People flitted about the streets. How different it was to watch them. They changed so much when in her presence. She wondered what that would be like. For now, all she could do was watch from the window.
She tapped the glass, tracing her fingers over it. Could Dainan see as much as she could from his cell? What were they doing now? Was he alright? Was Regan and her son alright as well?
She blinked and straightened up. Something was happening in the town.
Mari pressed her face against the glass, squinting. People were running, was that screaming? It was faint and very far away. A building caught on fire and collapsed in on itself; Mari jerked back from the window. She glanced over her shoulder at the door, but before she could move, she saw something else happen out the window.
Someone was climbing out of the rubble, a man. Mari bit her lip, hoping they would make it. Another person started walking towards the building, stopping near the person trapped under the rubble.
Mari couldn’t see them clearly, but they reached down. She sighed, thinking they were about to help them. Their hand came down, grabbing the trapped man by the head. Faster than Mari could blink, they took the man’s head and shoved it back into the ground.
Mari gasped, staring down at the scene. What? The man stilled, and the person shook with laughter.
Wait, as the figured moved forward, something about it sent shivers down her spine, and an uncomfortably familiar feeling settled like a weight on her chest. That was…
The figure grabbed someone else who had hurt their leg. Only one figure walked away. Her stomach turned when she saw the amount of people the figure left behind, unmoving. Destruction marked their path. Mari couldn’t help the shuddering, small gasps coming from her throat. Then, as if the figure could hear her, it turned, tilting its head up towards the castle. The figure’s stare cut through the distance, cutting into Mari. It was her own face staring at her. The other Mari threw her head back and laughed.
Mari stumbled away from the window; tears blurred her vision. She had to do something. In a few steps, she reached the door, trying to open it. The door refused to move. Mari rattled the doorknob, but it still did not move.
The room felt so much smaller, pressing in on her. Mari threw her shoulder against the door, ignoring the pain spreading through it. She kept throwing herself at the door, trying to escape the shrinking room. The door rattled, thuds filled the air, and her shoulder groaned.
Tears rolled down her face. Her breath came out in sharp, tiny gasps. Her chest constricted. Something was pressing in on it. She couldn’t breathe. Her legs shook. All of her strength was drained out of her. She dropped to the floor, still pushing herself against the door.
Harsh laughter grated against her ears. Mari grabbed at her ears, wincing as she tried to block it out, but it was too loud. She groaned, trying to push away from the sound. She turned her head to look up, and the room was now only big enough for her to stand up.
The window was right in front of her.
Her lookalike had continued to move through the city, leaving nothing and no one untouched. Burning filled her. That wasn’t her! Mari slammed her hand against the window, and it shattered under her hand.
Mari pushed the glass out of the way and leaned out the window. The other Mari was in the courtyard below the castle. Someone was standing in front of her. His voice was faint, but it sounded like Dainan. Was he trying to reason with her? She opened her mouth to scream, to yell. She tried calling out his name. He had to know that wasn’t her! He wasn’t safe!
No sound came out, not when she really needed it. The other Mari shook her head, chuckling before rushing forward. Mari couldn’t see the details, but Dainan slumped forward, spitting something up. The other Mari caught him, looking down at him, shaking her head before slowly letting him down onto the ground.
Mari couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. She was stuck watching, hearing faint, strained breaths, that weren’t hers. Was this how Dainan felt all the time? Trapped, stuck, absolutely useless, and unable to move and to help when it counted? He started to choke on something, and then he stilled. No… He couldn’t be… She had to… She had to do something! The other Mari turned her head up once more, baring her teeth in a twisted smile.
Mari touched her face; it was soaked with tears. She was shaking now. Rage, anger burned through her, building in her throat. It all came out in a raw, anguished shriek, nearly tearing herself in half.
Her vision went dark. Someone else started yelling, but she couldn’t stop shrieking. Someone grabbed her, and she thrashed about. They quickly shoved her away, and Mari’s head slammed into the ground. Pain filled her head, but she was able to stop shrieking. Her throat burned. Mari blinked open her eyes. Muraad stood over her, huffing, putting his scaled hands on his knees. He looked as if he had just gotten out of a long fight.
“Muraad?” She rasped.
“Are you sane again?” Muraad pushed up and crossed his arms.
“What—?” Mari sat up, looking around. The room was the same size as it always was. She turned around. The window was perfectly intact.
“You were sleeping and had a nightmare, at least that’s as much as I could gather in between your crying and screaming. It was mostly unintelligible.” Muraad sat on the edge of the bed.
“Oh.” Mari’s heart stilled. What had she said? Was he suspicious?
“Do you want to talk about it?” Muraad asked as Mari stood up. Mari wasn’t paying attention to him. She glanced at the door. Dainan… was he alright?
Mari turned back to Muraad. He shot her an odd look and sighed, “You’ve been acting strangely lately. I know Apep’s giving you a hard time, is that what this is about?”
Mari hesitated before saying, “Yes, Apep and the magic… It is… I just am feeling confused about it all. It is too much for me.”
Muraad sighed, “It’s not my choice. I wouldn’t teach you magic. It’s too dangerous. I also wouldn’t have Bidkar hang around either. I’m not sure why she’s been watching your training with Apep, but I don’t blame you for being uncomfortable.”
Mari bowed her head and leaned against the wall. Muraad jumped to conclusions; she wasn’t about to tell him the truth. Even if she never saw Dainan again, even if her nightmare meant something happened to him, Mari wasn’t going to risk it. She couldn’t bear the thought of what they would do to her or him if they knew.
She glanced at the door again. Her feet were itching to run down to his cell, fling open the door just to make sure he was alright. She had to know if her dream was just a dream or if it meant something. What would she do if he was in trouble?
She couldn’t get away from Muraad, but what if he needed her? But, trying to see him while Muraad followed her every step would only bring more trouble. It had been so long. She hadn’t seen Dainan or Regan in two weeks. Her time had been filled with either Apep’s lessons on magic, or Muraad watching over her, keeping her locked away in the room.
Mari’s head shot up. Her hands shook. Muraad leaned his head back, thinking aloud more than speaking to her. “Ever since we took the castle, you’ve been different. I know I haven’t been around a lot, but you’re not as close to me anymore. You left the room, you say strange things, and you don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t understand. The only thing that’s changed for you is your location and magic. You shouldn’t have changed, not like this.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Mari said softly.
Muraad turned his gaze on her. His eyes were narrowed, and his face sent shivers down her spine, so similar to her nightmarish lookalike. “Yeah. Of course you don’t.”
With her hair covering her face, Mari moved back to the window, overlooking the city. Parts of it were still destroyed, but nothing of her dream lasted. She pressed a hand against the glass, looking down. A balcony was underneath her, Mari wondered if she could make the jump. She realized then, Muraad wasn’t just sticking around to make sure no one got into her room. He was staying with her to make sure she didn’t get out.
So this was what Dainan felt like. She was stuck, far away from the people she loved, from the people she had come to think of as family, and she was absolutely powerless to get away. The heaviest weight Dainan bore wasn’t around his wrists, surely. Mari knew now: it was the weight on his heart.
* * *
Of course, time passed, and Mari was highly aware of every agonizing second of it. The bright, burning scars on her had faded, and Mari strangely felt like herself again, whoever that was. If she glanced at herself in the mirror, without pausing for a good look, Mari could almost pretend the scars were never there at all.
Every time she examined the painless burns, she couldn’t help but wonder how Aeary and Prentiss were. She hoped their legs had healed at least some. Mari wasn’t entirely sure how it all worked. Healing seemed to be a very strange, complicated thing. Mari hoped healing wasn’t just physical, but with the stifling presence of Muraad by her shoulder, Mari had no hope she would be doing any real healing anytime soon.
Apep’s constant harsh criticism of her magic didn’t help either. Mari struggled to meet her expectations, which had Mari torn. It wasn’t Apep she cared about pleasing. Apep’s opinion of her meant very little. Mari just wanted to succeed at magic. Being able to use magic, to be strong in those terms that mattered to her. But, Mari never felt strong when Apep or Muraad where around. She felt absolutely tiny and powerless when Apep had finished her lesson in magic.
Apep expected Mari to be able to use magic like “any normal eastern child could.” One time Mari mumbled she wasn’t a child nor was she normal. All it had gotten her was a mouth full broken stone floor. She could still see the dent Apep had left. She had to be careful to avoid it.
Muraad, on the other hand, expected Mari to do nothing, to be nothing. Nothing of any worth anyway. Regan had once talked to Mari of dolls she had played with as a child, and that she had once hoped to pass them onto her children. Regan had explained what they were, and Mari said the word was very familiar. After a long time to think on it, it seemed all she had nowadays was time to think, Mari realized all Muraad every wanted her to be was a doll.
Bidkar had stormed into the throne room one day, declaring magic was useful and all, but if anything were to ever get done, she had to do it. Mari found her lessons were not only on using magic. Bidkar would pretend to attack Mari, calling the process sparring. Mari would try not to get hit; she tended to fail more than succeed. No one session was like the others, but having them in the throne room always gave Mari the tiniest bit of edge that helped her keep going.
The sessions always left Mari wanted to cry. She could never win. She could never be good enough to defeat them, but when she was in the middle. When Mari was rushing around, avoiding blows, and drawing on magic, she thrived on the idea that maybe this would be the day. Maybe this time, Mari would win. She could prove something.
This time, Mari told herself as she ducked under Bidkar’s arm, narrowly avoiding the blade in her hand. This time, I’ll win. Of course, Bidkar wouldn’t have actually hit her. Muraad would not accept any harm to come to Mari. Bidkar had found that out the hard way when Mari got a scratch in their first session. Mari’s head still rung with the sound of his harsh, angry voice.
She kept one eye on Bidkar as she stumbled away. She stuttered a shield incantation while Apep lazily flicked her wrist and sent a bolt of lightning towards her. It Mari’s shield, but the force sent her rolling on the floor as a crack sounded. Apep received a glare from Muraad.
Bidkar stepped over to Mari, pointing the blade down, but nowhere near her. Mari wondered if it had any magic. So far, it seemed like the only it could harm her and the other demons. Why even have it?
“She would easily be dead ten times over today, at least.” Bidkar’s words sent fire through her veins. Mari twisted and kicked out, hitting Bidkar in the leg.
Mari took the opportunity to leap to her feet, turn, and cast a shield. Another bolt hit the shield, causing it to break, but Mari was still standing. Her chest heaved, trying to fill her lungs as she spat out an incantation for fire, hurling it towards Apep. Apep didn’t even blink as she waved her waved her hand and dissolved the fire into nothing.
Mari had no time to despair as Bidkar swung a fist at her. Mari ducked, but Bidkar still hit her shoulder, not enough to cause damage, but it still sent Mari back to the ground. She started to get up when a foot came down on her back, forcing her face into the cold hard stone floor of the throne room. Heat flooded her face, wishing she could have held her own for longer, or at least ended in a more dignified positon.
She felt a slight pulling, and a moment later, someone said, “Ah, so it’s going well?”
It was Rekema. Mari fidgeted under Bidkar’s foot.
“Now would you get off her?” Muraad asked as he walked across the room. Bidkar hugged and the weight on her back was lifted.
A red-scaled hand came into her vision. She flinched away and pushed herself upon her own. Muraad stepped towards her, and she backed away, ignoring the confused and almost pained look he gave her.
“Well, fill me in, how much progress have you made?” Rekema huffed.
“Considering you’ve stuck me here trying to make her competent with magic for two months now? We’ve made very little progress.” Apep pulled her hood down further. “It is worthless.”
Mari heard the unsaid ‘she,’ and her eyes narrowed.
“And from someone else?” Rekema rolled her eyes.
Bidkar eyed Mari, her eyes flickering to Muraad who hovered by Mari’s shoulders. Bidkar sent him a smirk before saying, “I only started working with Mari about three weeks ago, and she’s made decent progress. She has quickly learned how to dodge and evade most attacks as well as picked up a bit of self-defense. I’m not an expert in magic, but her shield has grown much stronger. Her shield went from being useless to being able to stop Apep’s simpler spells. She has also attempted several more complicated ones, such as a trap that holds an opponent in one place. It hasn’t been able to stop me, but on an average human, possibly.”
“Bidkar—” Muraad pulled Mari behind him as she stared at the other demon in awe. None of the Seven ever acknowledged any ability, or growth, or strength in her before. What was Bidkar up to?
“Shut up, Muraad. I’m not done.” Bidkar grinned. Muraad’s grip on Mari tightened, causing her to hiss in pain. Bidkar’s every word agitated Muraad further. Bidkar turned to Rekema. “My evaluation would be that should the need arise, Mari could hold her own against a human long enough for one of us to arrive on the scene.”
“That’s not true!” Muraad snarled.
“Muraad…” Rekema rubbed her temples. “I’ve humored you enough. I have Apep and Bidkar a time frame, and it’s up now. We have fallen behind schedule because of Balak’s injuries and this diversion. We fixed the guards, kept an eye out, and gave her enough training to keep herself alive. No one has tried anything in months. Mari is perfectly safe as long as she stays in her room.”
Mari’s breath caught in her throat while blood welled up where Muraad’s nails broke through the skin of her shoulders. Finally, after weeks of nothing but Apep’s harsh training and Muraad’s painful hovering, could she be free? Could she see Dainan?
“They could be—”
“—doing absolutely nothing. Apep will still be coming by to teach her. But I need the three of you with me. Balak can’t finish recovering if the three of you are here.” Rekema glared at him. They locked gazes, and the world seemed to freeze. Mari did not let herself breathe as the air sparked around her.
“One day,” Rekema broke the silence, crossing her arms. “You get the rest of the day then I expect you back at my side. Are we clear.”
It wasn’t a question. Mari’s heart leapt into her throat, choking her.
“Of course,” Muraad growled, bowing his head. Mari felt tears prick her eyes. Finally. She may have lost the spar that day, but she finally won.
Rekema huffed, opened her mouth, and then left without a word. Apep was gone the next moment. Bidkar had stayed, smirking still. Mari suddenly didn’t mind Muraad staying with her for just a little bit longer, long enough for Bidkar to leave, she hoped.
Bidkar walked towards them, smug confidence pouring out of her. She leaned over Mari and whispered to Muraad. “I know you’re just burning inside. Come on, Muraad, it’s just you and me here. Be honest, are you going to kill me? I mean, I’m the reason you’re not getting what you desire. Old habits die hard, right?”
Muraad jostled Mari, pulling her away from Bidkar. Pain shot through her shoulders where his fingers continued to dig into her. She stifled a whimper as Muraad said, “This isn’t a conversation you want to have.”
“No, this is a conversation you don’t want to have, but I’m not giving you choice. We’re having this talk, and we’re having it. Now.”
Mari did not want to be caught in the middle of this, but as was usual, neither of them seemed to think of her as existing outside of their convenience. She held back a sigh and suppressed a shudder as the air thickened around her.