The Serpent's Shadow
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A look of confusion passed over her face. She stopped struggling. Her eyes returned to normal.
She stared at the melted wheelchair, then the smoldering remains of the bouquet on the carpet. “Did I—?”
“Decide those daisies needed to die?” I finished. “Yes, you did.”
She extinguished her fireball, which was lucky, as it was starting to bake my face. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I—I thought I had it under control.…”
“Under control?” I let go of her hand. “You mean to say you’ve been throwing a lot of random fireballs lately?”
She still looked bewildered, her gaze drifting around the lobby. “N-no…maybe. I’ve been having blackouts. I come to, and I don’t remember what I’ve done.”
“Like just now?”
She nodded. “Amos said…at first he thought it might be a side effect of my time in that tomb.”
Ah, the tomb. For months, Zia had been trapped in a watery sarcophagus while her shabti ran about impersonating her. The Chief Lector Iskandar had thought this would protect the real Zia—from Set? From Apophis? We still weren’t sure. At any rate, it didn’t strike me as the most brilliant idea for a supposedly wise two-thousand-year-old magician to have come up with. During her slumbers, Zia had endured horrible nightmares about her village burning and Apophis destroying the world. I suppose that might lead to some nasty post-traumatic stress.
“You said Amos thought that at first,” I noted. “There’s more to the story, then?”
Zia gazed at the melted wheelchair. The light from outside turned her hair the color of rusted iron.
“He was here,” she murmured. “He was here for eons, trapped.”
I took a moment to process that. “You mean Ra.”
“He was miserable and alone,” she said. “He had been forced to abdicate his throne. He left the mortal world and lost the will to live.”
I stamped out a smoldering daisy on the carpet. “I don’t know, Zia. He looked quite happy when we woke him up, singing and grinning and so on.”
“No.” Zia walked toward the windows, as if drawn by the lovely view of brimstone. “His mind is still sleeping. I’ve spent time with him, Sadie. I’ve watched his expressions while he naps. I’ve heard him whimpering and mumbling. That old body is a cage, a prison. The true Ra is trapped inside.”
She was starting to worry me now. Fireballs I could deal with. Incoherent rambling—not so much.
“I suppose it makes sense you’d have sympathy with Ra,” I ventured. “You’re a fire elementalist. He’s a fiery sort of god. You were trapped in that tomb. Ra was trapped in a nursing home. Perhaps that’s what caused your blackout just now. This place reminded you of your own imprisonment.”
That’s right—Sadie Kane, junior psychologist. And why not? I’d spent enough time diagnosing my crazed mates Liz and Emma back in London.
Zia stared out at the burning lake. I had the feeling that my attempt at therapy might not have been so therapeutic.
“Amos tried to help me,” she said. “He knows what I’m going through. He cast a spell on me to focus my mind, but…” She shook her head. “It’s been getting worse. This is the first day in weeks that I haven’t taken care of Ra, and the more time I spend with him, the fuzzier my thoughts get. When I summon fire now, I have trouble controlling it. Even simple spells I’ve done for years—I channel too much power. If that happens during a blackout…”
I understood why she sounded frightened. Magicians have to be careful with spells. If we channel too much power, we might inadvertently exhaust our reserves. Then the spell would tap directly into the magician’s life force—with unpleasant consequences.
You will need to advise her, Isis had told me. She must learn the path quickly.
An uncomfortable thought began to form. I remembered Ra’s delight when he had first met Zia, the way he’d tried to give her his last remaining scarab beetle. He’d babbled on and on about zebras…possibly meaning Zia. And now Zia was starting to empathize with the old god, even trying to burn down the nursing home where he’d been trapped for so long.
That couldn’t be good. But how could I advise her when I had no idea what was happening?
Isis’s warnings rattled around in my head: The path of the gods was the answer for all the Kanes. Zia was struggling. Amos was still tainted by his time with Set.
“Zia…” I hesitated. “You said Amos knows what you’re going through. Is that why he asked Bast to watch Ra today? To give you time away from the sun god?”
I tried to steady my breathing. Then I asked the harder question: “In the war room, Amos said he might have to use other means to fight his enemies. He hasn’t…um, he hasn’t been having trouble with Set?”
Zia wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Sadie, I promised him—”
“Oh, gods of Egypt! He’s calling on Set? Trying to channel his power, after all Set did to him? Please, no.”
She didn’t answer, which was an answer in itself.
“He’ll be overwhelmed!” I cried. “If the rebel magicians find out that the Chief Lector is meddling with the god of evil, just as they suspected—”
“Set isn’t just the god of evil,” Zia reminded me. “He is Ra’s lieutenant. He defended the sun god against Apophis.”
“You think that makes it all better?” I shook my head in disbelief. “And now Amos thinks you’re having trouble with Ra? Does he think Ra is trying to…” I pointed to Zia’s head.
“Sadie, please…” Her voice trailed off in misery.
I suppose it wasn’t fair for me to press her. She seemed even more confused than I was.
Still, I hated the idea of Zia being disoriented so close to our final battle—blacking out, throwing random fireballs, losing control of her own power. Even worse was the possibility that Amos had some sort of link with Set—that he might actually have chosen to let that horrible god back into his head.
The thought tied my gut into tyets—Isis knots.
I imagined my old enemy Michel Desjardins scowling. Ne voyez-vous pas, Sadie Kane? This is what comes from the path of the gods. This is why the magic was forbidden.
I kicked the melted remains of the wheelchair. One bent wheel squeaked and wobbled.
“We’ll have to table that conversation,” I decided. “We’re running out of time. Now…where have all the old folks gone?”
Zia pointed out the window. “There,” she said calmly. “They’re having a beach day.”
We made our way down to the black sand beach by the Lake of Fire. It wouldn’t have been my top vacation spot, but elderly gods were lounging on deck chairs under brightly colored umbrellas. Others snored on beach towels or sat in their wheelchairs and stared at the boiling vista.
One shriveled bird-headed goddess in a one-piece bathing suit was building a sand pyramid. Two old men—I assumed they were fire gods—stood waist-deep in the blazing surf, laughing and splashing lava in each other’s faces.
Tawaret the caretaker beamed when she saw us.
“Sadie!” she called. “You’re early this week! And you’ve brought a friend.”
Normally, I wouldn’t have stood still as an upright grinning female hippo charged toward me for a hug, but I’d got used to Tawaret.
She’d traded her high heels for flip-flops. Otherwise she was dressed in her usual white nurse’s uniform. Her mascara and lipstick were tastefully done, for a hippo, and her luxuriant black hair was pinned under a nurse’s cap. Her ill-fitting blouse opened over an enormous belly—possibly a sign of permanent pregnancy, as she was the goddess of childbirth, or possibly a sign of eating too many cupcakes. I’d never been entirely sure.
She embraced me without crushing me, which I greatly appreciated. Her lilac perfume reminded me of my Gran, and the tinge of sulfur on her clothes reminded me of Gramps.
“Tawaret,” I said, “this is Zia Rashid.”
Tawaret’s smile faded. “Oh…Oh, I see.”
I’d never seen the hippo goddess so uneasy. Did she somehow know that Zia had melted her wheelchair and torched her daisies?
As the silence got awkward, Tawaret recovered her smile. “Sorry, yes. Hello, Zia. It’s just that you look…well, never mind! Are you a friend of Bes’s too?”
“Uh, not really,” Zia admitted. “I mean, I suppose, but—”
“We’re here on a mission,” I said. “Things in the upper world have gone a bit wonky.”
I told Tawaret about the rebel magicians, Apophis’s plans for attack, and our mad scheme to find the serpent’s shadow and stomp it to death.
Tawaret mashed her hippoish hands together. “Oh, dear. Doomsday tomorrow? Bingo night was supposed to be Friday. My poor darlings will be so disappointed.…”
She glanced down the beach at her senile charges, some of whom were drooling in their sleep or eating black sand or trying to talk to the lava.
Tawaret sighed. “I suppose it would be kinder not to tell them. They’ve been here for eons, forgotten by the mortal world. Now they have to perish along with everyone else. They don’t deserve such a fate.”
I wanted to remind her that no one deserved such a fate—not my friends, not my family, and certainly not a brilliant young woman named Sadie Kane, who had her whole life ahead of her. But Tawaret was so kindhearted, I didn’t want to sound selfish. She didn’t seem concerned for herself at all, just the fading gods she cared for.
“We’re not giving up yet,” I promised.
“But this plan of yours!” Tawaret shuddered, causing a tsunami of jiggling hippo flesh. “It’s impossible!”
“Like reviving the sun god?” I asked.
She conceded that with a shrug. “Very well, dear. I’ll admit you’ve done the impossible before. Nevertheless…” She glanced at Zia, as if my friend’s presence still made her nervous. “Well, I’m sure you know what you’re doing. How can I help?”
“May we see Bes?” I asked.
“Of course…but I’m afraid he hasn’t changed.”
She led us down the beach. The past few months I’d visited Bes at least once a week, so I knew many of the elderly gods by sight. I spotted Heket the frog goddess perched atop a beach umbrella as if it were a lily pad. Her tongue shot out to catch something from the air. Did they have flies in the Duat?
Farther on, I saw the goose god Gengen-Wer, whose name—I kid you not—meant the Great Honker. The first time Tawaret told me that, I almost spewed tea. His Supreme Honkiness was waddling along the beach, squawking at the other gods and startling them out of their sleep.
Yet every time I visited, the crowd changed. Some gods disappeared. Others popped up—gods of cities that no longer existed; gods who had only been worshipped for a few centuries before being replaced by others; gods so old, they’d forgot their own names. Most civilizations left behind pottery shards or monuments or literature. Egypt was so old, it had left behind a landfill’s worth of deities.