“Foolish idea,” said a voice from the balcony.
A pigeon was perched on the railing. There was something very un-pigeonlike about its stare. It looked fearless, almost dangerous; and I recognized that voice, which was more manly and warlike than you’d normally expect from a member of the dove family.
“Horus?” I asked.
The pigeon bobbed its head. “May I come in?”
I knew he wasn’t just asking out of courtesy. The house was heavily enchanted to keep out unwanted pests like rodents, termites, and Egyptian gods.
“I give you permission to enter,” I said formally. “Horus, in the form of a…uh…pigeon.”
“Thank you.” The pigeon hopped off the railing and waddled inside.
“Why?” I asked.
Horus ruffled his feathers. “Well, I looked for a falcon, but they’re a little scarce in New York. I wanted something with wings, so a pigeon seemed the best choice. They’ve adapted well to cities, aren’t scared of people. They’re noble birds, don’t you think?”
“Noble,” I agreed. “That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of pigeons.”
“Indeed,” Horus said.
Apparently sarcasm didn’t exist in Ancient Egypt, because Horus never seemed to get it. He fluttered onto my bed and pecked at a few Cheerios left over from Khufu’s lunch.
“Hey,” I warned, “if you poop on my blankets—”
“Please. War gods do not poop on blankets. Well, except for that one time—”
“Forget I said anything.”
Horus hopped to the edge of my suitcase. He peered down at the statuette of Apophis. “Dangerous,” he said. “Much too dangerous, Carter.”
I hadn’t told him about Plan B, but I wasn’t surprised that he knew. Horus and I had shared minds too many times. The better I got at channeling his powers, the better we understood each other. The downside of godly magic was that I couldn’t always shut off that connection.
“It’s our emergency backup,” I said. “We’re trying to find another way.”
“By looking for that scroll,” he recalled. “The last copy of which burned up tonight in Dallas.”
I resisted the urge to spike the pigeon. “Yes. But Sadie found this shadow box. She thinks it’s some sort of clue. You wouldn’t know anything about using shadows against Apophis, would you?”
The pigeon turned its head sideways. “Not really. My understanding of magic is fairly straightforward. Hit enemies with a sword until they’re dead. If they rise again, hit them again. Repeat as necessary. It worked against Set.”
“After how many years of fighting?”
The pigeon glared at me. “What’s your point?”
I decided to avoid an argument. Horus was a war god. He loved to fight, but it had taken him years to defeat Set, the god of evil. And Set was small stuff next to Apophis—the primordial force of Chaos. Whacking Apophis with a sword wasn’t going to work.
I thought about something Bast had said earlier, in the library.
“Would Thoth know more about shadows?” I asked.
“Probably,” Horus grumbled. “Thoth isn’t good for much except studying his musty old scrolls.” He regarded the serpent figurine. “Funny…I just remembered something. Back in the old days, the Egyptians used the same word for statue and shadow, because they’re both smaller copies of an object. They were both called a sheut.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
The pigeon ruffled its feathers. “Nothing. It just occurred to me, looking at that statue while you were talking about shadows.”
An icy feeling spread between my shoulder blades.
Last spring Sadie and I had watched as the old Chief Lector Desjardins cast an execration spell on Apophis. Even against minor demons, execration spells were dangerous. You’re supposed to destroy a small statue of the target and, in doing so, utterly destroy the target itself, erasing it from the world. Make a mistake, and things start exploding—including the magician who cast it.
Down in the Underworld, Desjardins had used a makeshift figurine against Apophis. The Chief Lector had died casting the execration, and had only managed to push Apophis a little deeper into the Duat.
Sadie and I hoped that with a more powerful magic statue, both of us working together might be able to execrate Apophis completely, or at least throw him so deep into the Duat that he’d never return.
That was Plan B. But we knew such a powerful spell would tap so much energy, it would cost us our lives. Unless we found another way.
Statues as shadows, shadows as statues.
Plan C began forming in my mind—an idea so crazy, I didn’t want to put it into words.
“Horus,” I said carefully, “does Apophis have a shadow?”
The pigeon blinked its red eyes. “What a question! Why would you…?” He glanced down at the red statue. “Oh…Oh. That’s clever, actually. Certifiably insane, but clever. You think Setne’s version of the Book of Overcoming Apophis, the one Apophis was so anxious to destroy…you think it contained a secret spell for—”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s worth asking Thoth. Maybe he knows something.”
“Maybe,” Horus said grudgingly. “But I still think a frontal assault is the way to go.”
“Of course you do.”
The pigeon bobbed its head. “We are strong enough, you and I. We should combine forces, Carter. Let me share your form as I once did. We could lead the armies of gods and men and defeat the serpent. Together, we’ll rule the world.”
The idea might have been more tempting if I hadn’t been looking at a plump bird with Cheerio dust on its plumage. Letting the pigeon rule the world sounded like a bad idea.
“I’ll get back to you on that,” I said. “First, I should talk to Thoth.”
“Bah.” Horus flapped his wings. “He’s still in Memphis, at that ridiculous sports stadium of his. But if you plan on seeing him, I wouldn’t wait too long.”
“That’s what I came to tell you,” Horus said. “Matters are getting complicated among the gods. Apophis is dividing us, attacking us one by one, just as he’s doing with you magicians. Thoth was the first to suffer.”
The pigeon puffed up. A wisp of smoke curled from its beak. “Oh, dear. My host is self-destructing. It can’t hold my spirit for much longer. Just hurry, Carter. I’m having trouble keeping the gods together, and that old man Ra isn’t helping our morale. If you and I don’t lead our armies soon, we may not have any armies left to lead.”
The pigeon hiccupped another wisp of smoke. “Gotta go. Good luck.”
Horus flew out the window, leaving me alone with the statuette of Apophis and a few gray feathers.
I slept like a mummy. That was the good part. The bad part was that Bast let me sleep until the afternoon.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” I demanded. “I’ve got things to do!”
Bast spread her hands. “Sadie insisted. You had a rough night last night. She said you needed your rest. Besides, I’m a cat. I respect the sanctity of sleep.”
I was still mad, but part of me knew Sadie was right. I’d expended a lot of magical energy the previous night and had gone to sleep really late. Maybe—just maybe—Sadie had my best interests at heart.
(I just caught her making faces at me, so maybe not.)
I showered and dressed. By the time the other kids got back from school, I was feeling almost human again.
Yes, I said school, as in normal old school. We’d spent last spring tutoring all the initiates at Brooklyn House, but with the start of the fall semester, Bast had decided that the kids could use a dose of regular mortal life. Now they went to a nearby academy in Brooklyn during the day and learned magic in the afternoons and on weekends.
I was the only one who stayed behind. I’d always been homeschooled. The idea of dealing with lockers, schedules, textbooks, and cafeteria food on top of running the Twenty-first Nome was just too much for me.
You’d think the other kids would have complained, especially Sadie. But, in fact, attending school was working out okay for them. The girls were happy to have more friends (and less dorky boys to flirt with, they claimed). The guys could play sports with actual teams rather than one-on-one with Khufu using Egyptian statues for hoops. As for Bast, she was happy to have a quiet house so she could stretch out on the floor and snooze in the sunlight.
At any rate, by the time the others got home, I’d done a lot of thinking about my conversations with Zia and Horus. The plan I’d formulated last night still seemed crazy, but I decided that it might be our best shot. After briefing Sadie and Bast, who (disturbingly) agreed with me, we decided it was time to tell the rest of our friends.
We gathered for dinner on the main terrace. It’s a nice place to eat, with invisible barriers that keep out the wind, and a great view of the East River and Manhattan. The food magically appeared, and it was always tasty. Still, I dreaded eating on the terrace. For nine months we’d had all our important meetings there. I’d come to associate sit-down dinners with disasters.
We filled up our plates from the buffet as our guardian albino crocodile Philip of Macedonia splashed happily in his swimming pool. Eating next to a twenty-foot-long crocodile took some getting used to, but Philip was well trained. He only ate bacon, stray waterfowl, and the occasional invading monster.
Bast sat at the head of the table with a can of Purina Fancy Feast. Sadie and I sat together at the opposite end. Khufu was off babysitting the ankle-biters, and some of our newer recruits were inside doing their homework or catching up on spell crafting, but most of our main people were present—a dozen senior initiates.
Considering how badly last night had turned out, everyone seemed in strangely good spirits. I was kind of glad they didn’t yet know about Sarah Jacobi’s video death threat. Julian kept bouncing in his chair and grinning for no particular reason. Cleo and Jaz were whispering together and giggling. Even Felix seemed to have recovered from his shock in Dallas. He was sculpting tiny shabti penguins out of his mashed potatoes and bringing them to life.
Only Walt looked glum. The big guy had nothing on his dinner plate except three carrots and a wedge of Jell-O. (Khufu insisted Jell-O had major healing properties.) Judging from the tightness around Walt’s eyes and the stiffness of his movements, I guessed his pain was even worse than last night.
I turned to Sadie. “What’s going on? Everybody seems…distracted.”
She stared at me. “I keep forgetting you don’t go to school. Carter, it’s the first dance tonight! Three other schools will be there. We can hurry up the meeting, can’t we?”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “I’m thinking about plans for Doomsday, and you’re worried about being late to a dance?”
“I’ve mentioned it to you a dozen times,” she insisted. “Besides, we need something to boost our spirits. Now, tell everyone your plan. Some of us still have to decide what to wear.”