Suddenly he thought of everything that was eight: the eight-sided room with eight doors, the eight stones around the statue, and the two snakes in the obsidian necklace that formed a number eight.
Mark uttered a quick prayer and turned the scepter seven more times. At the eighth turn, he heard a hiss as the lid lifted of its own accord.
His lordship fitted the base into the cave-in and pounded on the sealed trunk, trying to lift the lid up. He growled.
“Maybe only the descendants can open it?” Mark said timidly.
The dark lord hesitated for a moment. He stepped aside, giving Mark a little space.
Mark stepped up. He took a deep breath and wrapped his hands around it. The scepter turned a little and clicked once.
“The scepter!” he shouted. “It’s the key for the chest!”
John looked at him suspiciously. “You better be right.”
Mark said nothing. The pounding of his heart had become deafening to his ears. But as soon as the dark lord turned the scepter over, he knew he was saved.
The base at the tail of the scepter was also octagonal.
He fitted another one, and another one, and another… Until he ran out of necklaces.
The chest remained locked.
Mark tensed. He pressed his hands onto it, then pawed all over the trunk, hoping to discover some opening he had overlooked before.
John hissed. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you?”
“No…I,” Mark faltered. “I wouldn’t!”
The dark lord knitted his brows together.
Mark closed his eyes for a moment. He was pretending to remember but was making up something fast.
“Wait!” he exclaimed, his pulse racing. “I think I sort of remember now. The first necklace led us to the chamber. The others were for protection. From the Guardian of the Treasure Room.”
He opened his eyes, half wishing he was right but half wishing he wasn’t. He didn’t know which one was worse. Let the dark lord get what he want – rule the world – but save his own neck. Or exchange his life for the lives of others.
“Bring me the Treasure of Magnus,” the dark lord went on in a deep voice like a roll of thunder.
Mark gulped. He gingerly reached for the golden treasure chest that had lain beneath the king’s head only a moment ago. His finger touched the octagonal cave-in on the lid.
He thought fast. Maybe he could trick the dark lord. Maybe he could destroy the treasure and the scepter. Maybe –
“Don’t make me lose my patience,” the dark lord warned him.
Mark’s hands began to tremble as he fumbled with the necklaces. He took one off and quickly fitted it into the cave-in. It fitted perfectly. But when he tried to push the lid up, he couldn’t.
His throat became dry.
“Do it!” commanded the dark lord, but not before he raised his hand and knocked the king’s bones off the platform.
Mark gasped in horror. He watched the king’s remains hit the floor with a clatter and scatter on the ground. It was too cruel.
John pulled out the golden scepter from the king’s grip. It was shaped like a snake, and there were two large rubies for the golden snake’s eyes. The dark lord felt a strange sense of being powerful.
He laughed nastily.
“I’ve been waiting much too long for this,” he said, his eyes changing into a lighter color. “Four hundred years I’ve waited and watched the Ealdakins seizing power. But no more!”
The dark lord snapped his eyes to the king’s remains. “Bet you’ve never thought about this. That the descendant of yours would one day betray you and bring me here.” He laughed again.
A terrible anger filled Mark. At first, he didn’t really know why, since he wasn’t the descendant of the king.
Then he realized that all of this was happening because of him.
Mark wiped the tears from his eyes angrily. Looking down at the obsidian necklaces, he decided to stop this madness once and for all.
But the moment never came. When the dark lord turned to face him, his eyes glowing in verde green, Mark shrank back and all of his anger was soon replaced by fear.
An opening in the room led them into another chamber. This one was a lot smaller but surprisingly clean.
Mark saw torches hanging on the golden sconces. There were strange markings and symbols everywhere, even on the raised platform in a corner of the chamber.
On the platform were the skeletal remains of someone who appeared to be important. The skeleton was clad in a tattered but elegant robe of some sort. Close up, Mark saw an unmistakable crown attached to the skull.
It was the remains of King Ealdakin of Magnus himself.
Mark complied. He led them toward the chamber, stepping over piles of human bones that made their flesh crawl and their stomachs lurch in disgust.
Some of the skulls were half crushed, while some skeletal remains from other body parts were grounded into grits. The serpent had killed those people, yet for some reason it didn’t eat them. Or else, it would’ve swallowed them completely, leaving no trace of human remains. Mark figured that their bones were crushed into heaps because the massive beast had slid right over them.
With a shock, Mark realized that he had just witnessed another betrayal within the dark force. Though Jennifer never said it explicitly, it was obvious. His heart sank like a heavy stone. And if that was true, the deal no longer meant anything.
Mark became angry with himself. Why hadn’t he thought of that? John was not a man of honor, much less a man who would keep his word.
He suddenly understood how serious their situation was. He must stop the dark lord from seizing power.
The only question was – how?
“Move!” John was barking orders to the others. Beside him stood George and Diane, both in a paralyzed state. “You lousy humans!”
Mark winced inwardly. He watched Andrew walking slowly, cradling his arm and looking fatigued. Behind him, Becky was limping without the help of anyone. For every other few steps, she would hop on one foot, and then resume limping again.
Mark sighed. How were they going to fight John this way?
The dark lord motioned him to lead the way.
“I thought the Guardian of the Treasure Room was merely a legend,” Jennifer said coldly. She was staring at John with a penetrating look.
John turned to face her. “Indeed, love,” he told her. “That’s what the others have said. But now we know the truth. Do we not, love?”
Jennifer continued to regard the dark lord with her cold eyes. “But what about the descendant?”
“What about him?” John put an arm around her, who stood rigidly.
“You could’ve gotten him killed! I thought we needed him for the treasure.”
“Aye, love,” said his lordship. He didn’t even bother to lower his voice. “But the Guardian wouldn’t hurt the royal blood, would it?! Or at least I thought so.”
“You never told me about that,” Jennifer snapped and then turned her face away from John.
“Jen, love,” said the dark lord, his voice becoming soft. “That’s because we were always in a hurry. I’m sure that was why I’ve forgotten about it. But that’s not important, is it?” John leaned closer to her. “What is important is that we find the Treasure of Magnus and the Great Sarpati first. Then we divide up the shares and rule the world together.”
Jennifer nodded. But she seemed unconvinced.
He looked around, seeking for a possible explanation for this. It was then that he saw the obsidian necklaces radiating in a golden, bright light.
He understood now.
His necklaces had saved him. Somehow they had turned the serpent into a sculpture.
“Well done,” said John darkly. “Now take me to the Great Sarpati.”
Mark stood up weakly. So this was the treasure room after all.
Suddenly Mark realized that he wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. He cracked his eyes open a little – just a little, so that he could peer from under his lids. He wondered what the beast was planning to do to him.
The serpent – a live serpent no longer – was nothing but a massive sculpture now.
The impact of the beams was so powerful and strong that his whole body was knocked over. He fell backward, his head hitting the ground. Instantly his vision swam.
Mark squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the dizziness to pass. His heart was pounding furiously. Any moment now. The serpent would strike and tear him to pieces. Mark was sure of it. And those fangs… He couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Somewhere far away, he heard someone calling his name.
The eyes of the serpent were glowing red. Without any warning, two beams of red light shot out of its eyes.
They came right at Mark and hit him squarely in the chest.
Mark cried out.