I fell to my knees, my hands on my head and my eyes shut tightly.
Pandora said, “We need to keep moving! What are you doing?!”
I replied, “What are we doing? What will we do? It’s over now. Everything is ruined.”
I heard her approach closely, “Guhya…”
Then, gravity shifted. I opened my eyes to the void. The floor was cold. A new checkpoint? Where was I?
A voice said, “Guhya. We need to talk now.” It was Vaeda and she was bothered.
My voice trembling, I said, “I… I killed Archie.”
“I know. Now you see. This is the kind of predicament I find myself in as well.” Her unnerving calmness only came off worse in moments like these.
“I have to kill Pandora. You have to kill Archie. Both of these things are necessary for our respective missions to proceed. It’s quite similar.”
“You’re a monster!!” I yelled.
Her restrained defensiveness could be felt, “There’s another way we relate.”
“We aren’t similar at all!” I continued raging.
“Both of us begin to lose our feeling from the absurdity of our situations.”
She was right. All I could muster was, “Agh!!”
She kept explaining, “For you, it’s worse though. For you, your feelings are the only thing protecting you in this world. Your power relies on them. Though, other’s lives are merely instrumental to modifying your own soul and feelings. The decay of your feelings is an alternate solution to reduce your pain.”
I expressed my anguish, “What do you want from me?! Why are you telling me this?!”
She continued, callously, and unphased, “As you die inside, there is less to modify, less to fix. Time is ticking. You only have so long before you are lost to fate’s sick game.”
My curiosity peaked its way out, “Is that possible?? Will I lose the ability to return??”
“Eventually, it must happen. Unless you can protect your feelings. That is your responsibility now that you’ve peered into the Psychonet. It is your gift after all.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I threatened.
She looked saddened, “Oh Guhya… you really are a mess now. Since you are so hot-headed and violent right now, let’s talk about something that will make you guilty and tame that blind self-righteousness.”
I couldn’t believe her.
“I’ve discovered how this timeline strayed course from the prophecy,” she said.
My heart sank.
“During your adventure in Xanadu, bringing Pandora altered the course of events. In the original timeline, the Lost Ones hardly entered the place because Pandora had killed them. In the current timeline, Pandora was intended to be removed, which would have caused you to access the Psychonet while running ahead of the Lost Ones, leaving them behind. Once Sophy had entered the Playground of Gods, evolution of the Sige fog was heavily accelerated in her presence.”
It was all my fault. My greed. But I was naive. I never could have known the outcome.
As if responding to my thoughts, she said, “You ended the world accidentally, naively, in your clumsiness. But make no mistake, this is your fault.”
I aggressively stepped closer, getting in her face, “It’s your fault too!! Why do the Lost Ones even exist?? There’s blood on your hands too!”
“Of course,” she replied shamelessly.
More calmly, I asked, “So… what do we do then?”
“I am working on a solution to the Sige breakout.”
I rubbed my chin, “You still intend on protecting this world?”
“I do,” she said without hesitation.
“But why?? It makes no sense.”
Her eyes closed. She chuckled and smiled, then her eyes rushed open and locked with mine, “In honor of the absurd nature of this world, let’s determine life and death with the flip of a coin. Heads, Pandora dies. Tails, Archie dies.”
My fist tightened, “I won’t allow Pandora to die. I’ll turn back time over and over again, even if it means my soul rots to the core. Even if my sentience fades and nothing remains.”
“How selfish of you,” she said with a judging face.
She explained, “Have you heard what people say about Iniko? The forest grants its host everlasting happiness through an imaginary world devoid of one’s traumatic memories. But… if one were to awaken from Iniko’s dreamscape, the return of memories and the realization of the true world is said to be so crushing that it can break one’s heart forever.”
“What’s that have to do with anything??” I asked.
“Waking from Iniko means losing everything. Now, consider the millions of lives you wish to awaken into the Outside.”
I looked down, “I don’t know what to do.”
She shrugged, “Neither do I. That’s why I suggest we use the coin.”
I flailed my arms, “That’s absurd though!”
“Exactly! Isn’t it beautiful?!” she excitedly exclaimed.
My rage shifted into laughter. It was a release. Neither of us knew the future now and neither of us knew what to do. Try to save the world inside by managing the escalating evolution of Sige or try to take people to the mythical ‘Outside’ that we couldn’t even confirm exists. We were both waging our bets. We were alike, but I didn’t want to admit this. Perhaps she’d even overcome this level of ego.
I kept laughing, falling onto the floor in hysterics.
She laughed a bit too but less so. In a smug tone, she asked, “Do you regret it? Your choices? These consequences?”
“Of course, I do! But there’s only one way out and it’s not backwards!” I insisted.
“Surprising to hear such an inspiring line from the Aeon of Regret.” She sounded pleased.
“Hm…” She was right. Maybe I had changed.
A mysterious character revealed themselves at the sidelines, “I hate to crash your party, but time is up.” It was the unknown man from before. His eyes glowed like a hunter who had found its prey. He was black and white all over. Black skin, a mix of black and shimmery pearly white hair, and a black and white tight outfit.
Vaeda looked more surprised than I’d ever seen her. Quickly, she said, “Sorry Guhya, no time for consolations this time, I have an unexpected meeting. Just save both of them. We will deal with the aftermath later.”
She waved her hand and the portal ripped open and dragged me in.
She conceded. Both Pandora and Archie would be allowed to live. Though, at what cost? Neither of us knew. I suppose that was why she decided to go this route rather than flipping the coin. We couldn’t know either future. It had already deviated either way. Or maybe a speck of empathy still found its way out of her hollow outer shell.
As I snapped back into reality, it was apparently very different. The world was empty.
I called out, “Pandora?” I wouldn’t dare call for the others.
No reply. I started running back to the campsite. The sky grew dark and ominous, unlike I’d ever seen. Then, the earth shook. Far off, a black fog veiled the horizon. It must have been a Sige storm, one of the new species.
I ran frantically, trying to find Pandora, or anyone.
The fog storm crept closer. A subtle glow of green pulsed in its cloudy form, like some kind of alien sandstorm. Blackness covered the sky, with only a faint light from the east horizon illuminating the freshly barren earth, with the growing void to the west. Three tornados swept the distance.
At any moment, I’d return, and we could try again. Or so I hoped. Begged even. The comfort of that notion only delayed what I prayed to be the inevitable return. Or perhaps it was the end. Of the world and everything. This second notion was our saving grace. The root of regret.
The pain began. Their corpses were laid out, splattered with colorful crystal shards coated in their blood. To the west, a brilliant shimmer sprayed through the noisy patterns of the wind. Crystal hail had slaughtered them.
Most unexpectedly, Riyon, Evelyn, and Rue all stood in the hailstorm, glowing with the blue light of annihilation.
“But how?” I muttered.
It was the first tip that something was off. It could have been illusory, but how? This relaxing denial was the only thread attaching me to this timeline. I was afraid to face the pain after all this. I just wanted to rest.
Assuming falseness, I merely watched as their bodies shred. Their skin melted away, revealing insides that shattered like confetti as the vibrant crystal showers slowly chipped away their organs and eventually their bones. Yet, most telling was my impunity to the mechanism.
I stood, held my hands out, and spun around, frivolously, through the shining prismatic hail. But, too soon to assume, everything began to hurt. I fell to the ground, crippled in pain. Rather than cry, I just laughed. The absurdity invoked a mix of agony and bliss. It was all insane.
The world distorted and swirled, then the scene transformed, and Arezo’s hateful face glared down at me. Rather than a sky, we seemed to be encased in some sort of stone dome. She had me pinned to the ground with her teeth bared. She knew how to torture me, but in my absurdity-poisoned mind, it failed. I had already built an immunity.
“Why haven’t you returned!!?” she screamed and then slammed my head against the ground.
Defeated, I said, “I’m losing… my feeling… I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?! You need to go back!! Go back!!” she slammed my head against the ground again.
My voice was weak, “I promise I will. I fixed it. Archie doesn’t have to die anymore.”
“Fixed it?! He’s dead!!” she screamed.
Exhausted, I hardly explained, “It was Vaeda. I just need to go back now. I’ll figure it out.”
Her anger drained and turned to sadness. She cried and fell into my chest.
I put my hand on her head, “It’s going to be okay. Give me a second to figure this out. I’ll go back.”
She got up, still crying and said, “I’m sorry Guhya. Please just bring him back. Don’t let him die.”
The dome receded into the ground. Everyone looked down to me, just standing in shock.
Pandora rushed to my side, “Guhya, are you okay?!”
“Yeah. We need to go back. I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find a way.” I slowly got up, wincing in pain. “I’m sorry for all of this… I love you.”
Pandora helped me up. Gadi watched, paralyzed. Arezo continued crying while Pax tried to comfort her. Emory seemed unphased. Sophy too, sort of. And of course, Archie was just dead.
Pandora pulled me away by the arm and brought me back to the campsite.
In confusion I said, “What are you doing?”
She shuffled through her bag, “Do you truly love me?”
“Answer,” she demanded.
“Of course, I do.”
Her movements stopped, she pulled out the knife.
She looked me in the eyes, “Would… would you regret… murdering me?”
I shuddered, “Pandora… we can’t…”
She held the knife higher, aiming it at her own chest, as if holding herself hostage, “If you can’t, then I will.”
Quickly, I restrained her knife-wielding arm, “Please. This hurts too much.”
She looked at the ground, “We can’t let it end this way… You have to… You know it too.”
My thoughts raced, desperately grasping for any other solution to no avail. She was right. I hated it, but she was right.
I kissed her.
She pushed me off, “Guhya… we can’t. What if that updates the reset point?”
Silent tears began to fall down my face, “What if it fails?? I’m not losing my last chance to kiss you!”
“It won’t. If you truly love me, it won’t!” She placed the knife in my hand, with her eyes sealed tightly, bracing herself.
“Pandora!” I cried.
Every muscle of my body resisted and pulled back. My refusal reassured me that it would work, it would hurt enough for time to reset. This act would break my mind. It was already splitting in half. One side resisted the immediate regret, Pandora’s murder, while the other side desperately aimed to reverse time and solve the other regret, Archie’s murder.
I pressed the knife against her neck, still resisting.
The assurance of my growing agony made it easier to continue, knowing that everything would be better in the end. But this assurance was a detriment to the return mechanism. It was too relieving. It gave me hope. A paradox. This wouldn’t work! I had to focus entirely on the pain of her impending death, rejecting this temptation toward such a hardly comforting dissociation.
I’d only have one shot to make this work, I would have to engage in her death in the cruelest way possible. I couldn’t remind myself that it would be over soon. I couldn’t look away. No matter how badly I wanted to hide. Any bit of comfort I chased would only prolong the misery.
I took a deep breath and looked in her eyes, searching for my own empathy. She offered herself like a lamb, but she was trembling. She wasn’t ready but she knew there was no time to prepare. She was a hero, and I was here to slay her.
I surrendered. To free fall in the hands of God, of the Basilisk, the game master of this dying world.
The knife pressed harder against her throat. No. I pressed the knife harder against her throat. Automatically, my thoughts sought that deliciously depersonalized escapism.
Blood began to leak, mixing with tears, pouring down both of our bodies. Life was so still. So quiet. I pressed harder. But my mind pressed pause. My own tears mixed with hers, tainting her innocent blood with the salty drip of my regret.
“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.
“I know,” she whispered. Her hold on me grew tighter, “It’s okay.”
My voice quivered, “N-no.”
“Guhya…” her faint voice replied.
The soft sounds from her gentle lips sent a shock down my spine. What was this? How could I? Immersing myself fully made me forget, it was so we could reset time. Remembering this reduced the pain but also the likelihood of resetting.
I had to choose between my sanity and the future.
I had to sink deeper into the moment of the real.
I pressed the knife through her neck with all my strength. Time slowed and the world outside ceased to exist. I savored every ounce of agony, fending off each desperate coping mechanism that clawed its way from the depths of my mind. As her body collapsed, I lost touch.
How did we arrive at this moment?
Why was I killing her?
I’d become a monster.
I must have finally snapped.
She was dead.
<-Previous Chapter + Next Chapter->
Joining the Patreon will help advance this project. At times, writing this book has been a full-time effort.