She didn’t want to wake up. Cyra was happier than she had been in a long time right where she was. Why would she want to get up when she was safe, warm, and loved?
Then something changed.
Someone started coughing, and Cyra felt Vitalis’ stomach convulse underneath her. Something wet brushed her face and got into her hair.
She brought her head up, shaking it to clear her vision.
“Vi—Vitalis?” she whispered. Her hands reached for his face, holding him as he coughed, choking on something. “Vitalis?”
He kept shaking. He was mouthing something, but no words left his lips She reached for his forehead when she noticed the red stains her hands were leaving on his skin. Cyra looked down.
A cry tore from her throat as she saw the stab wound in his chest that had punctured his lung.
Her hands scrambled towards the wound. She needed to put pressure on it. Why weren’t her hands reaching towards him? If she had any hope of saving her life she had to stop the bleeding!
Her hand had picked up a bloody dagger that had been set aside. Her other hand came down on Vitalis’ throat, forcing him to still as panic and confusion set into his face.
No. This wasn’t what she wanted. Why were her hands moving like this? She wanted to save him!
Her hand brought the dagger down into his chest. No. This was wrong. She had hit his heart!
She watched herself slowly pull it out. She stared blankly down at him, and her heart rattled against her ribs as his face twisted in pain and betrayal. The light slowly left his eyes, and all she could see was the pain she had left.
What had she done?
The dagger clattered to the ground. Her hands shook as she held his face, stroking his cheeks. Tears blurred her vision. A sob shook her as she pressed her forehead to his.
How could she have done this?
This was wrong. Why did she hurt him? She wanted to protect him. If it was all she ever amounted to in her life, she wanted him to be safe and alive and happy. How could her hands have done something so terrible as to end his life?
“You did well, and all it took from me was one word.” Ano’s voice grated on her ears.
Cyra clung to Vitalis’ body, burying her head as she mourned and cursed the world all in the same breath. “Leave!”
“I don’t think so.”
Cyra slowly forced her head up, hate and rage burning and pouring out of her. She glared at the demon with red eyes with a fury even he couldn’t match. He would suffer the pain she was before this was over. She pulled Vitalis to her arms, cradling him and being consumed with plans of revenge. “What do you want from me?”
She would tear him down and rip his heart out. He had taken her sister, her cousin, and now Vitalis. There was punishment on the surface that could make him feel even an ounce of her pain, but that didn’t mean she would make him feel as much pain as she possibly could inflict on him. Her arms shook as she spat out, “What do you want me to do?”
He tilted his head as though the answer should be obvious.
* * *
She jolted awake to the sound of Vitalis’ heartbeat under her ear. Cyra gasped, and a few tears dropped onto his chest. Relief flooded through her bones. He was alive. She hadn’t killed him. Her hands weren’t red with his blood. It had just been a dream.
But then came the crushing realization that even without the necklace, Ano was still in her head.
As long as Ano could get in her head, Vitalis wasn’t safe.
Vitalis wasn’t safe as long as Cyra was near him.
Her heart sunk, and her grip on him tightened. He shifted slightly underneath her. Cyra lifted her head, wiping away the fear and resignation in her eyes.
He blinked up at her, still half asleep. “Zvezda moya? What is it?”
Cyra shifted, moving her head to hover over his. She would take this moment while she could, so she could have something to remember. She brushed his cheek with her fingertips. “Am I ready to know what that means?”
There was a tense moment of silence. She stared into his eyes, so close she could still hear his heart beat calming her and steadying her. He searched her eyes and face like he had so many times for. He was looking for something some sort of sign.
“Star.” Somehow, this time, Vitalis found in her eyes what had been missing for so long before. His hands wrapped around hers as she leaned into her touch. “In your language, it means, ‘my star.’”
All this time. He’d been calling her his star? She certainly didn’t deserve the title.
“Why did you call me that? Back in the library, so long ago, when I hated you?” Cyra whispered, leaning in forward. She felt his breath brush her skin.
“Because I thought you were beautiful. I think you are beautiful. I was half-asleep, like now, and just like that night, like right now, all I can think about is how I have seen so many things in my privileged life. I’ve seen so much extravagance and elegance as the rich and powerful are prone to, and not once did I think there was anything more beautiful than the natural born heavens at night until I saw your face lit by the glow of fire light.”
Vitalis sighed and shut his eyes. He looked so at peace, so in love in her arms. “That’s why I’ve always called you zvezda moya, my star, because the only thing I find more magnificent than the stars is you.”
“Shh…just go back to sleep.” Cyra ran a hand through his hair, enjoying the smile that pulled on his lips at her touch. “Thank you for telling me. Just sleep. There is much to do in the morning.”
Vitalis shut his eyes, and his breath deepened as he leaned into her. Cyra didn’t move her gaze from him. She still had a hard time understanding why out of every woman he’s ever met, he chose her to love because she was nothing compared to him. But… in that moment when he had been staring into her eyes, saying she was the most beautiful thing in the world to him, she saw herself as he did, so beautiful and strong and amazing that there was no choice but to watch in awe and fall in love so deeply as he did.
She saw herself through his eyes as someone worthy to be loved, and finally it all made sense. Everything little word and action made sense; Cyra finally saw what it had all been building to in her. How could she have ever believed it could go differently? From the moment Vitalis had looked past Soray and spoken to her, Cyra knew this wouldn’t have gone any other way.
Vitalis had fallen in love so deeply, and he saw so much in her that it almost seemed like there had been no choice.
Cyra understood now what he meant when he told her that he couldn’t believe it had taken him so long to tell her he loved her.
How had it taken her so long to realize it herself?
Cyra stayed with him until she was certain he was asleep.
“Thank you, Vitalis. Please forgive me, lyubov moya.”
She leaned down and brushed her lips to her cheek. If she saw him again, she’d say it while he was awake. If she never saw him again…
Cyra didn’t want to think about it.
She checked her horse, leaving behind all the food and water. Vitalis would need it more for his journey back, and if Cyra survived… well…
If Cyra somehow pulled off a miracle, she wouldn’t let a little desert kill her.
As she opened the last bag, she froze. Cyra knew exactly what was in each pocket of every bag, but she did not remember packing this one. At the bottom of the bag sat Ano’s necklace and bracelets.
Cyra had no recollection of packing them.
She spun around. Panic struck her chest like a lightning bolt.
No one was there. Vitalis had just called out her name while he was asleep. She relaxed slightly, waiting for her heart rate to slow.
Cyra watched his face for a moment.
She was doing this to protect him.
Sand was kicked up under her horse’s hoofs. The fire grew small behind her, and the ruins appeared in the distance ahead of her as clouds rolled above her in the sky.
* * *
Halfway through the ruins, Cyra dismounted from her horse. By that point, her horse hadn’t wanted to take another step forward. The beast kept tossing its neck and shifting around. Cyra didn’t blame the horse; she was certain it could feel the storm coming, and if not that then the toxic magic that Ano left in his wake.
The ruins were exactly like she had seen in Ano’s mind. The old streets were broken and chunks of stone torn out. Sand had billowed in, taking over half of the space, burying a lot of it in it’s path. Old walls and buildings were scattered about, and all of them were nothing more than just standing stone at that point.
Centuries before, the old abandoned walls had been the heart of Sardes, of their empire.
It was hard to believe these broken rocks could have ever been the greatest capital city in the world.
Cyra grabbed the bag with the necklace and bracelets and hurled it into the sand as far from her as she could possibly throw it.
Thunder crashed above her, and Cyra watched the storm clouds roll over her.
The Century Storm would hit the capital soon, probably the following day, if not sooner. Cyra was certain the rain would hit her at any moment.
Cyra pulled at the hem of her shirt. Her fingers brushed Keturah’s dagger that she had hidden there. She didn’t want Ano to be able to see it and know she had it. She had to get close to him to use it, and if he knew about it, he’d never let her get close enough.
She ran her hands over her empty wrists and rubbed at her neck, making sure the jewelry was really gone. No metal greeted her fingers, so she started walking.
Her feet sunk into the sand and stone. She climbed over several walls and broken pillars, always keeping the decrepit palace in sight. Ano would be inside; she’d seen it.
As she reached the steps, she peered into the fractured doorway, seeing just a gaping hold of what was left of the palace. It had sunken into the sand, half-buried.
Eyes were on her.
She spun around, but couldn’t see anything behind her. Someone was there though, probably Ano. Her fingers itched against the hilts of her daggers. She stared at the ruins behind her. There was no movement save for the wind blowing the sand around as the storm rolled above.
Rain started to fall from the sky. The water seeped into her hair and clothes.
She took a moment to enjoy the feeling of rain on her skin. Soray had been right. In the weeks leading up to their departure to Vialya, the Century Storm was all Soray had been able to talk about. She was thrilled she would get to experience it, but Soray never did. Soray had never seen a true thunderstorm, not one that shook the heavens and flooded the earth. Neither Cyra or Mihrab had ever seen one either.
Cyra let the water slide over her skin, and she thought of Soray. Cyra would take this moment to experience even just a part of the Century Storm for Soray’s sake.
Cyra doubted she would ever get to experience even the slightest bit of rain again.
With a quick shake of her head, Cyra marched forward into the darkness below the sand. Her footsteps echoed around her. Cold wind brushed her shoulders, and she shuddered.
All at once, she was hit with the overwhelming desire to be back with Vitalis by the fire, but that was a dangerous desire. Cyra forced herself to bury it and keep walking.
More thunder crashed in the distance, and for a second, Cyra thought she heard someone shouting. She paused and slowly glanced around in the darkness.
A hand brushed her shoulder.
Her hand flew to her dagger as she whipped around. Fog seeped into her head. Her hand fell from her weapon as her eyes locked with red ones in the darkness.
“Ano.” Cyra clenched her fists.
“Cyra.” A torch lit up on the wall. He tilted his head. He stared at her fists and nodded once.
Her hands relaxed.
There was a small clinking noise; it was the sound of metal. Rage flooded her as she saw he was holding the jewelry she had tossed into the sand.
How had he gotten a hold of it?
She was blinded. Fear and anger moved her hands. She’d cut her own head off before he got those back on her, but she’d much rather cut off his.
Cyra was a blur in the dim light, coming to a jolted stop when Ano calmly caught her hand mid-swing. The tip of her dagger had just barely scratched his neck, and he smiled. His fangs poked out into a twisted bared grin as he slowly twisted her arm back, forcing her to drop her dagger. She hissed in pain, but relief edged at her mind, knowing she still had Keturah’s dagger.
“All I had to do was give you a few dreams, get you to raise your dagger, and you came running,” Ano whispered in her ear. His breath burned her skin and made her stomach turn. “You even left your prince in the desert just because you had a bad dream.”
“How did you do it?” Cyra growled, pushing back against his hold on her. She grunted, digging her feet into the ground. “Tell me, I took off your necklace, your bracelets, how the hell are you still in my head? How did you make me raise my dagger at Vitalis?”
“I was walking through your dreams before that necklace. Is it really so hard to imagine I can still whisper the right word here or there? That is how I got you to love me after all.” Ano’s lips brushed her ear.
She twisted her head away from him.
Footsteps echoed behind her. They were close.
Ano’s head lifted; his eyes slid past her towards the steps. His grip tightened, but Cyra hardly noticed as the strange fog kept clouded her mind, making it hard to focus. There was something painfully familiar about it.
It was the same kind of daze Ano had left her in before, back when she thought she loved him.
“Just one word.”
Cyra’s legs shook, and her arm lowered, not through her own action or even Ano pushing it down. Her arm just moved against her will.
That voice. Her mind was too clouded. She knew it. Her mind couldn’t process everything happening. There was fear, true terror earing at her as well as a warmth, a comfort that voice brought her. Whoever had that voice, she feared for them, yet also longed for them to be closer.
A cold, numb feeling wrapped around her. It blocked out everything that wasn’t Ano.
Cyra couldn’t quite remember the realization that had hit her when she heard that voice. All she knew was that it had to do with the lingering warmth in her heart.
Her legs obeyed automatically. Cyra didn’t have control of them.
Someone was calling out. The voice…Was she supposed to remember something important about it?
Cyra couldn’t hold onto a thought for more than a second.
She felt cold metal press against her throat and wrists. She blinked up at Ano blankly.
He smiled. He flicked his wrist up, and Cyra’s legs were awkwardly forced up as well. Cyra hadn’t even tried to move a muscle, but that didn’t matter anymore.
She couldn’t remember what happened after that.