She dodged the shabti’s clumsy swing and touched it on the back. A hieroglyph glowed against its clay armor:
Nothing seemed to happen to the warrior, but when it turned to strike, Alyssa just stood there. I was about to yell at her to duck, but the shabti missed her completely. Its blade hit the floor, and the warrior stumbled. It attacked again, swinging half a dozen times, but its blade never got close to Alyssa. Finally the warrior turned in confusion and staggered to the corner of the room, where it banged its head against the wall and shuddered to a stop.
Alyssa grinned at me. “Sa-per,” she explained. “Hieroglyph for Miss.”
“Nice one,” I said.
Meanwhile, Felix found a non-penguin solution. I had no idea what type of magic he might eventually specialize in, but today he went for simple and violent. He grabbed a basketball from the bench, waited for the shabti to take a step, then bounced the ball off its head. His timing was perfect. The shabti lost its balance and fell over, its sword arm cracking off. Felix walked over and stomped on the shabti until it broke to pieces.
He looked at me with satisfaction. “You didn’t say we had to use magic.”
“Fair enough.” I made a mental note never to play basketball with Felix.
Walt was the most interesting to watch. He was a sau, a charm maker, so he tended to fight with whatever magic items he had on hand. I never knew what he was going to do.
As for his path, Walt hadn’t decided which god’s magic to study. He was a good researcher like Thoth, the god of knowledge. He could use scrolls and potions almost as well as Sadie, so he could’ve chosen the path of Isis. He might have even chosen Osiris, because Walt was a natural at bringing inanimate things to life.
Today he was taking his time, fingering his amulets and considering his options. As the shabti approached, Walt retreated. If Walt had a weakness, it was his cautiousness. He liked to think a long time before he acted. In other words, he was Sadie’s exact opposite.
[Don’t punch me, Sadie. It’s true!]
“C’mon, Walt,” Julian called. “Kill it already.”
“You’ve got this,” Alyssa said.
Walt reached for one of his rings. Then he stepped backward and stumbled over the shards of Felix’s broken shabti.
I shouted, “Look out!”
But Walt slipped and fell hard. His shabti opponent rushed forward, slashing down with its sword.
I raced to help, but I was too far away. Walt’s hand was already rising instinctively to block the strike. The enchanted ceramic blade was almost as sharp as real metal. It should’ve hurt Walt pretty badly, but he grabbed it, and the shabti froze. Under Walt’s fingers, the blade turned gray and became webbed with cracks. The gray spread like frost over the entire warrior, and the shabti crumbled into a pile of dust.
Walt looked stunned. He opened his hand, which was perfectly fine.
“That was cool!” Felix said. “What amulet was that?”
Walt gave me a nervous glance, and I knew the answer. It wasn’t an amulet. Walt had no idea how he’d done it.
That would have been enough excitement for one day. Seriously. But the weirdness was just beginning.
Before either of us could say anything, the floor shook. I thought maybe Walt’s magic was spreading into the building, which wouldn’t have been good. Or maybe someone below us was experimenting with exploding donkey curses again.
Alyssa yelped. “Guys…”
She pointed to the statue of Ra jutting out from the wall, ten feet above us. Our godly basketball hoop was crumbling.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. The Ra statue wasn’t turning to dust like the shabti. It was breaking apart, falling to the floor in pieces. Then my stomach clenched. The pieces weren’t stone. The statue was turning into scarab shells.
The last of the statue crumbled away, and the pile of dung beetle husks began to move. Three serpent heads rose from the center.
I don’t mind telling you: I panicked. I thought my vision of Apophis was coming true right then and there. I stumbled back so quickly, I ran into Alyssa. The only reason I didn’t bolt from the room was because four trainees were looking to me for reassurance.
It can’t be Apophis, I told myself.
The snakes emerged, and I realized they weren’t three different animals. It was one massive cobra with three heads. Even weirder, it unfurled a pair of hawklike wings. The thing’s trunk was as thick as my leg. It stood as tall as me, but it wasn’t nearly big enough to be Apophis. Its eyes weren’t glowing red. They were regular creepy green snake eyes.
Still…with all three heads staring right at me, I can’t say I relaxed.
“Carter?” Felix asked uneasily. “Is this part of the lesson?”
The serpent hissed in three-part harmony. Its voice seemed to speak inside my head—and it sounded exactly like the bau in the Brooklyn Museum.
Your last warning, Carter Kane, it said. Give me the scroll.
My heart skipped a beat. The scroll—Sadie had given it to me after breakfast. Stupid me—I should’ve locked it up, put it in one of our secure cubbyholes in the library; but it was still in the bag on my shoulder.
What are you? I asked the snake.
“Carter.” Julian drew his sword. “Do we attack?”
My trainees gave no indication that they’d heard either the snake or me speak.
Alyssa raised her hands like she was ready to catch a dodgeball. Walt positioned himself between the snake and Felix, and Felix leaned sideways to see around him.
Give it to me. The serpent coiled to strike, crushing dead beetle shells under its body. Its wings spread so wide, they could’ve wrapped around us all. Give up your quest, or I will destroy the girl you seek, just as I destroyed her village.
I tried to draw my sword, but my arms wouldn’t move. I felt paralyzed, as if those three sets of eyes had put me into a trance.
Her village, I thought. Zia’s village.
Snakes can’t laugh, but this thing’s hiss sounded amused. You’ll have to make a choice, Carter Kane—the girl or the god. Abandon your foolish quest, or soon you’ll be just another dry husk like Ra’s scarabs.
My anger saved me. I shook off the paralysis and yelled, “Kill it!” just as the serpent opened its mouths, blasting out three columns of flames.
I raised a green shield of magic to deflect the fire. Julian chucked his sword like a throwing-ax. Alyssa gestured with her hand and three stone statues leaped off their pedestals, flying at the serpent. Walt fired a bolt of gray light from his wand. And Felix took off his left shoe and lobbed it at the monster.
Right about then, it sucked to be the serpent. Julian’s sword sliced off one of its heads. Felix’s shoe bounced off another. The blast from Walt’s wand turned the third to dust. Then Alyssa’s statues slammed into it, smashing the monster under a ton of stone.
What was left of the serpent’s body dissolved into sand.
The room was suddenly quiet. My four trainees looked at me. I reached down and picked up one of the scarab shells.
“Carter, that was part of the lesson, right?” Felix asked. “Tell me that was part of the lesson.”
I thought about the serpent’s voice—the same voice as the bau’s in the Brooklyn Museum. I realized why it sounded so familiar. I’d heard it before during the battle at the Red Pyramid.
“Carter?” Felix looked like he was about to cry. He was such a troublemaker, I sometimes forgot he was only nine years old.
“Yes, just a test,” I lied. I looked at Walt, and we came to a silent agreement: We need to talk about this later. But first, I had someone else to question. “Class dismissed.”
I ran to find Amos.
6. A Birdbath Almost Kills Me
AMOS TURNED THE SCARAB SHELL in his fingers. “A three-headed snake, you say.”
I felt guilty dumping this on him. He’d been through so much since Christmas. Then he finally got healed and came home, and boom—a monster invades our practice room. But I didn’t know who else to talk to. I was kind of sorry Sadie wasn’t around.
[All right, Sadie, don’t gloat. I wasn’t that sorry.]
“Yeah,” I said, “with wings and flamethrower breath. Ever seen something like that before?”
Amos put the scarab shell on the table. He nudged it, as if expecting it to come to life. We had the library to ourselves, which was unusual. Often, the big round chamber was filled with trainees hunting through rows of cubbyholes for scrolls, or sending retrieval shabti across the world for artifacts, books, or pizza. Painted on the floor was a picture of Geb the earth god, his body dotted with trees and rivers. Above us, the starry-skinned sky goddess Nut stretched across the ceiling. I usually felt safe in this room, sheltered between two gods who’d been friendly to us in the past. But now I kept glancing at the retrieval shabti stationed around the library and wondering if they would dissolve into scarab shells or decide to attack us.
Finally Amos spoke a command word: “A’max.”
A small red hieroglyph blazed over the scarab:
The shell burst into flames and crumbled to a tiny mound of ash.
“I seem to recall a painting,” Amos said, “in the tomb of Thuthmose III. It showed a three-headed winged snake like the one you described. But what it means…” He shook his head. “Snakes can be good or bad in Egyptian legend. They can be the enemies of Ra, or his protectors.”
“This wasn’t a protector,” I said. “It wanted the scroll.”
“And yet it had three heads, which might symbolize the three aspects of Ra. And it was born from the rubble of Ra’s statue.”
“It wasn’t from Ra,” I insisted. “Why would Ra want to stop us from finding him? Besides, I recognized the snake’s voice. It was the voice of your—” I bit my tongue. “I mean, it was the voice of Set’s minion from the Red Pyramid—the one who was possessed by Apophis.”
Amos’s eyes became unfocused.
“Face of Horror,” he remembered. “You think Apophis was speaking to you through this serpent?”
I nodded. “I think he set those traps at the Brooklyn Museum. He spoke to me through that bau. If he’s so powerful that he can infiltrate this mansion—”
“No, Carter. Even if you’re right, it wasn’t Apophis himself. If he’d broken out of his prison, it would cause ripples through the Duat so powerful, every magician would feel them. But possessing the minds of minions, even sending them into protected places to deliver a message—that’s much easier. I don’t think that snake could’ve done you much harm. It would’ve been quite weak after breaching our defenses. It was mostly sent to warn you, and scare you.”
“It worked,” I said.
I didn’t ask Amos how he knew so much about possession and the ways of Chaos. Having had his body taken over by Set, the god of evil, had given him an intensive crash course in stuff like that. Now he seemed back to normal, but I knew from my own experience of sharing a mind with Horus: once you hosted a god—whether it was voluntary or not—you were never quite the same. You retained the memories, even some traces of the god’s power. I couldn’t help noticing that the color of Amos’s magic had changed. It used to be blue. Now when he summoned hieroglyphs, they glowed red—the color of Set.
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