It did not belong in among the trees and animals. Surrounded but avoided. Sounds from nature filled the air everywhere, except for in the small cottage in the heart of the forest. It was as if the animals could not bear to come near for the very air around it was sickening both from decay and dark magic. The cottage was rotting on the outside and the inside, but she didn’t mind. It had room only for a small cot, table, chairs, and a chest to sit at the foot of the bed. She sat on the chest, ignoring the rough, uncomfortable wood. Mari had no use for it other than for sitting; she had nothing to store.
She clasped and unclasped her hands. Her feet kicked up dirt as she dragged them over the floor. She shifted her weight and leaned on her hands, trying to be patient and failing. She was unfamiliar with the idea of waiting. Before leaving, the Seven told her to wait. They would return soon. She understood the concept of leaving and returning, but they had never left all at once. One of them had always been with her until now.
Whatever this was, this not being with them, it made her feel ill. She didn’t know what to do with herself, so she sat on the chest and stared at the window, watching the sun move.
It was late when she felt them return. If she had to put it into words, she would say it was like a pulling on her insides. It was strongest in her heart, but she was smart enough to realize it wasn’t a physical pull. She didn’t know what to call it, but it tugged on the deepest part of her, what made up her being.
The sky had turned orange and red when the Seven appeared in the cottage. They looked like people in some ways, but she was old enough to know they were not.
“Oh,” the tallest said. Her voice hit Mari’s ears with a familiar lofty twinge. With long, clean hair and a pristine dress, Rekema never looked like she belonged in the cottage. She beamed from across the room. “Come here, doll, there is so much to tell you.”
She noticed the other six were quite pleased as well.
She stood up and obeyed. As she walked, she asked, “What is it Rekema?”
The leader of them, Rekema, set a hand on her shoulder, commanding her full attention. “Mari, we have finally received the order from Underneath.”
Mari looked at Rekema. Rekema’s claws dug into her shoulder, but Mari wasn’t one to complain. Before Mari could ask a question she wasn’t even sure she should ask, the two smallest of the group ran by her, squealing with laughter. The dirty, raggedy boy reached up and jerked her arm. Mari was almost dragged around by him, but one of the others swatted him in the head forcing him to let go. He moved in front of Mari, protecting her from the twins mischief. Mari rubbed her, wrist and the boy, Meeko, laughed. The girl, Mallory, leapt off the walls, cackling in her young, high voice.
Rekema sat Mari at the table, away from the twins. She looked up at the others, standing around her, unable to contain their grins. One of them came over to Mari, the one who swatted Meeko, and he placed a hand on her head, ruffling her hair. She leaned into him. His voice was deep and smooth, drowning out all other noise. “Pet, we’ve been given an important job to do. We’ve been waiting a long time to do it. Don’t mind the twins, they just don’t know how to contain themselves.”
“Muraad,” Mari said. Her voice was soft and almost unheard because of the ruckus of the twins. “What is a job?”
One of the Seven scoffed; he was a stout figure covered in a combination of muscle and tattoos. To Mari, he was Balak, and if she was honest, he made her feel smaller than she already was. The one next to him, who looked like a woman, shushed him. Mari called her Apep. Apep was just barely taller than Balak, and wore a dark robe and hood, casting everything but her eyes into shadow. Mari liked Apep well enough, but not more than anyone else except for Balak.
Rekema shot a glare in Balak’s direction, but turned and smiled sickly sweet at Mari. “Don’t you worry about that now. We’ll be taking care of it; no effort from you is required. What you need to know is that everything is going to change for us.”
Mari squirmed in her seat, mumbling under her breath.
“What’d you say, pet?” Muraad asked with a pleasant hum as he played with her hair.
Mari tried to speak louder, but it was only enough to be heard. “What is change?”
Balak made another noise like laughter, and Mari bowed her head. Muraad said, “Change is where things become… different. Change is when things do not stay the same.”
Mari turned to face Muraad. “Why are things not going to stay the way they are?”
Rekema sighed, rubbing her forehead. The twins rushed over and pulled Mari out of her seat. She stumbled as they lead her about. Meeko looked up at her with bright eyes. “Because it’ll make us happy.”
Mallory pulled on Mari’s sleeve, forcing her to bend down to her level. She blinked and titled her head. “Don’t you want us to be happy?”
Mari stuttered. Her voice faltered. It was just barely heard; no one understood.
A figure, hidden by the shadows, stepped over to Rekema. She threw up her hands. Mari called her Bidkar, and she always wore the strangest clothes. Muraad had once told her they were the clothes a warrior would wear, but Mari chose not to ask him what a warrior was. She said, “What does it matter what she’s saying? Who cares?”
“No!” Mari straightened up. “I want to do this, uh, this job.”
The Seven stared at her. Under their gazes, Mari just wanted to crawl under a blanket and hide. She settled for staring at her bare feet. “I want things to… change. I want you to be pleased.”
Mari glanced up. Rekema’s eyes sparked. Mari was always highly aware of their nonhuman features, but never more so than at that moment. The scales on Muraad glinted in the dying light, and Rekema’s claws reflected the light into Mari’s eyes. Bidkar’s horns and fangs sent her heart racing. Apep’s face glowed with old symbols while Balak’s tattoos moved across his thick inhuman skin. The twins’ tails skittered across the floor, and Mari resisted the urge to jump away when they skimmed over her feet. Rekema’s bright, pink eyes pierced Mari’s heart, freezing any thought she might have had. Rekema motioned Mari over. Everything started to haze over. Mari stumbled forward. Rekema nodded. “Good, because I have an idea I think we’re all going to like. A little fun before we officially start.”
Mari’s frozen heart sunk, and her stomach churned. She wasn’t sure what to call the feeling, but she knew she didn’t like it.
* * *
Mari had never seen anything like the thing she saw in front her now. Rekema had taken her, and they appeared in an unfamiliar gray building. At least, it was gray on the inside, and the wall was rough and coarse when her hand brushed against it. Rekema knew where she was going, so she walked Mari there. The rest of the Seven followed behind. As she stumbled under Rekema’s control, Mari saw several figures that looked like people, human people.
One of them had seen her appear out of thin air, thanks to the Seven’s power. He had nearly collapsed, but run off soon after. Rekema didn’t pay the people any mind, so Mari didn’t. Step after step, Rekema brought Mari to a large set of doors. The layout of the building couldn’t be more confusing to Mari. They walked through so many of those narrow spaces where doors were attached every so often. Now, after all that, there was a set of doors larger than any she had ever seen. It had strange markings, and even though they were clearly wooden, they had a shiny, polished material decorating it. Mari had no idea what was behind the doors, but the Seven were licking their lips, bouncing up and down, cracking knuckles, and rubbing hands. Mari had to guess whatever was behind the doors was something good.
Rekema pulled back her hands; Mari did as well. Power surged through Mari; a sickness turned her insides. Rekema thrust her hands forward, and Mari pushed the doors open. They flew back with great force, and if Mari had been standing on her own power, she would have fallen. Rekema continued moving her hands and arms; Mari took slow, awkward steps forward. Her torso pitched slightly forward, and her arms were limp at her sides.
She could hear her feet slap the ground. The floor was cold. She heard someone stand up, and Rekema jerked her hands. Mari’s head flew up; she saw people like her standing in the large room. Windows were on the walls, and the room was illuminated in a yellow glow from several ornate fixtures hanging from the ceiling. As strange and new as it was to Mari, the people captured her attention more than anything else. Most of the people surrounded a man in clean clothes with a shiny headpiece that looked like it was made of the same material as the decoration on the doors. The men around him wore clothing that matched each other and all made of the polished, shiny material. It didn’t look like fabric to Mari, but it looked strong.
The man with the headpiece cleared his throat. Mari absentmindedly noticed he looked younger than most of the other people. He asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”
Mari heard Rekema speak, but with Mari’s own voice. They said, “We want this.”
The man stared at her. “What do you mean?”
Rekema chuckled and let go of Mari. Her shoulders collapsed, and Muraad took over, pulling her back up. He had her take a step forward. They said, “I mean, we want it all. The city, the castle, everything.”
Mari wondered what a city was, and for that matter, she wanted to know what a castle was too. The man narrowed his eyes and clenched a fist. “You’re threatening us.”
The twins took over. Mari vaguely heard Rekema say something about everyone getting a turn. Mari’s shoulder rolled back unnaturally. Whispers broke out among the polished men. Mari heard another word she didn’t know. One of them called her possessed. Meeko laughed. Mari’s giggle grated against her own ears. Mallory hardened Mari’s voice. They said, “It’s not a threat. We are going to take this place. And, it’s not going to be pretty.”
Meeko laughed again. They said, “Well, depends on your definition. It’ll be pretty to me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Mari saw Balak nodding with a smug grin.
“You want it all? The wealth, my kingdom, my crown?” the man asked. Mari didn’t have to know what any of those things were, but she understood he was the leader of these people, these people like her. Like Rekema was the leader of the Seven. Mari wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, what the Seven were doing and why, but she understood enough. It was serious. The Seven wanted something that was clearly important to the man.
Bidkar took over. With a few motions, Mari stumbled closer, several of the polished men pulled out what looked like extremely long, large knives. Bidkar spoke, and while Mari’s voice came out smooth, something about it unnerved her, “It’s a bit more complicated than that. You see, you could give us that, but what we’re after isn’t just material possessions.”
“I will stop you,” he said. “Whatever twisted, sick game you’re playing with me, with all of us, I won’t stand for it.”
Bidkar laughed. The man closest to Mari shuddered. Bidkar let go. Mari nearly crashed into him, but Balak stopped her when he took over. He roared with laughter, but it was different from Bidkar’s. Her laughter came out cold; his laughter was painful and loud.
Rekema spoke, but only Mari and the rest of the Seven could hear her, “Go for it, Balak.”
Mari felt her arms swing about and several of the polished men were tossed aside. One of them flew into the window. Whatever prevented him from flying outside cracked under his weight. It shattered across the floor. Balak spoke through Mari. Mari panting, just barely able to speak, “You can’t stop us. Nothing can. Nothing can help you, not your soldiers or your armies. I will tear this city to pieces.”
One of the ornate golden fixtures above creaked. Balak and Mari swung their arms, and it came crashing down in front of Mari. What had once lit the room in a soft glow burned bright and painful as it ate through the curtains. The men hurried away from the fire. The one in the headpiece stood still. Balak and Mari said, “I can burn this entire city down, this kingdom down, and all you can do it watch.”
Apep took over. Mari pulled up and her arms hung behind her. Her head tilted up. Apep forced a twisted grin on Mari’s face, imitating her own. Mari spoke, yet they were not her words, “Are you scared yet?”
The man stood his ground. “Why? What do you stand to gain from causing pain and creating destruction and scaring people?”
“Everything,” Apep and Mari spoke. The fire cackled in the background. Apep let go. Mari staggered. Rekema took over once more.
“What are you? A demon?” he asked. The fire glinted off his headpiece. If Mari even had the ability to answer, she wouldn’t have known anyway.
Rekema pitched Mari forward; she was bent over herself with her head up.
“We’re demons, but knowing that certainly doesn’t change anything.” Rekema had her step forward. Mari was close enough that she could touch him, “Don’t you get it? There’s nothing you can do, so you might as well lay down and die. It doesn’t matter to us. We get to enjoy ourselves either way.”
“I’m afraid I don’t believe that.” He stared her down. Mari had never seen another human up close. How strange.
Rekema smirked, and they said, “Then you’re delusional.”
Rekema walked Mari towards the door. The Seven fell in line behind Rekema. Rekema had Mari speak over her shoulder, “You’ll see. We may be demons, but we don’t always lie. Not when the truth is so much more satisfying.”
Mari hated that most of the conversation went over her head. There were so many words she didn’t know, but she picked up a few things. The man with the headpiece wasn’t going to give into the Seven easily, and the Seven were more than happy to force him to. Mari just wished she understood why.