After Cheiron vanished again, Darla decided he was not going to be back soon: she was on her own. Well, it was time to be moving on. This Realm seemed to be empty of players anywhere near her, and since there were no travel powers, she didn't feel like wasting her time poking around here any more tonight.
Okay, she thought. It must be getting late. I'll try again tomorrow. With a mental flick she triggered the logout sequence.
Darla growled impatiently and tried again: no effect. It was as if PanGames and the Realm of Legends was refusing to let her leave. After several more tries, she forced to face it: she was stuck here for a while. Where was that GM when she needed him?
Mentally, she went through the sequence to open a Help ticket. All she had to do was wait. Whoever was on duty as GM would see the alert on their interface and intercede to log her out of this mess.
Again, nothing insisted on happening. This was getting old.
If even her Help interface was fritzed, that left manual override. All she had to do was get to one of the concealed control kiosks and trigger her exit from there.
Wherever the nearest one was, it wasn't on that deserted beach. She looked about her. She was on a foothill of Pelion. Although the ground fell away from her hilltop on all sides, it rose again on the side opposite the shoreline and extended to her left and right. It seemed that Mount Pelion was like a giant lying down – much longer than it was tall.
No need to climb to the nearest top, she thought. No one builds cities of any size on top of mountains. She faced away from the shore, turned a bit to her left to avoid the greater upslope, and set off.
As she made her way down from the summit and then up a nearby hill, working her way to the left, a rock shifted under her weight and she lost her footing. Grabbing wildly at bushes whose branches broke off in her hands she tumbled partway down the slope before she managed to stop. She took a breath and took stock.
Her first thought was relief that she had not bashed her head open on a rock or cut herself. Her second that was about how stupid that first thought had been. This is not my real body, she reminded herself. Nothing here can hurt me. The worst that could happen is that the system might log me out. In any case, it wouldn't hurt, of course. There was no serious pain feedback in PanGames. Who'd pay for it?
The shriek of a hawk interrupted her. Looking up, she saw the bird coming down out of the bright sky near her. It had a snake in its talons. As she watched, the snake struck and was dropped and fell near her, hard enough to bounce in the grass.
Darla found herself remembering the W3 tattoos on the customer she had seen earlier, except that had been an eagle and a snake, and this was some kind of hawk. Even so, it was like deja vu. The hawk shrieked again and swooped down to recover its victim.
For no reason that she could identify Darla found herself rising to her feet. Her hands came up and the swords TZING! were in them as she stepped over the snake. “Just how hungry are you?” she asked the bird, baring her teeth.
The hawk, glared at her, startled, and flapped its wings, backing rapidly. For a moment she could feel the billows from its wings rippling her robes. It took one last reproachful look at her, then flew off and climbed into the sky. Dwindling to a speck, it rose, soaring on the updrafts of Pelion.
Turning, she regarded the snake. It seemed to be watching her. It was a brownish color on top, but it had reared up enough that she could see its underside was lighter, more yellow. Looming over it she could make out slashes of a lighter color behind its eyes like horns. It had not taken its eyes off her. Did it think she would eat it?
“You owe me one, snake,” she told it. “Relax. I'm not going to eat you.”
And damned if the snake didn't seem to nod calmly at this. Then it turned and slithered away. But it stopped after about eight feet and looked at her again.
Darla blinked. The snake did it again, slithering a few yards and then turning to look at her once more.
Darla shook her head in frustration. Another Lassie? But it was more or less the direction she had intended anyway. “All right,” she sighed. “I'm coming, damn it!” And she followed the snake down the slope and then up another hill.
After a couple of more minor hills the ground was more level and they broke through a line of trees and found themselves on what was clearly a path. The snake turned left and proceeded straight down the middle of the path.
“Look,” Darla told the serpent, “I don't mean to be rude, but you do realize that paths lead to people, right? I'm looking for people, but maybe you should veer off.”
The snake ignored her. Sliding down the path and around a turn to the right, it left her behind. After a moment's hesitation she, grumbling, strode off after it.
Is this entire Realm this way? She thought. She had met butterflies, a centaur, and a GM...but no Players. Was it an old Realm that had lost its appeal, or was she just out in the boondocks? What she wouldn't give to meet someone who could talk for more than a minute without vanishing!
And then she came around the corner and for a second (all right, maybe a little longer) all she could see was the naked man.
He was taller than her, but not inordinately so. His body was lightly tanned on his arms and shoulders, but paler elsewhere, which meant that usually he had clothes on. His hair was black and curly, and he was without apparel.
He had not seen her yet. But he had noticed the snake, and hunkered down to stroke it, a caress that she was surprised to see the snake accept. “ὡς ἐν ἄλλῳ κόσμῳ.” Then the snake turned to look at her, as if pointing her out to him, and slithered off into the bushes.
He turned to face her with startling blue eyes. He looked down at his nakedness, then up at her. He shrugged. “τὸ πεπρωμένον φυγεῖν ἀδύνατον,” he said, as if to say “what can I do about it?”
“Did you just pet that snake?” she asked. “Oh crap. Hold on a second. Let's hope the translator still works, if nothing else.” She was out of practice with the Options interface, because in the Realm of Heroes, where she and her team played, it seemed like everyone spoke English.
Translator on! Mentally she crossed her fingers. “Now, what did you just say?”
“'It is impossible to escape from what is destined'. Could you loan me a bit of cloth? Perhaps your himation? I appear to have lost my clothes, though I have no idea how.”
Darla was once again glad that her avatar could not blush. “Uh, of course. Sorry about that. I might need your help with it, though. I've never been here before, so I have no idea how these come off or even which one you're talking about.”
He looked at her oddly when she said that, then shrugged. “Your way of speaking is strange,” he remarked. “But as you can see, I am in no position to judge others at the moment. The himation is the outer cloak over your chiton and pampla. Could you turn around?”
“Oh. Sure.” She turned her back and let him proceed. His touch was gentle, but sure. Unfastening a pin on her shoulder, he released the outer layer of cloth. Maybe at that point she should have kept her back turned, but what the hells, he hadn't seemed that mortified to be seen naked, and he was not half bad to look at – his body was well muscled without seeming bulky.
She turned back to face him. The linen he had taken from around her shoulders he held out between her and him. She was surprised to see that the piece of material was simply a rectangle. He turned his back to her, whipped part of it around him, and in short order had turned it into something that looked like clothing. Fastened at his shoulder, it fell to below his knees, hanging on him as if he had always worn it.
“I am glad you were not wearing the woolen himation,” he remarked. “It is a bit warm for that today.” He smiled. “My name is Ace Kleepios” (or something like that). “And who are you, so generous to strangers?”
Darla held out her hand. “You can call me Darla. Let's keep it simple. I'll call you Ace. You don't know how you lost your clothes?”
He smiled a sad smile. “Nor how I lost my tan. The name 'Aes' suited me better before I got here, for 'aes' means 'bronze' which I was. I appeared here a short time ago, as you saw me, without clothing, friends, or clues to how this occurred.”
She studied him judiciously, now that a simple rectangle of cloth made the difference between ogling and regarding. “Oh, I don't know, Ace. I think I'm paler than you.” She tried to imagine what it would be like appearing here naked. But of course it had to be role play, she realized: something to do with his character's back story. No one ever arrived naked. Any time you did a Realm transition the default reformatting would give you some clothes appropriate for the setting, as it had with her.
Whatever. He seemed nice enough, so she would play along. “What's the last thing you remember before arriving here?” she asked him.
He spread his hands, shrugged. “I was at my home, in Thessaly. My daughter Panacea had just brought the body of Hippolytus. I used the healing Gorgon's blood, and he arose, alive again...it's hard to remember somehow....there was a enormous crash and flash of light...and here I was, on my hands and knees, naked.”
Well, that told her nothing useful. But she didn't make fun of it. She knew the strict roleplayers were sticklers for natural discovery. Even if one were walking around with “FRED” floating over his head you couldn't call him 'Fred' until you asked his name and he told you.
Obviously it wasn't a link bed malfunction. If he had goofed, or the system had glitched somehow and put him in the wrong Realm, he would have just said so. Unless he was a Random. And if he was, then she couldn't ask him if he was. Oh gods, she thought, I hope you're not a Random. They were a royal pain in the ass. She had wasted hours on one, once.
Someone had once told her it was an initiation. She had forgotten the guy's name, but it was a couple of years ago, shortly after Manny had gotten her the link bed. What was his name....Marcus? Or was it Malcom? Whatever. She had just spent hours explaining Realm of Heroes to this completely clueless guy, all carefully in character in case he was a touchy RPer, and then (Marcus?) a player had taken her aside and told her the guy was a Random and she could stop wasting her time.
Randoms, he informed her, were spoilers: jokers who would transition to a randomly-chosen Realm, put on their “where am I?” routine and proceed to waste people' time explaining things to them. It wasn't about discovery or exploration. It wasn't even about RP. It was all about being a nuisance, he claimed. His opinion was that it was a kind of initiation for anarchist groups. If they could drive you out of your own Realm or annoy you into breaking character and yelling at them, they counted that as a win. Losers! Either play or GTFO!
“None of that made any sense to me,” she informed him.
He peered at her and coughed politely into his fist. “Do I puzzle you? You are an enigma to me. You walk alone, in wilderness with bears and wolves and brigands, yet you trust your back to a stranger you just met. You appear following a snake, which is surely an omen, and although you dress properly, you have no idea what you are wearing. That might betoken wealth, with slaves to dress you, yet you travel alone...
“And then,” he continued, “there is the matter of your newness. I am a fairly good judge of veracity, and it seems to me that you spoke truly when you said you had never been here before. Which is quite impossible, you know.”
“I'm not a liar!” she snapped. “I'm just new here.”
He smiled gently. “I believe you, but I am afraid it makes no sense. Properly dressed women do not fall out of the sky, you know. We are not near a port, as far as I know. If you are truly new here...you have come a long way to be new here. How did you come to be hundreds of stadia from any civilized place?”
“It's a long story,” she said. “Try not to be so patronizing. I may be a paradox to you, but at least I know where I am.”
He stared at her, dumbfounded. “You do?”
She shrugged. “Of course. We're on Mount Pelion. How come you don't know that?”
He clapped a hand to his forehead. “I knew this place was familiar. It's been a long time since I was here last. One moment.” He paused and strode off the path to the left, downhill, out of the tree line, to gaze at the coast and the horizon. “Yes,” he said, sounding amazed, as he made his way back to her, back to the path. “I know where we are now.” He regarded her impatient stance. “I assume you are on your way to somewhere?”
“Just to the nearest city,” she said, following him as he turned and strode down the path. She could not figure this guy out. He seemed the opposite of a Random. So what was he doing out in the wilderness naked?
But it wasn't the nakedness that was strange, she thought, remembering. It was the fact that he had seemed so unconcerned about it. When others might have freaked and jumped into the bushes, or at least turned their backs on her, he had spoken calmly – and only asked for a bit of clothing, she suddenly realized, when he saw that she was hiding her own discomfort with the situation.
Well, they were in their avatars after all. It was not as if she had seen his actual body. But it was surprising how modest some Players were about avatar nudity.
“Then I am afraid I have some bad news for you. The nearest city is Iolchos, and it is not close. It will be dark before you can reach there, and the night is a time that animals hunt and robbers stalk their prey. This is part of Thessaly, which is home to centaurs, among others things, and most of them are dangerous.”
“Oh, I don't know,” she remarked. “I met a centaur today, and he didn't strike me as all that dangerous. Said his name was Cheiron, and...what?”
He had stopped dead in his tracks. “You...met Cheiron? How did this happen? He never shows himself to strangers! Tell me how it happened.”
So he knew Cheiron. She wondered why she was surprised. “It was when I followed the butterfly uphill. He was strange but seemed nice enough. He said it was a Papilio Machaon butterfly. Oh, and he told me that the Greek word for butterfly meant “soul.”
He glanced up at the sky, then down into his cupped hands for a moment. “So he isn't coming back,” he said, with quiet sadness.”I felt it, but discounted it as nothing more than natural worrying.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn't it obvious?” he asked sadly. “Both Machaon and Podilarius went off with the sons of Atreus on their fool's errand. It could be that Podilarius yet lives, but Machaon is lost to me. You saw a butterfly, a soul – and Cheiron named it Machaon. It's clear he meant this message for me: that Machaon's soul has left his body.”
“I think you're reading too much into this, Ace. Was he someone close to you?” she inquired.
“None closer,” he said. “saving only Epione. But I shall never kiss him again.” And he turned about and began leading uphill instead.
She wondered what that was all about. Maybe he and Machaon were lovers. But who was this Epione? “Where are you going? I thought Iolchos was the other way.”
“It is, but I've changed my mind,” he replied. “I think we ought to go see Cheiron. We can stay in his cave tonight, for one thing. It's dry and warm even on cold and rainy nights, and wild animals seldom bother a centaur. Centaurs are well known for their deadly accuracy with the bow.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish