It was late afternoon when I heard the call. I was on the shore by my cottage, meditating, when an ethereal voice, neither feminine nor masculine, tickled my ear.
“Aetherea needs you,” it whispered.
At first, I thought it nothing more than the desires of my unconscious mind manifesting as hallucinations. That tends to happen when I meditate. Aetherea certainly had left an impression on me. It probably didn’t help that I had hung one of Alia Baroque‘s souvenir incense bowls in my doorway as a fragrant reminder of my journey there.
Or journeys, I should say.
I wanted to write Adair a report on how I helped save Aetherea from the Unweaver’s clutches by meditating for three days straight and projecting my astral body into the region, where I channeled prana into Alia Baroque so he could rebuild it.
But to be a monk is to embody humility, even if that means not telling anyone about how I consorted with one of the gods of The Grid, Patch Linden, and Faireland royalty Da5id Abbot, Sonya Marmurek, and Zander Green. You know how it goes.
…Did I write all that? Oh, well—just ignore all that, yes? And you, too, Adair. Just scribble that part out.
Now, where was I?
Yes, the ethereal voice. I finally realized it was Aetherea and not just my imagination when suddenly I found myself in the middle of a vision. Two of Aetherea’s temples, one white and one black, beginning to fuse. In the middle floated Alia Baroque, muttering something about opposites. The words HELP ME RESTORE BALANCE were engraved in the teak walls of the temples.
I reached out to touch the letters, but before my fingers made contact, the world fell out from under me. I was dropping fast, plunging deep into an azure sea, only the sea had no water and was filled with clouds as wispy as incense smoke. I spread my wings only to find that they had disappeared. In an instant, my Aarakocran pride—gone.
So I did what any sensible person would do.
I screamed. I flailed my arms like a fool.
And in so doing, I found that I had no arms. I was invisible. I was incorporeal. I was a mere spirit.
Just like that, I stopped falling. When you’re a spirit, the laws of nature, let alone gravity, tend not to abide. Up and down are arbitrary; direction, a lie. But that’s a little hard for a mortal mind to grasp, even that of a monk, so I decided that down was up and up was down. As I turned the wheel of space and time, I saw a familiar sight: the white and gold temples of Aetherea.
There was the cushion where I had meditated and solved the riddle of the floating temples.
There were the astral fish. The holy mackerel.
There were the bargeboard ends, shaped like the talons of the legendary Garuda, after which I had fashioned my astral body the last time I projected into Aetherea.
And then I saw it, hidden behind a cluster of temples: the foreboding forms that I had first seen in my vision. They were exact replicas of the temples I had come to know so well, except their walls were soot black instead of white.
I was startled at first. I’ll admit that. People tend to fear the dark. We associate it with night and all the dangers that come with it. Some of us even associate it with the Unweaver.
But as any monk worth their salt will tell you, the light cannot exist without the dark. There is no wakefulness without rest; no night without day; no life without death.
An even wiser monk will tell you that the concept of diametric opposites is for the simple-minded. The universe is in constant flux, transient as dawn and dusk. Within every patch of night and death is the seed of day and life, and vice versa.
Contemplating these universal maxims, I turned my focus to the center of the region, where a throng of people had begun to gather. There was a circular pedestal I had never before seen connecting the dark and the light sides of Aetherea. On top of it, two doorways, one black and one white, each guarded by matching koi. Between them, a meditation cushion surrounded by swarms of astral fish.
I caught a whisper in the audience. Something about Alia Baroque and “Jail and Bail.” Was he going to prison? I remembered his plea: “HELP ME RESTORE BALANCE.” Were the temples on the verge of tipping over?
I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. As the sun began to wane, Alia Baroque, half-naked and heavily tattooed, materialized on top of the pedestal. He seated himself on the meditation cushion, much to the delight of the audience, who taunted him with pointy sticks and pitchforks.
“Help me fix this mess!” he boomed, gesturing around him. “Shall we bring Aetherea back as she was or shall she turn to black? Or, even better, shall darkness and light dance together and be present as both parts of our transcendence?”
With these words, two small pillars rose from the pedestal. On the side of the dark doorway, a pedestal featuring a man and a woman painted in the purple and gold hues of the galaxy; on the side of the light doorway, a pedestal featuring a man and a woman in the silver and blue hues of the stars.
“Choose your guiding spirit and decide the fate of Aetherea!” Alia cried.
At once, the screaming masses began to chuck Lindens at the pillars. I instinctively dodged before I realized that I had no body to be struck by the obscene amount of money flying through the air. Nor did I have any money on me to donate…
I saw it then. How clever.
Not only was this campaign a ruse to teach the Fairelanders the great wisdoms of the universe. It was also a ceremony to continue the weaving of The Purple Braid.
A braid must have at least three strands: two on the outside, one in the middle.
The braid is woven by taking one outside strand into the center so that the center becomes the outside. Then, the other outside strand is taken into the center, and the center becomes the outside again. A constant flux, a constant alternation of positions, just like the particles that make up the fabric of all matter.
The two pedestals—the outside strands.
Alia Baroque—the center strand.
The Fairelanders, alternating their attention between the two pedestals and Alia.
And I, a witness to The Weaving.
No, I would not be just a witness. I would take part!
An urge, a sudden love of humanity overtook me; and I felt the universe’s prana flow through me like water through a delta. I channeled it into the two pedestals and into Alia, envisioning The Purple Braid. The energy burned like fire upon skin.
My consciousness slammed into something hard and heavy. A body. It was a body, and it had a familiar shape. I looked down. Sure enough, I was in my own body again, but the colors were different. These were the colors of the galaxy. Stars twinkled on my arms and belly. Yellow heat emanated from my crown chakra. Behind me, a wheel with gold inscriptions—Thai, I guessed—rotated like the arms of a clock.
And over my right hand hovered the emblem of the Fairelanders.
A few people glanced at me, but no one paid any particular attention. When I looked around at the Fairelanders, I saw why. About a fourth of the audience had turned the same color, and another fourth had turned silver and blue.
We were the galaxy and the starborn, and around Alia we danced.
Together, we were The Purple Braid.
Another urge took hold of me. This time, a completely unfamiliar one. It was not an urge to love or give, or fight or take. It was an urge to move my body, particularly my bottom, in a rhythmic, jerky way.
“Twerk it!” yelled out a Fairelander from across the pedestal.
Under any other circumstances, I probably would have been humiliated. I never moved my body this way, even around my beloved Sherill. But who was I to defy the energy of The Purple Braid?
The more we danced, the more Lindens were pelted at the two pillars. The next thing I knew, Alia had risen from his cushion and announced that we had collected over 200,000 Lindens, over 100,000 from each of the two pillars.
“The time is here,” he sang, “to reincarnate into the state of pure light, power, and divinity!”
I trembled with anticipation. What form would he take? Would he ascend into godhood? Was I about to witness the birth of a deity?
According to the guidebook I read later, “penguin” is the name of the form he took. A flightless bird that prefers cold climates. Thinking on it now, I can’t make sense of it, but the Fairelanders applauded.
There is this saying you people on The Grid have, yes? “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?
So I did.
I joined what the Fairelanders call a “conga line.” It is like a snake that grows longer by preying on unsuspecting victims. The snake consumed the entire audience in no time at all, and before I knew it, the snake piled onto a painfully shiny, fancy vehicle called the “Royal Flush.”
I managed to grab the back seat inside the head of the vehicle. Alia lurched the vehicle down the ramps of Aetherea and into the neighboring village of Tiny Town, where we stopped to eat waffles. Or some people ate waffles. I’ve gotten seasick too many times to be foolish enough to eat while riding anything.
We almost made it as far as the Willows of Nienna. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. We did make it to the other side, but the Royal Flush didn’t. Alia cast a spell on the Royal Flush to make it fly. When we hit the border crossing, though, the vehicle spun in circles and tossed everyone into the willows.
Everyone except me and a few other unfortunate souls. I ended up beneath a boulder. I must have passed out, because the next thing I recall happening was waking up on the Royal Flush again, except the Royal Flush had crashed into the tavern at the Fairechylde.
By some stroke of luck (or my impervious physique), I managed not to have broken or twisted anything. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to join the others on the ship. Call it trauma or whatever, but after the Leviathan incident (long story), I can’t get even get on a dinghy.
The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was the Sak Yant tattooed on Alia’s back. It was the same Sak Yant etched in gold on the sides of all the temples at Aetherea: two naga entwined like a braid. I remember smiling. I wanted that tattoo, too. On my chest, so it wouldn’t be covered by my wings.
When I awoke, I found myself back at home, lying with my belly on the bed. I looked at my arm. The stars had vanished. No more galaxy. Back to the same mahogany hue it had always been.
Next to me sat my beloved Sherill, humming off-tune and stroking my wings like she does when she’s worried about me.
Apparently, my physical body had fallen over while I was meditating. Sherill had just returned from a mission with the Citadel sorcerers’ task force when she found me splayed out on the grass around my meditation boulder. I was out for almost an entire day.
I told her about my astral projection. She believed everything up to the Royal Flush. As I recounted that part of my tale, I began to wonder if I had just dreamed it all. Maybe my mind was still trying to process the rebuild of Aetherea.
But I didn’t want it to be a dream. I wanted Aetherea to be black and white, to embody the lawful balance of the universe. I wanted Alia to have transcended, even if only into a penguin. Most of all, I wanted to have been part of The Purple Braid.
So I gobbled a quick breakfast, kissed Sherill goodbye, and flew once again to Aetherea.
As the city of temples emerged from the mist, I noticed that the pedestal from last night’s events had disappeared. The doorways and pillars were also gone. But then I spied the neat row of black and gold temples to the west.
I smiled. There they were, light and dark dancing together in perfect harmony.
It hadn’t been just a dream.
Like the hopes and dreams that brought the Fairelanders together, Aetherea had transcended.
This post features Fantasy Faire exclusives from Fallen Gods, Loki Eliot, Poseidon, and Storybook. For detailed credits, please see Nadjanator’s blog.