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The Two Faces of Evil - Bedtime Stories
By Demonprist


He needed no map to guide him, for he knew exactly where he was and
where he was going.  His senses were razor-sharp; every one remained
attuned to the slightest change in atmosphere.  Even though this was
known in local circles as the Forest of Silence, he was still able to
hear his own voice as he methodically listed his agenda.
“Take Mumm-Rana out first.  Take Mumm-Rana out first,” he kept repeating
quietly to himself as he hiked through the forest.  That shouldn’t be
too terribly hard.  He wanted badly to scorch her for foiling his chance
to destroy all the Thundercats!  More than that, though, he thirsted for
Mumm-Ra’s blood.  Emanon thought he’d killed off the stupid mage with
that pickaxe but Set coldly informed him that he was mistaken.  Not only
had Mumm-Ra survived, he had returned to Third Earth in a new mortal
form with the good priestess’ help.
 Emanon smiled nastily, feeling reassured by that thought despite Set’s
rebuke.  Since Mumm-Ra was now a mortal he was going to be a whole lot
easier to kill.  The problem would be getting past Mumm-Rana, Set had
told him, for she was indeed a formidable enemy.  He needed to get her
out of the picture before dealing with anyone else; hence his reminder
to himself as he made his way to the white pyramid.
 He flexed his fists, his body tensing in anticipation of a good fight.
Thanks to The God he was twice as powerful as he’d been before.  Set had
even seen fit to gift him with some new and wonderful tricks, which he
couldn’t wait to try out on Mumm-Ra.  Oh, yes, this was going to be
good!

                                                            *******

 Mumm-Ra stared hard at his newfound sister as she toyed with Set’s
Heart.  “Explain, then,” he said suspiciously.  “And put down that
wretched box.  It gives me the creeps seeing you handle it so casually.”

 “Would you like to have it back then?”  She held it out to him with an
open palm.
 “Never mind,” Mumm-Ra sighed, backing away.
 Mumm-Rana smiled, still holding the box.  “If you will all please
follow me.”  She turned and led the way to the cauldron, where everyone
gathered near.  “As everything has a beginning, so does this story, and
to understand how the present came to be we must explore the past, for
the seeds of the future are sown within it.”
 “In other words . . .?” Panthro asked.
 “We’re going on a family history tour,” Oanahaptu said.  “This thing
goes way back, farther than anyone can possibly imagine, but it gained
its roots in our family.  Specifically during my father’s time.”
 “Great-grandfather dealt with Set’s Heart?” Mumm-Ra asked with
surprise.
 “Oh yes,” Oanahaptu nodded.  “He found it.”
 “He what?” Mumm-Ra yelped.
 Lion-O studied the three spirits and their relations.  “Sounds like
this is a longstanding feud,” he commented.
 Malesenkha gave him a sad look.  “You have no idea.”
 Mumm-Rana gestured to the cauldron, where pictures were beginning to
take shape.  “Just watch and you’ll understand in good time.”  She
nodded at the others.  “The one we start with is called Merneptah Seti,
the first of our dynasty.”

                                                            *******

 In ancient times when Egypt was but a waning power and had seen more
than a few civil periods of unrest, there lived a poor family in a city
called Dendera.  The father of this brood, a man named Sehrusem, was in
fact a slave who was put to work laboring for the pharaoh’s stonecutting
projects.  These included long hours whiled away with other masons
painstakingly chipping, sanding, and carving all manners of monuments to
Pharaoh’s glory.
 Sehrusem was married to a lovely woman called Tuamon, and with her they
had four sons, each of whom automatically became a slave as their
parents before them.  Sehrusem spent most of his days working at the
latest construction, and Tuamon was one of the servants who waited upon
one of the army’s lieutenant’s first wives, a woman who was widely known
for her critical nature and stingy gift-giving.  The sons began their
tutelage with their father, whose years were gaining on him and making
it harder for him to endure the backbreaking task of stonecutting and
shipping.
 The eldest of these was a young boy named Merneptah.  Unlike the rest
of his family he was not content with serving as a slave, especially
given the less-than-ideal environment in which masons worked.  Men were
forever complaining of injuries resulting from unsafe procedures and
accidents, and most of the country felt that the wasting of the treasury
on foolish pillars of the pharaoh’s ego when more serious needs had to
be met was crippling the people.  As invaders from other countries
hovered like vultures over a dying animal, this money would have been
better spent paying farmers, or armies’ salaries, and equipping them
with proper tools for their duties.
 Merneptah believed that the current pharaoh, Kusephta, was out of touch
with Egypt’s desires.  He also believed that he could do a much better
job, and continuously proclaimed his ambitions to his family, who either
laughed him off or cuffed him for speaking out against the king.
 “Bah!  What is this nonsense?  You’ll be Pharaoh someday?  Rubbish!”
Sehrusem snorted.  “Now finish that inscription, boy, else I’ll be of a
mind to whip your hide.”  Sehrusem was not a violent man by any means,
but he could be a stern parent when the occasion rose.
 “You?  Pharaoh?  Sure, and I’m going to be your Queen!” Merneptah’s
younger brother Dehra teased.
 “Merneptah, I do wish you would get your head out of the clouds and
settle down to your work,” Tuamon gently chided.  “Slaves do not become
kings.  It just isn’t done, dear.”
 Despite all their claims to the contrary Merneptah refused to be
discouraged.  He held on fiercely to his dreams and prayed fervently,
for he truly believed that the gods would smile upon him when the time
was right.
 One day he would sit upon the throne of Egypt.  And as the days passed
and he grew older, his ambition only swelled until it was a burning
firestorm in his heart.
 However, ambition alone does not a great man make, and Merneptah would
have been just another commoner lusting after the double crown had it
not been for his extraordinary gifts:
 First, he was unusually striking in appearance.  No one in his family
could place where it had come from, but Merneptah had inherited a
beautiful blazing mane of mahogany-red hair, which he steadfastly kept
long in the face of numerous objections.  Most slaves preferred to shave
their heads instead of putting up with lice infestations, a common
occurrence in squalid conditions, not to mention the fact that the
nobility often liked their lesser peers to follow their fashion
customs.  This meant wearing wigs as opposed to having real hair—a
practice which Merneptah despised, feeling it phony to alter one’s
physical looks so.  His hair also got him in trouble with many of the
high priests, for red was associated with Set and no Egyptian worth his
salt wanted to be close to a man who bore the favored mark of the dark
one.  Merneptah constantly had to defend himself from their accusations
that he was a servant of evil, come only to corrupt the innocent.
 His eyes, however, were at odds with his reputation as a feared dark
lord.  Big, almond-shaped, gentle deep violet eyes simmered with
incredible intelligence and a zest for life.  They could be as calm as
the Nile during a low stage, or as turbulent as the waters in their
flooding season.  Those that were able to muster enough courage to look
into Merneptah’s face saw not the hideous evil they expected, but an
empathetic and courageous soul.  Merneptah genuinely cared about his
people, even if most of them shunned him out of superstitious fear.
 He was also of a height rarely seen in Egypt.  If a tall person was
seen it was almost always in the company of Pharaoh, for the best of the
best were recruited to guard his majesty.  At age sixteen Merneptah
already towered over his father and brothers, and showed every sign of
developing into a fine example of masculine perfection.  Smooth skin
tanned to a golden hue beneath the desert sun complemented his eyes and
hair, and every woman, no matter how young or old, felt just a little
bit shorter of breath every time they saw his sinewy muscled body, hewn
from hours in the quarry, pass by.
 Even his looks alone, though, would not have gained him his future.
Any person could capitalize on their physical self.  It took a much
stronger one to use his mind, and Merneptah was possessed of an amazing
intellect.  He had been able to read and write much quicker and better
than any of his relatives, and had the enviable ability to memorize
whole passages from the Book of the Dead, among other texts.  He enjoyed
debating with seasoned scholars in the marketplace and at public
festivals, shocking them with his theories on labor, military tactics,
and any other topic of life he could spin off sermons on.  Merneptah
loved to read when he had the time, and spent every free moment he could
learning new talents.
 Two of these talents in particular became his hallmark.  Being of
graceful form, he secretly took up swordfighting lessons from a retired
general, figuring that in addition to wisdom he would need to be a
physically capable conqueror if necessary.  Egypt seemed to be besieged
by more and more uncouth intruders by the day.  Kusephta, it was
rumored, suffered from chronic ailments (the nature of which was
unspecified) that prevented him from journeying out into battle with his
main armies.  In fact, he rarely allowed himself to be seen in public,
save for a few token appearances at major events.  The people needed a
strong leader to bolster their flagging morale.  Merneptah vowed he
would be that leader, and his dueling legend grew as he practiced on and
soundly defeated the cream of Egypt’s warriors.
 Merneptah’s second and by far more powerful talent was his skill with
magic.  From the day that he was old enough to understand it he had kept
this secret from everyone, his family included.  Persecution against his
physical appearance he could deal with, but no amount of vouchers from
friends and family would save him from the hangman’s noose if word of
his magic talent spread to panicked and ignorant ears.  People were
already talking about him ever since his reputation as a great dueler
had spread, and not all of it was flattering.  He was smart enough to
know that there was a time and a place for everything, and so he quietly
honed his strange powers away from prying eyes.
 Merneptah was convinced that his magic gifts were just one more sign
from the good gods that he was favored.  He need only work hard and have
faith in his destiny to see his dreams come true.
 His powers were breathtaking to say the least.  Merneptah could sense
another’s presence from miles away before they ever spotted him.  He
could cause water to flow forth from a stopped up well, or send it
crashing destructively through an area in a gigantic tidal wave—after he
had touched it and made it as clean and pure as the sky above, of
course.  He had the ability to levitate solid objects or people, though
nothing extremely heavy like large buildings.  He possessed great
healing powers and stole into people’s homes in the dead of night to
relieve them of any ills they might have had if he heard a local tale of
someone suffering.  For people, he was even able to use his powers to
repair damages of the soul.  These he delighted in, for one of the
things he found unbearable was that some people never seemed to take as
much pleasure in their lives as he thought they should.  Merneptah,
loving life as he did, thought this confusing and depressing, and so he
cast his helpful spells wherever he could.  The healing extended to
animals and inanimate beings such as plants as well.  Its only
limitation was that it worked solely for the living—he could not cause
mere material things to come alive, nor could he reanimate the dead.
That was okay with him.  Besides, that kind of power was reserved for
practitioners of devil magic.
Merneptah’s psychic power was a sight to behold too.  He could touch a
book and instantly know what knowledge it contained within.  He was able
to sense weather patterns and changes months before they ever took
place, and could even create his own thunderstorms and control the
terrible lightning within.  Sometimes, given enough concentration, he
was able to summon and converse briefly with good spirits.  Give him an
object or a person another person had touched, and Merneptah could not
only tell you how recently the sought one had been in the vicinity but
what he looked like, what his character was, and whether or not he was
good or bad at heart.  Merneptah often used this part of his power to
discern whether or not men of a questionable repute were telling him the
truth.  And as if that weren’t enough, he could cast the dream stones
from the Mind Mazes of Amon and be granted powerful visions of past or
future events.  Later he would be known to the people as the Dreamer for
these visions, which were vividly recounted to all of Egypt.
The mind is the most powerful weapon.  Merneptah had molded and crafted
and polished his until it was more effective than any sword.  He
cultivated his reputation as a master scholar and warrior until many
were singing his praises from the farthest corners.  Even Pharaoh was
brought outlandish tales of the mysterious slave who claimed to be able
to restore Egypt.
 His clairvoyance would serve Merneptah well in the year to come.  One
day when he made his weekly visit to a temple of Horus, his patron god,
he happened to touch one of the stones in the courtyard outside with his
bare foot.  He received a vision of Kusephta coming from his palace in
Thebes every spring to assess the construction of his latest monumental
folly, an enormous statue of him that was to be displayed at the city’s
front gates.
 Merneptah knew instinctively that this was his chance to make his bid.
He prayed and conserved his various strengths, and six months later
Kusephta did indeed travel from Thebes to view his new self-portrait.
Merneptah took his leave of his family when the news of the pharaoh’s
arrival was announced.  “I will come back for you,” he promised them,
“and when I do I shall be Pharaoh and none of you will want for anything
ever again.”
 “You’ll come back, all right,” Sehrusem sighed.  “In a box.  The king
will have your head for your insolence, boy.”  Despite his gruff words
it was evident that he respected his son’s gumption.
 “May the gods guide you, son,” Tuamon said as she packed him some food
and a flask of water to take with him.
 “You have to tell us what Kusephta’s like,” his brothers clamored,
having heard many a wild story about the man.
 Merneptah bid them good bye and set out on a horse borrowed from a
friend.  In three days’ time he reached the temple where Kusephta was
staying.  On the fourth morning he demanded an audience with the king,
but the guards denied him on the grounds that Kusephta was in counsel
with others.  Merneptah patiently arranged himself on the steps of the
temple and waited for the pharaoh to come out.
 Instead of the man he expected a young woman with ebony hair and
shining black eyes exited.  She spied him sitting there and knew
instantly who he was, for Merneptah’s exploits had become local
legends.  “You seek my father,” she said knowingly.
 “Yes, my lady.  I have come to challenge him,” Merneptah said simply.
 The princess’s eyes flashed with amusement and a bit of admiration.
“For the double crown of the Two Lands, I presume?”
 “Correct.  I am the one who shall raise Egypt from her gutters and
restore her to glory.”  Merneptah said this without a trace of
boastfulness.  Conviction glowed in his face as he spoke.  “By the
breath of Horus, I can and will do it.”
 She smiled at him, liking what she saw and heard.  “Then, Merneptah, if
you can beat my father in a fair contest of his choosing I shall become
your wife, for a strong pharaoh needs a strong wife by his side.”
 Merneptah agreed, knowing in his heart that this too was meant to be.
Phuorbes, Kusephta’s daughter, had immediately captivated his soul.  The
princess kissed him and said, “Come to the temple again tomorrow at
noon.  My father will be holding a public asize to address the concerns
of the territory.”  With that she returned to her waiting litter nearby.

 The next day Merneptah was among those who had gathered to listen to a
series of boring speeches by various nobility.  Towards the end Kusephta
made his own speech, littering it with the usual vague references to
homage to the gods for all of Egypt’s prosperity and all that he had
done and was doing to ensure a good future for everyone.  When the king
had finished and was about to leave Merneptah stood up and cried out,
“All that you have said is false!”
 Heads turned and gasps echoed throughout the crowd.  What fool would
dare to speak out against His Majesty so!  A path cleared and a startled
Kusephta came face to face with Merneptah.  Most kings would have had a
person flayed to death on the spot for voicing such a comment, but
Kusephta was curious.  He too had heard of Merneptah and decided to let
him speak.  “Why do you make such a claim, redhead?” the pharaoh
questioned.
 “The evidence lies before you.  Our people are slowly going hungry and
hostile invaders are overrunning our lands.  Egypt is choking to death
because you use our wealth to build useless monuments to yourself
instead of providing for the ones who would carry on in your footsteps.
The great house cannot be great without a solid foundation, and the one
you have built is weakened by the rot of your blindness towards our
problems.”  A few murmurs of agreement and many shocked gasps came from
the crowd at Merneptah’s words.  “I have been given gifts from the gods,
and I wish to use these gifts to serve my people.”
 At this several elders scoffed.  “He is but a slave!  Send him back to
the rock quarry where he belongs!” one man yelled.
 “Aye, slaves have no business dictating how state affairs should be
run!  And a devil slave at that!”
 “See for yourself, Great Egypt.  He bears the mark of the Dark Lord on
his very head!  The gifts he speaks of are curses, not blessings!  He
will surely kill us all!”
 “He is nothing but a freak!”
 Kusephta held up a hand to silence the dissenters.  “Have you any proof
that you are a better man than I to claim the double crown of the Two
Lands?” he barked.
 Merneptah stood firm.  “With your consent I shall demonstrate these
talents for you.”
 Kusephta laughed and shot his challenger a sly look.  “And what makes
you think I will allow you to put on your little show for your adoring
masses and dethrone me?  I am well within rights to order your death,
brash Egyptian.”
 “You are no fool,” Merneptah responded calmly.  “Out of touch with the
times, yes, and unable to act as is required, but you desire our people
to be as great as they once were just as much as I.”  He paused
deliberately, then added, “Ask your daughter whether or not I speak the
truth.”  For Merneptah, when he had received Phuorbes’ kiss, was able
with the aid of his powers to gain insight into Kusephta himself.  He
had learned that the king was merely misguided rather than bad.  The man
had no talent for ruling and he knew it.  So he had disguised his
incompetence with empty tributes, attempting to stake his legacy in
something meaningless like the building of monuments to himself.
 No one wants to be forgotten, but in the end it will be the legacy of
soul that is remembered, not the legacy of materialism.  Merneptah had
seen straight through to Kusephta’s soul and understood this.
 Kusephta looked to his daughter, who had remained silent throughout
Merneptah’s accusation.  “I don’t understand it,” Phuorbes said, “but I
believe him when he says that he can save us from desolation.  Give him
a chance.”
 Kusephta mulled this over.  “Very well, Merneptah—is that what they
call you?  If you defeat me in a duel I shall hand over the throne to
you and you gain my daughter for your wife.  Fail and you forfeit your
life.  Is that clear?”
 “I accept.”
 “Then let us take this matter outside, where all may watch.”
 The courtyard filled instantly at the news of Kusephta’s bargain.
People clogged the streets to get a glimpse of the duel, dropping
whatever task they were doing.  The popular consensus was that Merneptah
would give Kusephta a good run for his money but the pharaoh would
eventually defeat the upstart and have him beheaded for his boldness.
Bets were quickly placed, and everyone settled in to watch as Kusephta
took the first attack.
Right away when the duel began Kusephta realized he was outmatched.
Merneptah’s skill with a sword put even the most talented warrior to
shame.  He handled the weapon like a lover, gripping it neither too
harshly nor too weakly, but letting it sing through the air with ease as
he repelled Kusephta’s attacks.  In minutes it was over, and Merneptah
had succeeded in relieving the elder of his own sword.
 The crowd held their breaths as they waited to see what the defeated
pharaoh would do next.  They could scarcely believe that the king had
even accepted this challenge to his authority without so much as a bat
of his eyes.  What were the Two Lands without a leader?  Surely this
whelp of a slave could not prove capable of ruling a kingdom in strife!
 As he sank to his knees a humbled Kusephta eyed Merneptah warily.  “It
is better that you slay me now,” he harrumphed.  “For surely I will have
your hide for this insult!”
 Merneptah lowered his sword.  “No.  The duel was to the finish, not to
the death.  Besides, I have no personal quarrel with you and seek no
vengeance, for you have not wronged me.”  He sheathed his weapon and
helped Kusephta up.  “May I suggest, sir, that you teach me instead.”
 “Teach you?”
 “About the finer points of ruling a kingdom.  Though I have plans of my
own, I am not so foolhardy and inflexible as to disregard the advice of
an experienced elder.”
 “Teach you.  About ruling,” Kusephta muttered.  He glanced back at the
edgy crowd.  The silence in the air was overpowering.  Finally the
dethroned pharaoh turned to his successor.
 “First thing you need to learn, my boy, is how to please a crowd, and
this crowd loves a good party.”  He pointed expectantly at his vizier, a
dour-faced hunchback.  “Fetch my daughter, Tahrim.  I want the wedding
to take place this very day.”

                                                            *******

 And so, at the tender age of twenty-one, Merneptah was wedded to
Princess Phuorbes and crowned Pharaoh of the Two Lands all in the very
same day.  He took to his new positions as husband and leader extremely
well, and under Kusephta’s tutelage quickly learned the delicate
intricacies it took to handle an ever-changing kingdom.  To cement his
newfound fortune he added a second name, Seti, in honor of that great
king who had brought much prosperity to Egypt in her glory days.  As
promised, he also returned to the city of his birth to bring his parents
and brothers back to the palace at Thebes, where they would live out
their days in comfort.
 Merneptah Seti, as he became known, was quite the unconventional
ruler.  Some of his edicts were harshly criticized, like his decree that
slavery was immoral and slaves should become paid citizens instead of
being owned by another.  He made hardened enemies of most of the rich
with his next decree about lowering taxes paid to nobility and high
state officials, for those fattened by monetary wealth were happily
accustomed to demanding (and getting) exorbitant fees from the
peasants.  He even angered (again) the high priests when he extended the
same laws to them and limited the amount of power they had over the
commoner.  But the public at large loved him.  He was one of them, an
unknown toiler in the sands of time, until fate and the gods had blessed
him and lifted him up out of his poverty to dazzling heights.  In their
eyes he could do no wrong, and they worshipped him just as adamantly as
they did the gods.  When he and Queen Phuorbes announced the birth of
their daughter, Princess Oanahaptu, five years into his reign the people
rejoiced along with the new parents, convinced that their new king would
create an everlasting dynasty.
 It was said of the new pharaoh that he had all the grace, intelligence,
and strength of a jaguar.  That great cat was well known to seasoned
huntsmen, for its particular beauty, coupled with the power inherent in
its mysterious form and its cool, calculating cleverness in stalking its
prey, made it a memorable creature.  Scribes and entertainers were quick
to pick up on this similarity, and Merneptah Seti became a living legend
in his own time as people spread fantastic tales about the kingdom of
“The Jaguar,” who reigned in splendor.
 In truth, Merneptah could not completely eradicate all of Egypt’s
troubles.  The ever-present bands of robber barons and the fearsome
outsider tribes remained a daunting threat to peace and security, though
not quite as much as they had in the past.  Merneptah’s armies, newly
outfitted to their teeth with the proper armament and battle gear, made
sure of this.  They always stood ready to beat back a potential invasion
or uprising.
 Merneptah had recognized from the start that the most successful
dynasties—built by kings of whom he had learned and respected for their
talents—were not born of war, but of peace.  No matter how often he
dueled or fought in battles, he always preferred coming home to a quiet
abode to spend time with his beloved wife and daughter.  Some said that
he was wise beyond his years.  Others said he was merely a softhearted
fool.  But no one ever dared question his courage.  Though Merneptah
cared far more for peace than he did for fighting, he was never hesitant
to jump into a fray to defend someone or something if need be.  “Why go
looking for trouble, when it is quite adept at finding us on its own?”
he once said.  “Only a fool seeks out poisonous vipers and toys with
them.  The smart man will avoid them when he can, but he will also deal
with them should they come slithering too close to home.”
 Nor did he shy away from controversial issues.  Whenever he made public
addresses, he talked in a straightforward manner without dodging the
problem or disguising it with a layer of whitewash the way many other
public officials did.  In this, as in most everything else he did, he
infuriated the high priests and wealthy nobility with his aspirations.
Never mind the fact that Egypt, for the first time in who knew when, was
enjoying a period of peace and economical stability the likes of which
hadn’t been seen for ages.  What got on their nerves was the fact that
he wasn’t doing things their way—which meant using force and
intimidation, two tactics Merneptah Seti only rarely resorted to, and
then when he had exhausted every other possible option.
 One of these officials, an unscrupulous man by the name of Ketif,
headed a fairly prosperous province in the Red Land.  He got word of
Merneptah’s latest plan, which was to build a magnificent funeral site
on the bordering lands between the fertile farming delta area and the
barren desert territories as a symbol of Egypt’s unity, and promptly
decided that such an idea would not come to fruition.  For Ketif
despised Merneptah and all that he stood for, believing him to be
holding Egypt back from conquering other nations and forcing them to the
king’s will.  Ketif had also harbored an intense desire to stake his own
claim on the throne when Kusephta died, and resented Merneptah’s
intervention.  After much covert plotting he arranged an ambush on
Merneptah’s royal barge when it returned from its yearly vacation upon
the Nile, and sat back to await news of the usurper’s death.
 That news never came.  Merneptah’s daughter Oanahaptu had inherited his
mysterious gifts, and it was she who accidentally touched one of Ketif’s
spies, by bumping into him during a marketplace outing with her maids,
and brought back the plot to kill Merneptah to her father.  Merneptah,
having encouraged the young princess to exercise her powers once they
became evident, didn’t doubt his child’s outrageous tale for a second.
He plotted his own ambush, sending a decoy barge loaded with a large
regiment to intercept Ketif’s brigands.  The army regiment ended up
slaughtering all but seven of Ketif’s fighters in a vicious battle, and
the seven captured were taken back to Merneptah for questioning.
One by one the king demanded them to confess their part in the would-be
murder.  If they obeyed, they faced a choice between exile or forced
enlistment in the pharaoh’s army.  If not, they would be beheaded by
Merneptah Seti on the spot.  Not surprisingly all seven immediately
confessed their involvement and fingered Ketif as the mastermind.
Merneptah then sent for Ketif and used his own powers to ascertain the
truth.  Even as Ketif brazenly lied his way throughout the interrogation
the pharaoh was already making mental plans to have the official
publicly tried and sentenced to death for treason.
Upon hearing the final declaration Ketif threw an unholy fit and
threatened to have an associate kill Oanahaptu unless his sentence was
revoked—a fatal error on the would-be usurper’s part, for Merneptah Seti
was fiercely protective of his family.  The Jaguar’s claws came out and
Ketif’s tantrum earned him an instant duel to the death.
Not content to close the matter on that note the king immediately
ordered an investigation into Ketif’s affairs.  His demands were simple:
his men were to bring back every piece of information, no matter how
small or seemingly meaningless, regarding the manner in which Ketif had
conducted himself during his term in office.  Merneptah was determined
to ferret out any more conspirators against him and put to rest whispers
of revolts once and for all.  He was a fair, just man—but under no
circumstance would he allow dissenters to mess with him any longer.
Eventually word reached Thebes that a possible secret stronghold had
been located underground, beyond the third cataract in the Nile.  Taking
his family with him amidst a stout guard, Merneptah journeyed to the
spot where his spy awaited him.  The spy showed him that a stronghold
did indeed exist in the unforgiving land of the cataracts, and the king
ordered it torn open and its contents exposed.
When the workers had done so Merneptah could not believe his eyes.
Among the hoards of valuable artifacts and gold that Ketif had pilfered
from the royal treasury during his term, the stronghold had contained
enough weaponry to arm a decent-sized army.  Within its libraries of
scrolls were detailed entries written in Ketif’s own hand of his plans
to dethrone Merneptah and create his own powerful army to rule Egypt.
This greatly pleased Merneptah’s vizier, a loyal man who was protective
of his king.  The vizier, Zakryh, excitedly chattered about how they
would now be able to track down Ketif’s co-conspirators, for in addition
to Ketif’s personal entries the traitor had listed all the men he had
worked with to bring about his failed attempt on Merneptah’s life.
None of Zakryh’s babbling affected Merneptah, however.  What had him
concerned the most was not the stolen money.  Neither did the precious
artifacts move him.  Not even the list of the traitors’ names bothered
him.  Zakryh was puzzled, and he went to see what could possibly have
distracted His Majesty from the booty.
The thing that had caught the pharaoh’s attention was remarkably
nondescript save for its coat of fine golden lines.  It appeared to have
no value at all, for its plainness guaranteed it a wide berth from
die-hard treasure seekers.  Resting comfortably on a shelf, covered with
a light dust, the black cube sat silently.
Only Merneptah knew it for what it was.
He had heard of the legends, and he had believed.
In front of his very eyes the Heart of Set awaited its new master.

                                                *******

“Holy Bast and Amon!” Mumm-Ra shrieked.  “Great-grandfather found that
damned box in Ketif’s secret stronghold?”
Mumm-Rana nodded as the visions swirled gently about in the cauldron
waters.  “It was lucky that he had, for surely Ketif would have learned
how to open the Heart one day had he lived.”
“Lucky?”  Mumm-Ra gaped at her.  “He should have just left it in there,
covered the stronghold all back up so nobody could find it.  Only an
idiot would have tried to cross those cataracts in search of treasure.”
“Not so,” Oanahaptu said.  “Crossing the cataracts is dangerous, yes,
but it can be done.  Besides, one of Ketif’s conspirators might have
known of the stronghold as well, and perhaps one day returned to claim
its contents for himself.”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Lion-O agreed grimly.
“How did Ketif get a hold of the Heart anyway?” Mumm-Ra wanted to know.
“Does it really matter now?” Durakkon asked softly, but pointedly.
“I guess not,” his son sighed.  “Go on, then.”

                                                *******

Merneptah deposited all but the Heart in its proper place upon his
return to Thebes.  This ancient puzzle box he kept with him, for he more
than anyone understood the danger behind it.  He took it with him—hidden
in a pouch he carried on his belt—everywhere he went: to court, to
battle, even to bed.  He dared not risk it falling into evil hands
should he become separated from it.
In the meantime Kings’ Court, a symbol of Merneptah’s crowning
achievements, was built.  The funerary site was meant to house the
bodies of him and his successors when they departed this earthly realm,
and to proclaim to the world that Egypt was not a splintered kingdom,
but a proudly united empire underneath its mighty pharaohs.  Consisting
of four magnificent pyramids (another of Merneptah’s visions, in which
he had foreseen only three other of his dynasty ruling Egypt) for four
separate kings, the site was a beautiful testimony to the Two Lands’
passion for great art.  Each pyramid was lightly gowned in a fine sheath
of gold to add extra sheen to the stone.  Inside colorful murals
depicting life in its joyous splendor were lovingly rendered with vivid
detail.  True to form, Merneptah had insisted that the majority of the
funds for this immense project (the rest of it came from bequeathed
donations) come out of his own considerable coffers instead of at
taxpayers’ expense.
The pyramids were set in a square formation, around the lush courtyard
boasting a matching set of four towering obelisks surrounding the pool.
Each pharaoh’s name and accomplishments were to be chiseled into his
corresponding obelisk at a later date.  Merneptah’s intention was to
make Kings’ Court an open visitation place, so that all people could
come to pay their respects to their leaders whenever they wished.  He
had disliked the old custom of setting the people and the king apart.
This was his way of welcoming his people to closer counsel.
The day the entire site finally stood completed a stately Pharaoh
Merneptah Seti I, his wife Queen Phuorbes, and their daughter Princess
Oanahaptu held a grand ceremony commemorating it.  At this ceremony The
Jaguar further shocked Egypt (though by now most had become used to his
eccentric displays) by passing the throne to his daughter, now a young
woman of twenty.  “It is time to forge a new destiny,” he said, and with
that Princess Oanahaptu gained control of the Two Lands.
Merneptah could easily have held onto the reigns of power.  At forty-six
he was still capable of ruling.  All his mental facilities were intact,
and he was in excellent physical condition, able to spar in playful
jests with friends.  Of late, however, he had begun to favor the
soothing tranquility of his recently built house in the delta lands,
near the river.  He had long grown weary of the tedious palace intrigues
that infected his court, and when a ruler feels his thoughts turn from
running his country to retirement plans it is time to pass on the
spotlight before he does any harm.  Thus he had no qualms about handing
over control to Oanahaptu, whom he and Phuorbes had reared to have a
strong sense of her own worth and capabilities.
Though Merneptah was king he had actually shared his power with his
beloved wife, who was most adept at handling some of the trickier
political situations of Egypt’s international dealings.  Growing up with
parents who had taught her to value herself as much more than a marriage
parcel had given Oanahaptu the same intense devotion as her father.  She
had no trouble in accepting her crown and wore it well throughout her
reign.

                                                *******

“Awesome!  A female leader!” Wilykat said.  “They weren’t very big on
that way back then, were they?”
“No, they weren’t,” Oanahaptu said with a smile.  “Hatshepsut I was the
only other female ruler in our country’s history.  She had guts, that
girl did.  It was only a small exclusive group of cowardly men that
protested a woman taking the kingship, of course.  A real man would
never put down a woman’s strengths.”
“Back to the box,” Mumm-Ra said impatiently.  “Did Merneptah pass that
on to you as well?”
Oanahaptu’s smile vanished.  “Yes, he did, and therein was the problem .
. .”

                                                *******

Queen Oanahaptu Mosaire Seti was well into the second year of her term
as Egypt’s ruler when she met the dashing young soldier from her army.
He was co-captain of the elite guards that patrolled the palace grounds
and a hunter of great repute.  Their meeting was purely chance on that
day, for Oanahaptu had just returned from visiting her parents at their
delta retreat and was preparing to travel to Karnak to offer a sacrifice
to the gods.
She’d just stepped out onto the balcony to water her favorite plant
before leaving when an arrow struck the stone above her head.  A
horrified cry rang out, and she looked down to see a strikingly handsome
man staring in fear up at her.  She recognized him as the new soldier,
recommended to her by her father’s vizier.  “Might this be your arrow,
good sir?” she calmly asked.
“A thousand pardons, great lady!  ‘Twas my own carelessness that caused
the arrow’s flight toward your royal person!”  The dark-haired man
dropped his bow and knelt subserviently, quivering in nervous
anticipation of his queen’s wrath.
Oanahaptu threw over the rope ladder her maid had constructed and
climbed down from the balcony to greet the young man.  “Stand up, sir,
and have no fear.  No harm was done.”  As he hesitatingly rose she
handed him the arrow she’d plucked from the stone.
“Your Majesty, you are well within rights to order my punishment,” the
frightened soldier said.  “Had my aim been true you surely would have
perished.  I fear it was a routine exercise that went astray.”
“But your aim was off, and I am alive, so let us put the matter to
rest.”  Oanahaptu gave him a charming smile, feeling her heart race in
her breast.  He really was quite handsome, with a thick pelt of hair
that was as black as a raven’s wing, so black that faint glints of blue
could be seen if the sun stroked his tresses at just the right angle.
When he lifted his face to hers a pair of beautiful inky black eyes
gazed back with warm respect and gratefulness.  His full lips curved
into a smile and white teeth flashed while he clasped her hand in his
large tanned ones.
The moment he did that her powers went into overdrive.  She had a vision
of herself and him, together, as husband and wife.  She learned that his
name was Sessendriht, and that he had unconsciously held a crush on her
since the day he’d come into her service.  She knew his favorite drink,
what music he liked, and how old he’d been when, defending his younger
sister, he’d gotten into a fight with a local bully.
She learned that his heart was good, and understood instinctively that
this was the man she was destined to share her life with.  Still gazing
into his concerned black eyes she impulsively reached out to touch his
cheek in a gesture of delight.  The gods were generous indeed!
“My lady!”  Sessendriht caught her as she slumped to the ground in the
middle of her vision.  “My lady, are you ill?”
“No,” she said softly.  “It was my visions again.”
“Oh,” Sessendriht said, drawing the O out in surprise.  Like any other
he had heard of the queen’s legendary magical talents.  She was beloved
among the people for her ability to heal sick children with just a small
caress of her hand.  Personally he’d thought that story to be
exaggerated by those who idolized her . . . until he was enlisted as a
palace guard and had met her face to face.  Surely such a breathtaking
woman had to be capable of wondrous talents!  His body warmed and he
felt his heart pounding excitedly as he held her in his arms.  “I pray
those visions were not bad omens,” he murmured, ever aware of the
penalty he could earn for being caught with the queen in such an
intimate fashion.
“Not in the slightest, Sessendriht,” Oanahaptu said with a pleased
smile.  “May I call you Sessendriht?”
“My lady, you may call me anything you like,” he whispered, a slight
blush staining his cheeks.
Thus began the courtship.  Oanahaptu invited Sessendriht to accompany
her on her trip to Karnak, and by the time they returned they had
already made plans for their engagement.  At the beginning of the new
year, Oanahaptu gave a public address in which she announced the date of
her wedding to Sessendriht, who shyly stepped forward to a thundering
chorus of cheers.
The happy couple received many well wishes in the following days as they
prepared for the wedding, but as the event drew near Oanahaptu began to
sense that not all was as it should be.  Sessendriht became withdrawn
and morose, avoiding her whenever she tried to talk to him.  Finally one
evening she cornered him in the palace and demanded that he come clean
with whatever it was that was bothering him.
“Ana, love,” he said sorrowfully after a time, “I fear that I will not
be able to give you a son or daughter of your own without endangering
your life.”
It was then that he poured out his story.  His family had a history of
difficult births.  For some unknown reason, all the women had had
trouble bringing their children forth into the world.  Isal, the sister
whose honor he had defended so long ago, had herself perished in such a
tragic way, and he had been on hand to witness the terrible suffering
she had endured as she strained to expel the tiny baby from her womb.
“I could not live with myself knowing that I had brought such a curse
upon you,” he finished somberly.  “And yet, I know that without an heir,
the dynasty will fall.”
Oanahaptu kissed her soon-to-be husband and hugged him tightly.
“Dearest, you mustn’t feel that way.  Just because your family members
had a bad experience with childbirth doesn’t mean that I will.  My
family is of good hearty stock, so I daresay popping out a few brats
won’t affect me much,” she affectionately joked.
“Love, you are quite vulgar at times,” laughed Sessendriht as he nuzzled
her.  “I do so enjoy it.”  His eyes darkened.  “I pray that you are
right, for I would love to sire a beauty such as yourself.”
“And I shall be just as pleased should it be a strapping boy like his
father,” Oanahaptu grinned.
That problem aired, they went on to enjoy a splendid wedding.  All of
Egypt turned out in full force to wish the queen and her new king a
happy marriage, and Merneptah Seti himself appeared at the temple to
grant his blessing.
It would have been a perfect honeymoon afterwards but for one thing:
Oanahaptu had yet to inform Sessendriht of the deadly power she had been
given custody of.
Upon her succession to the throne Merneptah had taken her aside
privately and bestowed the Heart of Set upon her, telling her all he
knew of the terrible legend behind it.  “Guard it with your very life,
my daughter, for should that box’s power escape this land will be no
more,” he had warned her.  “Scant few know of Set’s magic; thus you may
be safe so long as you do not reveal the secret.  Let none hear of nor
view the box, and the rumors of the Heart’s existence shall remain just
that—rumors.”
Oanahaptu had listened gravely to her father’s words and heeded his
advice, installing a secret compartment in her palace bedroom where she
stored the detestable artifact.  No one knew of it save for herself, and
she never alerted anyone else to its presence.  She allowed no one but
her maid to enter her room, and then only when she was present.  As a
second precaution she cast a spell upon the compartment so that it would
remain sealed to anyone except her.
Now, as she awaited her bridegroom’s arrival into the suite of their
royal barge, she nervously debated with herself whether or not to tell
him of Set’s Heart.  It wasn’t that she was mistrustful of Sessendriht,
for she had used her psychic senses to figure out already that he was a
good man at heart.  He would not betray her in any way.  No, it was the
fact that Merneptah had commanded her to keep the strange puzzle box a
secret, even from her mate should she ever take one.  Even he had
refrained from telling her mother, the indomitable Phuorbes, that Set’s
Heart did indeed exist, and that throughout most of the years they had
lived at the palace it had stayed there with them, unknown to all but
Merneptah.
As Sessendriht entered the bedecked bower he greeted her with a warm
smile and a tender kiss.  “Ana, darling, I shall be gentle with you, I
swear it,” he said gently, mistaking her unease for that of a nervous
virgin bride.
He was so sweet, so innocent.  Oanahaptu made up her mind.  She could
not afford to let him go about ignorant of this evil power.  What if a
time came where she might not be able to rule?  He would have to go on
in her stead, and that also meant guarding the treacherous puzzle box.
“It isn’t that, Sandy,” she said, using her pet nickname for him.
“There is something I must tell you, but you must swear that you will
not speak a word of it to anyone but me.”
Sessendriht straightened up, noting her serious tone and deep steady
gaze.  “I swear on my soul I shall not betray your trust,” he said
quietly.  “What is it you wish to tell me?”
 “You know of the titanic battle between Horus and . . . the Dark One?”
Oanahaptu asked, unwilling to say aloud the evil god’s name.
 “But of course,” Sessendriht, looking surprised, answered.
 Oanahaptu paused, wondering how best to put her next question, then
decided to simply come out with it.  “Have you ever heard of the Heart
of Set, then?”
 Sessendriht’s eyes widened in confusion.  “That horrid thing?  Oh yes,
some of the men in the army used to pass tales of it back and forth.”
He knelt at her feet and took her hands in his.  “But why bring up such
awful things now, Ana?  This is our time now.  I will protect you from
whatever threat you fear Set—“ he made the sign against evil—“might
choose to curse you with.”  He kissed her and smiled.  “Set’s Heart is
an evil story, but that’s all it is.  Just a—“
 He stopped when he beheld the shiny black box his wife withdrew from
underneath the bed sheets.  “What is that?”
 “Set’s Heart.  Would that it were only a story, my darling,” Oanahaptu
told him sadly as he gasped in shock.  “You see, my father Merneptah
found this mystical puzzle box and has been the guardian of it ever
since, until I became queen.  Then he passed it along to me.  I have
kept it faithfully in secret from the day I took the throne.”
 “Why?  Cannot you destroy it?  Get rid of it somehow?  It stinks of
pure evil!” Sessendriht said, wrinkling his nose.  “Why for the love of
Osiris would you want to have that around?”
 “I have no choice.  What if someone came along one day who knew how to
open it and release Set’s fury?  Egypt would surely perish!  No, I
cannot destroy it, for my powers are but mere parlor tricks compared
with the magic inside.  But I can prevent its discovery by those who
would use it for their own evil purposes.”  Oanahaptu lowered her head.
“I thought it only fair to warn you, should I ever become disabled in
such a manner that keeps me from fulfilling my obligations.  But neither
shall I force this despicable guardianship upon you.”
 Sessendriht’s shoulders sagged and he turned away, walking slowly
towards the window to stare outside.  I’ve lost him, thought Oanahaptu
in despair.  She shouldn’t have told him after all.
 At length Sessendriht left the window and returned to her.  He clasped
his arms around her and rocked her gently in his embrace.  “Ana, I would
never shirk a duty, no matter how unpleasant it might be.  You know
that, don’t you?”
 “I do,” she said tearfully.
 Sessendriht kissed her damp face.  “Then put away your tears, love.
‘Tis our wedding night and I shall not see you unhappy.  I will help you
guard that wretched little box, that none will ever set the Dark One
free in our world.  This I swear to you on my soul.”

                                                            *******

 Together Sessendriht and Oanahaptu became the guardians of the evil
Heart.  It was a daunting task that neither of them relished, but they
accepted it with good grace, knowing full well that no one else save for
Merneptah Seti himself was suited for the challenge.
 Keeping the Heart hidden was actually easier than they thought, for as
long as it remained safely ensconced in the royal bedroom’s secret
chamber no one could get to it.  At first Oanahaptu was given to
checking her spell daily, to be sure that its potency was strong enough
to discourage determined would-be thieves from prying into the wall
where the chamber was located.  When she and Sessendriht began settling
down into the kingdom’s affairs she relaxed somewhat.  There were no
inklings of treachery based on the reports of her spy network, and she
herself was unable to sense any ill will.  Gradually things eased back
into a wary but familiar state, and though she always held thoughts of
the box in the back of her head, she was able to recover for the most
part her peace of mind.
 She lost that the day she learned of her impending pregnancy.

                                                            *******

 “Gee, I wonder why,” Mumm-Ra snapped sarcastically.
 “Don’t interrupt!” Mumm-Rana shot back at him, uncharacteristically
stern.  “There is more to come.”
 Mumm-Ra shook his head.  “Uh-uh.  I think we can put the rest of it
together from here.  He was born—“
 “Say it!”
 “What?”
 Mumm-Rana advanced on him, suddenly threatening.  “Say it,” she ordered
firmly.  “I want you to say his name, Mumm-Ra.”
 “No.”  Brother and sister faced off, one belligerent, the other
challenging.  “Wherever he is, I refuse to give the bastard the
satisfaction of hearing his name mentioned.  He’s not worthy of that
recognition,” Mumm-Ra hissed.
 “And by refusing to openly confront your demons you ensure that they
continue to flourish in the darkness,” Mumm-Rana said.  “Whatever else
he was, he was your uncle, Mumm-Ra, and he had a name.”
 “He is not my uncle!”  Like a child in tantrum Mumm-Ra stomped his feet
angrily.  “Not anymore!  Not after what he did!”
 “What did he do?” the sorceress demanded.
 “You know damn well what he did, if you’ve been spying on me all this
time.”
 “Children!” Durakkon’s voice thundered throughout the pyramid.  He
fixed his son with a look to match Mumm-Rana’s.  “Mumm-Ra, you have got
to learn to deal with it, for Amon’s sake!  That is what your sister is
trying to teach you.  You can’t run away anymore.”
 “Who says I’m running away from anything?” Mumm-Ra retaliated.  “I’m
just showing him the same respect he gave you when he trashed your
name.”
 Lion-O, observing their exchanges with interest, felt it was his turn
to speak up.  “You think to erase Thaetith from your life just as he did
with Durakkon.”  Mumm-Ra whirled and glared at him as he spoke.  “It’s
not going to happen, Mumm-Ra.  Thaetith will always be a part of your
history and nothing you can do will change that.  But you can change the
way you handle your response to it.”
 “Stay out of this!” Mumm-Ra snarled.  “You don’t know what he’s done,
so don’t you dare try to tell me how to handle anything!”
 “What did Thaetith do that was so terrible?” Pumyra asked.
 Heavy silence hung in the air.  Finally Durakkon said, “He murdered my
mother and me in front of my son.”
 Dear Jaga, thought Lion-O as he shot a glance at Mumm-Ra.  The former
devil priest had gone completely white and looked ready to drop to the
floor in a dead faint.  Cheetara, also seeing his reaction, went to him
and slipped her arm around his waist, prepared to catch him if he did
lose consciousness.  “I’m sorry.  I had no idea—“ Lion-O started to say.

 “Don’t.”  Mumm-Ra’s face regained some of its color and his eyes
hardened.  “I don’t want your pity.  I can take care of myself.”  He
lifted his jaw, which was set in a stubborn cast.  “I’ve been doing it
since I was ten years old.”
 Tygra spoke up.  “You know, Mumm-Ra, relying on others is not a
weakness.  Nobody can make it alone.  Maybe it’s time you let someone
take care of you.”
 No one said anything as the terse atmosphere prevailed, until Wilykat
tentatively brought up the subject of Thaetith again.  “Thae—“ he caught
himself and changed his wording, out of respect for Mumm-Ra’s
sensitivity to it—“this guy, he got the Heart of Set from his parents
and went bonkers for power, didn’t he?  Because the box was so evil?”
 “Something like that,” Oanahaptu said, nodding.  “If you’re looking to
place blame, my dear Sessendriht was technically responsible.  He
thought, as did I, that our children would have to know about it in
order to protect it from those who sought evil’s power.  But I had
wanted to wait until Thaetith was much older before letting him in on
the secret, so that he would be mature enough to fully understand the
situation.”
 “So he was corrupted in his youth,” Tygra said.  “All for toying with
something that he didn’t understand.”
 “No, my brother understood what he was getting into,” Durakkon said
with a sad look.  “It was just that the evil hold it had on him was too
much for him to resist.  As you’ll see, Thaetith was easily seduced by
power . . .”

                                                            *******

 Oanahaptu awoke with a shrill cry.  Burying her head in her hands she
sobbed out her night terrors silently, unwilling to disturb her husband.

 Sessendriht was already awake.  He sat up and cradled his wife in
strong arms.  “Ana, what’s wrong?”
 “The nightmares.  I had them again,” she whimpered.  “They get worse
every night, I swear!”
 Sessendriht gathered her closer.  “Sweetheart, I want you to go and see
the Hapi priestess tomorrow.  These dreams are making you sick, and I’m
worried,” he said softly.
 She shook her head.  “That old bag wouldn’t know a nightmare if it bit
her on her hind quarters!”
 Her husband chuckled for a moment and then grew serious again.  “I
suppose so.  But love, you need to see some sort of doctor.  Every time
you have one of these nightmares, it makes you so sick you can’t even
eat for a whole day.  You’re losing weight where you shouldn’t and
gaining it where it shouldn’t be.”  He palpated her thickening belly.
“This in particular worries me.  I have heard of men who contract such
ailments, and they die from the gas that bloats their stomachs so.”
 Oanahaptu paled.  “Am I going to die?” she asked weakly.
 “Nay, don’t even think such thoughts!”  Sessendriht hugged her hard.
“Just promise me that you will seek some help before another day
passes.”
 The next morning Oanahaptu went to see the one person she knew would
give her the truth.  She arrived at her parents’ home in record time,
having taken the small skimmer boat instead of the larger royal one.
 Phuorbes greeted her at the door.  “Welcome, Ana!”  Her elegant face
beamed with delight as she ushered her daughter inside.  “What brings
you to us so suddenly?  You look sick.”  Her dark brows creased with
worry.
 “Mother, I am having terrible nightmares,” Oanahaptu blurted out, and
then poured out the entire story of her frightening dreams.  Since the
flooding of the Nile had begun she had received nightly visions of evil
portent.  Their content sometimes varied, but in every one there were
always recurring themes of death and destruction.  Each one had grown
worse as the month wore on, and she was afraid she was losing her mind,
so severe were their images.
 The queen regent listened gravely to her daughter’s woes.  When
Oanahaptu had finished, she took a few moments to collect her thoughts
and then said, “Ana, have you ever considered the possibility that you
might be with child?”
 Oanahaptu blinked in astonishment.  “No.”  Of all the things she had
suspected of causing the nightmares pregnancy, amazingly, hadn’t been
one of them.
 Phuorbes smiled gently.  “Some women have nightmares when they’re
pregnant.  It just means that you are afraid for the new life you
carry.  No parent wants her child to experience harm when he—or she—is
brought forth into this world.”
 “I never would have thought,” Oanahaptu said, and then blushed as she
realized how painfully obvious it all should have been to her.  The
rounded belly her hands were resting upon said it loud and clear.  She
hadn’t had her red moon for quite some time, and Sessendriht . . . well,
when a woman was lucky enough to have a mate as sexy and lusty as he,
she certainly wasn’t about to let him sit around collecting dust.  “A
baby,” she said, still in pleasant shock over the thought of a son or
daughter of her own.
 Phuorbes grinned.  “I shall ask your father to mix up some of his
sleeping draught.  It will help you sleep better and perhaps eliminate
those nightmares.”
 Later that afternoon Merneptah Seti conducted a test that proved beyond
a doubt that she was indeed pregnant.  He prescribed a healthy diet,
plenty of rest, and a bottle of his homemade laudanum that promised
relief from her nightmares.  “Fear not, Ana,” he said proudly.  “You
will be a good mother to the new babe.  Now go home and tell Sessendriht
the good news.”
 Sessendriht, when he learned that he was officially a father, was not
only relieved that his wife was not in ill health but overjoyed that
their wishes had come true.  He was still nervous about the prospect of
her actually birthing the child, but that nervousness was overshadowed
by joy as they made plans for their new baby’s future.  “He shall grow
up to be a great pharaoh!” he happily proclaimed as he lovingly swung
Oanahaptu around the room.
 She laughed merrily.  “What makes you think it will be a boy?  ‘Tis
time for another female to take the roost, I say,” she teased him
affectionately.
 “We’ll see about that!”  Sessendriht playfully scooped her up and
dumped her on their bed, tickling her.  “We need another boy, I say.
You females gang up on us poor men and bedevil us for all eternity!”
 “Aaah, but that’s as it should be, silly man,” Oanahaptu giggled, and
tickled him back.  “It’s how we like to prove just who’s the weaker
sex!”
 Tickling soon turned to cuddling, and cuddling soon became lovemaking.
Later, as she lay snuggled in her beloved’s arms pondering the future,
Oanahaptu believed for the first time since the nightmares had appeared
that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
 Little did she know that the real nightmare had just begun.

                                                            *******

 “Push!”  The fat priestess quivered anxiously as she coached her
queen’s actions.  This was not going to be an easy time of it for Her
Majesty.  Queen Oanahaptu was straining, panting, as she struggled in
labor to bring forth her firstborn.  Never in all the years she had
assisted at a birthing had labor lasted this long, and she began to be
afraid that neither the queen nor her child might survive the process.
She started to murmur an old incantation to Hapi, the hermaphrodite
god/goddess of the Nile, hoping that on this evening her prayers would
be looked favorably upon.
 Outside Sessendriht was pacing frantically.  He winced visibly every
time a piercing scream rent the air, and several times the vizier had to
restrain him from bursting into the room.  “By the gods, is she all
right?” he demanded for perhaps the twentieth time.
 “She’s a fighter, Your Highness,” Zakryh assured him, though he too was
growing worried the longer the day dragged on.  “The queen and babe are
surely strong enough to make it through this.”
 On the bed inside Oanahaptu writhed in agony.  It was as if a thousand
hot knives had been thrust into her belly and worked in and out
repeatedly.  This child was tearing her insides to pieces, she was sure
of it.  “Damn you Sessendriht!  What is this thing you have planted
within my body!” she shrieked as another wrenching contraction sliced
through her.
 The Hapi priestess took no notice of the queen’s feverish cries.  She’d
heard worse things before.  “Fetch me a new cloth,” she barked at one of
the army wives who was assisting as a witness.  The skinny wench obeyed
and tossed a fresh towel to the priestess.  “Bleeding a lot, is she?”
the woman asked timidly.
 “Yes, and we need to stop it before it grows worse.  Some blood is to
be expected, yes, that is only natural.  Too much and she will lose the
child.”  The priestess worked expertly and smoothly to staunch the flow
of bright red coming from between Oanahaptu’s thighs.  “Try once more,
Highness.  Push!”
 A heaving, sweaty Oanahaptu gritted her teeth and tried again to
deliver her baby.  She clenched a fistful of sheets and strained with
all her might, loosing a sharp scream that coincided with the crack of
thunder in the desert.  Set was making his presence known on this
fateful evening with one of his rare tantrums.
 “I see something!” a wife cried.  “It looks like a head!”
 “Good!” the Hapi priestess exclaimed.  She examined Oanahaptu and
nodded approvingly.  “Again, Highness!  Not much longer now, the baby is
eager to join us!”
 Oanahaptu gasped in acknowledgement and pushed again, sobbing as the
pain lanced through her viciously.  How could the creation of a new life
be so cruel, unless that life was of evil spawn?

                                                            *******

During her entire pregnancy her nightmares, instead of disappearing,
only returned with a vengeance.  She increased the dosage of laudanum
she was taking to the point of dangerously overdosing in a futile
attempt to reclaim her lost sleep.  When that failed, she tried visiting
the temples and offering numerous sacrifices to influence the gods for
the better, and when they remained deaf to her pleas, she turned to her
family, begging them for salvation from these visions of evil.  As there
was nothing any of them could do to rid her of them, she was left with
no choice but to endure their nightly performances of hateful torment.
Gradually she came to wonder if the nightmares were actually a product
of her powers on alert, warning her that her baby was not pure and
innocent at all but a creature made from the darkest depths of hell.
The unusual frequency of storms that were passing through this area of
the desert seemed to support this theory.  The Dark One himself was
preparing to welcome yet another of his loyal minions to the earth.
 Desperate, Oanahaptu resorted to a botched attempt at abortion.  She
mixed a powder that she knew would induce an early labor and rid her
womb of its occupant, all the while begging unseen deities’ forgiveness
for acting out the terrible plan.  But the powder did not have its
desired effect, short of making her sick to her stomach, and the child
stubbornly held fast to its place.  It grew stronger every day as it
resisted any effort to force it out.  As a final act of madness,
Oanahaptu, by then seven months along, found herself standing at the
edge of the river ready to throw herself in and be done with it all.
 Then Merneptah Seti, out for a stroll, happened upon her.  He saw his
daughter about to drown herself and quickly caught her before she jumped
from the riverbank.  She sobbed out her tale of misery and insanity to
his sympathetic ears as she told him it was the only way to stop the
torment.  When she was finished Merneptah stroked her hair and then
said, “Let me cast the stones for you.”
 Oanahaptu stared at him in surprise.  He had not cast the stones of the
Mazes for perhaps decades!  Doing so caused him great fatigue and
endless stress, from which he took months to recover whenever he dared
call upon the gods’ assistance.  The last time he had ever cast stones
she had been but a baby.  It was the time he had envisioned Kings’
Court.  “You would do that for me?” she asked tremulously.
 “If it will put your mind at ease, then yes, I shall do it,” the elder
replied.  “Come.  Let us return to the palace and I will show you that
there is nothing wrong with your child.”
 They traveled back to the palace, and after making sure no prying eyes
were about Oanahaptu led her father upstairs to a private room.  She
took a seat on the couch and waited anxiously for him to begin.
 From a pocket in his robes Merneptah withdrew a small pouch.  This he
opened to allow its contents—ten shiny round stones all as smooth as
sanded oak and flat as regular skipping pebbles—to slide out into his
open palm.  Each stone was no bigger than the size of one of Zakryh’s
mint candies that the vizier favored when he had an upset stomach.  Yet
they seemed to radiate a powerfully huge life force all their own as the
light from lamps nearby cast a shimmering glow over their tan forms.
Merneptah placed the stones all around him so that he was standing in
the center of their new circle.  When he had done this he straightened
up, and stood stock-still.  He looked to his daughter and put a finger
to his lips, indicating that she should be quiet.  Oanahaptu nodded in
agreement, knowing that he needed the peace to concentrate on his
powers.  She had never seen him cast the stones before.  Merneptah Seti
at work was a dazzling wonder to behold.
 Merneptah closed his eyes and clasped his hands together in front of
him as if he were praying.  The air took on a strange electric feel,
becoming so charged that Oanahaptu was afraid to even exhale, thinking
that her breath might cause a chaotic reaction if she disturbed it.  As
she watched a spark of blue lightning crackled across the stones,
dancing sideways and back again before splintering into fragments that
touched every stone.  The circle of stones rose as one into the air
while they began to spin counterclockwise.  Simultaneously Merneptah
rose as well, spinning his body in the opposite direction.  Both stones
and Merneptah gained momentum as their velocities increased, until they
were indistinguishable blurs amidst the bolts of blue that flashed and
twisted within.
Suddenly the pharaoh flung out his arms at his sides, palms raised, and
he came to an instant halt.  The lightning ceased and the stones piled
on top of one another while they formed a stack before him.  Merneptah,
who had risen no more than a few inches off the floor, lowered himself
so that his feet touched solid ground.  He dropped one arm to his side
and held out his other, pointing to the tower of stones.  They started
to glow a vivid sapphire and then snaked out to form a levitating circle
around him again.  Surrounded by this mystical blue ring Merneptah let
his outstretched arm fall limply to his side.
Oanahaptu waited breathlessly.  Sometimes it took a full hour for the
visions to complete themselves, and she was already on pins and needles
wondering what Amon’s Mazes would bestow upon him.
Merneptah held out both hands again and the stone nearest him floated
over to settle in his palms.  He squeezed it tightly for a breadth of
several seconds.  Then the stone blazed white-hot and extinguished its
light, resuming the previous look of its light brown markings.  It
settled to the floor noiselessly while Merneptah cast the next one.
When he had received the vision he desired it too flickered and
vanquished the deep blue glow, landing with a soft click next to its
predecessor.
This went on for the rest of the night.  Ten times Merneptah cast a
stone.  Ten times he received a vision.  By the time the last stone was
cast it was nearly daybreak.  Oanahaptu tiredly rubbed her grainy eyes
and stifled a yawn as she sat up.  She couldn’t remember dozing off but
she realized she must have, for the stones lay in a neat circle around
the fallen Merneptah.  She gasped and rushed to his side.  “Papa, are
you all right?”
“Only . . . one . . . will live,” he whispered hoarsely, his eyelids
fluttering as he clung to a semblance of consciousness.
“What?”  Frightened by his words, Oanahaptu shook him gently.  “Papa,
what do you mean?  Is the baby going to die?  Or will it be me?”
“Two,” he mumbled.  “There will be two.  But . . . only one . . . one
will live to see the dawn of a new morn.”
Her mind swam fuzzily.  Two babies?  She’d only felt one kicking within
her body.  “Papa, I don’t understand!  Two what?” she frantically
demanded.
“My . . . pyramid.  Kings’ Court,” Merneptah rasped, his breath eerily
gurgling in his chest.  Oanahaptu grew more terrified with every word he
spoke.  “Underneath it . . . the puzzles in the secret chambers.  Show
them the puzzles!” he ordered urgently.
“I will, I promise, Papa,” the queen said, even though she hadn’t a clue
as to what he was talking about.
“No one . . . has ever seen . . . his fury.  But there will come a day .
. .” Merneptah gasped for breath and plunged on.  “There will come a day
when his guardsmen will try to free him . . . they must be stopped!  He
cannot be allowed to roam this earth again!”
Oanahaptu’s blood chilled.  Her father just had to be speaking of the
fearsome Heart of Set!  “How?  Tell me, Papa, and I swear I will do all
that I can to prevent that!”
“Cannot . . . do it yourself.  Too powerful,” the man told her.  “But .
. . there will be two . . . who can withstand the magic . . . split
apart, they are impotent . . . brought together and they possess a power
unlike any known . . .” Merneptah trailed off and slipped into silence,
his strength taxed to its limits.
“Papa, no!”  Oanahaptu shook him harder, tears spilling down her face.
“Wake up!  You have to tell me the meaning of your visions!”
He never woke again.  Two days after performing the casting of the dream
stones from the Mind Mazes of Amon Merneptah Seti perished unexplainably
in a coma.

                                                *******

Egypt mourned mightily the passing of its pioneering spirit.  Merneptah,
whatever his faults, had been a brave and goodly man.  People from all
corners of the Two Lands came to pay their respects, and even foreigners
from other lands visited his funeral service to honor the legendary
leader known for his incredible talents.
When the last visitor had left Kings’ Court, the site of the interment,
Oanahaptu journeyed into the pyramid designated as Merneptah’s final
resting place.  She found beneath its hidden chambers two enormous
steles.  Each would have taken an army of twenty men to raise.  One was
solid white.  The other was an ominous onyx.  Both had pictures carved
into their faces.
Oanahaptu froze when she recognized a symbol that each stele shared, and
with blinding clarity she understood her father’s last words.

                                                *******

“You ought to give thanks that this one is a boy,” the Hapi priestess
said as she waggled a finger at Oanahaptu before taking her leave.  “Now
the kingdom is assured of a strong ruler to continue the dynasty.  Go
through another pregnancy like this one again, you may not survive.”
It was all the queen could do to keep from dropping into an exhausted
sleep.  She nodded blearily at the priestess as the fat woman waddled
out the door, paying her admonitions no mind as she gazed down at the
greedily sucking infant at her breast.  Prince Thaetith Dehra had come
into this world brandishing a fierce temper, which luckily had been
soothed by an immediate feeding.
Sessendriht, though almost as weary as his wife, proudly stayed to watch
his son.  “Did I not tell you that he would be a great warrior?” he
teased gently as he stroked the cap of inky black hair on the baby’s
head.
“Aye, it seems you have won this bet,” Oanahaptu laughed.  Then she
closed her eyes.  “In truth, I am thankful that we have this one healthy
child.  The priestess said I would not live through a second pregnancy.”

“Then we will heed her warning,” Sessendriht said.  He kissed her cheek
and tucked the blankets around her and the new baby.  “I will not risk
your life just so that scribes can boast of my virility in raunchy
poetry.”
Oanahaptu would have laughed at that, but she was too tired to care much
about anything right now.  The painkillers one of the army wives had
given her were beginning to kick in.  “’Night, dearest,” she mumbled
sleepily.

                                                *******

“If the Hapi priestess said you couldn’t have any more kids, then how
come Durakkon was born?” Wilykat asked Oanahaptu.
“Gods work in mysterious ways,” the queen regent answered lovingly as
she gave her younger son a smile.  “Durakkon was an unexpected
blessing.”
Lion-O was about to comment on that when a nudge from Panthro made him
look up.  The panther discreetly pointed at Mumm-Ra.  He was leaning
over the cauldron, studying the image of his infant uncle with an
expression that was unfathomable though his violet eyes churned with the
turbulence of his conflicting emotions.  “It’s pretty hard to despise a
baby, isn’t it?” Lion-O said aloud, directing his words to the group
rather than to Mumm-Ra alone.
“Seldom is one born evil,” Mumm-Rana said, understanding the gist of his
comment.
“Yet Thaetith apparently became evil sometime in his life.  So what made
him turn in the other direction?” Cheetara asked.
Mumm-Ra spoke suddenly.  “Power lust.”  His words were flat as they came
out and he avoided giving anyone a direct look.
“The desire for power is not evil in itself, but in the means and
intentions of those who would wield it wrongly, that desire spirals into
a terrible obsession,” Oanahaptu agreed.  She looked to her son, who
nodded.  “We’re proof of that.”

                                                *******

“Thay, wait up!”
“Do you have to follow me everywhere?  Set’s balls, but I have better
things to do than baby-sit you,” Thaetith spat on the ground in
annoyance as his younger brother raced to join him.
Durakkon grinned toothily, showing a gap where his left front tooth
should have been.  One by one his baby teeth were being replaced with
adult ones in rapid succession.  “Mama will whip you, she catches you
swearing by Set,” he warned with a solemn face.
Too late.  A frowning Oanahaptu marched up to the boys and swatted
Thaetith soundly on his bottom.  “Thaetith Dehra!  I never want to hear
you using an oath like that again, do you understand me?” she scolded.
“Remember what I said about him—“ she staunchly refused to use the Dark
God’s name in casual conversation—“and the others.  We do not take their
names in vain!  Especially his, of all names.  You never know when evil
stands ready to take a hand in your fall.”
The elder prince nodded sullenly, refusing to show any emotion at being
reprimanded or lectured.  Parents could be such a bore!  Don’t do this.
Don’t do that.  How he longed for the day when he would gain his own
independence!  He was thirteen and already considered a man by modern
standards, yet his own mother still treated him like a baby!  No wonder
none of the court took him seriously.  You couldn’t respect someone who
remained fastened to his mother’s apron strings.
If Father was around this wouldn’t be the way of things, Thaetith
thought.  No, Sessendriht would have merely chuckled and winked at him
for daring to utter the blasphemy.  “That’s right, son, don’t use Set’s
name in front of your mother,” he’d say—key words being in front of your
mother.  Then with a manly pat on the back he’d send his eldest son off
on his merry way, presumably to engage in more such boys-will-be-boys
behavior.
Then again, if Sessendriht had survived the lung infection he’d
contracted from a sick soldier, he’d probably have sided with Mom
instead.  To hear her talk about him—and she did—a lot—Sessendriht was a
saint who would never approve of swearing, let alone other questionable
pastimes.  In Oanahaptu’s stories he was always so sweet, so kind, so
gentle.  It was enough to make one want to throw up.
Oh well.  Sessendriht had been good for at least one thing . . .
Durakkon tugged at Thaetith’s kilt.  “Can I come with you?” he asked
eagerly.
Thaetith looked down at him, not bothering to hide his irritation.  Ah
yes, who could forget little brother?  As if anyone ever let him.
Little brother Durakkon, the other saint in the household.  Little
brother who could do no wrong in Mother’s eyes, while he, Prince
Thaetith, heir to the throne of Egypt, was bound on a one-way track to
trouble.  He grimaced.  He could just hear his mother’s voice now.  “Why
can’t you be a good boy like Durakkon?  You know better than that,”
she’d say crossly.
Baby brother, of course, would never have committed such a faux pas like
cussing.  Durakkon was not interested in fun things like setting fire to
a bossy scribe’s lodging in the middle of the night.  Nor did he care to
poison the old beggars who continuously dirtied the palace entrance with
their revolting presence.  And he certainly wasn’t the type to go in for
a nice game of Going Round Four Times with any other boys his age, in
which the loser ended up at the bottom of the Nile.  Never mind that
nobody had ever gotten seriously hurt in any of these pranks (too bad).
They just weren’t things that noble princes should be caught doing, even
though it was all training for the day he took the throne.  Pharaohs
must be strong and able to crush any opposition.  They had to be strict
in the application of the laws.  And they must never, ever, display any
weaknesses.  In fact, the best pharaohs were those who were feared
throughout their reigns.  Better to be feared than loved, for if people
feared you, they would not dare to rise up against you as long as they
understood that you held their lives in the palm of your hand.  It was
all about power.
Thaetith suppressed a snicker.  If his mother ever knew what he really
did during these little outings she’d expire on the spot.  That might
not be so bad come to think of it.  Tutankhamen had been what, nine,
ten, when he was crowned king?  And here he was all of thirteen and ripe
for control.  The injustice of it all!
And that, my dears, is what the box is for.
How he loved that puzzle box!
Thank you, Father, for telling me about it before you popped off and
died.  When the hell were you planning on letting me in on your dirty
little secret, huh?  Till I was an old fart like my grandma?  No, wait,
I know.  You and Mom probably wanted us two boys to see it together.
Keep it all in the family, brotherly love, that sort of rot.  Well guess
what?  There can be only one pharaoh, and I’m it.
Oanahaptu tapped her foot.  “Take your brother with you when you leave
for your lessons.”
Inwardly he cursed by Set’s name again.  “Aw, do I have to?” Thaetith
complained.  “He can’t even ride the horse yet!  He’ll just get in the
way.”
“Family members should never be seen as an intrusion by their own kin,”
his mother responded.  “Take him with.  Perhaps you would care to teach
him, if you feel he is too slow,” she added, softening her voice.  She
always tried to make her children feel loved and needed.
Thaetith paused as he silently gnawed on her suggestion.  Why not? he
thought suddenly, feeling inspired.  He was in the mood to show off, and
what better audience than baby brother?
Besides, it was about time the little snot learned who was boss.
Giving his mother and brother a charming smile, Thaetith blinked jet
black eyes innocently.  “Okay,” he agreed.


                    Next Chapter



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