Zoya scowled, but we pushed on, until finally we’d outdistanced the river’s clamor. We spent the night in a hollow of damp limestone where there was nothing to hear but our teeth chattering as we shivered in our wet clothes.
* * *
FOR TWO DAYS, we carried on like that, moving through the tunnels, occasionally backtracking when a route proved impassable. I’d lost all sense of what direction we were heading, but when Mal announced that we were turning west, I noticed that the passages were sloping upward, leading us toward the surface.
Mal set an unforgiving pace. To keep contact, he and the twins would whistle to each other from opposite ends of the column, making sure no one had drifted too far behind. Occasionally, he’d fall back to check on everyone.
“I can tell what you’re up to,” I said once when he returned to the head of the line.
“You pop back there when someone’s lagging, start up a conversation. You ask David about the properties of phosphor or Nadia about her freckles—”
“I have never asked Nadia about her freckles.”
“Or something. Then gradually you start to pick up the pace so that they’re walking faster.”
“It seems to work better than jabbing them with a stick,” he said.
“My jabbing arm is tired.”
Then he was gone, pressing ahead. It was the most we’d spoken since we’d left the White Cathedral.
No one else seemed to have trouble talking. Tamar had started trying to teach Nadia some Shu ballads. Unfortunately, her memory was terrible, but her brother’s was nearly perfect and he’d eagerly taken over. The normally taciturn Tolya could recite entire cycles of epic poetry in Ravkan and Shu—even if no one wanted to hear them.
Though Mal had ordered that we remain in strict formation, Genya frequently escaped to the front of the column to complain to me.
“Every poem is about a brave hero named Kregi,” she said. “Every single one. He always has a steed, and we have to hear about the steed and the three different kinds of swords he carried and the color of the scarf he wore tied to his wrist and all the poor monsters he slew and then how he was a gentle man and true. For a mercenary, Tolya is disturbingly maudlin.”
I laughed and glanced back, though I couldn’t see much. “How is David liking it?”
“David is oblivious. He’s been babbling about mineral compounds for the last hour.”
“Maybe he and Tolya will just put each other to sleep,” Zoya grumbled.
She had no business griping. Though they were all Etherealki, the only thing the Squallers and Inferni seemed to have in common was how much they loved to argue. Stigg didn’t want Harshaw near him because he couldn’t stand cats. Harshaw was constantly taking offense on Oncat’s behalf. Adrik was supposed to stay near the middle of the group, but he wanted to be close to Zoya. Zoya kept slipping away from the head of the column to try to get away from Adrik. I was starting to wish I’d cut the rope and left them all to drown in the river.
And Harshaw didn’t just annoy me; he made me nervous. He liked to drag his flint along the cave walls, sending off little sparks, and he was constantly slipping bits of hard cheese out of his pocket to feed Oncat, then chuckling as if the tabby had said something particularly funny. One morning, we woke to find that he’d shaved the sides of his scalp so that his crimson hair ran in a single thick stripe down the center of his head.
“What did you do?” shrieked Zoya. “You look like a deranged rooster!”
Harshaw just shrugged. “Oncat insisted.”
Still, the tunnels occasionally surprised us with wonders that rendered even the Etherealki speechless. We’d spend hours with nothing to look at but gray rock and mud-covered lime, then emerge into a pale blue cave so perfectly round and smooth that it was like standing inside a giant enamel egg. We stumbled into a series of little caves glittering with what might well have been real rubies. Genya dubbed it the Jewelbox, and after that, we took to naming all of them to pass the time. There was the Orchard—a cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites that had fused together into slender columns. And less than a day later, we came across the Dancehall, a long cave of pink quartz with a floor so slippery we had to crawl over it, occasionally sliding to our bellies. Then there was the eerie, partially submerged iron portcullis we called the Angelgate. It was flanked by two winged stone figures, their heads bent, their hands resting on marble broadswords. The winch worked and we passed through it without incident, but why had it been put there? And by whom?
On the fourth day, we came upon a cavern with a perfectly still pool that gave the illusion of a night sky, its depths sparkling with tiny luminescent fish.
Mal and I were slightly ahead of the others. He dipped his hand in, then yelped and drew back. “They bite.”
“Serves you right,” I said. “‘Oh, look, a dark lake full of something shiny. Let me put my hand in it.’”
“I can’t help being delicious,” he said, that familiar cocky grin flashing across his face like light over water. Then he seemed to catch himself. He shouldered his pack, and I knew he was about to move away from me.
I wasn’t sure where the words came from: “You didn’t fail me, Mal.”
He wiped his damp hand on his thigh. “We both know better.”
“We’re going to be traveling together for who knows how long. Eventually, you’re going to have to talk to me.”
“I’m talking to you right now.”
“See? Is this so terrible?”
“It wouldn’t be,” he said, gazing at me steadily, “if all I wanted to do was talk.”
My cheeks heated. You don’t want this, I told myself. But I felt my edges curl like a piece of paper held too close to fire. “Mal—”
“I need to keep you safe, Alina, to stay focused on what matters. I can’t do that if…” He let out a long breath. “You were meant for more than me, and I’ll die fighting to give it to you. But please don’t ask me to pretend it’s easy.”
He plunged ahead into the next cave.
I looked down at the glittering pond, the whorls of light in the water still settling after Mal’s brief touch. I could hear the others making their noisy way through the cavern.
“Oncat scratches me all the time,” said Harshaw as he ambled up beside me.
“Oh?” I asked hollowly.
“Funny thing is, she likes to stay close.”
“Are you being profound, Harshaw?”
“Actually, I was wondering, if I ate enough of those fish, would I start to glow?”
I shook my head. Of course one of the last living Inferni would have to be insane. I fell in step with the others and headed into the next tunnel.
“Come on, Harshaw,” I called over my shoulder.
Then the first explosion hit.
THE WHOLE CAVERN SHOOK. Little rivulets of pebbles clattered down on us.
Mal was beside me in an instant. He yanked me away from the falling rock as Zoya bracketed my other side.
“Lights out!” Mal shouted. “Packs off.”
We shoved our packs against the walls as a kind of buttress, then doused the lanterns in case the sparks set off another explosion.
Boom. Above us? North of us? It was hard to tell.
Long seconds passed. Boom. This one was closer, louder. Rocks and soil rained down on our bent heads.
“He found us,” moaned Sergei, his voice ragged with fear.
“He couldn’t have,” Zoya protested. “Even the Apparat didn’t know where we were headed.”
Mal shifted slightly. I heard the smatter of pebbles. “It’s a random attack,” he said.
Genya’s voice trembled when she whispered, “That cat is bad luck.”
Boom. Loud enough to rattle my jaw.
“Metan yez,” said David. Marsh gas.
I smelled it a second later, peaty and foul. If there were Inferni above u
s, a spark would follow and blow us all to bits. Someone started crying.
“Squallers,” commanded Mal, “send it east.” How could he sound so calm?
I felt Zoya move, then the rush of air as she and the others drove the gas away from us.
Boom. It was hard to breathe. The space seemed too small.
“Oh, Saints,” Sergei quavered.
“I see flame!” Tolya shouted.
“Send it east,” repeated Mal, voice steady. The whoosh of Squaller wind followed. Mal’s body was braced next to mine. My hand snaked out, seeking his. Our fingers twined together. I heard a small sob from my other side, and I reached for Zoya’s free hand, taking it in mine.
BOOM. This time the whole tunnel roared with the sound of falling rock. I heard people shouting in the dark. Dust filled my lungs.
When the noise stopped, Mal said, “No lanterns. Alina, we need light.” It was a struggle, but I found a thread of sunlight and let it blossom through the tunnel. We were all covered in dust, eyes wide and frightened. I did a quick tally: Mal, Genya, David, Zoya, Nadia, and Harshaw—Oncat tucked into his shirt.
“Tolya?” shouted Mal.
Nothing. Then, “We’re all right.”
Tolya’s voice came from behind the wall of fallen rock blocking the tunnel, but it was strong and clear. I pressed my head to my knees in relief.