THE NEXT MORNING, I woke to find that Mal had already risen. He’d left me a pot of hot tea on a tray surrounded by apple blossoms. The rain had stopped, but the walls of the conservatory were covered in mist. I rubbed my sleeve against a pane of glass and looked out into the deep blue of early dawn. A deer was moving between the trees, head bent to the sweet grass.
I dressed slowly, drank my tea, lingered by the reflecting pool where the lanterns had long since gone out. In a few hours’ time, this place might be buried in darkness. I wanted to remember every detail. On a whim, I picked up a pen and flipped to the last page of the diary and wrote our names.
I wasn’t sure why I did it. I just needed to say we had been there.
I found the others packing up in the main hall. Genya waylaid me by the door with my coat in her hands. The olive wool was freshly pressed.
“You should look your best when you put the Darkling in the ground.”
“Thanks,” I said w
ith a smile. “I’ll try not to bleed all over it.”
She kissed both of my cheeks. “Good luck. We’ll be waiting when you get back.”
I took her hand and placed Nikolai’s ring in her palm. “If something goes wrong, if we don’t make it—take David and Misha and get to Os Kervo. This should buy you all the help you need.”
She swallowed, then hugged me hard.
Outside, the Soldat Sol waited in rigid formation, rifles on their backs, canisters of inactive lumiya slung over their shoulders. The tattoos on their faces looked fierce in the dawn light. The Grisha wore roughspun. They might have been ordinary soldiers.
Harshaw had left Oncat curled up with Misha, but now she sat in the parlor window, lazily grooming herself and watching us assemble. Tolya and Tamar had their golden sunbursts pinned to their chests. Mal’s was still with Misha. He smiled when he saw me, and tapped the space where the pin would have gone, right over his heart.
The deer had scattered. The orchard was empty as we moved through it, boots leaving deep marks on the soft earth. A half hour later, we were standing at the shores of the Fold.
I joined the other Etherealki: Zoya, Nadia, Adrik, and Harshaw. It felt somehow right that we should be the first to enter and that we would do it together. The Squallers raised their arms, summoning current and dropping the pressure as Zoya had done back in the caves. My ears crackled as they layered the acoustic blanket. If it didn’t hold, Harshaw and I were ready to summon light and fire to drive the volcra back. We spread out in a line, and with measured steps, we entered the darkness of the Fold.
The Unsea always felt like the end of everything. It wasn’t only the dark, it was the terrible sense of isolation, as if the world had disappeared, leaving only you, the rattle of your breath, the stuttering beat of your heart.
As we stepped onto the dead gray sands and the darkness thickened around us, it took everything in me not to raise my hands and wrap all of us in safe, protective light. I listened closely, expecting to hear the beating of wings, one of those horrible, inhuman shrieks, but I heard nothing, not even our footsteps on the sand. Whatever the Squallers were doing was working. The silence was deep and impenetrable.
“Hello?” I whispered.
“We hear you.” I whirled. I knew Zoya was farther down the line, but it sounded like she was speaking right in my ear.
We moved at a steady pace. I heard a click, then almost ten minutes later, a double click. We’d gone a mile. At one point, I heard the distant flap of wings above us, and I felt fear move through our ranks like a living thing. The volcra might not hear us but they could scent prey from miles away. Were they circling above us even now, sensing that something was wrong, that someone was near? I doubted Zoya’s trick would keep us safe for long. The absolute madness of what we were doing struck me in that moment. We had dared what no one else ever had: We’d entered the Fold without light.
We kept moving. Two clicks later, we stopped and took up our positions to wait. As soon as we sighted the Darkling’s skiff, we’d have to move quickly.
My thoughts turned to him. Cautiously, I tested the tether that bound us. Hunger quaked through me with palpable force. He was eager, ready to unleash the power of the Fold, ready for a fight. I felt it too. I let it echo back to him, that rush of anticipation, that need: I am coming for you.
Mal and Tolya—maybe all of the others—believed that the amplifiers had to be brought together, but they had never felt the thrill of using merzost. It was something no other Grisha understood, and in the end, it was what bound the Darkling and me most closely—not our powers, not the strangeness of them, not that we were both aberrations, if not abominations. It was our knowledge of the forbidden, our desire for more.
The minutes ticked by, and my nerves began to jangle. The Squallers could maintain the acoustic blanket for only so long. What if the Darkling waited until night to attack? Where are you?
The answer came in a pale violet glow, moving toward us from the east.
Two clicks. We fanned out in the formation we had practiced.
Three clicks. That was my signal. I raised my hands and set the Fold ablaze. In the same moment, I bent the light, letting it flow around each of our soldiers like a stream.
What did the Darkling see? Dead sands, the flat sheen of a gray sky, the ruined hulks of skiffs falling to dust. And that was all. We were invisible. We were air.
The skiff slowed. As it drew closer, I saw its black sails marked with the sun in eclipse, the strange, smoked-glass quality of its hull. The violet flame of the lumiya shimmered over its sides, vague and flickering in the bright glare of my power.
Squallers stood at the masts in their blue kefta. A few Inferni lined the railings, flanked by Heartrenders in red, heavily armed oprichniki in gray. It was a spare force. The students must be belowdecks. The Darkling stood at the prow, surrounded by his shadow horde. As always, the first sight of him was practically a physical blow. It was like going to him in a vision: He was simply more real, more vibrant than everything else around him.
It happened so fast, I barely had time to register it. The first shot struck one of the Darkling’s oprichniki. He toppled over the skiff’s railing. Then the shots came in a rapid patter, like raindrops on a rooftop at the start of a storm. Grisha and oprichniki slumped and fell against one another as confusion broke out aboard the glass skiff. I saw more bodies fall.
Someone shouted, “Return fire!” and the air erupted with the jarring thunder of gunshots, but we were safely out of range. The nichevo’ya beat their wings, turning in wide arcs, searching for targets. Flints were struck, and the Inferni who remained on the skiff sent gouts of flame flaring through the air. Cloaked from sight, Harshaw turned the fire back on them. I heard screams.
Then silence, broken only by moaning and shouted orders from the glass skiff. Our sharpshooters had done their job well. The area around the railing was littered with bodies. The Darkling, unharmed, was pointing to a Heartrender and issuing some kind of command. I couldn’t make out his words, but I knew this was when he would use the students.
I looked around me, tracking the shooters, the Grisha, feeling their presence in the light.
A single click. The Squallers sent a wave of sand crashing through the air. More shouts rose from the deck as the Darkling’s Squallers tried to respond.
That was our cue. The twins and I bolted for the skiff, approaching from the stern. We didn’t have much time.
“Where are they?” Tolya whispered as we boarded. It was strange to hear his voice but not to see him.
“Maybe below,” I replied. The skiff was shallow, but there was room enough.
We picked our way across the deck, searching for a hatch, careful not to brush against the Darkling’s Grisha and guards.
The remaining oprichniki had their guns trained on the empty sands beyond the skiff. We were close enough that I could see the sweat on their brows, their wide eyes. They twitched, jumping at every real or imagined sound. “Maleni,” they whispered. Ghosts. Only the Darkling seemed unfazed. His face was serene as he surveyed the destruction I’d loosed. I was close enough to strike, but he was still protected by his shadow soldiers. I had the uneasy sensation that he was waiting for something.
Suddenly, an oprichnik yelled, “Get down!”
The people around us dove to the deck and the air exploded with gunfire.
Two other glass skiffs plowed into view, loaded with oprichniki. As soon as they came into contact with the light, the skiffs ignited with the glowing violet flame of lumiya.
“Did you think I would come to meet you unprepared, Alina?” the Darkling called over the chaos. “Did you think I would not sacrifice an entire fleet of skiffs to this cause?”
However many he had sent, only two had made it through. But that would be enough to turn the tide. I heard screams, shouting, our soldiers returning fire. A red stain appeared in the sand and with a lurch I realized that one of our people was bleeding. It could be Vladim.
Zoya. Mal. I had to get them out of here. Where were the students? I tried to keep my focus. I couldn’t let the light falter. Our forces had canisters of lumiya. They could retreat into the Fold, but I knew they wouldn’t. Not until I was clear of the Darkling’s skiff.
I crept around the masts, searching for some sign of a trapdoor or hatch.
Then a searing pain cut through my shoulder. I fell backward, crying out. I’d been shot.
I sprawled on the deck, feeling my hold on the light falter. Tolya’s shape flickered into view beside me. I tried to regain control. He disappeared, but through the railing I could see soldiers and Grisha appearing on the sands. Oprichniki leapt from the other skiffs, moving in for the attack, and the nichevo’ya surged into the battle.
Panic clamored through me as I scrambled for focus. I couldn’t feel my right arm. I made myself breathe. Stop huffing like a wild boar. If Adrik could summon with one arm, then I could too.
Tamar appeared near the prow, vanished, stuttered back into view. A nichevo’ya slammed into her. She screamed as it sunk its claws deep into her back.
No. I gathered my fractured concentration and reached for the Cut, though I had only one good arm to wield it. I wasn’t sure that I could hit the shadow soldier without wounding Tamar, but I couldn’t just watch her die.
Then another shape dove into the fray from above. It took me a long second to understand what I was seeing: Nikolai—fangs bared, wings spread.
With his talons, he seized the nichevo’ya that held Tamar and wrenched its head back, forcing it to release her. It skittered and writhed, but Nikolai flew upward and hurled it into the blackness beyond. I heard frenzied shrieks from somewhere in the distance—volcra. The shadow soldier did not reappear.
Nikolai swooped back down, barreling into another of the Darkling’s nichevo’ya. I could almost imagine his laugh. Well, if I’m going to be a monster, I might as well be king of the monsters.