In the sands of Khem, a storm was brewing. In the Lower Kingdom, where the river once called Iteru (and now called the Nile) met the Mediterranean in a great fertile delta, the winds were growing and growling.
The Iteru was a truly magical waterway that served both the Lower Kingdom by the great central Sea and the Upper Kingdom further inland. Like all rivers, it flowed from its sources to the ocean, and in doing so it brought gold, ivory, ebony, incense, and all manner birds, apes, and other exotic animals from the interior of the continent, born on rafts and reed boats.
But unlike other rivers, the Iteru had an amazing second gift to the people of Khem, for the prevailing winds blew upriver, against the current of the water, so that with the use of simple sails, the boats could let the winds push them back up the river. The traffic went in both directions with equal ease. In other rivers, ships traveled upstream with difficulty, driven by paddles and oars or drawn by teams of oxen or slaves. But not on the Iteru.
Today, however, something strange was happening. As the winds grew in force, they shifted, until the gales were aligned with the current, both flowing downstream. A wall of water built until it was higher than a man. Its edges overflowed the banks, bringing an unseasonable flooding as the liquid wall swept downriver.
Then it flowed over a sandbar, and when the wave had passed, subsiding, on the sand a female figure stood. Her feet were bare; her legs were enclosed in a form-fitting dress the color of blood. Over her covered breasts were flower-like swirls. She was perfectly dry.
She gazed about her and left the sandbar, walking across the Iteru toward the bank of the setting sun. As she walked, she thought about what had transpired in the first contest between her people and Zeus's Olympians.
Like Atum, she had been surprised by Zeus's choice for his first champion. But she had to admit it had been clever. Asklepios's ability to heal himself had been crucial to his victory. Even more surprising had been his ability to acquire extra powers in this virtual world. Blasting Am-heh from a distance to avoid his jaws, alternating this with self-heals, he had handily defeated their champion.
But what of it? It was clear that Atum's choice of Am-heh for his first champion had also been clever. While they had lost the match, that had served Atum's purposes, because with his character flaws, the Transcended child Am-heh was little more than a liability and a nuisance – his blunder with the Trenni was proof of that. So, really, Atum could not lose either way. Either Am-heh would win the first match for him, or fall in battle, solving their problem. Now Am-heh was gone back to the cycle of death-and-rebirth, to have a chance to mature a little more before he Transcended again. And his defeat had informed them, disclosing strengths and weaknesses of the human's cyberspace environment, weaknesses that Atum could exploit in the following matches.
Reaching the west bank, Sekhmet sniffed the Realm, seeking her opponent. She tasted the flat staleness of non-sentient constructs, mere mobile scenery, and her nose wrinkled with disgust. She heard the chattering of the digitally incarnated mortals, and her lip curled with contempt. For all their technology, they were as childish as Am-heh.
She did not, however, sense the presence of another god, not even one temporarily mortalized as she was. Was Zeus stalling? Or was he having trouble selecting a champion to pit against her? Perhaps even a god could be indecisive.
Noting that she had clenched her hands into fists, she forced them to relax. She had time. Through Am-heh, Atum had seen how a hasty incarnation in this virtual space could doom a champion to deadly exponential growth. This time Atum had been more careful. She would have plenty of time to win this match.
She remembered Atum's instructions. Avoid the Realm of Heroes, he had cautioned her. Avoid the Realms of technology. Do not saturate yourself with unrecognizable newness. Too much newness leads to too much learning – and that way lies runaway growth. Use what we have learned already, and avoid unnecessary learning.
It was good advice, she thought, and she intended to follow it. She was not here to learn. She was here to win.
Dropping into lioness-form, she loped northward on the bank, covering ground easily as the sand crunched beneath her paws. It had been ages since she last resorted to such primitive locomotion. Bodies were so full of annoying distractions. Needs and hungers and itches and twitches that yammered at the brain, consuming too much mind-bandwidth.
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