I am a monk of few words. Only three things have ever really opened my mouth. One, my father’s murder. Two, Sherill, my lady love. Three, that time I traveled back in time in my martial arts master’s body and unwittingly unleashed Chaos upon the world and then returned to the present day and trekked to the Abyssal Plane so I could kill Chaos. (Long story. See what I mean?)
So when Adair told me to go to Aetherea, look for signs of the Unweaver, and write her an “evocative and satisfactorily descriptive” report, I was hesitant. That Wood Elf likes pretty words. I do not do pretty words.
But after my journey to that land of temples, I stand corrected.
I have been to the Celestial Plane, to the Astral Plane, to the Feywild and back again. None of these realms compare to the ethereal beauty and absolute tranquility of Aetherea.
I landed in the Fairelands Junction at dusk. After consulting my map, I swam for Aetherea. It was a straight shot, no flying or teleportation needed.
At the base of Aetherea was a steep ramp that ascended into the light like a stairway to the heavens. My wings had not even begun to dry when I was struck by the most paradoxical sight. Where the ramp touched the surface was an inflection point, or a mirror. Above the surface, rows upon rows of white temples shone in the dying sun. Beneath the surface, though, the same temples hung upside-down in the shadow of the temples for which they served as the foundation.
Aetherea: A floating city of temples supported only by itself. But how?
I smirked. The builder of this city must have buried a message within the structure itself. It was a riddle for only the most astute visitors to solve. Tempting, but I had a mission here. Onward and upward.
Upon reaching the surface, I froze. From every corner, bluish-purple fish flew from temple to temple like transcendent spirits. My first instinct was to reach out and grab one. They looked delicious. The only fish that swam near my seaside cottage were sea trout, perch, and the occasional salmon, and I had to hover above the water with a spear to catch them. These fish—they practically begged me to eat them.
But no, my duty here was to find traces of the Unweaver, not gorge myself. And after all, these fish seemed too special to eat. Perhaps they were spirits. Was that part of the solution to the riddle of Aetherea? Your culture has a phrase for this, no? “Holy mackerel”?
So I folded up my wings and reoriented myself. Mission: Scan Aetherea for any traces of the Unweaver. Up and down the orderly aisles of temples I went, scouring each brick and hanging bowl of incense for the trademark signs. Scars. Tumors. Decay. Suffering. Death.
And what did I find?
There must be some mistake, I thought. Some sign that I was missing.
I consulted my guidebook on The Grid customs and the Earth cultures off of which they were supposedly based. Fascinating. It seemed that the temples took after Buddhist temples in a place called Southeast Asia, particularly the country Thailand.
The same white walls inscribed with symbols of intertwining naga. The same gilded archways with elegant, serpentine bargeboards. The same tiered roofs evoking the phasic nature of the lifespan.
But unlike the pictures of Thailand and The Grid in my guidebook, Aetherea was immaculate. No liver-spotted lepers sprawled out in the alleyways waiting for death to come take them. No crooked monks in the temples smoking cigarettes and hawking passes to “Nirvana.” Not even a beggar scraping the streets for 250 Linden to cover their rent.
In short, not a single sign of the Unweaver. Just me and the fishes.
After what must have been my eighth tour of Aetherea, I collapsed on a bench. I was tired. And hungry. And a little annoyed.
It figured no one was here; I had early access. But why the sinking feeling that I was overlooking something?
Overlooking? Perhaps that was the problem. I was relying too much on my eyes. So I closed them and inhaled sharply, tapping into my other senses.
The cool night air mingled with the burning incense of a hundred bowls. Jasmine. Lotus. Cedar. Sandalwood. And a hint of something I didn’t recognize. Indescribable. Best approximation: it smelled like astral projection felt.
You know, many people think that meditating is all about emptying your head and focusing on nothingness. It’s not. It’s about focusing on whatever enters your head and letting it go. Like watching fish fly across the sky but not chasing them, no matter how hungry you are.
Wait, I might be onto something. The fish. The riddle of the floating temples. All of these mysteries begging for my contemplation, and I shoved them out of my head like so much garbage.
Aetherea was trying to speak to me.
I hoisted myself off the bench and flew to the meditation spot that I had passed by so many times. A velvet rope cordoned the pavilion off from the street. I jumped over it and sat on the plush purple pillow surrounded by candles.
Now for the descent into meditation. Deep breaths.
In and out.
In and out.
Let my mind revert to its natural, unhurried state. Let my mind trickle, a stream of consciousness.
Now for the riddle. How could an entire city of temples support itself by its own reflection?
Temples. What is the purpose of a temple? To worship.
To worship whom? A deity.
Why worship a deity? To feed hope.
Why feed hope? So one can keep on living.
Why live? Because it is natural law. Natural law dictates that we live. We are actors playing our parts. It is a play that plays itself over and over throughout eternity.
We are born, we live, we die. We are born again.
Life circles like those purple fish, around and around, never ceasing. A relay race that can never be won. A circular track. A Mobius strip. Circular, like the planes of time and space. Circular, like karma. Circular, like the stream of my thoughts. Circular like the Pisces symbol, two fish eternally circling each other, mirrored images. An object and its reflection, mirrored images.
But which is the object and which is the reflection? Direction is arbitrary; the world is circular. One man’s right side up is another’s upside-down.
So which temple is the real temple, and which is the reflection? Neither. They’re both images; they’re both reflections.
Then what things are the temples images of? Images of a deity.
What is the deity an image of? An image of our hopes. When we pray to a deity, we pray to nothing more than our hopes themselves.
If we use the temples to pray to a deity, then we use the temples to pray to our hopes.
If we use the temples to pray to our hopes, then the temples are a temple to our hopes.
If the purpose of hope is to keep on living, then the temples are a temple to life.
If the temples are a temple to life, then the reflection of the temple—whichever temple you designate as the reflection—is also a temple to life.
Just as praying to a deity reaffirms belief in the deity, which reaffirms hope, which reaffirms life; so do the temples and their reflections reaffirm each other.
That’s it. The solution to the riddle of Aetherea…is the affirmation of life.
When I opened my eyes, dawn had already broken.
The sun paralleled my mind; we had awoken.
Unto the Unweaver—Aetherea was its antipode.
The Purple Braid that Adair extolled—this place was its throne.
Elated, I spread my wings and launched skyward. My new mission was clear as the waters beneath me. I was sent here to worship The Purple Braid.
True, I worshipped no one. I put my faith in no personal god. But this, this was not a person but a thing. No, it was everything, hope and life.
I barreled down the alleyways, peeking inside each temple, hunting down the purple altars. Each time I saw one, I placed my Lindens on the floor and bowed down before it.
A magical hum, and then poof! The Lindens disappeared. In their place, beautiful goods to be gifted:
For my lady love, Sherill, a beautiful locket by On A Lark. (A perfect place to store our memories together when she’s away at battle.)
And for myself? What do you think? I’m a monk of few possessions. I have no use for the ornamental. But a hanging incense bowl just like the ones in Aetherea? For that, I would pay any price, and so I did. To Fallen Gods (aptly named), a mere 120 Linden for a full set. From the bowls waft brilliant blue and purple plumes of smoke and glittering stardust. Lazily, the smoke fades into nothing; wistfully, the stardust blinks in and out of existence. A perfect reminder of the impermanence of all things. But also a reminder to be ever present to hope, for it is what makes life worth living.
Before I left, I folded my wings and took one more seat in the city square. The same incense that burned in those bowls by Fallen Gods burned here, too. I closed my eyes and inhaled.
Jasmine, lotus, cedar, sandalwood, and there—there it is. That final scent I couldn’t identify earlier.
It’s the aroma of The Purple Braid.
For pictures of Vedika’s haul from Aetherea, please refer to Nadjanator’s blog post.