Despite the way she swayed slightly when she dismounted her house, Cyra still kicked the rickety door down.
Vitalis hurried to dismount his horse and follow her. She blew past the old Sizian man who cowered in the corner. She bolted up the shaky stairs and barreled into the door on the next floor. Vitalis was right behind her.
The door slammed into the wall, and the man behind the desk leapt to his feet, surprise and anger taking over his face. “Just who—”
“Shut up!” Cyra snarled, drawing one of her daggers. She stormed up to the desk, grabbing the man by his shirt and pulling him down to her eye level.
“We know you’re part of this demonic cult, and we know the Median heir Anoshiruvan is involved as well,” Vitalis said, appearing over Cyra’s shoulder.
The man blanched as Cyra put her dagger at his throat. He coughed, “You’ll kill me if I refuse to talk, and Anoshiruvan will kill me if I do.”
“You know I’ll kill you, but you have a chance of getting away from Ano, don’t be an idiot,” Cyra growled, pressing the cold metal further, but not drawing blood.
His eyes flashed to Vitalis and back to Cyra. “What do you need to know?”
Cyra shifted, keeping her grip tight, but allowing Vitalis closer. Vitalis’ voice was cold and sharp. “What is the cult doing tonight? What are they planning?”
“That’s the beauty of all this, no one person knows everything. Not even the Inner Circle.” The man shifted under Cyra’s hand. “We organize one of these a few times a year. I’ve never participated, but Anoshiruvan leads them, always. It has something to do with his magic.”
“But what is the purpose? To what end are you trying to achieve?” Vitalis leaned in, and Cyra shook the man slightly.
“There was a time when demons walked on the Surface, and things were different. People like to tell stories about how they ruined our world and our lives. No one wants to talk about how Sardes was better then.” The man shook with stifled laughter. “They’re already slowly coming back, and it’s our honor to help them.”
Cyra’s lip curled in disgust. Vitalis looked sick. “You’re trying to weaken the seals that keeps the demons trapped in the Underneath.”
Cyra glanced at Vitalis, “But the seal, it’s in your country, isn’t it?”
Vitalis shook his head. “The strongest seal is, but in order to keep them locked away the seal magic spread over the land. If the goal is to allow more demons to pass through easily, then attacking the seal lines in Sardes could do it as well.”
Vitalis glared back at the man. “Where are they doing it?”
The man laughed. “No idea! I only know what I need to know. Anoshiruvan only trusted me with the task of killing you Vialyan, and even that I failed.”
Cyra twisted, slamming him against the wall. “The missing people, what’s being done to them?”
“Cyra!” Vitalis caught her attention, gesturing to a small window that faced the street. She blinked and looked up. The sun was sinking. The light was going from the sky, and the moon was rising.
The man followed their sight. “It’ll happen at midnight, and you still aren’t close to figuring out where Anoshiruvan will be trying to weaken the seal line.”
“The wedding is over,” Cyra whispered. Soray had married Ano. Bells rang in the distance. Ano was undeniably part of a demonic cult, and Cyra had left her cousin to marry him.
“Cyra we’re running out of time. Leave him, he’s no use to us anymore,” Vitalis said. Cyra swallowed thickly. She threw the man to the ground.
She sheathed her dagger. “If I were you, I’d get out of Shiraz now. Before your cult finds out you’re a rat.”
Cyra and Vitalis hurried out of the room. Cyra stumbled down the last few steps, wincing as she braced herself against the wall. She had no idea where her spell of dizziness came from, but she knew it wasn’t good.
Vitalis spun around; his eyes flashed with horror, seeing Cyra leaning on the wall. Cyra shook her head and regained her balance as she followed him.
Vitalis brought her horse to her, whispering, “What’s wrong?”
Cyra blinked away the black spots entering her vision. “I just tripped. I’m fine.”
“Alright,” Vitalis said. He gently touched her shoulder and stepped closer. His head dipped, and his eyes burned. “Cyra, I think you know where Anoshiruvan is, but you’re not seeing it. If you focus, I think you can figure it out.”
Cyra closed her eyes. She began wracking her brain. She knew Vitalis was right. There was something…It was just beyond her reach. Ano had said something…no…wait… she had been with him. He’d taken her somewhere… hadn’t he?
Ano was trying to weaken the seals… Where would the seal lines run?
Cyra’s face twisted, and she groaned. Her head throbbed. It felt like she was pounding on a locked door until her fists were bloody.
Why could she remember?
Seal magic ran through the ground. She would be able to feel it in the air, like the had the magic of the Ruins’ Tree.
Cyra sent a small push of magic to her head, and the door shattered.
The cavern under the well.
Her eyes flew open, and she started climbing into the saddle. Her hands shook. She glanced back at Vitalis. “I know where the seal is. I can take us to Ano!”
Vitalis’ face shone, and he hurried to his own horse. “Lead the way!”
Her vision blurred, and she squeezed her eyes shut to clear it. She gathered her reins up and spurred her horse forward. Vitalis followed closely as the full moon kept climbing.
They tore down the empty streets. Vitalis pulled up to her side. “Where are we going?”
Cyra glanced at him. “There’s an old section of the city. It’s abandoned and so tiny you’d never see it if you weren’t looking for it. There’s an empty well there, and it leads to these tunnels underground. There’s this cavern, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ve always been able to feel its magic. It’s amazing.”
“And Anoshiruvan, he’s the one who showed it to you?” Vitalis asked, spurring his horse faster.
Cyra shook her head, tightening her grip on her reins as she matched his speed. Her stomach rolled. “No. I showed it to him.”
They fell silent, focusing on guiding their horses through the dark streets. Cyra fought the strange dizziness and nausea building.
Hoofbeats pounded into her head, and Cyra didn’t understand what was wrong with her.
Fortunately, Cyra was able to get Vitlais and herself to the small abandoned section of the city. They slowed down, and Vitalis’ horse stopped, refusing to take another step towards the well.
Cyra was hit with the faint strains of dark magic filtering up the well. Her horse tossed its head and pawed at the ground.
They quickly dismounted, and Cyra looked up at the moon. “It’s already midnight.”
“Then we have no time to waste.” Vitalis’ face darkened.
Cyra nodded, pushing past the way her legs wanted to shake. They started towards the well, but something wasn’t right. Cyra paused and looked around.
A shadow shifted behind a broken building. Cyra grabbed Vitalis and pushed him down behind the well. A second later an arrow flew past her face. She hissed, “Stay down!”
She quickly drew her daggers and sprinted towards their assailant. She ducked, moving in diagonals so the arrows flew past her. Right as she caught sight of them, Cyra felt an arrow graze her shoulder, and she threw herself into a roll.
She sprung to her feet and kicked the bow out of his hands. Before the attacker could recover, Cyra’s dagger cut into their neck.
As he slumped over, Cyra hissed and reached for her injured shoulder. It was a shallow cut, but it burned. Something wasn’t right with it.
Cyra fumbled for the quiver. She squinted in the dim light at the arrow tip. It was coated. Poison, of course. At least Vitalis hadn’t been hit, and it wasn’t a lethal dose as the arrow hadn’t sunk full into her.
She threw the arrows to the ground and rushed back to Vitalis. He stood up, looking at her bleeding shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Cyra nodded. “It’s just a scratch. Come on, we have to climb down the well.”
Vitalis grimaced, and Cyra knew he wasn’t convinced. She climbed over the well, fidning her way mostly through memory. Vitalis hurried after her, quickly picking up on the worn handholds in the wall.
She swayed when she hit the ground, but was able to force herself to recover by the time Vitalis joined her. She led him into the tunnels, keeping a hand on Vitalis, but staying in front of him.
Vitalis’ hand slid into hers. He whispered, “I believe in you, zvezda moya. We can do this.”
“It’ll be over after this, won’t it?” Cyra whispered back.
“It will, it’ll be over,” Vitalis assured her.
What Cyra couldn’t bring herself to ask was, what then?
What would they do then?
Would they even survive this? Could the two of them really do this? Could Cyra really fight Ano?
They didn’t stop. Cyra and Vitalis rushed into the cavern.
It was a terrifying sight to behold.
Cyra and Vitalis stumbled to a stop.
Anger and horror rooted Cyra as she saw what Ano had done to her cavern. Pain sent tremors down her spine. She struggled not to throw up.
There was some strange sort of altar set up. Someone was laid across it. Cult members formed a wide circle around it. The man cloaked in black stood at the altar, holding the woman down.
He was chanting a spell.
Dark magic crawled through the air, polluting it all.
Torches burned a hideous sickly yellow light. Moonlight reflected in and around them in all the wrong, distorted ways.
Where was Ano?
The spell finished, and a wave of magic sent Cyra’s knees shaking. “What the hell have you done?”
The cloaked man pulled the cloth away from his face.
Except, something wasn’t quite right.
He was so far away, but…
It was Anoshiruvan, except… it wasn’t him. It was his face, but the air around him, something just wasn’t him.
He laughed, “You’re good, Cyra. Your Vialyan is clever, but you’re too late now.”
Vitalis glared at Ano. “So, you’ve been the cloaked man this whole time.”
Ano laughed again, nearly doubling over.
Cyra took a few hesitant steps forward. Her fingers stayed on the hilts of her daggers. One of the cult members collapsed.
Ano’s eyes… they were red. And…and…no… his teeth were sharp… fanged almost. His sleeves slipped back, and his hands were bare. Except she hesitated to call them hands. His fingers were grotesquely curved, long, and sharp. Cyra swore she could see scales flickering up his arms.
“Wait.. you didn’t figure it out!” Ano laughed. His teeth evened out back to normal. Two more cult members fell over. Ano smirked at Vitalis. “The great demon expert, Prince Vitalis of Vialya wouldn’t know a demon if it laughed in his face. And you, Cyra! Daughter to Sardes’ famed demon slayer, and you were clueless!”
“Ano…” Cyra whispered, voice shaking.
Ano rolled his eyes as the cult member closest to Cyra fell. Cyra stared at them. They were dead. They weren’t breathing. Ano shook his head. “I’m not even Anoshiruvan.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Vitalis spat, taking a few steps after Cyra.
“Come on, Vitalis, aren’t you able to put the piece together? You’re a veritable genius compared to my girl here.” Ano flashed a dark smile of perfect human teeth at Cyra.
Vitalis’ hand rested on the sword hidden in his coat. “You’re not human. I can only assume you took Anoshiruvan as your host, but that seems impossible. I know demons. I know what a host looks like, and I know you work in teams of seven, pulling your host around like a puppet on strings.”
“Use your brain,” Ano sneered. Scales fluttered across his face. One more cult member dropped dead. “Think. Twenty years ago, what happened?”
“Demons failed in their attempt to break the seal in Vialya,” Vitalis said cautiously. “They all died. You can’t possibly be one of them.”
Ano rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m not one of them. However, I was on the Surface, searching for my team’s next host when their sickening burst of human magic went through the seal lines, breaking my connection to the Underneath.”
“I don’t understand,” Cyra whispered. She blinked, shaking her already spinning head. “You can’t physically exist. The seal is mostly in tact. You can’t be this!”
“You are too good,” Ano laughed. “You’re right. I can’t physically exist on my own. But, you know there is a reason why demons work in teams of seven.”
Scales flickered over his forehead. Cyra swayed slightly, fighting the poison spreading and burning in her blood. Another cult member went down.
Vitalis winced in disgust. “It’s because without a balance of seven separate demons sharing a host and a connection to the Underneath, where you get your power, you become unable to detach yourself from the host. That’s what happened with you, and the real Anoshiruvan, wasn’t it? You took him and couldn’t separate yourself from him.”
“And the one before him. And the one before him. And the one before him.” Ano grinned. “I think you get the idea.”
“But it’s too much.” Cyra stared at the dead woman lying in front of her. “You’re not compatible. You’re burning through him. You’re killing him.”
Ano stepped around the altar, shaking his head. “I’m not killing Anoshiruvan. I killed him a while ago. He’s been dead for, oh, seven years, right Cyra? That’s when he started noticing you, wasn’t it?”
Cyra weakly swallowed, feeling the sickening poison heat her face. “Is this whole ceremony how you’ve lasted so long? You sacrifice an innocent soul, a baby, this woman, and all your worshipers to keep yourself from burning through Ano because you needed his face.”
“You’re a lot smarter when you aren’t falling all over yourself for me.” Ano tapped the woman’s shoulder. The woman lifted her head slightly from the altar, but didn’t have the strength to do anymore. Cyra couldn’t see her face, or much of anything, it was still dark. “But not smart enough. I can’t believe neither of you noticed yet. The man she was half in love with and her cousin, as close as a sister.”
The woman shifted again, groaning. She’d clearly been drugged and whatever Ano’s spell had done to her had only weakened her further, draining the life out of her.
Cyra took a more steps closer.
No. She was wearing a…
Cyra covered her mouth, fighting back the urge to retch when she saw the woman’s face.
“Soray!” The scream ripped out of her throat before she even realized it was her own voice.
Ano looked at his victim with a mildly disappointed expression. “It was supposed to be you on here, Cyra. It would have been until that Vialyan got his claws into you. Vitalis was supposed to die tragically, but have little effect on you, a girl who only knew him a few weeks. We’d have our whirlwind, secret romance. Then, I’d bring you down here, drug you, sacrifice you so I could stay looking as much like Ano as possible. Then, when your tragic, but unexplainable disappearance and assumed death came to light, a distraught Soray would turn to her childhood friend for comfort. I’d marry her, kill the shah, let her take the throne, be named heir in case of her death, the kill her, put my cult into power. I’d take Sardes’ army, crush Vialya and break all the seals.”
His hands shrunk back to a normal human size. Two cult members fell over. There were about seven left.
Vitalis stepped closer to Cyra as her skin turned clammy and pallid.
She whispered in Vialyan, “I have to get Soray.”
Soray looked like she was trying to say something. Her mouth was moving, but her voice was too quiet.
Vitalis leaned in, replying in Vialyan as well, “It’s too late, she’s already half-dead.”
“You know, Cyra,” Ano said, nodding at the followers who were left. They slowly began drawing weapons. “I never saw you in action. I didn’t realize how good you were at your job. I thought making you dislike him would mean you’d be just a bit slower in trying to help him, especially when you were tired or weren’t feeling well. Speaking of, how’s your shoulder? Your stomach? That wine you had last night still sitting well with you?”
Cyra touched her still bleeding shoulder. “I didn’t drink that wine.”
“I know you didn’t, but your lips touched the cup. It was the metal that was poisoned. I’ve always wondered how a slow acting poison like that one and a fast acting one like from the arrow would interact.” Ano smirked as she reached for her rolling stomach. “That’s what I thought. I gave up on you when the Vialyan got you for his bodyguard. I focused all my attention on Soray. Marriage was offered to me on a silver platter, and it was good enough. She’ll be such a tragedy.”
His eyes flashed towards Vitalis. He cracked his neck. “I think I’ll enjoy killing you as much as I did killing that kid who pretended to be Soray years ago.”
“That kid?” Cyra’s voice cracked. There was only one instance like that… No… He couldn’t possibly have… but how else would he know? Cyra had never told Ano about her.
Ano blinked at her.
“Her name was Mandana, you son of a bitch!” Cyra screamed, drawing her daggers. She leapt forward, drawing on her magic to replace the strength the poison was sapping from her.
She cut through the first cult member as if they were paper. She knocked another down, pouncing on them, giving them a swift end. With a snarl, she thrust herself back up, shooting towards the altar.
Soray’s eyes were closed, but her hand had been reaching towards her ankle.
Cyra spun and ducked underneath a blade that swung at her. She elbowed them in the face, and shoved her dagger right into their chest.
Cyra’s magic pulsed; she usually never used it in a fight, but her legs were weak. She was too raw and emotional, and her magic reflected it. She spat out a word in the old language of human magic, sending Ano flying away from her cousin.
Another cult member had dropped dead. The least three advanced on Vitalis. Cyra rushed to Soray’s side, sheathing her daggers and taking her cousin’s face in her hands. “Soray?”
She was so cold.
There was no pulse.
Cyra moved her head to Soray’s heart, but there was no sound.
Shahsokht Soray was dead.
And it was supposed to have been her. Cyra was supposed to be dead on the altar.
Metal clashed behind her.
A hand sunk into her hair, forcing her head to twist painfully. Ano forced her to look into his awful red eyes. “I think I remember now. You and Soray were both there. Hiding, I believe. I was masquerading in their little group of rebels. They could sneak me into the palace. That tree was calling to me after thousands of years of separation, I couldn’t deny it any longer. It was a piece of home. A piece of me I thought I had lost in that war so long ago. You touched it. I’ve been able to almost taste it on you for so long. That little girl, Mandana, you said? She was very brave.”
Cyra screamed and twisted, drawing her dagger and slashing him in the cheek. She burst out of his grip and sprinted down the altar to the other side. Wait…
Soray had been reaching for her ankle. That was where she kept—
Cyra blinked, looking up to see the cut on Ano healing instantly, leaving no trace.
Right. Only magic weapons could hurt demons.
Mihrab had her father’s sword.
Ano shifted towards her. Cyra lunged for Soray’s ankle, snagging the dagger hidden beneath the hem of her wedding dress. Soray had been keeping Vitalis’ gift on her the whole time. It was Keturah’s dagger, a magical weapon.
She had gotten a grip on the handle when Ano caught her. Her legs were knocked out from under her, and the poison came rushing back. She coughed. Her blood boiled in pain as Ano towered over her.
Her eyes flickered to Vitalis. He was losing quite badly to the remaining two cult members.
He wasn’t a warrior.
His safety above all else.
His life mattered the most.
Cyra took a deep breath before lunging upwards. She dug Keturah’s dagger into Ano’s knee. With a vicious yell, she swung down, tearing up his leg from knee to ankle. Cyra scrambled to her feet, wobbling and swaying.
Ano’s inhuman shriek ripped through her ears as staggered towards Vitalis.
The remaining cult members dropped as Ano had finished draining their lives.
Cyra’s knees buckled, and Vitalis dropped his sword so he could catch her.
Just what had Ano done to her with those poisons? Was this what dying felt like?
Before anything could register in her head, Vitalis had swung her arm around his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around her waist. They started stumbling back down the tunnels.
“Soray…” Cyra half-heartedly protested. Vitalis had to get to safety, but Soray’s body… It needed to be brought back. She deserved a proper burial.
“Are you insane?” Vitalis hissed, looking over his shoulder. “There’s no way I’d let you risk your life for Soray’s body. You’re alive, and you’re my priority.”
Her feet faltered beneath her as Vitalis’ pace increased.
Ano’s voice. It had always been musical and sweet. It was intoxicating and comforting, like he had appeared to be.
He was slowly following them, limping after them. It wasn’t as though Vitalis could go much faster, dragging Cyra with him.
Her eyes fluttered.
He always sounded like he was half-singing. Magic was in his voice.
“Cyra, close your eyes.”
He was singing a lullaby almost. Magic pulled at her senses. Sleep ate at her eyes.
“Don’t listen to him. Cyra! Keep your eyes open!” Vitalis barked, jolting her so her feet came back under her.
They clumsily increased their pace, winding through the fragile tunnels.
“Aren’t you tired, Cyra? Tired of fighting me? Don’t you want to rest?”
She couldn’t resist him. When had she ever been able to fight him when he called her to the dreamworld?
She blinked and looked back. Ano’s red eyes were slowly approaching.
“Focus on me, Cyra!” Vitalis’ voice snapped her head back. They were almost to the end of hall. “We’re almost there. Stay awake!”
Cyra watched as the well wall appeared in her sight. There was no way she could make that climb without help. There was no way Vitalis could help her without Ano catching up to them.
“Haven’t you earned your rest, Cyra?”
With the last bit of strength and resistance that she had, Cyra pushed Vitalis towards the well wall. She spun, stumbling towards Ano with shaking, staggering steps. She poured magic into her fist and lunged toward a weak spot in the wall. She’d always been careful to avoid touching it before. She knew the tunnels were old and weak and could come down at any moment. With a short incantation, her fist slammed into the dirt and magic pulsed through her and into the wall.
“Rest with me, bastard.”
The tunnels began collapsing. The ceiling began caving in around Ano’s red eyes.
She had no more control of her limbs. All her strength had gone into that last act to protect Vitalis.
Vitalis caught her as the rocks settled. He pulled her away and leaned against the well wall, propping her up in his lap. He gently touched her face, saying, “Stay with me, alright! Zvezda, please, zvezda moya. If you got to sleep now…will you ever wake up? Please, I need you to stay awake. Don’t do this to me, please.”
Her eyes shut.
“Come with me, Cyra.”
She sunk into Vitalis’ arms, unable to fight Ano anymore. His magic was too strong. She was too weak from the poison. His grip on her was too tight.
“Zvzeda moya! Cyra! I—”
Cyra didn’t hear what he was about to say.
Ano had dragged her to the depths of the dreamworld.