“Finally!” Apep threw up her hands. Mari grit her teeth as small, searing hot bolts of light danced around her hand. Each spark and jolt slowly took her energy. Mari continued to feed her magic into the spell, maintaining it as long as she could.
Apep snapped her fingers. “Now, maintain your flow of magic to that hand, and without decreasing it, create a new path to your other hand.”
Mari frowned, but readjusted her stance. She slowly directed some of her magic to her other hand, muttering the incantation. Pain jolted down the path of her tattoos. Sparks shot from her hand before lightning jolted to life. The light flashing around her other hand flickered, but with a quick surge, Mari was able to direct her magic evenly.
Apep snorted, “It’ll have to do.”
A quick tugging kept Mari from responding. She let the lightning fade as Rekema and Muraad appeared. Rekema caught a glimpse of it, and she beamed. “Progress! Perfect! Come sit down, pet.”
Mari tried to catch Murad’s eye, hoping for a hint. He wouldn’t look at her. Why? Oh, right. Mari remembered the marks twisting across her skin, that’s why.
Mari shuffled to the table, trying to stay out of Rekema’s grasp and failing. Something inside of her screamed against their touch. Rekema pushed her into a chair, handing her a rolled piece of paper. Mari took it, knowing unless she touched it, it would never be tangible. She unrolled it, setting it on and the table. Her blood went cold.
Lines twisted, crossing each other on the paper. Deep, dark red lines filled her sight. A pattern? A symbol? A symbol that looked far too much like the marks that had been scorched into her.
“Don’t be scared,” Rekema cooed. She grabbed Mari’s hand and forced her fingers to start tracing the lines. Mari stared at it, numb.
“Focus!” Apep snapped. Mari jolted, and Rekema dropped her hand.
“Memorize this symbol.” Rekema’s voice pressed in on her.
Mari jerked her hand off the paper. The red stared back at her. Red curled around her throat. Her breath caught in her throat, but she choked out, “What is it?”
“Important.” Rekema pushed Mari’s head closer to the table. “Learn how to draw it from memory. Start now.”
It was… wrong. Just looking at it made her skin crawl. Everything in her screamed to get away from it.
Rekema had moved away, whispering with Apep, clearly about her.
Another figured stepped over to her shoulder. Mari didn’t dare look up, but she whispered, “If I don’t?”
A hand came crashing down on her shoulder, twisting it painfully. She whimpered.
“You don’t want to find out. Just follow instructions, stay alive.”
Mari hissed and by the time the pain in her shoulder settled to a throb, they were gone.
She stared at the paper, shivering. Evil. That was the only word that really described what she saw.
* * *
Books and papers nearly flew across the room. Mari scrambled to catch a book knocked over by Aeary’s frantic searching.
It was their third day of searching in the library, and Aeary could no longer sit still. Mari had brought the strange symbol to the scholars. Neither of them recognized it, but they both agreed that just looking at it unsettled them. They also agreed that the symbol is part of the spell they’re using to break the seal.
Having that knowledge, however, was not making their research go faster. Mari had spent part of the time practicing drawing the symbol with her fingers while they read. When her fingers began to ache, she would get up and help clear away some of the mess the scholars made.
Aeary limped around, refusing to stand in one place for too long. She would pull book after book down to examine it before hurrying to the next shelf.
Prentiss had given up on trying to get her to rest her leg. Mari couldn’t help but worry as well. Had it not healed properly like Prentiss’ had?
Helmuth had even pitched in as well, slowly reading through a book while the scholars would breeze through them.
“Prentiss?” Aeary called, limping back to the table, with several books in hand. Mari scrambled to make room for them on the table. The man in question shot out from behind one of the shelves. Aeary was flipping open books as she said, “The way this symbol is, it’s really annoying me. I can’t quite figure it out. But, the thing is about seal breaking magic, is that it’s very specific. So what if this symbol isn’t in any of our books that focus on breaking seals?”
“What do you mean?” Prentiss hurried towards the table. Helmuth had stopped reading.
Aeary pointed to the book. “Seal magic is an old magic. It’s complicated, and magic hasn’t exactly been a priority in our kingdom for hundreds of years. Seal breaking magic is even rarer and more complicated. This library has very little books on magic period when compared to say, Sardes’ library.”
Prentiss leaned over her shoulder. “Where are you going with this?”
“Well, the Seven are here to break a specific seal. A seal that was powerful enough to bind every demon of that time to another realm. There’s no way they can brute force the seal open.” Aeary shook her head. “I’m even confusing myself, what I think we need to do is find the spell General Keturah used. I think if we can find that out, we can find the counter spell the Seven are going to use. No one makes a lock without making a key. They just have to hide the key.”
“But if, the creator of the spell hid the key, how did the Seven find it?” Mari asked.
“That I don’t think we’ll ever know. We don’t know how long demons have been able to crawl through the cracks. All we can do is try and find it ourselves. Hopefully, Dainan’s family has more records of Keturah, maybe even a personal journal. We just need to find it.” Aeary said. “We need to look for her name.”
Prentiss nodded, rushing off to look. Helmuth bowed slightly before going to do so. Aeary stayed to skim over the books she had gathered. Mari grabbed some of the books they had finished with and headed to the second floor to put them away. Mari had no idea how the books were supposed to be organized, nor could she figure it out as she still could not read the titles. She just put them away wherever she saw a bit of room.
Mari knelt down to put the last book back, when a thought occurred to her. If Keturah was the one who was in charge and cast the spell, maybe any personal journal she had would also have traces of magic. Mari stretched her magic out, searching out any other faint touches of magic.
There it was. It was absolutely small, quite faded, but Mari knew magic when she felt it.
She carefully followed it, going down the stairs. No one had noticed yet what she was doing. Mari made to the farthest shelf in the back of the library. She knelt down, and saw the book pushed into the side of the shelf. Mari gently pulled it out, and as she touched it, the magic in it hummed with hers.
Mari held it closely as she hurried back to Aeary. Breathless, Mari set the book down in front of Aeary.
Aeary looked up, pausing to open the book. At the first page, she froze. “You found Keturah’s journal. How?”
“Keturah had magic. There’s still small traces of magic in those pages. It’s the only book here that does,” Mari said.
“I can’t even believe it. I’d hoped to find in a biography of the old monarchs, but this is amazing!” Aeary glanced over her shoulder. “Prentiss, Helmuth, come back!”
Within seconds, the two men had rejoined them as Aeary poured over Keturah’s work. Mari waited, holding her breath as Aeary and Prentiss read.
Once they reached a certain page, Aeary froze. Prentiss muttered, “She didn’t just cast the sealing spell. She created it.”
“What about breaking the seal?” Mari whispered.
Aeary set the book down and buried her head in her hands. “It’s not good.”
“Is it not in there?” Mari asked.
“No, it is, but I don’t think I can bear to say it.” Aeary shook her head.
Prentiss swallowed thickly, “There’s a lot of details like the time of day and drawing this specific symbol in order for the seal to be broken. It has something to do with the proper flow of magic. The biggest part is that only way to break the seal is for an unholy amount of magic to be concentrated at the center of the seal. The amount of magic it takes would kill someone before the spell could be finished. That’s why Keturah sacrificed herself. She believed that if she did that, the only way to break it would kill someone before it could be done.”
Mari’s legs shook. She didn’t need to be a scholar to know what role she would play in this spell. What the Seven had planner for her, it was so clear. She was never meant to see the end of it.
“Mari—” Someone reached for her.
Mari stepped back. “What can be done?”
“Mari, are you—”
“What can we do?” Mari looked up, hardening her gaze.
“You’re right. We need a plan.” Helmuth nodded with a grim expression.
“We should go talk to Dainan and Regan before we make any decisions,” Aeary said.
“Don’t tell him about the sacrifice,” Mari said quickly.
“What?” Prentiss asked, spinning to face her. “You can’t keep this from him. He needs to know.”
“So he can worry?” Mari bit back, fisting her hands in her dress. “So he can be reminded of how powerless he is to save me from them? So he can see me possible death play before his eyes over and over again in his dreams?”
The room fell silent. Mari took a deep breath, calming herself down slightly. “No. I know what that is like I would not wish it on anyone. I need to protect him from this, just for a little while.”
“Mari—” Aeary reached for her again.
Mari was already heading out the door.
* * *
Each second she heard his voice, saw his face as he thought and listened, Mari was more and more certain she would protect him from herself. She, the Seven, both had already hurt him more than he ever deserved.
“The thing is with the spell…” Aeary paused, glancing at Mari. Mari narrowed her eyes, tightening her grip on Dainan’s arm. She shook her head.
“Dainan, breaking the seal requires one more thing.”
“Don’t…” Mari whispered.
Dainan glanced down at her, frowning, “What is it?”
“Keturah sacrificed herself to make the seal, someone has to be sacrificed to break it.” Prentiss rushed before Mari could interrupt him.
Silence fell over the room once more. Mari’s grip on Dainan loosened, dropping her own gaze.
“I’m sorry,” Prentiss said quietly, “but he needed to know. We can’t withhold information like that. He needs to know what we’re all getting into, that there’s a chance you won’t live.”
Mari scowled, “If they succeed then none of us will live. My life isn’t the only one on the line.”
“But you didn’t want me to know?”
Mari buried her head in hands. This was why. His voice nearly broke her. The pure distraught and the absolute betrayal in it sent harsh pangs through her chest. She couldn’t bear to look at his face.
Her voice was low, gravely. She was trying to hold back tears. “Because every time I close my eyes, when I fall asleep, I see your death at my hand, only I can’t stop it. I can’t do anything. I wake up each day covered in your blood, in the blood of others. I’d give anything to change that.”
Mari took a deep breath, staring at the markings on her hands. “But, I can’t. I can’t change what’s already in my head. But I had hoped to save you from the same fate.”
“Mari, you can’t possibly—” Regan started.
“I just didn’t want you to panic. We can’t focus on just my life. This is bigger than just me.” Mari shivered as her stomach turned. “There’s the possibility that even if we defeat the Seven, I won’t come out alright. But there’s no other choice.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Mari looked up; Dainan’s hands were balled into fists in his lap and he was staring Mari down. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you get to finally live.”
Mari gaped at him for a moment.
Aeary sighed, “This all sounds lovely, but if we’re actually going to succeed we need to figure out how to do it. Mari’s the only one that can physically interact with them, and even if we knew how to kill them, Mari can’t take them on alone. Neither could you, Dainan.”
“Dainan and I have been figuring out the how, actually,” Regan said, keeping an eye on her son as he toddled over to Mari.
Aeary and Prentiss exchanged a shocked look. Helmuth blinked, but Mari had stopped paying attention to them as she pulled the boy into her lap.
“What have you come up with?” Aeary asked.
Dainan glanced at Mari as she idly played with the boy’s hands before turning back to the others. “Well, we have a lot of weapons, really ancient things. Weapons that could be from the Banishment. Weapons that were made to kill demons.”
“Alright, so we get ahold of one of those weapons, then what? They still aren’t physical entities where our weapons can work against them. Mari’s not trained to wield a weapon, nor could she fight seven demons off at once, I doubt even you could fight all seven of them at the same time, Dainan.” Prentiss said, biting at his nails.
Mari paused and looked up. “The spell, is there a moment where the Seven exist physically before the seal is completely broken?”
Aeary carefully flipped through the pages. “Yes, I believe that’s possible. When the seal starts to crack and break, demons who are already on the other side should manifest fully. The only thing is that they’ll only physically exist as long as they don’t leave the seal, since the break won’t extend further until they finish.”
“I could hold them in place,” Mari said. She tried to keep her voice from shaking. She didn’t think she could actually do it, but she didn’t see any other option. “I know a spell. If I was powerful enough, I could keep them from leaving and escaping when they realize what we’re doing.”
“We’re in agreement then,” Dainan said, taking Mari’s hand. Mari stared at him. “You’re not dying. We’ll end them before it comes to that.”
Mari wished she was as certain of that as Dainan was, but she could not stop the dark, cold feeling pulling at her chest.