She was exactly where he had expected her to go. The day was clear and bright on Pelion, with a growing breeze. The afternoon sun evoked no glare from the mild chop on the Aegean to the east. Farker could see her from where he appeared. She was sitting on the simulation of Cheiron's herb-grinding boulder near the mouth of the cave, staring out to sea, hands clasped on the bulging belly, on the mystery growing in her avatar.
For the first time since the incident, he felt completely out of his depth. What could he say? Aes, the father of her child, was gone. He was not coming back. They'd poked around with the Asklepios NPC in the temple at Epidaurus, but it was just a statue that made speeches. Aes was gone from the virtual Hellas.
And so she was grieving. What could he do? Nothing. Aes's departure had left a gaping hole in her heart, and a demigod is a hard act to follow. Farker watched her shoulders convulsing as she wept, cursing his helplessness. I'm too old to console her romantically, he thought. And she doesn't need an extra father figure.
Planned speeches fled, as he realized that she didn't need any words from him right now. Forcing the virtual version of his ancient legs to move, he plodded toward her, feeling a tightness in his chest. His eyes were dams that barely held back the torrent behind them. I will not cry, he vowed. Not because my avatar cannot, but because she needs me to be strong. It was obvious that she was not getting along with her parents, or they would be with her. So at the moment she had no one, except him.
Sinking down beside her on the boulder, he caught himself about to say something and clamped his jaws shut. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing himself to relax. What she needed now was a calm steady presence, he decided, not well-meant platitudes. He would wait. She would speak when she was ready.
The flapping of his chiton in the breeze must have gotten her attention; her gaze flicked to her right and then went back to gazing out over the ocean.
A hawk screamed, wheeling overhead in the updrafts of the old mountain. “Did I ever tell you how I met him?” she said suddenly, her voice flat and emotionless.
“No,” he answered. Let her do the talking.
She tilted her head up to gaze at the hawk, but he could tell she wasn't really seeing it. “There was this hawk with a snake in its talons. It dropped it, and I got between them and scared off the bird. After that, the snake led me down a path to where Aes had appeared.”
Farker rubbed his chin. “Sounds almost allegorical. Do you remember what the snake looked like?”
She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Like I could ever forget. It was brown on top, lighter, more yellow on the underside. And it had lighter areas like horns behind its eyes...”
Farker nodded. “Zamenis longissimus, the Aesculapian Snake. A nonvenomous member of the Colubridae family. Traditions say they kept them in the asclepeions, the temples to Asklepios, and let them crawl among the patients who were there to be healed.”
Darla gave a tiny shudder. “Crawling around sick people? Why did they let them do that?”
Farker shrugged. “Well, they're harmless. The snake became a symbol for healing and regeneration. That might be because of the way they shed their skins, perpetually renewing their outer covering instead of getting wrinkled like us. I've no idea why they chose this particular species, but when you see the snake-on-stick symbol of medicine, that's the snake you're looking at. Many of his statues hold it. I guess,” he said, after a pause, “they thought the self-renewing virtue of the snakes would help the patients heal faster.”
“Cute, but misguided,” she said dismissively.
“Oh, I don't know,” he said. “Those ancients weren't always wrong. Did you know there was a traditional cure for anemia that involved leaving an iron dagger or nail in a jar of water until it rusted, then drinking the water? Modern medicine scoffed at it because supposedly the body is poor at absorbing elemental iron – iron that isn't 'chelated', or attached to some molecule the body likes.”
“But if it doesn't work, then where did the traditional cure come from? They didn't know about hemoglobin.”
“Of course not. That's the funny thing. Iron was associated with Mars and war and vitality, and rusts red, which is the color of Mars. And blood is red too, bright red when it has enough oxygen attached to the iron in the hemoglobin. So they figured anemia somehow to be a disease of the blood and figured it must need more iron. They were exactly right, for the wrong reasons. And now there's evidence that the body can absorb some of the iron from that water.”
“Well, that makes sense,” she said slowly. “It must have worked sometimes, at least somewhat, or the cure would have been forgotten.”
“Yes. Modern medicine still has things that work and we don't know why they work. The phrase often used in these cases is 'the exact mechanism is unknown'.”
“So an Aesculapian Snake led me to Aes,” she commented. “I'm guessing it wasn't a coincidence, was it?” For the first time she turned at looked at him directly.
“Probably not,” he agreed. “It sounds like a test that you passed. By saving the snake, you showed yourself worthy to help the demigod it was named after. More Olympian meddling.” He lifted a pebble and hurled it out toward the sea. They watched in silence as it soared to the peak of its parabola and then fell out of sight.
“He's not coming back, is he?” she asked quietly.
Farker shook his head. “At least he left you something,” he said, swiveling his eyes to her belly.
“Gods, I still can't believe he said it!” she said, clenching her fists and looking away.
“Huh?” he said. “Can't believe who said what?”
“My father. When I showed him my avatar and told him it was pregnant with Aes's child, he actually told me to have PanGames reset my avatar, forget 'mister imaginary', and find a real man. Can you believe that?”
“Give him time,” he advised her. “He'll come around. It was a lot to take in all at once. He was just zerged, that's all.”
“I suppose,” she said doubtfully. They sat in silence for a minute.
“I wouldn't do it, anyway,” he said.
She looked back at him. “What?”
“Reset your avatar. You'd never talk me into it.”
“Who's trying?” she retorted. Then: “Why not?”
Farker laughed. “You want a list? Well, the first reason is ignorance. I've no idea what he did to your avatar. I wouldn't dare mess with it.”
“Not if I can help it!” she declared.
“Relax. The second reason is uniqueness. This virtual baby is the first of its kind. I'd have be a moron to even try to eliminate it. And I like to believe I'm not a moron.”
“Saved by vanity,” she said, but with the hint of a smile. “Any more reasons?”
“Plenty,” he said. “The third reason is fear.”
That surprised her. “Fear? What are you afraid of?”
“The gods,” he answered. “Let's not kid ourselves about this. Do you think Aes intended to impregnate you? You'd already explained to him how it wasn't a real body he was seeing. When the two of you...” He paused to try to find the right words. “...made love, I'm betting someone else reached into the game and...helped it happen.”
Her brows knitted. “How do you know it wasn't just Aes? You saw him cook and eat a skinned simulated rabbit that should've had no insides, no meat. It was like being near him turned it into a real rabbit for him. Couldn't this be the same sort of thing?”
Farker considered that. “It's possible,” he admitted. “But I keep thinking about that snake. It's like someone was nudging the two of you together.”
“Oh come on!” she scoffed. But he could see it was mere bravado. She was thinking about it. “Why would they want me to have his child?” she demanded. “Aes was a demigod. What could I possibly add to that?”
“Aes was primarily a healer,” he reminded her. “Maybe Zeus wants his great-grandchild to be more of a fighter, like you.”
She was shaking her head. “Why would he...” Then her lips tightened. “Oh. I get it. The war's not over?”
“According to your mom, the contest continues until one side concedes. When a champion is eliminated, their side throws another one in. Aes eliminated Am-heh, but only survived him by a few seconds. A victory, but if the Children of Nuit send in another Egyptian god, who are we going to pit against him, now that Aes has left the scene?”
“Oh gods,” she said, as his words penetrated. “You're saying the child's destiny is to fight for us like Aes did? But it isn't even born yet. How could it possibly be ready in time?”
“Well, I could be wrong,” Farker reflected. “But if I'm not, your little miracle is going to have to grow up fast.”
“Faster than you know,” said a familiar voice behind them.
Farker was on his feet before Darla, surprising himself. “I was wondering when you'd show up again,” he told the old centaur. “What's the matter, do you have no one else to dispense cryptic advice to?”
“There's good and bad news,” said Cheiron.
Farker glanced at Darla. “I think we could use some good news about now,” he said. “Speak.”
“Asklepios earned his apotheosis,” said Cheiron. At the puzzled look on Darla's face, he added: “Zeus has welcomed him into the Olympians for winning the match against Am-heh.”
“He's alive?” breathed Darla. Then her face changed. “If he's alive, why hasn't he contacted me?”
Cheiron held her eyes with his own. “You might as well know, I suppose. Part of Aes's reward was being reunited with his wife Epione. She was made immortal also, as part of his reward. He's with her now.”
Darla let out her breath slowly and kicked at a pebble. “Great. Now there's a goddess who hates me, as if I didn't have enough problems.”
Cheiron laughed. “No, not at all. In fact, I'm sure she's grateful to you for helping him complete his trial. Hera's the one who disapproves, but she's not calling the shots. She always was the bitchy one, but for Asklepios's sake she won't mess with you. And of course, Zeus says – ”
“Wait a minute,” Farker interrupted. “You're saying he gave Aes his wife back...after she's been dead for 3,000 years? How did he manage that trick? She must have been reincarnated a hundred times over by now.”
“Ordinarily, you'd be right,” said Cheiron. “But you have to understand that Zeus is a long-term planner. When Epione's body died, Zeus contacted Hades and instructed him to keep her from the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, so that she wouldn't forget Aes and reincarnate as mortal souls usually do. “
“Sounds like Zeus had a lot of faith in his grandson,” Farker commented. “But that still means she had to cool her heels in the Underworld for three millennia.”
“Time is different there,”Cheiron informed him. “At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say you're not at the stage where you could understand it.”
“Well they must be very happy,” growled Darla. “He gets his wife back, and I get stuck raising his child. “
Cheiron eyed her. “It's a great honor to bear the child of a god,” he told her. “An honor not bestowed in thousands of years. We do not make demigods lightly.”
“Gee, whoopee, I'm so thrilled,” said Darla. “I'm sure it will look great on my resume.” She looked away.
“Why not?” asked Farker. “I mean, if you guys just kept doing what the legends say, you could have had a whole slew of deified cannon fodder to throw at the Egyptians by now.”
“We used to think it was a good idea,” Cheiron admitted. “The more the merrier, right? Zeus was more promiscuous back in those days. But eventually he was contacted by other groups of immortals and given an ultimatum: stop it or we'll throw you back into mortality, back into the cycle of death and rebirth.”
“Wait a minute,” Darla protested. “They can do that? Make a god mortal again?”
“There are higher levels of gods who can do that to the lower levels,” Cheiron stated. “In fact, it's already happened here, on Earth.”
“Ah, I wondered about that,” said Farker.
Darla whirled to face him. “Wondered about what?”
“After Zeus killed Asklepios with a thunderbolt for resurrecting Hippolytus, Aes's father Apollo was so furious that he killed the Cyclopes who made thunderbolts for Zeus,” Farker told her. “For punishment, Zeus made Apollo mortal for a year and forced him to serve a man, Admetus. Or so the legends say. I always wondered how Zeus could do that to a god.”
“It's complicated,” said Cheiron. “Suffice it to say, Zeus is a higher level being than the 'ordinary' gods. Second quantum. He can raise a mortal to godhood, and he can push gods back to mortal, if they're at a level below him. He was the first demigod made by Cronus, so he's ahead of all of us on the learning curve.”
“But you're saying,” said Farker, “that there are...third quantum gods out there who could demote Zeus if he misbehaves?”
“There are many levels,” said Cheiron. “I don't know myself how far up the ladder goes. Might be an infinite number, for all I know. I'm only first quantum myself, the same as Asklepios.”
“So even gods have a pecking order,” Farker commented. “But wait a minute! What about Darla's pregnancy? Doesn't that break the rules? How did Zeus and Aes get away with it?”
Cheiron grinned. “An excellent question. The Covenant that Zeus had to swear to lays out precise protocols. Ordinarily Covenant matches, when groups of gods contend for client species, take place in the physical plane. Just as demigods are conceived in physical bodies. By selecting your computer-spun virtual world for the battleground, Zeus has done something new, really pushed the envelope. It's a gray area – you've no idea how many Transcended beings are watching and discussing the ramifications of this battle.”
Farker lifted a a hand to interrupt him. “You said you had bad news too. Let's have it.”
“Atum has selected his second champion.”
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