“You don’t believe that.”
“No, but maybe we weren’t meant to find it.”
“You don’t believe that either.” He sighed. “So much for the good soldier.”
I winced. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You once put goose droppings in my shoes, Alina. A bad mood I can handle.” He glanced at me and said, “We all know the burden you’re carrying. You don’t have to bear it alone.”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand. You can’t.”
“Maybe not. But I saw this with soldiers in my unit. You keep storing up all that anger and grief. Eventually it spills over. Or you drown in it.”
He’d been telling me the same thing when we’d first arrived at the mine, when he’d said the others needed to grieve with me. I’d needed it too, even if I hadn’t wanted to admit it. I’d needed to not be alone. And he was right. I did feel like I was drowning, fear closing in over me like an icy sea.
“It’s not that easy,” I said. “I’m not like them. I’m not like anyone.” I hesitated then added, “Except him.”
“You’re nothing like the Darkling.”
“I am, even if you don’t want to see it.”
Mal raised a brow. “Because he’s powerful and dangerous and eternal?” He gave a rueful laugh. “Tell me something. Would the Darkling ever have forgiven Genya? Or Tolya and Tamar? Or Zoya? Or me?”
“It’s different for us,” I said. “Harder to trust.”
“I have news for you, Alina. That’s tough for everyone.”
“I know, I know. I don’t get it. I just know there’s no way to live without pain—no matter how long or short your life is. People let you down. You get hurt and do damage in return. But what the Darkling did to Genya? To Baghra? What he tried to do to you with that collar? That’s weakness. That’s a man afraid.” He peered out at the valley. “I may never be able to understand what it is to live with your power, but I know you’re better than that. And they all know it too,” he said with a nod back to where the others had gone to make camp. “That’s why we’re here, fighting beside you. That’s why Zoya and Harshaw will whine all night, but tomorrow they’ll stay.”
He nodded. “We’ll eat, we’ll sleep, and then we see what happens next.”
I sighed. “Just keep going.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “You move forward, and when you falter, you get up. And when you can’t, you let us carry you. You let me carry you.” He dropped his hand. “Don’t stay out here too long,” he said, then turned and strode back over the plateau.
I won’t fail you again.
The night before Mal and I had first entered the Fold, he’d promised that we would survive. We’re going to be fine, he’d told me. We always are. In the year since, we’d been tortured and terrorized, broken and rebuilt. We would probably never feel fine again, but I’d needed that lie then, and I needed it now. It kept us standing, kept us fighting another day. It was what we’d been doing our whole lives.
The sun was just starting to set. I stood at the edge of the falls, listening to the rush of the water. As the sun dipped, the falls caught fire, and I watched the pools in the valley turn gold. I leaned over the drop, glimpsing the pile of bones below. Whatever Mal had been hunting, it was big. I peered into the mist rising off the rocks at the base of the falls. The way it billowed and shifted, it almost looked like it was alive, as if—
Something came rushing up at me. I stumbled backward and hit the ground with a jarring thud to my tailbone. A cry cut through the silence.
My eyes searched the sky. A huge winged shape soared above me in a widening arc.
“Mal!” I shouted. My pack was at the edge of the plateau, along with my rifle and bow. I made a dash for them, and the firebird came straight at me.
It was huge, white like the stag and the sea whip, its vast wings tinged with golden flame. They beat the air, the gust driving me backward. Its call echoed through the valley as it opened its massive beak. It was big enough to take my arm off in one bite, maybe my head. Its talons gleamed, long and sharp.
I raised my hands to use the Cut, but I couldn’t keep my footing. I slipped and felt myself tumbling toward the cliff’s edge—hip, then head, striking damp rock. The bones, I thought. Oh, Saints, the bones at the bottom of the falls. This was how it killed.
I clawed at the slick stone, trying to find purchase—and then I was falling.
My scream caught on my lips as my arm was nearly wrenched from its socket. Mal had hold of me just below my elbow. He was on his stomach, hanging over the cliff face, the firebird circling above him in the fading light.
“I’ve got you!” he shouted, but his grip was slipping up the damp skin of my forearm.
My feet dangled over nothing, my heart pounding in my chest. “Mal…” I said desperately.
He leaned out farther. We were both going over.
“I’ve got you,” he repeated, his blue eyes blazing. His fingertips closed around my wrist.
The jolt slammed through us at the same time, the same crackling shock we’d felt that night in the woods near the banya. He flinched. This time we had no choice but to hold tight. Our eyes met, and power surged between us, bright and inevitable. I had the sense of a door swinging open, and all I wanted was to step through—this taste of perfect, gleaming elation was nothing compared to what lay on the other side. I forgot where I was, forgot everything but the need to cross that threshold, to claim that power.
And with that hunger came horrible understanding. No, I thought desperately. Not this.
But it was too late. I knew.
Mal gritted his teeth. I felt his grip go even tighter. My bones rubbed together. The burn of power was almost unendurable, a dull whine that filled my head. My heart beat so hard I thought I might not survive it. I needed to walk through that door.
Then, miraculously, he was pulling me higher, inch by inch. I pawed at the rock with my other hand, searching for the top of the cliff, and finally made contact. Mal took hold of both my arms, and I wriggled onto the safety of the plateau.
As soon as his hand released my wrist, the shuddering rush of power relented. We dragged ourselves away from the edge, muscles trembling, panting for breath.
That echoing call sounded again. The firebird hurtled toward us. We shoved up to our knees. Mal had no time to draw his bow. He threw himself in front of me, arms spread wide as the firebird shrieked and dove, its talons extended directly toward him.
The impact never came. The firebird drew up short, its claws bare inches from Mal’s chest. Its wings beat once, twice, driving us back. Time seemed to slow. I could see us both reflected in its great golden eyes. Its beak was razor sharp, and its feathers seemed to blaze with a light of their own. Even through my fear, I felt awe. The firebird was Ravka. It was right that we should kneel.
It gave another piercing cry, then whirled and flapped its wings, soaring into the gathering dusk.
We sank to the ground, breathing hard.
“Why did it stop?” I gasped.
A long moment passed. Then Mal said, “We’re not hunting it anymore.”
He knew. Just as I did. He knew.
“We need to get out of here,” he said. “It still might come back.”
Dimly, I was aware of the others running toward us over the slippery rock as we got to our feet. They must have heard my screams.
“That was it!” shouted Zoya, pointing at the disappearing shape of the firebird. She lifted her hands to try to bring it back in a downdraft.
“Zoya, stop,” said Mal. “Let it go.”
“Why? What happened? Why didn’t you kill it?”
“It’s not the amplifier.”
“How can you know that?”
Neither of us answered.
“What is going on?” she shouted.
“It’s Mal,” I said finally.
“What’s Mal?” asked Har