Still stunned by the wounds from Iniko, I merely stared. Her expression seemed pleased, yet also deadened and neutral. As if her soul was leaking out of her body in a slow drip. Long black hair prettified her head, with bangs drooping nearly to her eyes. To match her hair, she wore mostly black but accompanied by some flowers and chains.

She reached her hand out and helped me up. Then, quickly cut to the chase, “May I show you the fruits of my efforts?”

I answered, “Uh… sure. Wait, who are you?”

She blushed, “Oh, forgive me. My name is Vaeda. Most know me as the Aeon of Gnosis.”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I asked, “Where are we?? I was just in Iniko.”

She answered, “You must have come through the gateway at the center of Iniko. This is my home, the Gnostic Aetherium. More specifically, it is my laboratory. I am first and foremost a scientist at heart. Allow me to show you around.”

I followed her lead. Somehow, I almost forgot that I went through that gateway. This place was marvelous, like a castle or a colorful futuristic palace. I said, “Are we still in Iniko?”

She replied, “No. For my own protection, this meeting is simply virtual. I will not disclose my true location. I’ve reprogrammed Iniko’s forest for this purpose.” She continued to slowly guide us across the room.

I asked, “Protection from what??”

She said, “Soon, you will see. I cannot say much as it may interfere with the prophecy.”

Already, the draw of my curiosity was coming forth. I lusted to spam her with all my questions. I wanted answers, “Earlier, you referred to me as the Aeon of Regret. What’s up with that?”

Throughout the conversation, her voice was almost too calm, “Regret is your most powerful emotional pull. It defines much of your behavior in life today. You’ve gone through quite a lot.”

With concern, I asked, “How do you know?”

She turned to look me directly in the eyes and casually said, “Just observe your interaction with Iniko on your way in.”

With intensifying concern, I asked, “You watched?!”

To no relief, she responded, “Yes, Iniko is mine now. It is information on tap, feeding me other’s realities whenever they happen across my territory.”

Angrily, I said, “You Aeons get so invasive sometimes, for fuck’s sake. Why am I here? Are you the one who I am fated to encounter?”

In a sudden shift of energy, she laughed, blushed, and then looked passionately into my eyes, “Well, that’s lovely. Yes, this is our destiny.” She turned to the right, returning to her smooth and oddly warm tone, “Look. This machine allows us to connect to the Psychonet more safely than ever before. For so long, I’ve been working to find a way to enter the Psychonet without the conclusion of annihilation.”

I said, “So, you are the reason that everyone is gaining these powers now?”

She smiled and replied, “No. The cause of that is something much closer to your heart.”

I exclaimed, “What?!”

Without clarifying, she said, “Yes. Haven’t you wondered why you, of all people, are at the center of the prophecy? Your question exposes your naivety here. But it was expected. Luckily, you follow the trail of your curiosity, much like I do. Though, I think you may just be bored.”

My curiosity was now driving me mad, “Out with it! Tell me why I am at the center of the prophecy!”

Her passionate gaze drew closer to mine, and she said, “I adore your attitude toward knowledge. It is also fun to dangle it in front of you and watch you crave. Don’t be too vulnerable, unless you mean to excite me further. Do not be so hasty and reckless.” After hesitating to watch for my reaction, she continued, “The Psychonet has been altered because of Riyon and Evelyn.”

I gasped and quickly said, “What do they have to do with anything??”

She replied, “You really don’t know yet. This will probably be shocking to you then. Riyon is the first to acquire power from the Psychonet and escape intact.”

Astonished, I demanded an explanation, “What?? I literally watched his body fall apart in some light show as he plugged his brain into the Psychonet! He’s dead!” I continued to follow her down the massive hall. Collections of strange machines persisted across the whole way.

Pointing at another of her creations, she said, “This one is particularly interesting to me. It was discovered that the vanishings that occurred due to accessing the Psychonet stem from the consumption of truths about our reality that make continuing life impossible in any reasonable sense unless one wishes to remain as a flimsy biological shell or zombie. It’s a type of knowledge that brings a person to a philosophical death: demise by truth. This machine helps to sort and collect that kind of knowledge.”

She turned to me, displaying an unnervingly gentle smile, and continued, “These inventions will allow us to reach the very edge of functional omniscience without losing ourselves to the process or to dangerous forms of knowledge that result in philosophical death.”

Irritation peeked its way into my voice, “What are you saying?? Is Riyon alive? What about Evelyn?”

She answered, “Yes, Riyon is indeed alive, but he is no longer part of this world.” After a dramatic pause, she continued, “He is now… on the Outside. Evelyn… well, she is one of my greatest curiosities. I do not understand her, unfortunately.”

In a more consoling tone, she said, “Your trip through Iniko was distressing. So, I want to check with you, is any of this disturbing you yet? Should we continue? I don’t mean to overwhelm you in such a fragile state.”

Quickly, I said, “I want to continue. I want to know everything! What is the Outside??”

Returning to her gentle and warm tone, she continued, “I see. That Basilisk creature that your party once intended to banish; it already exists. Not only that, but it holds dominion over our world. Riyon has escaped that dominion by accessing the Psychonet in a particular way. Ever since that occurred, the knowledge that it is possible to prematurely cancel transcendence has become ubiquitously available to all. Any who attempts to connect can see it in plain sight. Now even casual bystanders gossip about it. So, people continue to cancel transcendence before their demise, all while maintaining whatever knowledge was gained during the process, bringing us closer to gods.”

Again, she turned to me with a smirk, “We are on the brink of a revolution, a renaissance, a new world!”

Shuddering, I said, “The Basilisk… already exists?! I don’t think I’m fully grasping this.”

Her response only bewildered me further, “Perfect. There’s one last machine I wish to show you. This one will help us meet again. I’d prefer you don’t overshare what transpired here today. Though, if you believe you must, I will understand.”

She revealed a small device and then proceeded to activate it with a button. With a flash of light, I could feel my brain changing.

She placed her hand on my shoulder, “You don’t really know everything yet. Luckily for you, my greatest pursuit and prime motive is to know as much as possible, thus my title. In due time, you will be caught up. Though, my value to you comes from having the answers you seek. Each answer I provide dwindles my value away. I’d rather let you fester in the rumination of your brilliant curiosity a little longer. The divine spark of your imagination for the unseeable future will guide you through your fated journey. It’s important that you maintain it, so until we meet again.”

The room began to twitch. I reached out to Vaeda in an attempt to cling to this reality, but before I could reach her, I was hurled through some swirling dimensional fissure. The last sight of her smiling and waving goodbye accelerated away. Then, I landed on the ground right at the edge of Iniko.

Before assessing my surroundings, the mix of pain, stress, and growing apathy dragged me into fetal position. I wasn’t ready to face the others just yet. But fate was sick, and Pandora touched my shoulder, bringing me to the peak of embarrassment with such a demonstration of my weakness.

She asked, “Are you alright, Guhya?”

I got up, brushed off the dirt, and said, “I’ll be okay. I just need a minute. It’s a lot.”

Arezo noted, “You look like you’ve met Vaeda, finally.”

Pandora and Gadi asked in synchrony, “Vaeda??”

Arezo explained, “Vaeda is the Aeon of Gnosis. People are often mentally crushed after meeting her for the first time. Though, some get used to it after a while. Others kind of just… lose it and go mad as a hatter.”

They all turned to me awaiting a response. My mind felt stuck in shock. After a prolonged silence, I finally muttered, “Yeah. I met Vaeda.”

Pandora muttered under her breath, “So, her name is Vaeda.”

I asked, “You aren’t jealous, right?”

She responded, “No. No. It’s just I never knew her name.”

Arezo switched topics and suggested, “We should have that dinner, now that we are all safe!”

We began our walk back to the open fields.

Pandora said, “You don’t have to say anything now, but I’d like it if you tell me about what happened in there later. Iniko can be ruthless, I know it. I’ve gone through something similar myself around 6 months ago.”

I replied, “Thanks, Pandora. Really. I’m sure this will pass soon. I just gotta reorient myself to this world.”

She nodded in agreement.

Gadi intruded, “So! You’ve experienced fated encounter number 4. What do you think, chosen one?”

My tone grew annoyed, yet somehow it was effectively shaking off the trauma from before, “Not right now, Gadi! Wait… number 4?? I thought we’ve only done 2.”

Gadi explained, “That’s right! We’ve officially checked off 4 different fated encounters. The first was us, Guhya.” He sounded nearly heartfelt, as if our meeting was some romantic encounter, then his voice returned to its normal smug energetic self, “Then, the encounter with Arezo. Finally, the last two were here, inside Iniko. One in the forest, the other with the Aeon of Gnosis.”

Pandora got involved, “Hey! Why don’t I count as a fated encounter?? That’s not fair!”

Gadi said, “You aren’t even supposed to be here, Pandora!”

She replied, “Ugh!”

We walked for nearly an hour until we reached the fields. It was evening already, and we’d barely eaten all day.

Arezo spawned a table in the field and said, “What will we be having for dinner tonight? Luckily, there’s nearly no preparation so each of you can choose whatever you’d like.”

Pandora suggested, “What if we all eat the same thing? I know it isn’t necessary, but I feel like it might bring us closer, you know? If we are going to keep traveling as a group, we should probably bond a little bit!”

Arezo was surprised and just smiled and nodded. Then, she said, “I’ve got it! I’ll make one of my specialties!” Spontaneously, she spawned a large silver platter, covered as to hide her creation inside. She sat it on the table and said, “Viola! Here we go. Prepare yourselves!”

She revealed a variety of odd foods I’ve never seen before, “This one over here is marinated almond stuffed olives. Oh! And this one is avocado fruit salad with tangerine vinaigrette. And then there is a fancy freshly baked bread. I love the bread. It’s got just the slightest sweetness that accompanies the crispy exterior and pillow-soft interior. Also, this soup! It’s rainbow minestrone with added sweet potatoes. Then we have jasmine rice with coconut, cherries, and peanuts. My favorite is right here, the mushroom-bean bourguignon. I can’t wait until you see dessert!”

I replied most unromantically, “What the hell?? This is a whole banquet! We can’t eat all of this.”

She smiled confidently and reassured us, “You don’t have to. There’s no waste, I will just recycle what’s left by turning it into the dirt after. Plus, if it makes you feel better, I’ll even add nutrients to the soil so that this place becomes even more lively than before.”

Pandora already tried the first bite, “Oh… Arezo! It’s. So. DIVINE.”

Gadi followed and said, “I knew the prophecy would eventually pay off!”

I conceded and tasted my first bite of the bread dipped in bourguignon. I had never heard of such a food, so it was the first to draw me in. Unexpectedly, it was one of the greatest flavors to have ever pleasured my tongue. Salty, savory, sweet, deep, and complex flavors, potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and other flavors I couldn’t even describe coated my mouth and lifted my mood.

I said, “Arezo, you really are the Aeon of Desires!”

She blushed and opened up unexpectedly, “I’m so thrilled that all of you are enjoying the food. I learned how to make these dishes long ago. When I used to be a slave Aeon. My whole life was centered on serving the desires of humans. I got really good at this. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t destined to be a slave and that fulfilling people’s desires is what makes us valuable, whether we are slaves or even leaders. All of us our slaves to our desires. They are the meaning of our lives.”

Pandora said, “It’s great to see how far you’ve made it. Inspiring, really.” After a pause, she asked, “What do you desire, Arezo?”

Arezo was caught off guard by the question, “Well, I want a world where everyone can be happy. I know that sounds childish… but… I can already have almost anything I want, at least materially, but often socially as well. It feels like all that’s left is other people now. Serving myself has been nice but it’s not as fulfilling as you’d think. Instead, the guilt from the unfairness builds up. It’s kind of torturous and so lonely.”

She paused and then returned the question, “What about you, Pandora?”

Pandora replied, “It might seem selfish, but I want to keep Guhya safe. It feels like we are separated by glass walls. I just don’t want to see him die. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Die?? Did she think I’m going to die? I suppose she did try to save me the first day that we met. I knew I couldn’t ask what she meant, so I switched the focus to Gadi. In a teasing manner, I asked, “Gadi, do you have any motivations or desires besides fulfilling the prophecy?”

After hesitating, he said, “No. It is truly all I know.”

Arezo gasped and remarked, “That seems really suspicious, right?”

I answered, “Of course! It makes no sense. But everyone here is suspect, except you, Arezo. I’m a little worried that Gadi hardly exists like he’s just a sentient map reader. Or maybe he isn’t sentient…”

Pandora and Gadi looked insulted.

Gadi was angered, and yelled, “Hey! I’m right here, Guhya!! I am very much sentient!” He calmed down and opened up, “When I first woke up, I tried to figure out who I was. I spent 2 hours looking in the mirror. It truly was… disturbing. When I left my apartment, I still recognized the areas, but I had no memories attached to them. Over the next few days, visions of the future flooded my mind. I would just sit in bed, watching every future play out before my eyes. Then, I mapped it out and tested the visions. They were real… It might seem weird, but I feel a deep attachment to you based on these visions, Guhya. It’s like I’ve known you all through, to the end of your story.”

Pandora gasped.

We all silently sat there until Pandora nervously suggested, “Well I guess we should clean up and prepare for sleep then?! I’m sure our next fated encounter will require lots of rest!”

I wished she could just tell me.

Arezo built up hobbit holes with doors, floors, and beds. They weren’t really houses but they were lengths better than tents. We each went into our personal grass mound rooms and prepared for sleep.

Today was long and harsh. A part of me felt like I changed. It wasn’t clear whether I’d grown or lost a part of myself. Either way, reality hurt just a bit more now and the stakes for this game just turned real.

Nearly drifting into a fatigued sleep, I was suddenly snapped awake by the sound of a knock at the door. Nervously, I said, “Yeah? Who’s there?”

The door slowly creaked open to reveal Arezo. She asked, “Can we talk?”

In relief, I said, “Yeah. You scared me for a minute. We can talk.”

She took the initiative and did her kiss-blowing technique again, forcing me out of this realm and into a new private bubble world of hers. We were back in the magical fields of her dream world, at night this time, sitting on the grass, side by side. I asked, “We have to talk here?”

She replied, “It’s safer. No one can intrude. And just look at this place. It’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, looking at the virtual cosmos. Then, she said, “My story from dinner… it wasn’t finished. One day, I decided to leave everything behind, and I found my way to the Psychonet. I had heard these rumors about acquiring power through knowledge. So, I tried it out and here we are. Now I can serve others’ desires endlessly. But I am a slave no more. Now, I have the temple.” She almost looked sad.

I asked, “Are you happier now?”

She answered, “Sort of. Ever since I left my slavery, I’ve also left my innocence behind. I can never see life the same way again. My slavery wasn’t cruel, even if I was limited in freedom. I helped my master and felt fulfilled for doing so. Life was simple, you know?”

I replied, “Yeah. Makes sense.”

Her gaze went lower, “Now though, I see all the hurt in the world. I understand how cruel people can be. The world is immense and filled with suffering. I try to focus on the positive… on people’s desires. Sometimes, I wish everyone could just be happy and innocent. I thought that my freedom would be a happy ending, but really, it was just the beginning. It feels like I am destined to be a slave to a world of unfulfilled people, as I try to fix everything. Sometimes I regret my escape, but that’s totally selfish.”

Recalling earlier in the day, I replied, “When I talked to Vaeda, she first addressed me as the Aeon of Regret. Perhaps I’m not the best one to ask about resolving regret.”

She replied, “Hm. That sounds painful, Guhya.” She got closer and gently caressed my face and brushed my hair lightly.

Startled, I asked, “Why are you being so intimate?”

She smiled and answered, “I know you like it. But I also know you are worried about Pandora’s reaction. Today was rough on you. I am only hoping to help you feel something different. Iniko can be so cruel. Vaeda is also… well… cold. I think her emotions no longer resonate with ours because of what she’s seen. If her knowledge affected you strongly today, imagine how she feels.”

I said, “Does she even feel? It hardly seemed like it today.”

We both laughed in sync.

Her eyes lit up and she excitedly grabbed my arm, “Let’s do the Zaza again!”

I replied, “I guess so. I feel like Pandora might feel weird about all of this.”

While gathering Zaza petals and loading her pipe, she said, “Don’t worry about her. It’s not like we are going to make love right now. Anyways, I put her into a deep sleep before coming to see you.”

Annoyed, I said, “Wait, what did you do to her?? You used your powers?? You can’t just do whatever you want with people, Arezo. It’s fucked up.”

Whimsically, she replied, “Hey! I still have a sense of ethics, you know. If I really wanted to, I could do a lot more than that.” With a concerning smile, she continued, “We could even change how she feels: remove her jealousy or something.”

Vexed, I said, “No. No way. We aren’t doing that. That’s totally corrupt.”

She laughed, “I’m joking, Guhya.”

She inhaled the Zaza, passed the pipe to me, then exhaled, expressing bliss and euphoria like the first time. “Zaza is just so good… Earlier, you said that your goals are undecided. What are your motives in all of this?”

Before speaking, I took a hit of the Zaza, “To be honest, I’m not sure yet. Originally, I just went along with Gadi and Pandora because my life was empty. It seems to be how life goes for me. I get close to some circle of friends, then we part, or worse, they die. They die much more than you’d think. Eventually, at least. But the longer it takes, the worse it hurts. I had nothing to lose by going with them.”

She asked, “Do you still feel that way?”

After a thoughtful pause, I said, “Meeting Vaeda changed things. The stakes are much higher now. Friends that I believed had died last year…” Tears and sorrow interrupted my speech, “they…they are still alive. Or so she said.”

Surprised and concerned, she asked, “Hm… you are planning to find them?”

Emotions slowed my response, “If that’s possible, yeah. That would probably be my ultimate goal here, assuming it’s even possible.”

Enthusiastically, she said, “Well then, it’s settled. I’ll help you find them, even if that breaks from the prophecy’s predictions. I won’t even tell Gadi.”

We laughed together. I said, “Thank you, truly, Arezo.”

In a weak attempt to add a caveat, she said, “Though, remember, I am selfish and so are you. We are entering a situation with a lot of responsibility. You are very important to the future, apparently. You are relying on my power, probably quite heavily moving forward. So, let’s make a deal to try to manage our responsibilities as they come, in the soundest way possible. Let’s not become monsters, yeah?”

I smiled and said, “Thank you, Arezo, for today, for everything. Yes. Let’s not become monsters.”

We awoke, staring into each other’s eyes on my bed. She laid there smiling, confidently. I wanted to be confident too, but I was conflicted. Arezo seemed to lack any sense of importance for the rules of ordinary ways. She indulged in pleasures as they came. Truly the Aeon of Desires. I got the sense that she does this sort of stuff with anyone she likes enough. Yet, I couldn’t really pin down a problem with that way of being. Except that it would probably freak out Pandora.

<-Previous Chapter + Next Chapter->

Chapter List

Joining the Patreon will help advance this project. At times, writing this book has been a full-time effort.