About all four walls of the chamber coiled a damp, heavy darkness.
This chamber was located deep underground. It was not a dimas, a crypt, but the atmosphere was just like one. Aboveground was Ecbatana, the royal capital of the Kingdom of Pars, currently occupied by an army of Lusitanian invaders. However, the gray-robed elder illuminated in the feeble lamplight showed not the slightest hint of concern over the vicissitudes above.
The elder, body buried in a shabby chair, had shut his eyes, but now abruptly opened them wide. His eyes swiveled around, bursting with reflected lamplight.
“Hast thou come…?”
From the elder’s lips a low voice slithered out like a slug.
“Gurgin, hast thou come?”
The darkness swayed like a full sail in the wind, and subsequently, another voice replied.
“Gurgin hath come, Master.”
“The other six accompany thee, do they not?”
“As commanded, all await before thee.”
In the darkness materialized the silhouettes of men clad in shadowy robes.
“Ghundi hath come before thee, Master.”
“Pulad hath come.”
“Arzhang hath come.”
“Beed hath come.”
“Sanjeh hath come.”
“Gazhdaham hath come.”
With squinted eyes the elder gazed at the men’s reverently kneeling figures. Whether it was to observe those forms wrapped in the darkness, or perhaps for some other reason, the elder did not order the men to emerge before him.
“Should you seven combine thy strength, you would triumph over even ten thousand soldiers. You shall lend me that power in service to Lord Zahhak, the Serpent King, will you not?”
Ghundi, representing the men, replied, “All this is in accordance with the revered instruction of thee, our Master, who bestowed upon us these powers to realize the second advent of our lord Zahhak the Serpent King. How could we possibly refuse our aid? Please, command us however thou pleaseth.”
“Perhaps it shall be desired for you to even offer up thy very lives.”
“For the glory of the Serpent King Lord Zahhak, we cling not to these transient earthly lives of ours. To hold doubt over such things is pathetic.”
“Well said!” The elder sighed as if he were spewing miasma. He looked satisfied. “Those who desire the glory of Serpent King Zahhak shall certainly have His blessed protection. For the venerable cause of the Serpent King, those high and mighty nonbelievers and evil cultists must all be destroyed.”
“Of what sorcery dost thou boast?”
“Ghadaq*, the art of terrestrial movement, Master.”
“Hm, the power to tunnel about in the earth, concealed…?”
The elder considered this, but not for long.
“Very well, this I command thee. Using thy art, proceed to the Lusitanian camp and dispose of one of their more renowned generals.”
The Lusitanian army had seized control of everything above the room wherein the elder was nested. In other words, there was an immense army of 300,000 in their way. And yet the elder made this order as casually as if he were but asking someone to go to a forest and gather fruit from the trees.
The one at the receiving end of this command was equally composed.
“I hear and obey. Once I have selected the appropriate materials, I shall carry out this great order. Shall I bring back the head?”
“There is not much worth in my seeing it. Incidentally, thou shouldst understand the reason thou art to kill a general of Lusitania?”
“To weaken the strong and strengthen the weak, prolonging the chaos and increasing the bloodshed. That must be Master’s intent.”
“Exactly. The more the blood that flows, the sooner the advent of Lord Zahhak the Serpent King. Well then, go now. Everyone else, await orders for some other time.”
The aurora-like darkness swayed without a sound, and the men’s presence vanished.
Only Gurgin remained. Though hesitant, he opened his mouth as if coming to a decision.
“Master, presumptuous though this may be, I have a single query.”
The elder’s brief laughter resembled a coughing fit.
“What you wish to ask is this: if we wish to increase the bloodshed, we need only have the Lusitanian army engage in further brutality; why do we not do so?”
“Yes, I can hide nothing from Master.”
“There are two reasons. Firstly, by suffering more victims in this manner, the Lusitanian army shall grow more violent in their desire for vengeance. Aside from that, ever since Atropatene the Lusitanians have had it a little too good; they ought to suffer a bit too, or it wouldn’t be fair.”
“Forgive my ignorance. By the way, where is the Parsian prince who has risen in opposition against the Lusitanian army, currently?”
“The crown prince Arslan? That boy seems to be heading south from the capital at the moment.”
“Is it fine to let him go?”
To this question, the elder only laughed in response. A dry laughter, lingering in the damp air.
“Never mind that; no need to go so far as to use our sorcery. Those who desire that brat Arslan’s head are countless. No doubt their eyes are all alight as they chase that unripened child around in circles.”
“Among them is Prince Hirmiz as well.”
Gurgin’s words caused the freakish elder to break out into laughter once more.
“That fellow too is cast as the hero in a tragedy of his own. Though if you ask me, it’s more like some terrible farce. Including that Arslan boy in his hatred of Andragoras, hmph — if he knew the truth, that unscarred half of his face would surely turn pale indeed!”