The first thing she noticed was how her knees ached. Her neck had an awful crick as well, but a hand on her head kept her from being able to lift it. Her legs were numb.
There was a loud crash, forcing Cyra’s eyes open. Thunder. The strange, almost forgotten sound of rain filled the air as well.
Her eyes flicked around, taking in her familiar surroundings. She was in the shah’s throne room… how?
The Century Storm raged on outside.
Cyra shifted slightly, but the hand tightened its grip on her head. Cyra grunted and realized her head was resting on someone’s knee. Her legs were folded under her at an awkward angle.
Was she kneeling?
She started shifting her legs underneath her.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Nails dug into her scalp, forcing her back down. Her head fogged over, and she slumped back into his leg. He patted her head harshly, saying, “Sh… you’ve done enough. It’s the midnight hour, rest now.”
That voice sent her skin crawling, and all she wanted to do was run. She couldn’t put a name to it, to him. All she knew was the intense, blinding need to put as much distance between herself and this voice as possible.
The problem was she just couldn’t move.
She stared at her hands and was surprised to see herself holding one of her daggers. There was so much red. It took Cyra a second to see where her hand ended and the dagger began.
She couldn’t feel any pain. Whose blood was on her hands?
A loud banging noise shook her. Someone was pounding on the door to the throne room. Whoever was behind her didn’t rise. He just tightened his grip on Cyra.
The doors flew open.
Lightning flashed and thunder rolled.
It took Cyra’s hazy mind a moment to figure out who was standing across the room.
He was soaked to the skin. Dirt and mud covered his face and clothes. He had a sword in one hand, and the other was clutching his side. His chest heaved as each breath he took was labored. Shallow cuts decorated his skin.
He looked like he had just dug his way out of his grave.
But he was alive.
And he was in front of her.
All she wanted to do was run to him, but she just couldn’t move.
“You should be dead.” The name came rushing to her mind: Ano. Ano’s nails dug into her head so hard she felt blood well up, but she didn’t care as long as she could see him across the room.
“I’m not so weak as to let a little rockfall kill me.” He staggered forward, wiping the muck from his forehead. His eyes left Ano’s and bore into Cyra from where she sat, immobile at Ano’s feet.
His name was on her lips. She kept pushing, trying to stand. Her mouth opened, trying to say his name.
“It would have been better if you had laid down and accepted your death.” That was her voice. She had said that, but they weren’t her words. “Now, I have to make your death painful.”
Her legs finally moved, but Cyra wasn’t the one moving them. She jolted, and her muscles groaned from the way they twisted, being forced to move in all the wrong ways.
Ano’s fingers twitched as his hand slid across the throne’s arm.
“Cyra, listen to me. You don’t have to do this. I know you don’t want to hurt me.” Vitalis continued walking towards her.
Run. I don’t want to do this, but it’s not my choice.
“I don’t have to do anything.” Her voice was so distant from her own head. “I want to. I’ve always wanted to.”
“That’s not true.” Vitalis sheathed his sword. Fire burned in his eyes. “I know you! You have thrown your life on the line for mine countless times. You don’t want to hurt me. I don’t know what he’s holding over you, if he’s threatened you, or Mihrab, or— or even me, but you don’t have to bow to him!”
Cyra’s chest shook with a rough, grating sound. She supposed it was meant to be laughter, but it was just a horrid sound.
Ano flicked his wrist, and Cyra stumbled forward.
Can’t you see this isn’t my choice?
“I thought you were smarter than this, Vitalis. Has it really not occurred to you that maybe you’re not the only one who can put on an act? All it took was a few fake tears, a cliché bad guy, the opportunity to be my hero, and I had you wrapped around my finger. You really never suspected I was playing you the whole time?” Cyra’s head shook.
“I don’t believe that.” Vitalis’ voice wavered. His eyes were looking over her frantically, searching like he always was. “I know you, Cyra. I know what you look like when you’re lying. I know what you sound like when you’re hiding something. I know that when you’re angry you try to make yourself look taller. When you’re sad, you start to block everything out because it’s overwhelming. When you’re happy, or content, or just satisfied with something, you don’t smile like most people do. Your eyes light up, and your lips twitch because you stifle it, but your shoulders relax, and the air around you is clearer. And when you laugh… heaven help the man who hears it because it is the purest sound I’ve ever heard, and you think it’s inappropriate for yourself, but if people knew how beautiful it sounds, no one could disapprove.
“I’ve seen what you look like when you’re in love. I’ve seen the spark in your eyes when you say his name and the fire in you when you defend him. You look at him like he’s the sun, and you smile softly even when he’s not looking at you. And I know you don’t look at me that way, but I know you, and I know that everything that happened between us wasn’t a lie. I’ve seen you at your worst and your best, and nothing you say will convince me any of this was an act.” Vitalis’s breathing was still labored and pain was painted across his face. Desperation leaked through his words.
Vitalis. If Cyra had control of herself, she would have cried. Even as terror for his life shook her soul, she couldn’t deny how wonderful it was to feel his love.
“If you know me so well, then you should have realized I’d never leave Ano’s side. I told you even before we got to that cavern, I still love him.” Cyra watched herself turn her dagger over in her hand as she clumsily staggered forward. At flash of pain in Vitalis’ eyes, Cyra’s head tilted sharply. “What? Did you really think I could, what? Learn to love you? That somehow, just by having me stuck to your side, I’d ‘come to my senses,’ and fall in love with you? You, the Vialyan prince, the ‘right’ choice? What did you say once? That I deserved better than Ano, better being you?”
Vitalis winced. Each word that fell out of her mouth was clearly tearing him apart. Each sharp retort said in Cyra’s voice attacked Vitalis’ deepest fears and insecurities.
Cyra wanted to scream that it wasn’t true. He was the most perceptive man she’d ever met, surely, he could see what she wasn’t true!
I love you.
“I hate you, and it will be a pleasure to finally be rid of your worthless life, holding me back.”
Ano rose from the shah’s throne, and lightning flashed through the window. Ano’s wrist twitched, and Cyra slashed her dagger through the air.
How could she show Vitalis this was all Ano when she couldn’t even say anything?
Cyra dug into her willpower, forcing her hand to stay up, drawing Vitalis’eyes to it.
Lightning cracked, and the metal bracelet on her wrist gleamed in the light.
Vitalis drew in a sharp breath, and his eyes fell to her face and down to her neck where Ano’s necklace sat.
“Kill him, Cyra. His voice is wearing on me. Consider it my first order as shah. I declare war on Vialya, starting with the execution of their prince.” Ano waved his face, and Cyra was sent stumbling forward. Her dagger flashed through the air as Vitalis ducked out of the way.
He backed away from her, keeping an eye on her weapon as he hesitantly drew his. “I don’t want to fight you.”
You have to if you want to help me.
Cyra pushed her own magic against Ano’s, causing her next slash to fall short. Ano’s toxic magic shot up into her, clouding her mind as he tightened his hold on her. His fingers continued to dance, pulling Cyra’s hand back and into another strike. Vitalis’ sword caught the blow, giving him time to move.
Every ounce of willpower and magic Cyra has was going into resisting Ano’s control over her. It slowed her movements down by a few seconds. It made her movements uneven and jerky. It wasn’t much, but it gave Vitalis a fighting chance.
Vitalis’ only problem was his clear fear of hurting her.
He only ever used his sword to stop her dagger. Cyra could read him. He wouldn’t swing at her and risk Ano letting her take the blow.
But when Cyra watched her dagger cut into Vitalis’ arm, she thought it was a terribly selfish thing he was doing. He couldn’t live with himself if he hurt her.
How could he expect her to live with herself if she killed him?
Then, with a speed and ferocity she hadn’t expected, Vitalis had her arm twisted and locked in his hold.
Ano flicked his wrist, and Cyra’s leg slammed into Vitalis’ stomach, but his hold on her didn’t waver. Vitalis was stronger than she expected. He grunted as he fought to unclasp the bracelet. “You have to fight harder!”
I’m fighting as hard as I can!
Frustration gripped her. It was taking everything from her to delay Ano’s actions. Her feet dug into the ground as his toxic magic trudged through her veins, pulling at her limps.
With a gasp, the bracelet clattered to the ground. Ano shot forward, sweeping his hand back. Cyra’s legs were pulled back, forcing her to stumble away from Vitalis/
Ano’s grip on her faltered and some of the haze cleared. Cyra took the change to dig her feet in the ground, catching herself fast enough that Vitalis was within reach. She also moved fast enough to rip the second bracelet off as well, leaving just the necklace.
“Maybe you aren’t as stupid as I first thought,” Ano spat, walking up to Cyra’s shoulder.
Her legs were shaking as she strained against his hold, using all the strength shehad to keep herself in one spot.
“Still, I was pretty convincing, but it wasn’t hard, not when you wear your heart on your sleeve.” Ano’s hand grabbed her head, tilting it back. His other hand took her dagger from her and the cold metal bit her neck.
Vitalis lunged forward, shouting, “Stop! Stop, just whatever you want, just say it. Whatever you want, don’t hurt her, you can have it.”
“Drop the sword.” Ano smiled. Vitalis did so immediately, raising his hands and baring his palms outwards. “See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I knew it from the second I first saw you staring at her. She’s your weakness. You’re pathetic. It’s written all over your face that if anyone wants to get to you, all they have to do is hurt her.”
“What do you want from me?” Vitalis cried out as the blade pressed into Cyra’s neck, drawing a few drops of blood. “Please, I’ll give you anything, my obedience, my throne, my life, just let her go.”
“Touching sentiments, but I have a problem. The way she’s been fighting my control is making her more trouble than she’s worth. She’s also the only person capable of beating me; which means if I hurt you, she’ll do everything she can to kill me. Which honestly sounds like a hassle, but if I kill her while I’ve still got her under my control… I lose my bargaining piece with you, and I need to know where that little dagger is.” Ano leaned his head against Cyra’s as she moved the blade up and down her neck.
“I’ll take you to where I hid it, but you have to let her go.” Vitalis bluffed. His eyes frantically darted between Cyra and Ano. Each time his eyes landed on Cyra, she could tell he was trying to reassure her. He was asking her to trust him.
Cyra wanted to trust him, but her fear was much greater. Vitalis would only anger Ano when he realized Vitalis was lying.
“I’m not stupid. I’m going to let her go until you bring the dagger to me, if you don’t already have it with you.” Ano gave Vitalis a pointed look.
“If I give it to you, you kill us both.” Vitalis took a step forward, keeping his hands up. “I’m a man of my word. I’ll give you the dagger, but you have to let her go.”
“See… that’s another issue. I don’t believe you. Why would you honor your agreement?” Ano asked.
“Because I love her! I don’t care what happens as long as she’s alright. If ensuring her safety means making deal with the devil, I’ll do it.” Vitalis’ eyes were wide with panic. His bluff wasn’t working. Ano wasn’t about to let Cyra go before he saw the dagger. “Look, I surrender! You can take me in Cyra’s place, and I’ll take you to the dagger.”
“But will Cyra agree to that?” Ano dug the blade in further, causing a small stream of blood to trickle down her neck. “I think it doesn’t matter what we agree to, because Cyra won’t honor it. She won’t stop fighting. Cyra will stop at nothing to kill me. She’s the main threat to me, not you. And I want her to suffer. I’ve got a better idea. I think you’ll tell me where the dagger is whether you want to or not.”
Cyra’s legs folded under her as fog clouded her mind. Exhaustion pinned her to the ground as her eyes fluttered.
He was doing it again, taking her to the dreamworld. Her magic was being manipulated, being forced to reach out. It was wrong. Her magic wasn’t supposed to be forced and pushed around like that. Her blood burned.
Vitalis lunged forward, catching her as she slumped over. His hands touched her face and fumbled with the necklace, but her eyes were still heavy.
His hands slowed, and he looked down at Cyra as surprise flickered in his own tired eyes.
“Vi—” Cyra rasped as he began sliding to the ground. Sleep washed over him.
“How are you…?” Vitalis whispered as his eyes shut.
Ano laughed above them. “I’m stronger than you could ever hope to be.”
Cyra, in her last conscious moment, took Vitalis’ hand and prayed he would make it out alive.
* * *
Cyra shot forward, shoving at whoever was kneeling over her. Vitalis fell back, lifting his arms up. “Cyra! It’s just me. You’re alright.”
“Vitalis? Where are we?” Cyra looked around at the endless sand surrounding them, and she couldn’t remember anything. Hadn’t they been in the desert? Why was her head still so muddled? What was she forgetting?
“I think we’re in your head. Do you remember anything?” Vitalis hesitantly reached for her. Was he afraid she’d push him away again?
Cyra took his hand, using her other hand to rub her temple. “There’s bits and pieces. I—Ano—the bracelets and necklace… I remember the garden, no, no we were in the throne room. I just… it’s all blurring.”
“We’ll figure it out. Whatever you can’t remember, we’ll figure it out. How do you feel? Are you alright?” Vitalis helped her to her feet.
“I will be. You said we were in my head? Ano must have force my magic, manipulated me into pulling you with us, so if we’re where he wants us to be… Where is he? Why are we alone?” Cyra held onto Vitalis tightly as she scanned the horizon.
“I think he’s trying mess with us. He’s here somewhere, manipulating all of this.” Vitalis rubbed her shoulder. “But, do you know why he would bring us here? I don’t know if you remember, but he was winning. He had a dagger on your neck, and I was pleading to take your place. He could have killed both of us, the only people who posed a threat to him, but he kept going on about the dagger.”
“It’s Ano. He could have killed me at any point, or had me kill you much earlier before I got enough strength to fight back.” Cyra pressed her lips together. “He could have killed me when he had a knife to my throat. He could have killed me when he took the throne, when he won. Or he could have killed me back in the desert, could have had me kill you as opposed to… whatever happened. If he really wanted the dagger, he could have killed us and searched us for it, but no, he kept me alive. He needed me for something, or he wanted me for something.”
“I don’t know. I have no idea what was happening at the palace before I got there. I was too focused on trying to catch up with you.” Vitalis turned so he faced her. “He was using you as leverage against me, trying to get me to give him the dagger. Why is he so focused on the dagger?”
“Well, Keturah’s dagger and my father’s sword are the only weapons that pose a threat to him. Theoretically, any magical weapon could do the job, but those two are the only ones we know of that have proved themselves. He probably didn’t want to kill us until he got rid of them because he didn’t want anyone else to get a hold of them and come after him.” Cyra’s eyes kept flickering over Vitalis and around the area.
“So, what is this? We won’t tell him where the dagger is, and he can’t find it or do anything to us while we’re all here. We all know you’re the only one strong enough to beat him. Why would he bring you here when he had control over you in the waking world?”
A distant laugh cut off Cyra’s response. The sound of rushing water hit their ears. Cyra and Vitalis looked behind them to see a wave of water coming after them.
“Run!” Cyra said, pulling Vitalis by his shoulder after her as she started sprinting. She slid her hand into his as he caught up, running by her side. “Why has Ano done any of this? He never had to make me fall in love with him, never had to choose Soray for his sacrifice, never had to get inside my head, never had to give me hallucinations, but he did it all anyway. You want to know why we’re here? Because more than anything Ano wants us to suffer.”
The water lapped at their ankles, trying to pull their feet out from underneath them. Cyra kept a tight grip on Vitalis, forcing him to keep to her pace as they kept trying to outrun the relentless waves.
Ano’s voice cackled above them as the water surged into the back of their knees. Vitalis was knocked to the ground; his hand was ripped out of Cyra’s. She stumbled to a stop, turning back.
“Go! I can swim; you can’t!” Vitalis yelled as water washed over his head.
With a last, pained look, Cyra kept moving. She trudged through the water, running and running. She couldn’t stop and think about how she left him. She’d find him again. She’d handle Ano, find Vitalis, and get him back safely.
Then, the ground fell out from under her. Water washed over her head, and Cyra was just falling. Air rushed past her; a scream tore out of her throat. She twisted in the air, looking down to see an endless ocean below her. Cyra braced herself to his the water.
She slammed into something, and pain exploded through her legs and spine. Cyra screamed as the pain tore up through her back. She laid there, panting and sobbing in pain. It wasn’t until the sharp edge began to fade that Cyra realized she wasn’t submerged in water, but had slammed into a thick sheet of ice.
Ice. She brushed her fingers over it, trying to focus on the cold rather than the pain. Ice. Cyra didn’t know whether to be grateful for it or not. The ice had kept her from drowning, from being swept away by Ano, but the pain was keeping her paralyzed.
There was the distant sound of Ano’s laughter. Water splashed and rushed nearby. Someone was yelling out, struggling against something.
With a grunt and a fresh wave of pain, Cyra rolled over and pushed herself up to her feet. She blinked and rubbed her head. She held her stomach, still fighting her disorientation. She spotted a figure in the distance. The ice and water gave way to sand.
Cyra started moving towards it. As she hurried and got closer, she saw it was Ano dragging Vitalis across the sand. When Cyra realized he was headed towards the Ruins’ Tree, she started sprinting, pushing past the pain flaring up in her legs and back.
Her feet hit the sand as Ano reached the tree. To Cyra’s confusion and, for a moment, relief, Ano kept dragging Vitalis past the tree.
“Anoshiruvan!” Cyra screamed as she kept running after them. “Face me, coward!”
Ano paused, taking a moment to look back at her. Vitalis clawed at Ano, struggling and trying to break free. Ano tightened his grip, jostling Vitalis and kicking him in the gut. Ano shook his head with a sickening look of fake pity as he tilted his head towards the door appearing in the sand behind him.
“No…” Cyra whispered, stumbling when it hit her what Ano was doing. That door… The emptiness. The abyss. Vitalis didn’t have magic… She picked up her run again. Desperation tore through her voice. “Ano, stop! Let him go!”
Ano kept dragging Vitalis through the sand. Vitalis was gasping, scrambling at the ground, but the sand kept running through his fingers.
Cyra’s legs fell out from under her, sending her crashing into the Ruins’ Tree. Ano flung the door open. An idea hit Cyra. She might still be able to save Vitalis’ life.
She leapt up, grabbing one of the branches. Cyra dropped, pulling against it with her whole weight. The branch snapped, and Cyra took off running.
Ano dropped to his knees, shrieking and clawing at his head in agony. Vitalis covered his ears, but started moving away from Ano.
Cyra was so close when Ano’s cries faded, and he grabbed Vitalis’ neck. Fury, the kind that caused massacres, rolled off Ano in waves.
“Your Vialyan will pay for that!” Ano spat, tightening his grip on Vitalis. He lifted him higher, so Vitalis’s feet barely brushed the sand as he was held over the darkness in the doorway.
“Vitalis!” Cyra lunged forward as Ano flung him into the abyss. Her fingers stoped short of his hand. Fear swallowed his eyes whole as he fell into the dark nothing. Cyra screamed as Ano caught her and flung her back into the sand.
She was sent rolling across the ground, but she didn’t feel anything. All she could see were his eyes as he fell. Vitalis… Cyra remembered when she had taken him with her into the abyss. She had warned him that if he let go of her, she wouldn’t be able to find him. The only way to navigate it was if he had magic. Without it, he would fall and fall and fall, and she hadn’t been fast enough. She hadn’t been able to save him.
Vitalis was as good as dead, and Cyra wished she was.
Ano got what he wanted. He always did.
“What? You lose your lover, and now you don’t want to fight anymore? Where’s all your hate and rage?”
A kick landed in her stomach as tears welled up in her eyes. They spilled over her, and she shook. Cyra forced her head up, and her voice broke with sobs. “What did I ever do to deserve this from you?”
Ano knelt in front of her, grabbing her by her hair. He jerked her head back painfully, muttering, “Believe me, it’s not about deserving it at all.”
Ano slammed her face into the trunk of the Ruins’ Tree. The bark tore into her skin. Cyra gasped as he pulled her head back, “You win, alright? You got what you wanted. What next?”
“See, I don’t think I have, because you’re not broken, not truly, not yet. Aren’t you going to ask how I did it?” Ano leaned in whispering into her ear.
“I don’t care. Vitalis is lost in the abyss between dreamscapes. He’s dead, so just finish your sick game and finish me.” Cyra forced the words out even as her heart cried at hearing herself say it. She let herself go limp. It had been so easy to say it. What was the point of going back, of beating Ano is all she had at the end was Vitalis’ empty body? What was the point of winning if she lost everything to do so?
Cyra was ready to let Ano kill her.