She leapt down the steps, ignoring the scrapes she got on her feet and arms but slamming against the stone wall and floor. She nearly knocked one of the guards down as the foot stairs. It didn’t matter though. They didn’t notice. They were dead inside.
Pushing off the wall and flying past them, Mari’s ran as fast as she could. Sharp cracks of her feet on the stone, and the rhythmic pounding of her breath and heart were all she could hear. Mari stumbled and skidded around corners, tripping on the hem of her dress.
She spotted Helmuth once she turned down Dainan’s hall. She called out, panting, “Helmuth! It’s me, Mari! Please, go get the scholars!”
“Of course!” Helmuth gasped as he bowed quickly. “I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
Helmuth hurried to leave, passing Mari as she slowed to catch her breath for a moment.
“Mari?” Dainan’s muffled voice called out from behind the door. There was the faint sound of metal clanking and scraping. “Mari!”
She couldn’t waste any more time. She rushed forward, crashing into the door and shoving it open. Chains rattled as Dainan pulled against them, coming as close to the door as he could. Mari huffed, staring up at him, and he froze at the sight of her. His eyes widened, and his breath stopped.
Mari could hardly believe the sight before her eyes herself. It was him. After so long…
Mari couldn’t stand even the smallest amount of distance still separating them. She rushed forward, ducking under the shackles. She reached up as high as she could and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him as close as possible. With a sight, she buried her head in his shoulder. Mari muttered, “You’re safe. You’re alive.”
“I thought I was going crazy, hearing you talk to Helmuth. Your voice… I was so worried.” Dainan leaned his head against hers, holding her as best he could with his restraints. He breathed, “I was so afraid.”
Mari looked up. Fear… how awful a thing it was, but it bound them all together. “What are you afraid of?”
“I couldn’t even begin to list all my fears, chief of all being losing you.” Dainan’s grip tightened, but it did not hurt her. She tightened her own grip, clutching the back of his shirt. She didn’t know what to say. All she could do was nod. It was that fear that had plagued her sleep. It had been in the images of the night, broken crowns, a man lying in the throne room, still, standing over him, with dark red stains on her hands.
Mari breathed in deeply. She could hear his heartbeat. Mari believe she would be happy to stand there and listen to it for hours. The sound of his heartbeat continuing to pound again and again was the sweetest noise she ever heard next to his voice. It was comfort to hear it after all the times she had heard it stop in her dreams.
Another noise interrupted her thoughts. It was a baby’s cooing. Mari finally pulled away, stepping out of Dainan’s grip with a small smile. Regan shook her head as she stepped forward. “You know, he wasn’t the only one who missed you.”
Regan pulled Mari into a one-armed hug as she balanced her son on her hip with the other. Mari laughed as she son reached up to her. Before she even realized it, Mari was holding the child as he grabbed her hair.
Mari stared down as the boy. “He’s grown a lot.”
“Babies tend to do that, grow very quickly. He noticed you had stopped coming by. He’s missed you too.” Regan smiled.
Mari watched him gurgle and twist around. She smiled as the baby laughed. “He missed me because I’m the only one who lets him play with their hair.”
“Ma,” he cooed, wriggling in her arms. Mari smiled and passed him back to his mother. Regan sat down, placing her son in her lap, but he did not stop his wriggling.
Regan looked up. “Mari, what happened?”
The door opened, and Prentiss limped while Helmuth carried Aeary. Mari hurried over to them as they came into the cell. She took Prentiss’ arm to help him sit down as he held onto his leg.
Mari took a seat between Prentiss and Dainan. She rolled her neck as she thought of where to even begin. “Much has happened. Muraad tried to find that history book I brought you, and when he couldn’t he started to believe the scholars are plotting against them, and he refused to leave, trying to protect me. He only left just now because Rekema forced him. Helmuth, do you remember when all the guards were summoned to the throne room?”
At his nod, Mari continued, “That was the Seven. They realized the spell they used to control the guards had faded.”
“So am I—” Helmuth’s eyes widened.
Mari shook her head. “No, I was able to cast a shield over you despite the fact Apep is much stronger than me, particularly when we are in the throne room.”
“We figured that out, actually,” Regan spoke up. She reached for the history book, keeping her son in her lap with one hand. As she passed it, she said, “Dainan spent days reading through it again and again before he found it.”
Dainan took the book, flipping through the pages. “This city wasn’t always the capitol. In fact, this city, nothing existed here at all in the past. What it became was one of the battlegrounds of several different wars. It wasn’t until sometime after our family rose to power that the capitol was changed and the king was advised to build his castle here. His advisor, a magic user, was especially insistent on the placement of the throne room.”
“That’s what the Seven want then. They must have an idea about the throne room, but needed it confirmed,” Aeary said.
Mari frowned. “I had the feeling my magic was stronger in the throne room, but why? What makes it so?”
“The book didn’t say,” Dainan sighed, shrugging. He set the book down and drew his knee up to lean on.
“There’s magic inherent in the ground and in nature, but not enough for that to be a factor,” Prentiss said as he shook his head.
“No, but it used to be a battleground from a time when magic was stronger in the people. It is not uncommon for magic to linger in the ground. The magic left from a battle could be quite powerful and useful when attempting a complicated or extremely powerful and draining spell. It would make an already powerful spell devastating.” Aeary leaned forward.
“But what spell? For what purpose?” Prentiss asked. The scholars looked to Mari. She glanced at Dainan who gave her a comforting smile. His look reminded her of that day so long ago. What if she couldn’t answer?
Mari shook her head. “They have said nothing about casting a spell. These past few weeks have been about developing my control of magic, and especially making sure I could protect myself if I were to be attacked by, well, those who are plotting against the Seven.”
She paused, tearing through her head for anything useful. “There was an odd conversation between Muraad and Bidkar. Balak hasn’t fully recovered yet, it sounded like part of the reason was because Muraad was with me and not in the Underneath. They cannot move forward without Balak or Muraad. Muraad was scared, for some reason, I couldn’t figure it out, but Bidkar said that they were all needed. But, Balak is crucial. He’s the most powerful of them all in terms of magic, but Apep has the most control.”
Mari rubbed her shoulder where Muraad had grabbed her. She was certain a bruise was forming. “Muraad also mentioned that he was at the most risk, but Bidkar insisted the reward would be worth it. They didn’t speaking about it directly.”
Aeary hummed in concentration. Mari asked, “Do you have an idea?”
She sighed, “Maybe, but there’s too many pieces of the puzzle still missing. I’ll need time to research and any information you can get.”
“Whatever knowledge I can gather, I will share.” Mari bowed her head.
They all stayed together for a few more ours, skimming through the history book, exchanging ideas. They examined mentions of magic and the various spells cast from the throne room in the past. They examined mentions of any magic at all, and most importantly the kinds of spells cast from the throne room in the past.
Eventually, exhaustion set in on all of them. Helmuth left with the scholars. Prentiss supported himself as Aeary’s leg had not healed yet. Mari felt a pang in her heart telling her it was her fault. It had been her hands after all.
Mari stayed with Dainan and Regan longer. She was not ready to be parted from them so soon after reuniting with them. They spent the night hours talking of Dainan and Regan’s childhood. Mari held Regan’s son as Dainan told her of the time he accidentally locked himself in the vault while trying to avoid his tutors. She could not stay forever though, no matter how much she wished she could. When she was leaving, Dainan smiled and said, “I told you we didn’t have to say goodbye that day. You came back, and if you hadn’t, I would have found you.”
The thought warmed Mari as she made her way back to her cold, dark room. Most of her memories of Dainan did that, she found. Mari laughed, wondering if Regan’s son would ever get into the same trouble as Dainan had in his childhood. If they succeeded, maybe he could have the kind of childhood Dainan did. The childhood she didn’t get. If they succeeded, maybe others would have to have imprisonment at their first memories. Maybe she could give others a better world than she had known. That at least was something worst fighting for.
* * *
Apep would come by every other day. Each time she did, she taught Mari something new as well as had her practice other spells and techniques. Mari’s shield had grown much stronger. She could also hold someone in place, well, she could hold Apep for a minute, but she could hold someone less powerful indefinitely. Helmuth allowed her to practice it on him, and he could not break out. Mari hoped it would be a useful spell to have.
Some days, Apep had Mari just sit on the floor of the throne room, getting used to being conscious of her magic. Mari would sit there for hours on end; she was aware how similar it was to the day she received her burn scars. However, Mari ignored it. She had control of her magic, and she could feel in humming in her head and under her skin. Mari often wondered how she could have possible been unaware of it for so long.
Apep also taught Mari some spells that Mari wished she wouldn’t. They were dangerous, and while some could help her protect herself, others seemed only to exist to cause agony in others.
On the days Apep did not come, Mari would tell Aeary and the others what Apep had her learning. Once they had gotten some paper and something to write with, Aeary would record the information looking for a connection. When she finally found one, Mari did not like what it implied.
It seems Apep’s focus is to grow your control not your power. If she wanted you to be powerful, she would have you use up your power and push it to its limits, but she’s not.
Aeary’s words stuck in Mari’s head as she stared out her window, waiting for Apep.
Which makes sense, the Seven have all the power they need for their spell in the form of Balak. What they need, what they already tried to do is put that power in Mari. It didn’t work, exploding outwards because Mari’s own power instinctively rejected it. But not that Mari isn’t relying on it instinctively, she can control her magic’s reaction to Balak’s.
Mari shuddered. At least there was one good thing that came out of the conversation. Regan had asked why bother with Mari in the first place if they could cast the spell with their own power.
It means there’s a physical aspect to this spell, some kind of interaction with the world. Only Mari can do that for them. I might be able to find the spell.
She was afraid of course. Dainan had reassured her, telling her they wouldn’t let the Seven succeed. It wasn’t that Mari didn’t believed, but it was what the Seven would do beforehand that terrified her.
The pulling began. Mari pushed off the wall, expecting just Apep, but her blood went cold when she saw all of them, even Balak. He was weak, leaning on Apep, but his grin told her he was anything but helpless.
The twins ran forward, wrapping themselves around her waist, burying their heads into her dress. What were they doing? It had been a long time since she had seen them, but even then they had never been so attached.
“I didn’t agree to this!” Muraad spat at Rekema, still in the middle of an argument. “This is a bad idea.”
Rekema waved him off. “Apep said it was time, so it’s time. It had to happen, get over it.”
“You didn’t see her after last time, you weren’t even with Bidkar when it happened. You have no idea how close that idiot came to killing her!” Muraad pointed at Balak. Mari knew exactly what they were talking about. She touched the faint scars on her face.
“Don’t let them, Muraad!” Mallory yelled out, wrapping an arm around Meeko, who was shaking. Mari gaped down at them. She had never seen such a display. What was so awful that it terrified demons?
“Shut up,” Bidkar reached down to pull Mallory and Meeko away. Mallory flicked her tail up, knocking Bidkar’s hand away, hissing. Mallory quickly grabbed Meeko and hid behind Mari.
“No!” Mallory shook her head. “You may not remember, but I do! When you and Apep did this to the last one! Neither of you cared that you failed because it was Meeko who paid the price. And you said it wouldn’t happen again! Not with this one you said! And now you’re going back on that!”
Mari couldn’t understand what was happening. The last one? Their last host?
Rekema rubbed her temples, muttering, “I suppose this is why the others don’t take children on their teams.”
“They have a point!” Muraad grabbed Rekema. “Apep, Bidkar, and Balak failed last time, almost costing us everything, Meeko would have only been the first of us. We all know I will be the first if you fail again.”
First of them to what? Mari wondered. She stared at Muraad. His panic… it couldn’t be. No, Muraad didn’t mean he would be the first to die?
“For being my lieutenant, you have no faith in me. I’m not some child or fool that doesn’t learn from their mistakes. It will work this time. It has to. We cannot move forward without it.” Rekema pushed him off, using all of the height she had on him to intimidate.
“I’ll have no part in it.” Muraad stepped away from the rest of them. He reached a hand out to the twins. “If it fails, we cannot be hurt if we are not there. You won’t be at risk if you’re in the Underneath with me.”
Mallory took Meeko and rushed towards him. Muraad put a protective hand over them. He cast a final look at Mari. “I’m s—”
“I wash my hands of this. I’ll bear no responsibility for what they are about to do. Just do as they say and try not to die.”
The three were gone. Mari’s heart was pounding. What was about to happened? What was so terrible that if could divide them? What would they do that would be too far for even Muraad?
“Idiots,” Rekema groaned.
“At least we don’t need them,” Apep said. “Mari’s internal magic will more than make up for it. Muraad’s power is worthless and the twins negligible.”
“Are you positive? There’s seven of us for a reason.” Bidkar asked.
“Yes, if I needed them, then I wouldn’t have let them leave. Our last vessel was different. It was too much for him; she’s different. She’s already proven as much by surviving the amount Balak put in it last time.” Rekema shot Balak a glare, showing she hadn’t forgotten he had done so against her orders. “We’ve spent years on this project. I’m not going to let Muraad and the twins jeopardize that because of their fear. Mari will have more than enough already in her to make this go as planned.”
Not for the first time in her life, but for the first time in a long time, Mari wished Muraad had taken her with him. Mari thought she was starting to understand, and it was awful. She slowly wrapped her arms around her, but it did nothing to help the ice-cold terror spreading from her heart. She was so cold. Half of her was screaming, telling her to run, to get away, to go to Dainan. The other half refused to move, knowing there was nothing that could save her from what was to come, not if they wanted to defeat the Seven.
When talking about history, particularly old wars, Mari hadn’t understood how any military officials could accept or even count on their own loss. Dainan had told her that losing a battle one day could really mean winning the war months later.
Nothing could save her from this. It wasn’t about winning this battle. She had to lose this time if they were to win the war.
However, knowing that did little to quell the horror she felt like she was drowning in.
“The throne room will be the best place. Magic there can be volatile, and we can’t risk damaging the room, but it’s also the best conduit for magic I’ve ever seen. I doubt we could do it anywhere else.” Apep said, adjusting her grip on Balak.
“I trust your judgement,” Rekema said before finally turning to Mari, acting as though Mari hadn’t heard or didn’t know what was happening. It was Rekema’s usual treatment of her, and Mari was too busy trying not to shake to be angered. “Pet, we’ve got a very important task to do, and we need you to cooperate. Don’t worry about anything. Just do what we tell you like always.”
“But Muraad—” Mari’s nails dug into her skin. Her voice scraped against her throat. Was she even still breathing?
“Will be back before you know it. But for now, it’s going to be us. But you don’t have to worry.”
Mari was very worried.