Mari was slow and careful as she helped Aeary onto the bench beside the doors leading back into the castle. Aeary grunted and reached for her leg while Mari stepped back. Helmuth set Prentiss down beside his wife before turning to Mari. She gestured toward Prentiss. “Please, take the gag off him.”
Helmuth bowed his head, frowning, but did as he was told. As soon as he could speak, Prentiss coughed, “What are you going to do? Throw us off the railing?”
“No,” Mari shook her head. The moment had come. She still wasn’t sure what to say. She took a deep breath. “I am not going to hurt you.”
“Then why are we here? All you ever do is hurt people,” Aeary scoffed, taking Prentiss’ hand.
Mari pushed her hair back and rubbed her forehead. She glanced at Helmuth who had crossed him arms and stared at the ground. Mari was careful with her words, her damaged voice scratching the air. “I brought you three here because I need your help. You have mentioned that today I have not acted like you are used to seeing me act. The reason is I am not the same person who called you two here and who brought out the prisoners that day.”
“You expect us to believe that? How stupid do you think we are?” Prentiss spat. Mari flinched.
She shook it off, refusing to let his words bother her. She knew what she was getting into, and she would keep going no matter what. “Do I look human?”
“That does make you human. We’ve seen what you can do. You’re not human,” Prentiss argued. Mari glanced at Aeary who was frowning, but remained silent.
“I am human, what summoned you to the city wasn’t. The problem is they use me to accomplish certain things. I call them the Seven, and they’re not human. I believe they’re called demons. You can’t see them, but from what you remember of me, they were there.” Mari grabbed ahold of the railing. She shut her eyes. Screams of pain and cracks echoed in her head.
“That’s convenient we can’t see them, leaving us only your word as proof.” Prentiss eyed her. Helmuth took a step towards Mari, looking as if he had something to say, but did not have the words.
“I cannot force you to believe me, but what you already believe does not answer your questions. Is that not true?” Mari turned to Aeary, hoping she would speak up.
“That day…” Aeary paused, reaching for her leg. “You threw a woman across the courtyard simply for begging for mercy at your feet.”
Mari bowed her head and turned out to the city. She was not surprised if that was true of the Seven. Mari’s heart began to sink. How could she have possibly thought she could convince them?
“But, when you came for Lady Regan, Prentiss threw something at you. He cut your cheek. I saw your face, but you didn’t do anything to him. Why didn’t you?” Aeary asked, rubbing her thumb across Prentiss’ hand.
Mari turned back to them. Her heartbeat almost drowned out her voice. “I do not recall the day you’re referring to with the woman who begged for ‘mercy.’ It is a side effect of when the Seven possess me. However, I do remember the day with Regan. The reason why I acted differently is because when I came for her, I was myself. The Seven were not with me that day, and I had no desire to hurt Prentiss.”
“How do we know you’re being honest?” Aeary’s voice hardened.
“This could be an elaborate act to get us to trust you and give you what you’ve been after this whole time!” Prentiss pushed himself off the bench.
“Look at me!” Mari thrust her arms in front of her, tossing her hair back. The wind pushed her sleeves around, revealing the dark, swollen red patterns on her skin. She stumbled forward so he could see the burns. “If I’m not human, why do I look like one? Why do I get hurt like one? If I’m not human, then please, tell me what I am I?”
Her voice cracked and tore at her throat, bouncing off the stone wall. Aeary’s face softened and was staring at her. Mari couldn’t stop herself now that she had started. “What am I? Because I don’t know! I’ve never met another human until I was brought here, so what am I missing? It’s not emotions because I feel so much loneliness, fear, and pain. I bleed, and I burn. I don’t know what else I can do to be more human, so tell me. If I can’t be human, who can I be?”
No one spoke. Mari’s chest heaved, trying to catch her breath. She spun around and stumbled to the railing. She looked out at the city. She could see, in the distance, the still broken section of the wall. She could see the spot where Balak and the twins had wreaked havoc. Just a little further past it was where Balak had… no, she had… who was it? Just a little father past it was the decimated space from the day before.
Mari’s voice was quiet. It hurt to speak. She couldn’t force it, to be anything more than a broken whisper. “Tell me this then, if I am not human and there is no Seven, why would I do these things? Why would I do this to myself?”
She did not turn around to face Helmuth or the scholars. She was not ready to face them.
“Do what?” Aeary asked. There was a shuffle and the sound of footsteps.
The scholars joined her at the railing, Aeary beside her and Prentiss reluctantly at her other side. They had leaned on each other, helping the other walk. Mari pointed to the wasteland sitting among the city. “See that?”
“What happened?” Aeary stared at Mari’s hands. They burned from here she had been gripping the railing. The marks almost glowed with heat.
“To be honest, I am not sure. What I do know is that it was powerful, and I am not made for that kind of power. The Seven, well, one in particular, is made to destroy. When…” Mari took a deep breath. Her eyes watered; pain pricked across her skin. She remembered all of it. It had burned. The kind that would never truly leave her. Something wet rolled across her cheek. “When he tried to use his… demonic power… well, that is what happened. I was the center of it. Look at what happened and look at what it did to me. Why would I put myself through that horror?”
They didn’t respond. The wind blew, picking up her hair and pushing it around her. Mari stared at the spot where she had been kneeling that day.
“I believe you.”
Mari spun around. The voice hadn’t come from one of the scholars. Helmuth had approached from behind. His voice was quiet, but his expression was strained, as though he had just won a great battle. “I believe you. I remember the day you came here. You, or the Seven, or someone did something. It was hard to think to do anything other than follow the routine. But as time went on, my mind would clear slightly, especially when you started to visit King Dainan. I was always afraid you might do to me what you did to King Dainan and Lady Regan, but it wasn’t long until I realized you weren’t doing anything to them. I didn’t understand, and the cloud around my mind made me too afraid to ask.”
“You’ve been going to King Dainan?” Aeary asked.
Mari breathed out, letting a small smile grow on her lips. “Yes, that is why I have brought all of you together to tell you the truth. I have been going to Dainan, and we want to stop the Seven from hurting more people.”
Mari turned so she faced all three, backing up slightly. “I need your help, but first I need all of you to tell me that you believe me.”
“I believe,” Aeary said, limping towards Mari. She steadied herself on Mari’s shoulder. Prentiss bowed his head and glanced back at the destruction.
There a deep, frustrated groan. Prentiss looked up, took Aeary’s hand, and said, “I believe you.”
Mari’s knees buckled, but she caught herself. She couldn’t help the brilliant smile that broke out on her have. Despite her initial relief and excitement, the thought behind her next request brought her heart to a standstill. “I need a promise before I take you to Dainan. I can’t guarantee the next time you see me I will be alone. I need you three to promise not to speak about our plans to stop the Seven unless we are in Dainan’s cell or I am able to tell you the Seven are not with me. We can’t afford the Seven finding out. Promise me that.”
“Of course, we promise we won’t breathe a word about it,” Aeary said. Prentiss and Helmuth nodded solemnly.
Mari sighed and took Aeary by the arm again. She supported her weight once more. Helmuth did the same with Prentiss. As they went back inside, Prentiss said, “How about we start off on the right foot. I’m certain I didn’t give you the most favorable impression earlier.”
Helmuth laughed, “Alright, my name is Helmuth.”
Prentiss chuckled, “I’m Prentiss, and that’s my wife Aeary with the short woman.”
Aeary rolled her eyes and turned to Mari. “What about you? What’s the name of the real girl?”
“I do not know what name I was truly given, but I am called Mari, Mari Annette.” Mari said.
Aeary couldn’t help but laugh. “Tragically fitting, I suppose, but hopefully not for much longer.”
Mari didn’t bother to ask why she said that. She was just happy she had gotten the woman to laugh.
* * *
Mari clenched her teeth as she fumbled with the doorknob while supporting Aeary’s weight. Her hands and legs shaking from the strain didn’t help her. Aeary started to say something when the door fell open.
She stumbled into the room, struggling to keep Aeary up. Mari glanced up through her hair to see Dainan leap to his feet. Helmuth and Prentiss stepped in after them. Regan was the first to step forward, cradling her son, asking, “What happ—?”
“I already told them,” Mari blurted out; her heartbeat blocking out whatever Regan had started to say. Aeary slid out of her grasp and leaned against the wall. Mari winced as her skin burned from where Aeary had jostled her burns.
Aeary slid to the ground, sighing once she was off her feet. Helmuth helped Prentiss sit next to her. Helmuth stood next to them, turning to Dainan and Regan. He bowed. “She told us about the Seven, and how she wants to stop them. We believe her.”
Mari stared at Helmuth, reaching forward just once more. Relief washed over her when she could no longer feel any of the Seven’s lingering power. There was still some in the air, surrounding her, but that was normal. She was the only one in the room who still had the Seven’s power around her.
The sound of chains screeching across the floor pulled Mari’s attention away. Mari was completely still. Her mind had gone blank. A moment later, a pair of arms wrapped around her as much as they could, as they were still restrained. She was pulled into an embrace. Mari held her breath and shut her eyes. She didn’t know how to respond. Her mind started to churn, remembering when Dainan had done the same to Regan, but they were family. Who was she to him?
Dainan pulled back; Mari opened her eyes. He looked down away from her gaze; a strange expression crossed his face. It brought to Mari’s mind the instance when Bidkar had her kick a stray dog. She did not really want to recall the details of what Bidkar did after that. Had her lack of a response hurt him?
His face twisted as he started to look at the burns on her. His mouth turned down, and his eyes narrowed. His eyes traced the pattern one last time before meeting her gaze and catching her shoulders. “Was this why you didn’t come yesterday?”
Mari nodded, letting her hair fall over her face. “Yes, it is a rather long story.”
“We have time,” Dainan’s voice was kind, but did not leave room for her to disagree, nor did she truly want to.
Mari nodded as she sat down. Dainan sat across from her, and Regan sat between them, setting her baby in her lap. Helmuth stood to the side of Prentiss and Aeary. Mari extended her arms and turned them over, examining the pattern. She pushed her hair back. “Yesterday, Apep and Balak, two of the Seven came. They said something about preparing me. They did not say for what. I was far too relived that they hadn’t found out about Dainan to ask what they were doing.”
Mari quickly glanced around, pausing when she landed on Dainan. His eyes were wide, and he had a small smile. He was giving her a look the Seven never did. Muraad had come close, but it had always been distorted. It was just not quite right, not when Mari could now compare it to Dainan’s.
“The odd thing was, this time, Apep and Balak did not take control of me as they normally would.” Mari said. She glanced over to see Aeary leaning forward. Prentiss had one hand under his chin. Mari assumed their brains were moving faster than hers ever could. Helmuth’s brow was furrowed. She didn’t think he fully understood, but neither did Mari. “Because I was under my own power this time, I remember it. All of it.”
Mari shivered, wrapping her stinging arms around herself. Her memories… She had wanted them so badly, and she still did. However, now that she had her memories, maybe constantly forgetting all the things the Seven did was more of a blessing than she realized. All her memories did was hurt her.
“Apep and Balak took me to a part of the city already ruined from some other incident.” Mari couldn’t stop the words now that she had started again. She had to get through it. Her hands shook, and her nails started to tear up her arms further. The sooner she said it the sooner she could stop reliving it. “I don’t know exactly what happened next. It was odd, confusing. All I know for sure was Apep spoke in another language, and this power, Balak’s power exploded in me. They’ve used their power before, but this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”
Mari’s breath quickened. Someone grabbed her hand. She kept going. “It was so wrong. Everything about it, his power, was wrong. It hurt so much. It was pain beyond any I’ve ever felt. I don’t know how else to describe it other than I burned like there should be nothing left of me but ashes. It was wrong.”
Mari gripped her arms, sending more sharp burning pangs up them. A calm, neutral voice asked, “What happened next?”
“I couldn’t move.” Mari’s voice shook. Something pricked her eyes. “I was in so much pain. Something was wrong with Balak. Apep took him and left. Once I was finally able to look up…”
“There was nothing left. Like you had showed us on the balcony. That power obliterated everything around you.” It was Aeary. The calm voice was Aeary’s.
Mari nodded, unable to find her voice again. A strong steady voice caught her attention. “Is that how you got these burns? They did this to you?”
Someone held her. Was she shaking? She nodded into their shoulder. “I didn’t think I could make it back, but I did. I’m not sure how, but I made it back.”
“You’re safe. You’re here with us.”
Mari forced her eyes open. She stared at the ground. Dainan was holding her up. She had curled in on herself. She blinked up past her hair. Everyone was staring at her.
Dainan looked up, drawing everyone’s attention to him. His presence was powerful, even while still in chains. “That’s why we need your help.”
Mari sat up and watched Dainan turn to face Aeary and Prentiss. “We need to stop the Seven, but we have no idea how.”
“Well, first we need to know what they’re after if we’re to create a plan,” Prentiss said. “Clearly they’re not just after having the kingdom.”
“Actually,” Mari cleared her throat. “That’s what we wanted to ask you about. Because of the way the Seven’s control of me works, I remember very little of our precious encounters, and nothing pleasant.”
Mari moved forward, meeting Aeary’s gaze. “I hoped you would be able to tell us why the Seven wanted you, what information they hoped to gain so we might be able to figure out what they’re planning.”
“That’s odd. I’d love to hear more about that later.” Prentiss frowned. “I’ve only ever heard rumors about this sort of thing. The information you can give us on the subject is invaluable.”
“Focus,” Aeary snapped her fingers in front of him. “I remember the fight time the… the Seven talked to us, we had just. We were in the throne room. You, uh, they were very interested in magic.”
“That makes no sense,” Regan spoke up from where she was rocking her son. “If they want magic why didn’t they attack one of the eastern kingdoms? Our kingdom is known for not having magic in our blood.”
“That wasn’t always the case, actually,” Prentiss said.
“You mean the kingdom used to have a lot of magic users?” Helmuth shifted his weight.
“I think I know what you’re talking about,” Dainan said. Mari kept looking between everyone who was talking. Her mind churned to keep up with everything. “Before our family rose to power, they had a lot more magic in users in the kingdom. But there was a war, wait, a series of wars and the number of magic users in the kingdom went down. Some kind of massacre, or slaughter. That’s how our family came to power. The heirs died in battle, and our ancestor was named as the new heir.”
Well, there are a lot more details to the story, but yes, that’s basically it. Ever since those wars happened, the magic potential of the people in the kingdom has gone down. The demons didn’t just ask about magic though, they asked about the history of magic in the kingdom, and they wanted to know about the magic of the eastern kingdoms.” Aeary said folding her arms. “Of course, we didn’t tell them anything the first time they asked, and the second time I refused as well.”
“But that wasn’t the end was it?” Mari asked. Screaming echoed in her head. Someone crying hit her ears. “The Seven wouldn’t just accept that.”
“You’re right. After some… convincing, eventually one of the other prisoners, an old advisor of your father’s, Dainan. He didn’t know much, only that your grandfather was the last king who called on a mage. The demons seemed to be somewhat satisfied with that information.” Aeary said, sitting up straighter.
“Alright,” Dainan said. He rubbed his head, ruffling his hair. “Things are starting to make a little more sense.”
Mari spotted the book from earlier sitting on the blanket. She picked it up. “You said this book was about the history of your kingdom and family, yes?”
Dainan nodded. “Yes, so what the Seven found in here—”
“Must have to do with magic.” Mari finished, grinning.
Dainan beamed. “I told you, you’re brilliant.”
Warmth flooded Mari.
“A book? Here, may I see?” Prentiss stretched out his hand. Mari nodded, standing up and moving towards him. Something felt wrong. It was pulling. Mari’s mind went blank. Her instincts took over.
She dropped the book and sprinted out the door. Everything in her body screamed at her to put as much distance between herself and Dainan.
“Mari!” He called after her, but she had no time to explain. She had seconds at the most. They couldn’t know about him. She couldn’t lose him.
Mari had turned down another hallway when Muraad appeared.