The six men in the dark place held six candles, five tiny flames in a circle around the sixth, their combined light making the inky blackness beyond seem all the thicker. The trembling candlelight didn’t dispel the worn-out look of their frayed jeans, of their work boots and plaid work shirts, of their toughened faces and careworn eyes which reflected no light.
But the light loved the man in the middle. It shone in his short blond hair, clung to his tanned skin, reflected from his clean white t-shirt and his firm eyes.
“Brethren,” the blond man said. “For our families. For our people. For the good of all we hold dear.”
The card table at his side held a folded straight razor, a small brass bowl, and an open book covered by a cloth. He set his candle down on the edge of the table and opened the razor. Without a pause, he drew the blade across the meat of his thumb. Blood ran into the bowl.
Each man in turn approached the table and offered his thumb to the razor. The blood of six men mingled in a dark pool at the bottom of the bowl.
The blond man set the razor back down and picked up his candle. He dipped two fingers in the blood, swirled them around once, and daubed the blood on his forehead, one red streak over each eye. He dipped his fingers again and anointed each of the other men in turn.
The men now surrounded the table, each setting his fingers on the edge of the bowl and holding his candle in the other hand. The blond man looked from man to man, meeting their eyes.
“One of us will be the host,” he said. “And one will be the sacrifice. To whoever that martyr turns out to be... I salute you. We all do.”
He pulled back the cloth and exposed the open book, its faded antique lettering almost disappearing into the mildewed water spots on the yellowed paper.