He pointed to my hand and made a sweeping gesture. It took me a second to grasp his meaning. He was imitating the way I moved when I summoned.
“You want me to call the light?”
His face stayed blank. I let sunlight pool in my palm. “This?”
The glow seemed to galvanize him. He seized my hand and slapped it against his chest. I tried to draw away, but he held my hand in place. His grip was viselike, made stronger by whatever monstrous thing the Darkling had placed inside him.
I shook my head. “No.”
Again, he slapped my hand against his chest, the movement almost frantic.
“I don’t know what my power will do to you,” I protested.
The corner of his mouth curled, the faintest suggestion of Nikolai’s wry smile. I could almost hear him say, Really, lovely, what could be worse? Beneath my hand, his heart beat—steady and human.
I released a long breath. “All right,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I summoned the barest bit of light, letting it flow through my palm. He winced, but held my hand firmly in place. I pushed a little harder, trying to direct the light into him, thinking of the spaces between, letting it seep through his skin.
The black cracks on his torso began to recede. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Could it possibly be this simple?
“It’s working,” I gasped.
He grimaced, but waved me on, asking for more.
I called the light into him, watching the black veins fade and recoil.
He was panting now, his eyes closed. A low, pained whine rose from his throat. His grip around my wrist was iron.
Then I felt something push back, as if the darkness within him was fighting. It shoved against the light. All at once, the cracks exploded outward, just as dark as before, like the roots of a tree drinking deep of poisoned water.
Nikolai flinched and shoved away from me with a frustrated snarl. He looked down at his chest, misery carved into his features.
It was no good. Only the Cut worked on the nichevo’ya. It might well destroy the thing inside Nikolai, but it would kill him too.
His shoulders slumped, his wings roiling with the same shifting movement as the Fold.
“We’ll think of something. David will come up with a solution, or we’ll find a Healer.…”
He dropped to his haunches, elbows resting on his knees, face buried in his hands. Nikolai had seemed infinitely capable, confident in his belief that every problem had a solution and he would be the one to find it. I couldn’t bear seeing him this way, broken and defeated for the first time.
I approached him cautiously and crouched down. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. Tentatively, I reached out and touched his arm, ready to draw back if he startled or snapped. His skin was warm, the feel of it unchanged despite the shadows lurking beneath it. I slipped my arms around him, careful of the wings that rustled at his back.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
He dropped his forehead to my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, Nikolai.”
He released a small, shuddering sigh.
Then he inhaled and tensed. He turned his head. I felt his breath on my neck, the scrape of one of his teeth beneath my jaw.
His arms clamped around me. His claws dug into my back. There was no mistaking the growl that issued from his chest.
I pushed away from him and shot to my feet.
“Stop!” I said harshly.
His hands flexed. His lips had pulled back to reveal his onyx fangs. I knew what I saw in him: appetite.
“Don’t,” I pleaded. “This isn’t you. You can control this.”
He took a step toward me. Another rumbling, animal growl rolled through him.
I lifted my hands. “Nikolai,” I said warningly. “I will put you down.”
I saw the moment that reason returned. His face crumpled in horror at what he’d wanted to do, at what some part of him probably still wanted to do. His body was trembling with the desire to feed.
His black eyes brimmed with flickering shadows. Were they tears? He clenched his fists, threw back his head. The tendons in his neck knotted, and he released an echoing shriek of helplessness and rage. I’d heard it before, when the Darkling summoned the nichevo’ya, the rending of the fabric of the world, the cry of something that should not be.
He launched himself into the air and hurtled straight for the Fold.
“Nikolai!” I screamed. But he was already gone, swallowed by the seething blackness, lost to the volcra’s domain.
I heard footsteps and turned to see Mal, Harshaw, and Zoya running toward me, Oncat yowling and darting between their legs. Harshaw had his flint out, and Mal was unslinging his rifle.
Zoya’s eyes were wide. “Was that a nichevo’ya?”
I shook my head. “It was Nikolai.”
They stopped dead. “He found us?” said Mal.
“He’s been tracking us since we left the Spinning Wheel.”
“But the Darkling—”
“If he were the Darkling’s creature, we’d already be dead.”
“How long have you known he was following us?” asked Zoya angrily.
“I saw him once back at the copper mine. There was nothing to do about it.”
“We could have had Mal put an arrow through him,” said Harshaw.
I jabbed a finger at him. “I wouldn’t abandon you, and I’m not abandoning Nikolai.”
“Easy,” said Mal, stepping forward. “He’s gone now, and there’s no point fighting about it. Harshaw, go start a fire. Zoya, the grouse we caught need cleaning.”
She stared at him and didn’t budge. He rolled his eyes.
“All right, they need cleaning by someone else. Please go find somebody to order around.”
Harshaw returned his flint to his sleeve. “They’re all crazy, Oncat,” he said to the tabby. “Invisible armies, monster princes. Let’s go set fire to something.”
I rubbed a hand over my eyes as they walked off. “Are you going to yell at me too?”
“No. I’ve wanted to shoot Nikolai plenty of times, but that seems a little petty now. Curious about that ring, though.”
I’d forgotten about the massive jewel on my hand. I pulled it off and shoved it in my pocket. “Nikolai gave it to me back at the Spinning Wheel. I thought he might recognize it.”
“I think so. Before he tried to eat me.”
“He flew into the Fold.”
“Do you think he meant to—”
“Kill himself? I don’t know. Maybe it’s like a vacation home to him now. I don’t even know if the volcra would see him as prey.” I leaned against the boulder Nikolai had been perched on just minutes before. “He tried to have me heal him. It didn’t work.”
“You don’t know what you may be able to do once the amplifiers are brought together.”
“You mean after I murder you?”
“We are not talking about this.”
“You can’t just pull the covers over your head and pretend this isn’t happening.”