We dragged Archie, Emory, and Sophy back towards the hallways, inside a random office room.
“Are they dead??” I asked.
Arezo frantically entered first aid mode. She was the only one who could do much here. She answered, “No.” She used her powers to check Archie’s body for changes induced by the Sige that flooded in, “But they’ve been significantly modified.”
They each awoke, slowly.
Panicked, Arezo said, “It seems their amygdalae have been removed.” She closed her eyes, checking through his brain further. Her eyes opened and she continued, “I may be able to restore their amygdalae but whatever learning and alterations they acquired through life won’t be there anymore.”
Tears dropped from her face. She started her process.
Emory grabbed her arm, “Wait!”
Arezo stopped and looked toward him, “What?”
Emory explained, “You shouldn’t do it. I feel good.”
Archie muttered, “I think I do too.”
Arezo was shocked, “But how? What’s changed?”
Emory said, “Ever since Vaeda’s experiment, a deep sense of dread permeated every moment. That’s… gone now. I think the Sige may have cured us.”
I quickly said, “Are you sure??”
I looked to Sophy and for the first time she was smiling. She didn’t speak but she didn’t need to.
Emory said, “I think we may be able to rest finally.”
Arezo’s tears fell harder, and her teeth grit tighter.
Emory continued, “The last months have been some of the worst in my life, but I think I’m ready.”
Archie said, “Sister. He’s right. You are a hero. I know my presence has been hurting you, even if you smile all the time. You’ve been carrying my corpse and now we should end it.”
Even now, Arezo gave a pained gentle smile. She turned back to her brother, and softly said, “Archie…”
“The thing is, ever since we strayed from the future I saw, I regained consciousness.” Blue light shined across Archie’s body, “Finally, I can feel desire again. It’s just, all I want is for it to be over now. I’m finally free.”
Arezo’s tears flowed harder, “Thank you. For everything you’ve done. You helped us escape our slavery. It’s thanks to you that all the people in the temple can live better lives now.”
Archie replied, “That was you, Arezo. I just did what you told me to.” He began to anguish and whimper between smiles, as the light of annihilation consumed his form.
Sophy whispered, “At last.”
Emory and Sophy faded away too, smiling as they left.
Pax had tears in his eyes. He slammed his fists on the wall, “God damn it!” He was now the last of the Lost Ones. More aptly, he was the Lost One.
I said, “I can still return-“
Still kneeling next to Archie’s residual particles, Arezo quickly resisted, “No.” She wiped away her tears, “It’s over. They wouldn’t want that.” She got up and turned to me, “I’m not that selfish.”
I replied, “But-“
Pax said, “She’s right. It’s what they wanted. Even if it pisses me off a whole lot. Those motherfuckers left me here alone. But they deserve that freedom.”
I nodded. Then, I walked towards Arezo, hugged her for a moment, and said, “We need to get to the top of the tower, let’s go!” We had no time to process any of that.
Pandora and Gadi only watched, teary-eyed and speechless.
We ran back through the halls to the elevator, but two of Truman’s Aeons blocked our way, standing on both sides of the elevator door. One had a face made of green lights, the other a human woman with a glowing green eye. Both had strange hats, typical fashion of the Aeons in Hedo. They often looked like machines, these two especially.
The neon-faced one spoke, “It looks like you are stuck now. How dare you try to rip this world away from us.”
The womanly one joined, “Yes. The true villain of this story. Despicable. I had thought such creatures were only of fairytales. What shall we do with them?”
The elevator bell began to ding. We all turned to look at it, with intense and awkward anticipation. Slowly, it descended all the way to the bottom floor, our floor. The door slowly and smoothly opened. It was Lily, her hands drenched in blood and holding Truman’s head by the hair.
She took a hit from the two cigarettes and said, “So? How was your vacation??” Then, she tossed Truman’s head in the middle of all of us.
The womanly Aeon said, “Oh God! What have you done?!”
Lily smugly turned to the womanly one and said, “I’ve done it just like you asked! So, where’s the cash?”
The womanly aeon looked shocked, “What?!”
The neon-faced one grew angry, “Sister?! What the hell is this?? You put a hit on Truman??”
Lily took a drag from her cigarettes and said, “Well, one of you has to go, so which of you wants me to help you? Which of you gets to survive?”
The womanly one screamed, “You filthy liar!”
The neon-faced one said, “Traitor! I knew something was going on! For months now!” She turned to Lily and demanded, “Take her out!”
Lily turned to the womanly one and grabbed her. The aeon’s body burst with blue light, fizzling away in a shimmering fractally mess.
Then Lily turned to the neon-faced one, “So easy.”
Next, the neon-faced aeon melted away in the same blue light.
All of us stared in stun.
After the light of annihilation fizzled out, I rushed in, grabbed her by the neck and choked her against the wall, “Who the fuck are you?! What the hell was that??”
She resisted my grip, trying to pull my arms away. Then, she gave in, smiled, and softly moved her hands across my arms.
My grip loosened and a lust grew inside me. I hated it.
She said, “Oh wow… so hot.”
Startled, I quickly pulled my hands away.
She wasn’t done though, she grabbed my shirt and laid her head on my chest.
I pushed her off, “What’s your deal.”
She finally looked irritated, “Ugh, whatever then. You aren’t fooling anyone if you say you didn’t like that though.”
Pandora lashed out, “What’s your deal?! Didn’t you say you weren’t going to do weird shit like that??”
Lily responded, “Hey, he came onto me first. It’s hard when you are in the heat of the moment.”
Pandora gave up, “Agh!”
From down the hall, a cloud of Sige entered the scene.
Lily grabbed my hand, “Oop! Time to go!!” Then, she rushed into the elevator.
I was clinging onto Pandora, forming a chain of people.
Arezo, Pax, and Gadi followed.
The elevator slowly shut, barely blocking the Sige’s path towards us.
Quickly, Lily started removing the vent on the top of the elevator.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Look. I’m sorry about my shenanigans. I’ll try to chill out. Just help me open this, will ya?” She continued struggling with it.
“Why are you doing this?”
The building shook suddenly. Looking towards the floor, one corner began to turn into chrome crystals.
The Sige was persuasive. I decided to trust her and pushed up the vent, opening it.
Lily exclaimed, “Yes! Now get in.”
I got up, pulled Pandora up, helped Arezo, Pax and Gadi, then lastly, Lily.
The floor of the elevator was already deteriorated.
Gadi flailed his arms and yelled, “Okay! What now!? What do we do!?”
Lily turned to Arezo, “Do your stuff! Make like a platform and take us up!”
Arezo was surprised, “Got it!”
She held out her hands, the platform we stood on accelerated upwards, finally taking us to Truman’s floor.
The platform broke into pieces.
We all jumped at the last second, landing on Truman’s floor.
Lily grabbed my arm again. This time, Pandora grabbed Arezo, who grabbed Gadi, and Pax just followed.
Lily opened the closet, revealing a shimmering light.
I resisted and pulled back, “What the hell??”
Lily yanked me back towards the door, “We don’t have time! Get in!” She yanked harder, pulling us all through.
We emerged in another world. It was beautiful. The ground was metal and industrial. The buildings were black and red.
The sound of Pax and Gadi screaming interrupted my sightseeing.
I looked; their legs were gone. Left on the other side of the portal.
Arezo ran to their side, “Don’t worry! Just hold on.”
She spawned new appendages for them.
“Are we safe now?” I asked.
Lily held both her arms out, “Welcome to the Gnostic Aetherium.”
Behind us, the door crystallized and cracked.
“No turning back now,” Lily said.
I turned around and finally got a good look at the Aetherium, “This is way different than I expected. Are you sure this is the castle above Xanadu?”
Lily responded, “From the ground, the view is obscured. The Sige around here bends light and masks the castle. Usually, people can’t see it at all, akshually.”
I grew angry again, “Lily, who the hell are you?”
“Sheesh! Calm down. I’ll explain.”
“You aren’t human, are you?”
She smiled, “Do I seem human to you?”
“So, an Aeon then?”
“Ding ding ding!! What else?”
She grew bothered, “Yeah, but come on! That’s all been fun. Don’t you lie about that! Then you’d be a hypocrite.” She returned to smiling smugly.
“You are a powered Aeon. You used an annihilation technique on Truman’s Aeons.”
Lily snapped her fingers and then walked towards me, “Correct.” She touched my hands, uncomfortably intimately.
I pulled away.
She remarked, “Don’t worry! Look, over at Pandora and the others.”
I did and they were all unmoving.
“That doesn’t make it ok!” I looked back at Lily in curiosity, “So, you can also stop time?”
She hit her cigarette, then blew a smoke ring towards my face.
The sky around us was washed out by a black void, like curtains pulling over the world around us. This faded nearly instantly.
I shook off the awe, “You are also like Arezo?? Are you fucking Kirby??”
She giggled, “Pretty awesome, ain’t it?”
“Why did you lie?” I asked.
She looked down, then back at me, “If you are good, you’ll realize soon.” Then, she snapped, then time continued.
Arezo looked around, found Lily, and commented, “What happened? How did you get there, Lily?”
“My mysterious powers,” she answered totally puffed up.
I cut to the chase, “Somehow she can stop time and create virtual worlds like you and annihilate people like Pax. She wouldn’t explain more though.”
“Aww, Guhya come on. That’s no fun!”
“This isn’t about having fun. This is serious. A lot is at stake.”
Pandora commented, “That’s not like you. Seriousness?”
“Ugh! Stop!” After regaining my composure, I said, “Let’s just get inside the Aetherium already.”
We started heading across the bridgeway.
Pandora grabbed my arm, “I know she is suspicious, but she did also help us a lot. We might have been stuck in that virtual world for eternity, if not for her. She might not be so bad.” She was always quickly changing her tune about the people she didn’t trust at first. Maybe she was good at sensing them.
I decided to trust her. “You’re right.”
Pandora smiled and said, “It’s like we’ve traded places. You are quick to trust and distrust.”
“And yours is a slow burn.” I stopped walking, “We should update the reset point,” I blushed.
“Oh, is that all?” Pandora pressed up against me, locking lips with mine. I loved her taste. I pulled out and licked her lips. She pulled me back in, biting mine.
Gadi was staring at the Aetherium as he interrupted the moment. He gasped and said, “I remember now.” His tone was revelatory.
“What is it?” I asked.
Gadi turned around, to face us, “I’m starting to remember my life from before. Only some details, but it’s really there.”
Pandora’s interest piqued, “What do you remember??”
He explained, “There’s this woman. She saved me. For a while, I had dreams about her. She’s real though.”
“What else do you remember?” Pandora asked.
Gadi continued, “Not much, yet. But I feel as if the memories are increasing since we landed up here at the Aetherium.”
Arezo hugged him, “This is wonderful! You’ll get to know yourself finally.”
Gadi blushed and smiled. Suddenly, his face turned down. He said, “It’s strange though, my sense of the prophecy doesn’t extend much further than here.”
Pandora said, “To be fair, we are close to the end.”
I gave an alternate hypothesis, “Maybe as you remember your old memories, the prophecy fades.”
Gadi said, “You might be right. I hope this doesn’t pose an issue for us.”
I smiled, “Where to next, Captain Gadi!?”
He held himself confidently, “Right! Follow me, chosen one!”
Lily ominously turned back to me and said, “You sure you’re ready?”
Her questioning had me second-guessing, but still, I replied, “Of course.”
The entrance to the Aetherium was somehow horrifying. The glowing red walls reminded me of blood. The entire thing was a machine. An engine of Gnosis, in pursuit of omniscience.
We all rushed to Gadi’s lead, right into the Aetherium. It’s cold tiles, strange machines, and palace-like decor was familiar to me, but the others gawked at it.
I grabbed Pandora’s hand, “Hey, let’s finish.” I moved in, wrapping my lips with hers. Rubbing mine against hers, pressing our bodies together, lifting away from the tangible realm and into our lustrous personal bubble. My hands lay on the arch of her back, her chest pressed against mine. We tried our hardest to merge.
But then, it had to come to an end. I pulled away, “Okay. We should catch up with the others.”
It was weird knowing that my heart coldened enough to allow Archie, Emory, and Sophy to die. If the Sige evolves in response to the Lost Ones, we were mega fucked. It was probably already too late though. The Sige was annihilating people down there, probably after being exposed to the Lost Ones as they died.
I caught up with Arezo and asked, “Hey. The Sige removed their amygdalae, but why?”
Saddened, she answered, “I wondered about this too. One role of the amygdala is to process negative emotions like fear.”
“You think that the Sige is trying to help?”
She replied, “Maybe. This feels wrong though.”
Gadi leapt ahead excitedly, entering a massive arching doorway. He seemed to be a bit more confident than usual.
Inside the new room was the place I often met with Vaeda. Her presence was absent. Instead, the man who intruded our last meeting was there. The man who had killed Pandora unexplainably.
The strange man greeted Lily with a menacing smile, “Why hello there, my little fallen angel.”
Lily rushed over and hugged him, “Kaos! You’re alive!”
“Of course! I wouldn’t leave you behind like that.”
Then, unexpectedly, they kissed with passion.
The man turned to the rest of us, “You have new friends, I see.”
Lily replied, “Yeah! They helped me kill off Truman. We should be good now!”
The man introduced himself, “Hello, I am Kaos, the Aeon of Chaos. Thank you for helping my precious angel.”
I quickly stepped forth, “Where’s Vaeda? What are you doing here?”
“Oh! What a pleasant surprise. Aren’t you Guhya, the chosen one?”
Stubbornly, I repeated, “Where’s Vaeda?!”
“I haven’t been able to find her either. Hm… you are the one who resets back in time, correct?” Kaos walked closer to us, “Let’s do an experiment. We can kill two birds with one stone. I’ll show you my power if you show me yours. Come back here at the same time,” he showed his watch. “You’ll see what I mean soon.”
My heart sank. I yelled, “What?! No!”
Kaos continued, “If my hypothesis is correct, I should not be here anymore when you return. You see, my obsession with chaos theory, true randomness, and novelty led me to acquire knowledge about breaking free from fate. That was my gift from the Psychonet. I don’t like living in the box. It is a prison, that sickening determination.”
His hand glowed and then he walked towards Pandora, placing his hand on her forehead, “Goodbye, for now, chosen one.”
I grabbed his hand, trying to stop him, but his arm wouldn’t budge.
It was already too late. Pandora only gazed into the abyss, as her body began to glow with the blue light of annihilation. Her body was fizzling away.
I yelled, “Why?! What the hell man?! Who are you?! What are you trying to achieve with this?!”
He smiled and turned to me, “I am simply curious. That is all. Like Vaeda. Though, she is curious with a purpose. Purpose is only a limitation. My purpose is to avoid limitations and boundaries.”
The void welcomed me before I could respond. It had been months since I returned to this darkness. My sensitivity for observing death was a bit heightened, but the usual hardening set in, even before the observation completed.
The return took me only moments ago. Our lips were locked. I shuddered and pulled away.
Pandora softly said, “Guhya?”
I grabbed her face and pressed our lips together more tightly than before. At least her warmth was always there to comfort me on the other side. Sometimes, the kiss was better the second time. Even despite the anguish of her death. Maybe even because of that anguish. I couldn’t think too much about that. It seemed like a dangerous path to walk.
After we pulled away from each other, Pandora looked at me, knowing what had just happened.
I asked her, “Do you feel it? Because of the syzygy?”
She paused, then softly answered, “Yeah…”
It hurt to know that she could feel it too. From her perspective, she had never died. Instead, she only felt the residual drip of my grief every time we kissed. From her perspective, most of our kisses were tainted. I held her tighter, pressing her head into my chest, “I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t let Kaos do this. What was he even up to? Mere curiosity? It was absurd.
My head turned to the left and Lily was staring into my soul, with a look of shock and horror. It was as if she knew. I asked, “Lily?”
Her stare only continued.
It could only mean she knew.
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