The council of the Magi had been formed over a thousand years ago, in order to maintain the balance between Angra Mainyu, lord of destruction, and Ahura Mazda, the uncreated creator. There were those who said that there was no balance, that the creator was more powerful than Angra, but if this was the case, then the world did not show it to be so. If there was more heaven than hell in the universe, then it was not apparent to the men who had formed the order of the Magi, and upheld its tenets while Babylonia rose to a mighty empire, and now in the days following its fall. The once-great Persian empire was a thing of the past.
And in Gushnasaph's mind, so was the council of the Magi. His posture before the assembled council said what his words could not; words of respect issued forth grudgingly from a mouth moving above a chin thrust high and proud. He clenched his fists to keep from speaking with his hands, a practice Larvendad found contemptible and had many times attempted to stamp out of his young pupil's public discourses.
"What you have told us is all second hand information," the high elder of the Magi told the young man. "You have gainsayed that these are the words of your mentor, who you have also reported is deep in a fever sleep, recovering from wounds inflicted by the demon which wreaked havoc upon his house."
"The demon did not incur the damage to the house," Gushnasaph said. "It was the impact of the great fireball that did that."
"A demonic entity to be sure," the high elder said. "We all know that destruction is the work of Angra Mainyu. And once again, as many times before, darkness has encompassed darkness -- the spirits of destruction undo their own work in the madness of their chaos."
Empty words. Poetic drivel...recitations made a thousand times instead of an evaluation of the reality before us all.
"Then you will not send a delegation to discover the identity of this new and great king?" Gushnasaph asked.
"We will not," the high elder replied. "Our place is here, in the lands of our forefathers, retaining the balance."
"The balance has been lost!" Gushnasaph blurted. He realized he was holding his hands out in a pleading posture. Dropping them to his sides, he lowered his voice. "The demon said as much. The king who is born is of the creator's side...and he is weak, and vulnerable. The demon revealed the Destroyer's plans to assasinate the child before he can grow to be a man and accomplish what he has come to do."
"So now we have the testimony of both a mortally wounded man in a fever as well as that of a servant of Angra Mainyu," another Magi spoke from the assembled throng, a sarcastic grin on his face. "Reliable evidence to be sure."
"Then I have only one more thing to report to you. These are my mentor's final words to you all: If you will not take the word of Larvendad, eldest of all the Magi, as relayed through his pupil Gushnasaph, prince of the Suren-Pahlav clan, then this is our farewell. We will go into the West to find this king, and to protect him as best as we are able, with all the devices of the Art and our own wealth. We abdicate our position upon this council. With us goes Hormoz the astrologer as well. We do not seek your approval, only that of heaven and of the creator."
A silence hung over the hall as Gushnasaph pulled three cloth bundles from a bag he had brought along and dropped them on the ornately tiled mosaic that made up the floor of the Magi's assembly hall. They were the ceremonial robes of their order. And with that, the young man turned on his heel and strode swiftly from the hall.
* * * * * * * * *
"Damn fools," Gushnasaph spat as his servants lifted Larvendad's unconscious form into a lush litter carried by four well muscled slaves.
"He knew they wouldn't listen," Hormoz said with a smile. "That's why he sent you instead of me. I'm sure your performance was far more dramatic than mine would have been."
"Perhaps," Gushnasaph said. "But if everything he whispered in his sleep is true..."
"How can we deny it?" Hormoz said. "We both saw the wheel made of fire and light. If that was not a manifestation of the sacred fire..."
Hormoz shouted an order to one of the camel drivers and checked his own saddle once again. He looked over at the younger man, whose face was full of doubt. "I'm surprised at you my friend. All you've ever spoken of is how this derelict city is full of ghosts, that our order is dead, that all the Art we possess is pointless if we aren't actually doing anything to maintain the balance. And now, we three have been given the opportunity to do something. To protect the very incarnation of the Sacred Fire."
Gushnasaph took a deep breath and turned his gaze to the night sky. After a moment, he turned his gaze back upon Hormoz.
"And where do we go?" Gushnasaph asked. "We have no direction, save that we are to head West. That will lead us directly into the sea!"
"I can see the path," came a strong bass voice from behind the curtain on the litter. "Clearer than I see anything else."
Gushnasaph leaped to the side of the litter and pulled back the curtain. Larvendad's eyes were open, staring in the direction of the West.
And his eyes were like the inside of a furnace, blazing with an inner fire...