Howard hugged the stone pillar as the sand tornado passed him chewing up the other side of the avenue. He couldn't see this. His eyes were closed to prevent blindness. Rain is one thing, and hail another, but dust moving over a hundred miles per hour is airborne sandpaper.
The gusts faded sooner than he had expected. Cautiously, he opened his eyes.
The wind was gone. In it place an avatar was standing about a hundred yards away down the avenue. Something about it was familiar, but it was too far away. It was like trying to make out a football player's expression from up in the stands.
Curiosity pulled at him. The tornado had caused a lot of damage. It was inconceivable that this was unplanned. Perhaps the game developers were staging an Event to herald a new software version or something.
The avatar did not have a human head. But squint as he might, Howard could not make out what kind of animal head it had. The shape was all wrong. He slipped closer.
By the time he was close enough to identify what could not be identified, he was far too close and he knew it. That animal head was unidentifiable because no one ever had identified it. It was called the Set-animal because it was found only associated with Set, god of of Chaos and storms. There was a long snout that curved downward like a frowning anteater. There were two upwardly-stranding ears that ended in unnatural-looking square tops. In the center of this alien visage were two horribly human eyes with hawk-like accents like the eye of Horus. (Idly, Howard remembered that Set was supposed to be related to Horus, the hawk-headed one.)
This bizarre head sprang from a recognizably humanoid body. The skin was pale, and covered with muscles and sparse red hair. Set was bare to the waist, wearing the kilted shenti of Egypt.
Set appeared to be conversing with an invisible companion. Whatever he wanted, however, it seemed he was not getting it. Anger exploded out of him as he roared his rage.
Dust settled. I'm hearing it settle, Howard realized, from behind the pillar. My head must have been in the acoustic shadow of the pillar. I'm hearing it settle. Have to remember these aren't my real ears. This isn't air around me. Of course they can program sound waves of any desired intensity, when loudness is just a number that requires no additional energy to increase, but seriously? An avatar that shouts so loudly that any avatar who can't heal is permanently deafened? How unbalanced is that? Unless it was –
He didn't remember getting into fetal position. It must have been the memory of his encounter with Am-heh, the Devourer of Millions. He took a deep breath and forced himself to stand up. Am-heh was gone. Everyone said so. Stop being an ass, Howard!
Even so, it took an effort of will to peek around the pillar.
“TAKE ME TO REALM OF LEGENDS!” Set roared. But the air did not answer him. Howard flinched back behind the pillar. His foot struck a pebble and it rattled aside.
Set's head slewed like a warship's cannon toward the sound.
When Howard looked again, Set was looking back. The alien eyes locked on.
Set reached out one hand and flexed the fingers.
With a hiss of displaced wind FFFFT! Howard felt himself sucked through the intervening game space until he was standing with Set's hand clamped on his upper right arm. For a dazed moment Howard wished he was more of an Egyptologist like Victor instead of a technologist. He had no idea how many powers this avatar had in the game.
“You are going to assist me,” Set told him.
“Probably not,” Howard replied, and logged out.
A white hot tsunami chased him all the way to the menu.
He had the distinct impression, as he opened his eyes in the darkness of his apartment, that he had barely escaped, but from what he was undecided. He sat up and plucked a bathrobe from its peg. I should be in fetal position right now, he thought. That avatar of Set felt as malevolent as his memories of Am-heh. Worse. He would have had me, except for the memories. The knee-jerk of panic get-out-get-out-get-OUT! had yanked him out of the UNET connection faster than any manual control could have. Yes, Howard thought. He would have had me, but for the memories. Burn me once.
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