Dainan insisted that if Mari was able to walk back to her room, he could go with her. Mari stayed closed to his side despite her own pain, keeping an eye on him. His shoulders hunched over, and he walked slowly. He was steady, but he was clearly in pain.
“Are you sure you can be walking around?”
Dainan shook his head. “You were just as injured as I was, and yet you’re walking around. I promise you, it’ll take a great deal more than that to kill me.”
“That’s different, why didn’t you listen to me? Why did you stay when you knew they were going to hurt you?”
“Because how could I leave knowing they would hurt you?” Dainan’s voice broke. “I’d much rather it be me in this state than to have to see you in it again.”
“They weren’t going to hurt me,” Mari said weakly, shivering.
“You expect me to believe that when every single time you’ve been left alone with them ended with you nearly dead yourself?”
Mari didn’t have a response. If it were the other way around, Mari would never even think of leaving him alone with the Seven, not for a single second.
“I told you, you weren’t alone anymore, especially not when it comes to Seven. I mean it.”
Mari let him lean on her, smiling. She didn’t feel quite as cold anymore. “Just don’t make me think you’re dead next time.”
“I won’t do it again, well, I’ll try not to,” Dainan sighed. He looked tired. “Are you afraid?”
“Yes.” Mari stopped. She pushed her still soaked hair back over her shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared than tonight.”
“At least we don’t have anything left to lose.” Dainan rubbed his neck, looking away.
Mari shifted her weight careful not to let go of Dainan. “I have everything left to lose.”
Dainan’s face twisted. His voice dropped. “I suppose that’s true, but you also have everything to gain.”
Mari hummed. She wrapped her other arm around her stomach, feeling it turn and burn. “After all this is over, what do I do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Mari said, shivering, “something Muraad said one day. I can’t really get it out of my head.”
“What did he tell you?” Dainan’s voice was quiet. He shifted so that he could take her hand.
Mari’s voice scratched the air as her throat closed up. “He said, well, he told me that I was nothing before the Seven, and there would be nothing for me after them. What if he’s right?”
“He’s not, Mari.” Dainan lowered his head to her level. “That’s just a lie. You’ll see, you’re so much more than what they’ve tried to make you. You have so much life to live. I can’t wait to show you how amazing life can be when this is over.”
With all her heart, Mari wanted his words to be true. She had never wanted anything more than to be able to truly live, to have a life with Dainan, but something kept her from believing it.
“I’m just not sure how I can have a life without them,” Mari sighed. “Everything I was, and in some ways still am revolves around them. From my first memory, they were my entire world. Life was them in the little rotting cottage. Nothing changed hardly anything happened. I never changed. I didn’t even understand the concept. Then, everything changed, except it didn’t really. Even now their purpose for me stays with me. Their presence has been carved into me. Everything I’ve done has been to please them or defeat them. I just can’t imagine how I could have a life without that. It’s like they’re a shadow that’s been following me for as long as I’ve lived. It’s not possible to live without having a shadow.”
Dainan waited for her to finish. He took a deep breath. “That’s just not true, what you said about everything you’ve done. I can think of countless things you’ve done that had nothing to do with stopping the Seven. You listened to me talk when I was in pain. You brought Regan to me so I would know she wasn’t dead. You held Regan’s son, let him pull on your hair, and played with him. I know it may not seem like a lot, but it’s a start. You’ve already started a life separate from them. The Seven’s actions will affect you and all of us for the rest of our lives, but that doesn’t mean you can’t continue on when they aren’t there to hurt you.”
Was a lie a lie if he believed it to be true?
What if she didn’t believe it to be true?
Why couldn’t she stop whatever was in her that was telling her what Dainan said wasn’t true? Why didn’t she believe him? Why was something in her saying Dainan was wrong even when she wanted him to be right?
Mari smiled. Maybe it was just a feeling. Maybe it didn’t matter. She tried to push it out of her mind to focus on him. “Continuing on sounds hard. Does life get any easier?”
Dainan shrugged. “I can’t say for sure. Sometimes you’ll look back and think that life was easy, but when you’re in the thick of it, with no end in sight, it feels impossible. Life gets better at times, and it gets worse at times, but most of the time it’s both. There are good things, bad things, and everything in between all at once. Each day will bring new challenges, but there’s no doubt in my mind you will rise to the occasion every single time.”
“I’m glad you think so. I just don’t want to let you down,” Mari said as they started walking again.
After a calm moment, Mari asked, “How exactly are we planning on getting me back into the room? I admit that I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly when I left. I can’t go through the door, and I can’t imagine how I’d be able to get back the way I came.”
Dainan frowned. “Your room has one window overlooking the city, and it’s on a higher floor of the upper right wing, right?”
Mari nodded, wondering how he remembered that.
Dainan grinned. “The room you’re in used to be mine. I know everything there is to know about it, including where the secret passage is in case the castle was ever attacked, I could secretly get to safety.”
“I never thought about who lived there before me,” Mari said, letting Dainan support himself. He started to take the lead, but she stayed close in case he needed her. “Why didn’t you use the secret passage to escape when I showed up?”
“It’s hard to remember. It feels like a life time ago. Honestly, I couldn’t just leave my people like that. It didn’t feel right, and I’m glad I stayed. I met you after all.” Dainan’s expression shifted. He grinned. “Although, I’m a little upset you broke my window. I really liked it.”
Mari couldn’t help the small laugh climbing through her throat. It was a rough, awful, distorted noise. Mari had never had much occasion to practice it.
“I also broke your mirror.”
Dainan’s laughter was loud and full. It came out like a bark and his whole body shook with it. Mari loved the sound.
Dainan shook his head, smiling brightly, “What am I going to do with you?”
Mari grinned. Dainan just had a way about him. If there was anyone Mari trusted to give her hope, it was Dainan. Mari would be happy to spend the rest of her life like that.
Now, Mari’s only problems were erasing the heavy, sinking doubt still latching onto her heart and defeating the Seven. Tomorrow would be the day, but it was the days after Mari struggled to imagine even existing.
* * *
Mari wondered what Dainan was doing right then. She laid under the covers, staring at the glass on the ground. How was she going to explain that?
The sun had risen and had reached past its highest point. The Seven hadn’t come yet, but they would.
Half of Mari wished they would come so it would be over with, and the other half wished they would never come at all.
Her gut was still burnt and sore, and she was still having her doubts about whether or not Dainan was fit to fight. She hoped he was, but from the way he had been trying to cover his pain and from how he looked while she was alone with him, Mari didn’t believe he was alright. Of course, Mari had her doubts about their plan regardless. What if she wasn’t strong enough?
What if her best wasn’t good enough?
Mari started pacing the floor as the sun continued to inch through the sky. Mari’s feet started to ache when it finally happened. Something pulled on her.
The Seven encircled her and she jolted. Her hand twitched, wanting to draw the dagger she had hidden in the folds of her dress. Her skin crawled.
“Mari, you can draw the symbol from memory?” Apep asked.
Mari nodded and swallowed thickly. They were there. It was time. She wasn’t ready.
“Oh, she’s been so good.” Rekema sighed, looking like was fondly remembering an old pet. Mari recoiled, trying not to gape in horror. They were already talking about her like she was dead.
Rekema glanced out the window. “What happened here?”
“There was a storm last night,” Mari said. That was true; it just wasn’t the cause of the broken window.
Rekema shrugged it off and glanced at the sun. “Today is it.”
“Of course it is, what are you being all dramatic about?” Mallory asked.
Rekema drew herself up. “My entire life has been leading up to this. Every late night, every argument with the others, each close call, every single failure. It’s wort it. Muraad, we’ve come so far.”
“We have,” Muraad sighed, stepping close to her. “Sometimes I just can’t quite believe it.”
Rekema laughed, “I knew we would get here. We’ll finally have the life we’ve always wanted!”
Mari’s legs shook. Rekema spun to face them all. “Before the day is done, this will all be over.”
* * *
Everything began to blur together. She gave Helmuth a small nod as the Seven marched her out of her room. He must have made his way into the rotation of guards at her door. Helmuth had bowed his head at her in return. Mari’s heart shuddered.
Her head ached from the weight of the crown Rekema had forced her to put on. It didn’t take a genius to know that Rekema wanted to be able to take it and wear it herself when it was over.
They reached the throne room, and Mari found a large block of strange chalk pressed into her hands. It was the same kind of chalk Apep had used to draw in the pattern of her tattoos. Her knees ached as her fingers sketched the dark symbol into the stone floor. Her stomach rolled; her hands shook. Things started to blur in her sight when she reached the fourth point of the symbol. There were still three left.
Mari shuddered, gasping. It was only then she noticed she had stopped breathing. She took a few rough, rasping breaths. Her stomach ached, shooting pain through her. She winced, but tried to ignore it.
She glanced over her shoulder. The sun was beginning to inch down towards the horizon. It took all of Mari’s will to keep her hand moving. Her heartbeat suffocated and drowned out any other noise.
With each stroke, the urge to run grew stronger, but even if Mari tried, she knew her legs wouldn’t be able to do it.
Dainan was outside the door. Mari knew he was. Helmuth was with him. They were relying on her. They needed her to do her part.
Her hand slowed as she drew the symbol’s center, tracing paths she knew from memory. The symbol ended with a complicated circle like shape in the dead center. Mari knew it was the place for the sacrifice.
It was done.
Mari shakily climbed to her feet. She started down. Standing on it, looking at it, sent shivers down her spine. Death. The symbol changed the air. It was thicker, heavier. Nothing good could come of it. All it would bring was death.
“Stand in the center, Mari,” Rekema ordered.
Mari stumbled a few steps before someone came up and centered her. By the time she glanced around, Muraad had taken his place at the edge. Mari stared at him. She opened her mouth slightly. Was he really just going to stand there and sacrifice her? He was the only family she’d known for most of her life. He had looked after her, been her greatest ally, defended from the others. She had loved him like family; he was family. So she had thought. He kept her alive for his own purposes.
He never cared, not truly. Mari knew this. However, if he said something, if he gave her any indication at all that he cared… if Muraad stopped them and protected her like he had before, she wouldn’t do it. If he had ever cared about her beyond the purpose she served him, Mari wouldn’t go through with this.
His gaze hardened. He took a deep breath and avoided her gaze.
He would kill her, and he wouldn’t even look her in the eye before he did it.
Mari shifted her own feet as the others took their places.
She couldn’t help herself. It was going to hurt. It was pointless, but Mari couldn’t stop herself. She needed to know what they thought. “What are you doing?”
“We’re changing the world.” Rekema tossed her hair. Mari hadn’t really expected a response at all. “Apep, go ahead.”
“Mari, don’t say any incantations. I’ll handle that aspect. What you’re going to do is maintain a flow of magic with all of us, taking our energy, as well as what’s inside you, and direct it towards your feet, the center of the symbol. Understand?”
Mari choked on her agreement, but whatever garbled words made it out of her, the Seven took it without question.
“Alright, it’s time.” Rekema’s voice carried across the room. She stood closest to the throne. How fitting. Everyone snapped to attention, even the twins were quiet and serious.
“This is what we’ve been dreaming of. Every moment since you joined me has been for this. If we don’t give this everything we have, then you’ve not only failed the entire Underneath and me, but you’ve failed yourselves. Now, are you ready?”
Bidkar straightened her posture. Her face was devoid of any emotion, but she nodded.
Beside her, Mallory swallowed thickly before wiping hesitation off her face. Her tail continued to twitch.
Meeko held his breath, puffing out his chest, but his legs shook. His eyes burned with fear.
Beside him, Balak grinned, eyeing Mari before giving Rekema his agreement. Mari still liked him the least. Muraad may not be a saint, or at the least willing to try and prevent her death, but at least he wasn’t looking forward to it like Balak was.
Next to Balak, Apep was the epitome of control. It was not forced like Bidkar, but practiced. It was a front she had mastered well. She nodded.
Muraad’s eyes flickered to Mari for just a moment. Mari held her breath. Was he going to say something? Give her any sign? Any semblance of an apology? Any remorse at all?
No. Muraad grit his teeth and turned to Rekema. He was ready.
The room was bathed in orange light. Mari took another glance at the sun. It beginning to set.
Mari took a deep breath, listening to the trembling beat of her heart. She could do this, at least maybe if she told herself she could she would find strength in her she hadn’t known of.
At the very least, it would finally be over; Mari just wanted to survive long enough to see it.