“After all that, he’s just gone?” Roya gaped at them from where they were all sat on her floor after Cyra and Vitalis explained what had happened. The windows were all shut, and they kept their voices low.
“Yes, the tunnel that Cyra collapsed was searched, but he wasn’t found, and it was too dangerous to try and go further into the cavern.” Vitalis answered.
Cyra stared at her hands. “We might have stood a chance if I hadn’t fallen in a coma. He’s gotten so much a lead on us. He could be weeks away from the city.”
“That’s not your fault,” Vitalis said softly.
“How can I help?” Roya asked.
Vitalis and Cyra exchanged a reluctant look. Cyra gave him a reassuring nod.
“I hate that I have to ask this, but we have no other way.” Vitalis’ face showed the same pained resignation Cyra felt. “We need you to contact Sanaz, so we can find out where the demon went.”
Roya slowly stood. She paced the floor of her house. Her hands covered her face and mussed her hair. “You… You want me go back to them so I can help you.”
“No!” Cyra leapt to her feet, catching Roya’s shoulders. “No, we want you to string Sanaz along. Let her believe you need time to be convinced. You’re not going back, we just need Sanaz out of hiding.”
Roya’s legs shook, and Cyra kept her upright. “I’ll do it then. Promise me you won’t let them take me back, and I’ll do it.”
“I won’t let them touch you, I swear.” Cyra forced Roya to look into her eyes, to show her she meant it. Ano wasn’t taking anyone else.
“Alright, I trust you.” Roya nodded. “I told you I would do anything to help, and I meant it. I can arrange a meeting with Sanaz here for tomorrow night.”
“That would be great. We can’t thank you enough.” Vitalis rose to his feet, beaming.
Roya gave him a tight, anxious look. “Thank me when you kill the demon who took my little girl.”
“He won’t get away with all that he’s done, I promise.” Vitalis offered his hand to her.
Roya shook it solemnly.
After discussing few more details, Cyra and Vitalis hurried back to the palace. They scaled up the wall and were in Vitalis’ room right as a knock sounded on the door.
Cyra had one leg over the sill as the guard kept knocking. Vitalis pulled her over the rest of the way, saying, “Come in!”
She scrambled to her feet, throwing the curtains shut as the door opened.
The guard looked at Cyra. He seemed to be taking notice of the lack of space between her and Vitalis. Even while she was in coma and throughout the ordeal of Soray’s death and funeral, the court had not stopped whispering about her. He said, “I was sent to let you know Mihrab will be gone for a day or two. He’s heading out of the city right now to hunt down the demon.”
“Thank you for letting me know,” Cyra said and dismissed him with a wave of her hand. He nodded, shut the door, and was gone.
“Should we be worried?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra shook her head. “No, Mihrab’s probably following some of our dead ends, or checking to see if Ano is hiding in the area surrounding Shiraz. Besides, we have to stay here for Roya. Sanaz is our best chance right now.”
“Do you think he’s still in the city?” Vitalis asked as he sat on his bed.
“I think Sanaz is our best chance at finding out.” Cyra took a seat on the sofa, leaning against the arm.
“We won’t know until tomorrow, but I think you’re right,” Vitalis said. A fond look passed through his face before he hid it.
Cyra fought the small twinge of disappointment that went through her when the warmth left his face. She gave him a tight grin, trying to cover her own disappointment. “I should get to be right about something every once in a while.”
They continued talking, carefully falling back into the same sense of companionship and comradery they had before Vitalis’ confession. Vitalis made it so easy to laugh, and he made her feel so comfortable with him despite any lingering awkwardness.
Cyra was able to fall asleep with a slight smile on her face. She was slowly and carefully gaining hope that maybe things wouldn’t be all bad anymore.
Maybe someday soon it would all be over. They could all start to be alright again.
At least, that’s what Cyra had begun to hope before she felt the sand beneath her.
The grains dug under her nails as she leapt to her feet. She spun around and her heart froze when she spotted the Ruins’ Tree directly in front of her.
Her fingertips brushed the bark. “This is impossible. I didn’t bring myself here.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Chills went down her back at the sound of his beautiful, enchanting voice. Her legs shook, and she had to grab the tree to keep from falling. Her stomach rolled.
His hand ran across her shoulder. “I brought you here. Wanted to see you again. It’s been a while.”
Cyra twisted out of his grip, spinning around to stare into Ano’s face. “How are you doing this?”
“Shh…” His hand brushed her cheek, and Cyra backed into the tree. “I just want to talk. You’ll wake up from this.”
“We’ll find you,” she hissed. Her blood boiled. “I will find you, and I will make you regret ever laying eyes on Soray.”
“I wish that hadn’t happened that way.” Ano stepped even closer. Her forehead touched hers, and his red eyes pierced her to her very core. His thumb brushed her cheek, and Cyra flinched at the feeling of scales. “Just imagine if Vitalis hadn’t been around.”
She spat in his face and tried to bite his hand.
Ano grabbed her and spun her around. He pulled them both to ground, so he sat against the tree. One hand was clamped over her mouth while the other restrained her arms and held her to his chest. Cyra struggled, but Ano seemed to be much stronger than she remembered. She huffed and groaned, but couldn’t get a word out.
Ano leaned in, brushing his head against hers. “You and I would have snuck around, hiding from Soray and Mihrab. You’d be so comfortable with me, and I’d have started dropping hints to you that I wanted more, wanted to marry you. I’d propose. You’d agree, and then to celebrate, I would bring you down to cavern; you would assume it would be just us. Then, well, you saw what happened. Just picture yourself in Soray’s place.”
Cyra shook as she kept pushing and fighting against him, making muffled shouts from under his hand.
She could see it. It was so easy to imagine herself laying on that altar, having the life drained out of her. It was so easy to imagine Mihrab standing at her own coffin, being forced to bury yet another little sister. It was all so real and vivid, and tears came to her eyes. Why hadn’t that happened? Why had it been Soray? Why couldn’t it have been Cyra instead?
No matter how hard Cyra tried to fight it, no matter what Cyra did with the rest of her life, she knew should wouldn’t be able to shake this.
It should have been her.
If Cyra had known, if she’d had a choice or a chance, she would have laid down on that altar, but it hadn’t been her.
Why hadn’t it been her?
“Beautiful picture isn’t it?” She could feel him smile into the side of her head. She tried to claw at his arm, but his grip was too tight.
Something clenched and tightened around her neck, choking the air out of her.
He hissed in her ear. “It’s too bad that Vialyan came along. He really made a mess of things. Now I’m not next in line for the throne, and I’ve been forced into hiding, but don’t you worry about me, Cyra. Ano’s face still had a claim to royalty, and talk about demons hasn’t spread much further than the palace. I’ll tell some lovely lies, and no one will be the wiser.”
He stroked her cheek, shifting his head so she could see his painful red eyes in the corner of her vision.
She couldn’t breathe. Her limbs grew weak, and her head spun.
“After all, I was able to lie my way into your heart and head. I had you fooled for years. If I can fool you into loving me, I’m sure I can do the same with the rest of the nation.”
Cyra screamed into his hand; fury surged through her at the thought of how he had used her. She twisted and was able to burst out of his grip. Cyra threw herself forward, scrambling to get her feet under her. She had to get away.
Sand flew up around her as Ano’s hand snagged around her ankle, dragging her back down. He quickly pinned her, pinning her leg in place.
A sharp blade cut into her ankle. Cyra hissed, but kept fighting. She twisted her free leg, trying to kick him off. She wouldn’t let him make her helpless. She’d either die fighting or not at all.
“I’m not done yet, Cyra,” Ano laughed, twirling a dagger in his hand. “I hadn’t gotten to the best part. You know I’ll find you, out there in the real world, or you’ll find me. It doesn’t matter.”
Cyra flipped over onto her back, raising a leg. She aimed for his face, but he caught her foot. He leaned in, letting his red eyes hover over hers. “I’ll say just one word. It doesn’t even have to be a word, but I’ll say it. And do you have any idea what will happen when I do?”
“It’s not going to happen,” Cyra snarled in his face, struggling to get her leg out of his grasp. “I don’t care how smart you think you are, Vitalis is smarter. I don’t care how strong you think you are, I am stronger.”
“Really?” Ano smiled sweetly. He ran the flat of the blade across her leg. “Then why are you still here?”
* * *
She was screaming.
Her eyes flew open as she pushed away the arms reaching for her. She shot to her feet, blindly scrambling for the door, but only tearing her hands open on the stone walls.
She spun around, panting to see Vitalis staring at her with more fear in his eyes than she’d ever seen before.
“I was—” She gaped at her burning, raw hands. “Ano was—he—”
The words wouldn’t come out right. Her throat was still tight.
“Just breathe,” Vitalis said. He carefully walked towards her, keeping his hands raised slightly. “I’m here. He’s not. It was just a nightmare. You’re safe.”
He extended a hand towards her. Cyra shook her head and wrapped her arms around her stomach. Her mind was racing, nothing made sense, nothing was right.
Her legs shook. “Vitalis, you don’t understand…”
“What don’t I understand?” Vitalis spoke softly, keeping his hand offered to her. “Talk to me, Cyra.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “He was there, in my head. It was some sort of sick game to him.”
Vitalis edged closer. She focused on his eyes. The cool, steel blue color was so different from Ano’s. She latched onto his eyes, using them to ground herself.
Cyra could see it now. Vitalis’ eyes held what Ano’s had always been missing. Vitalis’ eyes held so much love in them.
She knew he loved her. He’d been able to downplay it for her sake, so they could be normal, but it had always been there. It was exactly what she needed to see.
He was what she needed.
She threw herself into his arms. He caught her and wrapped his arms around her back. One hand came up to hold her head.
She whispered, “He was saying all these awful things, trying to mess with my head, and I believed him. He made me feel so helpless. I couldn’t do anything to stop him.”
“It’s not true.” Vitalis turned his head, resting it against hers. “Whatever he said isn’t true. He lies, that’s all he’s ever done to you. “
“No,” Cyra said, tightening her grip on Vitalis. Her voice cracked. “That’s what was so awful about it. What he said was true. It was all true.”
“We’ll stop him. He’s not going to win. He’s not going to hurt you again.” Vitalis wove his fingers through her hair. “I promise, I won’t let him hurt you.”
“It’s not about me! Vitalis, please listen to me. He wants us to find him. I don’t know why, but it can’t be good,” Cyra said. Her heart started beating to the same rhythm as Vitalis’ heart. She could feel his heart beating under her hands. To Cyra it was the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard, far better than Ano’s deceptive voice. She could stand there and listen to his heartbeat all night.
“We’ve got the advantage this time. We know what we’re up against. He’s just trying to scare you by getting into your head.” Vitalis’ hand brushed her neck.
Her breath hitched, and her throat closed. It almost felt like someone was choking her. Her hands reached up and snagged on the metal.
She’d never taken it off.
Panic washed over her, and all the air went out of her lungs. Her fingers shook. Black dots entered her vision.
She fumbled to take it off as she swayed, growing dizzy and lightheaded. There was no air.
“Necklace,” she gasped, her hands dropped and she slumped forward as her vision went dark.
“I got it, just breathe.” Vitalis’ fingers brushed neck as he reached around to unclasp it. He helped her stand up, pressing the metal into her hand.
“Ano gave that to you, didn’t he?” Vitalis asked, as his face came back into focus. She gripped the necklace tightly.
“He did,” she rasped. She rubbed her hand over her neck, leaning into Vitalis. “He gave it to me so he could visit my dreamscape no matter how far away he was. It’s been so long since he was there, so long since I even thought about the necklace.”
“See?” Vitalis hand cupped her face. “You’re going to be alright. That demon won’t be able to get into your head again. You’re safe.”
Cyra just nodded into Vitalis’ shoulder. She looked down, and a fresh wave of horror gripped her at the sight of blood trickling down her ankle from a cut she did not have when she went to sleep.
She leaned into Vitalis, holding him tightly. She squeezed her eyes shut and let him whisper comforting words into her ear. Her ankle throbbed in pain, and she focused on his voice and his words.
She couldn’t bring herself to believe him. He was trying so hard to make her feel alright, but it was impossible.
Cyra wasn’t alright.
Ano was still out there. He still had a plan. He’d been able to crawl back into her head. She’d never felt so violated.
It was real what had happened.
They didn’t have an advantage. Ano had all the cards up his sleeves.
The last thing he had said to her, about how all he had to do was just say one word…
It terrified her.
Cyra wouldn’t be safe from him until either she was dead or he was, or both, if it came to that. She had never feared anything more than she feared what would happen when they found him.