Mari had never been more grateful for Muraad than in this moment as she rolled away from where the sword struck the ground. If Muraad hadn’t freaked out, Mari thought as she scrambled to her feet, then Apep and Bidkar wouldn’t have taught her how to stay alive in a fight.
Mari backed away, holding her dagger in front of her. The man, she’d never seen one quite like him. He looked more like her than Dainan or anyone else she had seen in the city. Even so, Mari narrowed her eyes as he rushed at her. The sword came towards her, missing her head by a hair. The man’s skin was a different shade than hers, golden brown, and several of his other features were new to her.
Who was he?
Mari put as much space between them as possible. Where was he from? Had he been sent by someone, who?
She struggled to catch her breath. Did it matter? He was trying to kill her.
He adjusted his grip on his sword and then began to trace a pattern in the air with the tip. An incantation began to leave his lips.
Faster than Mari could follow, a bolt of painfully bright light, broken through her shield, latching onto the dark red tattoos at her wrists. The force sent Mari stumbling back, and her dagger clattered to the ground.
A high-pitched angry shriek left her throat. It burned. The light tore and ripped at her wrists, digging through her skin. Mari scratched at them herself, trying to tear the light off her.
“Tainted magic can’t stand the touch of pure magic. No one ever said an antidote had to be painless.”
Mari didn’t care. She howled, dropping to her knees. Her nails futilely continued to scrape at the pain. Her teeth sunk into one wrist. She just wanted it to stop!
It was magic. She couldn’t stop it with her hands. Drawing up her own magic, Mari panted out in pained breaths a short incantation. Sparks cackled and lightning spun around her hands.
Mari cried out as her own magic rushed down her arms, driving out the other foreign force. She huffed and glared at him. Her wrists still stung and dripping could be heard as her skin had been stained from where she had been tearing at herself.
She flicked her wrist, and the lightning shot out towards him. Mari quickly snatched her dagger from the ground. She continued to run, but watched as the man held up his sword to block the lightning.
His sword had magic, of course. Anything she could throw at him he could easily handle.
Whoever he was, he was far her superior in magic and combat. She needed to think.
She couldn’t just hold him off. She had to do something.
She turned on her heel, twisting to avoid a bolt of fire. Mari ran as fast as her feet could take her. The man blinked as Mari hardened her gaze, refusing to slow down as she ran straight towards her attacker. Mari kept away from his sword, slashing at his other arm, just barely nicking it.
Mari couldn’t help but grin until his fist hit her stomach. Her leg was knocked out from under her.
She grunted as her head hit the floor, jarring her, disorienting her. Light caught her attention. It was the glint of the sword, coming towards her.
She threw herself to the side, crawling as she couldn’t get her leg underneath her. She kept her dagger in her hand, unable to let go.
Mari crawled to her knees when a hand caught her be the hair, pulling back. She screamed, clawing at him with one hand. Mari turned her head to see his sword coming down towards her throat. Mari gasped and with one hand, she turned her dagger over. She clumsily slashed upwards.
He swore and let go of her. Mari climbed to her feet, running. She wasn’t looking where she was going. She just wanted to put as much space between her and the man as possible. Her feet hit something, and she reached forward catching herself. Mari opened her eyes to see herself leaning on the throne. She spun, looking over her shoulder. The man was glaring at her, pointing his sword and holding his injured hand against his chest.
Anything she threw at him wasn’t going to hit. It cost her more to try and attack him directly. She only had one spell that might save her.
She dropped her dagger, widening her stance. She spread her hands out and started whispering her incantation.
She opened her eyes to see lightning coming towards her. She couldn’t move. It hit her in the chest, pulling another scream out as she shook when the electricity cut through her.
Then it was over, but her fight wasn’t it. He wasn’t moving. Her spell trapped him in place, but she was shaking from pain and effort. It took all of her focus and energy to hold the spell. How long could she hold him? Long enough? Long enough for what?
She was huffing. The man glared at her. Her legs couldn’t take it. She came crashing to her knees, gasping and heaving as his magic pushed against hers.
It was a battle of wills.
His arms began to twitch. Her arms shook, dropping slightly.
Was she hearing something? No, she couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t important.
Her head was light, and she felt dizzy. Mari swayed and her lungs burned. All the air in the world wasn’t enough for her.
Her vision blurred. It wasn’t enough. Her magic wasn’t enough.
She wasn’t strong enough.
“Mari!” Something crashed, and someone was yelling and running.
Her focus was broken. Mari gasped, slumping to the ground. Her spell broke. Two men were at the door, rushing towards her. A smile pulled at her. Helmuth and… no, that couldn’t be, but it was. Dainan was rushing towards her.
Mari grabbed the throne and pulled herself up. She gaped at them. Was that really Dainan?
Manacles still restrained his wrists together, but the chain that had been binding him to that cell was loose. It had been snapped.
It was him, but Mari had never seen him like this. His face was twisted in rage that she couldn’t believe.
The man spun around, raising his sword while Helmuth drew his. Dainan did not stop running. He ducked under the man’s swing, elbowing him in the guy. Dainan put his wrists together and swung them against the side of the man’s head.
The crunch the metal made against his head made Mari retch.
The man stumbled away, holding his head with one hand and raising his sword in defense. “You look like… it’s a trick. Just a spell from that demon. Of course she resorted to illusions and deceptions.”
Dainan snarled. He lunged forward again, but the man was able to dance around him. He was unable to strike, but able to avoid Dainan’s limited moves.
Mari watched, wishing she could move fast enough. If she tried anything, she ran the risk of hitting Dainan or getting in his way.
Fortunately, Dainan was not alone. Helmuth swung at the man, forcing him to use his sword. Dainan ducked behind him, throwing his arms over the man’s head, dropping his wrists to his neck. He stretched out his hands and Mari heard the metal clink as it was pulled taut. Dainan pulled back.
The man dropped his sword, choking. His hands clawed at the chain, but Dainan would not let him breathe. Dainan said something, but Mari couldn’t hear it.
“Why did you attack her?” Dainan yelled, and Mari winced.
One garbled word came out of the man’s mouth. He spat up red. “Demon. She—”
Dainan snarled and jerked his wrists back harder.
Dainan nodded at Helmuth. Helmuth swung, and the wound he created would be the end. Dainan let him fall to the ground. The man choked on his final words, “allowed to live.”
Dainan didn’t spare him a second glance. He turned, hurrying towards Mari. He slowed, asking, “Did he hurt you? You’re shaking.”
She was, but she knew it had more to do with the terror gripping her than the pain.
Dainan reached out for her, but Mari pushed off the throne, falling back to the ground. She swallowed thickly, hating the way Dainan’s face changed, any relief disappeared. His hands dropped, and he took a step back.
Mari shot to her feet, grabbing the chain connecting his wrists. Her hands were shaking, but she just wanted him to smile. She didn’t want to hurt him. She mumbled, “I was going to do this when I went to see you today.”
She took a deep breath, grateful the throne room made her magic less taxing. She whispered the incantation. The chain snapped, and Dainan’s hands were free.
His hands dropped to his side. His head bowed. “Are you afraid of me now?”
Mari shook her head, reaching for his hand. “No, you saved my life. I just forgot for a moment. I’m not afraid of you. I don’t think I ever could be, not truly.”
The first thing Dainan did now that his hands were free was pull Mari into an embrace. Mari pulled him close as well, resting her head against him. He could finally hold her as close as he wanted without restraint.
“You’re safe,” Dainan murmured into her hair.
She nodded. “I was afraid he had hurt you before coming after me.”
Dainan pulled his head back, smiling, “It seems we’re both rather hard to kill. I would say it’s because we’ve got a lot to live for.”
Mari hated how she didn’t believe him because she wanted to. Mari really wanted to believe him.
“How did you know? I mean, how did you know I was in trouble?” Mari asked instead.
“Well, first all of us, Regan, Helmuth, and I, we all felt something odd. We were talking about it when we heard you scream.” Dainan’s grip on her tightened, and he held her closer. He set his head against hers again. “I started pulling against the chains again. You screamed again, and I lost it. I couldn’t lose you. I wouldn’t. The chain snapped, and I was running here.”
Mari sighed deeply, rather content to stand there for hours. She couldn’t though. There was work that needed to be done.
She pulled out of his hold, shakily picking up her dagger and walking towards the body. “He came to kill me, or rather, to kill demons. That sword has magic.”
Dainan stayed by her side. “You think I can use it.”
Mari nodded. “Whoever he was, he came prepared. If there’s anything that we can use to kill the Seven ourselves, it’s that.”
Helmuth picked up the sword. Dainan started to reach it, and that’s when the pulling started. Mari jolted, grabbing her stomach. No!
She pushed Dainan, yelling, “Run! Take the sword!”
“Mari, what’s wrong?”
She kept pushing him. Helmuth was halfway to the door. She screamed. “The Seven are coming, run!”
Dainan dug his feet in. “No.”
He gave her a deep stare. “I’m not leaving you with them. Not again.”
She didn’t have the time to argue with him. The Seven had appeared behind her.
* * *
Someone grabbed her shoulders, pulling her back. They spoke in her ear, asking something, but Mari couldn’t hear. Her legs slipped out from under her, but she didn’t fall. Her eyes could not leave Dainan.
The air had thickened, weighing Mari down. She couldn’t speak. This wasn’t real; it couldn’t be. This was a nightmare.
“Mari!” Someone was shaking her. She blinked, seeing Muraad. “What did he do to you?”
Mari stumbled back, turning to face them all. “He—He—”
This looked bad. What could she say to protect him? Was there anything she could do?
Rekema glared at Dainan. Mari looked back to see Dainan had drawn himself up. He had absolutely no magic, no weapon, Helmuth and the sword were long gone. He had nothing, yet, power poured out of him. He was every inch the warrior king from his previous encounters with the Seven. Only his dark eyes looked past Mari, at the demons.
If Mari didn’t know it wasn’t possible, she would have believed he could see them. He was trying to intimidate them. His voice echoed through the room as he said, “Tell me, what are you going to do now?”
Rekema strode forward, grabbing Mari by the shoulder. “It’s clear to me what happened here. We should never have let him live.”
Bidkar staggered forward. She was huffing, holding her arms. She grimaced, saying, “Let me do the honors.”
“No,” Muraad pulled Mari away. Mari was taking short sharp breaths, but no air was coming in. “You’re too weak right now, after dealing with her pain.”
Muraad gestured towards the body. “She was able to eliminate that one. Let her kill the king.”
“Well,” Rekema smirked. “At least you’re seeing things my way. I agree, no coddling her. Mari, show us what Apep had taught you.”
Mari bowed her head. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t, but if she refused, they would kill him anyway.
“I don’t care what you’ve up to, what really happened,” Muraad whispered. Mari jerked slightly. “Whatever has been going on ends now. You will kill him or I tell them the truth, and you’ll like that even less.”
Mari tore away from them with a savage yell. Tears pricked her eyes. She screamed an incantation, making sure Dainan heard her. It was a simple, weak fireball.
His eyes widened, and he moved out of the way easily. Even if it had come close, the shield she had placed on him would have prevented any damage, but Mari knew they were expecting more from her.
She had to think fast while she still had control. Dainan was carefully watching. He was taking his cues from her.
Mari ran forward; an idea formed in her head. The sooner she ended this, the better. She stretched her magic, and as the words left her mouth, ice spread across the ground. Dainan slid, crashing to his knees.
Another incantation, the same she used on the other man, and Dainan couldn’t move, provided he didn’t actually try too hard.
She sprinted, tackling him to the ground. He grunted, and Mari whispered, “They want me to kill you. Promise me you’ll play along, and whatever I do you won’t stop me.”
“I trust you,” Dainan whispered.
Her back was to the Seven. They couldn’t see everything. She drew her hand back, yelling the incantation. Lightning sparked to life.
She brought it down, so similar to that day she killed Regan’s husband, only this time she was in control.
It had to be genuine.
At the last second, Mari turned her hand away from Dainan’s chest and plunged it into her own gut. Dainan jolted underneath her. His eyes were wide as electricity shot through her. She bit down on her lip, doing everything she could not to scream as she shook in agony.
Dainan was screaming, pure fury. It wasn’t the scream of a man being tortured. It was the scream of horror and terror. The scream that unconsciously tore its way out when someone’s nightmare came to life.
Mari curled around her gut, but she would not remove her hand. Not if she wanted to protect Dainan.
Something pulled on her hand, but Mari ignored it. Then, someone else started screaming. Mari gasped, forcing her eyes open. Through the haze of pain, she looked behind her and saw Bidkar had fallen to her knees, as though she was the one being hurt.
“He’s over powering her!” Apep shouted over the noise.
“Mari!” Muraad screamed from where he knelt next to Bidkar.
It distracted her just enough, and then the pain began to fade. She glanced down to see her hand in Dainan’s gut. His hand had wrapped around her wrist and was forcing her to hurt him.
He screamed pure, utter agony. She tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong. She cried out in small, suffering sobs, but they were lost beneath his voice.
This wasn’t what she wanted! She wanted to protect him.
This was a nightmare.
By her hand, Dainan was suffering, possibly dying. Tears streamed down her face. This couldn’t be real.
Dainan’s grip loosened, and Mari jerked her hand away. His head slumped back, and his eyes closed.
“Is he dead?” Muraad asked, walking up behind her. “Check his heartbeat.”
Mari glanced at him. He was glaring at her, telling her if she lied he would know.
Mari didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to know if she had killed him, but she bent down anyway.
Nothing. She heard nothing.
Then, everything left her. She couldn’t feel anything.