The apparitions of Phantasmagoria ceased during the daylight. All that remained was a beautiful light-blue sky, puffy clouds, and a gentle breeze that allowed fallen leaves to drift through the air, as if an invisible creek ran between the trees. The outside world barely had a chance to touch my senses since the passing of Riyon. I never even reunited with Taro and Nell in the fields beyond Iniko. Instead, I left them with only my abandonment. I wish it were different.
For the first while of our hike, we all silently walked through this strange forest. The aesthetics and the harmony of the bird songs kept us quiet. Soothed our souls. Residual phantasms glittered the paths we walked upon, bubbling up and disintegrating before they fully formed. Mist coated the ether, giving the forest an underwater appearance.
Finally, Pandora broke the silence, “Isn’t it magical, Guhya? I’ve never been to a place like this. The mist, the fresh cool air, the way the light bends through the canopy, making the fog glow. It’s all so wonderful.”
Still tired, I said, “Yeah.” I turned to Gadi and asked, “So… how soon will we get to the temple?”
He responded, “Well! We are about halfway to the point of fate. This encounter won’t be too difficult, so don’t let yourself fret. I bet that you’ll do just fine. Lest we rest with our corpses in demise.”
I responded impulsively harshly, “I’m guessing you can’t really stop talking that way due to whatever is wrong with your brain.”
This time, Pandora actually defended him, “Guhya! Don’t be so cruel.” It was impressive. She didn’t even like the guy.
Gadi was pleased with her intervention. He continued, “We are actually entering the edge of the Creators’ Lair now.”
Eccentric crystalline structures sprouted from the Earth. A variety of colors and shapes decorated their surfaces. Their designs ranged from transparent holographic shimmers to opaque multi-colored bismuth. These growths tinted and bent the light of the sun, creating prismatic kaleidoscopic patterns throughout the hazy air. I asked, “What’s all this stuff? I take it, these aren’t phantom images anymore.”
A mysterious male voice responded, “It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
In a defensive rush, I spun around and prepared to fight. “Just who the hell are you??”
The man spoke in a casual and confident tone, “Hey, relax man. I am no threat. One of the artists who created these crystal structures is none other than I. My name is Bram. These structures are molded at the hands of those gifted by Arezo’s magic. She taught us to use the elements of the earth and bend them to our wills so that we could create what we envision. In return, we please her graciousness with gifts of our own. We are the architects of the Crystal Forest that surrounds the Temple of Wishes. Welcome to our home.”
Pandora said, “Your sculptures are really beautiful!”
Looking at Pandora, he exclaimed, “Implausible! You must be Echo.”
She flinched, grabbed my hand, and said to me, “Let’s hurry. We need to get there already.”
Even Gadi was surprised this time. We just accepted her strange demands and continued forward.
I said, “Pandora, why did you do that? It really only makes you more suspicious.”
She paused and replied after some thought, “Guhya. I told you I can’t talk about this yet. But basically, that man should definitely not have called me Echo. Absolutely no one should be able to know of the name Echo. Something is very wrong with the state of reality.”
I replied, “It still doesn’t really make sense, but you are right that something is very wrong with the state of reality. That’s pretty much the only reason I’ve decided to trust either of you. You are both crazy but so is reality at the moment. So, I’ve decided that maybe you two can lead me to answers.”
She replied bothered, “Yes. I know. So, let’s press forward then.”
Beyond us, there was the sight of the temple. Rather than the anticipated lone temple, it was a series of ancient-looking structures. Like a small village of temple-esque stone buildings, covered in moss and surrounded by deep plant growth. The surrounding forest was far more jungle-like here, with towering bizarrely shaped mountains creating an encapsulating wall around us. The place was tucked in by lush and rock with a blanket of fog.
Gadi ran ahead to a particular building and waited for us to catch up.
I commented, “Pandora, it’s kind of nice, isn’t it? What do you think?”
She smiled and replied, “Yeah. I’ve seen this place once before. It seems like the kind of place anyone would be thrilled to live in. An escape. Peaceful. Sprouting with life. When I first saw it, the people here were very happy.”
I replied, “The people, hm…”
As we reached the door of the temple, they could be seen inside, dancing amongst a shower of lights. Yet, all that could be heard were the birds and the distant sound of a river flowing. I said, “There’s no sound. What gives?”
Gadi smiled and yanked me through the doorway. Suddenly, as we passed through, music and a storm of voices erupted. It was disorienting and lively. The place was filled with strange-looking characters. Many of them had cat ears or other beastly appearances and were wearing suits or fancy clothing. Literal party animals in a dance club.
Gadi explained, “The door is guarded by a barrier that doesn’t allow sound to pass. This allows people to party without disrupting anyone outside.”
I asked, “What’s with all the cat ears and other weird shit?”
Gadi answered, “I don’t know that much, sorry Guhya.” After a pause, he continued, “You must lead the way now. This is a trial. A test. You must encounter fate. This is the mark on the map.” He knelt down as an act of submission and asked, “Where to, great chosen one?”
I scratched my head and said, “Well… I suppose-“
Two extremely cat-ish things walked up to us. This time, their heads were entirely cat. The calico one interrupted me, “Hello, meow!”
“Uh… hey?” I responded.
Pandora looked irritated.
The calico cat woman grabbed my arm and started rubbing her head on my shoulder, “You want to have some fun, meow?”
The black cat woman grabbed my other arm, nuzzled it, and purred, “Mmm… won’t you be our master?”
I nervously turned to Gadi for answers, “Uh… Gadi… is this in the prophecy?? Is this the fated encounter??”
Gadi responded, “Well-”
The calico said, “Ooo! The prophecy?! You must be the chosen one. We really must have you meow! Mmm you must be delicious!”
The black one was now licking my arm, “Oh, he most definitely is! Sister, come taste!”
Pandora couldn’t handle it anymore. She grabbed my hand, “Enough with this degeneracy. Come. This way.”
Gadi about lost it, “How dare you interfere with the prophecy! You must let Guhya decide his fate alone.”
She ignored him and continued pulling me through the crowds of peculiar dancing hybrid creatures. Gadi frantically chased after us. Strobes pulsed to the pounding beat of the bass drum, flickering in sync with our steps. The crowd turned towards the chaotic scene we were creating. People ran out of our way as we plowed through them.
A woman on the loudspeaker excitedly announced, “Our special feature tonight begins now! I am honored to present to you The Hot Dog Girls!”
The crowd cheered and the lights dimmed. A spotlight drew our gazes to the stage. Strange beast hybrids lined up one by one, as the crowd laughed, whistled, and clapped.
I stopped, just watching the bizarre show unfold.
Pandora got annoyed, “Guhya! Come on!” Finally, we reached a fancy door. She said, “Go ahead. Go through this door. This is where you are supposed to go.”
Nervously, I asked, “Are you sure about this? How do you know? What if Gadi’s prophecy is contradicted?” I couldn’t believe such words left my mouth. Did some shameless part of my subconscious actually want the cat people?? Was I insane enough to believe in the prophecy already?
She replied confidently, “Don’t worry so much about that. Let’s just get to the point.”
I said, “Ah, you are right. I don’t know what I was thinking. So, my supposed encounter with fate is behind this door then?”
Pushing through the door revealed a line of people, waiting for their turn with a woman who laid leisurely on what looked like a throne crossed with a loveseat. Her posture was relaxed and confident, pleased even. Most enchantingly, she was the mint-haired woman who invaded my dream last night. How was this possible?? Was this truly fate? I felt frozen, spellbound, only my restless mind moved and scrambled to resolve the oddity of this situation.
Pandora interrupted my thought process, “Hey, Guhya. Maybe you shouldn’t stare at her like that. I realize she’s beautiful but come on.”
I replied, “No, it’s just…” I definitely couldn’t bring up the dream. After stammering, I said, “Sure, she is beautiful alright, but that’s not what this is about. She just looked really familiar is all.”
Pandora wasn’t having it. Her arms were crossed the entire time since we entered the room.
The Aeon of Desires was talking to the next in line. Words couldn’t be made out. The man got on his knees and begged. The Aeon smiled and blew a kiss. Suddenly, the man flailed in agony and then slowly regained his composure. Then, he expressed a grand gesture of thanks and confidently ran off. She clearly seemed to have some sort of strange power, much like the Aeons from before.
Pandora stepped in front of my gaze, blocking the view.
Gadi rushed in and yelled, “You cannot break the order of the prophecy like that Pandora!! You will introduce uncontrollable entropy and steer us from destiny. We will be lost to time and never be able to return to the path!!”
Everyone in the room was now looking at us. The Aeon called upon us, “Step forth, you three.”
In shame, we all moved forward, cutting everyone else in line. Holy hell. If anyone, Gadi would be the person to lead us astray from destiny.
The Aeon spoke, “With all of the stressful emotions, I assume you may have a more urgent desire. Welcome to my Temple of Wishes. I am the Aeon of Desires, Arezo. Which of you is it?”
I stood forward and nervously said, “Hi.”
Arezo smiled and said, “You seem charming. What is it that you desire most? Wealth? Body modification? If you may, please stick with wishes that have a material focus.” An apple spawned in her hand, and she bit into it. “That may sound limiting but consider that even your very mind is physical. It is your most precious object. The object that determines the meaning of preciousness and desire. Would you like a personality change? Intelligence? Confidence? Even those are physical in nature, so I can provide. Let’s begin. Please introduce yourself.”
Pandora turned to me and said, “Please, just please don’t kiss her or do anything intimate with her.”
Arezo giggled in amusement.
My face went red with embarrassment, and I said, “Come on! What are you saying? That isn’t what we are here for.” I turned to Arezo and said, “My name is Guhya. I want to ask you a few questions.”
She gasped and said, “Guards! Please direct the rest of our guests outside and then block the entrance.” Robed individuals began carrying out her orders.
The vibe shifted to an uncomfortably serious one. Had Gadi just gotten us killed? Was this the trap he led us into?
Arezo stood from her seat and started approaching us. Pandora wasn’t particularly afraid but still bothered with her arms crossed. Gadi looked unnervingly joyed.
Arezo smiled and said, “Guhya. Let’s have some privacy and talk, shall we?” She kissed her hand and then blew it toward me.
The walls and floors twisted and melted, collapsing away from their solid forms. Then, in the spark of a second, the Temple of Wishes was replaced by vast green hills that were spotted with trees, shrubbery, and a colorful array of flowers in full bloom. Glowing pink petals flowed through the air, moving in slow-motion, twirling around us, and defying gravity.
I asked, “Wh- where are we??”
Arezo giggled and answered, “Your curiosity is so pleasant. How about we chat over a bit of Zaza?” She pulled out a long opium pipe and then began plucking flower petals from the air and placing them into the bowl.
Up close, it was clear that she really was incredibly beautiful, even more than in the dream. Watching her collect the glowing petals of Zaza was mesmerizing. She finally answered my question, “We are in the temple, of course, silly. Our minds are connected. This realm is only imaginary. But don’t worry, it is also real, just not material. Both of us are really here. Now… we can discuss without any intrusion from the outside. Think of it like our own little telepathy bubble.” She inhaled the Zaza and then passed the pipe to me. Her exhale had a great expression of relief and even bliss.
She began to float around in the air. Gravity appeared to be a choice in this new realm.
We looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, then she said, “Well, go on. Aren’t you going to ask me something? Otherwise, I could just sit here and analyze your unexpressed thoughts all day.” Her voice created tingles deep within me.
I said, “Yes. Definitely. Sorry, it’s just a lot to take in.” I took a hit of the Zaza and then asked, “Last night… I had a dream, and you were there. Did you do that? It felt a lot like this place here. It was the first time I had ever seen you. I only realized it was you as we entered the wishing room, today.”
She blushed and said, “Mm I’m flattered, Guhya. It is an honor to grace the depths of the most intimate space of your mind. Though, this was not of my doing. May there be some untapped ability to see into the future, growing inside you? You are quite a special one, after all.”
Future sight?? I was not convinced. I replied, “Speaking of abilities, what is with these Aeons that seem to have special powers? Do you know anything about that? Aren’t you one of them?”
As she whimsically played with her hair, she answered, “So you have noticed. Your keen eye for me makes me feel special, to be quite honest. Yes. I am an Aeon with such power. You may have noticed other Aeons acquiring such power. This is due to access to the Psychonet.”
I nearly yelled out of impulse, “That’s impossible! The Psychonet simply vanishes those who connect with it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes twice now.”
She said, “Mm. It is true. Though, this has now changed in recent times. It has been discovered that one can eject from the process of transcendence during access to the Psychonet. Doing so allows one to access very powerful knowledge and bring it back to the world. It’s fairly risky though, of course.”
I asked, “Why are you out here, at the temple? What are you trying to do here?”
She held out her hand and demanded, “My Zaza please, Guhya.”
I passed the pipe back to her. She inhaled more of the Zaza. My own dose began to kick in. My feet went warm, a vague sense of something like love permeated the mood of the situation. She noticed the warmth inside of me and said, “Ah… isn’t the Zaza just wonderful? It would be nice if we could just do this all day. I already feel a fondness for you, Guhya. We could just lay here in the dream fields… take in the sunlight… pretending we are flowers… watching the clouds… dreaming up our every desire.”
She continued, “To answer, I am at the temple because I wish to help others. So many in this world suffer needlessly. From pain, sickness, or from mere circumstance. Others just want to fill holes in their souls. They find that some material alteration to their lives can save them. I want to do what I can in service of others’ desires. Though, I am selfish too. I am gathering a following here by demonstrating my intentions to help so that I may acquire power for when it becomes necessary to wield. Fall under no illusion, I have my own selfish desires at the root of my choices, but so is the same for all others. Knowledge of desires is at the core of power over others.”
I replied, “At least you admit your selfishness honestly. Why do you want power?”
She smiled and said, “I hope you’ll be honest as well. Selfishness is simply the nature of desire. Even when you help others. That isn’t to say that it is bad. To think of it as bad is pure idealism and romance. It is to dismiss the beauty of those who selfishly desire to modify the well-being of others.”
She took another dose of the Zaza and continued, “That power will be progressively more necessary now that the world is changing. The balance of power has already shifted. A stasis that existed for thousands of years has now been shattered.
“The balance and flow of power is much like an ecosystem. The stability of that system is based on repeating feedback loops and the existence of fixed roles or niches. A mutation has been added to the system: the knowledge of the power of an early ejection from the Psychonet. The memetic landscape now evolves drastically right before our very eyes. Much like when the asteroid annihilated the dinosaurs’ patterns of power and gave rise to the mammals, the very creatures who eventually created us, Guhya. For millennia, it was those like us who reigned over the mammals, even the humans.
“Now… a new breed of our kind takes its grasp in the light of the world. We must hope that those with the most favorable ideals acquire that power. Those Aeons that run around with power are an example of the shifting tide… and you are at the center of it all. For some, this is a moment of hope for a better life. To others, the knowledge is a spreading virus that must be stopped.”
I gasped and asked, “But why?? What does any of this have to do with me?”
She answered, “I’m not really sure yet. You’d be better off asking the Aeon of Gnosis that question. Or even any other questions. She’s the one who tends to know the most about almost everything. I am just here hoping to help you and keep you close, as I’ve heard rumors about your importance. Though, I also personally hope that we bond much closer as well.”
“Can I trust Gadi’s prophecy?” I asked.
She softly grabbed my hands and replied, “That… I do not know. I believe there are multiple prophecies that include you. Though, I’d imagine that the one leading you here to me, is fairly trustable, right?” She smiled and continued, “What I can tell you is that you can trust me. If you do not yet feel that trust, I will work hard to earn it. I can protect you in the case that Gadi is not trustable. In trade for my answering of your questions, allow me to join you on your journey. I will also offer you any wish that you desire. Please, Guhya. May I join you on this journey?”
Pandora really wasn’t going to like this but honestly, Arezo had already earned my trust more than she or Gadi. This must have been the fated encounter that Gadi had mentioned, that’s one point for him. After hesitating, I gave my answer, “You do seem extremely useful, I’ll give you that. As long as you do not betray me, I cannot say no.”
Her eyes watered and glittered like emeralds, probably from her Zaza-induced bliss. She rushed in and hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you, Guhya. I promise I will be at your side when you need me.” She ended the hug and asked, “Guhya, what wish shall I grant?”
I replied, “Could we decide that later? I don’t think I have an answer for that just yet. Plus, can’t you pretty much just endlessly grant wishes? Couldn’t you give me wishes all the time if I wanted?”
She giggled and blushed, “If you want that, yes. My power is to reshape material reality, bend it into something new. I just felt it was more special if I offered you a single wish, as I usually do. It feels like a romantic fairytale kind of thing, doesn’t it? I love fairytales.”
Her face went into startle, and she said, “Our time is wasting here now. Truly, I’d love nothing more than to spend eternity in such a beautiful place, but we cannot. Our bodies are vulnerable outside of this place. We should get back to the real world because we are about to be in a little bit of trouble.”
I asked, “Trouble??” The world shifted again, dissolving away as the temple made itself clear.
In a jealous rage, Pandora demanded, “Guhya! What happened??”
I nervously responded, “Well… you see… we have a new friend here now!”
Pandora asked in a tone of irritation, “Do you mean she is coming with us??”
I said, “Yes.”
She replied, unhappily, “It must truly be fate, huh? I don’t like this but there’s no other way now. It must be necessary.”
Arezo insisted, “I won’t hurt you. I’m sure that in due time, we will all get along well. Let’s just stick it out until then, alright?”
Gadi interjected, “This is most wonderful! The Aeon of desires, aiding us on our mission towards fated futures! We will never lose now! Truly a fated encounter indeed. Guhya, you can see it right? This is what the map of fated encounters brings to us.”
Arezo looked surprised by Gadi’s words.
Pandora ignored Gadi and Arezo, and asked me, “You didn’t kiss her or do anything too intimate, right??”
I answered in frustration, “Pandora, you keep acting like you know me and like you own me. Please don’t. I appreciate your feelings toward me but you really gotta take it slower. As for the answer, no, I did not.”
Arezo’s curiosity piqued and she asked, “You are Pandora?? I’ve heard stories about you. You are Echo.”
Pandora aggressively confronted Arezo, “We cannot discuss that here. Not in front of Guhya. The effects would be disastrous. Got that??”
Arezo replied calmly, “I understand. Try to have a little faith in me.”
A guard rushed in, “Arezo! The Insiders have arrived!”
Arezo responded, “Understood. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us. We will be leaving at this time. Initiate the fog.”
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