Then I gasped as my good arm was slammed down to the deck. The Darkling loomed over me, his boot pressing down painfully on my wrist.
“There you are,” he said in his cool, cut-glass voice. “Hello, Alina.”
The light collapsed. Darkness crowded in, lit only by the eerie flicker of violet flame.
I grunted as the Darkling’s boot ground down on the bones of my arm.
“Where are the students?” I gritted out.
“They aren’t here.”
“What did you do to them?”
“They’re safe and sound back in Kribirsk. Probably having their lunch.” His nichevo’ya circled around us, forming a perfect, protective dome that shifted and writhed—wings, talons, hands. “I knew the threat would be enough. Did you really believe I would endanger Grisha children when we’ve lost so many?”
“I thought…” I’d thought he was capable of anything. He wanted me to believe, I realized. When he’d shown me Botkin’s and Ana Kuya’s corpses. He’d wanted me to believe in his ruthlessness.
Then I remembered his words from so long ago: Make me your villain.
“I know what you thought, what you’ve always thought of me. It’s so much easier that way, isn’t it? To puff yourself up with your own righteousness.”
“I didn’t invent your crimes.” This wasn’t over yet. All I needed was to reach the flint in my sleeve. All I needed was a spark. It might not kill either of us, but it would hurt like hell, and it might buy the others time.
“Where is the boy? I have my Summoner. I want my tracker too.”
Mal was still just a tracker to him, thank the Saints. My good hand curled into my sleeve, brushed the edge of the flint. “I won’t let him be used,” I said. “Not as leverage. Not as anything.”
“On your back, the faithful dying around you, and yet you remain defiant.”
He yanked me to my feet. Two nichevo’ya slid into place to restrain me as the flint slipped out of my grasp. The Darkling shoved the fabric of my coat aside, his hands sliding down my body. My heart sank as his fingers closed over the first pack of blasting powder. He pulled it from my pocket, then quickly located the second. He sighed.
“I can feel your intent as you feel mine, Alina. Your hopeless resolve, your martyr’s determination. I recognize it now.”
The tether. An idea came to me then. It was the smallest chance, but I would take it.
The Darkling tossed the packs of blasting powder to a nichevo’ya who arced away with them into the darkness. He watched me with cool gray eyes as we waited, the sounds of the battle muffled by the whirring of the shadow soldiers around us. A moment later, a shattering boom sounded from somewhere in the distance.
The Darkling shook his head. “It may well take me another lifetime to break you, Alina, but I will put my mind to the task.”
He turned and I acted. Restrained by the nichevo’ya, I couldn’t use the Cut, but I wasn’t powerless. I twisted my wrists. The violet light of the lumiya bent around me. At the same time, I reached across the tether between us.
The Darkling’s head jerked up and for a moment, though I still stood invisible in the grip of the nichevo’ya, I was staring at him from beside the mast. The vision of the girl before him was whole and unwounded. She raised her arms to deliver the Cut. The Darkling didn’t stop to think—he reacted. It was the barest second, the brief space between instinct and understanding, but it was enough. His shadow soldiers released me and sprang forward to protect him. I lunged toward the railing and threw myself over the side of the skiff.
I landed on my wounded arm, and pain slammed through my body. The Darkling’s howl of rage sounded behind me. I knew I’d lost control of the light, and that meant I was visible. I made myself keep moving, dragging myself across the sand, away from the violet glow of the lumiya. I saw sun soldiers and Grisha fighting by the illuminated skiffs. Harshaw down. Ruby bleeding.
I forced myself to my feet. My head spun. I clutched my wounded arm and lurched into the darkness. I had no sight, no sense of direction. I plunged farther into the black, trying to make my mind work, to form some kind of plan. I knew the volcra could come for me at any moment, but I couldn’t risk the light. Think, I berated myself. I was out of ideas. The blasting powders were gone. I couldn’t raise the Cut. My sleeve was wet with blood, and my footsteps slowed. I had to find someone to heal my arm. I had to regroup. I couldn’t just run from the Darkling again the way I’d done that first time on the Fold. I’d been running ever since.
I spun. Mal’s voice in the dark. Let it be a trick of sound, I thought. But I knew the Squallers’ blanket had long since been lifted. How had he found me? Stupid question. Mal would always find me.
I gasped as he grabbed my wounded arm. Despite the pain and the risk, I summoned a weak wash of light, saw his beautiful face streaked with dirt and blood. And the knife in his hand. I recognized the blade. It was Tamar’s, Grisha-made. Had she offered it to him for this moment? Had he sought her out to ask for it?
“Mal, don’t. This isn’t over yet—”
“It is, Alina.”
I tried to pull away, but he wrapped his hand hard around my wrist, fingers pinching together, the sharp jolt of power moving through both of us, calling me, demanding that I step through that door. With his other hand, he forced my fingers around the knife’s grip. The light wavered.
“Don’t let it all be for nothing, Alina.”
An agonized scream rose over the clamor of the battle. It sounded like Zoya.
“Save them, Alina. Don’t let me live knowing I might have stopped this.”
“Save them. This once, let me carry you.” His gaze locked on mine. “End this,” he said.
His grip tightened. There is no end to our story.
I would never know if it was greed or selflessness that moved my hand. With Mal’s fingers guiding mine, I shoved the knife up and into his chest.
The momentum jerked me forward, and I stumbled. I pulled back, the knife falling from both of our hands, blood spilling from the wound, but he kept his hold on my wrist.
“Mal,” I sobbed.
He coughed and blood burbled from his lips. He swayed forward. I nearly toppled as I clutched him to me, his hold on my wrist so tight I thought the bones might snap. He gasped, a wet rattle. His full weight slumped against me, dragging me down, fingers still clenched, pressed against my skin as if he were taking my pulse.
I knew when he was gone.
For a moment, all was silent, a held breath—and then everything exploded into white fire. A roar filled my ears, an avalanche of sound that shook the sands and made the very air vibrate.
I screamed as power flooded through me, as I burned, consumed from the inside. I was a living star. I was combustion. I was a new sun born to shatter air and eat the earth.
I am ruination.
The world trembled, dissolved, crashed in on itself.
And then the power was gone.
My eyes flew open. Thick darkness surrounded me. My ears were ringing.
I was on my knees. My hands found Mal’s body, the damp crumple of his blood-soaked shirt.
I threw up my hands, calling the light. Nothing happened. I tried again, reaching for the power and finding only absence. I heard a shriek from above. The volcra were circling. I could see bursts of Inferni flame, the dim shapes of soldiers fighting in the violet glow of the skiffs. Somewhere, Tolya and Tamar were calling my name.
“Mal…” My throat was raw. I didn’t know my own voice.
I sought the light, as I had once done deep in the belly of the White Cathedral, searching for any faint tendril. But this was different. I could feel the wound inside me, the gap where something whole and right had been. I wasn’t broken. I was empty.
My fists bunched in Mal’s shirt.
“Help me,” I gasped.
What is infinite? The u
niverse and the greed of men.
What lesson was this? What sick joke? When the Darkling had toyed with the power at the heart of creation, the Fold had been his reward, a place where his power was meaningless, an abomination that would keep him and his country in servitude for hundreds of years. Was this my punishment, then? Was Morozova truly mad, or was he just a failure?
“Someone help!” I screamed.
Tolya and Tamar were racing toward me, Zoya trailing behind, their bodies lit by glass canisters of lumiya. Tolya was limping. Zoya had a burn along one side of her face. Tamar was practically covered in blood from the wounds the nichevo’ya had given her. They all stopped short when they saw Mal.
“Bring him back,” I cried.
Tolya and Tamar went to their knees beside him, but I saw the look they exchanged.
“Alina—” said Tamar.