Clinging to the stone walls was a dampness so chilly that no droplets could form.
It was an underground chamber unblessed by the light of the sun. A lamp thicker than the full grip of two adult hands lit a radius of about ten gaz at the center of the room.
Upon a number of shelves were arranged texts and drugs and various other goods for the use of magic. Things such as mouse fetuses, poisonous herbs ground into powder, candles made of hardened sulfur, and severed hands soaked in alcohol.
On the stone floor stood the man of the silver mask. Though he was a guest, he did not seem particularly welcomed. The gray-robed elder who was the master of the room remained seated by himself upon an oak chair and began to speak as if this discourtesy were quite justified. His voice was reminiscent of the screeching scrape of a rusted iron wheel.
“Do forgive me for remaining seated. You, in your ignorance, have no idea how much energy I was forced to waste on that trick. Calling forth fog upon plains that know neither valley nor mountain, just to confuse the Parsian cavalry into thinking no enemies were in the vicinity –“
“But left with plenty enough energy to babble, it seems,” Silver Mask remarked coldly. “Enough of that. For what purpose have you expressly summoned me here?”
“Oh, in that case.” The stale voice possessed a slight rhythmic quality. “Though you may not consider it pleasant news, Qaran is dead.”
For a moment, Silver Mask tensed. The light filtering from his eyes intensified. He did not question this news; perhaps he deemed it unnecessary to do so.
“If only he had kept quiet and remained loyal to King Andragoras, he could have lived on perfectly well as a Parsian general of highest honor, but because he chose to support you, he met with a pitiful end.”
Paying no heed to this feigned sympathy, the man of the silver mask stifled the emotion in his own voice.
“Qaran served me well. I have an obligation to his surviving family.”
Having stated this, he sucked in his breath.
“Who is it that killed Qaran? I must avenge him.”
“That much I know not. I told you, didn’t I? To fully recover my strength, I shall need an entire year.”
“Fine, no doubt it was the work of Andragoras’s brat and his party anyway. With this, that damned brat of Andragoras only draws the noose ever tighter.”
The man of the silver mask directed this warning to some unseen figure, and the scrawny elder unleashed a peculiar laugh.
“My, my, how unfortunate. Though I know not who is the most unfortunate.”
If the silver mask could display an expression, the current displeasure of its owner would be beyond obvious. Still, having apparently long grown used to the unpleasantness of dealing with the elder, he kept his cool.
“Beyond that, it is you who should take care. A challenger draws near.”
A dangerous light welled in the silver mask’s eyes and shot toward the elder’s wrinkled face.
“No, not at all. However, it is someone close to him, perhaps even the very fellow who did in Qaran.”
The elder gazed with smoke-darkened eyes upon the silver mask standing wordlessly before him.
“It’s fine to plot revenge, but your opponent shan’t be alone.”
“It’s all the same no matter how many they number.”
“A one on one duel is fine, but avoid one against two. Even with your swordsmanship, you are no match for two opponents at once.”
To this Silver Mask said nothing.
“You are not the only strong one in this world. The sun of Pars does not shine for you alone. For you see, self-confidence and overconfidence are as inseparable as night and darkness.”
The man of the silver mask nodded, but it seemed to be partly a formality, and partly out of reflex. Soon enough, the silver mask took his leave, and the elder opened the small leather purse the man had left on the table and counted the dinars within. Perhaps they were of no particular concern, for he dumped the dinars unceremoniously in a drawer of his desk, grumbling and muttering to himself.
“Best to just think of that fellow as coin. In order to revive Serpent King Zahhak, all the vast lands of Pars must be covered in fresh blood. All shall be prey to Lord Zahhak; I care not one whit whom shall be king of Pars…”
The elder raised a hand and pulled on a cord dangling from the ceiling. A picture drawn upon aged sheepskin unfurled against the wall.
Displayed before the elder was the portrait of a crowned man with a dark face and red eyes. Assuming an entirely different persona from when he had faced the man of the silver mask, the elder bowed with utmost respect.
“My lord and master Zahhak, please wait just a little longer. Night and day your servant here strives for his master’s second advent…”
Surely there were none in this land who did not know the name of Serpent King Zahhak. Save for newborn babes, that is. That was the name of an ancient ruler of the world, a most cruel and demonic king. By him had Sage King Jamshid been sawed alive, the pieces of his body tossed into the sea, all his wealth and power stolen.
From Zahhak’s two shoulders sprouted a pair of black snakes. This was the origin of his “Serpent King” epithet. These two snakes feasted on human brains; during Zahhak’s reign, two subjects were killed each day, whether noble wuzurgan or lowly ghulam, and their brains were fed to the serpents. This reign of terror lasted for a thousand years unbroken; the world fell into ruin; people were born into the world fettered by fear, and went to their deaths encircled by collars of despair. Forty such generations passed before the rule of the Serpent King came to an end. Thus began the royal dynasty of Pars —
With a worshipful gaze, the elder watched for some time over the two black snakes pictured crooking their heads from Zahhak’s shoulders. Then, with great labor, his emaciated body stirred, floundering in the cold air like a bizarre deep-sea fish. Before long, his lips cracked open like a fissured boulder.
The elder called urgently for someone.
“Yes, Master, here do I await.”
The replying voice flowed forth from a dark corner of the room, but the figure of the respondent could not be seen. However, the elder did not seem to care either, and ordered rather impatiently, “Summon thy other six men at once! Since Atropatene, the deaths of soldiers and civilians have together totaled one million, but it is not enough. The Parsian populace numbers twenty million; if the blood of at least half that is not drunk by the earth, the second advent of our lord and master Zahhak shall lie beyond our power.”
“As quickly as possible.”
“… Certainly. Master’s wish is my command.”
The voice faded swiftly, evaporating like particles into the air. For a while the elder stood there without a word, but his eyes and mouth betrayed a sinister delight.
“A curse upon all who obstruct the glory of Serpent King Zahhak…”