Sand was beneath her feet. Cyra’s head turned slowly. To her confusion, the sand in the distance was disappearing. Cyra blinked and her heart raced with fear when she realized it was turning to water. She spun and started running away from the approaching waves. She pumped her arms, but the mass of water was faster.
A wave gripped her ankles, dragging her under. Her hands flailed, desperately trying to find a hold in the sand. It slipped through her fingers. Harsh salt water crashed over her head. It burned her eyes and dragged her downwards.
The water was too fast, too rough. Cyra was sent tumbling, unable to fight the current. She couldn’t swim. The water tossed her around. It stung her eyes. It filled her nose and pulled the air out of her mouth.
Air would trickle in, keeping her alive as every so often her head shot about the rushing waves. It wasn’t much, though, as the water would continue choking her. It would wrap around her throat, crushing it.
Her vision grew increasingly darker as she lost feeling in her limbs. Her legs refused to kick and her arms floated above her uselessly.
It was all going to be over when something floated in her view. Cyra summoned enough strength to grab it. It took everything in her to pull herself closer, seeing a familiar bark ahead.
Something strange inside her was pushing her, spurring her to continue to pull herself closer.
Her arms ached; her lungs burned. She could barely see.
With all the effort she had, she wrapped her arms around what could only be the trunk of a tree. Her legs came up, feet landing on the roots.
She climbed. She scraped her hands, and her vision went completely black. Her legs nearly gave out under her, but she kept climbing.
Inch after inch and second after second passed by. Cyra did not stop until her head broke above the relentless waves.
She gasped, spitting out water. Cool air filled her lungs as she shook, slowly regaining her vision.
Her hands scrambled up further, tearing apart the skin of her palms. She leaned her head against the Ruins’ Tree, panting as the constricting pain on her chest receded.
Once she had somewhat recovered, Cyra forced her sore arms back to work, climbing up the tree. It was rough, but infinitely better than being thrown about by the waves.
It wasn’t until she had made it to the branches that she saw she wasn’t alone. A hand was stretched out to her.
There weren’t quite the words, at least not in her language, to express the sheer joy and relief coursing through her at the sight of his face.
She took his hand, and he pulled her up into the branches. She threw her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder. Tears welled up in her eyes. She couldn’t stop shaking.
“Shhh…” he whispered, stroking her shoulders. “You’re with me now. I’ve got you.”
Cyra shut her eyes, still trying to process what had happened. “I was so afraid. I thought it was over. I almost drowned.”
“You’re so strong, aren’t you?” he whispered. “Aren’t you tired of being strong? You did such a good job, protecting your prince even while you were poisoned.”
Cyra tensed, and his grip tightened. His head turned in so he whispered directly into her ear. “You were even able to land a blow on me, now that’s impressive. You’ve always been surprising me. I imagine you would have been full of other surprises for me if you hadn’t become the Vialyan’s whore.”
She tried to pull away as her memories came rushing back. The caverns, Ano, Vitalis, the rockfall.
His grip twisted. It was too tight, wrapping around her like chains.
Something about this struck another cord in her memories. Ano’s hands bruised her shoulders, jerking her back. Yes, there was something about this… his kind, gently face had become twisted. Scales flickered across his forehead. His teeth sharpened into fangs as he spat in her face. His eyes were an unnatural red.
Her legs were knocked out from under her.
The water rose; waves slammed against the bark with a terrible fury.
She remembered this.
His hands went around her neck. Water crashed over her face. She clawed at him, thrashing and writhing, but she was too weak after being battered by the water once already to make a difference.
Once… or had it been twice? No…three times…five? Seven or ten? Or more?
This kept happening.
Cyra screamed. Ano laughed.
Water filled her lungs and she couldn’t breathe. He was drowning her.
As she suffocated under the water, the last thing she saw were Ano’s red eyes, exactly the same as they had been every other time she had died.
* * *
Cyra’s little hands scrambled against the rough bark as she climbed.
Mandana was off in the corner, counting. Soray was crawling into her hiding spot behind the bushes.
Soray’s mother had dozed off from where she sat on one of the benches against the wall.
Mandana would never think to look for her up in the tree, not after their own mother had told them to stay away. Cyra felt very clever for thinking of it. It was the perfect hiding spot.
Of course, the tree’s magic rubbed her the wrong way. It was dark and heavy, weighing her down. It wasn’t like her own magic at all, but Cyra could ignore it at the moment.
She was so tired of losing all the time. She was going to win at something, even if she had to climb the strange tree to do so.
She was tired of being last behind Soray, Mandana, and Mihrab.
Even that Anoshiruvan kid was better than her at everything, and he was just some desert kid.
Fine. Let them be better than her.
She’d win this, and then she’d win again, and she’d find something she was the best at, better than the rest of them. Cyra was done being second best to everyone.
They’d see her, not who she stood by or behind.
She may only be seven, but it had been seven long years of being everyone’s shadow.
Cyra found herself a comfortable crook and made sure she couldn’t be seen when Mandana finished counting.
Mandana looked around a moment before carefully combing through the garden. Cyra grinned as Mandana’s gaze stayed on the ground.
Then, almost out of nowhere, there was a loud crash and a scream.
Soray’s mother leapt to her feet, blinking as she shook off her disorientation.
Mandana froze. Her head whipped around. Loud shouts and the sounds of fighting grew closer.
Cyra clutched the tree branches. She couldn’t move.
Mandana whispered. “Cyra! Come out now! We have to go.”
Soray’s mother quickly took Mandana and herded her away from the front of the garden. “No, there’s no time for that. Go hide, stay absolutely silent. Don’t move.”
A group of huge, terrifying men stormed in. Soray’s mother spun to face them, hiding her fear behind bravado.
Mandana slowly backed away, shifting so she was behind the tree. She pressed her back against the bark and glanced up. Mandana froze in horror as she saw Cyra shaking from where she was hidden in the branches. Mandana mouthed Cyra’s name and shook her head. She had never seen her older sister look so afraid before.
“Shahbanu!” The leader of the men stomped up to Soray’s mother, grabbing her arm. He snarled in her face. “Give us the little shahdokht.”
Her eyes flashed with a rage only a parent could have. She spat in his face, listing his head high.
The leader backhanded her and threw her down. “If she won’t give us the heir, kill her.”
One of his lackeys eagerly stepped forward, drawing a curved sword. There was something odd about him. While everyone else was dressed in loose clothes with cut off sleeves, his arms were wrapped in black fabric despite the summer heat. His teeth looked a little sharper than most.
Cyra could see it all from her perch. She was too high up, too well hidden from them to see, but through the holes in the leaves and branches, Cyra watched as Soray’s mother screamed, kicking and clawing at her attacker.
She was, however, a queen and a mother, not a warrior by any means.
It was over, and Cyra had to use every once of self control she had not to scream or cry or retch.
“Shahdokht! There’s no use hiding from us!”
Cyra blinked away the water in her eyes. She quickly spotted Soray, shaking behind a bush. Her hands were over her mouth as she rocked back and forth.
Cyra couldn’t move; she couldn’t breathe.
Were they all going to die?
“Here I am.”
Mandana had stepped out from behind the Ruins’ Tree. She drew herself up to all the height she had, which wasn’t much.
They grabbed Mandana. The man who attacked Soray’s mother, held Mandana in place as the leader leaned down and growled in Mandana’s face. Mandana didn’t even flinch as he spat, “Aren’t you a brave little shahdokht? Do you see your mother there, go on, look!”
Cyra shut her eyes, but she knew what was about to happen. Mandana was pretending to be Soray to protect them both.
Mandana always had looked like Soray. Cyra always had looked like Mandana.
Mandana always had been brave.
She’d always been kind.
Cyra didn’t deserve a sister like her.
Mandana’s screams pulled her eyes open. What she saw would haunt her until the day she died.
Palace guards burst in, arresting the men, but it was too late. Soray’s mother and Cyra’s sister were gone.
Cyra watched one man escape the fighting. He shot up the palace wall before anyone could catch him. He caught sight of her in the Ruins’ Tree. He grinned, and Cyra swore for a moment his eyes were red.
* * *
Sand shifted under her feet, turning into water. The cycle continued once more.
* * *
“Don’t trust him, Cyra.”
The waves beat her down.
“This is your dreamscape, your mind, Cyra.”
Her lungs burned.
“Use your magic.”
How? Cyra wanted to cry out. What could she possibly do?
Cyra did so; she stopped fighting. She tucked her arms in and let herself go deep below the waves. She pulled her magic around her, holding it in tightly.
She ignored the roots of the Ruins’ Tree, beckoning her to it. She sunk and sunk and sunk until there was no more water left.
Cyra could breathe again. She dropped to her knees on something cold. She recognized it. Vitalis had described it to her once. Apparently, and this Cyra still struggled to believe, Vialya could get so cold in the winter that bodies of water like ponds, even lakes occasionally could freeze all the way across the top. Sometimes it was sturdy enough that people could walk across them.
She knelt on the ice.
She rubbed her hands across the ice, shivering against the cold. The fog faded from it, showing her something below. The ice disappeared, and there she stood.
She was in Vitalis’ room. She spun around, gaping. With a tremor in her hand, she reached out to touch the desk in front of her, but she couldn’t feel it, not really. She didn’t exist not physically. She was just looking in.
The door opened, and Prince Vitalis stepped inside. Mihrab was following him with his head bowed.
Cyra hurried to Vitalis to take a closer look. He was… He looked…
He was pale and looked like he was awfully sick. Dark circles were under his sunken eyes. They were bloodshot as well. His shoulders were dropped as though under a great weight.
Had he been sleeping? Was he even eating?
Vitalis rushed past where Cyra stood, ignoring everything else as he went to his bed where—
Cyra hurried after him, freezing when she saw who laid on his bed.
She stared at her own face. Vitalis carefully placed his hand on her forehead. He sighed and checked her pulse, pausing to measure it.
Vitalis straightened and glanced at Mihrab. “No change.”
Mihrab shook his head and stared at his sister’s still body. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing anymore.”
Vitalis narrowed his eyes. “She’s still here. She’ll wake up from this; I’m sure of it.”
“She’s barely alive, and she might wake up. I pray she does, but she might not.” Mihrab crossed his arms. “We have to prepare ourselves for the worst.”
Vitalis’ eyes flared in anger. “I’m not giving up on her! I’m not going to another funeral, not hers.”
That’s when Cyra realized what was off. They were both dressed in Sardesi mourning clothes.
They had just returned from Soray’s funeral.
“I’m not saying give up,” Mihrab snapped at Vitalis. “I’m saying you need to start preparing yourself in case things don’t get better.”
“That bastard isn’t taking her to the grave, not if I have anything to say about it!” Vitalis looked back at her body. Cyra looked at her own face. Her lips were slightly parted as small breaths of air filtered through. She wasn’t as tan as she normally was. How long had she been unconscious?
“What can you do about it? We’ve already tried everything.” Mihrab stepped forward. “Maybe if you had told me what was happening this never would have happened!”
Vitalis flinched like Mihrab had actually hit him. “I’m well aware Cyra’s like this because of me. I never imagined this would happen, but I can’t change what has happened. I can only change what will happen. She will wake up.”
“How can you possibly know that? Our best healers have said even they can’t predict for certain what is going on in her head right now.” Mihrab eyed Vitalis. “Why do you think she’ll wake up?”
“Because I need her to wake up,” Vitalis said. He reached out, and Cyra watched his fingers brush the back of her hands. “I need her.”
Mihrab ran a hand over his face. “She hates you.”
Vitalis didn’t bother looking at him. He kept staring at Cyra’s face. “No, she doesn’t. She may have hated me in the beginning, but not now. She’s changed; I’ve changed. She knows me better than anyone.”
“I never thought I’d see the day…” Mihrab muttered. He stepped towards Vitalis. Something was turning around inside his head. “There is one thing we can try, but it’s risky, since we have no way of knowing what’s happening in her head, if there’s anything left in there. All I’m asking is for you to promise me something when or if we get her back.”
Cyra shook as another voice drowned out her brother’s.
“Cyra! Come here.”
Ano. Him. Again.
He must have noticed she wasn’t following along the cycle.
“Do you understand the risk you’re taking Prince Vitalis?” Mihrab asked. “This is dangerous. You might get just as lost as Cyra. If you can’t save her, you won’t come back either.”
“I understand,” Vitalis said. He closed his eyes for a moment. He looked so… exhausted. He looked like he was in agony. He opened his eyes, and his fingers brushed her cheek.
She could feel his touch, and she leaned into the hand ghosting across her cheek.
Vitalis looked back at Mihrab. “I’d rather be trapped in the dreamworld with her than leave her there to die all alone.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Mihrab stood behind Vitalis. “And if you do succeed to bring her back, you understand that Cyra—”
Cyra was sent to her knees as Ano screamed in her head. “You can’t hide from me!”
Water was pooling around her feet.
Her palm warmed as if someone was holding it. She turned and saw Vitalis was carefully holding her hand.
He bowed his head, resting it on the bed.
Mihrab started a short incantation.
The water came crashing around her, breaking the illusion of the real world around her. A wave crashed into her, knocking her over, filling her mouth.
“Zvezda moya, please, Cyra let me in.”
Her brother’s magic reached out to her. Cyra reached back. Her magic twisted and strained, picking up on something familiar, something safe, something comforting.
The waves continued to toss her around. Something dark passed over her.
Fear seized her.
Her muscles froze. She couldn’t move.
It was him.
Ano was nearby. He was looking for her, calling out her name.
Wait, why did that sound so much like her own voice?
The waters stilled, and Cyra broke to the surface.
Air cooled her lungs.
There she was.
Mandana was standing at the top off the Ruins’ Tree. Ano sped through the water towards her. Mandana laughed as him as he started climbing after her.
Mandana, even when she was just Cyra’s memory, was trying to protect her.
Cyra twisted in the water. The motion sent her sliding beneath the surface again.
He had come.
He was far away, but she could make out his figure through the hazy water. Ice crawled across the surface of the water as Vitalis sprinted across it.
The waves began churning again, dragging Cyra down further.
Mandana’s presence had disappeared. Ano had caught her.
There was a splash and the waters increased their furious twisting, raging against her, too strong for her.
Ano’s dark presence was approaching.
Vitalis filled her vision. He quickly wrapped one arm around her, holding her tightly. Once he had her, he shot towards the surface, swimming as fast as possible.
They broke the surface, and Cyra panted and coughed up water. She clutched Vitalis, the only thing keeping her from drowning again.
“You’re here,” Cyra whispered.
“Where else would I be? You’re here,” Vitalis said, treading water.
Cyra was about to respond when Ano’s dark magic sent her reeling. The water kept turning.
Vitalis started swimming back to the ice. Cyra grasped the edge and pulled herself up back onto something solid. Vitalis hurried after her.
They didn’t pause to look behind them; they just began running.
“How do we get out?” Vitalis asked.
“Do you see a door anywhere?” Cyra asked, risking a glance over her shoulder. Ano had climbed onto the ice.
“I think so,” Vitalis said, taking her hand, increasing their pace. “I think it’s back before the ice in the sand somewhere.”
They both looked back. Ano was gaining on them. Each time his foot came down the ice cracked and splintered under him.
Small cracks were spreading under their feet.
They were running faster than they ever had before.
The shore appeared in their sight, sending a bright spark of hope through her.
The ice underneath them shifted, breaking. Her feet fumbled and the water splashed around her ankles, almost dragging her back down. Vitalis quickly pulled her up.
Vitalis feet just hit the sand when a hand snatched Cyra’s arm, wrenching her away from Vitalis.
Water rose around her ankles, and she froze at the sight of those awful red eyes.
“Cyra!” Vitalis spun around, reaching for her.
“Leave my sister alone!” A little girl’s voice bounced through the air, shaking them all.
There was loud crack that ripped through the air.
Ano let out an inhuman, skin crawling screech.
Cyra shot out of his grasp, taking Vitalis’ hand. She stumbled to the door, flinging it open.
She pushed Vitalis through, throwing one last look over her shoulder.
Ano was staggering back to his feet. His face was twisted in pain. Mandana was sitting the tree branches, holding a jagged, snapped branch.
Cyra threw herself through the door after Vitalis.