Now its enormous head rose high to touch the ceiling, body swaying slightly.
Mark shrank back, but his back struck something solid. He swiveled his head around to see John smiling toothily.
The next thing he knew, he was pushed forward.
Mark fell on his knees.
Looking up, he saw the serpent looming above him, its neck drawn back in a menacing way.
Mark looked at the dark lord.
“Nice to know you have a coward for a friend, isn’t it?”
He said nothing.
“Anyone else for the bats?”
No one, of course, had time to answer the dark lord – not that they wanted to anyway. But they were all too busy gasping as a lightning-quick blur flung itself out into the open.
Mark couldn’t stop shivering. Logan must have seen that thing.
The beast had a long body and large jaws that parted to reveal large fangs and a wide mouth big enough to hold a car. The eyes of the serpent were bright red and the forked tongue lashed through the air like a sharp whip. Its scales, a silvery gray, flashed by the fire from the fireplace.
Logan whimpered and squealed with fright.
Mark turned in time to see Logan’s ghostly pale face.
The redhead began to push his way roughly past the others, half stumbling and half running. He fled back into the darkness behind them and soon vanished out of their sight.
Everyone stared disbelievingly into the darkness.
Jennifer shoved the others forward into the chamber, totally oblivious of it all. The dark lord, however, had a strange gleam in his eyes.
Mark waved the torch around and above him, searching for the source of the sound. Deep down, he was hoping that it was merely an illusion of some sort.
Only that it wasn’t.
Mark heard it again. The same hissing sound he had heard a while ago, except this one was louder and more distinct. And along with the hissing came a fleeting shadow on the ceiling. It was something with a huge head.
Mark’s eyes caught heaps of something scattered throughout the room.
Mark jolted in fright. Human bones!
Just then, a faint sound of something rough reached his ears. It slid steadily across the floor somewhere in this room, and then faded away.
Mark’s heart raced.
“What’s that sound?” asked Logan behind Mark and froze in his tracks.
The room they found was huge and dimly lit by a single fireplace. The strange thing about it was its interior structure. Its high ceiling and walls were constructed out of marble, but they were all ragged at the edges as though the builder had molded pieces of shattered marble together in a lazy manner.
It was more like a cave, really.
“Hurry up!” called the dark lord, striding past Mark, suddenly eager to reach the room ahead.
Mark quickened his pace.
Before he’d reached the room, his spirits plunged. He took one look at John’s clenched fists and knew the answer right away. Mark hung back. If only he could disappear from the face of the earth or dig a hole on the ground so he could hide himself.
It was too late. The dark lord sensed his presence. Every muscle on his body tensed as John turned and hissed, “You better know what you’re doing!”
Mark gulped and looked into the room. He now understood why the dark lord was enraged.
The sight before him was too disappointing.
At last, Mark could see a chamber of some sort in the distance. He let out his breath, relieved.
They had been walking in total darkness for quite a while now, wondering if the tunnel was endless after all. Several times Mark was tempted to turn around. But it could only mean one thing. That he was lying to the dark lord.
There was something stranger about this tunnel. Just when they thought they have reached the end of the path, they always rounded a corner and continued down another tunnel. This process had been repeated so many times that Mark finally lost track of their position in relation to the stairway that had led them down here. If he were to map out the entire tunnel on a sheet of paper, he was almost sure that it would look like a maze.
“Everything my grandfather told me was so long ago,” he hastily explained to John, who appeared beside him with an angry frown. “I just can’t seem to remember it as well as I like.”
“Certainly you remember something!”
Mark could feel the sweat under his armpits. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But they were only stories. Not maps.” He’d hoped this one would work.
John was silent for a moment.
“You’re trying to find a way to trick me, aren’t you?” he asked. He was staring at Mark as if daring him to disagree.
Mark blinked nervously. “What?”
The dark lord studied him for a moment.
“You’d better not,” he went on, watching Mark closely. “Because if you do, think of what I can do to you and your little friends.”
Mark nodded and looked at the tunnel once again.
He thought fast.
As crazy as it may sound, all his instincts were against the well-lit part of the tunnel. It just seemed too easy. Like the other traps in this building.
Taking a deep breath, Mark waved his hand toward the pitch dark. “This way!”
Logan was walking right behind Mark. “Uh, which way, pal? ” he asked, his voice trembling slightly.
Mark had been thinking about the same question, but Logan beat him to it. He hesitated. He wouldn’t always get this lucky with wild guesses, would he?
“Well?” John sounded exasperated.
Mark’s head swirled.
“Answer me,” said his lordship, “descendant of Ealdakin!” This time John’s voice was somewhere nearby, getting closer.
Mark cleared his throat loudly, trying to think of something to say, but his stomach betrayed him. It lurched uncomfortably, unwilling to let him concentrate. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John coming this way.
Mark quickly peered into the tunnel and pretended to examine it.
The truth was, the tunnel wasn’t much to look at. To the right was nothing but inky darkness. To the left seemed more familiar: a stretch of torches, starting from the wall before him and extending all the way to the very end. But that was all there is to it.
As useless as the torch may have seemed, Mark waved it before him. He strained his ears for more sounds – only to hear John’s barking orders.
“Move! We’ve wasted enough time!”
Mark put on the last necklace and strode on warily, continuing down the chilly tunnel.
After a while, Mark heard nothing and saw nothing other than his own shadow. He began to relax a little. Must have been his own imagination, he decided.
He started to take in the surroundings again. Up ahead, he could see a wall that barricaded the tunnel. No, wait – it was another long tunnel that stretched out in two opposite directions.
“What was that?” came John’s voice somewhere being him, alarmed. His voice carried through the tunnel like a terrible shrieking beast rousing from its lair. Mark couldn’t see his face, but he knew that John was not pleased.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just dropped my stuff, that’s all.”
John grunted. The others remained silent.
Mark stooped down and retrieved the obsidian necklaces hastily. He’d hoped they weren’t damaged. Then he hung those remaining seven around his neck. While he was still at it, he heard a faint hiss, barely audible, coming from somewhere ahead.
Mark squinted into the darkness ahead.
He couldn’t see very well. Worse yet, he couldn’t see where he was putting his feet, either. Several times he heard gasps behind him, but he marched on briskly, knowing that John loathed having any more delays.
And unlike the others, this one was scarcely a passage. Tunnel was more like it. There were neither torches nor sconces on the walls. Just the plain marble ceiling, marble walls, and marble floor. It was as though no one was expected to come down here at all.
Coldness seeped through him. Mark shuddered.
He had been thinking a lot along the way. Yet the more he thought the less certain he felt about everything. He wanted to give up and surrender himself to the dark lord. He wanted to go home.
All of a sudden, Mark felt the lightness of his hand. It took him only a split second before he snapped into action, but even then it was too late. The sack of necklaces was already slipping from this sweaty hand.
It fell to the ground with a loud clink, before Mark could even make a grab for it.
Mark held the torch high like a lantern. At the end of the stairway was a long, dark passageway that, by the dim light from his torch, seemed to stretch on forever.
He wondered why John allowed for them to take only one torch before they marched down the stairs. They clearly needed more than that. Unless he knew something they don’t…