Mari stared up at yet another wall, squinting at the bright sunset. It differed from other walls. It was gray, but it was much larger than any other wall. Not to mention, there was only one wall, and they were outside. She turned to Rekema, squinting in the bright, but fading light. “I don’t understand.”
Muraad wrapped an arm around her and ruffled her hair. “Don’t even think about it.”
Mari’s stomach always turned when he said that. She knew she wasn’t good at thinking, but the idea of not doing it wasn’t pleasant. Rekema crossed her arms. “Just trust us.”
Mari bit her lip, but before she could respond, Balak had taken control of her. Everything hazed over, and her skin crawled. Mari stumbled forward as Balak moved his hands with a grin. Mari felt him channel his power through her. She rushed forward and thrust her hands out, crashing into the wall. A large crack appeared, and the small pieces of the wall hit her.
“Good, keep going, Balak,” Rekema ordered. Mari’s stomach turned. She couldn’t think straight, but she wasn’t fond of this power flowing through her. She was human, even if the Seven weren’t; her body wasn’t made for this.
Balak pulled her back; her head lolled to the side. Her arms fell limp. Mari just barely realized he was about to do it again. A surge of power hit her body, and she stumbled forward.
She stifled a grunt as a large piece hit her shoulder, and another hit her head. She heard Muraad mutter something behind her. Bidkar chuckled as a response. She blinked and looked to see the crack was almost to the top of the wall. Mari wished she could shake her head to get rid of the ringing in her ears.
People above her yelled. Mari saw more of the polished men on the top of the wall. Mari wondered what they were doing up there and if they had a name. There were so many; it seemed they were a group, and groups had names, like the Seven. As she pondered, one of them held up a thin wooden thing Mari had never seen before. He was doing something with it. She saw him hold it with one hand and pull back with the other. Something settled in her heart; it was telling her to move, but she couldn’t. Her mind didn’t even register the strange instinct. Mari idly wondered what the wooden object did.
“Balak!” Muraad shouted.
“Move her!” Rekema shrieked. Mari had never heard Rekema shriek about anything, ever. Her mind couldn’t keep up with these new discoveries and objects.
Something flew towards her. It was small, wooden, and had a sharp tip. Mari wondered if it would hurt. Balak jerked his hands, and her body flew to the side. She hit the ground, rolling several times from the force Balak used. She hissed at the stinging pain in her arms and legs.
“You reckless idiot!” Mari saw Rekema shout at Balak, storming over to him. Her fists were clenched so tightly that Mari couldn’t believe Rekema wasn’t hurting herself. She wondered if Rekema would hit him. She would be okay with that.
Rekema grabbed Balak by the collar. “Pay more attention! Do you need a reminder of—”
Mallory cut her off, “I don’t think this is the best place to have this discussion. Those guys aren’t going to stop shooting just so you can yell at him.”
Mari staggered to her feet unwillingly. The men on the wall continued to yell, but Mari’s mind was too clouded, the pain too loud, for her to make anything they said out. More of the sharp sticks flew towards her.
“Balak!” Muraad said. Mari heard him rush towards her.
“Lay off, I got her,” Balak said. He moved his hands. Mari’s legs moved, and she tripped backwards, seeing the sticks hit around where she used to be.
“Take down the wall!” Apep shouted, “I want to see them run.”
Balak let out a savage cry, and it tore through her throat. He made her run; she slammed into the wall once more. She heard a crunch in her shoulder. Mari opened her mouth and let out a soundless cry of pain. She gasped as more pieces fell and hit her on their way down.
Meeko giggled, and out of the corner of her eye, Mari saw Mallory tug on his arm. “It’s coming down!”
Bidkar took a deep breath, tilting her head back. “I can hear them scream. One of them is crying. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Balak released her, too absorbed in what he created to notice. Mari staggered back, wiping dirt and dust from her face. Muraad ruffled her hair. Rekema stepped in front of her and looked at the remains. A hand stuck out from under the pieces. It twitched. Rekema took control of Mari. “Let’s keep going.”
Mari stifled a whimper as she stumbled over chunks of wall. Rekema wasn’t precise or careful with Mari’s steps. Mari kept quiet as it didn’t take her long to finish climbing over it. The rest of Seven stuck close by. Muraad stayed a step behind her the entire time. They stopped at the sight that awaited them on the other side. Rekema loosened her hold, and Mari’s mind cleared slightly. She flexed her toes; the ground was much harder, and there was no grass. She shivered, having never seen so many people like her. They were running away, and Mari was certain that pleased Apep to no end. Mari could tell by the way her eyes and markings glowed brighter. Mari turned her attention back to the humans and one of them started to fall at the sight of her. Another person rushed them away, not even daring to look at Mari.
Mari had enough control of herself to be able to look at Rekema. Her voice came out raspy and soft. Her throat burned, but she had to ask. “Why are they—”
A familiar voice caught her attention. “Shoot her down.”
“Balak, take over!” Rekema scowled, and she let go of Mari. Balak didn’t even give Mari time to blink as he pulled her back. Mari’s mind dulled again, and his disgusting power filled her veins. Mari had no doubt. Balak was the strongest of the Seven which only made it worse when he took over.
Muraad glared at the men on the sections of the wall that still stood. “Don’t let them hit her.”
Mari’s head was jerked back, and she saw the man from earlier, the one with the headpiece. He was on a horse. Mari remembered seeing one once. She forced herself to hold onto the thought. She strained her mind. It had been lost and stumbled across the cottage. Muraad had told her what it was and to leave it be. It would leave soon enough, and the sooner it did the better for them. Mari didn’t understand then, and she certainly didn’t at that moment. She was surprised she could even remember that in her current state.
The man with the headpiece was surrounded by the polished men who were also on horses. As Mari staggered, the men pulled out the long knives and the wooden tool that shot sticks. Balak’s grip tightened on her. Her head hurt, and it became even further clouded. He moved her arms and flexed her wrists. The house near her broke, and the pieces flew out around her. Several of the horses reared up. Balak rushed Mari forward, avoiding the sticks shot at her. His power surged through her. It hurt. She tore through the first line of men on horses. The men screamed, and the horses’ high-pitched cries made Mari want to cover her ears.
“King Dainan, get back!” one of the men said to the man with the headpiece. Her thoughts were cluttered and constantly moving. It was like anything that entered her mind slipped from her grasp. She had trouble keeping up in this state; she didn’t know what a king was, but Dainan sounded like a name, so she held onto that. This was something she wouldn’t forget. It seemed important, and she didn’t want to be stuck calling him the man with the headpiece forever.
Mari couldn’t but let out a cry of her own when one stick hit her arm. Muraad growled. Mari saw the Seven out of the corner of her eye. Bidkar had her eyes closed with a smile on her face, feeling Mari’s pain just as much as Mari did. Rekema gestured to the wall, where the stick had come from. “Do something about them!”
Balak raised one arm, and Mari followed. Through his revolting power, the shards of the house lifted into the air. With a shout, they hurled the shards at the men on the wall. Balak’s savage satisfaction surged through her, causing her head to throb.
“Kill her!” Dainan ordered. A group of his men charged towards her on the horses. Balak had her meet them head on. Mari watched herself break the horses’ legs. The men fell off the horses as they collapsed. Faster than Mari could blink, she was tearing through their protective clothing, hurling them into walls, and seeing them go limp under her stained hands.
Apep watched with an approving eye. “Should we kill the king? Cut off the head and watch them flail about?”
Rekema chuckled as Mari was stood up. Rekema shook her head. “Not yet, but I promise once we’re done here, you’ll get your fill.”
“What if we kill him?” Bidkar pointed to the man on Dainan’s right.
Rekema nodded her approval, and Balak let go of Mari. She pitched forward, unable to stand on her own. Her chest tightened; Mari could hardly breathe. Bidkar took over and pulled her back to her feet. Her mind hazed over once more. Bidkar sent Mari hurtling towards the center of the men. She blew through them, grabbed the man beside Dainan, and pulled him to the ground.
“Stop her! Do something!” Dainan shouted, as he was pulled away by his men. Had Mari been in control, his voice would have made her stop. It struck her chest, causing her to wonder if it were possible for words to physically hurt her.
“Get the king away from her!”
Mari pinned the man to the ground, and Bidkar had her plunge her hand into his chest. His expression tore at her heart just as much as Dainan’s words did. She forced herself to close her eyes and waited for Bidkar to finish, trying desperately to ignore, to forget what Bidkar was doing to the man. If she had control of her hands, she would have shredded her ears to pieces to get the sound of his scream out of her head.
She felt him go still beneath her, and Bidkar cackled behind her, ecstatic beyond belief. Dainan’s voice hit her ears, strained and hoarse. It was so distant to her. Her mind so far gone. She had the fleeting thought he had been screaming too. Dainan gestured to his men. “Fall back! Get to the castle!”
Mari opened her eyes and saw him leading his men toward a huge, complex gray building. Mari assumed that was the castle. She watched them go, their horses moving faster than Mari thought possible.
The Seven approached Mari. Bidkar loosened her control. Mari crawled for a moment, scraping her hands and knees before retching onto the ground. Muraad patted her good shoulder. “We did good.”
The twins laughed, dancing around the rest of them. Bidkar tightened her control, forcing Mari back onto her feet. Rekema sauntered up beside them. “Oh this is very good. The city might as well be ours. That castle can’t stop us.”
“May I?” Apep asked, facing Rekema, “I can practically smell their panic. It’s killing me.”
“Of course.” Rekema turned to Bidkar, her face said everything. Bidkar let go, and Mari swayed. A second later, Apep controlled her.
Apep spoke in a language Mari did not know. Her own voice joined with Apep’s. Mari was kneeling, arms out, with a strange sickly green light enveloping her. A wave of strange, foreign emotions engulfed Mari, going through her to Apep. She didn’t know what to call any of them, but they made Mari feel absolutely wretched. She wanted to run for as long as her feet could carry her, to throw up until she had nothing left in her stomach, to curl up into a ball, and to cry until there were no tears left to shed.
Mari couldn’t move, but she felt drops of water roll down her cheeks, clearing away the grime on her face. She continued to chant with Apep, but her voice shook. It was too much. She felt too much. It was as if all the feelings from the humans in the city were in her. She couldn’t stand it. How could anyone handle it? These feelings? Mari wished she would never feel again. Not if emotions could do this, not if they hurt like this.
To Mari, it seemed like she was in this state for an eternity, but Apep had to stop eventually.
Mari was vaguely aware of Apep’s voice halting. Apep let go, and Mari fell onto her face. She only had just enough strength to curl into herself. Her chest burned, and she took great gulps of air, shaking. She forced one hand under her, pushing up. In the distance, far up and far away, Dainan looked down at her. Mari didn’t know the name of the emotion, but it reminded her of shock and what Apep had just made her feel. Was there even a name for emotions so terrible?
“Come on, Mari.” Rekema took over, dragging Mari up by her shoulders with a few hand motions. “We still have work to do.”
Mari watched Dainan and his men head inside the castle, unable to generate a single thought, everything in her was so heavy.
* * *
Mari knew the only reason she was still standing was because of Muraad. He had taken control before they went into the castle. When he had done so, he had supplied her with enough strength to continue on. No matter what it did for her, Mari couldn’t help but wish he had let her collapse as opposed to forcing something so sickening and painful on her. Mari, despite years of exposure, couldn’t stomach the awful side effects that came with the Seven using their inhuman strength through her.
She had no choice in the matter, so there she was, outside the same room they had visited once before. Mallory had called it a throne room; Mari didn’t understand why, but she supposed it was only right it had a name. They hadn’t run into any more humans until outside the throne room. They weren’t a problem for long.
Hands dripping, Muraad had her stumble to the doors, pushing them open. She registered several gasps and a rush of footsteps as she entered the room. Mari’s head was pulled up. Orange and red light flickered around the edges. Shadows flickered across the ground. She saw more of the polished men than had been there before. That was strange. They blocked the path to Dainan. Beside her, Rekema was beaming.
“I believe we’ve been in this position before,” Dainan spoke over his men. His voice was tight. Mari thought it was like he was trying to hold something back, but she could clearly see that wasn’t the case.
Muraad smirked. Mari spoke his words, “Are you ready to give me what I want?”
“What are you after? Not to offend, but the last time we talked you weren’t exactly clear,” Dainan said. The twins giggled behind her.
Muraad laughed, and Mari’s throat burned from the strain. “We want your surrender, or we’ll take it, doesn’t matter to us.”
Silence fell, except for Mari. Her own labored breath and the muttered words between the Seven rang in her ears. The twins in particular squealed, and Bidkar shushed them. The men turned to their leader. Mari watched, curious. She knew she didn’t understand everything, but she could tell the Seven wanted Dainan to stop resisting. Mari thought everything would be easier if he did.
“And if I surrender, what happens? What will you do to my kingdom? My people?” Dainan asked. She wondered what he meant. What made them his people? Was it about leadership? Did Rekema consider the rest of the Seven and Mari to be her people?
The men behind Dainan started to whisper to him. Mari couldn’t remember what she had just been wondering about. Their voices caught her attention, but she couldn’t catch the words. Muraad turned to Rekema and received her permission. She gestured one hand forward for him to continue. Mari heard herself say, “If you surrender, we would consider leaving your kingdom to continue on, only under our leadership. As much as it would please us to destroy this kingdom, we are considering letting you and the majority live in exchange for you complete and utter cooperation.”
Dainan said nothing. More whispers. Mari caught words like “crazy,” “possessed,” and “betray.” She had never heard them before. Muraad sighed deeply and rolled his eyes; Mari stayed still.
Rekema said, “Forget this, give me control.”
Muraad paused, bowed his head, and stepped back. Mari folded over, and her knees buckled. The moment Mari moved, the men pulled out their long knives and readied themselves. Rekema caught Mari and pulled her back up. Rekema’s power filtered through, not as powerful as Balak’s, but it still turned her blood cold.
With a gesture, Rekema and Mari cleared a path to Dainan. The men yelled, and their protective clothing clanged against the ground. Mari’s steps were stunted, and Rekema barely kept her balanced. She saw Dainan’s face shift as she approached. Mari never had been good at reading people, especially when it came to emotions she didn’t know.
“Still think you can stop me?” Rekema spoke through Mari, bringing her right up to Dainan.
Dainan said something, but Mari missed it. Rekema had her step closer, tilt her head, and hum. “Hmm?”
Dainan looked up, and Mari didn’t like the look in his eye. It reminded her of the look on the man Bidkar chose. She had seen it right before she closed her eyes. It hurt her chest. Dainan spoke up slightly, “No.”
Rekema and Mari grinned; her own being far more painful and forced. “Are you ready to die? Dainan, is it?”
He set his jaw.
Rekema continued speaking through Mari, “Are you ready to be responsible for the slaughter of this kingdom?”
Another pause. Mari was beginning to hate the sound of silence. All the things left unsaid filled the air and pulled at her skin. She wished someone would scream, cry, yell, anything to stop the dreaded absence of noise.
Dainan finally said, “No, I’m not.”
Despite the protests from the men behind him, Dainan dropped to his knees. Her removed the headpiece, offering it to her. Mari didn’t know what to do with it, but Rekema had her take it.
“I surrender,” Dainan said as the headpiece slipped from out of his hands.
Rekema turned Mari around and had her hold up the headpiece. Rekema’s power surged through her. Rekema yelled, and Mari’s voice tore at her throat, “We are in charge now. You are under my rule. You serve me, obey my every order, cater to every whim, and heed every word that comes out of this mouth.”
Mari took a deep breath, staring down the men before her. There were so many; they stared back at her. Their faces imitated Dainan’s from earlier; the sight made her heart stop.
Something moved behind her; both Rekema and Mari heard it. Muraad called out, “Rekema, look out!”
Rekema jerked her hands, and Mari was pulled to the side, holding the headpiece with one hand. The man tripped on her feet and dropped his knife as he fell. Rekema had Mari pick up the blade and kneel over the man. Without a moment’s pause, Mari saw her hand drive the blade into his neck. Out of his mouth, came blood and a sickening gurgle. Everyone winced, except for Mari who would have if she could.
Mari watched herself pick up the man and hold him up in front of everyone. Mari felt the strain and pull in her arms. Freezing power filled her arms, chilling her heart. Rekema had Mari hurl the man to the feet of the crowd. There was a thud, and Rekema had Mari take the headpiece in both hands, staining it with red. Rekema moved her fingers, and Mari set it on her own head. Mari’s voice rang out, but she remained detached. “Disobey and suffer the consequences. Suffer my wrath. Now, bow. Kneel before your queen, Queen Mari Annette.”
The men before her dropped to their knees and kept from meeting her gaze. Mari wasn’t sure what a queen was, but she knew she had just taken Dainan’s place. All she wanted to do was go back to the cottage and sleep until the awful heavy feeling in her bones disappeared.