“Remember how I used to talk about him?” Soray’s voice floated into Cyra’s head. A hand cradled her head. Soray kept talking softly, “I thought the world of him. The first night we met him… he was brighter than the sun. How could I not love him? He was charming and kind. Why did it take you so long to fall in love with him? I suppose it doesn’t really matter anymore now that I’m gone. My point is, you’re still alive, and you think the world of him. You love him. Don’t you dare give up on him now, not when he never once gave up on you. There’s still hope. You’ve still got a fight in you. Fight for him.”
A strange tiny seed of hope was planted in her heart. If she could get to the door and into the abyss, maybe by some sort of miracle she could catch up to him.
“How?” Cyra coughed up blood onto the roots of the tree. She glared up at Ano. “How did you do it?”
“Good, you’re asking questions. Now, are you going to get angry? Don’t you want revenge?” Ano grabbed her by the throat and lifted her into the air.
Cyra clawed at his hands, kicking at him. She gasped, “How—How were you able to possess me?”
Cyra’s foot landed in his stomach, forcing him to drop her. She pushed him away and stumbled back.
“Don’t be stupid. In order for a demon to possess someone, they have to let the demon in.” Ano walked towards her, grinning.
“I have never let a demon in!” Cyra spat, drawing her daggers.
“A demon? No, of course not, but you were more than happy to let me in when you were so desperate for attention. You showed me your dreamscape, let me into your mind.” Ano ducked underneath her swing. The air whistled as her blade went over her.
He straightened up, shaking his head. He said, “You made it so easy once you let me in your dreamscape for me to manipulate your thoughts and feelings, even your memories. I’ve lived a long life, but I’ve never loved anything more than I’ve loved destroying you from the inside out.”
Cyra lunged forward, slashing at his neck. “You underestimated me. You haven’t destroyed me, and you never will!”
“You let me in. Remember that. I might be the tree that’s sucking the life out of you, but you planted the seed.” Ano ducked, backing up towards the door.
“You tricked me, fooled me, manipulated my thoughts and emotions, even going so far as to making me think I loved you. You don’t get to try and make me believe this is my fault!” Her leg shot up, sweeping towards his feet. He jumped back, stumbling as he landed. Cyra landed a cut on his arm as he did.
“It’s your fault. Everything that happened since you touched the Ruins’ Tree is your fault. I can practically smell it on you. After I took over Anoshiruvanm I came to the palace, and I could smell my magic, the Ruins’ Tree curse lingering on you, from your dreamscape. You have to admit that curse is also some of my best work. But that’s the beauty of it, you know about the curse, knew you shouldn’t touch the tree, but the only one who had any control over that was you. Mandana, your mother, Soray, all the danger you put Vitalis in, all the suffering Mihrab had to go through, it was all you.” Ano darted forward, grabbing her arm and twisting it.
Pain tore up her arm as a sickening crack rung out. Cyra shrieked and ripped her arm out of his grasp. “Stop talking!”
She twisted, kicking him in the chest. He fell back to the ground, laughing. Cyra snarled and dove forward, pinning him under her. She reared her fist back and punched him in the face, fighting the tears in her eyes. “None of this was my fault! It’s yours, and you’ll die for it!”
Cyra plunged her dagger into his chest, and he stilled immediately.
There were no more taunts, no more reminders over how she screwed up. There was nothing but the sound of her own ragged breathing.
Was he dead?
Surely that wasn’t all it took?
Cyra didn’t have time to figure it out. She shot to her feet, hissing as her bad arm was jostled. She stumbled to the door, pulling it open. She stared down into the empty darkness.
Vitalis was down there, lost somewhere. He was falling through the endless space between the minds. Without her specific magic, there was no way to travel through it, you just fell.
Cyra had thrown someone into once, when she was young and the shah commanded her to. The man never woke up, and the shah was easily rid of an enemy.
Cyra wasn’t even sure she could find Vitalis, but he was down there. He was trapped, and if she couldn’t get him out, he’d fall into a coma and wither away.
If she went in there, it was more likely she would get lost, looking for him endlessly till her own body died. If she went down there and couldn’t save him, she wouldn’t make it back either.
She was alright with that.
Cyra would rather by trapped wandering the abyss for the rest of her short life looking for him than leave him there to die all alone.
If Vitalis wasn’t there by her side when she woke up, why wake up at all? Not with the way the world had shifted, not when she’d have to bear the weight of it all alone.
She needed him.
Cyra jumped through the door, falling into the abyss.
“Vitalis!” Cyra called out as wind whistled around her. It was more chaotic than she remembered, nothing was clear.
She focused on how Vitalis’ mind had always felt to her, cool and calming. She focused on him, his deep voice, how his hands were so much softer than hers, and how he was always so gentle when he touched her. She held onto the way he looked at her, the way love poured out of him in his eyes, his words, his actions. She pictured his face, so different and some days so pale it was concerning. His blue eyes, one of his many exotic features, were burned into her mind. Cyra had never believed she’d find his Vialyan features to be so beautiful. His warmth, persistence, and patience with her. His kindness and his honor, everything that made him Vitalis, Cyra held onto it, praying it would lead her to him.
She was falling and falling, but Vitalis was all she could see.
Stars and darkness blurred by her; time meant nothing.
It was all the same, and she was consumed by just one thought. She had to find him.
“Vitalis!” Cyra called out over and over until her voice grew hoarse.
Silence was the only response. It was enough to drive anyone mad.
The urge to give up, to turn back and crawl her way back to her own head creeped in. She did not give into it. Vitalis deserved better, and Cyra was not going to let him down.
She would find him or die.
Vitalis had never once given up on her when she needed him. Cyra was ashamed that she had considered even for a moment on giving up on him.
Then, in the midst of her own voice and the silence, a weak, hoarse cry hit her ears. It was a soft groaning. It almost sounded like…
It was his voice, and Cyra latched onto it.
She found him.
Vitalis had crashed and was lying on a dark, invisible floor. Cyra dropped to his side and gently reached out to touch his face. His eyes were closed and he groaned, “Cyra…”
“I’m here, Vitalis. I’m here.” Cyra lifted his head, pulling him into a sitting position.
He leaned into her touch, blearily looking up at her. “Zvezda moya, you came for me.”
“Of course, I did. There’s nothing else I could have done. You needed me, so I came.” Cyra rubbed her thumb across his cheek. The warmth that flowed through her was no longer a surprise. Only Vitalis could cause such relief that overcame her simply from the sound of his voice. He was alive, mostly alright, and in her arms. She couldn’t ask for more.
“I needed you in the desert, and you left me,” Vitalis whispered as if he didn’t even want to think the words. Hurt flashed across his face. He started to move away from Cyra, wining and hissing in pain.
Cyra reached around, catching him. “Vitalis, I—”
“I know, I know. We’ve got bigger issues than my broken heart. I just have to ask, the demon’s control over you, the possession. Did he possess you and force you to leave me in the middle of the night?” Vitalis stared into her eyes.
Why did he always make her do this? Did he get some sick pleasure out of making her day the things that would hurt him the most?
“No. Ano hadn’t possessed me. But that doesn’t matter, we’ll deal with that once we’re safe. We need to get out of here.” Cyra took his face in her hands. She leaned her forehead against his. “I need you. Focus on that. I came to get you because there was no world for me to go back to if you weren’t in it.”
Vitalis shut his eyes and took a shuddering breath. “Alright.”
Cyra pulled him to his feet, leaning him against her, as he was too weak to stand on his own. She pointed to a small light in the distance. “That’s where we’re going, that’s my dreamscape. I need you to hold onto me, and I’ll get us there.”
“I trust you.” Vitalis wrapped his arms around her, leaning his head into her shoulder.
Cyra squared her shoulders and sunk her hands into the dark, rough magic making up the abyss. Her magic pushed and pushed, and something along the lines of a cliffside appeared.
She began climbing, grunting as Vitalis’ grip tightened. His weight pulled at her shoulders, forcing her to take her time as she struggled up the cliffside.
Her hands scraped and dug into the magic. Her back ached. Vitalis was a fair bit taller than her and easily weighed more than her. It was a testament to Cyra’s strength that she could move at all with his weight. It would be so easy for her to make a mistake, for her strength to falter. Vitalis trusted her, though, and she’d be damned if she found him only to lose him because she wasn’t strong enough.
She wasn’t strong enough to save Mandana.
She wasn’t strong enough to save Soray.
But even if it killed her, she would be strong enough to save Vitalis.
His fingers dug into her skin, and his breath grew labored in her ear.
Cyra grit her teeth and moved faster, pushing past the pain growing in her shoulders, back, and legs. Her muscles shrieked, and her skin hissed as she scraped her palms against the black rock.
She never stopped, never hesitated for even a second. Vitalis was depending on her.
Everything in her body was physically screaming at her to drop his weight and relive herself of the burden. Everything in her mind was logically telling her it wasn’t possible for her to carry Vitalis the rest of the way; her legs would give out long before she got him to her dreamscape.
Everything in her heart, however, was demanding that she keep going, and all the argument her heart had was that it was Vitalis.
And that was all Cyra needed to hear.
It was Vitalis.
And strength surged through her arms, and she knew she could never let him go, never again.
Her hand reached the door, and she pushed Vitalis through before following him, dropping to her knees. His eyes were shut, and his breathing shallow. She touched his skin and recoiled at how it burned to the touch. He was painfully, sickly pale and was soaked with sweat.
Cyra grabbed his head. “Vitalis?”
He didn’t move or respond.
She shook him slightly. “Come on, wake up!”
Cyra looked up, twisting her head around to see if there was anything that could help.
Ano’s body was gone.
“What? What happened?” Cyra whispered as she staggered to her feet. Pain shot through her legs.
Ano couldn’t have…
Had he thrown the end of the fight and gone back to the real world? The same world where Cyra’s and Vitalis’ bodies were completely helpless?
They needed to get back.
Cyra pulled Vitalis onto her back, hefting him onto her shoulders. She started walking.
She had to find the other door. The one that would take her back to the real world. Her feet sunk into the sand, and her legs ached, occasionally shaking from sharp spikes of pain.
Cyra was certain if she could carry Vitalis past the Ruins’ Tree, she could find a way out.
She started moving around it, when she blinked and it was in front of her again.
Cyra shook her head and stepped back. She adjusted her grip on Vitalis and dug her feet in the ground to go around it.
The Ruins’ Tree filled her vision once again.
Every way she turned or tried to go, the Ruins’ Tree blocked her.
A sharp, crippling wave of pain tore through her legs, dropping her to her knees. She was forced to let go of Vitalis as she was paralyzed. All she could do was pant and wait for the pain to subside.
She doubled over, digging her hands into the sand. The pain kept shooting through her, leaving her breathless, until it slowly faded into an ache.
What was happening to her?
The roots of the tree rippled through the sand like it was laughing at her.
This was Ano’s doing. He was keeping them trapped by using the Ruins’ Tree. Ano’s magic was connected to the tree. It was how he had manipulated her all this time. It was the only was he had managed it.
Everything really did all come back to the day she climbed the Ruins’ Tree.
Well that was going to end.
Cyra forced herself to her feet, and Mandana stood in front of the Ruins’ Tree, holding an axe.
Mandana turned the handle towards Cyra. “You know what this will do, right?”
Cyra reached for it, hesitating for a second. She looked back at Vitalis before gripping the handle. “I know, but there’s no other way. I can live with the consequences as long as it means Vitalis lives.”
Mandana nodded and backed away, leaving Cyra a clear path to the Ruins’ Tree.
She hefted the ae in her hands as walked up to it. “No more.”
Cyra pulled the axe back. “Ano, if you can hear this, this is my head! It’s my life, and it’s time you get the hell out of it!”
She swung and the axe slammed into the bark. “You’ve manipulated me, abused me, and tortured me for far too long.”
She pulled the axe out and swung again. “I’m done letting you control me!”
Mandana appeared behind the tree as Cyra reached the halfway point. Tears pooled in her eyes. She swung. “Mandana’s death wasn’t my fault!”
The axe landed, and the tree wobbled. Mandana’s ghost smiled. “I made my choice to protect you, so you could live and grow up. I made the right choice.”
She flickered out of existence, and a weight Cyra wasn’t even fully aware of was gone. She staggered back, panting as the ache in her legs grew. She wiped at the sweat forming on her brow. It would only take two more swings.
Cyra pulled back and swung. “Soray’s death wasn’t my fault!”
Soray’s beautiful face flickered behind the tree with a smile. “Live your life, free. Don’t be chained to me anymore.”
She flickered and was gone.
Grief still tugged at Cyra as another weight was lifted. She would miss her cousin, but she didn’t have to be haunted by her.
Cyra reared back for the final swing. This time, she whispered, “I forgive myself.”
The blade landed cutting down the Ruins’ Tree.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she felt the ghost of a kiss on her forehead. “I love you, and I want you to know how proud I am of you, warrior and sister in all.”
“Mihrab?” Cyra whirled around as the image of her brother disappeared.
The tree was falling. Cyra balked as the sky and very fabric of her mind was torn down along with it. Cyra flung herself over Vitalis to shield him as the debris rained down. As her dreamscape came crashing down around them, she whispered, “I love you.”
* * *
Cyra woke up, and instantly everything felt different with it. She felt wrong, off kilter and unbalanced. She couldn’t feel the connection to her dreamscape anymore. It was gone, just gone.
Then the pain set in.
Any pain she thought she felt in her dreamscape became ten times worse.
“Oh, good. You’re up, well actually, you won’t really be ‘up’ ever gain, but you know what I meant.”
Somehow, she was able to hear him through the pain.
It was consuming, decimating. It was fire, like everything always was with Ano. Her legs… It was like he had chained her up in the middle of the desert during the hottest part of the day and set her on fire.
All that she knew was pain. Burning, scratching pain. It was eating her alive.
It was killing her.
Was he the one screaming and crying? Or was the her?
He was… he was pleading?
“Stop! What have you done?”
Cyra’s vision cleared, and she watched Ano get up from where he had been crouching over her. Vitalis was slowly standing up a few feet away, gaping down at her with horror in his eyes.
Cyra’s gaze followed his down to her legs, and an inhuman scream tore its way out of her throat.
She knew she was looking at what was supposed to be her legs, but what she was looking at was nothing of the sort.
There was blood, so much blood, and anything below her knees was too mutilated to make sense of.
It didn’t even look human.
“I took out my only threat. Possession was fun, breaking her mind, destroying her from the inside out was amazing, and maybe it’s a flaw of mine, but I just can’t end this early.” Ano twirled one of Cyra’s daggers in his hand. “See, she kicked me out, no one has done that, and I’m not about to let that go. So, since she made it so I don’t get the pleasure of making her watch herself kill you, I’ll make her watch me kill you. And she’ll lay here on the ground, helpless and weak until she finally bleeds out.”
Vitalis drew his sword. He was still pale and sweating. He couldn’t beat Ano on his best day, much less in his sick and weakened state.
Cyra groaned and whimpered, but the crippling pain kept her in place.
Ano shot forward, and Vitalis barely raised his sword in time to block its swing.
Ano grinned. It was swing after swing. He was relentless.
Vitalis ducked and dodged. He blocked and evaded. It was all he could do.
Ano was blow after blow, never letting up or slowing down. It was only a matter of time before landed his blow.
She had to do something.
Lightning crashed outside, causing the metal to flash in the light. Ano’s blade bit the air where Vitalis’ head had been only a second before.
She couldn’t just watch. She was Vitalis’ bodyguard! She swore to protect him.
Cyra couldn’t let Ano kill him.
She twitched her finger and shifted her arm, biting down the cries of pain welling up in her throat as every time she moved pain struck her like lightning up her spine.
She steeled herself and pushed past the pain because Vitalis had to live, and that was all that mattered.
Her fingers closed around the hilt and she drew out the last weapon she had, Keturah’s dagger.
By some miracle, Ano hadn’t found it.
Ano was beating Vitalis down, wearing him out.
Intense fire engulfed her as she forced a hand under her and shot up so she was upright. She panted and huffed as she agonizingly twisted her torso, so she could raise her arm. Her legs were burning and bleeding so much red.
Dark red covered her from where she’d been lying in it. Dark reads stained the hand gripping the dagger.
She drew back her arm, keeping the demon in her sight.
Vitalis was knocked to the ground. Ano aimed for his heart, lifting his own dagger.
He smirked and opened his mouth to say something.
Keturah’s dagger went straight through his back and chest before he ever got the chance.
The demon choked and fell over, dead instantly.
At the same moment, Cyra fell back into the growing pool of her own blood. The sick red metallic liquid filled her senses. All the sheer willpower that had been holding her up had faded.
She was lightheaded and dizzy.
Oh, she was so tired.
It was over. Over.
The demon was dead.
And if Cyra had to guess, she could be dead soon after.
She’d lost so much blood, was still losing so much of it.
Her legs… what Ano had done… People didn’t get injuries like that and live to recover. They didn’t even look like legs anymore after all that Ano had done. It was just a mass of mutilated flesh.
Someone was touching her, cradling her head, and calling her name.
“Cyra! Stay with me! You’re going to be alright. Just stay awake. Come on, I got you.”
A hand slid under her legs, causing more rippling pain to shoot through her. She cried out, twisting and turning in agony.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Her head lolled forward and onto someone’s chest as she was being lifted. She blinked, and Vitalis blurry face filled her vision.
“Vi—” she croaked and coughed. His heartbeat was erratic and too fast. His skin was scorching hot, burning with fever. His arms were shaking.
“Sh… sh, just stay awake, stay with me. Save your strength. I’m going to get you help.”
“Vitalis,” she whispered. She was dying. She knew it. But she made a promise to herself. She promised herself that if she saw him again, she’d say it. Cyra couldn’t die without letting him know how much she loved him. “Vitalis, I—”
“Don’t talk, you’re got to save your strength. You’ve got to keep fighting. Don’t you dare die on me. Alright?”
Her voice failed her. Her head went limp and darkness engulfed her senses.