“Fight you, Alina? There is no fight to be had.” He gestured to the nichevo’ya. “Seize them.”
They swarmed down from every direction, a seething black mass. Beside me, Mal opened fire. I could smell gunpowder and hear the clink of empty cartridges as bullets hit the ground. I was focusing every bit of power I had, nearly pinwheeling my arms, cutting through five, ten, fifteen shadow soldiers at a time, but it was no good. There were simply too many of them.
Then suddenly they stopped. The nichevo’ya hung in the air, bodies limp, wings moving in silent rhythm.
“Did you do that?” Mal asked.
“I—I don’t think so…”
Silence descended on the terrace. I could hear the wail of the wind, the sounds of the battle raging behind us.
We turned. Baghra stood inside the doorway, her hand on Misha’s shoulder. The boy was shaking, his eyes so wide I could see more white than iris. Behind them, our soldiers were fighting not just nichevo’ya but oprichniki and the Darkling’s own Grisha in their blue and red kefta. He’d had his creatures bring them all to the mountaintop.
“Guide me,” Baghra told Misha. What courage it must have taken for him to lead her out onto the terrace, past the nichevo’ya, who shifted and bumped up against each other, following her passage like a field of glistening black reeds. Only those closest to the Darkling remained moving, clinging to their master, their wings beating in unison.
The Darkling’s face was livid. “I should have known I’d find you cloistered with the enemy. Go back inside,” he ordered. “My soldiers will not harm you.”
Baghra ignored him. When they reached the end of the terrace, Misha placed her hand on the lip of the remaining wall. She leaned against it, releasing an almost contented sigh, and gave Misha a nudge with her stick. “Go on, boy, run to the scrawny little Saint.” He hesitated. Baghra reached out and found his cheek, then patted it none too gently. “Go on,” she repeated. “I want to talk to my son.”
“Misha,” Mal said, and the boy bolted over to us, ducking behind Mal’s coat. The nichevo’ya showed no interest in him. Their attention focused wholly on Baghra.
“What is it you want?” asked the Darkling. “And do not hope to plead for mercy for these fools.”
“Only to meet your monsters,” she said. Baghra leaned her stick against the wall and held out her arms. The nichevo’ya moved forward, rustling and nudging against each other. One nuzzled its head against her palm, as if it were sniffing her. Was it curiosity I sensed in them? Or hunger? “They know me, these children. Like calls to like.”
“Stop this,” demanded the Darkling.
Baghra’s palms began to fill with darkness. The sight was jarring. I’d only ever seen her summon once before. She had hidden her power away as I had once stifled mine, but she had done it for the sake of her son’s secrets. I remembered what she’d said about a Grisha turning his power on himself. She shared the Darkling’s blood, his power. Would she act against him now?
“I will not fight you,” the Darkling said.
“Then strike me down.”
“You know I won’t.”
She smiled then and gave a little chuckle, as if she were pleased with a precocious student. “It’s true. That’s why I still have hope.” Her head snapped to me. “Girl,” she said sharply. Her blind eyes were blank, but in that moment, I could have sworn she saw me clearly. “Do not fail me again.”
“She isn’t strong enough to fight me either, old woman. Take up your stick, and I will return you to the Little Palace.”
A terrible suspicion crept into me. Baghra had given me the strength to fight, but she’d never told me to do it. The only thing she’d ever asked of me was to run.
“Baghra—” I began.
“My hut. My fire. That sounds a pleasant thing,” she said. “But I find the dark is the same wherever I am.”
“You earned those eyes,” he said coldly, but I heard the hurt there too.
“I did,” she said with a sigh. “And more.” Then, without warning, she slammed her hands together. Thunder boomed over the mountain and darkness billowed from her palms like banners unfurling, twisting and curling around the nichevo’ya. They shrieked and jittered, whirling in confusion.
“Know that I loved you,” she said to the Darkling. “Know that it was not enough.”
In a single movement, she shoved herself up on the wall, and before I could draw breath to scream, she tipped forward and vanished over the ledge, trailing the nichevo’ya behind her in tangled skeins of darkness. They tumbled past us in a rush, a shrieking black wave that rolled over the terrace and plummeted down, drawn by the power she exuded.
“No!” the Darkling roared. He dove after her, the wings of his soldiers beating with his fury.
“Alina, now!” Through the haze of my horror, I heard Mal’s words, felt him pushing me through the door, and suddenly, Mal had Misha in his arms and we were running through the observatory. Nichevo’ya streamed past us, yanked toward the terrace by Baghra’s trailing skeins. Others simply hovered in confusion as their master drew farther away.
Run, Baghra had told me again and again. And now I did.
The heated floor was slippery with melted snow. The massive windows of the Spinning Wheel had been shattered and flurries gusted through the room. I saw fallen bodies, pockets of fighting.
I couldn’t seem to think straight. Sergei. Nikolai. Baghra. Baghra. Falling through the mists, the rocks rising up to meet her. Would she cry out? Would she close her blind eyes? Little Saint. Little martyr.
Tolya was running toward us. I saw two oprichniki come at him, swords drawn. Without breaking stride, he threw out his fists and the soldiers collapsed, clutching their chests, their mouths dripping blood.
“Where are the others?” Mal shouted as we came level with Tolya and pelted for the staircase.
“In the hangar, but they’re outnumbered. We need to get down there.”
Some of the Darkling’s blue-robed Squallers had tried to blockade the stairs. They hurled crates and furniture at us in mighty gusts of wind. I slashed out with the Cut, smashing the crates to kindling before they could reach us, sending the Squallers scattering.
The worst was waiting in the hangar below. All semblance of order had broken down in the panic to get away from the Darkling’s soldiers.
People were swarming over the Pelican and the Ibis. The Pelican already hovered above the hangar floor, borne aloft by Squaller current. Soldiers were pulling on its cables, trying to drag it back down and climb aboard, unwilling to wait for the other barge.
Someone gave the order, and the Pelican surged free, plowing through the crowd as it took flight. It rose into the air, trailing screaming men like strange anchors, and disappeared from view.
Zoya, Nadia, and Harshaw were backed up against one of the hulls of the Bittern, using fire and wind to try to keep back a crowd of Grisha and oprichniki.
Tamar was on the deck, and I was relieved to see Nevsky at her side, along with a few other soldiers from the Twenty-Second. But behind them, Adrik lay in a pool of blood. His arm hung from his body at a bizarre angle. His face was white with shock. Genya knelt over him, tears streaming down her face as David stood above her with a rifle, firing down at the attacking crowd with precarious aim. Stigg was nowhere to be seen. Had he fled on the Pelican or simply been left behind in the Spinning Wheel?
“Stigg—” I said.
“There’s no time,” replied Mal.
We shoved through the mob, and at a shouted order from her brother, Tamar slid into place and seized the Bittern’s wheel. We lay down cover as Zoya and the other Squallers scrambled on deck. Mal stumbled as a bullet struck his thigh, but Harshaw had hold of him, dragging him aboard.
“Get us moving!” shouted Nevsky. He signaled to the other soldiers, and they arrayed themselves along the hull’s railing, opening fire on the Darkling’s men. I took a place beside them, sending bright light up agai
nst the crowd, blinding them so they couldn’t take aim.
Mal and Tolya took their positions at the lines as Zoya filled the sails. But her power wasn’t enough.
“Nadia, we need you!” bellowed Tamar.
Nadia looked up from where she’d knelt beside her brother. Her face was streaked with tears, but she rose to her feet, swaying, and forced a draft up into the sails. The Bittern started to slide forward on its runners.
“We’re too heavy!” Zoya cried.
Nevsky grabbed my shoulder. “Survive,” he said roughly. “Help him.” Did he know what had happened to Nikolai?
“I will,” I vowed. “The other barge—”
He didn’t stop to listen. Nevsky shouted, “For the Twenty-Second!” He vaulted over the side, and the other soldiers followed without hesitation. They threw themselves into the mob.
Tamar called the order, and we shot from the hangar. The Bittern plunged sickeningly from the ledge, then the sails snapped into place and we were rising.
I looked back and caught one last glimpse of Nevsky, rifle at his shoulder, before he was swallowed by the crowd.
WE BOBBED AND FALTERED, the little craft swinging precariously back and forth beneath the sails as Tamar and the crew tried to get control of the Bittern. Snow lashed at our faces in stinging gusts, and when the hull nicked the side of a cliff, the whole deck tilted, sending us all scrambling for purchase.
We had no Tidemakers to keep us cloaked in mist, so we could only hope that Baghra had bought us enough time to get clear of the mountains and the Darkling.
Baghra. My eyes skittered over the deck. Misha had tucked himself against the side of the hull, his arms curled over his head. No one could stop to offer comfort.
I knelt beside Adrik and Genya. A nichevo’ya had taken a massive bite from Adrik’s shoulder, and Genya was trying to stop the bleeding, but she’d never been trained as a Healer. His lips were pale, his skin ice-cold, and as I watched, his eyes began to roll back in his head.
“Tolya!” I shouted, trying not to sound panicked.
Nadia turned, her eyes wide with terror, and the Bittern dipped.
“Keep us steady, Nadia,” Tamar demanded over the rush of wind. “Tolya, help him!”
Harshaw came up behind Tolya. He had a deep gash in his forearm, but he gripped the ropes and said, “Ready.” I could see Oncat’s shape squirming around in his coat.