After Cyra tricked Vitalis into thinking she had gone to sleep, she bandaged her ankle and adjusted her pants so Vitalis would never see it. She could tell he was worried out of his mind for her despite the brave, comforting face he put on for her. His concern and love was so obvious in every move he made and breath he breathed. She’d scare him even more if he knew Ano had somehow been able to cause that injury. He was better off not knowing.
Cyra also took of the bracelets Ano had given her. She’d taken the jewelry and shut it away in a box in her room. There was magic in them; she’d have to destroy them carefully. She wouldn’t dare just toss them for fear of what they might do to someone else who found them.
Vitalis didn’t ask what she did with them. She wasn’t wearing them anymore, that was good enough for him.
They spent the day waiting, resting so they would be ready for Sanaz and Roya’s meeting.
The sun was setting as Cyra slid her sharpened daggers into the sheathes on her hips. She tucked Keturah’s dagger into the easiest place to reach. If Ano found them that night, Keturah’s dagger would be the only weapon she had that could hurt him.
The only other weapon she knew of would have been her father’s sword, and Mihrab was keeping a tight grip on it.
They climbed out of the window and scaled down the wall while they still had some light.
Once they reached Roya’s, Cyra and Vitalis hid in the alley behind her house, crouching under the sill like they did the first time Sanaz came by.
Roya paced the floor of her home, looking sick to her stomach.
Cyra and Vitalis both hated asking this of her, but it was all they had.
A knock sounded. Cyra and Vitalis shifted so they could see inside without being seen by Sanaz. A hand slid around hers, and as she turned her head to Vitalis, he gave her hand a quick comforting squeeze. Cyra ducked her head back to Roya, but she didn’t pull her hand away.
Roya opened the door, and Sanaz hugged her immediately. Sanaz said, “I’m sorry it took so long, but you had to be the one to reach out to me. Things have been busy, and you need to want this even amongst all the rumors going around.”
“What happened?” Roya asked. “That thing that you said last time, did it have to do with the shahdokht’s death?”
“It did. She had to go,” Sanaz said with a small twinge of regret lining her words.
Vitalis’ presence was the only reason Cyra didn’t leap into the room and gut her.
“She would have gotten in the way of the true heir taking Sardes’ throne again. We’re so close.” Sanaz beamed. “It’ll be like the Banishment War never happened!”
“Sanaz,” Roya spoke carefully, “where is the heir? When is he coming back?”
“He’s gaining his strength; he’s gathering us all together so we can be part of this revolution.” She gripped Roya’s shoulders. “You can be part of this revolution.”
“How much time is left? Before this revolution happens?” Roya asked, stepping back. She was edging towards the window, and Cyra was ready to jump in if at any second Sanaz proved to be a threat.
However, an odd sound hit her ears and strange skin crawling sensation passed over her. She pulled her eyes away for a moment to look over her shoulder. Were they being watched?
Cyra’s eyes scanned the shadows, but no one was there.
“The Century Storm. That’s when it’ll happen.”
Cyra’s head snapped back to Roya.
Vitalis squeezed her hand again.
“Will you come back? We need you, and you need to be on our side.” Sanaz begged.
“I need to think about it,” Roya said. She glanced at the window a moment before catching herself. “This is some monumental stuff.”
Cyra swore she felt someone watching her. Fingers ghosted across her neck. Her head turned, but Vitalis was focused on Roya and Sanaz.
Cyra watched the rest of the alley. It was dark and late at night. She could barely see anything, much less if someone was watching from some hidden corner.
But someone was there, she just couldn’t see them. Her hand started to reach towards Keturah’s dagger.
Something flickered in front of her. They were moving. Cyra carefully shifted her weight, pulling her hand out of Vitalis’ grip. She moved towards them. It was a figure wrapped in black from head to toe, and all she could really make out were bloody red eyes.
Ano was right there.
Cyra drew Keturah’s dagger. She slashed at his chest, and a hand grabbed her shoulder. The dagger fell from her grip as Ano flickered before her eyes and was gone.
“Cyra?” Vitalis stared at her, worry ate at his face.
Cyra’s hands shook.
Ano had been there. She’d seen him. He had been right there!
“Ano—He was right there! I swear. I felt him watching us.” Cyra hissed, catching Vitalis’ sleeve. “He said he’d find us. I saw him!”
“No one was watching us. No one was there,” Vitalis whispered.
“I…” Cyra looked around, but there was no trace of anyone else. Ano wasn’t there. Ano hadn’t ever been there. “I saw him.”
“I believe you,” Vitalis said. “You saw him, but I need you to focus. It was just your head messing with you. It’s the worry, the anxiety, it’s just playing tricks on you. We’re not in danger right now. Do you believe me?”
Cyra nodded and picked up the dagger. She slid it back in its sheath.
“Sanaz left, let’s talk to Roya,” Vitalis said. Cyra nodded again, not trusting her voice. They began walking towards the front of the house.
Cyra glanced back one last time. Red eyes met hers, and he smiled the same terrifying grin that he always did when he knew he had won.
* * *
Cyra didn’t say another word about what she had seen that night. Vitalis didn’t bring it up either. Cyra couldn’t tell if it was because of fear or something else. She certainly didn’t want to think about it.
Something strange was happening to her, at least, Cyra knew it had to do with Ano. That knowledge alone made her throw herself into her work with Vitalis.
They had made another trip to the library to try and narrow down some locations.
Cyra’s arms were full of rolled up maps when Mihrab stormed in.
“I thought you had agreed to stay out of it.” Mihrab crossed his arms and stepped between Cyra and Vitalis.
Cyra shifted the papers so she didn’t drop them. “Mihrab, what are you talking about?”
He rolled his eyes and took the maps out of her hands. He dumped them onto the table. “You’re trying to locate the demon so you can go on some suicide mission to kill him.”
Mihrab turned to glare at Vitalis, clenching his fists. He had one arm half raised, and fear shot through Cyra that he might actually try and hit Vitalis. “You, I can’t believe you have the gall to claim you love my sister when you’re practically tying the noose yourself! How can you possibly think you love her when all you’ve ever done and continue to do is put her in danger?”
Vitalis winced at his words, and Cyra grabbed Mihrab, forcing him to face her. “I don’t know what has got you so paranoid as to speak to a prince like that, but you need to calm down. I don’t know where you’re getting these crazy ideas. Vitalis and I are trying to plan his route back to Vialya.”
Mihrab eyed her, and Cyra narrowed her eyes. He frowned at her before glancing at Vitalis.
Vitalis nodded, playing along with Cyra’s lie. Genuine hurt shone on his face, though. Mihrab’s words had really gotten to him, but a spark shone in his eyes. “I love Cyra, whatever you think of me, whatever doubts you have about my character, never doubt how much I love her. I’d sooner die than let anything happen to her.”
She hadn’t expected him to say that. They hadn’t really spoken anymore about it. To hear Vitalis say it again sent a rush of warmth through her heart. Cyra surprised herself when she realized it didn’t make her uncomfortable to hear it anymore.
If she was being honest, she almost liked hearing it. As awful as things were, as conflicted as she was over her own feelings, her grief, Cyra couldn’t deny how close Vitalis was to her. She couldn’t deny how much he meant to her.
As complicated as things were, as much as Cyra knew she didn’t love him like he did her, Cyra was able to take some comfort in the fact he did love her.
“You certainly don’t act like it.” Mihrab glared. He reached for Cyra’s elbow. “I need to have a word with you, alone.”
Cyra sent Vitalis a reassuring glance before saying, “Alright.”
They stepped out of the library, leaving Vitalis to the maps. Mihrab leaned against the smooth stone wall and sighed, “If he loves you as much as he claims to, why does he constantly put you at risk? Surely he knows what the shah would do to you if anything happens to him?”
Cyra smiled, but it was cold and unfeeling. She loved Mihrab, but her patience was running low. “Prince Vitalis doesn’t put me at risk. Actually, he doesn’t let me do anything. I’m the one who stormed into his room and told him there was no way I wasn’t going to be his bodyguard. And, no, Vitalis has no idea what the shah would do, or well, I let him think it would be a slap on the wrist.”
Cyra shrugged and said, “But, either way, it doesn’t matter because we’re not doing anything other than trying to find Vitalis the fastest route home. He’s homesick, you know?”
Mihrab eyed her; he clearly didn’t buy it. “Right. Just in case you get any ideas, I suggest you forget them.”
Cyra simply nodded, listening but not caring.
“Cyra,” Mihrab sighed, “do you love him?”
That caught her off guard.
“I loved Ano for years. It’s only been a few weeks since I had to start getting over him, when he got engaged and then turned out to be a lie, and even now, I don’t know whether what I felt could really be called love when the man I loved didn’t exist,” Cyra said lowering her gaze. “How could I possibly love anyone else so soon after that?”
“That wasn’t a no,” Mihrab pointed out. “Regardless, you care about him, don’t you?”
Cyra nodded. That much she wouldn’t deny.
“You are an amazing warrior, and I won’t tell you otherwise. I’m sure you can keep him safe, but why risk it? Why put both yourself and a man you care deeply about at risk when I can handle this demon? Why put him at risk when you don’t have to? Trust me, I can handle this.” Mihrab touched her shoulder. Cyra looked up. She saw it in his face.
She understood that he wasn’t intentionally trying to be rude or spiteful towards Vitalis, even if he ended up like that. He just didn’t want his sister to suffer any more. He wanted to take the burden off her shoulders. Mihrab wanted to protect her.
At her silence, Mihrab gave her a tight hug. “Just be careful, don’t do anything stupid, and stay out of trouble.”
He was gone moments later.
Cyra stood in the hallway. Could she really protect Vitalis? She wasn’t so sure anymore.
Ano had been able to get into her head. She’d taken the necklace off, but then she saw him, or saw something. It had been some illusion or hallucination. Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again?
Could she really protect Vitalis if she couldn’t trust her own mind?
Cyra stepped back into the library.
“Are you alright?” Vitalis asked as Cyra sat back down at the table.
“Of course.” Cyra shook her head as she started unrolling the maps. “Don’t listen to Mihrab. He means well, but isn’t the best at expressing it.”
“Maybe he’s right,” Vitalis sighed. “I can’t possibly ask you to do this. I’ve put you in danger so much. If you got hurt, again, because of me—”
“I put myself in danger, alright? It’s been my decision from the start, not yours. We both agreed we have to see this through. You’re not doing it without me.” Cyra reached across the table and took his hand.
Vitalis smiled. “Right, I’d expect nothing less from you.”
They both began looking at the maps. Vitalis said, “We know that his next strike will be the night of the storm, but where? Is he going to attack the palace?”
“Most likely, I don’t see a point in attack anywhere else. Everything he wants is here. He wants the shah dead and the throne to be his. However, knowing that doesn’t help if we want to prevent him from attacking at all.” Cyra pointed to where Shiraz sat on the map. “We know he left here, but there’s no telling how far he got before he stopped and how that’ll affect his return.”
“We know the storm is less than a week away. He can’t be any further than a few days out,” Vitalis said. “But in which direction? To another city to hide in the crowd? Or the desert?”
“If he wanted to blend into a crowd he would have stayed and done that in Shiraz. He’s probably in the desert.” Cyra ran her fingers over the paper.
“But where?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra shook her head as they stared at the wasteland that engulfed the map.
He could be anywhere in there. Even if they had the resources to, it would take them weeks to search the whole area.
Cyra and Vitalis spent the rest of the day comparing maps and debating, but by the time they both went back to his room and fell asleep, they were no closer to figuring it out.
* * *
Cyra’s stress and worry only increased more when she found out the next day that Mihrab had left again, hunting down some lead in a nearby city.
After spending most of the day tracking down all of the details, Cyra and Vitalis knew Mihrab was chasing a dead end. He wasn’t going to find Ano there, not when Cyra was positive Ano was in the desert.
“How much longer?” Vitalis asked, looking out of the window and at the sky. Wisps of clouds hovered in the distance.
“I’ve been hearing three days at this rate,” Cyra said as she paced the room. “If we don’t stop him before he reaches the palace, I fear we won’t be able to stop him at all.”
“There’s nothing left we can do. Our only choice is to wait for him to arrive,” Vitalis sighed.
Cyra’s fingers brushed the hollow of her neck where Ano’s necklace used to sit. An idea slowly took root in her head. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
It was a terrifying idea, but it was the only one she had.
“There is something we can try,” Cyra said carefully.
Vitalis turned quickly. “What are you thinking?”
“Ano always came into my head,” Cyra said as she walked up to Vitalis. “I’ve never actually been in his, but that doesn’t mean I can’t.”
“You think you might be able to get into his head and find out where he is?” Vitalis’ eyes widened. “You’re not serious.”
“Have a better idea than just waiting for him to kill the shah?” Cyra crossed her arms, struggling to hide how repulsed she was by her own idea.
“No, but you didn’t see yourself that last time. You were thrashing around, screaming and crying. I had to hold you down; you were trying to hurt yourself, lashing out at me.” Vitalis face had paled as he remembered. Fear washed over his eyes. “I couldn’t wake you up. No matter what I did, you just kept crying, and… I couldn’t help you.”
Cyra shifted her weight, ducking her gaze. “You didn’t see what Ano did inside my head. I wouldn’t be suggesting it if it wasn’t our only option. I don’t like the idea any more than you do.”
“What scares me the most is that I know you’re going to say to my next question.” Vitalis reached for her shoulders, stepping closer. “Will you let me go with you?”
Cyra shook her head, horrified at the thought of letting Vitalis anywhere near Ano’s head. “No. I can’t risk you like that. I have to go alone. You have to stay here. If things go wrong, you’ll have to wake me up and pull me back.”
“How? I couldn’t last time. How could I pull you back?” Vitalis asked, leaning his head down. His forehead brushed hers.
“In order to get into his head, I’ll have to wear that necklace. It helped him get into my head. I’m sure it can help me get into his.” Cyra pulled her head back slightly. Her fingers touched the empty spot where the necklace would sit. “If I start panicking, if I’m not back by midnight, get it off of me, get the bracelets off me.”
Vitalis’ hands moved down her shoulders, clasping his hands around her bare wrists, sending warmth through her skin. He whispered, “And if you still don’t wake up?”
“Do anything. Shake me, yell at me, slap me, hit me, I don’t care what you do. Dump water on me and shock me out of it. Try and suffocating me if it’ll bring me back. Absolutely anything,” Cyra said, hiding the tremor in her voice.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Vitalis gently squeezed her wrists, rubbing circles into her skin.
“You would be saving me. Besides,” Cyra said with a weak smile, “I doubt you’d really be able to do any damage. I’m pretty tough, trust me.”
“No other choice, right?” Vitalis asked, staring into her. She could see the plea in his eyes, hoping for something.
“No other choice.” Cyra nodded.
* * *
“You shouldn’t go looking for him!” Mandana’s faded voice rung in her ears as Cyra brushed sand off her knees.
Cyra grit her teeth and kept walking while Mandana appeared at her side.
“This is a bad idea! We have a hard enough time handling him here in your own mind, can you imagine how much stronger he’ll be in his own twisted head?”
Cyra ducked around the Ruins’ Tree to see where a door was forming out of sand nearby.
Mandana’s small hand pulled at Cyra’s shirt. “Vitalis may not be able to pull you back! Ano’s hold on you is too strong, too rooted.”
“Vitalis is smart. He can do it,” Cyra said, remembering her words to Ano. “I’m strong, stronger than he is.”
“Just what makes you so confident about that?”
That wasn’t Mandana’s voice.
Cyra looked over her shoulder, and her heart was torn in two all over again.
Soray walked up to her, and she was as beautiful as Cyra remembered.
Cyra swallowed painfully. “I am stronger than him, and he knows it. Every single time he’s gone after Vitalis, any time he’s known he’d have to fight me, he either incapacitated me, poisoned me, and the only time he wasn’t able to do that, he ran away, taking the first chance he had to escape.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t just holding back because he still needed you for his plan?” Soray said as she walked across the sand to Cyra. “He may not have faced you at your strongest, but that doesn’t mean you’ve faced him at his.”
“What do you know?” Cyra spat, pain and guilt ripping her apart seeing her. “You’re dead!”
“I’m dead because of him. If anyone here knows what he’s capable of, it’s me.” Soray came to a stop in front of Cyra.
Cyra hesitated, but forced herself to look into the ghost’s eyes.
“The dreamworld is mine.” Cyra clenched her firsts. Her fear, her doubt, and certainly not two dead girls were not talking her out of this. “I do not remember a time when the midnight hour was not mine. I’ll be damned before that demon takes my magic from me with pathetic attempts to scare me.”
Cyra reached for the doorknob.
Soray caught Cyra’s arm. Desperation and terror filled her eyes. It was all the terror Cyra was burying in her own heart. “You’re not listening! You don’t know what he is capable of! He’s a demon with powerful, dark magic. You’re underestimating how powerful he is even in the dreamworld!”
Cyra jerked her arm out of her cousin’s grip. She opened the door. “No. You’re wrong. He looked at me and saw someone who was weak, a girl he could manipulate and use. He underestimated me. He’s got no idea what I’m capable of.”
Cyra stepped through the door, shutting it before Soray’s voice could follow her.
She grabbed the necklace that was tightening around her throat. “Take me to him. Show me the way.”