“Your Majesty,” a familiar voice was on the other side of the door. Mari’s head shot up, but she was careful not to knock her makeshift hood off her head. She couldn’t bear looking at the red markings defining her, so she had gotten creative with the clothes in the dresser, creating a robe similar to Apep’s that hid all of her from view.
Mari climbed off the bed and shuffled to the door. She carefully avoided the shards of glass still littering the floor. She pulled the door open, and Helmuth jumped back. “Your Majesty?”
Mari cleared her throat and winced at the sound. She hadn’t tried speaking over the last several days she spent hiding in her room.
“It’s me. I’m alone.” Her voice was quiet, rough, just like the broken glass. She couldn’t speak too loudly or else her throat hurt too much to continue.
“Why are you—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Mari leaned into the door frame.
Helmuth frowned. “I don’t know what happened. I just heard the screams. Dainan heard them as well. All he wanted to do was run after you, make sure you were alright. He’s been going out of his mind worrying about you. Will you come see him?”
Mari sighed. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t want him to see her, not like this, but he was never going to see her any other way. The markings weren’t leaving her; they were mostly made of magic. It was magic of a skill Mari knew she wouldn’t be reaching soon. She just needed to get it over with. If not that day, then when?
“I will go.”
Helmuth smiled. “I think you’re doing the right thing.”
Mari wished she felt it. All she could feel was the heavy, crushing pressure on her. Fear always seemed to try and crush her almost more than the Seven did.
* * *
The door almost seemed to stare back at her, peering beneath the hood, gaping at her face. She groaned and opened the door. She peered around it, and saw Dainan sitting, legs crossed. His head was in his hands, tearing through his hair. She couldn’t see his face, but Mari could see his pained and worried look in her mind.
Regan turned, seeing her peer inside. Regan smiled softly, saying, “Dainan, look.”
His head shot up. He stared at her, wrapped up in her makeshift robe. Her face was completely hidden. “Mari, is that you?”
She coughed, bracing herself for the rough sound of her voice. “Yes.”
Dainan frowned, stepping as close as the chains allowed him. “Are you hurt? Your voice… why are you—what happened?”
“I,” Mari stuttered as she pulled the door shut. “The Seven, they—”
Her breath caught in her throat. It all came rushing back. She started shaking. Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t breathe.
“Come here,” Dainan said. He stretched out his arm, and Mari grabbed his hand without a moment of hesitation. Dainan came around one side, and Regan the other. They helped her to the ground. Mari leaned into Dainan, but she kept her gaze lowered so he couldn’t see her face.
Her words were fractured, and her voice was thick. “The Seven came to—to finish what they st—started that day with A—Apep and Balak. They took me to the throne room. Apep, she—Bidkar—”
Mari couldn’t tell about the markings. She physically couldn’t get the words out.
“They held me down, and—and Balak pour his magic into me. I—it was… I don’t know what to say, but I think I was dying.”
Dainan’s grip tightened.
“If you were dying, how did you survive?” Regan asked softly.
“It was like Aeary said. My magic was rejecting his by instinct. My own magic was trying to kill me. It would have if I hadn’t stopped it.” Mari leaned her head further into him, reminding herself she was safe.
“I could hear you screaming,” Dainan muttered. He lifted his head up, shutting his eyes. “It was the most wretched thing I’d ever heard, all the worse because I couldn’t run to you to save you from it.”
“It is better you could not have come. I fear the thought of what would have happened if things had gone differently. The way they talked…” Mari shivered. “If things had not gone their way, I fear we would not have survived to see the result.”
“You don’t understand,” Dainan said, shaking his head. “Reason, logic, it all just flies out the window when someone you—someone you care about is in pain. I wasn’t thinking about what I would do when I got there or the consequences of doing so. I just knew you were in pain. All I could think about was trying to reach you.”
Mari glanced down, unable to hold back a gasp when she noticed the deep red, broken skin under the manacles. Mari took his hand and held it up. “You did this to yourself?”
“Not purposefully. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how to get to you. I couldn’t break them, but there was no other way.” Dainan turned his wrists over, wincing as the metal scratched against it. Mari glanced at where the chains held him to the ground. He may not have been able to snap the metal with sheer force, but he came close.
“It hurts?” Mari let go of his hand. She didn’t want to make it worse.
“Yes,” Dainan said, resting his hand on her leg. “Not just physically. It hurts to look at because it reminds me of how helpless I was, how I failed you.”
“But, you didn’t hide it from me. You didn’t deny it. You let me see it and talked about it even though it all it does is cause you pain,” Mari whispered. Her hand went up her sleeve and traced the burning tattoos hidden in her sleeves.
“Because even though I don’t want to know I failed you, I don’t want you to be disappointed or to lose faith in me, you asked. I could never keep anything from you. The Seven have done enough of that.”
Mari sighed, “You’re right, as usual. I should not try to keep anything from you either.”
Mari stood up and carefully unraveled herself from the robe. She slid it off her shoulders, leaving her back in her normal tattered dress.
Dainan climbed to his feet, carefully looking her over. Regan had stifled a gasp, but Dainan made no sound. Mari ran her hand over her arm, wincing at the pain prodding her. She rubbed the back of her neck. Her fingers traced the lines crossing her throat.
“I know it’s not the same, but I didn’t want you to see. I couldn’t even stand to look at myself. It still makes me sick to think about how wrong, how ugly it is.” Mari bowed her head, letting her hair hide the tattoos on her face.
“Mari.” Dainan found his voice and stepped forward, holding her by her shoulders. “The Seven, their magic, is that how they gave you these tattoos?”
“Yes.” Mari pulled away, reaching for her robe. “I shouldn’t have shown you—”
“No! I’m glad you showed me. You don’t have to hide anything from me. You don’t have to put that back on. It is not your faults, and you shouldn’t let the Seven continue doing this to you.”
“Do what?” Mari paused.
“Make you ashamed of yourself.” Dainan carefully pushed her hair out of her face, smiling. “Just because they gave you these markings doesn’t mean you have to hate your own skin. You have to let what they’ve done go; it’s not as easy or quick thing to do. It takes a lot of effort and time, but if you don’t you’re letting them win. They want you to need them; they’ll do anything it takes to crush your independence. Anything that makes you feel less than human is what they want. Don’t let them do that to you.”
Mari couldn’t help but continue tracing the pattern on her neck. Dainan gently took her hand and pulled it away. “I don’t care whether or not you have these tattoos. It doesn’t change how I think about you. I just want to make sure you’ll be alright. I just want to help you. You should be able to look yourself in the mirror and be alright with your own skin.”
His eyes softened. “And, for what it’s worth, I thought you’ve always looked wonderful, and still do, tattoos and all.”
“Thank you,” Mari said. Her chest relaxed. A weight lifted; she could finally breathe again. “With time, I think I can do that. I just want to see me, not the mess the Seven have made.”
“I’ve seen you as separate from them the day you first came to my cell. Since then, you’ve been your own person, not an extension of the Seven.”
“He’s right, Mari.” Regan stepped forward, holding her son. “You don’t have to be what the Seven have tried to make you.”
Her son squirmed, reaching towards Mari. He cooed and squealed, “Ri!”
With a quick look, Regan offered her the boy. Mari hesitantly took him in her own arms. The boy was unfazed by her new appearance. He gurgled and grabbed at her face with his tiny hands. His fingers traced the lines, but he giggled as he did so. Mari hoped he would always look at her with such happiness and excitement. She hoped he would never know the origin of her tattoos.
Mari smiled softly. She glanced at Dainan. “You’re right. The Seven can take everything from me, but I cannot let them take my sense of self.”
* * *
Aeary and Prentiss reacted rather well to her new appearance. Aeary had just hummed, still favoring one leg. Prentiss had asked if he could sketch the pattern, hoping to match it to a spell. Mari didn’t know what a sketch was, but it sounded painless, at least it couldn’t hurt more than actually getting the tattoos. It turned out all it required of her was to sit still while Prentiss hurriedly made markings on old faded paper they took from the library. Once he was done, he showed Mari her own face staring back. Seeing it on paper was different. It didn’t quite bother her as much.
Helmuth had bowed his head and kept his gaze lowered at first. It wasn’t until Mari thanked him for coming to her that he looked at her face again.
With Aeary’s insistence and Prentiss’ reluctant agreement, Mari and Helmuth found themselves in the library with every table covered with open books.
Mari didn’t mind though. A lot of the scholar’s discussion went over her head, but Aeary always paused to explain as best she could when Prentiss would fetch more books. He insisted Aeary stayed off her legs rather than try and hobble around the bookcases. Even with Aeary’s explanations, most of the discussion was too complex for her. All she really knew about magic were the scraps Apep threw at her. Mari still appreciated Aeary’s efforts. No one other than Dainan had bothered.
“I think we’re going about this wrong,” Prentiss said, carrying an armful of books. He had a slight smile, looking more relaxed than Mari had ever seen. Aeary and Mari looked up as he set the books down. “There’s far too many spells, and we don’t even know what kind of spell we’re looking for yet. I think we need to go back and review our history.”
“You mean the wars?” Aeary asked, leaning forward. Helmuth shifted from across the table to get a closer look.
Prentiss moved a book over and opened it up. He flipped through the pages. “I mean the Banishment.”
“Oh, that’s ancient history. You think we’ll find the spell, based off their history?” Aeary asked, tracing the page.
“Maybe,” Prentiss said, leaning over. “I was thinking more about the history of the throne room.”
“Of course,” Aeary hummed. Her eyes lit up. Mari glanced over her shoulder. Aeary glanced at Mari, saying, “The Banishment is the name of the war between the human kingdoms and the demons who had been plaguing the lands for centuries. Their forces grew, and they destroyed an entire city, an act of war.”
Mari shivered. The similarities between that and her own entrance to the city were not lost on her.
“What happened to that city? To their kingdom?” Mari asked. Her voice wavered.
Aeary glanced up from the book. Her gaze softened. “It was such a long war. By the time the armies reached it in order to take it back, it was too far gone. The country was in ruins. An empire rose out of its ashes, but the city is not just desert ruins. The old ruling family had mostly passed, and the ones who were left were in not state to try and reestablish their kingdom. They became a tribe of nomads as another ruling family took over. They built the empire that still lasts to this day, the Sardes Empire.”
“So, the demons of the war lost, but they still destroyed that city. They ruined it, leaving it beyond repair,” Mari whispered as a cold, dark chill settled over her heart.
“I suppose that’s true, but there is no war without causalities, no matter how desperately we wish otherwise.” Prentiss said as he opened another book. Mari stared down at her lap. If that was true, who would pay the price of their war?
“Here it is, an account of the final battle.” Aeary said, twisting the book so Prentiss could see. She continued to read aloud for Mari’s benefit, “We had driven the cursed army out of the desert, crossing further into the wilds of Vialya. The army continued to run, seeking to either force us to give up or catch us in an ambush, however, they were at a disadvantage. My fellow general, and last living heir to Vialya’s throne, General Keturah, knew the terrain better than the monsters ever could have. With her wise council, we forced them to make their final stand. The army suspected nothing of our true plan. The battle began at dawn.”
“Plan?” Prentiss interrupted. “What plan?”
Aeary shrugged and skipped ahead. “Once I received the signal as the sun reached its highest point in the sky, the demons were at their weakest. Our mages began casting the spell. Many mages had perished in the battle, and more perished due to the high cost of the spell. General Keturah perished as well, giving her life so that the demons could never leave their wretched den. Her seal will forever course through the land from its origin in Vialya to the last traces of its protection in the vast regions of Sizia.
Mari frowned. Her heart started to thrash. Her head spun. The Seven—they couldn’t possibly be trying to—
“No!” Prentiss backed away, shaking his head. “It’s not possible. It says there that the seal will hold forever.”
Aeary sighed, burying a hand in her hair. “That’s clearly not true. This is old, old magic. We’re talking a seal over fifteen hundred years old. They’re clearly able to crawl through the cracks by attaching themselves to humans. We have proof of this; she’s sitting right here with us. With the right spell, pressure, in the right place, it’s terrifyingly possible.”
Mari shuddered. “So, they’re trying to break out. They want to destroy the seal. That’s what they’ve been after this whole time.”
Aeary nodded with a grim expression. “Yes, knowing this… it changes everything.”
“It explains why they chose us, Vialya. It had to be us, the location of the seal is paramount.” Prentiss said, flipping through more books. “The throne room must be over the seal, which is why it helps amplify magic.”
“And, it they succeed in breaking the seal? What happens then?” Mari asked as her fingers traced the pattern on her arms.
“Then the demons can travel freely through the realms. Demons, who have hated us for thousands of years, will be able to have a physical form here again. It would be chaos, destruction, the war started all over again. I do not believe we have even a chance of winning if it comes to that,” Aeary said, paling at the thought.
Mari shot up, clenching her fists. “What can we do?”
Deep fire rushed through her veins. She had promised. She promised that what the Seven had done, she would not allow them to do again. They had to be stopped.
“That’s the problem. We still don’t know. How can we stop them when none of us can touch them? By the time they’re in a physical state here, it will be too late. That’s if we can even kill them.” Prentiss paced the floor.
“They can be killed,” Mari said. Her voice was cold and rough. “Muraad has killed one before. I don’t care how we do it, but there has to be a way. If we stand by and passively allow them to destroy not only ourselves but people who simply have the misfortune of being caught in the aftermath, we are no better than them.”
Mari stared down her companions with a bright, righteous fire in her heart. “We can’t give up yet. There’s a flaw in their plan, and we have the advantage. We know what they’re trying to do, and you have an ally they could never dream of you having. They never expected I would stand up to them, and that is what is going to destroy them.”