The Serpent's Shadow
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Still, it felt good to have a plan of action. That was much better than standing around, dwelling on the hopelessness of our situation.
“Use today to organize,” I told Bast. “Gather up the most valuable scrolls, amulets, weapons—anything we can use to help the First Nome. Let Amos know you’re coming. Walt and I will head to the Underworld and meet Sadie. We’ll rendezvous with you in Cairo.”
Bast pursed her lips. “All right, Carter. But be careful of Setne. However bad you think he is? He’s ten times worse.”
“Hey, we defeated the god of evil,” I reminded her.
Bast shook her head. “Set is a god. He doesn’t change. Even with a god of Chaos, you can pretty much predict how he’ll act. Setne, on the other hand…he has both power and human unpredictability. Don’t trust him. Swear to me.”
“That’s easy,” I said. “I promise.”
Walt folded his arms. “So how are we going to get to the Underworld? Portals are unreliable. We’re leaving Freak here, and the boat is destroyed—”
“I have another boat in mind,” I said, trying to believe it was a good idea. “I’m going to summon an old friend.”
9. Zia Breaks Up a Lava Fight
I’D BECOME QUITE AN EXPERT at visiting the godly nursing home—which was a sad statement on my life.
The first time Carter and I found our way there, we had traveled the River of Night, plunged down a fiery waterfall, and almost died in a lake of lava. Since then, I’d discovered I could simply call on Isis to transport me, as she could open doorways to many locations in the Duat. Honestly, though, dealing with Isis was almost as annoying as swimming through fire.
After my shabti conversation with Carter, I joined Zia on a limestone cliff overlooking the Nile. It was already midday in Egypt. Getting over portal-lag had taken me longer than I’d expected. After changing into more sensible clothes, I’d had a quick lunch and one more strategy talk with Amos deep in the Hall of Ages. Then Zia and I had climbed back to the surface. Now we stood at a ruined shrine to Isis on the river just south of Cairo. It was a good place to summon the goddess, but we didn’t have much time.
Zia still wore her combat outfit—camouflage cargo pants and an olive tank top. Her staff was slung over her back, and her wand hung at her belt. She rummaged through her pack, checking her supplies one last time.
“What did Carter say?” she asked.
[That’s right, brother dear. I stepped out of earshot before I contacted you, so Zia didn’t hear any of those teasing comments. Honestly, I’m not that mean.]
I told her what we’d discussed, but I couldn’t bring myself to share how my mum’s spirit was in danger. I’d known about the problem in general terms since I’d spoken with Anubis, of course, but the knowledge that our mother’s ghost was huddled under a cliff somewhere in the Duat, resisting the pull of the serpent’s shadow—well, that bit of information had lodged in my chest like a bullet. If I tried to touch it, I feared it would go straight to my heart and kill me.
I explained about my villainous ghost friend Uncle Vinnie, and how we intended to solicit his help.
Zia looked appalled. “Setne? As in the Setne? Does Carter realize—?”
“And Thoth suggested this?”
“And you’re actually going along with it?”
She gazed down the Nile. Perhaps she was thinking of her home village, which had stood on the banks of this river until it was destroyed by the forces of Apophis. Perhaps she was imagining her entire homeland crumbling into the Sea of Chaos.
I expected her to tell me that our plan was insane. I thought she might abandon me and go back to the First Nome.
But I suppose she had got used to the Kane family—poor girl. She must’ve known by now that all our plans were insane.
“Fine,” she said. “How do we reach this…nursing home of the gods?”
“Just a mo’.” I closed my eyes and concentrated.
Yoo-hoo, Isis? I thought. Anyone home?
Sadie, the goddess answered immediately.
In my mind she appeared as a regal woman with dark braided hair. Her dress was gossamer white. Her prismatic wings shimmered like sunlight rippling through clear water.
I wanted to smack her.
Well, well, I said. If it isn’t my good friend who decides whom I can and can’t date.
She had the nerve to look surprised. Are you speaking of Anubis?
Right, first try! I should’ve left it at that since I needed Isis’s help. But seeing her floating there all shiny and queenly made me angrier than ever. Where do you get the nerve, eh? Going behind my back, lobbying to keep Anubis away from me. How is that your business?
Surprisingly, Isis kept her temper. Sadie, there are things you don’t understand. There are rules.
Rules? I demanded. The world is about to end, and you’re worried about which boys are socially acceptable for me?
Isis steepled her fingers. The two issues are more connected than you realize. The traditions of Ma’at must be followed, or Chaos wins. Immortals and mortals can only interact in specific, limited ways. Besides, you cannot afford to be distracted. I’m doing you a favor.
A favor! I said. If you want to do me a real favor, we need passage to the Fourth House of the Night—the House of Rest, Sunny Acres, or whatever you want to call it. After that, you can butt out of my private life!
Perhaps that was rude of me, but Isis had stepped over the line. Besides, why should I act proper with a goddess who had previously rented space in my head? Isis should have known me better!
The goddess sighed. Sadie, proximity to the gods is dangerous. It must be regulated with utmost care. You know this. Your uncle is still tainted from his experience with Set. Even your friend Zia is struggling.
What do you mean? I asked.
If you join with me, you’ll understand, Isis promised. Your mind will be clear. It’s past time we united again and combined our strength.
There it was: the sales pitch. Every time I called on Isis, she tried to persuade me to meld with her as we’d done before—mortal and god inhabiting one body, acting with a single will. Each time, I said no.
So, I ventured, proximity to the gods is dangerous, but you’re anxious to join forces with me again. I’m glad you’re looking out for my safety.
Isis narrowed her eyes. Our situation is different, Sadie. You need my strength.
Certainly it was tempting. Having the full power of a goddess at my command was quite a rush. As the Eye of Isis, I would feel confident, unstoppable, completely without fear. One could get addicted to such power—and that was the problem.
Isis could be a good friend, but her agenda wasn’t always best for the mortal world—or for Sadie Kane.
She was driven by her loyalty to her son Horus. She’d do anything to see him on the throne of the gods. She was ambitious, vengeful, power-hungry, and envious of anyone who might have more magic than she did.
She claimed my mind would be clearer if I let her in. What she really meant was that I’d start seeing things her way. It would be harder to separate my thoughts from hers. I might even come to believe she was right by keeping Anubis and me apart. (Horrifying idea.)
Unfortunately, Isis had a point about joining forces. Sooner or later we’d have to. There was no other way I’d have the power to challenge Apophis.
But now wasn’t the time. I wanted to remain Sadie Kane as long as possible—just my own wonderful self without any godly hitchhiker.
Soon, I told Isis. I have things to do first. I need to be sure my decisions are my own. Now, about that doorway to the House of Rest…
Isis was quite good at looking hurt and disapproving at the same time, which must have made her an impossible mother. I almost felt sorry for Horus.
Sadie Kane, she said, you are my favorite mortal, my chosen magician. And still you do not trust me.
I didn’t bother to contradict her. Isis knew how I felt.
The goddess spread her arms in resignation. Very well. But the path of the gods is the only answer. For all the Kanes, and for that one. She nodded in Zia’s direction. You will need to advise her, Sadie. She must learn the path quickly.
What do you mean? I asked again. I really wished she would stop talking in riddles. Gods are so annoying that way.
Zia was a much more experienced magician than I was. I didn’t know how I could advise her. Besides, Zia was a fire elementalist. She tolerated us Kanes, but she had never shown the slightest interest in the path of the gods.
Good luck, Isis said. I will await your call.
The image of the goddess rippled and vanished. When I opened my eyes, a square of darkness the size of a doorway hovered in the air.
“Sadie?” Zia asked. “You were silent for so long, I was getting worried.”
“No need.” I tried for a smile. “Isis just likes to talk. Next stop, the Fourth House of the Night.”
I’ll be honest. I never quite understood the difference between the swirling sand portals that magicians can summon with artifacts and the doors of darkness that gods are able to conjure. Perhaps the gods use a more advanced wireless network. Perhaps they simply have better aim.
Whatever the reason, Isis’s portal worked much more reliably than the one I’d created to get to Cairo. It deposited us right in the lobby of Sunny Acres.
As soon as we stepped through, Zia scanned our surroundings and frowned. “Where is everyone?”
Good question. We’d arrived at the correct godly nursing home—the same potted plants, the same massive lobby with windows looking out on the Lake of Fire, the same rows of limestone columns plastered with tacky posters of smiling seniors and mottos like: These Are Your Golden Centuries!
But the nurses’ station was unattended. IV poles were clustered in one corner like they were having a conference. The sofas were empty. The coffee tables were littered with half-played games of checkers and senet. Ugh, I hate senet.
I stared at an empty wheelchair, wondering where its occupant had gone, when suddenly the chair burst into flames, collapsing in a pile of charred leather and half-melted steel.
I stumbled backward. Behind me, Zia held a ball of white-hot fire in her hand. Her eyes were as wild as a cornered animal’s.
“Are you mad?” I yelled. “What are you—?”
She lobbed her second fireball at the nurses’ station. A vase full of daisies exploded in a shower of flaming petals and pottery shards.
She didn’t seem to hear me. She summoned another fireball and took aim at the sofas.
I should have run for cover. I wasn’t prepared to die saving badly upholstered furniture. Instead, I lunged at her and grabbed her wrist. “Zia, stop it!”
She glared at me with flames in her eyes—and I mean that quite literally. Her irises had become disks of orange fire.
This was terrifying, of course, but I stood my ground. Over the past year I’d got rather used to surprises—what with my cat being a goddess, my brother turning into a falcon, and Felix producing penguins in the fireplace several times a week.
“Zia,” I said firmly. “We can’t burn down the nursing home. What’s got into you?”