Pandora. She was so close yet so far away. Of all of our new friends, she seemed to be the most mysterious. There must have been a reason she couldn’t talk but why?? I had to know. Who was Echo? What was in store for us?
Three days had passed since the events at Iniko. In that time, we managed to get to the edge of some dingy village that Gadi said was the location of the next fated encounter. Two encounters, in fact.
The surrounding cold desert was littered sparsely with dead trees. Cracks patterned the pale ghostly ground beneath. The white below wasn’t snow but rather it was a deadened Earth. A lifeless mountain towered in the distance. The village stood alone, in absolute desolation.
Pandora said, “This fated encounter is important. You need to pay attention here.”
I asked, “Why? What is it? This place looks like shit.”
Pandora’s face grew enraged.
Children snuck up from behind her, approached me, and asked, “Hey mister, are you Guhya?? Hey guys! Come look! I think it’s Guhya!!”
Chills came over me. I answered, “Yeah, what’s it to you? How do you know me??”
A group of children surrounded us, saying things like,
“Oh! It’s really him!”
“The hero has arrived!!”
“Nah, I don’t believe it yet. This guy seems scummy.”
I reacted to the last one, “Hey now! What the fuck is your problem kid?? You don’t even know me.”
Another kid said, “Hurry, go get Father Zohar, before he runs away!” Then the kid pushed down the one who insulted me.
In a sudden guilt, I intervened, “Okay! That’s enough. Stop this bullshit. Don’t go attacking each other over silly stuff like this. Plus, the kid’s spot on. I am kind of scummy.” My tone lifted into a humorous charm, “It is also true that I am, THE CHOSEN ONE, Guhya, your hero.”
Unexpectedly, they marveled at me rather than laughing, even though it was a joke. As the guilt and shame intensified, I had to clarify, “I am indeed Guhya, but not so sure about being a chosen one. Come on, don’t take me so seriously, it was a joke.”
They just stared, confused.
An angelic dark handsome man calmly approached us. He had a short spikey afro that looked white like a cloud. He said, “Welcome to the village of Azazeli. My name is Zohar. I believe you may be, Guhya. Are my presumptions correct?”
I answered, “Yea. Are you the leader here?”
Zohar replied, “You could call me that. I am the Aeon of Hope. My role here is to inspire a path forward. As you can tell, this is the kind of place most in need of my services. If you truly are Guhya, then we must have a discussion. Would you please honor me with your time?”
He spoke with a level of respect for me that seemed undeserved. I nodded.
He said, “I’ll show you around the place and then we can have a much-needed conversation.”
He led the way around the village. Like good guests, we followed. Children ran and played, laughing and enjoying their time. Adults looked at our group with suspicion and judgment. Zohar said, “Don’t mind these scrutinizing gazes. It is a natural response given the circumstances. There are not many resources in this place, you see. Guests are a drain and put their families at risk. Their expression to you is really more of a plea. They wish for you to respect their needs for food, water, and anything else we consume in Azazeli.”
Arezo clenched her teeth like she was enduring pain, “It’s horrible…”
He turned to Arezo and said, “One can find beauty in this as well.”
Arezo looked shocked.
He looked back at the villagers and children, “Their dedication to their kin and their faith in a future that is worthy enough to protect is something I find touching. In a parallel world, people in such circumstances may have already given up. In a place like this, that kind of attitude can only make life hell. They have clung to hope, despite life’s tragedies, it’s quite amazing.”
We walked to the edge of the village and stopped in front of a peculiar tree covered in small blue flowers and silver leaves. A single chromium fruit hung from one of its branches, low to the ground. A few individuals gathered at the roots, looking at the tree in respect.
Zohar asked, “Guhya. Are you familiar with the prophecy of the Outside?”
I answered, nervously, “Well, sort of. Gadi, here, knows all about it! He is actually the prophet of truth.”
Zohar seemed surprised, “Brilliant! I’m glad you have Gadi in your presence. I assume that’s how you have come to find this place.”
I said, “Unfortunately, Gadi keeps all the secrets of the prophecy to himself.”
Gadi replied defensively, “Hey! Guhya, you already know that if I say too much, it will impact your destiny. I simply cannot, will not, outright refuse. Don’t behave as if I’m just being a jerk about it.”
Zohar laughed. After a pause, he said, “The Outside is of great meaning to the people here. It is the manifestation of hope itself. To the villagers, the Outside is an escape from their inevitable demise.”
Arezo’s emotions drew her heart closer, “Demise?! Why?!”
Zohar said, “This place cannot last forever. This is a truth I harbor alone. It is the antithesis of hope, yet it is also our inevitable fate. Food and water are dwindling. The means to acquire such are fading as well. The land is cursed.”
Arezo asked, “Couldn’t you just travel to other villages or cities for trade??”
Zohar answered, “That is how things used to be. When rumors of the Outside emerged in our world, the people of this village were the first to desire it. This has made our home and people very contentious, especially to the kinds of places that have the resources available for trade. Our village was embargoed by nearly every powerful city and colony.”
I asked, “But why??”
Zohar said, “They mean to starve us out. Ambitions to reach the Outside are a threat to those who cling on to this world. To those who have something to lose, the Outside takes everything away. People would start anew. Naturally, those with little and those who struggle, want a new life. Those who have acquired power can only acquire loss if the Outside is established as the new world. Many have followed in our path. Such an exiled fate has become of many villages and colonies now.”
He turned to me and said, “This is exactly why we need you, Guhya. The prophecy details your path to bringing everyone to the Outside.”
The pressure and self-doubt rendered me speechless.
He turned to the tree and said, “This tree is what we call the Tree of Revelations. Its fruits have the power to guide special individuals to the Outside, if they are deemed worthy. Each month, we hold a ceremony in which those who suffer most are given a chance to escape to the Outside, to live a life free from their pains and sorrows.”
I yelled, “This sounds like fantasy! How is that possible??”
He smiled and said, “Tonight, we hold the ceremony. Your timing is impeccable, truly a fated encounter. Later, you will get to see for yourself.”
Arezo eagerly stepped forth and said, “My name is Arezo, the Aeon of Desires. I want to prepare food for the ceremony. I have a power that lets me bend material reality into new shapes. I can create food this way.”
Surprised, Zohar said, “This would be a great honor, Aeon. We have still 6 hours before the ceremony. For the time being, I’d suggest taking a look around the village and then meeting up at the kitchen towards the east side of the village.”
We took his directions and headed off to explore the village. The houses were made of fragile cheap materials, primarily wood and clay. The people wore either tattered clothes or fairly maintained clothes, but nothing particularly fancy. The roads were simply dirt paths. A lonely well was at the center of the village.
Pandora said, “Hey, Arezo, that’s really nice of you to offer your powers to feed the village.”
Arezo replied, “Yeah. The only thing is…”
She generated an apple but seemed to strain. It took much longer than the first time.
She continued, “My power isn’t magic. It actually relies on the surrounding materials. When we are in the forest, there are plenty of biologically useful materials. That’s how the plants do their magic. It’s the same for me. But… in this place, materials are scarce. It’s still possible to create food, but the process is lengthier and more complex. First, I have to create biologically useful materials from non-useful materials. So, there are more steps involved.”
Gadi said, “This can still be done though, right? Hope does not rest at the bottom of our hearts?”
She replied, “Yeah. It will just be more difficult and take longer. So, we should start early.”
I said, “Let’s get to it then!”
We headed to the east side of the village to look for the outdoor kitchen area.
I asked, “Pandora, you knew about this place?”
She answered, “It’s one of the reasons that our journey is so important. Many are depending on us. This is what you need to see. It is one of the critical moments of consecration.”
In a disheartened tone, I said, “It makes me wonder if Riyon’s choice was wrong. I could have stopped him back there. It was my choice too. All of this stems from that moment.”
She replied confidently, “Your choice wasn’t informed. You were naive and it couldn’t have been any other way. And… I think he actually made the right choice.”
Bewildered, I said, “Huh? Why? Look at what has happened here.”
She said, “No one could ever reach the Outside without his choice. One day, all of us will be free.”
I asked, “You really believe in this?”
She replied, “Mhm.”
I put my hands on her shoulders and said, “Then, let’s work together and reach the Outside.”
Surprised, she smiled and nodded.
Gadi interrupted the romantic moment, “This pleases me greatly. Oh, chosen one. At last, you are realizing your potential and the necessity of your role in the world of the future.”
I turned and glared at him.
Unphased, Gadi reminded us, “We must leave by tomorrow to reach Dread’s Domain for the next fated encounter.”
Breaking out of the tunnel vision of our conversation, I noticed each family was placing small clay statues in front of their homes. I pointed at one of the little statues, “I wonder what that’s about. Maybe something related to the ceremony?”
I turned to Arezo and asked, “The whole Tree of Revelations thing seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?”
Arezo answered, “I agree. We need to be observant during the ceremony. I’m glad you are concerned too.” She paused and then said, “This place really hurts. I want to help them as much as I can.”
I smiled and said, “You are doing just great, Arezo!”
We arrived at the kitchen. Arezo announced, “I better get started! It’s going to be a lot of work this time.”
The rest of us helped by setting up the tables. I intersected paths with Gadi and decided to ask him, “Do you ever want to know who you were before you lost your memory?”
He stalled and then said, “Of course. I’ve undergone a rebirth of my soul. The past is dead, and the future ascends in the back of my mind and to the forefront of my sight. When I searched around my lonely house, I found few hints as to who I am or supposedly was. Nothing very substantial was clarified. Before my past died, I was a teacher of history, a teacher of ghosts and graves. It is a most great irony. I taught of long memories of the Earth but mine’s now gone.”
Confidently, I said, “Well, that suits you! Now you are a preacher of a history that is yet to be!”
With concern, he said, “One of the strange things is that the history I taught seems to contradict a lot of the way I see the world now, according to the prophecy.”
I replied, “It isn’t too strange. A lot of Aeon cities just brainwash the humans and sit in their thrones of power, maintaining a kind of peaceful consumption-driven society. The humans are usually quite happy with their lives in those places. It’s not as dark as you’d think.”
Gadi replied, “However, I do think truth matters, Guhya. The lie society you describe sounds atrocious, in my opinion, and, painfully, in my mind.”
Playfully, I advocated for absurdity, “You can romanticize truth all you want, Gadi. The fact remains, we will never have direct access to any truths. We are stuck in a world of fantasy!”
He replied, “Hmph. Whatever, chosen one. I will cling to my desire for the truth.”
Hours of labor passed by, unhurriedly, but finally, we finished the preparations. Arezo made the most elaborate buffet of food I had ever seen before. A rainbow of various delicacies filled pots and pans to the brim. The villagers excitedly stood in line, awaiting their banquet. After gathering plates for our group, we sat at one of the tables.
Zohar joined us, “Arezo, you are truly a hero to our people. Thank you for gifting us this food.”
She blushed and said, “It needed to be done. It’s my responsibility.”
Gadi asked, “Zohar! Our next plot is to enter Dread’s Domain. The future has declared a path for us. This path also requests that I ask you for further details here, at this very table. Do you know anything about the Aeon of Dread?”
Zohar, perplexed and curious, asked, “Does the prophecy really include such fine details that it specifies our meal, at this moment?”
Gadi smugly said, “It very well does, indeed. Can you believe it? It’s just wonderful, absolutely divine, each moment carved into a past that we live through in real-time.”
Zohar laughed and then said, “You are an intense one. I can give details about the Aeon of Dread. This man, this Aeon, he is a traitor. He was once a member of our village. Even one of the grandest, a hero. But alas, he is also the reason the embargoes started. Dread did not agree with our mission to reach the Outside. He spread the rumors about our village, trying to assemble a group to stop us. He lives in fear of change. It is the nature of the Aeon of Dread. He and his rebellious followers have been pushed out, for the protection of our people.
“If you really mean to vanquish the Aeon of Dread, you must go with caution. He is a powerful Aeon.”
I yelled, “Vanquish him?! Is that what we are doing tomorrow?? I’m going to fight to the death with some powerful Aeon??”
Gadi answered, “This is not something I can answer. Doing so only results in interference. You must decide the outcome for yourself. The prophecy isn’t merely a script, not simply a depiction of your fate. It is also a trial, a test of your choices and your quality to become the chosen one.”
I asked, “So, is it predetermined or not??”
He said, “The future is predestined, but most sorrowfully… the map of fated encounters does not specify all details of all events. I think it is unspecified when a specification is an interference that results in altering fate. The ambiguity paves your path to the future just as much as the moments of total specification do.”
Unsatisfied, I said, “You think?! You don’t know??”
Nervously he said, “Well… Guhya, I can’t be sure about all this you know! I just know that the map works. You’ve seen it too!”
Zohar announced to the table, “The ceremony begins momentarily. We must migrate to the Tree of Revelations. I’ll be sure to get you front-row seats. You are our guests after all.”
As we walked, Pandora grabbed my arm. I asked, “Are you alright?”
She said, “Yea. I’m just feeling a little nervous for some reason. Don’t worry about me. Just let me hold onto you for a second.”
The moment of truth was here. We sat front row, just as Zohar assured us. The seats were made of modified tree stumps. They were cozier than one would expect.
Zohar spoke to the audience, “Our monthly ritual begins again. This will mark the 21st fruit consumed. In total, 15 of us have transcended this world, left it behind, and reached the divine Outside. Today, Guhya, himself has arrived and honored us with his presence.”
The whole crowd gasped and began to whisper. I started sweating.
Zohar continued, “We now see that the prophecy is genuine. This starts the dawn of a new era. Guhya will lead us to the Outside. No longer will we rely on the Tree of Revelations for our sanctuary. Within a mere year, we may all find ourselves free to a new world. A world where desperation and fighting have left to the wayside for love and serenity. I declare a new state of hope. One that is beyond the hope that held us closely all this time, through the hardships. Now, we can finally hope for something grander than bare survival.
Today, the one who faces a chance for a new life will be the young and strong Grace. She has fought and struggled in this world. Her most recent span has left her crippled, bedridden, due to an unsolvable illness. For that, she will now have the chance to take flight into a new realm of life. Grace! Now, please step forward.”
Clapping and cheering began as the young girl walked forward toward the tree. Her walk appeared slow and pained, yet relieved and confident. She pushed through the pain, as if to understand that whatever happened to her body didn’t matter anymore.
Pandora looked unexpectedly emotional.
I asked again, “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Her voice quivered as she said, “Ye-Yeah, I’m alright.”
She was so clearly lying. It pissed me off.
Zohar spoke, “It is time. Grace, please consume the fruit from the Tree of Revelations and accept your chance at a new life. If your presence becomes absence, we will always remember you and hope to meet again, in the Outside.”
Grace grabbed the chromium fruit and stared into it in awe. She took the small fruit and placed it in her mouth and chewed. The space was quiet as everyone waited in anticipation.
Then, it began. Her body became a blue light and the little girl looked terrified and overwhelmed. The space of reality around us distorted. She began to scream, and her body began to tear apart in a shower of lights. It was disturbingly familiar.
Then, I realized: this was exactly like Riyon’s death as he plugged himself into the Psychonet. Chills and horror washed through my body. It was too much. She was dying right before our eyes, just like Riyon. Just like Rue.
I looked at Pandora and saw a single tear move down her cheek. Impulsively, I grabbed her hand, and suddenly, I was hurled back into a visionary space. This time, it felt as if Pandora remained with me in the visionary world. I looked back toward the dying girl, but this time it was not her, but my own body burning with the cosmic blue flame. The world was the same as in the first vision: full of strange geometric energy flows and patterns of light.
Pandora ran over to my other body and screamed, “Guhya!! Resist it! Please don’t leave me like this!!”
I grabbed her closer, trying to distract her from the vision.
She was crying and looked petrified. In a hopeless voice, she said, “I need to save you… Please… no.”
Suddenly, we were hurled back to the real world, in Azazeli. As we returned, the last glimpse of light of Grace’s disintegrating existence was fading out. Dust blew over the deadened Earth, sinking it another centimeter deeper. An astonished audience cheered out in a disturbing cacophony of excited cries, naive to the doom that Grace may have faced. Looking at Pandora, it was clear we both experienced the horrible vision. Tears covered our faces.
I grabbed her, held her close, and said, “It’s going to be okay. It will be okay. We won’t see that fate.”
Pandora held me even tighter than I did with her.
Shaken, I asked Pandora, “What was that?”
Still trembling and resisting tears and emotions, she said, “I don’t know.”
Arezo stared at us stunned. She had the look of both empathy for our pain and of epiphany.
In a grand zeal, Zohar said, “And viola! You see, Guhya. This moment must be the fated encounter that you came for. Now, you must believe in the Outside more than ever, am I correct?”
In a sudden rage, I yelled, “What the hell was that?! How do you know that this leads us to the Outside? It looked like an annihilation event to me!”
Gasps filled the air.
Zohar explained, “Your friend, Riyon, left to the Outside by accessing the Psychonet, did he not? The similarity is only for that reason.”
I continued in rage, “You don’t know that! You have no idea what this tree is doing!”
Arezo grabbed my arm and insisted, “Guhya. We shouldn’t do this right now. We can investigate this later. There’s nothing we can do right now.”
I backed off and said, “Sorry, you are right. Maybe it somehow does lead to the Outside but…” I turned and glared at Zohar, “if it doesn’t, then this whole place is fucked.”
Zohar spoke charismatically to his audience, “There may still be doubts, but I assure you, our hope is not misplaced. The ceremony is an incredibly emotional event. I think we must simply allow time to pass so that we can fully understand our thoughts and responses.
“Guhya is set to vanquish the Aeon of Dread tomorrow. After the hero’s quest, he will return to the village, and when he does, we can discuss everything. We will find a path to the future that we desire. We will make it to the Outside. Every last one of us. Let us dissipate for the evening and allow the emotions to settle. Grace is in a new world now.”
The crowd scrambled away in a whirlwind of gossip. We found our way to the guest houses, leaving Zohar behind without further words. Both he and we knew that talking wasn’t an option at the moment.
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