This is loooooooooooong overdue so I won’t talk much.
All I want to say is….NEW BACKGROUND!!!! (to the people viewing this on computer) I love outer space, I mean, it is where I come from.
The wind whipped around Mannuk’s dark cloak, lifting it and giving the illusion of wings. He kept his eyes peeled for anything unusual as he continued his trek around The Haven with Ahriman at his side, acting as guide. The other Æthereus seemed preoccupied with his thoughts as he kept up a steady pace towards The Chasm, their final destination. And in that moment of temporary silence, when Ahriman seemed to be thinking of what else to tell Mannuk in order to convince him to join The Haven, Mannuk’s inner eye looked back at the circumstances that had led him to his current situation.
Layla’s eyes shifted from right to left as she glanced around as if expecting some hidden Æthereus to leap out of the walls. But Mannuk knew there was no one around for a good distance otherwise he would have sensed them. And he knew she knew the same. He pegged her reaction down to nerves.
She was after all about to betray her kind, so to speak.
“That’s an interesting thing for you to say,” Mannuk commented in his usual stoic voice. Layla still could never tell if he was angry or simply indifferent when he spoke.
“Isn’t it what you were waiting to hear?” she asked.
“My expectations did not lessen the impact.” Was he being sarcastic or not? Layla couldn’t tell.
“Well there you have it. I want out.”
“May I ask why?” he said while adjusting his hand cuffs behind him.
“No, you may not.” Layla’s eyes took on a guarded sheen and Mannuk noted how she looked away from him for just a moment. But it was enough. Nothing got past him. He wondered why she looked away. What was it that was compelling her to leave this place? What had Ahriman done to her? She was his second-in-command, someone so close to him whom he held in confidence. It could be anything really…
But he was getting distracted. He needed to get back on track. She was an enigma he would solve later.
“We need to get of here.”
“Oh really? I would have never guessed.” Layla said in a scathing voice.
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you.” Though he said this, a wry half-smile crept onto his handsome features. Layla was captivated by what the small grin did to his face. It was such a change from his usual stony expression that she was taken aback for a while. He could have been a different Æthereus.
He should definitely smile more, Layla thought.
She shook her head slightly as if awakening form a trance. Getting distracted wasn’t an option now and he was distracting her. Why? She wondered. This wasn’t normal for her.
“Well, have you thought of anything?” she said, trying to get her mind back on track.
“No, not yet,” Mannuk started, “but before we leave, I need to find out something of great importance.” He caught her eyes and held them.
“I told you, I’ll tell you everything you want to know about this place, as long as you get me out.” Layla vehemently stated. She couldn’t afford him doubting her now.
“But you may not have the information I need. I’m not trying to discredit your integrity but it’s of a rather sensitive nature.” Mannuk said carefully.
“I guess I should mention now that there are others.” Layla suddenly said quite extraneously. It had just occurred to her that the logistics of getting out two Æthereus would be vastly different from those of smuggling out around thrice that number. Her friends’ faces flashed into her mind. A few had banded together to try to get out after…
“Others?” Mannuk noted she had skipped over his concerns and jumped suddenly to another topic of discussion but that was okay. He would come back to it later.
“Yes, others who want to get out too.”
That was a hard question considering they didn’t all know each other for safety reasons. If their plot was discovered and a few were captured they couldn’t be coerced to tell their captors information they didn’t have.
“I’m not sure. We’re just a handful, at least the ones that I know of…”
“You need to be sure. This isn’t exactly going to be easy.” There was a noted change in the tone of his voice that Layla could pick out. He wasn’t completely angry but she could tell he was slightly irked by her lack of information.
“I know! I know! I’m just…” What? She couldn’t even think straight. She placed her head between her hands, looked down and closed her eyes. The room was starting to spin.
“Calm down,” he could see and sense her distress. He moved forward in his sit.
“We have to be level-headed about this. And I’ll need your help. You know this place better than I do.”
“Ok, ok, let’s see.” She started pacing in front of him and his eyes followed her; back, forth, back, forth… “There’s Cassiel who works nearby. She counted off her fingers. “Then there’s Xii and Raphael, but they’re all the way in… Then there’s Belphegor and Diri. They’re in the main building. I hope…” She rubbed her temples.
“You have to be sure.”
“Yes, yes.” She stopped in front of him. “But they could have left their posts for whatever reasons…”
“Fine, I need to know the layout of—”
Out of the blue, they heard a distinct banging sound coming from above them. Probably from the stairwell that led them down to the room they were in. He could also sense a hazy form of Ahriman’s presence. And he knew Layla could sense it too judging from the disgruntled look on her face.
“He’s calling.” Layla said.
“Go,” Mannuk instructed. “And please, try to act natural, like you always do, we don’t want him suspecting anything.” He warned.
Layla rolled her eyes. “I’m not a complete fool. I know that much,” she said heading for the door and grabbing the handle.
“Be safe then.”
A few seconds later the door closed shut behind her and he was alone with his thoughts.
It turned out the Commander was requesting Mannuk’s company as he took a walk around his strong-hold. And so Mannuk found himself strolling around The Haven not a day after he was brought there as a ‘prisoner’. As soon as he was brought to Ahriman however, the Commander had informed him he would like to have a serious talk with Mannuk and so they would head to The Chasm afterward.
At this point Mannuk was taking everything in with a grain of salt.
Even Layla’s supposed cooperation. She might just be a mole planted to catch Mannuk out on his plan. Caution was at the fore front of his mind. Even the smallest misstep would be disastrous.
“My friend, let’s put our old grievances aside. This thing is bigger than us after all.” Ahriman said ploughing right in to what was on both their minds.
Mannuk looked up at Ahriman and quirked an eyebrow.
“We have never seen eye-to-eye and yet you expect me to—”
“Yes, I am well aware of all that, but it is as I said, we need to turn over a new page Mannuk, and fight for a greater cause.”
Mannuk could hardly believe what he was hearing. Did this deranged fool expect Mannuk to just shed off all his dislike for The Haven and join their side?
“I am fighting for a greater cause; I’m just not on your side.” Mannuk clarified in a slow voice as if explaining something to someone with a low mental capacity.
“And I intend to change that.” Ahriman asserted as they continued bounding along around The Haven.
I’d love to see you try, Mannuk thought.
“You know, you’re no better than me, Mannuk.” Ahriman said as if replying to Mannuk’s thoughts.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever claimed anything of the sort.”
“Ah! You don’t have to say it. I can see it in your eyes, the others too. Hardly anyone outside these walls takes me seriously.” Ahriman scoffed.
“They all have their reasons, though it’s nothing personal—”
“But it is.” Ahriman cut in.
Mannuk threw him a questioning look.
“You don’t really know much about me. No one does.” He explained.
“That’s right. A few years ago you seemingly sprung out of nowhere with your revolutionary plans. I haven’t met anyone who seems to know anything about you; admittedly, I have searched to no avail. You’ve been quite the enigma.”
Mannuk thought back to the time when, as a newly appointed leader of The Commune, he had tried to search for information on Ahriman but could not even find a shred of evidence that the Æthereus had even ever lived in Panacea. He remembered his frustration at being unable to provide answers for the other Æthereus who were depending on him to do away with the disruption that had rudely intruded upon their lives.
“Just as I wanted to be,” Ahriman said as he and Mannuk made their way to The Chasm. “But, as you know, we cannot exist singularly, especially for us, immortal creatures that we are. I had a beginning once just like everybody else. As you well know our society is built on the artificial bonds formed out of our necessity for companionship. Most Æthereus do form such bonds, and I have been no exception. In my time I have known many women, Mannuk, many women and though we would stay together for a while, a few hundred years at most, none of them were anything special, not worth staying with forever and so we parted ways in mutual agreement. Perhaps for that I have not had many male cohorts, nothing close to what you seem to share with Jibrail.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Mannuk asked. He had never heard The Commander talk so much all at once.
Ahriman threw him a wry smile. “To convince you of the justice of my cause.”
Mannuk looked down and nodded, signalling his companion to continue.
“As I was saying, I had few male friends, and so it came as a surprise to me when a young lad—at least he appeared young— befriended me. He started following me around, catching any opportunity he could to start up conversation with me. You must understand, I am not the most likeable character—”
“Yes.” Mannuk cut in vehemently.
A tired chuckle escaped Ahriman as he rubbed his jaw. “I suppose you should know that better than perhaps anyone. Anyway this boy persisted so heartily that I decided to give him the time of day for once. So we sat down one day and talked. He told me where he was from; found out his original home was in the Western part of Panacea, just like me. To cut a long story short, we became friends, me and this boy. Apollyon was his name. But all of a sudden one day, he vanished, into thin air. It was, to say the least, shocking. At first I thought he had tired of me as many others had before him but then I remembered the zeal with which he had approached me and changed my mind. Besides in the preceding days he had not shown any signs to indicate that he was getting bored with my company, in fact, quite the contrary. Each day he seemed brighter. He flattered me, to tell the truth, with how much he would often hang on to my words. I took him on as a sort of apprentice…a protégé if you will, and we even lived together and all that…just for him to up and leave with no notice? No, I told myself, no way would the lad do that. I was far from content with that explanation and so I searched. I searched and re-searched absolutely everywhere. All over Panacea, throughout the far reaches of the Great Expanse, to the very edges, but nothing. No one other than I knew the boy it seemed. So I was apparently the only one concerned about his mysterious disappearance. After my fruitless wonderings and wanderings, I came to a conclusion. There were only two possible things that could have happened. Either, like a hapless fool he one day wondered much too close to the edge of the Great Expanse and fell into The Chasm or, as is much more likely…he was killed. I know what you’re thinking. Since Erus is the only one who can kill, it follows that He is the one who killed him, but then again, Erus hardly ever bothers with us Æthereus, so he wouldn’t bother killing any of us not to mention such an undistinguished Æthereus such as Apollyon. So then who?”
Mannuk was gripped by the words that were spilling from Ahriman’s mouth like a geyser. “You haven’t found out?”
“No, I haven’t, unfortunately, but I am not overly worried about that. The point that I’m trying to put to you is that with the whole fiasco, came a sudden realisation. That Erus has all the power. Why? Who decreed it so? And if Him, why not us? Therefore for the sake of my old friend who was killed, as yet mysteriously, I formed and led the uprising that is championing for the downfall of Erus.”
Seemingly at the end of his speech, Ahriman took a deep breath in and out then closed his eyes and held the bridge of his nose as if relieving pressure accumulated at that area.
The gesture stunned Mannuk and for half of half a second he froze and looked at the Commander with new eyes. They weren’t so different after all; Mannuk had developed the same habit and he too only did it when he was stressed and needed a time out. It occurred to him that they were very much in the same position; Æthereus charged with the heavy burden of leading their followers into the new era that was surely afoot.
But then he remembered the most crucial thing that ultimately defined them both: they were on different sides. And nothing would change that. The moment passed and Mannuk was snapped back into reality.
“What you’re trying to say is that you are doing all this on the flimsy assumption that one Æthereus was killed? Isn’t that a little too weak?” he questioned.
“The point is not whether Apollyon was killed by another Æthereus or by Erus or by some other unknown source. The point is that through his disappearance I have detected a need for change. Call it an epiphany if you want.” Ahriman said, a thread of malevolence creeping into the tone of his voice.
Ridiculous is more like it, Mannuk thought.
“Can’t you see? Now that you know the reasoning behind it, isn’t it obvious that my side is the right side? That we need some sort of defence against Erus? Supposing he was indeed the one who killed Apollyon? We can’t go on living the way we’ve been living like this anymore. It’s too risky.” Ahriman said, righteousness ringing through his words.
An uncomfortable silence followed his statement and he surreptitiously glanced at Mannuk who didn’t seem to be convinced of anything yet. He looked up and noticed they were at the back gates of The Haven.
“I see you are still not convinced. Come let us head to The Chasm as I had originally planned and continue our discussion there. Layla, you may leave us and return to your duties.”
Layla, who had been walking a distance behind Ahriman and Mannuk quickly took her leave of them and quickly hurried to the main building. For some time she had been itching to go there and discuss the recent developments with her friend
As expected, she found her friend at the doors. It was her turn for guard duty.
In the haven there was equal distribution of labour and they worked on a rotation schedule. Only Ahriman, Layla herself and Dumah were exempt from this rule as they occupied themselves with the overall ruling of the place. As it was part of Layla’s job to formulate the roster, she knew her long-time friend would be on guard duty at the entrance to the main building. She quickly Willed herself a few feet away from the building then briskly walked towards the entrance. She spotted Cassiel immediately, with her golden hair tumbling down her front in the intricate braid she always kept it in.
Cassiel’s manner changed when she saw Layla striding determinedly towards her. Immediately, she knew something was up and raised her right eyebrow questioningly. Layla glanced at Cassiel briefly as she reached her saying in a clipped voice, “Come with me.”
Without breaking stride Layla caught up Cassiel’s arm and pulled her into the building whose doors she opened with her other arm, before they were fully inside, however, Layla Willed them to the basement floors where they often met to discuss their plans on leaving the Haven. Layla had deemed it one of the safest places to meet as there was hardly anyone down there.
Today proved no different.
They appeared in a dark hallway with barely any Luminescence and there was dank abandoned feel to it. In the shroud of darkness they began to talk.
“What is it?” Cassiel asked, not wasting time on pleasantries.
“Developments,” Layla replied in a clipped tone. She knew they couldn’t stay there long lest they arouse suspicion.
“Good or bad? Cassiel asked looking around them to ensure no one was hiding anywhere even though she could sense there wasn’t another Æthereus for quite a distance above them.
“Good. Definitely good, but maybe risky. I don’t know. Can’t be sure at the moment.” Layla said rubbing her forehead. She looked up and saw her friend’s confused face.
“What’s changed things?”
“Mannuk,” Layla replied simply.
“You mean the Commune leader?” Cassiel’s voice rose in surprise. “Oh yes, I think I remember Jinn telling me about him being brought here a while ago. How did that happen? Was he captured or…”
“No,” Layla replied. “You won’t believe me, but he actually offered himself up as a sort of sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice for what?” Cassiel couldn’t imagine a good enough reason for handing yourself over to the enemy.
Layla shrugged her shoulders. “The greater good I guess you could say.”
Cassiel held her hip. “Foolish or selfless?”
Layla laughed at her friend’s question, “I haven’t decided that myself. He traded himself for the maintenance of peace. At least for now. I’m sure even he knows whatever tentative stalemate has been reached by now cannot be maintained for long. We’re bound to fall off one edge or the other, but we can’t keep balancing precariously on this ledge.”
Cassiel heaved out a sigh. “I guess you’re right. But how did he end up being our potential saviour?”
“I suspected he was here as more than just a willing sacrifice. He had a plan I’m sure but I’m not so sure what that plan is. Not fully. Anyway, I was guarding him—”
“Really?” Cassiel asked incredulously.
“Yeah, I guess even Ahriman has enough brain cells to realize the major threat that Mannuk poses to the Haven just by being within its walls. So I’m guarding him and we start talking—”
“How did that happen? I know how strict you are with such things,” Cassiel couldn’t help but cut in again. She knew how Layla was a stickler for the rules especially now that they were planning to escape she had been acting out her position to the letter to avoid anyone figuring out what was really going on.
“We can’t talk long I’ll explain the details to you later but basically we started talking and somehow found out we both have the common goal of getting out here.” Layla said, her voice stumbling as she rushed through her words.
“Alright seems straightforward enough,” Cassiel said folding her arms. She shivered slightly as the low temperature of the basement seeped into her body.
“He claims he can help us get out. All of us,” Layla continued.
Cassiel looked up in shock. “That seems too good to be true…what’s the catch?”
“He wants information.”
“What information?” Cassiel didn’t think she liked where this was going.
“He didn’t have time to tell me. All he said was that it was of a sensitive nature. Even I might not know it,” Layla told her friend.
“That’s strange. Any idea on what he may be after?”
“I have a few ideas, but nothing solid. He’s just being so damn cryptic! He’s been practically speaking in parables since he first opened his mouth. It’s maddening.” Layla took her head in her hands and turned around to hide her expression from Cassiel. She knew it was out of character for her to be so affected by another Æthereus but there she was being pulled in all the cardinal directions by a single male. She felt disgusted with herself.
“Why do you think that is?” Cassiel’s voice brought Layla back from her reverie and she faced her friend once more.
“He’s has a personal vendetta against me and is out to irritate the shit out of me?”
“Layla come on, seriously…” Cassiel was slightly shocked at her friend’s cursing. She didn’t do it often. Mannuk must have really rattled her.
“I guess it’s because he doesn’t want anyone else, by any slight chance to hear what we were talking about. He did say it was sensitive information after all.”
“Got to hand it to him then for his foresight,” Cassiel said, slightly impressed.
“Well he is equal to Ahriman; they’re both Commanders in a way…” For some reason Layla felt it was wrong to compare the two. They were totally different.
“Can’t wait to get out.” Cassiel commented after they had been standing in silence for a while.
“Me neither. The end is actually in sight for now.”
“Do you think…it’ll go smoothly?”
Layla glanced at her friend with a sheepish smile on her face. “I highly doubt it will but I just hope we end up out of here even if it means flat-out running away and fighting the guards at the main gate. I mean, I can’t stand to be here any longer, not after that. My skin crawls just having to be near them…near him.”
“I know what you mean. It’s despicable, what they’re planning. What they’ve done…” Cassiel said, wrapping her hands around her own body. This time it wasn’t the cold bothering her.
“How are you holding up? Anyone suspect anything yet?” Layla asked abruptly.
“No, not that I suspect anyway. Xii and Israfel would be at a better position to tell you that though, they’re more…composed,” Cassiel chuckled. Since they started planning their escape she had been on edge.
Layla walked toward her friend and gripped the other’s hands in her own. “Don’t worry Cassie. I promise to get us out of here as soon as possible. Just be a little more patient. Just a little longer.” She was making a vow that she hoped she could keep though she supposed now it was all out of her hands and they were going to be mostly relying on Mannuk from now on.
Cassie appreciated her friend’s comfort but for her the only thing that would completely put her at ease would be to be as far as possible from the Haven once and for all.
Then suddenly there was a faint sound coming from above them. It was the sound of wind ‘whooshing’ through the stairwell but that wouldn’t make sense as they were indoors and there were no windows this far down.
“What was that?” Cassiel asked in apprehension as she and Layla stared above them as if they would miraculously get the power to look through the steel framework that made up the building.
“I’m not sure,” Layla replied. “But there shouldn’t be anyone down here. I can’t sense a presence. Can you?” She glanced at her friend. They were still holding hands.
Cassiel shook her head in the negative.
Suddenly, a slight breeze blew and then Dumah’s threatening visage appeared in front of Layla breaking the hold she had on Cassiel. She knew it was him even without looking at his face.
He caught up her hand in a lightning-fast gesture and Willed them away as Cassiel was left staring, horrified, at the empty space from which her friend had just disappeared.
She didn’t know what was going on but she knew one thing for sure.
If they were to ever leave this God-forsaken place, it would indeed not be a smooth process.
Since the beginning of time, the Æthereus existed in The Great Expanse without fully understanding from whence they came and for what purpose they lived endlessly in their desolate world.
They were a thinking race and of course a few speculations had arisen to explain how they had come into being.
Some said they had originated from Erus that He was the creator of all things and even they, the Æthereus were as a result of His creative power.
Others disputed these claims and leaned towards the idea that everything had been there from the beginning and there was no creator, no higher power.
If that was the case, then what was the purpose for their existence?
This question did not bother most Æthereus. It would pass through their minds fleetingly but would never find residence. They were content to live their lives the way they were. As long as there were no disturbances, most would barely stretch their imagination enough to even draw near the thousands of possibilities of their origin. There were few if no philosophers, except Erus who was regarded as a being on His own, not Æthereus like the rest.
Mannuk thought about all this as he and Ahriman reached their destination. They had opted to walk rather than Will themselves there. It was a silent journey up until then. Ahriman seemed to have even forgotten Mannuk’s presence. A collar preventing Mannuk from Willing himself away was around the Panacean and his hands were itching with the desire to rip it off, not that it would be possible. And anyway, there was the piece of information Mannuk had to have before he could return to Panacea. He had decided, after all, to simply coax it out of Ahriman as there was a possibility of Layla not knowing.
He wondered what she was doing now; hopefully preparing her friends for their eminent escape. If all went well, Mannuk intended to return home by the end of the day. Not even a full day spent in The Haven. Well, to Mannuk it felt like years.
Soon enough the awe-inspiring sight of The Chasm came into sight through The Mist. Mannuk had been there a few times but the sight never ceased to amaze him.
The edge of the Great Expanse fell away into an abyss of endless darkness. No one knew what lay beyond. After the staggering drop came an ocean of waters that stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond. The water from the ocean did not however, fall into the Chasm, but rather, flowed out of it.
It was a magnificent view.
The fact that the whole phenomenon was shrouded in mystery contributed to its splendour.
The thundering sound of the reverse waterfall filled their ears, but it came from a long way off and was somewhat muted so they did not receive the full blast of it but it still produced quite a ground-shaking endless boom.
No one knew what lay beyond it as they could not Will themselves there. Their powers simply did not work beyond the confines of The Great Expanse. No one knew why.
But Mannuk wondered. He’d always wondered.
“It’s a magnificent sight,” Ahriman commented.
Mannuk did not see a need to verbally reply to Ahriman though he verbally agreed.
“You think I’m a fool, don’t you?” Ahriman said in the same tone of voice.
Mannuk was slightly amused by the fact that he was having such a conversation with the great and mighty Commander of The Haven. “I think you are going about things in the wrong way, is all.” He decided to reply candidly. This wasn’t, after all a time for pleasant words. They were away from all other Æthereus for a reason.
“Don’t sugar-coat it. I know what you really feel about me.” Ahriman said with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed to a distance somewhere in The Chasm.
“I did not know you had such outstanding powers as to know what goes inside someone’s mind,” Mannuk joked.
“I do not need such powers to see you think less of me than you do perhaps anyone else,” Ahriman replied despondently. Mannuk got the distinct impression from the way his companion was speaking that all walls were down; he was getting a chance to speak to the true Ahriman now— Ahriman the Æthereus and not Ahriman the Commander. And he was eager as to what he was going to hear.