A hand came down onto her head. Balak’s grip tightened; her skin would bruise. Apep murmured something Mari didn’t understand. She said something else, and Mari knew it was in another language. It made no sense. Balak started to speak it as well. Her lungs started to burn; she hadn’t noticed she had stopped breathing.
The language the two were speaking chilled Mari to her core. Why wasn’t she running? His hand seemed to be crushing her head. Mari whimpered, but it didn’t matter. He had no regard for the pain he caused Mari. He never had, and he never would. He wasn’t made to care. The two continued speaking. Their words drowned out all other noise. Mari didn’t understand.
What were they doing? What were they saying? Why were they saying it? What was supposed to happen? How horrible was their task that they had to bring her out to where everything was already destroyed so they could do it? The biggest question she had was why had they left her in control of herself?
Her mind was halfway through her next question when her body seized up. It was not the same as their control of her mind; this wasn’t mental. Her being was hit with inhuman power. Mari would not know how to describe it except as something Dainan had once described to her. She was hit with the equivalent of a flood breaking from a dam. Mari never stood a chance. They had left her with her mind, but because of the revolting power coursing through her, she did nothing but suffer like she did every single time the Seven took control.
Mari began to shake. She burned. Apep’s and Balak’s voices were lost among a distant shrieking cry. Her mind barely registered it as she was far too absorbed in the deep, wrong power pumping in her blood and bones. It surrounded her, choking her. It tore at the deepest part of herself.
Something smelled like it was on fire. Was she on fire? Smoke seemed to filter through her limited senses.
It was hot. It was Balak’s power in her; she could tell that was the cause of the intense, crippling heat. Everything burned. Maybe the whole world was on fire. Mari began writhing; she was not unfamiliar with Balak’s power. She had felt it in her times before, disgusting and sickening. That was one thing Mari had trouble forgetting, no matter how much she wished to, but this was different. Her body had never fought this much. It was more than Mari had ever had to endure before.
Mari felt something rising in her throat. She coughed, making wretched, awful noises trying to keep air going in and anything else from coming out. Mari tried to breathe, but she began to fear there was no more air. She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t see. Mari was relying on her other senses, but could barely make anything out past the pain and power that enveloped her.
The longer it went on the more her world just became pain and power. Small questions forced their way to the front of her mind. How could she possible survive this? Her body was not meant to contain this power. Mari was human; she was not made to hold back the raging flood of Balak’s devastating power. It wasn’t natural, and she felt it. She wasn’t compatible with it, but her body had always begrudgingly accepted it no matter how awful it felt. This time, however, she couldn’t contain it. It was not possible. She was the dam, and she didn’t know how much longer she had until she broke. Then, everyone else would have to deal with the flood because she hadn’t been strong enough to hold it back.
Then, almost, almost as if it had never happened, the power was gone. The water had receded, but the pieces of the dam still littered the ground. The pain lingered. Mari realized she was shrieking and shaking, writhing on the ground. She didn’t have control of herself, but neither did the Seven. No one did. Mari forced her eyes open. Her hair had flown across her face, blocking most of her vision, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Balak lying on the ground as well. He was completely still, but Mari kept convulsing. She saw her fingers twitch in front of her. She couldn’t stop; she was still shrieking. All that Mari could consciously do was stare at her hands moving in front of her. Patches of skin were red and blistering. An acrid smell filtered through the air like smoke. Her voice gave out. Her ears rung. Wind drifted by, lifting her hair slightly. Her nightmare… Mari’s fingers came to a stop. Mari stopped moving. Everything continued to hurt. Her eyes were the only thing she dared to move, but they quickly watered and blurred her sight.
The ringing lessened, and she began to hear again. Mari’s mind sluggishly told her the voice was Apep.
“Balak, get up!”
With a great amount of effort, Mari forced her head up slightly so she could see. Apep knelt over the massive figure collapsed in an indent in the ground. Had that indent been there before? Apep’s markings glowed as she shook him, staring down at him. She seemed to be waiting for a response, but she did not get one. Mari wondered if Apep liked that feeling any more than Mari did. “You idiot! She wasn’t ready for that much power! I told you to have patience! This never would have happened if you had listened to me!”
Apep looked back over at Mari. Mari met her gaze. Apep narrowed her eyes, and Mari felt the urge to run again. Apep muttered, “Then again… if it had been anyone else… We’re lucky she didn’t burn out. I need to…”
Balak mumbled something. Apep growled back in their language. Mari blinked. She could not process just what had happened. What was Apep talking about? Her core twisted, and when she opened her eyes again, they were gone. She stared at the space where they had been. The ground was broken and scorched from what she could see. Mari had lost all concept of time. She just laid there alone once again. Her body was too sore to move and her mind too dazed to process anything. All she could bring herself to do was breathe.
Then, as her mind started to churn again, Mari knew she had to get up. No one was around. No one would find her and help her up. Anyone who might find her, however unlikely that was, would most likely leave her there or do something to Mari that she didn’t want to think about. The only way Mari would be getting up was on her own, and she had to. There was a man in a cell and woman with a child waiting on her.
Mari forced her hand closed. Pain shot through her, but Mari ignored it. She squeezed her eyes shut as she pushed her hand underneath her.
When she opened her eyes again, her vision had blurred. Mari gasped as she forced her other hand beneath her. She coughed and licked her lips, wincing at the harsh metallic taste. They were rough, chapped. They stung just like everything else. Mari took a deep breath and pushed her torso up. Her arms wavered. How long could her arms hold up half of her weight? Long enough to get her legs underneath her, or would the sharp agony shooting from the angry red patches on her hands get the better of her?
It was slow, and hot, salty water cut across her face, but Mari got her legs beneath her. Had her voice not been gone, she could have cried out as she staggered to her feet. Mari was not aware enough to know whether in would have been out of pain or from joy.
Her legs shook, and doubt coursed though her worse than any of the pain still in her bones. Was she strong enough to remain standing? She didn’t know, how could she? How could she possibly know what she was capable of when she was always held up by someone else? Would her legs be able to bear her weight? Could she gather the will to take that first step back to the castle? Even if she had the will, was it even possible for her to make it?
Mari didn’t know. She was afraid of the answer, but Mari couldn’t hide from it. She knew what would happen if she did not take that first step. It was not an acceptable end. The only possible way Mari could ensure a good result was if she stood on her own two feet and discovered whether or not she could bear her own weight.
With a shaky breath and a wavering hand, Mari pushed her hair back for she could not make it if she could not see the way. She would trip and stumble and fall. Mari could feel it in her bones. If she fell, stumbled, stopped for any reason, she would not be getting back up. That was not an acceptable outcome, not when she had people waiting on her.
However, knowing all of that, all of it swirling in her head, did nothing to help her when she finally saw what laid before her feet, or what didn’t. Wind whistled around her, blowing her hair about. The buildings which had already been desolate ruins when she arrived where gone. What had been broken and empty was nothing more than splinters and scorch marks on the ground. Whatever had happened, nothing had been spared. Everything was destroyed, broken beyond repair, including herself, as was the way with the Seven.
She had done that, not knowingly, but willingly. The Seven hadn’t taken control of her, but she had followed them, anyway. Could she have done anything different? What would happen the next time the Seven expect her to follow willingly? This time, was this her fault?
Mari was completely frozen. She had done difficult things before. One of them being going to Dainan in the first place, another being making the decision to stop the Seven. Those two were hard choices; Mari did not doubt that, but nothing, nothing, was harder than Mari reaching deep within herself, deeper still than the Seven’s hold on her for the strength to take that first step.
She grit her teeth and steeled her nerves. It was a small step, and the burn on the bottom of her foot shrieked when it hit the ground. The pain jolted through her. Mari gasped, wanting to cry out, but she could not. She had done it. She had taken the first step. It was painful and awful, but she had done it. Something filled her chest, something good. Now that she had taken that first step, something in her, from the same place where she had begged Dainan to be spared, told her this was possible.
Her own voice haunted every painful step she took.
Leave nothing left. To leave this in her wake. Was it still a nightmare if it was starting to come true?
* * *
Somehow, Mari had made it back to the castle. People had stared at her; they had whispered, but they all stayed away. She was surrounded, but avoided. Her chest heaved and her arms screamed in protest as she threw her entire weight into opening the castle doors. The guards outside watched, yet none of them approached her. Mari assumed it had something to do with the state was in as well as their semi-awareness of what had just happened. They didn’t see a small, exhausted girl struggling; a girl in desperate need of help. Why would they? She wasn’t a girl to them; she was a monster. Did she blame them? Would she blame the scholars for not giving her a chance? Would they really be as smart as everyone thought them to be if they allowed themselves to be swayed by the woman they believed had it out for them? What rational, logical person entertained the ideas of a monster? No, Mari couldn’t blame them.
Monster she might be, but when she came to the stairs leading to her room, all she wanted to do was cry and hold onto someone, Dainan, Regan, Muraad, even Regan’s child would do. But she did not have them, she would have to do with on her own. Hadn’t that been what she wanted? To stand on her own two feet? It was so much harder than she thought it would be.
Mari took step after step and breath after breath. Her skin still burned and sent pangs through her every time one of the red marks or blisters hit the rough stone wall and floor. Every agonizing slap of her bare feet rung in her ears.
Had there always been that many stairs? Mari couldn’t remember. Wasn’t that always her problem? The door didn’t shut behind her. Mari’s foot caught on the rug, and she scrambled for the bed post. She leaned against it, ignoring the burn on her cheek. When her legs trembled, Mari crawled onto the bed, clenching her teeth as the blankets scraped against her skin. The cool fabric helped absorb some of the heat, but irritated the skin. Her eyes started to shut, but before they did, she pulled her hands up in front of her face. They were raw and red. The burns formed an odd pattern of spots and lines, filling her sight. She shut her eyes. She knew how she was going to convince the scholars and the guard.