When they were almost upon us, the Darkling gripped my arm and simply said, “Now.”
That invisible hand took hold of the power inside me, and I felt it stretch, reaching through the darkness of the Fold, seeking the light. It came to me with a speed and fury that nearly knocked me from my feet, breaking over me in a shower of brilliance and warmth.
The Fold was alight, as bright as noon, as if its impenetrable darkness had never been. I saw a long reach of blanched sand, hulks of what looked like shipwrecks dotting the dead landscape, and above it all, a teeming flock of volcra. They screamed in terror, their writhing gray bodies gruesome in the bright sunlight. This is the truth of him, I thought as I squinted in the dazzling light. Like calls to like. This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.
Make a path. I wasn’t sure if he spoke or simply thought the command that reverberated through me. Helpless, I let the Fold close in around us as I focused the light, making a channel through which the skiff could pass, bordered on both sides by walls of rippling darkness. The volcra fled into the dark, and I could hear them crying in rage and confusion as if from behind an impenetrable curtain.
We sped over the colorless sands, the sunlight spreading in glimmering waves before us. Far ahead, I saw a flash of green, and I realized I was seeing the other side of the Shadow Fold. We were looking into West Ravka, and as we drew closer, I saw their meadow, their drydocks, the village of Novokribirsk nestled behind it. The towers of Os Kervo gleamed in the distance. Was it my imagination, or could I smell the salt tang of the True Sea on the air?
People were streaming from the village and crowding onto the drydocks, pointing at the light that had split the Fold open before them. I saw children playing in the grass. I could hear the dockworkers calling to each other.
At a signal from the Darkling, the skiff slowed, and he lifted his arms. I felt a spike of horror as I understood what was about to happen.
“They’re your own people!” I cried desperately.
He ignored me and brought his hands together with a sound like a clap of thunder.
It all seemed to happen slowly. Darkness rippled out from his hands. When it met the darkness of the Fold, a rumbling sound rose up out of the dead sands. The black walls of the path I’d created pulsed and swelled. It’s like it’s breathing, I thought in terror.
The rumble grew to a roar. The Fold shook and trembled around us and then burst forward in a terrible cascading tide.
A frightened wail went up from the crowd on the docks as darkness rushed toward them. They ran, and I saw their fear, heard their screams as the black fabric of the Fold crashed over the drydocks and the village like a breaking wave. Darkness enveloped them, and the volcra set upon their new prey. A woman carrying a little boy stumbled, trying to outrun the grasping dark, but it swallowed her, too.
I reached inside of myself desperately, trying to expand the light, to drive the volcra off, to offer some kind of protection. But I could do nothing. My power slid away from me, pulled from me by that invisible, taunting hand. I wished for a knife to drive into the Darkling’s heart, into my own heart, anything that would make this stop.
The Darkling turned to look at the ambassadors and the King’s envoy. Their faces were identical masks of horror and shock. Whatever he saw there must have satisfied him, because he separated his hands and the darkness stopped pushing forward. The rumbling faded.
I could hear the anguished cries of those lost in the dark, the shrieks of the volcra, the sounds of rifle fire. The drydocks were gone. The village of Novokribirsk was gone. We were staring into the new reaches of the Fold.
The message was clear: Today it had been West Ravka. Tomorrow, the Darkling could just as easily push the Fold north to Fjerda or south to the Shu Han. It would devour whole countries and drive the Darkling’s enemies into the sea. How many deaths had I just helped to bring about? How many more would I be responsible for?
Close the path, commanded the Darkling. I had no choice but to obey. I pulled the light back until it rested around the skiff like a glowing dome.
“What have you done?” whispered the envoy, his voice shaking.
The Darkling turned on him. “Do you need to see more?”
“You were meant to undo this abomination, not enlarge it! You’ve slaughtered Ravkans! The King will never stand—”
“The King will do as he’s told, or I’ll march the Shadow Fold to the walls of Os Alta itself.”
The envoy sputtered, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. The Darkling turned to the ambassadors. “I think you understand me now. There are no Ravkans, no Fjerdans, no Kerch, no Shu Han. There are no more borders, and there will be no more wars. From now on, there is only the land inside the Fold and outside of it, and there will be peace.”
“Peace on your terms,” said one of the Shu Han angrily.
“It will not stand,” blustered a Fjerdan.
The Darkling looked them over and said very calmly, “Peace on my terms. Or your precious mountains and your saintsforsaken tundra will simply cease to exist.”
With crushing certainty, I understood that he meant every word. The ambassadors might hope it was an empty threat, believe that there were limits to his hunger, but they would learn soon enough. The Darkling would not hesitate. He would not grieve. His darkness would consume the world, and he would never waver.
The Darkling turned his back on their stunned and angry expressions and addressed the Grisha and soldiers on the skiff. “Tell the story of what you’ve seen today. Tell everyone that the days of fear and uncertainty are over. The days of endless fighting are over. Tell them that you saw a new age begin.”
A cheer went up from the crowd. I saw a few soldiers muttering to each other. Even some of the Grisha looked unnerved. But most of their faces were eager, triumphant, shining.
They’re hungry for this, I realized. Even after they’ve seen what he can do, even after watching their own people die. The Darkling wasn’t just offering them an end to war, but an end to weakness. After all these long years of terror and suffering, he would give them something that had seemed permanently beyond their grasp: victory. And despite their fear, they loved him for it.
The Darkling signaled to Ivan, who stood behind him, waiting for orders. “Bring me the prisoner.”
I looked up sharply, a fresh bolt of fear shooting through me as Mal was led through the crowd to the railing, his hands bound.
“We return to Ravka,” said the Darkling. “But the traitor stays.”
Before I even knew what was happening, Ivan shoved Mal over the edge of the skiff. The volcra screeched and beat their wings. I ran to the railing. Mal was on his side in the sand, still within the protective circle of my light. He spat sand from his mouth and pushed himself up with his bound hands.
“Mal!” I cried.
Without thinking, I turned on Ivan and punched him hard in the jaw. He stumbled back against the railing, stunned, and then lunged at me. Good, I thought as he grabbed me. Throw me over, too.
“Hold,” said the Darkling, his voice like ice. Ivan scowled, his face red with embarrassment and anger. He relaxed his grip but didn’t let go.
I could see the confusion of the people on the skiff. They didn’t know what this show was about, why the Darkling was troubling with a deserter or why his most valued Grisha had just punched his second-in-command.
Pull it back. The command rang through me and I looked at the Darkling in horror.
“No!” I said. But I couldn’t stop it; the dome of light began to contract. Mal looked at me as the circle shrank closer to the skiff, and if Ivan hadn’t had hold of me, the look of regret and love in his blue eyes would have sent me to my knees. I fought with everything inside me, every bit of strength I had, everything Baghra had taught me, and it was nothing in the face of the Darkling’s power over me. The light inched closer to the skiff.
I gripped the railing and cried out in rage, in misery, the tears streaming down my cheeks. Mal was standing at the edge of the gleaming circle now. I could see the shapes of the volcra in the swirling dark, feel the beat of their wings. He could have run, could have wept, could have clung to the sides of the skiff until the darkness took him, but he did none of those things. He stood unflinching before the gathering dark.
Only I had the power to save him—and I was powerless to save him. In the next breath, the darkness swallowed him. I heard him scream. The memory of the stag reared up before me, so vivid that for a moment the snowy glade swam in my vision, the image of it transposed over the barren landscape of the Fold. I smelled the pines, felt the chill air on my cheeks. I remembered the stag’s dark, liquid eyes, the plume of his breath in the cold night, the moment when I knew that I would not take his life. And finally, I understood why the stag had come to me every night in my dreams.
I’d thought the stag was haunting me, a reminder of my failure and the price my weakness would exact. But I was wrong.
The stag had been showing me my strength—not just the price of mercy but the power it bestowed. And mercy was something the Darkling would never understand.
I had spared the stag’s life. The power of that life belonged to me as surely as it belonged to the man who had taken it.
I gasped as understanding flooded through me, and I felt that invisible grip falter. My power slid back into my hands. Once more, I stood in Baghra’s hut, calling the light for the first time, feeling it rush toward me, taking possession of what was rightfully mine. This was what I had been born for. I would never let anyone separate me from it again.
Light exploded from me, pure and unwavering, flooding over the dark place where Mal had stood only moments before. The volcra that had hold of him shrieked and released its grip. Mal fell to his knees, blood streaming from his wounds as my light enveloped him and drove the volcra back into the darkness.
The Darkling looked momentarily confused. He narrowed his eyes, and I felt his will descend on me again, felt that invisible hand grasping. I shrugged it off. It was nothing. He was nothing.
“What is this?” he hissed. He raised his hands and skeins of darkness spooled toward me, but with a flick of my hand, they burned away like mist.
The Darkling advanced on me, his handsome features contorted with fury. My mind was working frantically. I knew he would have liked to kill me where I stood, but he couldn’t, not with the volcra circling outside the light that only I could provide.
“Seize her!” he shouted to the guards surrounding us. Ivan reached out.
I felt the weight of the collar around my neck, the steady rhythm of the stag’s ancient heart beating in time with mine. My power rose up in me, solid and without hesitation, a sword in my hand.
I lifted my arm and slashed. With an ear-splitting crack, one of the skiff ’s masts split in two. People bleated in panic and scattered as the broken mast fell to the deck, the thick wood gleaming with burning light. Shock registered on the Darkling’s face.
“The Cut!” Ivan gasped, taking a step backward.