Another shape appeared between the trees, then another.
“I do not like this,” said Harshaw. “I do not like this at all.”
“Oh, for Saints’ sake,” sneered Zoya. “You really are peasants.”
She lifted her hands, and a massive gust of wind tore up the mountain. The white shapes seemed to retreat. Then Zoya hooked her arms, and they rushed at us in a moaning white cloud.
“Relax,” she said.
I threw up my arms to ward off whatever horrible thing Zoya had brought down on us. The cloud exploded. It burst into harmless flakes that drifted to the ground around us.
“Ash?” I reached out to catch some of it on my fingers. It was fine and white, the color of chalk.
“It’s just some kind of weather phenomenon,” Zoya said, sending the ashes rising again in lazy spirals. We looked back up the hill. The white clouds continued to move in shifts and gusts, but now that we knew what they were, they seemed slightly less sinister. “You didn’t really think they were ghosts, did you?”
I blushed and Tolya cleared his throat. Zoya rolled her eyes and strode toward the hill. “I am surrounded by fools.”
“They looked spooky,” Mal said to me with a shrug.
“They still do,” I muttered.
All the way up the rise, weird little blasts of wind struck us, hot and then cold. No matter what Zoya said, the grove was an eerie place. I steered clear of the trees’ grasping branches and tried to ignore the gooseflesh puckering my arms. Every time a white whorl rose up near us, I jumped and Oncat hissed from Harshaw’s shoulder.
When we finally crested the hill, we saw that the trees marched all the way into the valley, though here their branches were lush with purple leaves, their ranks spreading over the landscape below like the folds of a Fabrikator’s robe. But that wasn’t what stopped us in our tracks.
Ahead of us stood a towering cliff. It looked less a part of the mountains than like the wall of a giant’s stronghold. It was dark and massive, nearly flat at the top, the rock the heavy gray of iron. A tangle of dead trees had been blown against its base. The cliff was split down the middle by a roaring waterfall that fed a pool so clear we could see the rocks at the bottom. The lake stretched almost the length of the valley, surrounded by blooming soldier trees, then seemed to disappear belowground.
We made our way down to the valley floor, stepping around and over little pools and rivulets, the thunder of the falls filling our ears. When we reached the largest pool, we stopped to fill our canteens and rinse our faces in the water.
“Is this it?” Zoya asked. “The Cera Huo?”
Setting Oncat aside, Harshaw dunked his head in the water. “Must be,” he said. “What’s next?”
“Up, I think,” said Mal.
Tolya eyed the slick expanse of the cliff wall. The rock was wet with mist from the falls. “We’ll have to go around. There’s no way of scaling the face.”
“In the morning,” Mal replied. “Too dangerous to climb in this terrain at night.”
Harshaw tilted his head to one side. “We might want to camp a little farther off.”
“Why?” asked Zoya. “I’m tired.”
“Oncat objects to the landscaping.”
“That tabby can sleep at the bottom of the pool for all I care,” she snapped.
Harshaw just pointed toward the tangle of dead trees crowded around the bottom of the cliff. They weren’t trees at all. They were piles of bones.
“Saints,” Zoya said, backing away. “Are those animal or human?”
Harshaw hitched his thumb over his shoulder. “I saw a very welcoming bunch of boulders back that way.”
“Let’s go there,” said Zoya. “Now.”
We hurried from the falls, picking our way through the soldier trees and up the valley walls.
“Maybe the ash is volcanic,” I said hopefully. My imagination was getting the best of me, and I was suddenly sure that I had the ancient remains of burnt men in my hair.
“Could be,” said Harshaw. “There might be volcanic activity near here. Maybe that’s why they’re called the Firefalls.”
“No,” said Tolya. “That’s why.”
I looked back over my shoulder to the valley below. In the light of the setting sun, the falls had gone molten gold. It must have been a trick of the mist or the angle, but it was as if the very water had caught fire. The sun sank lower, setting every pool alight, turning the valley into a crucible.
“Incredible,” Harshaw groaned. Mal and I exchanged a glance. We’d be lucky if he didn’t try to throw himself in.
Zoya dumped her pack on the ground and slumped down on it. “You can keep your damn scenery. All I want is a warm bed and a glass of wine.”
Tolya frowned. “This is a holy place.”
“Great,” she retorted sourly. “See if you can pray me up a dry pair of socks.”
AT DAWN the next morning, while the others damped the fire and gnawed at pieces of hardtack, I drew on my coat and walked back a little ways to look at the falls. The mist was dense in the valley. From here, the bones at the base of the falls just looked like trees. No ghosts. No fire. It felt like a quiet place, somewhere to rest.
We were packing up the ash-covered tents when we heard it—a cry, high and piercing, echoing through the dawn. We halted, silent, waiting to see if it would sound again.
“Could just be a hawk,” warned Tolya.
Mal said nothing. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and plunged into the woods. We had to scurry to keep pace with him.
The climb up the back of the falls took us the better part of the day. It was steep and brutal, and though my feet had toughened and my legs were used to hard travel, I still felt the strain of it. My muscles ached beneath my pack, and despite the chill in the air, sweat beaded on my forehead.
“When we catch this thing,” panted Zoya, “I’m going to turn it into a stew.”
I could feel the excitement rippling through all of us, the sense that we were close now, and we drove each other to push harder up the mountain. In some places, the rise was nearly vertical. We had to pull ourselves higher by grabbing tight to the roots of scraggly trees or wedging our fingers into the rock. At one point, Tolya brought out iron spikes and hammered them directly into the mountain so we could use them as a makeshift ladder.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we hauled our bodies over a ragged stone lip and found ourselves on the flat top of the cliff wall, a smooth expanse of rock and moss, slick with mist and split by the frothing tide of the river.
Looking north, beyond the abrupt drop of the falls, we could see back the way we’d come—the far ridge of the valley, the gray field that led to the ashwood, the indentation of the old road, and beyond it, storms moving over the grass-covered foothills. And they were just foothills. That was clear now. Because if we turned south, we had our first real view of the mountains, the vast, white-capped Sikurzoi, the source of the snowmelt that fed the Cera Huo.
“They just go on and on,” said Harshaw wearily.
We made our way to the side of the rapids. It would be tricky fording them, and I wasn’t sure there was a point. We could see across to the other side, where the cliff simply ended. There was nothing there. The plateau was clearly and disappointingly empty.
The wind picked up, whipping through my hair and sending a fine mist stingi
ng against my cheek. I glanced south at the white mountains. Autumn was here and winter was on its way. We’d been gone over a week. What if something had happened to the others back in Dva Stolba?
“Well,” said Zoya angrily, “where is it?”
Mal walked to the edge of the falls and looked out at the valley.
“I thought you were supposed to be the best tracker in all of Ravka,” she said. “Just where do we go now?”
Mal rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Down one mountain, up the next. That’s the way it works, Zoya.”
“For how long?” she said. “We can’t just keep on this way.”
“Zoya,” Tolya cautioned.
“How do we even know this thing exists?”
“What were you expecting?” asked Tolya. “A nest?”
“Why not? A nest, a feather, a steaming pile of dung. Something. Anything.”
Zoya was the one saying it, but I sensed the fatigue and disappointment in the others. Tolya would keep going until he collapsed. I wasn’t sure Harshaw and Zoya could take much more.
“It’s too wet to make camp here,” I said. I pointed toward the woods behind the plateau where the trees were reassuringly ordinary, their leaves lit with red and gold. “Head that way until you find a dry spot. Make a fire. We’ll figure out what to do after dinner. Maybe it’s time to split up.”
“You can’t go farther into the Shu Han without protection,” Tolya objected.
Harshaw said nothing, just nuzzled Oncat and failed to meet my eyes.
“We don’t have to decide right now. Just go make camp.”
Carefully, I crossed to the edge of the plateau to join Mal. The drop was dizzying, so I looked into the distance instead. If I squinted, I thought I could just make out the burned field where we’d chased off the thieves, but it might have been imagination.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last.
“Don’t apologize. For all we know, there is no firebird.”