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On Sacrifice Day in the ancient city of sand and clay, the people let the cats lead the sacrifice to the den of the fanged beasts. Unknown to the people, the cats first chose one of their kind to select the sacrificial child, before leading anything to the underground where the fanged beasts made their den.
They came to the room of the black cat, invisible in his den’s darkness but for his startling yellow eyes. He had never led the sacrifice, never wanted to, yet he was certainly the oldest cat living under the adobe walls—or if not, his family was long remembered, and not one of them had participated in Sacrifice Day. The black cat had never seen the fanged beasts, never wanted to. He wanted only to be left alone. He was expected to follow in the steps of the clay city’s cats, to choose a child and lead the sacrifice to his doom.
But the black cat would not do as expected.
He left his room reluctantly, his demeanor one of disinterest that is common in cats, and climbed the adobe steps of the underground to the surface streets. After an hour, he returned with a thin string tied to his tail and a small boy clinging to the line, believing he had caught the cat rather than the other way around. The boy smiled and his eyes laughed, but not a sound arose from his throat. Something was wrong and the cats couldn’t fathom why the black cat would choose a sickly, mute child. A sacrifice meant nothing if nothing valuable was lost. And the fanged beasts so enjoyed the screaming …
The black cat yawned and stalked away from the judging cats’ eyes, leading the child through a crowd of the city’s people. Red priests who bore smoking lanterns watched warily for signs and omens as the crowd parted for the lead and his sacrifice, and not one realized he’d let a black cat cross his path.
At the end of the lines of onlookers gaped another entrance to the underground, leading directly into the fanged beasts’ labyrinth. The maze was observed from above through slits in the sand-swept street, and the people walked gingerly here so as not to fall into the lair beneath their feet. The black cat led the boy down the steps, tail twitching easily until they reached the bottom, where the string’s loop slid off.
The cat’s yellow eyes stared intently at the child and he raised a black paw. Perhaps a speaking child would be too used to words to obey a cat or even understand one’s meaning, but the mute boy had spent his life watching others’ movements so he could understand and be understood. He waited at the entrance, as the black cat desired.
The cat zipped ahead of the boy, through the maze that gave no trouble to felines, making a zig-zag around the perimeter of the paths. Now and then he would rub his coat against a wall here, or mark a corner there, until he’d circled around back to the child. He spun in a circle, glancing at the boy over his shoulder, and the sacrifice followed the lead into the maze, as intended.
The onlookers did not understand. They watched the two shapes of the fanged beasts emerge from their lair at the center of the maze, golden-furred and covered in dark spots, their faces cut sharply with malice and teeth when they smelled what had been done to their home. No normal cat was meant to defile their den. They followed the trail of piss and hair, prowling the maze in a wide circle that took them along its edges and past the entrance, the longest path in the labyrinth.
The black cat led the mute boy through the straightest route, daring to pass through the fanged beasts’ den. The boy smiled and scampered along, dawdling as a child will, and in time they reached the point where the maze met the greater network of the underground. The black cat did not know what the onlookers might think as he led the boy up the steps, didn’t care to know. He only knew they could no longer watch him. The ceiling shook as they ran, their smoke-bearing priests seeking another entrance.
Not far behind, the fanged beasts found the same opening and the black cat’s marking, ensuring they would follow the same steps and path. Other, smaller cats watched from cracks in the walls, and understood long before the humans that the black cat meant to save the boy somehow. They expected he would lead the child to the stairway entrance to the surface, where the humans would block his way and the sacrifice would be finished as the fanged beasts closed in.
But the black cat would not do as expected.
He led the boy off the steps, marking the way again, and the two entered the black cat’s lair, where he was invisible but for his yellow eyes. He nudged the boy’s leg until the child stood in a corner, and then the cat nudged the boy’s thigh to make him sit, his knees and elbows to make him curl up, and his head so he would tuck it in. Wrapped in a ball, the boy was left alone in the dark corner while the black cat waited at the doorway.
The fanged beasts appeared shortly, towering over the black cat, their eyes burning with hungry green fire. They knew the boy was inside, they knew the black cat had tried to hide him, and the black cat bowed, something he had never done. He backed away into the darkness with a submissive curl in his spine, his head lowered, his eyes downcast. The fanged beasts entered the black room, savoring the taste of the boy lingering in the air. They expected to kill the sacrifice quickly, and then the lead who had desecrated their lair.
They did not expect the room to be so large, for the darkness to take them entirely as they sought the child. They did not expect the flicker of yellow eyes to blink, and blink, and grow larger. They did not expect that in complete blackness, when a black cat is not limited to the form you see of him in the light, that he may truly be a panther, as large and deadly as the fanged beasts—they couldn’t see him and so they couldn’t know. They did not expect the black cat to become the darkness, the kind of cat unseen in many thousands of years, whose teeth severed spines and broke skulls, whose throat swallowed men whole as easily as the night swallowed the sky, whose coat lit with stars when prowling the empty plains beneath the moonlit heavens, before there were cities at all, when he might feast on hairy elephants and birds the size of houses.
The fanged beasts had screaming for their sacrifice after all.
When the priests ran with their lanterns to light the room, they found the fanged beasts’ insides torn out, their blood painting the floor and their skins lying at the feet of the mute boy. The black cat sat on the child’s knees, licking his paw as if nothing mattered.
The sign was clear to the priests—this Sacrifice Day meant a year of conquest, of the clay city rising to all its challenges, never anyone mind that a black cat had crossed its priests’ paths. The child was titled the Boy Who Slayed the Fanged Beasts, to sit by the city’s ruler as a lucky charm for the coming wartime. The would-be sacrifice need no longer chase cats in the street.
Many cats expected the black cat to join the child he’d saved. He had the opportunity to live a life of luxury. He needed never to hunt again, never to starve. No street urchin would throw stones at him, no dog would eat him, and no man would drown his kittens should he sire any on some female he met in the warm nights. Few cats ever felt the paradise he could’ve had.
But the black cat would not do as expected. He remained in his dark room, feasting on the remains of the fanged beasts. He did as he pleased with his days and his nights, he went on living in the blackness of his den, and he was left alone, as he’d wanted all along.