“Impressive,” said the Darkling, his voice coming to us as if from a great distance. “Baghra taught you far too well. But you’re not strong enough for this, Alina.”
I knew he was trying to distract me and I ignored him.
“You! Tracker! Are you so ready to die for her?” the Darkling called. Mal’s expression didn’t change. He stood, bow at the ready, arrow nocked, turning in a slow circle, searching out the Darkling’s voice. “That was a very touching scene we witnessed,” he sneered. “Did you tell him, Alina? Does the boy know how willing you were to give yourself to me? Did you tell him what I showed you in the dark?”
A wave of shame rushed through me and the glowing light faltered. The Darkling laughed.
I glanced at Mal. His jaw was set. He radiated the same icy anger I had seen the night of the winter fete. I felt my hold on the light slip and I scrambled for it. I tried to refocus my power. The sphere stuttered with fresh brilliance, but I could already feel my reach brushing up against the boundaries of what I could do. Darkness began to leak into the edges of the bubble like ink.
I knew what had to be done. The Darkling was right; I wasn’t strong enough. And we wouldn’t have another chance.
“Do it, Mal,” I whispered. “You know what has to happen.”
Mal looked at me, panic flaring in his eyes. He shook his head. Darkness surged against the bubble. I stumbled slightly.
“Quick, Mal! Before it’s too late.”
In one lightning movement, Mal dropped his bow and reached for his knife.
“Do it, Mal! Do it now!”
Mal’s hand was shaking. I could feel my strength ebbing. “I can’t,” he whispered miserably. “I can’t.” He let go of the knife, letting it fall soundlessly into the snow. Darkness crashed in on us.
Mal disappeared. The clearing disappeared. I was thrown into suffocating blackness. I heard Mal cry out and reached toward his voice, but suddenly, strong arms had hold of me from both sides. I kicked and struggled furiously.
The darkness lifted, and that quickly, I saw it was over.
Two of the Darkling’s guards had hold of me, while Mal struggled between two others.
“Be still or I’ll kill you where you stand,” Ivan snarled at him.
“Leave him alone!” I shouted.
“Shhhhhh.” The Darkling walked toward me, one finger held to his lips, which were curled into a mocking smile. “Quiet now, or I will let Ivan kill him. Slowly.”
Tears spilled onto my cheeks, freezing in the cold night air.
“Torches,” he said. I heard flint striking and two torches burst into flame, lighting the clearing, the soldiers, and the stag, which lay panting on the ground. The Darkling pulled a heavy knife from his belt, and the firelight glinted off Grisha steel. “We’ve wasted enough time here.”
He strode forward and without hesitating slit the stag’s throat.
Blood gushed into the snow, pooling around the stag’s body. I watched as the life left his dark eyes, and a sob broke from my chest.
“Take the antlers,” the Darkling said to one of the oprichniki. “Cut a piece from each.”
The oprichnik stepped forward and bent over the stag’s body, a serrated blade in his hand.
I turned away, my stomach heaving as a sawing sound filled the stillness of the clearing. We stood in silence, our breath curling in the icy air, as the sound went on and on. Even when it stopped, I could still feel it vibrating through my clenched jaw.
The oprichnik crossed the glade and handed the two pieces of antler to the Darkling. They were almost evenly matched, both ending in double prongs of roughly the same size. The Darkling clasped the pieces in his hands, letting his thumb roll over the rough, silvery bone. Then he gestured, and I was surprised to see David emerge from the shadows in his purple kefta.
Of course. The Darkling would want his best Fabrikator to fashion this collar. David wouldn’t meet my gaze. I wondered if Genya knew where he was and what he was doing. Maybe she would be proud. Maybe she thought of me as a traitor now, too.
“David,” I said softly, “don’t do this.”
David glanced at me and then hurriedly looked away.
“David understands the future,” said the Darkling, the edge of a threat in his voice. “And he knows better than to fight it.”
David came to stand behind my right shoulder. The Darkling studied me in the torchlight. For a moment, all was silence. Twilight had gone, and the moon had risen, bright and full. The glade seemed suspended in stillness.
“Open your coat,” said the Darkling.
I didn’t move.
The Darkling glanced at Ivan and nodded. Mal screamed, his hands clutching his chest as he crumpled to the ground.
“No!” I cried. I tried to run to Mal’s side, but the guards on either side of me held tight to my arms. “Please,” I begged the Darkling. “Make him stop!”
Again, the Darkling nodded, and Mal’s cries ceased. He lay in the snow, breathing hard, his gaze fixed on Ivan’s arrogant sneer, his eyes full of hatred.
The Darkling watched me, waiting, his face impassive. He looked nearly bored. I shrugged off the oprichniki. With shaking hands, I wiped the tears from my eyes and unbuttoned my coat, letting it slide over my shoulders.
Distantly, I was aware of the cold seeping through my wool tunic, of the watching eyes of the soldiers and the Grisha. My world had narrowed to the curving pieces of bone in the Darkling’s hands, and I felt a sweeping sense of terror.
“Lift your hair,” he murmured. I lifted the hair away from my neck with both hands.
The Darkling stepped forward and pushed the fabric of my tunic out of the way. When his fingertips brushed against my skin, I flinched. I saw a flash of anger pass over his face.
He placed the curving pieces of antler around my throat, one on each side, letting them rest on my collarbones with infinite care. He nodded at David, and I felt the Fabrikator take hold of the antlers. In my mind’s eye, I saw David standing behind me, wearing the same focused expression I’d seen that first day in the workrooms of the Little Palace. I saw the pieces of bone shift and melt together. No clasp, no hinge. This collar would be mine to wear forever.
“It’s done,” whispered David. He dropped the collar, and I felt the weight of it settle on my neck. I bunched my hands into fists, waiting.
Nothing happened. I felt a sudden reckless shock of hope. What if the Darkling had been wrong? What if the collar did nothing at all?
Then the Darkling closed his fingers over my shoulder and a silent command reverberated inside me: Light. It felt like an invisible hand reaching into my chest.
Golden light burst through me, flooding the clearing. I saw the Darkling squinting in the brightness, his features alight with triumph and exultation.
No, I thought, trying to release the light, to send it away. But as soon as the idea of resistance had formed, that invisible hand batted it away like it was nothing.
Another command echoed through me: More. A fresh surge of power roared through my body, wilder and stronger than anything I had ever felt. There was no end to it. The control I’d learned, the understanding I’d gained collapsed before it—houses I’d built, fragile and imperfect, smashed to kindling in the oncoming flood that was the power of the stag. Light exploded from me in wave after shimmering wave, obliterating the night sky in a torrent of brilliance. I felt none of the exhilaration or joy that I had come to expect from using my power. It wasn’t mine anymore, and I was drowning, helpless, caught in that horrible, invisible grip.
The Darkling held me there, testing my new limits—for how long, I couldn’t tell. I only knew when I felt the invisible hand release its grip.
Darkness fell on the clearing once again. I drew a ragged breath, trying to get my bearings, to piece myself back together. The flickering torchlight illuminated the awed expressions of the guards and Grisha, and Mal, still crumpled on the ground, his face miserable, his eyes full of regret.
When I looked back at the Darkling, he was watching me closely, his eyes narrowed. He looked from me to Mal, then turned to his men. “Put him in chains.”
I opened my mouth to object, but a glance from Mal made me shut it.
“We’ll camp tonight and leave for the Fold at first light,” said the Darkling. “Send word to the Apparat to be ready.” He turned to me. “If you try to harm yourself, the tracker will suffer for it.”
“What about the stag?” asked Ivan.
One of the Etherealki lifted his arm to a torch, and the flame shot forward in a sweeping arc, surrounding the stag’s lifeless body. As we were led from the clearing, there was no sound but our own footfalls and the crackling of the flames behind us. No rustle came from the trees, no insect buzz or nightbird call. The woods were silent in their grief.
WE WALKED IN SILENCE for over an hour. I stared numbly down at my feet, watching my boots move through the snow, thinking about the stag and the price of my weakness. Eventually, I saw firelight flickering through the trees, and we emerged into a clearing where a small camp had been made around a roaring fire. I noted several small tents and a group of horses tethered amid the trees. Two oprichniki sat beside the fire, eating their evening meal.
Mal’s guards took him to one of the tents, pushing him inside and following after. I tried to catch his eye, but he disappeared too quickly.
Ivan dragged me across the camp to another tent and gave me a shove. Inside, I saw several bedrolls laid out. He pushed me forward and gestured to the pole at the center of the tent. “Sit,” he ordered. I sat with my back to the pole, and he tethered me to it, tying my hands behind my back and binding my ankles.
“You know what he plans to do, Ivan.”
“He plans to bring us peace.”
“At what price?” I asked desperately. “You know this is madness.”
“Did you know I had two brothers?” Ivan asked abruptly. The familiar smirk was gone from his handsome face. “Of course not. They weren’t born Grisha. They were soldiers, and they both died fighting the King’s wars. So did my father. So did my uncle.”
“Yes, everyone is sorry. The King is sorry. The Queen is sorry. I’m sorry. But only the Darkling will do something about it.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Ivan. My power could be used to destroy the Fold.”
Ivan shook his head. “The Darkling knows what has to be done.”
“He’ll never stop! You know that. Not once he’s had a taste of that kind of power. I’m the one wearing the collar now. But eventually, it will be all of you. And there won’t be anyone or anything strong enough to stand in his way.”
A muscle twitched in Ivan’s jaw. “Keep talking treason and I’ll gag you,” he said, and without another word, he strode out of the tent.
A while later, a Summoner and a Heartrender ducked inside. I didn’t recognize either of them. Avoiding my gaze, they silently hunched into their furs and blew out the lamp.
I sat awake in the dark, watching the flickering light of the campfire play over the canvas walls of the tent. I could feel the weight of the collar against my neck, and my bound hands itched to claw at it. I thought of Mal, just a few feet away in another tent.