The Cat-Killers

29 Nov

Night was a time of dread shadows in the Nile Delta center of Heliopolis, city of the sun.

Young Khton had migrated here to become a student novice at the great temple of the divine Re. His father and ancestors for unnumbered generations had belonged to the priestly caste serving the temples of that supreme sun-god. Now it was the turn of Khton to learn the ritual ceremonies aimed at the propitiation of the supreme deity who passed across the sky each day.

Through the lightless streets, under the blanket of star points, walked the tall, emaciated future priest. Khton looked forward to witnessing that evening an arcane mystery that the general populace never saw. He was excited with anticipation. His presence had been commanded at a special rite restricted to the initiates of the temple of Re. It promised to be a step upward for him in his career and his spiritual development.

As he moved through the silent, deserted shadows, his mind focused on what was soon to come. The young man in his yellow robe failed to see a small, ashen feline shape that meowed as it crossed his path in the dark.

Khton, giving a start, halted in an instant.

He looked down and watched the cat disappear into the thick, obscure shades along the walls of the cube-like buildings.

A smile came to the thin lips of the priestly novice as he contemplated what he had just observed.

What was the animal considered to be divine doing out in the streets so late at night?

Who was its owner, and how had the cat escaped outside after the sun was gone out of the sky?

Into his mind’s eye came an ancient image of the cat that the god Re had once inhabited as its resident hiding from danger. The creature had shielded and sheltered the sun-god from harm by his enemies.

With a shake of his head, Khton started walking forward once again. He soon forgot the straying cat he had seen.

There burned within him a powerful ambition to learn the ritual secrets preserved for ages by the priests of the temple of Re. Tonight would be his great opportunity to do so.

Six persons stood about the sacred temple table, one of them the novice named Khton. The other five were experienced priests of Re. The officiating cleric was the high priest of Heliopolis, an elderly man bent over by the weight of his years.

In the middle of the table rested a large copper vessel in the shape of a Nile barque. This was the sacred fire-box of divine Re, dedicated to symbolize his victory over his evil enemy, the god Apophis.

As the six men chanted the history that told of the nightly voyage of the ship of Re through the netherworld of dank darkness inhabited by demons and the dead, the high priest lifted up a small sheet of green papyrus upon which was drawn the image of Apophis as a river serpent. This was the nemesis of the shining sun-god, the crawling abomination without feet or legs that represented the image of Apophis.

Khton, reciting the story along with the others, observed with fascinated attention as the priestly veteran lifted up the hinged lid of the fire-box and placed inside it the sacred green papyrus. Then the high priest picked up a long, thin straw, placing its end into the flame of a small oil lantern resting close to the edge of the wide table. As this lighting instrument burned, he used it to set on fire the green papyrus that had been deposited in the model barque. An assisting priest quickly moved forward and closed the lid of the fire-box.

A majestic hymn to Re rose from the sonorous male voices as the image of Apophis burned away inside the box of shining copper.

When the singing came to an end, the high priest stepped forward and opened the lid of the fire-box. All the six participants gazed down at the gray and black ashes of the papyrus that had been destroyed.

For that night, the arch-foe of Re had been killed. But the satanic serpent had not met with its final defeat. All of them knew that Apophis was going to return night after night, reborn and presenting an eternal danger to Re. The struggle with him was an unending one. There would be continuing attacks against the sacred barque and no final victory.

Day was to return with dawn, but in time a new night was to see the serpent of evil once again, attacking the vessel of Re.

The eternal battle of the sublime sun-god against the forces of dark chaos had to go on each night, on and on. The symbolic ritual of the priests of Re must never end, his followers fervently believed.

The priests of the temple finished by singing and chanting a song of praise to the sacred cat, the form taken by Re at the beginning of time in his first battle against Apophis.

As the Great Cat of Heliopolis, the sun-god had won a glorious victory. In the guise of a knife-wielding feline, Re succeeded in cutting off the head of the crawling enemy of the light, winning a temporary success over his eternal foe.

But all those present that night for the symbolic enactment knew that the warfare of these divine beings was to go on without a finish.

The following night, this ancient ceremony would once again have to be repeated. There was no way to escape that necessity. The same procedure would have to be followed anew by the priests of the supreme sun-god.

Khton returned homeward to his flat through the empty streets, his mind still focused on the secret ritual he had viewed for the first time. He had been accepted as a participant in the highest rite known to the temple priests.

The night sky was beginning to show the first glow of the approaching dawn.

All of a sudden, Khton thought he heard a short, sharp screeching sound.

This interrupted his meditation on what he had witnessed that night.

In a state of puzzlement, he stopped and glanced about in all directions. The shadows of the night persisted everywhere. But then a human form in a dark robe moved out of a side alley into the wider street where Khton stood surveying the scene, his eyes now focused on the shape of a man.

What was the unknown person carrying on his shoulder? Was it a large sack of some sort that projected upward into the air of night?

The building shadows masked the presence of the surprised viewer, Khton. As a result, the temple novice was able to observe this strange figure without himself being noticed.

Is that a criminal hauling off some stolen loot? wondered Khton. He did not understand what it was the he was witnessing by chance.

What could he himself do about his growing suspicions concerning the matter now before him?

The suddenly made decision was to follow behind as an unseen tracker. That was what his moral duty appeared to be under the present circumstances, Khton said to himself.

Keeping at a distance but following without noise of any kind, the tailing one walked behind the stranger back into the area of the Great Temple of Re.

Khton sensed a rising unease within himself over what he was in the process of uncovering.

The person carrying the sack entered into the sacred structure through a side entry rarely used except for delivery of materials and supplies of an everyday character for the priests. By the time the mysterious man with the sack was inside the building, Khton had decided that he had to follow him there.

What sort of threat could this secretive intruder potentially pose to temple security? he asked himself.

It took only moments to open the side door and move into one of the side corridors of the temple complex. Khton slowly advanced down the unlighted hallway. He had never been in this part of the structure.

Slowly moving forward in the darkness, he soon made out the sound of lowly chanting voices. Drawing near the entrance to a chamber unfamiliar to him, Khton could make out a few of the words being uttered. One voice was reciting sentences in a very ancient dialect of the Coptic language. The text being spoken began to make sense.

Khton stopped and listened to it.

“…the tabby has beautiful bluish gray stripes on its back. It will be a sacrifice of enormous value and will make our Apophis very happy…”

The interloper felt his entire body shake. What was it that he was hearing? What was the meaning of this weird incantation? These were words he could not believe that anyone was capable of pronouncing under any circumstances.

On continued the invocation of the divine serpent named Apophis.

All of a sudden, the stunned Khton sensed the presence of someone slowly nearing him from behind.

Then, in a momentary flash, the young man realized that he was caught in the powerful grip of a person of overwhelming physical strength. The force holding him was inescapable, he realized at once.

Pressure from behind pushed the intruder toward the light flowing out of a side chamber from which the voices were coming. Soon he was able to see inside the room.

A look showed Khton that there were three priests, all of whom he recognized, positioned around a circular table. On top of it lay the copper model of Re’s barque. Beside it was a large, fat bluish-gray cat that appeared to be asleep or dead.

The ceremony being recited had stopped and the eyes of those within looked outward at the open entrance.

A short priest whose name Khton knew to be Xath asked a question of the surprised novice.

“What are you doing in here? Why are you present at this particular hour? It will soon be morning. You should have left the temple long before now. This is an outrage, what you have done.”

The man holding Khton around the waist then spoke. “He must have followed me into the temple annex when I brought in tomorrow’s sacrifice.”

Khton could not stop himself from asking the question eating at him from inside.

“Why has this person carried a captured cat into the sacred temple? What does he intend to do with it?”

Xath gazed at the intruder with uncanny power in his ebony dark eyes. He seemed to be studying the face of the captured one as he was pressed to step into the chamber that was being used for some arcane purpose.

It was the priest named Xath who left the table and moved over until he was in front of Khton, looking directly into his eyes. He began to whisper to the young man who had invaded their secret activity.

“You have to remain silent while we go about the destruction of the creature lying on the table. I will speak with you in private when we have finished in here. You will be given an explanation of what your eyes are now about to witness. Never can you speak about what you see to anyone, in the temple or anywhere else. Your voice must be forever silent, or else you will forfeit your life as penalty.”

Khton looked on in trancelike astonishment as the priest called Xath took a long piece of straw, placed it into a lantern where a flame burned, then applied the fire to the body of the large cat inside of the ritual fire-box.

The destruction by flame of the sacrificial animal was swift and complete, ended within a short while. All through the process, the three priests involved chanted a prayer that Khton had never heard before, that he never suspected to exist, dedicated to the serpent-god of nightly darkness. The novice could feel his heart pounding with trepidation. His thoughts seemed to be in a whirling vortex. He was on the verge of losing consciousness.

Silence fell over the room once the troubling ceremony reached its end.

The pair of assisting priests made their way into the corridor, leaving Khton alone in the presence of Xath. The latter, staring directly at the novice, moved closer to him.

“I invite you, young man, to join together with us in our circle devoted to the restoration of divine Apophis to his rightful position of honor among the gods of Egypt. We can offer you enlightening instruction in the doctrines that we believe. I can myself guide you through the established thoughts we have inherited from the earliest ages. It is your duty now to join together with us. You will never regret becoming one of the members of our circle.”

What could the astounded, perplexed novice say in reply to this?

“Everything you say is so new and surprising to me,” he murmured to Xath. “You have to grant me some time to think all this out.”

The other gave him an enigmatic smile. “Return here at this hour tomorrow,” he commanded Khton. “We shall accept you as one of our own when you do.”

All through the day that followed, only a few scattered moments of sleep came to the discoverer of the unseen secret cult hidden within the temple of Re.

How could it be possible to have such opposing orientations within the same building? In the same religious organization? he asked himself again and again. Could the same person serve both Re and Apophis? How could such a stark contradiction survive for so long? In whose mind were such paradoxes and contradictions in any kind of harmony?

The god of the sun and its light was for Khton a jealous deity who could not share his authority or his priesthood with an archenemy such as Apophis the serpent. That appeared an impossibility, yet it existed.

But the immediate problem for the troubled young man involved the line of action to be taken the coming night. What was he to do and say?

He was scheduled to attend the ceremony dedicated to Re in which the papyrus with the snake pictured on it was to be destroyed in the copper fire-box.

But what then? Khton asked himself.

There was no easy escape from the dilemma he faced. Ponder as he might, he could find no solution to the tangle that now engulfed him.

Early that evening, he walked in fear to the Great Temple of Re, uncertain what might lie ahead for him.

The official nightly ceremony enacting the attack by Apophis and the defeat of the evil serpent of darkness by Re proceeded with Khton carefully attentive to every movement and sound from the priests who were participating. All his senses were awake and alive that evening. His awakeness had to be total and in control.

Khton could not have said what he was watching or listening for. His thoughts and emotions were wildly spinning as if buffeted by contrary winds. Nothing was making sense to young novice.

All at once, an unanticipated thought occurred to him.

Why not call upon divine Re for help? Why not attempt a personal connection with the supreme deity of heaven? What did he have to lose by trying?

The official, orthodox ritual came to an end and the group of priests filed out of the chamber. Only Khton remained behind, his eyes focused on the fire-box in which the green papyrus had just been burned. This was the container in which a symbolic cat was to be incinerated before the next dawn of day. The young man began to whisper a prayer.

“save me, shining god Re, from the serpent named Apophis and the circle of traitorous pretenders who claim to be your priests but are truly otherwise. Do not permit them to engulf me in their unholy scheme to reverse the victories that you win each night. Help me defeat the evil forces inimical to you and your glory. Their guilt is great and unforgiveable. They must be destroyed in their own fiery fury.”

Khton finished his appeal to the god Re, then left the temple for his flat.

He planned to walk the empty streets of Heliopolis until the time came for him to reappear at the temple of Re for what he considered the sacrilegious ritual to be carried out a little before dawn. instead of honoring and thanking the supreme sun-god, the circle of heretics aimed to insult and injure him by praying to Apophis and taking the life of a sacred animal, the cat, by setting it on fire. What greater crime against the holy order could be envisioned by anyone?

Pain and anxiety gripped tightly the thinking of the scandalized novice. What motivated such terrible behavior? he asked himself. An explanation of their evil ritual began to form as he ruminated hour by hour. Every value can, in time, turn into or produce its opposite. Light becomes darkness, heat turns cold, wet evolves into dry, on and on. Can the good and sacred generate their own opposite? the young man meditated. But then can that opposite value give rise once again to the original positive force from which it sprang in the past?

Khton had ideas that night that were new to his mind, the result of the tragic event he had witnessed in the temple annex of Re. He considered the great danger he would surely be in at the coming session with the Apophis-worshipers, a situation of overwhelming peril to him. What if they should decide to turn against him for what he had already done as an accidental intruder? The consequences of a misstep by him could turn out fatal.

What was he to do or say among such men? Was he going to betray his true thoughts before these possessed individuals?

After hours of patternless wandering, Khton came back to and re-entered the Great Temple through the same annex door he had done the night before.

He cautiously made his way to the obscure room where the cat had been killed and cremated before his eyes.

The three participants at that ghastly occasion were already all present there. Xhat gave him a nod of greeting and recognition, then began the arcane, underground rite dedicated to the eternal foe of Re. Khton sensed an abyss of infinite night closing around them in the chamber of evil.

A large sack holding something lay in the middle of the ritual table. It must hold the sacrificial cat to be used for tonight’s specific re-enactment, surmised the novice.

Khton stared at it as Xhat recited the long prayer to Apophis. If only the victim inside could return to life and provide him with some form of sacred salvation! mused the intruder who had been invited there this time.

All at once, he found himself doing something he had not foreseen at all.

Khton moved himself close to the table and grabbed the top of the sack, opening it wide in an instant.

What happened next was forever unexplainable and contrary to sober, rational judgment.

The supposedly dead animal leaped out, onto the bare surface of the sacrificial table.

All who saw this occur fell into a state of amazed enchantment, as if physically and mentally paralyzed.

The fat gray cat grew in size, until it appeared to occupy and take up one whole side of the table. Opening its mouth wide, it let out a loud, feral screeching roar, its vibrissal whiskers trembling with fury.

Claws grew longer and thicker, into steel-like weapons of death that could not be stopped. There ensued wild attacks that brought blood. The cat appeared to be insanely beyond all control, flaying out in all directions with unnatural force that could not be overpowered or defeated.

Khton alone had sufficient reason and presence of mind to move toward the entrance to the room.

In the depths of his mind, there formed an intuitive vision of how this scene of mad revenge was going to end.

As he fled down the dark corridor, there reached his ears the sound of tearing flesh and desperate screaming.

In his imagination Khton could see the horrors back there in that chamber of evil, as the angry creature of Re took its revenge against the followers of Apophis.

Was the supreme deity present that night in the feline creature? wondered Kton forever after.

It was the middle of the following day that Khton heard the news being whispered all about Heliopolis. A horrid massacre had occurred inside the temple annex. Three priests were mauled and killed by some unknown beast of the night. No person seemed to have any explanation. The mystery was too profound to solve or understand.

A ritual fire-box had been found on a table in the deadly room.

Khton was the only human being who knew the cause of all this mayhem, but he never told it to anyone.

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