The Mordant handed his iron staff to the general and made his way to the center of the pentacle. Casting a shadow larger than legend, he stood before the executioner’s block. Throwing his head back, the Mordant thrust his hands up toward the red stalactites. His face flushed with ecstasy, he cried, “One lifetime is not enough! Let the bond between us be renewed. May the Dark Lord reign over all of Erdhe!”
The wizard shrugged the robe from his bony shoulders. Bile rose in Jamis’s throat at the sight of the sagging, ruined flesh, the dark runes burned into the old man’s shriveled skin, but then the Mordant knelt. Understanding struck like a knife. Jamis realized he was not the one slated for sacrifice, but then why was he here?
The Mordant set his head on the block. Jamis stared in shock, unable to believe the lord of the citadel would sacrifice his own life…unable to imagine what such a sacrifice would invoke. He longed to look away, but felt compelled to watch. The executioner swung the half-moon blade in a mighty arc. The silver axe flashed down. Blood spurted and the Mordant’s head toppled to the floor with a gruesome thud. The general strode forward, lifting the severed head by its long white hair; a trophy, a triumph, an offering.
The dead eyes flew open.
Two crimson beams of light speared from the Mordant’s eyes piercing Jamis. The severed head began to laugh, a terrible, mocking sound that thundered through the cavern. Jamis screamed, his soul seared by the red light. The sudden stink of urine flooded his nose.
The red light slowly faded like two spent embers. The braziers dulled as if snuffed out by a giant hand. Absolute darkness prevailed.
Something stirred overhead, a brooding menace unleashed by the sacrifice. Huddled on the floor, Jamis sought to hide within the darkness, but something found him. Pain pierced him, like a hundred frozen daggers stabbing at his heart, inserting slivers of darkness beneath his skin. He writhed across the cold marble floor, screaming in agony, but then it stopped. Gasping for breath, he waited.
The braziers re-ignited.
Squinting against the light, Jamis checked his body, but there was no blood and no gaping wounds. His stare raced around the cavern, seeking his attacker, but he found only shadows. Shuddering, he reclaimed his spear, and struggled to stand, wondering what fate awaited him.
General Haith remained in the center of the pentacle, but the severed head he held aloft had changed. Withered and shrunken, the head had aged a century, as if death revealed the true age of the Mordant. The general stared at Jamis. “Bare your chest.”
Afraid to obey, but too fearful to resist, Jamis dropped his spear and clawed his way out of his armor. Ripping his tunic in haste, he stared at his chest. A dark mark slowly appeared above his heart, like a rune tattooed from beneath his skin. “No!”
The general laughed. “You have been marked by the Dark Lord. Remember what you have seen here this day. Now go!”
He didn’t remember running out of the chamber or climbing the long spiral of stairs to the surface. Bursting free of the subterranean staircase, he collapsed in the courtyard, gasping for breath. Crisp, clean night air flooded his lungs, but he couldn’t purge the taint he felt inside himself. He clawed at his chest, contorting to peer down at his bared flesh, but the rune remained, like a curse beneath his skin. Convulsing on the cold stones, he emptied his stomach, but he could not