Cyra started walking as clear glass grew under her feet. She passed by the door to Vitalis’ mind and kept her gaze ahead.
The necklace pulsed under her hand, burning her skin. As she walked, dark magic began to seep out of it. The toxic feeling made her hiss, and the wretched smell caused her to cough, but she kept going. The more the dark, toxic magic grew, the closer she was to Ano’s mind.
Cyra lost track of how long she had been walking. The stars and moon all blurred together. She’d never gone so far from her own head before.
She paused, trying to catch her breath as the darkness squeezed the air out of her chest. She dropped the necklace and shut her eyes. She rubbed her chest and coughed.
When she opened her eyes, a broken, cracked door was in front of her.
It was his. The toxic air around it told her as much.
Cyra took a deep breath and before her fear could stop her, she pushed open the obsidian door and snuck into Ano’s head.
There was no first thing to notice other than the fact that she couldn’t notice anything. It was pitch black.
“Cyra…” Ano’s voice sang out from somewhere in the darkness.
She tensed and was ready to fight if he approached.
“Cyra, you had to know I would recognize you the second you stepped into my head.”
“Show yourself!” Cyra yelled, hearing her own words echo back. “I’m not here to play your games! You play by my rules today!”
“You think you get to decide how this goes? When you come into my head?” Ano laughed, and his voice bounced around her.
Cyra gathered together her magic in her hands. She slowly whispered an incantation.
Fire shot out from around her, illuminating the room as it traveled. The fire hit a stone altar and stopped. Ano had his legs crossed as he sat on top of it. Scales ran up his arms and were growing up his cheek. His hands were long and thin. His fangs glinted in the light.
The fire began to die, but Cyra was already sprinting towards the altar.
The light had gone by the time Cyra reached him. She threw a punch at him, but her fist struck the air above the altar.
The air moved beside her, and Cyra reacted instantly. She ducked under Ano’s claws, lashing a kick into his shins Her foot sent him stumbling back.
Cyra launched up, swinging her leg forward. Ano’s hands caught it right before her foot struck his side. He started to twist, trying to knock her off balance.
Cyra used her other leg to push herself forward, slamming into Ano. She knocked him down, punching into his abdomen and forcing the air out of his lungs.
His hands grabbed her arm, twisting it, and he reared his leg up. He kicked at her stomach, rolling her off him.
Cyra lunged forward, grabbing his ankle as he stood. His foot slammed onto her chest, but she kept her grip on him. She spat out a quick incantation and fire shot from her hand into his leg, causing him to screech and jump away.
Grinning, Cyra leapt to her feet, using the outside of her arm to block Ano’s claws flying towards her.
She ducked under his next swing, ducking under his arm to grab his neck. She swept one leg out from under him, and threw him down to the altar. His head made a sickening crunching sound against the stone.
With a grunt, she restrained his arms, shoving her knee into his back. She grabbed his head by his hair. She snarled into his ear, “Tell me where you’re hiding.”
“I don’t think so,” Ano laughed.
Cyra pushed his face into the stone harder. “Then I’ll just find it myself.”
With a deep breath, she pulled her magic up to her fingertips. She kept Ano pinned down with her knee and one hand as she poured all her magic into the other hand.
She murmured a few words of incantation before she grabbed at the air, taking hold of the fabric of his mind.
She dug one foot further into the ground, pushing against Ano. She groaned as Ano fought against her. Sweat gathered at her brow as Ano writhed under her hand. Her fingers grasped at her small hold on his mind, struggling to tear it open.
Her arm strained, and her muscles ached. She huffed and kept stretching until Ano began to make muffle screams as she broke into his head.
Cyra had reached the limits of her strength, but she dug her foot in further. She twisted her head to see into the tear she had created.
Sand shifted in the scene before her. Clouds were darkening on the horizon. It was dark, but Cyra could see well enough. Wind kicked up the sand, brushing it off an old stone street. Broken pillars rose out of the ground. Chunks of stone were littered across the sand. Buildings with broken walls and sand filled floors could be seen all around.
The biggest building towered out of the sand. Steps rose out of the sand dune, leading to a pitch black entryway. Cracks cut through the old, faded carvings in the stone from.
It was an ancient city, an ancient palace, or at least the ruins of one.
Of course! The ruins!
Cyra let go of the tear, crying out from the pain shooting through her muscles. The force of it closing sent Cyra reeling. She was forced to let go of Ano as she fell to the ground.
Her legs trembled and wouldn’t move underneath her. Her cheek rested on the ground as she took deep breaths. She got an arm underneath her, but hissed when a foot crashed into her back, causing her wrist to buckle under her chest.
“I hope you had a nice look because that’s the last thing you’ll see.” Ano pressed his foot down harder.
“You’re wrong,” Cyra groaned, digging her fingers into the dirt. She turned her ankle, getting her foot underneath her.
She heaved up with all the strength she had left in her aching limbs.
Ano stumbled back into the altar, catching himself on it.
Cyra rushed away from him. Her arms pumped at her sides as she ran faster than she ever had before towards the door.
She stretched forward; her fingers brushed the handle when her neck was jerked back.
Cyra looked down to see the necklace pulling her back. Ano’s hand was outstretched and he was speaking a strange language.
Cyra ignored how the metal cut into her throat, and she strained to reach the door anyway. Her fingers fumbled for the handle, barely grasping it before flinging the door open.
Ano’s enraged shriek followed her as she fell through the door.
The pressure on her throat eased, and Cyra gasped for breath as she ran back to her mind. In seconds, her door was in front of her, and as soon as her feet brushed sand, she bolted through another door. She opened her eyes.
Arms were around her in an instant. A face buried itself in her neck.
Cyra relaxed in Vitalis’ familiar grip. She rested her head against his. “I’m back. I’m alright.”
“You’re safe.” Vitalis breathed into her hair. “You started thrashing again, groaning in pain.”
“I’m alright,” Cyra repeated, shifting so Vitalis could see her face. She touched his cheek. “See? I’m not hurt. I made it back.”
Vitalis nodded as Cyra untangled herself from his arms and stood up. She stretched her arms, ignoring the ache in them.
Her limbs still felt heavy and weak, but Cyra hoped it would fade. She started towards Vitalis desk where a map of the desert sat.
She intertwined her hand with Vitalis’ and pulled him after her. He asked, “Did you find out something?”
“I know where he is.” Cyra’s other hand brushed the map. Her fingers searched until she found the markings that indicated the old ruins. “I saw it in his head. He’s—”
Cyra choked on the words. She backed away from the desk, coughing and choking.
Her eyelids fluttered. She was so tired. More than anything, Cyra was struck with the overwhelming desire to sleep.
Cyra froze in horror at where her exhaustion came from. It was Ano. He was trying to pull her back to the dreamworld.
The necklace tightened around her throat, causing her to gasp. The bracelets clenched around her wrists.
“Vi—Vitalis,” Cyra gasped. Her fingers scraped against the metal. “He’s—He’s trying to pull me uh—under.”
“How do I keep you awake?” Vitalis spun her around to face him.
Her head dipped as her fingers shook and fumbled with the metal. Her fingers were too unsteady to try and unclasp the necklace. “Shock me… anything that’ll—ugh—surprise me. Keep me awake. Necklace—”
“Please, forgive me.”
Before Cyra could question him or even guess what he meant, Vitalis took her face in his hands. Cyra blinked up at him; her hands fell from her neck.
Faster than she could follow and even faster than Vitalis himself could follow or hesitate, Vitalis kissed her.
Her eyes flew open as he shut his own. Her throat tightened further as his hands slid down to her neck. Her mind just stopped. The panic and fear that had been fighting against her magically induced exhaustions was just gone. All that she could think about or focus on was Vitalis.
He leaned in further and Cyra’s heart jumped. Her hand landed on his shoulder and the other on his waist.
Her mouth moved, parting slightly, and Vitalis’ breath mixed with hers.
Her heart thundered in her chest, speeding up so fast Cyra knew Ano couldn’t possibly slow it down enough to force her to sleep. She supposed that had been Vitalis’ idea.
Cyra began to hesitantly lean into Vitalis touch, barely pressing back to him. Kissing Vitalis, it was so different from all the other times Cyra kissed Ano. With Ano, everything had been fire and passion, but Vitalis was gentle and careful. With Ano, she had burned, but Vitalis sent shivers down her spine.
His fingers gently slid to the back of her neck. He quickly unclasped the necklace. The metal slid across her skin and clattered to the ground.
Her hand slid back from Vitalis’ side to her own.
Vitalis’ hand cupped the back of her head, threading his fingers through her loose curls. He sighed and pulled her closer, wrapping his other arm around her waist. She leaned her head back slightly, and before she had even realized what she was doing, she had slowly started to kiss him back.
Her fingers tightened their grip as her arm slowly moved upwards.
Vitalis’ lips pulled back, and Cyra instantly missed the exhilarating and comforting sensation. He pressed his forehead to hers and held her tightly, keeping his eyes shut.
He smiled, still keeping his eyes shut. “Could you tell I’ve been dying to do that for a while now?”
Cyra started to say something with a grin when an awful wave of overwhelming power hit her head.
Her eyes widened in horror, and her mouth fell open. Her heart froze in her chest.
What had she been about to do?
Her arm was raised behind Vitalis. Her dagger was aimed to strike his heart.
Her hand began to shake in the air. She threw the dagger onto the sofa and wrapped her arms around his back.
“Cyra?” Vitalis rested his head on her shoulder.
“Yes?” She fought to hide the tremor in her voice.
How had that happened?
“Are you alright?” Vitalis’ voice started to ease the fear gripping her. She held him tighter, nodding mutely into his neck. “Are you… are you mad at me?”
The kiss. So much was happening, Cyra couldn’t even process it all.
“No,” Cyra murmured, staring at her own traitorous hands. “No, I’m not mad at you. You kept me awake away from Ano. I don’t care how you did it.”
Vitalis relaxed in her arms. “I know you said earlier that hitting you would work, but I could never hurt you, not like that. But, I was also afraid that what I just did ended up causing more harm than good.”
“No.” Cyra fisted her hands into his shirt. “No, I understand why you did it, and I’m grateful.”
“I hate myself for saying this, but grateful isn’t really what I expected or hoped for.”
“Terrified is another option,” she whispered.
Vitalis pulled his head back, moving his hands up to brush her neck. “Don’t be. I’ve got you. The demon can’t get to you here. You’re safe with me.”
Cyra nodded into his hands, but he was wrong.
She wasn’t safe.
Her hands tightened on the prince further.
Cyra wasn’t safe for Vitalis.
He could say she was safe with him all he wanted, but that didn’t matter.
He wasn’t safe with her.
That knowledge sat in her head all night even as she say by Vitalis’ side while he slept. Even as she let him hold onto her like he was the one drowning and she his salvation, Cyra wondered if she would have realized what she had done after or during. He had one arm around her waist, and his other hand intertwined with hers. His face was buried in her shoulder and every so often, she heard her name pass his lips. Even if she couldn’t hear her name, she felt his lips mouth the word on her skin, and she didn’t mind at all.
Her eyes stayed wide open, and they never wavered from her own hands.
She wouldn’t dare risk closing her eyes and giving Ano any kind of foothold in her actions, not when he clearly had it out for Vitalis.
There was no doubt in Cyra’s mind how deeply this man loved her.
What Cyra was beginning to doubt was if she didn’t.
* * *
Mihrab hadn’t returned by the time Cyra and Vitalis snuck out of the palace. Cyra thought it was easier that way. Vitalis had offered to wait so she could say something to her brother, a veiled goodbye. Cyra told him they didn’t have the time to waste.
Cyra made sure Vitalis had several weapons, and she took several as well even though they both knew the little dagger was the only one that mattered, at least while Mihrab still had her father’s sword.
Even if she wanted to wait and steal it from him, Cyra couldn’t possibly leave the palace defenseless in case she failed.
Vitalis climbed onto his horse and gave Cyra a tight nod, letting her know he was ready.
One look at Vitalis’ face, and Cyra knew she couldn’t fail. She wouldn’t fail him; she couldn’t afford to.
She climbed onto her own horse after securing their supplies. She gathered up the ruins. “To the ruins.”
“The ruins.” Vitalis repeated.
They kicked their horses to action, shooting out into the city.
The buildings, the streets, and the people all blurred by. Once they made it out of the city, they kept pushing their horses faster after pausing to wrap some cloth around theirs heads. Cyra explained to Vitalis that it was to help keep the sand from blinding their eyes and flying into their mouths.
It also meant that if they came across someone, for once, Vitalis wouldn’t look out of place. Well… Cyra took that thought back as they stopped to let their horses rest and drink some water. His steel blue eyes would still be considered a rarity no matter how well hidden the rest of him was.
He started to pass the water to her, but she shook her head. “You need it more than I do.”
Vitalis eyed her, but closed the flask and put it away. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead. “I’m afraid the heat will kill me before we get to the demon.”
“Just wait for nightfall,” Cyra said, climbing back into her saddle. “You’ll miss the heat then.”
They pressed onward as clouds gathered in the distance. They only stopped when they had to for the horses and for Vitalis’ sake.
Exhaustion began seeping into her bones as they set up camp for the night. Cyra was still human and had gotten no rest the night before. Her hands shook slightly as she dismounted and her eyelids fluttered.
“You alright?” Vitalis asked, pulling the cloth away from his face. He rubbed sand out of his hair as Cyra pulled out their supplies.
“Of course, now help with this fire. The temperature is just going to keep dropping, and you need to stay warm.” Cyra started setting up a small fire pit with the wood she brought.
“Vialyan, remember?” he said as he knelt beside her. He helped her arrange the wood. “Cold is kind off our specialty.”
“Then you know better than anyone else not to tempt it,” Cyra said, lighting the logs as the cold kept digging into her, making her even more exhausted.
“You need it more than I do, you’re shivering.” Vitalis looked at her shaking hands. He got to his feet. “Stay there.”
Cyra sat down, wrapping one arm around her front. She was too tired to argue. When he came back, he draped a thick blanket around her shoulders. He pressed a flask of water into her hand.
She smiled gratefully and took a few sips. She ate her portion of their food quickly and wrapped blanket around her tighter as the night air continued to drop in temperature. “I’ll take the first watch tonight, just to be safe.”
“Cyra, have you seen yourself today? You need rest.” Vitalis sat by her side, brushing his shoulder against hers. He leaned his head down slightly. “I’m not stupid. I know you didn’t get any sleep last night. You need rest, and I’m not just saying that because I love you.”
Cyra tilted her head up towards him. “Then appeal to my rationality.”
“You’re the warrior, my protector. Tomorrow we’re riding into battle against a demon.” Vitalis wrapped an arm around her, rubbing up and down her arm. “You are our best chance at killing this demon, and you need to be at full strength to do that.”
He wasn’t wrong, but his logic couldn’t shake the need that overwhelmed her to protect him and shelter him every time she saw his own tired eyes and sunburnt cheeks. She couldn’t fight how she wanted to take care of him despite knowing she was in even worse shape.
“What if Ano can still…” Cyra mumbled.
“He can’t. We left you necklace and bracelets back in Shiraz both locked up and hidden. He can’t hurt you. Now, rest.” Vitalis gently shifted, laying her head in his lap His fingers brushed her hair back, grazing her skin. He spoke softly, but with so much warmth, “If you show any sign of a nightmare or any pain, I’ll wake you up.”
Cyra’s eyes fluttered. Sleep kept calling her as the warmth from the fire and Vitalis’ touch fought off the cold. His fingers wove through her hair, gently playing with it. It was actually comforting.
She wouldn’t tell him to stop. “So, if having me rest if because it’s the logical thing to do, then what’s this?”
“This?” Vitalis hummed, continuing to thread his fingers through her hair. She could hear the smile in his voice. “This is because I love you.”
“You say that too much.” Except he didn’t, not really. It sent a shiver down her spine.
“I don’t think I can ever say it enough.”
“Doesn’t it hurt you to say it? Doesn’t it hurt every time I don’t?” Cyra shut her eyes, letting his touch lull her into a strange feeling of serenity.
“It does, but it’s not about me. I don’t say it for my benefit, zvezda moya.”