Despite the fact Mari was standing in the light of the sun, cold dug into her skin. Apep’s voice filled the air. Oh, how Mari had come to hate the sound of it. How Mari had come to hate them all.
Her body seized up as magic flew through the lines of the symbol to reach her. Mari nearly fell over from the sheer might of it. She pushed down on her feet, trying to steady herself. The pressure beat into her head, but she forced her eyes to stay open. She couldn’t afford to lose control of this power.
Mari carefully directed the magic into the focal point of the seal. Her limbs shook. Mari took large breaths as she watched the Seven. Was this the kind of power they had all along? Was this the power they had been using in her since the beginning? If they had been this strong combined, why would they have ever chosen such a host as her?
Apep’s voice grew louder. The Seven began to glow, and Mari blinked wondering if this was real. It was. Magic was enveloping them. Mari realized she was glowing as well, or her tattoos were. Despite the magic pulsing in the air and through Mari, the Seven still weren’t physical beings.
Balak sent a surge of magic through her. She jolted, but was able to push it into the ground. It was then Mari became aware of Keturah’s magic, her seal. It cracked. She felt the magic that pulsed below the castle. She found it rooted deep in the ground. Mari could see it now, or maybe feel was the better word. Magic was a strange thing, and even stranger trying to describe how one sensed it. Mari could tell where Keturah’s power had faded. She knew exactly where cracks were forming in it right at that moment.
She couldn’t let it break.
Mari’s problem was she still had to let them crack it. If she didn’t they would never physically exist, and her plan would fail. Yet, Mari would still fail if they were able to break the seal before she could stop them. Mari dug her feet in and siphoned off part of the magic into herself. The magic power in her was quickly building. Each pulse of magic was a struggle as the pressure of it continued to build in her head.
Her tattoos burned as well as glowed. Her arms shook, aching and burning. Fire wrapped around her, searing pain into her.
Balak sent a staggering surge of power through her, and Mari couldn’t stop it. The seal beneath her groaned and a large crack shot through it.
Mari’s gaze snapped up. Was this it?
She twisted her head. Muraad was adjusting his weight on his feet, grimacing. Mallory’s tail was swishing as she rocked on her feet.
Mari’s breath caught in her throat when she saw the Seven’s reflection in the windows.
It was time.
With a deep breath and a sunken heart, Mari asked for the strength to finish this no matter the cost. She started her own incantation.
“What are you doing?” Someone screamed, maybe it was Muraad.
Before anyone could stop her, Mari gathered all the magic they’d been pouring into her and shot it back towards them through the pathways of the symbol.
Apep’s voice choked, cut off by Mari’s control. It was the same spell she had used on her attacker. They couldn’t move. For the first time in her life, Mari was the one controlling them.
The pressure in her head ebbed slightly as she used their own magic against them. Mari tightened her hold and yelled out, “Dainan!”
The doors flew open. Dainan rushed in, drawing his sword. He was slower than he had been the day before. Mari could see it in his face his wounds still bothered him, but he pressed on.
Helmuth stayed by the door, without a weapon that could be of any use. If things went poorly, very poorly, he knew what he was to do. It was up to Dainan and Mari. They were on their own.
Mari winced as Apep wildly fought her control. Mari poured all of her focus and magic into the spell.
Muraad’s face burned when he realized what was happening. He twitched, and the look he gave her caused Mari’s hold to loosen enough so he could screech out, “Traitor!”
Bidkar let out a terrifying wail as Dainan had finished her with a clean stab in the back of her chest. Bidkar slumped over, and Mari let go of her, knowing there would be nothing left to hold onto anyway. Pain shot in her chest, but she could not let it take over.
Dainan didn’t blink as he moved on and did the same to Rekema. Rekema stared at Mari open mouthed as she dropped her knees. Mari’s chest twisted again just seeing Rekema hold her fatal injury. Pain burned in her heart. It had to be done, but for some reason the pain continued digging at her.
The throbbing in her chest drew her focus, and someone forced their way out of her hold. Mari spun and saw Balak. His face twisted into a snarl as he barreled towards her.
Mari quickly clenched her fists, making sure Apep, Muraad, and the twins were still immobile.
Balak drew his fist back, and Mari ducked under it. He grabbed her by her hair and threw her to the ground. Mari cried out, kicking at him.
Mari struggled to keep her hold on the rest of them as Balak slammed her head into the ground.
Her vision blurred, fading in and out. Her chest ached and burned. All she could think about, the only thing she could do was keep up her spell. If she tried to defend herself from Balak, she knew she would lose control on the others. If Apep escaped, Daian didn’t stand a chance.
The air whistled, and the next thing Mari saw was Dainan’s sword hovering above her, sliding through Balak. He pulled the sword out from his chest, and Balak collapsed on his front.
Dainan pulled Mari to her feet, supporting all of her weight. “Are you alright?”
Mari nodded despite the dizzy lightheadedness taking over her. Her magic was starting to run out. She wouldn’t be able to hold them much longer. “Take out Apep, the one in the hood.”
After giving her one last glance, Dainan adjusted his grip on his sword and went after Apep. Mari tightened her hold, shaking as she did so. Apep was fighting her with every ounce of power she had. Apep was much stronger than Mari. She was taking all of Mari’s focus. Nothing else mattered at the moment.
Someone grabbed her and spun her around. It was Muraad. She hadn’t even noticed him breaking loose.
Apep hit the ground. Mari’s head was pounding. She couldn’t let the pain get to her.
Mari tried to push Muraad away. She yelled to Dainan, “I’ll handle him, Dainan, just finish the others!”
“Don’t! I can do this!” Mari said as she fumbled for her dagger.
Mari slashed at Muraad, forcing him to back away.
Muraad snarled, “I knew something was happening, but I never believed you would betray us like this.”
Mari adjusted her feet, lifting her dagger, despite the fear shaking her arms. “You say that as if I meant something to you. I’ve always just been a tool, your living sacrifice.”
Mari threw herself forward, tearing up his arm. Her own arm pricked in pain. Mallory screamed, and Mari’s heart cried out to the same beat. She pushed through it, yelling, “You have taken everything from me! And you act as though I should be grateful! I owe you nothing! Not my obedience, not my magic, and certainly not my life!”
Mari rushed forward again. She tackled Muraad, drawing her arm back. Muraad spat at her, screaming, “You were nothing before me! You’ll be nothing after me!”
Mari’s hands shook. She closed her eyes and brought her blade down to where a heart would be in a human. Maybe she wasn’t all that different from Muraad. She was going to kill him, and she couldn’t even look him in the eyes. She was no better than him.
Muraad’s screams clawed at her ears. Mari winced, clutching her chest as pain wracked her body. She wondered if it would have been less painful to just stab herself instead.
Mari doubled over, groaning. Someone wrapped an arm around her, pulling her up. Mari gasped, opening her eyes. Dainan’s sword clattered against the ground next to where she had abandoned her dagger. His arms encircled her, lifting her up into the air.
Mari pulled herself as close as possible, burying her shaking hands in his shirt. She ignored the pain crushing her chest, hiding her grimace in his shoulder. Why did she hurt so much? Shouldn’t she be happy? She was free. So, why did she still feel chained down? Why did she still feel that something was dangerously wrong?
“It’s over,” Dainan breathed. He set her back down. He beamed down at her, and just seeing how happy he was almost made Mari forget about the pain tearing through her. “You’re safe now. You can finally live.”
Mari smiled weakly. Her legs shook. She opened her mouth, but all that came out was a cry of pain.
Dainan quickly steadied her. His expression dropped. One hand cupped her face, trying to get her to look at him. “Mari, what’s wrong? Did they hurt you?”
Mari shook her head. She didn’t understand what was happening to her. Where did this pain in her chest come from?
“Your Highness, behind you!” Helmuth shouted from the door. His voice shook. Was he just as scared as she was? He seemed to start in their direction.
“She did this to herself.”
Dainan held Mari tightly as they watched Rekema stagger to her feet despite the open wound in her chest.
“Helmuth, stay back! What are you talking about?” Dainan pulled Mari away, unable to reach for his sword or else Mari would fall.
“Just what I said,” Rekema coughed, retching. “It’s her own fault this is happening. She’s the only one to blame for her death.”
“She’s not dying! I won’t let you take her down with you!” Dainan said. Mari was struggling keep herself together. No words came to her mouth. All she could do was watch.
“You don’t get a choice. The minute she decided to try and break away from us, to kill us, she sealed her fate.” Rekema laughed, ignoring the disgusting blackish blood dripping to the floor. It wasn’t a laugh of pleasure, well not pure pleasure. There was anger and fury underneath it. Some sort of angry satisfaction out of what was happening. “There was never a way she would have left here alive. She wasn’t meant to live.”
Mari forced her head up. What Muraad had said, what he’d been telling her all along, was it true? There was nothing for her once the Seven were gone. Mari forced her voice to rasp, “No host survives past you. Was I condemned to die the moment you took me from my true family?”
Rekema shrieked wildly. Had she completely lost it? In the face of failure and death, Mari wasn’t surprised that Rekema seemed to have forgone her usual nature. From behind her, Muraad coughed up more of that disgusting black blood. He sneered at her, “You were condemned to die before we found you. Our last host had died. Meeko was dying as result. The thing about getting a host is that in order for us to tether ourselves to their life, they have to agree to let us in.”
Mari leaned into Dainan further. Something was dripping from her chest. Why would she have ever agreed? And why didn’t she remember?
“Bidkar and I had to find a host, someone desperate, someone who wasn’t in a position to say no. We needed someone who needed us. Your family lived on the outskirts of a village. Poor, destitute Sizians living in a strange land. Their baby had just been born, but she would not stop crying. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, just scream. You were sick and dying. You would have lived only a day more if we hadn’t found you. What child in pain would deny relief, no matter who was offering it?”
He tried to put his arm underneath him but collapsed. He chuckled and then choked. He started shaking, convulsing on the ground.
Mari gaped at them. Rekema stared Mari down, seemingly regaining her mind. “You were dying the day we found you, and you’ve been dying ever since.”
“No,” Dainan whispered. He staggered, still trying to support Mari’s weight. She followed his gaze to where her dress was stained down the front in several places and on her arm. Each wound she and Dainan had inflicted on the Seven was on her.
“All this time,” Mari whispered, “they were the only thing standing between me and death.”
Mari turned to look up at Dainan, but everything began to haze over. No, this was what it felt like when the Seven—
Mari was jerked out of his grip. Something was in her hand. The sun’s rays flashed off something, blinding her. Nothing was clear to her, and everything was going by so quickly.
Her arm moved without her direction. Someone cried out as her arm was pulled back.
The fog started to clear, and Mari began to see what had been done. Dainan held his stomach as his sword clattered to the ground, leaving Mari’s hand.
Rekema was slumped on the ground, having used the last of her power. Her hand was still outstretched. With her dying breath, she grinned and said, “Now you’ll both be dead before the day is done.”
Mari couldn’t hold herself up. Dainan tried to catch her, but her weight sent both of them to their knees. Mari shakily pressed her hands against his wound. Pressure, that was supposed to stop bleeding, right?
All she got were red stained hands. She looked over her shoulder, ready to shout for Helmuth, but he was staring at them, frozen in horror.
Dainan groaned, taking her hands in his. He said, “Stop, stop. It won’t work. You’re just wasting your energy.”
He looked up towards Helmuth. “Helmuth, please, go get my sister.”
His order snapped the older man out of his stupor. Helmuth winced, knowing this was his king’s last order. He hurried out of the room, and part of Mari wished she could join him. She didn’t want to have to watch this either.
Mari shuddered. Her chest burned. “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to die. I didn’t want you to get hurt or suffer on my account.”
Dainan sighed, wincing as he moved so Mari was leaning into him. He wrapped an arm around her. “Don’t apologize. I suppose we’ve just cheated it too many times. It seems as though we couldn’t have done anything to avoid this.”
Mari tilted her head up, drinking in the sight of him. “If I had never come to you, you wouldn’t have gotten involved. It’s my fault you’re dying.”
“That’s not true,” Dainan grunted. He rested his head on hers. “And even if it was, I wouldn’t change it for anything. Knowing you has been worth it all. I’m just sorry that you never got the chance to live.”
Mari laced her fingers through his. “But I did. You, Regan, Helmuth, and the scholars, you showed me life. I’m so grateful to have known you.”
Mari’s breath quickened as sharp pain cut through her. Dainan tightened his grip. Her eyes were so heavy.
Mari felt tears roll down her hair and some dripped onto her face. Dainan took a deep shuddering breath. “I was going to wait. I didn’t want to move too fast, or scare you. But it looks like there’s no time for that.”
Mari shifted so she could see him better. Dainan smiled at her, but it was laced with pain. “You know I love you.”
Warmth tangled its way through the pain in her heart. Mari smiled despite the awful ache. “You know I’m still not sure about it all, but I think I love you too. I don’t know what else it could be called.”
Mari felt her own tears roll down her face. Dainan pressed his forehead against hers. Their pained breaths filled the air; the only sound in the room.
He cupped the back of her head and leaned down. Mari tilted her head up. His lips crashed into hers. She leaned into as much as she could force her weakening body to. She was shaking, but so was Dainan. She could feel his hand tremble at the back of her head.
Just for a moment, Mari felt all the possibilities life had. Warmth filled her. She didn’t feel any pain. Mari wished she could have always felt like this.
Dainan pulled away. He was smiling, but his face had paled to a thin nearly sheer white. He looked so weak, and Mari was certain she looked even worse off. Life was clearly leaving them, and all they could do was watch it go out from the face of the one they loved.
Dainan could no longer hold them both upright. They slid to the ground, lying on their sides, facing each other. Mari’s hair was soaked and sticky. Mari laced her fingers with his again. He pulled their hands close to him. “Have you thought about it anymore?”
“What we’ll do next, after all of this,” Dainan said. Mari smiled at him weakly. She loved him so much, and he knew her so well. It would be so nice to just pretend for a moment.
“I was going to give you your crown back because you would be king again,” Mari said. She wished she had done that ages ago. If she could move, she would have crawled over to where it had fallen in all the chaos to give it to him, but she simply did not have the strength. “I really made an awful queen.”
“You were never taught, or given a fair chance.” Dainan rubbed circles on the back of her hand. “I would teach you. I think you would make an amazing queen. So amazing that your kingdom would give you a title. They would called you Mari Annette the Demon Slayer, one of the greatest queens Vialya has ever seen since the age of Keturah.”
“You really think so?” Mari’s eyes fluttered. She was so tired.
“Always. Let me tell you what I was thinking would happened after this.” Dainan’s eyes fluttered as well. “First, Regan and I would find some clean clothes for all of us because we’ve been wearing the same ratty clothes this entire time. Then, we would free all those left in the dungeon and start restoring the kingdom. I’d teach you how to be a queen as we go. Every night though, after Regan has put her son to sleep, and it’s just us left in the library, long after the sun has gone down, I’d teach you how to read. You wanted to learn, right? I always liked the idea of staying up far too late, with candle burning. Then, once you’re comfortable, readjusted to life once more. I’d court you properly, like you deserve, like I’ve wanted to for so long now.”
Mari shut her eyes, unable to see anything anyway in the last dying rays of the sun. Dainan’s voice was so soft and gently. She could barely hear him, but wouldn’t miss a word. She was so cold, and she ached still. When would it end?
“Then, on a seemingly normal day, I’d be acting strange, but you wouldn’t think too much of it. Then, I’d take you to… to… maybe the throne room or the cell… no the library, somewhere that means something. A place that you love. I’d ask you to marry me, and if I’m lucky you’ll say yes.”
Mari’s hand went limp in his.
“We’d have a grand ceremony, or a small one, whatever you want. It would be your coronation as well, I guess. Maybe we’d have a few children. You’d be a great mother. You took to Regan’s boy so naturally. He would look after his cousins just as well, even if they annoyed him.”
Mari’s breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t able to breathe anymore. Her heart had faded.
“After we’d lived a nice, long life, then we’d pass away. It would be peaceful. You would have moved on, left the Seven in the past, lived your life, hopefully with me. Neither of us would have gone before the other. We would die, similarly, painlessly. I wish I could have saved you from this. I was wrong… I’m sorry I broke my promise, Mari. Just… just forgive me, please…Mari? Mari…”
There wasn’t a heartbeat left to sound in the throne room. The sun had disappeared completely. No life was left. No puppets, no masters, no humans, no demons, no kings, and no queens were left.
Death filled the air. The day was done.