(Story begins here) Pete closed his eyes and felt the now familiar feeling of accelerating whilst not really moving and being able to see whilst not opening his eyes. A great heat was the first sensation, but a heat that purified instead of scorched. Pete squinted at a ball of light burning furiously against a backdrop of stars. A glittering cross of a million rubies began to emanate from the fire, slowly gliding towards him, until he could see that each ruby was a facet of a different world, then each facet of each ruby was a different world and… what Pete saw next he would never be able to describe.
“Good morning Rafiqam.” A gently lilting Persian voice broke the spell. Pete tried to ignore the voice and stay transfixed on the glory before him. “If it is acceptable to you, I would like to chat with you for a while Rafiqam.” Pete flinched and braced himself as he was sucked swiftly into the facet of one of the rubies. But instead of jarring impact, there was a cooling breeze and the strong competing smells of ox dung, exotic plants and something similar to flavoured tobacco. Pete cautiously opened his eyes. He was in a lush garden shaded by palm trees between which sprang some of the most vibrant, colourful flowers Pete had ever seen. He crossed to a nearby wall and peered over, gasping in surprise at the ancient eastern city far below. “When you have finished Rafiqam?” Pete turned to see an immaculately bearded and long-haired middle-eastern man staring expectantly at him through intense but kindly eyes.
“Oh, um, hi, I’m…” Pete was suddenly embarrassed.
“I know who you are Rafiqam. Would you like to sit with me for a while?” Pete made his way over.
“I’d love to,” he replied, getting awkwardly down to sit cross legged in front of the prophet.
“Hookah?” said Mani politely. Pete flushed.
“Um, well I shouldn’t really. My girlfriend Sarah’s the only woman for me, plus surely lust devoid of love is something to be avoided?” Mani smiled and rolled his eyes. “That is indeed to be avoided Rafiqam,” he offered the mouthpiece of a large, ornate contraption stood beside him on the ground, “but I am offering you a smoke of my hookah. Perhaps the nearest word in English is ‘bong’. It is very relaxing.”
“My last thoughts in that life were a prayer for them to overcome their evil. Which is good as it turned out to be one of the principal tests of my life and I am glad to say that I passed. It saved me a number of rebirths.”
“Ah, this is awkward,” said Pete sheepishly as he took the mouthpiece and inhaled deeply. “Mmm… that is nice,” Mani smiled as he saw Pete mellow before his eyes. “You are here because you’re unhappy?” asked the prophet. He stared deeply into Pete’s eyes for a few seconds. “Ah I see it all. You tell the truth, but nobody wants to know.”
“Absolutely,” said Pete glumly. “This one chap in a coffee shop actually started pushing me in the chest. Actually trying to start a fight. Did anything like that ever happen to you?”
“No, it did not,” said Mani, inhaling thoughtfully from his hookah.
“Ah, so you don’t know what it’s like?” asked Pete. Mani slowly released a cloud of pure white smoke.
“That is not an accurate conclusion to draw from what I said, Rafiqam,” he chided gently. “After doing nothing more than spreading the simple truths of reality, I was flayed. Have you ever felt a pain like it?” He stared into Pete’s eyes. “No you have not,” he concluded. “The whips don’t just sting. You know the crack of a whip is the tip actually breaking the speed of sound?” Pete flinched, as Mani warmed to his theme. “A flaying is where the whips carry on, through your skin, seeking out more and more sensitive nerve endings to flood with agony. In my case, they even reached my spine.” Mani, still calm despite his recollections took another inhalation. “That was just the start, they then crucified me. They actually tied me to a large staff, with the rough wood rubbing against my wounds and left me there. The cruellest part of crucifixion is that it’s actually a kind of enforced suicide. It is partly down to the victim how long they live. You have to strain every muscle in your back to hold yourself up high enough to breath. In the end, the agony and fatigue outweigh the fear and panic of suffocation and you just, you just let yourself go.”
“I’m, I’m so sorry.” Pete faltered. Mani smiled, still calm. “It is alright Rafiqam. They knew not what they did, as it has been said. It was very hard to love the people that did that to me, but I managed it. My last thoughts in that life were a prayer for them to overcome their evil. Which is good as it turned out to be one of the principal tests of my life and I am glad to say that I passed. It saved me a number of rebirths.” Pete began to realise the towering height of the soul with whom he spoke.
“So, when you speak of evil, are you talking about an active force? Other people that I’ve met up here seem to think that there is no evil, just an absence of goodness.” Mani smiled and inhaled deeply from his Hookah.
“That question is a little more complicated than what I believed during my life as Mani.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say complicated, Mr Goodshaw.” Pete gasped at the unexpected voice from behind him, one of mellifluous, slightly accented Greek. He turned and gasped again at the sight of the almost impossibly beautiful lady now stood behind him. Her immaculate Mediterranean features were in striking contrast to an intricately braided Egyptian hairstyle and eyes so blue as to be almost fluorescent.
“A simple concept, but like all truths, rather the opposite of what one would expect,” the lady continued, as if oblivious to Pete’s wide-eyed awe. Mani broke into a happy grin. (continue)