“I’ve tried, but I can’t find the key,” Helmuth muttered as Mari carefully dug through the weapon carelessly tangled in the chest.
“We have to get him out of those chains somehow,” Mari said, sighing. She couldn’t help but hear his words in her head. All the times he promised to free her… Mari just wished she could do the same, but without the key she wasn’t sure how to help him.
If Dainan was with them, he would know what weapon they should be looking for.
“I know, I’ve tried every key I can get my hands on.” Helmuth knelt beside her, helping her lift some of the heavier weapons.
The only clue she had was that the weapons would have magic imbued in them, magic she should be able to feel. That was simple in theory, but as they had talked about, they reasoned the magic in the weapons would have faded, probably breaking like the seal was. These weapons, the few that were left, would be old, at least a thousand years, if not more.
Mari had tried the broken staff, but they quickly determined only those with magic could find it useful, and what Dainan needed was a common weapon that had been made with magic. Helmuth had said to prioritize swords, and bows because Dainan was extremely proficient in their use. He also said that if they couldn’t find those a spear, axe, or flail would do.
Mari marveled at how many weapons Dainan had trained in. She didn’t even know what most of those weapons were supposed to look like. Dainan, Mari hadn’t quite been seeing the whole story.
Some days it was hard for her to remember he was the same man who stood up to her and the Seven. He was the same man who ordered his men to kill her when they attacked. He was the man who might have done it with his own hands had his people not protected him and kept him away from her. He wasn’t just a man who sat on a throne. He commanded an army. The Seven had chained him up, shackled him to the floor, so that he couldn’t take any action against them.
Mari knew he was a true king, a real leader, he was no counterfeit queen.
All of this information was in her head. If someone asked her, she could tell them all of it, but it wasn’t in her heart. She did not know the man she remembered to be the same one she saw in a cell. To her, Dainan was the first person who ever cared. He was the person who made her feel less alone in the world.
She just could not reconcile these two different personalities into the same man. Helmuth looked up from where he was tossing aside broken and useless weapons.
Mari sat up. “If we can’t find the key, maybe I could use magic to break the chains.”
Helmuth chuckled, “I can’t believe we haven’t thought of that before.”
Mari shrugged as she set aside and broken hilt. “I’ve only had my magic for a little while, and I only know a handful of spells. Tomorrow, I’ll meet you at Dainan’s cell, and he can come with us.”
Helmuth stretched his arms. “We aren’t exactly making a whole lot of progress with just the two of us. How long have we been down here?”
Mari stood up, brushing off her hands. “I’m not sure, quite some time though.”
“We should call it a day.” Helmuth pushed himself up.
Mari nodded, feeling the tension wind through her shoulders. She started towards the door, letting her magic stretch out one last time, more for her comfort than anything else. As she passed by a shelf, she shivered, pulling her magic back the instant in came into contact with an oddly foreign yet familiar force.
“Mari?” Helmuth came up to her shoulder.
“I think…” Mari stepped towards the shelf, reaching for an ornamental box. She opened the lid, unable to stifle her gasp at the magic reaching towards her.
“A dagger?” Helmuth peered into the box. “It looks old, but in a good condition.”
“I feel magic in it,” Mari said, pulling it from the box. She carefully turned it in her hands. Its sheath was simple with only a little faded adornment. Mari pulled it free. The blade did not glint in the torch light, but Mari could tell its condition had been preserved by magic. It was strong magic, faded of course, but whoever had made the dagger must have been powerful or else the magic would not have lasted. Its magic was also familiar, like the magic Mari had felt in Keturah’s journal.
“Can Dainan use this?” Mari asked.
Helmuth frowned. “If you’re asking if he’s trained, yes, but it’s not the ideal weapon. Daggers are good for close combat, but they’re not ideal when fighting multiple, powerful enemies. It can be done with a dagger, it would require precision, and that would complicate things.”
Mari sheathed the dagger. “Then we’ll continue looking, and I’ll hold onto it in case it’s out only option.”
Helmuth nodded. “That would be wise.”
As they left, Mart continued to turn the dagger over in her hands, wondering about it. Why was is separated from the other weapons? Why was is hidden away in that box? It was special and powerful, but what made it so?
She held it tightly, regardless of her questions and answers; it was so much better than nothing.
* * *
Images flashed through her head as she adjusted her grip on the dagger, trying to hold it like Bidkar held her knife back when she had been training Mari. Mari had been cautious with the dagger after finding out the hard way that magic had kept the blade sharp. Thankfully, the cut had been small and shallow.
Mari slashed at the air, mirroring Bidkar’s movements from her memories. She knew she was most likely doing it all wrong, but Mari wanted to be comfortable with it in case she needed to use it.
Her chest heaved as she continued pushing her body. She cut through the air, slowing her movements. Mari sheathed the knife; she didn’t want to wear herself out. She needed to be able to gather enough magic to break the shackles. It was time for her to go anyway. Helmuth would be waiting on her.
Before she went, she glanced around the throne room. She walked over to the window, looking at the city. One thing Mari rather liked about the castle was that no matter where she was she could see the city from any window nearby.
She expected the normal milling about of the townspeople. No one was there. The streets were empty. Magic brushed against her.
Sher winced and caught a glimpse of a shadow moving through the town. What was happening? Was this one of her nightmares? Who was that shadow?
Magic brushed against her again. Mari quickly cast shields over herself, Dainan, Regan, her son, Helmuth, and the scholars. The effort left her panting and leaning on her knees. She hadn’t cast that many shields before or over such a distance.
Magic crashed against her shield, sending her to the ground, but her shield didn’t break. She groaned and climbed back to her feet. She held her dagger with one hand as she tried to hurry. She needed to make sure her other shields held up. Mari had no idea what the spell had been meant to do. She had no idea where it came from. Dainan had to be alright.
She struggled to control her breath and racing heart. Outside the throne room, she paused for a moment, just a moment, and she heard it. It was coming towards her. It came from the direction Dainan’s cell was in. Footsteps beat against the air. Magic filtered through the air. It wasn’t anyone Mari could trust.
She needed to see Dainan, but whoever was approaching… just the thought of them had her turning around. With a sharp breath, she started running. She clutched the dagger to her chest, cursing herself and the fact she was running in the direction opposite of Dainan. He could be hurt, dying maybe. Whoever was coming could have attacked him. They could have done a number of things, and Mari wasn’t there to stop them.
She heard their footsteps pick up as well. Mari pushed herself to run as fast as possible, but the sound of footsteps only got louder. She clapped her free hand over an ear, wincing at how the sound beat against her head.
Her feet tangled beneath, and she fell. Her head hit the wall as she rolled down a set of stairs. Mari crawled to her feet. Her head pounded, but she got back to her feet.
Her chest burned. Her feet ached. She couldn’t keep this up forever. Her vision blurred. Mari glanced behind her, and a figure turned a corner, sprinting after her.
Her feet tangled beneath her, and Mari barely kept herself upright. She forced herself to look up. Her heart raced wildly, and terror was clouding her mind. She need to buy herself some time. Mari realized where she was. With a few quick turns, Mari ducked into the library.
She closed the door, grabbing a chair and pushing it against the handle. Mari stepped back, and she didn’t hear any footsteps. She knew they were still after her. She quickly stepped further in the library, rubbing her chest as she gasped for breath. What did she do now? How did she escape? How long had she been running? Was Dainan dying?
Footsteps hit her ears. Mari followed her instincts as she hurled herself behind one of the bookshelves in the back of the library. They started pounding on the door, yelling something in a language Mari did not know.
Mari covered her mouth and buried her head in her arm for a moment. What was she supposed to do? A tear slipped out from her eye, and Mari struggled to put her mind in order. She was alone. Someone was after her, and she was hiding behind some books. Mari was absolutely terrified.
She had to be silent.
Wood cracked and splintered. A voice hit her ears.
She understood his words, but they were layered under a thick accent she had never heard before. “Forgive my manners earlier. I forgot it’s rude to insult someone in a foreign tongue. I’ll admit I’m surprised, demon. I didn’t expect you to run and hide, but it would be in character. How long have you been playing the sweet innocent girl?”
Who is he? Mari tried not to scream. She was shaking. Tears continued to prick her eyes. What did he want? How could she stop him?’
“Interesting reading materials you have here. When we heard a monster, a demon took Vialya’s throne we knew, of course, what you were after, but this just prove is. Seal breaking magic. You’ve put a lot of work into this. It’s a shame you won’t get to finish it.”
His footsteps picked up. Mari’s hands continued to shake, but she couldn’t move. She was frozen.
“It’s no use hiding, filthy coward! No matter what you do, today is the day you die!”
His steps drowned out any other sound. He was at the other side of the shelf. She had to do something!
Mari peered out of the corner of her eye and saw him approaching. He drew his sword, and Mari pitched forward as magic poured out from it. It didn’t look like other swords she had seen, with a slightly curved blade rather than the straight all Dainan’s men had used, but Mari didn’t think it could be anything else.
Air filled her lungs, and Mari held her breath before sprinting away, and ducking down the opposite side of her attacker. With a grunt, she threw her body into the shelf. The wood groaned and wobbled. Mari landed back on the ground, stumbling. She gathered herself up and slammed into the shelf again. Books clattered. Then the shelf tilted and came crashing down.
The man began yelling strange words, but Mari did not stay to listen. She stumbled past the tables, knocking over several chairs. Mari leapt over the broken, splintered chair and door, tripping and scraping her arms.
Her stomach rolled as she closed her eyes, climbing to her feet. Her heart trashed around, and Mari’s head was wrapped in awful, terrifying thoughts. She’d been afraid before, but this was different. With the Seven, Mari always knew what she was dealing with. She knew all the horrible things they did and were going to do, this man she had no clue about. What had he done to the town? To everyone? Who was he? Why had he come, to kill her or the Seven? Or both? Had he done anything to Dainan?
Mari had no answers, like always. Of course, getting answers wouldn’t matter if she was dead.
The faint sound of his footsteps haunted her. She needed some kind of plan. He wouldn’t stop until she was dead.
If she could get to Dainan—no. That wasn’t an option. She couldn’t count on that man listening to reason. He could have already hurt Dainan, and if he hadn’t, Mari couldn’t let a man trying to kill her so close to Dainan who was still restrained. How could she let this dangerous man near Regan’s defenseless son?
She needed to stop him, or so something! There was only one place she had a chance at defeating anyone. She lifted her skirt and rushed up the stairs, keeping an eye out over her shoulder for her pursuer.
She was at the top of the stairs when he appeared at the bottom. He yelled out more strange, foreign sounds and lifted his sword. He pointed towards her, speaking an incantation.
Mari froze as bright white fire shot at her. As the heat started to reach her, her body acted on its own, sending her running away, ducking under it. She fell again, scraping herself up further. The light went over her head, hurting her eyes. Sparks dropped, stinging her face. Mari hissed in pain, but scrambled up, keeping a tight grip on her dagger. She didn’t look back. A string of curses followed her as she crashed into the strong, throne room doors. She threw them shut behind her and slowed down in front of the throne. She held the dagger at her heart, running through every spell she knew.
The doors opened. Her attacker stood there, raising his sword again. “Your time is up, demon.”
Mari’s legs were shaking. She had one last option. It wouldn’t work, Mari didn’t believe, but she had to try. She peered through her hair. “If I asked you to spare me, give me mercy, would you?”
“I don’t grant mercy to demons. They don’t understand or appreciate the concept.”
“If I wasn’t a demon?”
“There’s no point lying. You can’t trick me. I know demons when I see them, and if I have to I will destroy the host they possess. I hope the poor girl you killed for that body finds peace when I’m through with you.”
Mari took a deep breath. The dagger shook. She lifted her head to face him. He wasn’t giving her a choice. He would kill her if it was the last thing he did. She was done being a sacrifice. She wanted to live. Mari wanted a life free from the Seven.
If she wanted to live, Mari raised her dagger, then she had to fight for it.