Darla didn't mind that the default reformatting left her shaved bald and wearing a wig; as long as it stayed out of her way during a fight, she could care less what was on her head. She didn't complain that the flax-linen ankle-length dress she found herself in was very nearly transparent; she had no issues with avatar nudity. She did object to the idea of having to fight in a sheath dress! It was ridiculous! How was she supposed to be able to maneuver in this?
She knew she was here for a specific reason, but she couldn't help comparing this Realm with Realm of Heroes and Realm of Legends. The solid graphic rendering was more or less the same quality, but there were several differences. For example, the sun was directly overhead and never moved. Maybe it heightened the sense of eternity here, but it also seemed lazy, because she knew it meant that none of the building shadows ever needed to be recalculated. The Triskelion Games programmers had cut corners. She wondered if Farker and PanGames would improve upon this first draft.
The first thing that she noticed was feet. It was a sure way to tell the social classes apart. The men all wore a kind of simple kilt or skirt as if they had come out of a sauna with not enough towels. The women wore sheath shirts like hers. And they all wore sandals. But not all sandals were created equal. The wealthier Egyptians had leather sandals; the poor had sandals woven from palm fronds.
Then, once she thought she knew all about that, a couple of men walked past her with sandals that looked as if they were made of papyrus. Who were they? She decided to follow them. So far she had not seen anything that looked like any kind of anomaly. In fact, she was surprised at how normal the people looked; she had half-expected to see a lot of people walking around with the heads of birds and jackals and other animals.
The two men wearing paper sandals went into the third stone temple on her left. It faced the river. Behind it she could see the tops of pyramids in the distance, between the temples and the desert. So priests wear papyrus sandals, she thought.
Maneuvering behind the corner of a temple, Darla reached behind and over her shoulder to get her throwing knife. She drew the point of the dagger through linen, cutting a slit in the stupid sheath dress up to her hip. A little better.
“You really shouldn't do that.”
Darla spun. She found herself facing a couple. The man was wearing the universal short wraparound kilt, leather sandals, a copper armband and one of those striped headdresses that seemed to be the in-character uniform. The woman beside him was in a wig and sheath dress like herself. Her dress was even more transparent than Darla's. It was gathered at her waist with a small cord or cinch. She also had an ornamental wide collar from her neck almost to the outside of her shoulders. It was inset with alternating pieces of turquoise and lapis lazuli. Both had Kohl-lined eyes, just as she did, from the default reformatting.
Darla put her hand behind her and let the throwing knife vanish. “Shouldn't do what?” she asked innocently.
“Slit your tunic like that. Slits in ancient Egyptian garments were planned from the beginning, not carved out at the last minute. I know it's not real flax thread, but even in simulations you'll get some unraveling, dear. It spoils the overall effect. Next time check the options menu. You can find styles that let you move a little freer if you look.”
“She's right,” her companion agreed. “Is this your first visit to Realm of Egypt?”
“Was it that obvious?” Darla asked, relieved. For a second there she had thought herself busted by some roleplay proctors or something. “I guess you've been here before.”
The woman looked at her companion smiling. “Karl and I met here four months ago. It was collaboration at first sight.”
“We'd both been hired as review consultants,” Karl explained. “I bumped into Rachel here while I was correcting the defacements.”
Darla suddenly felt that she was out of her depth. “Defacements?”
“Egyptian rulers had a bad habit of chiseling off inscriptions on monuments erected by their predecessors and putting their own names on them to claim credit for them,” he said. “Take Hatshepsut, for example. Her stepson Thutmose III and his son both seem to have had the cartouches of her name whacked off stone walls. Often they just left the gap in the decorations bare. The Triskelion designers couldn't resist putting the cartouches back into their simulations. We had a spirited argument about which was more historically authentic, replacing her name, or leaving the history of the stones as it was found by the archaeologists.”
“Seems to me her name should have been left on the walls. Isn't this an 'ancient' Egypt, not the one dug up later?”
“Not that ancient,” Karl replied. “The time frame here is roughly 1200 BCE. Hatshepsut is hundreds of years before that. By 1200 her cartouches had been defaced. Triskelion should have known.”
“Shame on them,” Darla agreed, as if she cared. “What was their problem with old Hattie, anyway?”
“The same problem men always have with a female ruler,” Rachel laughed. “They wanted to pretend it never happened. They must have thought defacing her name would eventually make her disappear from memories.”
Darla stared. “You're saying a woman was a Pharaoh?”
“Several were,” Rachel said, smiling. “Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. She's considered one of the most successful Pharaohs. She did the whole nine yards, even wore the ceremonial beard the male Pharaohs wore. She had a long reign, over twenty years, and built a lot of monuments, including the famous Chappelle Rouge, Karnak's Red Chapel.”
“Good for her,” said Darla. “You two sound like experts. Have you seen anything...anomalous here today?
“I have now,” said Karl, pointing off to the side.
Something was coming toward them. Darla followed the finger and had to suppress a laugh. “That,” she said, “has to be the worst case of reformatting I have even seen.”
It looked like a man with the head of a vicious dog. He was naked, but not beautifully so, as Aes had been. His hands and feet ended in black claw-like fingernails. He had plenty of body hair; any more and she would have called it fur. His phallus seemed over sized to Darla; she speculated that some kid was trying to use his father or older brother's login to impress the girls.
“That's Am-heh,” said Karl, frowning. “What is he doing out of the Underworld?” He started striding forward to meet the figure.
Oh-oh, she thought, There goes my First Contact. “Maybe I should talk to him,” she tried to say. But Karl didn't seem to hear her. He was too intent on confronting the NPC.
Am-heh sniffed the air and grinned at Karl. “Mortal. Good.”
“Are you malfunctioning?” Karl demanded. “You're supposed to be in the Underworld, in your lake of fire. What are you doing up here?”
“He's just a NPC, dear,” his wife reminded him. “And not even a Quest-giver. Maybe you'd better call one of the designers and tell them they screwed up again.”
Am-heh regarded them with his head tilted as if puzzled. “Who are these 'designers' you speak of? The gods?”
“There are no gods,” Karl informed him. He reached out to jab a finger at Am-heh to punctuate his pronouncements. “No real gods and almost no real designers, I see. If this was one of the freebie Games I could understand this kind of sloppiness, but people are paying for this! And where is your ceremonial tunic?”
“I lost it when I came up,” said Am-heh. He seemed amused at Karl's indignation, as if he knew something the rest of them didn't.
Darla felt herself growing uneasy. If this was Farker's new anomaly, it was nothing like Aes. There was the same quality of realness to Am-heh, but with a nasty undercurrent.
“You're not supposed to be up here, idiot,” Karl snapped. “Get back to your Underworld!”
Am-heh raised his right paw to his face, as if to scratch his chin. Then he lashed out, dealing Karl a backhanded slap that knocked the man's avatar off its feet and slammed it into the wall of the temple beside them.
“You are not Atum,” he growled. “Do not presume to command me, mortal.”
Karl wasn't hurt, of course. But no man likes to be slapped in front of women. He growled too. “You just bought yourself a whole lot of trouble,” he stated, launching himself at Am-heh.
Am-heh just laughed and opened his jaws. And then he opened them more. To Darla's horror, those dog jaws gaped impossibly, and Karl's jump ended in them. In a moment, he was already half swallowed. His legs kicked feebly. Am-heh swung his hands up and seized Karl's legs and shoved and swallowed. And then it was over. Karl was gone.
“Karl!” Rachel screamed, running forward.
Darla made a grab at her but missed. “Wait!”
Am-heh caught Rachel as if she were a child. Powerful muscles bulging, he tossed her into the air and swallowed her on the way down, wig and all. He belched contentedly. And then he was looking at Darla.
Something ancient inside Darla took charge. She ran, sandals slapping the ground, wishing the ancient Egyptians had jogging shoes. She didn't even think about her swords or her throwing knife. She didn't think about anything. She just ran, hoping she was fast enough.
There's an old saying: 'don't look back – something might be gaining on you'. But after a hundred meters or so Darla risked a look behind her.
He wasn't pursuing. He was still back there laughing, walking at ease toward her. Legs shaking, and not entirely from exhaustion, Darla watched him come, and reached. Tzing! The swords were in her hands. She looked at the blades, then at Am-heh. Was he a little taller now? She shuddered. Get a grip, Darla. It's just a game. Isn't it?
The vicious canine face grinned at her. “You have drawn steel.” He cocked his head as if listening to an inner voice. “There is no steel in Khem. They barely have iron. Where did you get them?”
“That doesn't matter, “ Darla told him. “You're going to get them if you don't let Karl and Rachel out, you son of a bitch.”
Am-heh laughed. “You will see them no more. They are part of me now. As you will be.” He began walking toward her again.
Fuck this! she thought. Take me to Realm of Legends, now.
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