I reach for Cyrus’ hand, searching for something solid and real to ground me. I need reality, not this insane altered version where I have over three hundred half-siblings flooding into the city I love.
Sharp shards of wood, concrete, and glass fly through the air.
The boom is deafening.
Instinctually, everyone curves in on themselves. They shield their eyes and ears. Screams rip through the crowd and the already chaotic street.
I turn, my eyes wide and searching.
Someone just set off a bomb.
I reach to the belt slung around my waist, and sure enough, the one I’d taken from my private armory is gone.
It’s as if nothing ever happened. As if all these Royals never saw their King decapitated. Like they never believed him to be dead for an entire month. Every Royal within earshot leaps to action.
I meet Cyrus’ eyes with horror.
He escaped. Lorenzo, the man who quietly plotted our demise for over six hundred years, escaped.
“He slipped away?” I ask in anger and horror.
Cyrus’ eyes rise to scan the crowd, but he places his hands over mine, giving a small squeeze that I think is supposed to feel reassuring. “My grip slipped as the bomb went off,” he says. And I hear the anger at himself in his voice.
I whip around, my eyes searching the crowd. Through the smoke, I find Malachi racing toward us with focused, ready to fight eyes.
“I want you to bring me Lorenzo’s children from here at Court,” I growl.
I swear, I feel heat rising from my eyes, they’re so brilliant red.
My eyes wildly search the space around me. My heart is beating a thousand miles an hour. I feel like I can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. It’s like there are walls around me, but they’re crumbling, caving in on top of me.
Lorenzo is planning to end our world. He just confessed to me his two goals: to make sure Cyrus’ reign is over, and to unite all vampires. If that means exposing us to the humans, if that means the eventual rule over them, so be it.
He’s just escaped.
I had him. And he’s gone.
It’s too much too fast.
It’s too bad. It’s all falling apart too fast.
There’s a word echoing in my brain. There’s a tunnel, long and dark. At the very end of it, I see a hazy shape. No, a face.
Sound presses in on my ears. It’s a word, repeated over and over.
I blink, and the tunnel dissolves.
It’s Cyrus, and that word is my name.
I blink again, and again. I take two quick breaths, but realize I was beginning to hyperventilate. I stop.
“I’m…” I stumble over words. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
The scared but relieved look in Cyrus’ eyes tells me he doesn’t quite believe me, but he gathers me into his arms, crushing me to his chest in an embrace.
Something in me slides back into place.
I shove my fear aside.
I brush away the pile of debris on top of me.
I stand straight.
I roll my shoulders back.
I can do this. I can do this because I’m not alone. “Thank you,” I say, reaching for Cyrus’ hand. When we should be going and fighting or making orders, or something, he’s here. We’re together, and I feel it, I am the center of Cyrus’ entire world.
“Thank you,” I barely breathe the words again as I meet his eyes.
He drags me back to him, kissing me deeply, claiming my soul as a part of his, giving me his own.
We aren’t even two, anymore.
We are one.
Cyrus and Sevan.
Logan and Cyrus.
Shouts around us drag me back into reality. I break the kiss and turn, searching the clearing smoke for signs of return.
“Matthias,” I yell into the smoky day. “Matthias!”
I hear a shout, someone else yelling the General’s name. A moment later, Matthias comes running up the road.
“Was that what it sounded like?” he demands. When he sees Cyrus, he slows, stopping in the road. There’s a mix of awe and suspicion in his eyes.
We’d been distracted, just moments before the bomb went off. Because as soon as we stepped out of Lorenzo’s interrogation, all eyes had turned to the canyon. It was far, but our vampire eyes are strong.
There, as if waiting for an order, were dozens and dozens of Lorenzo’s children.
Matthias turns, looking toward the mouth of the canyon.
“You have the numbers,” I say. “Take every man you can spare, and use any means necessary to make sure those people do not get into this valley.”
Matthias slowly turns back to me. “People? My kind or your kind?”
“Our kind,” Cyrus answers.
“There are one hundred up there, right now,” I tell him. I have to be honest. “But we expect two hundred more to be arriving soon.”
Which takes the numbers down to seventeen to one.
“You’re asking our men to take a huge risk,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “We came because Dorian and Malachi assured us that the numbers were staggeringly safe.” Matthias takes two steps forward, standing nearly nose-to-nose with me. “You can only expect us to do so much for money, take so much risk for money. Jeopardize so many lives for money.”
Cyrus takes a step forward, pushing a hand against Matthias’ chest, pushing him out of my face. “You ally yourselves with us, because this is about to become a real war. A real war fighting for the safety of your race. You fight with us so that you may have a safe home to return to when all of this is over. You fight now to live.”
He should be afraid.
Because though they came here to pretend, to carry out a fake take over, they have no choice now but to fight in a very real war that will affect the entire world.
“Gather the men you need,” I say, fixing him with a confident stare. “Do not let them into the valley.”
There’s a moment’s pause. A hesitation. A consideration.
As I watch him go, I feel it: this is the end. The end of my plan. The end of our time in sorting things out. We don’t have time to sift through the loyal now.
The time to declare is now.
“Cyrus?” a breathy voice says.
“Your King still stands,” Cyrus says, holding his chin high. Another man walking through the village stops, his expression slackening. He changes course, dropping to kneel beside the woman.
“My King lives,” he breathes.
The King lives.
Others step outside of buildings, searching up and down the road.
And they gather. Those who have already been released. I told Dorian we had to wrap up this investigation, that we needed to utilize those we could trust—now. So as the word spreads in just moments, the street fills. Soon there are ten kneeling around us, all staring at Cyrus with eyes full of wonder and awe. Then there are twenty. Thirty. They stand along the edges, looking at a miracle and evidence of the strength of curses.
“I grant unto you my deepest thanks for supporting your Queen while I recovered,” Cyrus says. He has to make a speech. They wait for his words with baited breath. They crave it. They’re silently screaming out to him, begging for answers. For reassurance. “This has truly been a unique time, as our Queen has ruled on her own, amidst so much turmoil and uncertainty. No other in our history,” he says as he turns to me and raises my hand to his lips, gently pressing them to the back of my knuckles, “has ever been more prepared to lead our kind than she is.”
Cyrus’ attention and focus may be on me, but the crowd that surrounds us has eyes only for their King.
The same as I do.
“How?” someone asks. I look out, finding a man with tears brimming in his eyes. “How can you be alive? You were…” He can’t find the words to declare what happened to Cyrus a month ago.
Cyrus lifts his chin and turns back to the crowd. “Long ago I was cursed,” he says. His eyes fix on the horizon, and I know the vision that is playing out in his mind. “Cursed for my ambition with the craving of human blood, the blood of what I once was. I was cursed to lose the woman I love most, over and over, for taking away her free will.”
“But the opposite end of that part of the curse was that I was cursed to never, ever die,” Cyrus says again. His voice drops an octave, a level in volume. His gaze falls to the ground. “That while my wife would die over and over, I could never, ever die. I could never escape punishment.”
“I have been staked through the heart dozens of times,” Cyrus continues. “I have been sliced nearly in half on multiple occasions. I have been cleaved through the head another time. And just a month ago, my head was severed from the rest of my body.”
The focus suddenly returns to Cyrus’ eyes and he looks around at the crowd. “At this point, I have to believe that there is no extent of damage that can be done to my body that will permanently put me in the ground. I am immortal, to every extent of the word.”
There’s fear that creeps into some of their eyes. And I understand it. No one, no matter how good or evil they may be, should truly be un-killable. It just isn’t natural, even in our terms. No one is invincible.
But Cyrus is.
As I scan those who surround us, I also see awe. Respect. Reverence.
This is their king, and he is an invincible genesis predator.
“I may have lain there vulnerable and exposed for weeks,” Cyrus continues. “But my wife never gave up on me. Sevan,” he turns to me, and my heart flutters. “She protected me always. Guarded me. And defended our city while everything tried to fall apart.”
He reaches out, caressing my cheek. And for a moment I forget that we aren’t alone. That it isn’t just the two of us, and that there is an army around us, that there was a bomb detonated just a few hundred yards from our home. That there’s been a plot to destroy us growing for centuries.
It’s just Sevan and Cyrus.
But he looks back at our descendants, and I’m pulled back to reality.
“This army is not our enemy,” Cyrus says. The crowd has grown as he’s spoken, as those released, gather. “They have aided Queen Sevan in rooting out traitors. They have been instrumental in preserving our way of life. Our city. It may have been carried out under a guise, but desperate times call for desperate maneuvers.”
This is where I watch the people closest. This is where I search their faces. Where I watch their hands. Where I look for bending knees and alighting eyes.
I see one there. Out on the edge of the crowd. And there. A woman kneeling among the others.
“Big things are coming,” Cyrus says as his eyes turn toward the canyon. The others look, as well. And we can all see it. The army marches across the valley. A moving avalanche, sliding toward the mouth of the canyon. “Things will change. And now is the time to declare.”
Their eyes flick back to Cyrus, uncertainty and questions slackening their lips.
It’s dead silent for about five seconds.
And then that man at the back of the crowd looks toward the mouth of the canyon. He stares at it for several long moments.
Suddenly, a woman kneeling among the crowd springs to her feet. She darts toward the edge of the crowd, aiming in the general direction of our invaders.
But she doesn’t get five steps beyond the ring before she’s tackled by no less than five Court members, who immediately tear her limb from limb.
My heart races. A feeling surges inside of me.
“Come,” Cyrus says loudly. “You are needed at the castle. We must prepare.”
Without another look at them, Cyrus turns and begins walking back up the road, toward the castle. Hand in hand, I walk at his side, matching him step for step.
“We will join you in the Great Hall shortly,” I tell the crowd following us. “Go on.”
There are a few nods, and the crowd continues up the road toward the castle.
“Have you found them?” Cyrus questions his grandson.
Malachi’s expression darkens, and he shakes his head. “All four of them somehow escaped while you were interrogating Lorenzo. We believe it was one of his children who set off the bomb, allowing Lorenzo to escape.”
I swear under my breath, looking around as if I expect to see half-siblings creeping along the shadows.
“And there is no sign of Lorenzo himself,” Cyrus concludes with a hiss.
Malachi shakes his head gravely.
Cyrus doesn’t rage. He doesn’t tear anyone’s head off.
“Come, you are needed at the castle,” he says. “We need to make preparations. Find Dorian and meet us there.”
With a nod, Malachi immediately slips back into the shadows.