Written by Jim Kyle / Artwork by Marge Simon
The Sacrifice


































“Argh, not again!” Bast’s exasperated exclamation echoed through The Secret Place of the Immortals, while her
catly avatar dozed peacefully in the temple at White Walls.

“What have they done this time, Daughter?” Ra materialized before her in The Secret Place. His blazing solar
chariot, on cruise control, continued its orbital course bringing light and heat to The Two Lands over which it flew.
He would have no need to take charge until Aphõph appeared for their regular evening confrontation.

“I scheduled them to be at pouncing practice right now,” she told him. “Instead, they’re leading my priests on a
merry chase around the temple. All twelve of the little imps!”

“They’re still young,” her father reminded. “Let them be kittens while they can. They’ll be pouncing in earnest, far
too soon.”

She sighed. “I do not comprehend how these mortals manage even one infant, let alone a litter. Are you sure your
plan was workable? I swear these young ones and their antics will drive me insane!”

Ra chuckled. “Has anyone ever claimed that mortal humans themselves are sane? Our powers, though, should
protect us and allow us to bring more order into The Two Lands. We cannot permit total chaos to return.”

Her question, though, prompted him to reconsider his decision. Certainly action had been necessary after Aphõph’s
shrewd attack. The civilization King Menes imposed was rapidly changing Aphōph's beloved Chaos into Order.

Outraged, Aphõph had, with a word, brought hordes of pests into existence. Rats swarmed into the granaries,
while venomous snakes bedeviled workers in the fields.

Had Ra allowed that act to go unanswered, the fledgling civilization of The Two Lands would be doomed. Ra chose
to counterattack. With a word of his own, he had impregnated Bast.

Then, in the form of a miniature lioness, she had manifested herself at her temple in the capitol city of White Walls.
In due course, she had delivered her litter—destined to become the ancestors of every Cat since that time.

Ra had assured the new creatures would possess the strength and ferocity of lions, while Bast, the guardian of
families, had contributed a loving nature filled with protective instincts. Random chance had infused into the mix an
endless curiosity.

Yes, it was the correct decision, he concluded as Aphõph loomed ahead of the flaming chariot, ready for their daily
battle that would bring temporary darkness to the world.

Bast, meanwhile, issued a stern final order to her offspring as she returned to her avatar in the temple. “Stop your
game this instant,” she shouted silently over the mental channel connecting her with her brood. “It’s time for our
evening feast!”

~ * ~

The sable brown kitten thundering merrily along at the head of a small feline army stopped short, shocked at the
peremptory tone of his mother’s message.
When she sounds like that, she means business, he knew. More ear-
boxings than he cared to recall had already drummed that knowledge into his psyche.

“Okay, gang,” he trilled to his companions. “Let’s put the offerings back on the altar and let the priests rest.
Momma says it’s time to come home.”

From somewhere in the clowder came a murmur of complaint. The brown kitten glared sternly at the dissenter, who
immediately became silent. “That’s better,” he declared. “Now let’s hop to it!”

As one, they wheeled and trotted sedately to the altar. There, each of them deposited a slightly chewed offering
wafer on the receptacle. When the last moist disc of baked flour and water was back in its proper place, they moved
dutifully toward the alcove where Bast lay purring, and broke into a chorus of mews.

She sat erect on her haunches. “Children,” she addressed them, “your days of carefree play have ended. Soon you
will become adult
maus. You must now learn your destinies and become companions and protectors, not only of
the people of The Two Lands, but of all mortal humans.”

Their mews faded into murmurs of discontent. Their sable leader turned, glaring at the others. Immediately, they
calmed, assuming poses of rapt attention.

“First,” their mother continued, “you must learn patience. It must become the hallmark by which all other creatures
recognize you. For that reason, I have delayed your dinner tonight, which will be roast lamb. You will wait, quietly
and with dignity, until I call the priests to bring it.”

She had chosen the menu carefully to put maximum stress on the group’s yet undeveloped powers of patience.
She knew lamb was both their favorite food, and something rarely available to them. The delightful aroma already
permeated the atmosphere of the alcove.

But she had no intention of calling the priests until a full five minutes had elapsed, with not a single sign of fidgeting
or impatience from any of them.

Only a few seconds elapsed before a little tabby near the rear of the pack—the smallest of the lot and the only one
with no tail at all—emitted a mournful moan. “Ms’Chephis,” the brown kitten snarled, “shut up! I believe that not
one of us will eat until all of us pass her test of our patience!”

Bast allowed herself a contented purr.
FirstBorn is a natural leader, worthy of his sire, she thought. I must provide
him capabilities that permit him proper use of his talents
.

No other outburst occurred; after the appropriate time, she summoned the priests to bring the food. As they
approached, Bast watched a dozen pairs of tiny forepaws dancing in anticipation of the coming delight.

~ * ~

Slipping free of the richly embroidered robes and golden collar that identified him as a third-level priest of Bast, the
swarthy little man wrapped a dingy linen kilt around himself. Confident no one would recognize him in that garb, he
strode boldly from the temple and set a course toward the field workers’ quarter.

The safe house with its two dim lamps, his destination, was only a few minutes distant. Rapping twice at the door,
he paused, then rapped once more. The door opened slightly, then swung wide.

“Welcome, Aphōphis,” the doorkeeper greeted him. “We did not expect you so soon. Come share our gathering.”

“I have tidings,” the little man announced as he stepped inside and donned the Amulet of Power that identified him
as the emissary to The Two Lands of the Dark Lord whose name he bore.

“The accursed one has answered our lord’s move. He has created a creature to attack the rodents and the
serpents!”

The ten plotters gasped. “How powerful is this creature?” came a question from the back of the room.

“There is nothing to fear,” Aphōphis assured them. “The creatures lack purpose, and are in no manner disciplined.
They run wildly to and fro, but show no skills for battle whatsoever. Our lord’s vipers and cobras will destroy them
quite easily.”

With murmurs of approval, the cabal resumed its planning for the downfall of Ra and restoration of Aphōph to the
position of primary power over The Two Lands.

~ * ~

Ra’s solar chariot, having once again escaped the clutches of Aphōph, had barely emerged from the world of the
dead when Bast summoned her brood from their sleep to begin the next day’s instruction. Once again, Ra had
prevailed and could continue to bring life and order to The Two Lands.

After performing the rite of giving thanks for this miracle, which provided another test of the kittens’ developing
patience, she summoned the priests to bring the morning meal.

“Today,” she announced as all twelve noisily attacked their food, “your true education begins. King Menes, as you
may have discovered in your explorations, keeps a pair of your esteemed forebears as guardians of The Two Lands.
I have beseeched Leonis and his mate to instruct you in the arts of battle, and thus to prepare you for your
destinies.”

Every pair of jaws stopped, and every ear pricked forward.
Something new, came the communal thought. How
wonderful!
They ate more slowly, contemplating their mother’s plan for the day.

“We will begin,” she continued, “immediately after you complete your morning rituals.”

All twelve polished their dishes clean, then attended to their grooming as their mother had taught them. When they
left the temple, marching like miniature soldiers, FirstBorn led the way. Bast brought up the rear, making certain
that little Ms’Chephis, slower than the rest, did not get left behind.

Arriving at the lion enclosure, the group met a magnificent African lion and marveled at his size, strength, golden
coat, and black-tipped tail and mane. They barely noticed his sleek mate, lounging carelessly toward the rear of the
grassy expanse.

“I greet you, tiny relatives,” his thoughts boomed strongly into their inner ears. “Although you are small, I sense
your hearts are huge. My purpose, today, is to teach you those rudiments of attack and massacre which will permit
you to make best use of your size, and to overcome your adversaries. Your instructor will be the one creature who
knows those techniques even more thoroughly than do I myself—my mate, Elsatet.” As if that were her cue, the
lioness rose to her feet and sauntered forward, her tail twitching constantly from side to side.

“The first thing you must learn,” she told them, “is the art of silent stalking. Success in this will give you the
essential element of surprise when you attack. Observe carefully.” She demonstrated the catly crawl, her belly
almost touching the ground.

She moved unbelievably slowly, but steadily, toward an imaginary enemy. Not a single blade of grass quivered in her
wake, nor did the slightest sound reveal her progress.

“That is the method. Now,” Elsatet commanded, “do it yourselves.”

At first, most of them stumbled clumsily. Only FirstBorn demonstrated a full grasp of her instruction, slinking along
the grass with almost imperceptible movement, his ears folded back against his skull. The tip of his outstretched tail
quivered with anticipation.

After much scolding, accompanied by an occasional ear-box from Bast, Elsatet made the performance of the others
finally approach her own. Several hours later, she declared herself satisfied with their progress as stalkers.

“Our next lesson,” she said, “will teach you the technique for a successful slaughter. First, however, we must share
food.”

Leonis dragged from the den a freshly killed lamb, skillfully tore open its belly, and showed them how to tear bites
from the carcass using their claws and fangs to rip meat from the bones. They found the bloody bites even tastier
than the cooked feast priests had brought the night before.

When all had eaten their fill, Elsatet called them to attention. “You are smaller than your most likely opponents,”
she told them. “Therefore surprise and speed are your most effective weapons. If you approach from behind, leap
onto the enemy’s back, and crush its neck with your powerful jaws, you will be victorious. Leonis and I shall
demonstrate, but I do not intend to actually kill him today. Tomorrow, who knows? Observe, now, with utmost
care.”

Posing as the prey, Leonis strolled along casually while Elsatet carefully stalked him until only a few feet separated
the two. Then with a thrust of her powerful hind legs, she leapt onto his back and grabbed his neck in her jaws—
taking great care not to close them tightly.

The impact of her fifteen-stone weight forced him off balance; they both rolled across the grass. The kittens
watched, spellbound, as the two regained their feet.

“Did you need to land so roughly?” Leonis asked in an aggrieved tone.

“I most certainly did,” came Elsatet’s forceful reply. “That unexpected blow is one of the most critical factors that
contribute to a successful outcome!”

She turned to her rapt audience. “I have shown you how it is done,” she told them. “Now form into pairs, and make
me aware of how well you have learned my lesson!”

FirstBorn watched his siblings pair off; each chose a special friend with whom to practice. Only Ms’Chephis remained
alone. He strode to her side.

“I see that the best was saved for me,” he purred as they touched noses. The little tabby’s ears perked to
alertness and he caught the hint of a return purr.

“Oh, no,” she replied. “The others never have much to do with me. They say I’m too weak, too small, too clumsy.
And they laugh at my lack of a tail.”

“So let’s prove them wrong,” he declared. “I’ll be your target. Show our momma and Elsatet how well you have
learned the art! And fear not that you will hurt me. We must never allow ourselves to be conquered by our fears.”

He began casually walking away from her as Leonis had done. She oozed along behind him, imitating the lioness’s
silent slink perfectly, then lunged to the attack.

Unfortunately, she misjudged the distance. The leap took her completely over FirstBorn’s back, her outstretched
claws barely brushing his fur in passing!

As he felt her fly over him, he rolled to his side as if knocked down by the non-existent impact. He growled softly to
her, “Quick, grab my throat in your jaws as if this was your intent! We’ll make them forget our mistake!”

Startled, the little tabby obeyed. She took care not to apply excessive pressure, shook her captive until he became
still as death, then proudly stepped away from her “kill.”

Her strength amazed FirstBorn. So did the care she took to keep from actually hurting him.
This one hides her
abilities well,
he thought.

Elsatet beamed at them. “You anticipate my next lesson, younglings,” she observed. “We do not always strike as
we intend, so we must be able to recover and press our attack, until victory is ours. You will do well!”

Ms’Chephis stood proudly, receiving such praise. “It was all your doing,” she murmured softly to FirstBorn. “Truly, I
was clumsy, but you managed to hide my mistake.”

“Nonsense,” he replied. “You only need practice, to perfect your skills. You did not hesitate to act, nor let fear of
failure freeze your muscles. Now, let us trade places and see what I can do.”

As he landed on her and closed his jaws on her scruff, he became aware of a strange new warmth and passion
rising within himself. He forced it down for future study, and managed to concentrate on Elsatet’s teachings to the
exclusion of all else.

All twelve spent the rest of the day practicing attack procedures. By the time Ra’s chariot neared the western
horizon, all had earned approval from Elsatet and Bast. In the weeks that followed, they would learn still more
techniques, and would continue to improve with each day’s practice until they became accomplished assassins.

~ * ~

Several days later, FirstBorn’s curiosity bump itched with terrible intensity. Sitting on his haunches, he vigorously
scratched first his left ear, then his right, but that didn’t help the itch even a tiny bit. The reed mat serving as a
door remained before him, and he still didn’t know what lay behind it.

He well remembered Bast’s instructions to her brood. “Do not explore behind closed doors until you have become
seasoned hunters,” she had told them again only that morning as they devoured their breakfasts. “You cannot
know what lies in wait, so you must be able and ready to defend yourselves at all times.”

But have I not demonstrated my skill in stalking and in delivering the death bite? Am I not already qualified to
explore? If not now, when?
His answers to all these questions being a resounding yes, he boldly strode forward
and pushed his way past the mat, into the forbidden workroom beyond.

Had he any expectation of new and exciting adventure, he was disappointed. All that met his curious gaze was a
rat-faced third-level priest, doing who knew what with an alabaster jar of some sort.

After a quick glance, FirstBorn ignored the boring little man and nosed quietly around the floor, in hopes of
discovering something, anything, more interesting.

The scruffy small priest, though, soon discovered his visitor and screamed abuse at the kitten.

Startled by the outburst, FirstBorn involuntarily puffed his back fur and tail to twice their normal size as he scuttled
back through the door to more familiar surroundings, as fast as he could move—but his curiosity bump remained
far from satisfied. In fact, its itch returned with even more intensity.
What could that priest have been doing, to
behave so angrily?

“Did you not hear my caution at breakfast?” Bast inquired gently as the kitten’s mad rush carried him against her
foreleg. “You, my son, require additional special guidance. Attend me and remember well.”

~ * ~

In the workroom, Aphōphis muttered imprecations as he gingerly removed the sand-colored serpent from its
carrying basket and placed it into the alabaster jar. He exercised extreme caution to avoid its deadly head with the
horn-like scale above each eye, breathing a silent prayer to his lord Aphōph that the magical ward giving him
protection from the viper would hold fast.

Fortunate indeed it was, that he had remembered to bring the Amulet of Power with him from the safe house.
Without its protective magic, he could not have dared handle the snake. The horned desert viper, one of the two
deadliest serpents to be found in The Two Lands, was the only variety small enough to fit into the offering jar. A
king cobra, though preferable, would be much too large for the space.

When King Menes opens the jar during the coming dedication of the holy maus, the viper will surely strike, the
renegade priest thought—and its bite was always fatal.

Thus would he advance the hopes of his true lord Aphōph, and if his prayer were answered, would replace Menes as
the ruler of The Two Lands. Then could he restore the chaos and destruction so beloved of his deity.

Aphōphis breathed a sigh of relief that the ward had indeed prevented the snake from harming him. He placed the
lid on the jar and returned it to its alcove, among the other regal offerings being prepared for the coming
ceremonies.

With heartfelt thanks to Aphōph once more, for protecting him and for preventing the soon-to-be-damned young
mau from seeing the serpent, the priest returned to his daily temple duties.

~ * ~

The young
mau obediently followed his mother to a private alcove where they could be alone, expecting a scold to
end all scolds, and possibly even a world-class boxing of both his ears.

He was pleasantly amazed when she curled into a resting position beside him and began grooming his ruffled fur.
Slowly his breathing returned to normal. As he calmed, she spoke.

“My son,” she told him, “you have a unique destiny. The mark of your father is upon you. Thus I must present you
with a unique gift, and with special instruction.”

Impressed by her serious tone, he could only murmur, “Yes, ma’am.” She continued.

“First, the instruction. You, like your brothers and sisters, have a most regrettable tendency to act without thinking
matters through. You must then react, but with no clear plan.”

Finished with the grooming, she sat up and skewered him with a penetrating stare to emphasize the importance of
her lesson.

“Failure to plan, my son, is planning to fail. I do not accept failure. Do you understand me?” He nodded his assent.

“You, FirstBorn, will be the leader of all. You must take time to plan well, to impress on the others the need to work
together as a team, and above all, to time your actions for maximum effect.  Always remember to never be too
early.”

“I will remember, momma,” he told her soberly.

“See that you do,” she said. “Now for your special Gift. You may not yet be aware that the world around you is
ruled by probabilities. Every event and object, no matter how large or how small, results from probabilities having
merged to cause its existence.”

“Ma’am,” he interrupted, “I don’t understand at all.”

“You need not understand the details,” she assured him. “You need know only the use of this power. From this
moment on, anything that you can imagine, so long as it does not conflict with the unalterable lines of Destiny’s
flow, is possible to you. All you need do is imagine it clearly, with total conviction that your vision is true. Let me
demonstrate. Imagine, if you will, a fresh saucer of cream at your feet.”

FirstBorn squinted his deep amber eyes in concentration, then opened them, but they beheld no saucer. “It does
not work,” he complained.

“You had doubts, my son. Try once more, and this time be certain it will occur.”

He closed his eyes once more, to shut out all distraction, and followed her orders. Upon hearing a small clink and
detecting the scent of fresh rich cream, he opened them to discover the saucer had appeared, as promised. Purring
loudly, he eagerly applied his tongue to the delicious liquid.

“I am certain that you will rapidly discover a multitude of uses for this Gift,” his mother observed as she rose to her
feet. “Exercise utmost caution in its use. And always remember never to be too early.” On that note, she left him
lapping up his treat and pondering his amazing change in status.

~ * ~

Standing stiffly at attention a few days afterward, FirstBorn thought he had never been quite so bored. He and the
rest of the pack had spent all morning rehearsing for this ceremony, and Bast had left them no room to doubt they
must behave perfectly during the actual event. That, however, failed to provide it with even one interesting aspect.

King Menes stood before the dozen holy
maus, receiving priest after priest. Behind him stood the Master of the
Granaries, the official who would be in charge of the Deadly Dozen when they eventually began actual service.

Each priest who approached the king bore a jar containing some rare and costly substance. To pass the time,
FirstBorn idly scanned their thoughts with his inner ears, as each man in turn moved forward and bowed to the
Pharaoh, but all were uniformly uninteresting.
Why do they bother with this? he asked himself.

As still another priest stepped to the head of the line, FirstBorn became aware of a distinctly different mental
message from him. Unlike those of the others, it was muffled, as if the man might be attempting to keep it
concealed.

Puzzled, the little
mau sensed only a few fragments. My hour…now…victory… He allowed himself a slight frown while
he strained his inner ears, searching in vain for more detail.

As the priest turned to offer his gift to King Menes, FirstBorn saw his face clearly. It was the same rat-faced scruffy
little man who had screamed abuse at him in the workroom, and at that instant a complete thought came to him
from the jubilant priest:
The serpent shall soon strike!

With no pause to plan, FirstBorn launched himself at the priest’s present for the king. The other eleven maus
followed without hesitation, as Bast watched aghast. FirstBorn felt his claws rake the priest’s hands deeply. That
caused the man to drop the jar. As it crashed to the floor and shattered, the viper contained in it coiled, in
preparation for a deadly strike at the king.

Ms’Chephis, nearest the serpent, sprang toward its back as it raised its head to strike. Opening her jaws as wide as
she could and emitting a defiant scream of anger, she hit the snake. Her sharp fangs sank into the back of its neck.

The impact of her weight sent the snake reeling. It thrashed wildly as she brought all her strength to bear. She
increased her pressure until she could feel her teeth penetrate its tough scales and continue deep into its muscles.
It tasted horrible.

Her siblings grabbed any portion of the snake's body they were able to reach, contributing as much assistance as
they could. The serpent continued to struggle, but its movements grew fainter with each moment.

As the tailless tabby's fangs finally reached their target, the viper gave one wild lash, then collapsed, dead.

Amidst the confusion, Aphōphis managed his escape. FirstBorn rapidly ordered the pack to return to formation,
taking special care to congratulate Ms’Chephis on her quick thinking and steel-jawed strength.

Only then did he recognize how thoroughly he had disobeyed his mother’s every instruction.
I acted quickly, with
no plan, and totally destroyed a most solemn ceremony
. Trembling inside, but managing to remain outwardly calm,
he faced Bast. It was a time for military protocol.

“I am quite sorry to have failed you, ma’am,” he began, but got no further with his apology.

“You have all made me quite proud, my children,” she declared. “Our mission is to oppose chaos and evil, and you
have shown yourselves to be quite worthy protectors of all people. At times, it can be vital to act quickly, even if
your action reveals itself later to be wrong, and you have shown your awareness of this rule without having to be
taught. You may consider yourselves consecrated; no more ceremony is required.”

Standing behind her, King Menes nodded. “You speak truth, my Goddess. I thank your brood for their instant
response, and consider all of them quite ready for their ultimate services.”

“For now, though,” he continued, “I believe that the time for celebration and feasting has arrived.”

At the feast tables, FirstBorn and Ms’Chephis shared places of honor. Pitching the thought low, so only she could
receive it, he told her, “We make an excellent team. I greatly enjoy having you at my side. Are you willing to make
this partnership permanent?” Her only immediate response was a happy purr.

~ * ~

Aphōphis made his way to the safe house of his cabal without incident. News of the assassination attempt had not
yet spread beyond the walls of Bast’s temple. He rapped the secret signal on the doorframe with his wounded
hand, gaining immediate entry.

“The blasted
maus prevented my success,” he declared angrily to the doorkeeper. “Quickly, summon the others.
Those spawn of Bast must be destroyed, that the Great Plan may be fulfilled.”

By the time the group had assembled, Aphōphis had donned his vestments together with the Amulet of Power, and
developed a strategy and tactic to achieve that goal. First, he would capture all twelve. Then, they would become a
burnt sacrifice to Aphōph, at high noon on the final day of the current ten-day decan.

The rat-faced priest detailed the members of his small group to construct a sacrificial furnace together with a reed
cage to contain the young
maus as they roasted. He then ended the meeting and began his search for a way to
capture Bast’s brood. I must be most subtle, he reminded himself.
They are more clever than I had thought them
to be!

Placing the Amulet of Power in his wounded hand and concealing it with a linen bandage, Aphōphis changed from his
vestments to his field worker disguise, and set a course back toward the temple.
Those creatures will not stray far
from the protection of their goddess, he felt. Aphōph willing, a plan will present itself.

~ * ~

As the ritual feast ended, Ms’Chephis pondered FirstBorn’s offer.
Working with him, she mused, would be
wonderful. However a strange question haunted her thoughts.
Could there be more than simple hunting skills
involved?
Nothing in her experience hinted at any possible answer.

I can’t ask him, she realized. Instinct told her only another female would have the answers she sought. And I can’t
talk about this with Momma
. As a goddess, Bast was certain to be somewhat different than any of her daughters.
And I definitely don’t want to discuss it with my sisters! Ms’Chephis remained mired in a morass of indecision as
she returned toward the
maus’ living area within the temple.

As she passed one of the temple gates, though, sudden inspiration flashed into her mind.
I do know another
grown-up
, she recalled. She’s a teacher, and she seemed to respect me when I was her student. Turning abruptly
toward the gate, Ms’Chephis headed for the lion enclosure. Surely Elsatet would be able to advise her concerning
FirstBorn’s offer, and would help her decide.

The lioness listened carefully to Ms’Chephis’s problem.

“Before I can offer you any counsel regarding the young male’s proposal,” she told Ms’Chephis, “I must assure
myself you are prepared for all its possible consequences. Has Bast told you and your sisters of the changes you
will undergo as you mature into adult queens?”

Mystified by the question, Ms’Chephis merely shook her head negatively. Elsatet continued.

“Perhaps as our goddess she does not experience such events. However, all of us adult female felines undergo
changes in our bodies from time to time. When these occur, nothing can return us to our normal state other than
the attention of a male. This attention can be quite painful, but can also bring intense pleasure.”

Ms’Chephis shuddered at the thought of pain. The lioness continued without pause.

“That attention, in turn, often results in still more change, much of which is uncomfortable, that culminates in arrival
of a litter of offspring. And your duty to care for those offspring will then take precedence over everything else in
your life, until they are as able to care for themselves as you are now.”

Shocked by the revelation, Ms’Chephis barely heard the lioness’s final words.

“I believe,” said Elsatet, “that your young male has expressed his desire to serve you, and you to serve him, in
such a capacity for so long as you both find your relationship amiable.”

Ms’Chephis opened her eyes wide, feeling her hackles begin to rise.
That’s much more serious than I expected.

“Your mother has gifted me with a small ability to see into future times, and it tells me your young male seems
destined for great things. If you accept, your life will be far more interesting than would otherwise be the case.
However, you must remember that interesting times are not always safest, nor are they happiest. The final decision
must be yours, and yours alone.”

Ms’Chephis thanked Elsatet politely. She was no closer to a decision than before, but she now had new information
to consider. She trudged back toward the temple, so deeply lost in thought she paid almost no attention to her
surroundings.

~ * ~

Aphōphis could hardly believe his eyes when he spied the little tabby without a tail, striding toward the temple gate
and seemingly ignoring everything around her.
Thank you, my lord, he breathed as he clenched his wounded hand
around the Amulet of Power, mumbled the sacred words, and felt the surge of heat as it established a restraining
ward around his prey.

Ms’Chephis, still pondering her problem, stopped abruptly as she bumped painfully into something solid. Her nose
felt like it would never stop hurting. Although she saw and smelled nothing in her way, try as she might she
couldn't press past the invisible barrier blocking her path. Neither could she move around it. Trapped, she gave in
to panic.

“Help, Momma, FirstBorn, anyone! I don’t know what’s going on but I’m in trouble!” Her silent telepathic scream
echoed in her mind, but she could detect no response. That in itself  mystified her.
Could this barrier be isolating
me from the others?

Despite her heritage and her training, Ms’Chephis began flailing frantically against the barrier as she watched the
scruffy rat-faced priest—the same man FirstBorn had attacked earlier—approaching. As he reached through the
barrier with his undamaged hand to pick her up bodily, she continued her impassioned screams for help.

~ * ~

FirstBorn and their ten siblings were already relaxing in their private area of the temple, wondering at Ms’Chephis’s
absence, when he caught just a fragment of her plea for aid: “…in trouble…hurry…” but there was nothing more.
Nobody else seemed aware of it.

“Hey, gang!” His silent shout startled the rest of the Deadly Dozen out of their languor. “Ms’Chephis is in trouble;
we’ve got to help her. Follow me!”

They dashed for the gate. As they darted through, FirstBorn caught a glimpse of a ragged field worker, holding a
wildly struggling bit of fur and hurrying away from the area.

“This way, gang. But let’s find out where he’s taking her before we do anything else.” The group wheeled to follow,
as FirstBorn attempted to improvise a plan on the run. He could not plan to fail!

~ * ~

As the pack raced toward the departing figure, FirstBorn sent a silent command. “Hold up there, gang! We’ve gotta
stay far enough back so we don’t spook him!”

Reducing their frantic pace, they plodded along, keeping at least a hundred cubits behind their target. As the
unlikely parade moved from the temple square into the workers’ district, FirstBorn formulated his plan.

The ten of us definitely outnumber that evil person, he reasoned. If we all hit him at the same time, we can force
him to release our sister. We might even be able to disable him
. He passed the idea on to his companions.

“I’ll deal with his right eye,” came an eager assent from one of his sisters, the largest, most muscular, and meanest
of the lot.

“I’ve got the other one,” her best male buddy chimed in almost instantly. “He’ll never see anything again.”

“Save an ear for me,” someone else shouted silently. By that time the hubbub of thoughts had become too
confused to be understandable.

Aphōphis reached the safe house, gave the code knock sequence, and the door opened. With Ms’Chephis still
struggling wildly in her attempts to get away, he stepped through and closed the door behind himself.

The rescue force slowed to a halt, dismayed. FirstBorn, however, rapidly remembered his Gift from Bast. He
concentrated on visualizing the door swinging open once again, forcing himself to believe, and it did so. He and his
ten fellows, intent on carrying out their plan of attack, stormed through it.

They crashed headlong into an invisible, but solid, wall. Aphōphis, aware for some time they were following him, had
used the Amulet of Power to create an unbreakable barrier.

“You have willingly come to me,” he snarled, “and nothing can save you now. At the peak of the final day of this
decan, you will meet my lord and master Aphōph as sacrifices, and thus you will assure his eventual victory in the
eternal struggle against Order for all the universes. Chaos will rule over The Two Lands once more!”

Their planned doom was less than two days distant.

“Always remember never to be too early,” Bast had told FirstBorn repeatedly. “You must wait to act, always, until
the time for action arrives.” He hoped that he would be able to recognize the proper time when it came. Meanwhile,
he must plan. Failure here could not be an option.

~ * ~

Aphōphis confined the dozen to a windowless room in the safe house to await their demise. While waiting,
FirstBorn developed a desperate battle plan.

“Listen up, gang,” he told his siblings. “We don't have the advantage of numbers anymore, but neither do they. If
each of us can overcome one of them, we can escape and bring Momma's wrath down upon these people.”

“How can we do that?” came a question from the rear of the pack. “We're confined in this cage!”

“Don't worry about it,” FirstBorn replied with more confidence than he felt. “I think I have a way to overcome that.
For now, just pick your target and be sure we have accounted for all of them. Meanwhile I’ll be working to get us
out of the cage. And don’t any of you pick their leader. Ms’Chephis and I will handle him, because he’s certain to be
the one directing everything else.”

Wishing he had much more confidence in his Gift than he showed his siblings, he turned to Ms’Chephis. “When the
time comes,” he told her, “I want you to distract their leader by acting as frightened and panicky as you can. That
will give me a chance to claw his eyes out. Can you do that?”

“I think so. But won’t you need my help to disable him?”

“Putting him off balance will, I believe, be of more assistance. But once I strike, feel free to add your weapons to the
fight. We’ll need everything we can muster!”

All too soon the fateful day arrived. Aphōphis gathered his group, ignited the ritual furnace, and forced the young
maus into their cage of reeds. As Ra’s chariot crept toward the midpoint of its daily journey—the hour at which
they would burn—the rat-faced leader moved the cage to the sacrificial site, and prepared to hoist them into the
blazing pit when Ra reached the peak of his climb.

It’s now or never, FirstBorn thought as he visualized the hoist rope breaking before the cage had lifted far from the
ground, and the reeds then becoming unwoven and falling free.
Will it work? Then he recalled Bast’s admonition,
during his first attempt to use his Gift, and resolutely forced all doubt out of his mind.
Of course it will work. It
always does! It has to!

As the cage crashed to the ground, the reeds fell away as planned. The Deadly Dozen were free.

Ms’Chephis immediately went into hysterics, playing her part perfectly and drawing the renegade priest’s attention.
While FirstBorn sprang into the man’s face, the other
maus each attacked their chosen targets.

~ * ~

Unfortunately, FirstBorn’s plan had not taken into account one significant consideration—an adult human
outweighed a half-grown
mau by a factor of almost fifty to one. Hiss, spit, and claw though they might, the kittens
were simply no match for their enemies.

FirstBorn’s attack on Aphōphis missed the man’s eyes, though his claws did gouge a cheek deeply enough to make
blood flow freely. One by one, the targets of the other young
maus batted their attackers away as they would
obnoxious insects. The kittens were losing their battle.

The priest’s wound made little difference to him. The man grabbed the “hysterical” Ms’Chephis in one hand and
slammed her to the hard ground. She lay there still and unmoving.

~ * ~

Help us, father, the little brown mau thought, seeing his partner lying motionless in the midst of the carnage. Do
not permit this evil force to defeat your plans for us
. He fervently forced himself to believe fully that Ra, steering
the blazing solar chariot overhead still on its way to the midday zenith, would answer his silent prayer.

At the stroke of noon, a single beam of intense light flashed into existence, streaming from the chariot to fall
precisely upon Aphōphis and touching nothing else. But it had no effect!

FirstBorn's hopes vanished.
If our father's power cannot overcome this enemy, then everything is lost! I must do
everything I can, though
. He sprang again at the man's eyes, only to carom away from the invisible protective
barrier.

He attempted to use his Gift to neutralize the shield, but nothing changed. He remembered, then, that Bast had
warned him he would be powerless over unalterable lines of destiny’s flow.

Is this our unalterable destiny? FirstBorn wondered. Is everything failing?

Scrambling wildly to regain his balance as he bounced off the barrier, he saw for the first time the amulet,
suspended from the neck of Aphōphis by a fiber cord. It emitted a faint glow that pulsed brighter in a regular
rhythm.

Apparently, the man was using the Amulet of Power to shield himself from harm.

Could that be the source of his evil shield? If it is, maybe I can affect it even if I lack power against the barrier. If
I cannot overcome the amulet
, FirstBorn thought, perhaps I can detach it from he who wields it.

Concentrating with all his might, he visualized the fiber cord around the priest’s neck becoming thinner and thinner.
Eventually, it snapped. As the Amulet fell to the ground, free, the magical shield vanished. So did the Amulet itself,
returning to its creator in the Underworld.

FirstBorn saw, then, the priest’s linen garments burst into flame. His skin shriveled in the blaze. The man’s bones
became visible through his smoking vestments. They glowed first to red heat, then brightened to a blindingly
brilliant white.

The glow lasted only moments, until the entire apparition vanished leaving only a mist of smoke and powdery ash,
together with the foul odor of burning hair, to indicate the vile one had ever existed.

With their leader mysteriously destroyed, the surviving plotters ceased their fight and began pleading for mercy.
The Deadly Dozen sent urgent thoughts to Bast, who responded by materializing at their sides but said nothing.

“I am not a judge,” FirstBorn declared. “Neither am I an instrument of vengeance. I must leave your fates to my
parents. May they have mercy on your souls, if not your mortal bodies.”

Bast nodded approvingly, as she dispatched the plotters to the Underworld, where they could answer to Aphōph
for their failures. It seemed a fitting reward for them.

As she did so, FirstBorn turned his attention to Ms’Chephis, still lying senseless near the charred spot marking
the final fate of the renegade priest.
She must recover, he thought. Is it beyond my power to heal her wounds?

Closing his eyes and visualizing her rising to all four paws with a purr, he concentrated mightily. He did not stop
until he felt her rough tongue gently grooming his cheeks.

~ * ~

Soon after their victory, Bast called the Deadly Dozen together and told them the time had come for them to
assume their adult assignments. She introduced them to the Master of the Granaries, who acknowledged her
introduction.

“You will serve as paired teams, male and female together,” he explained. “We have six major sites, and I will assign
one team to each site. I will assign the male to the site, and he may choose his female teammate. She must agree,
else he must choose another. Is this understood?” Twelve heads nodded assent.

“The first assignment is to the Royal Reserve, and the male guardian there will be FirstBorn.” The announcement
came as no surprise. Naturally their leader deserved the best spot.

The brown
mau had unexpected difficulty expressing himself; Ms’Chephis still had not replied to his proposal. He
looked toward her, his question hanging unspoken as the others awaited his choice.

Need you ask again? Her private thought came to him clearly. We have been meant for each other from the
beginning.

With that, he found his voice. “I choose Ms’Chephis, if she will have me,” he declared firmly. She strode to his side.

Where you go, we go together, her thought came to him as they departed the temple toward their new home.

When all twelve had been assigned, paired into teams, and departed toward their new homes, Bast murmured “My
duty here is done” and returned in her normal form to The Secret Place. She could leave the future of The Two
Lands, now, in the capable paws of her brood. She was confident they would handle it well.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
A fan of fantasy and SF for almost 70 years, Jim Kyle has earned his
keep with a keyboard since 1949, but this marks just his second
published fiction. He studied the basic techniques with Foster-Harris
and Dwight Swain in the early 1950s, but for 65 years his stories
refused to jell. After military service in Korea and four years as a
reporter at
The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, he moved to
industry as a technical writer until “retiring” in 1996, but remains
active on line. You can reach him at
http://jimkyle.com/ or via
Facebook.