “But Amos will need more help than you can give, Bast. He’ll need magicians.”
Walt frowned. “Who? After the disaster in Dallas, we don’t have many friends left. We could contact São Paulo and Vancouver—they’re still with us—but they won’t be able to spare many people. They’ll be worried about protecting their own nomes.”
I shook my head. “Amos needs magicians who know the path of the gods. He needs us. All of us.”
Walt digested that silently. “You mean, abandon Brooklyn House.”
Below us, the ankle-biters shrieked with joy as Shelby tried to tag them with her sparking crayons. Khufu sat on the fireplace mantel eating Cheerios, watching ten-year-old Tucker bounce a basketball off the statue of Thoth. Jaz was putting a bandage on Alyssa’s forehead. (Probably she’d been attacked by Sadie’s rogue Thermos, which was still on the loose.) In the middle of all this, Cleo was sitting on the sofa, engrossed in a book.
Brooklyn House was the first real home some of them had ever known. We’d promised to keep them safe and teach them to use their powers. Now I was about to send them unprepared into the most dangerous battle of all time.
“Carter,” Bast said, “they’re not ready.”
“They have to be,” I said. “If the First Nome falls, it’s all over. Apophis will attack us in Egypt, at the source of our power. We have to stand together with the Chief Lector.”
“One last battle.” Walt gazed sadly at the Great Room, maybe wondering whether or not he’d die before that battle happened. “Should we break the news to others?”
“Not yet,” I said. “The rebel magicians’ attack on the First Nome won’t happen until tomorrow. Let the kids have one last day at school. Bast, when they come home this afternoon, I want you to lead them to Egypt. Use Freak, use whatever magic you have to. If all goes well in the Underworld, Sadie and I will join you before the attack.”
“If all goes well,” Bast said dryly. “Yes, that happens a lot.”
She glanced over at the sun god, who was trying to eat the doorknob to Sadie’s room. “What about Ra?” she asked. “If Apophis is going to attack in two days…”
“Ra has to keep making his nightly journey,” I said. “That’s part of Ma’at. We can’t mess with it. But on the morning of the equinox, he’ll need to be in Egypt. He’ll have to face Apophis.”
“Like that?” Bast gestured toward the old god. “In his loincloth?”
“I know,” I admitted. “It sounds crazy. But Apophis still thinks Ra is a threat. Maybe facing Apophis in battle will remind Ra who he is. He might rise to the challenge and become…what he used to be.”
Walt and Bast didn’t answer. I could tell from their expressions that they didn’t buy it. Neither did I. Ra was gumming Sadie’s doorknob with intent to kill, but I didn’t think he’d be much good against the Lord of Chaos.