“Quite an advantage, no? But the First and Second Armies would have to work together.”
I thought of what the Darkling had said to me so long ago. The age of Grisha power is coming to an end. His answer had been to turn the Fold into a weapon. But what if Grisha power could be transformed by men like Sturmhond? I looked over the deck of the Hummingbird, at the sailors and Squallers working side by side, at Tolya and Tamar seated behind those frightening guns. It wasn’t impossible.
He’s a privateer, I reminded myself. And he’d stoop to war profiteer in a second. Sturmhond’s weapons could give Ravka an advantage, but those guns could just as easily be used by Ravka’s enemies.
I was pulled from my thoughts by a bright light shining off the port bow. The great lighthouse at Alkhem Bay. We were close now. If I craned my neck, I could just make out the glittering towers of Os Kervo’s harbor.
Sturmhond did not make directly for it but tacked southwest. I assumed we’d set down somewhere offshore. The thought of landing made me queasy. I decided to keep my eyes shut for that, no matter what Mal said.
Soon I lost sight of the lighthouse beam. Just how far south did Sturmhond intend to take us? He’d said he wanted to reach the coast before dawn, and that couldn’t be more than an hour or two away.
My thoughts drifted, lost to the stars around us and the clouds scudding across the wide sky. The night wind bit into my cheeks and seemed to cut right through the thin fabric of my coat.
I glanced down and gulped back a scream. We weren’t over the water anymore. We were over land—solid, unforgiving land.
I tugged on Mal’s sleeve and gestured frantically to the countryside below us, painted in moonlit shades of black and silver.
“Sturmhond!” I shouted in a panic. “What are you doing?”
“You said you were taking us to Os Kervo—” Mal yelled.
“I said I was taking you to meet my client.”
“Forget that,” I wailed. “Where are we going to land?”
“Not to worry,” said Sturmhond. “I have a lovely little lake in mind.”
“How little?” I squeaked. But then I saw that Mal was climbing out of the cockpit, his face furious. “Mal, sit down!”
“You lying, thieving—”
“I’d stay where you are. I don’t think you want to be jostling around when we enter the Fold.”
Mal froze. Sturmhond began to whistle that same off-key little tune. It was snatched away by the wind.
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
“Not on a regular basis, no,” said Sturmhond. “There’s a rifle secured beneath your seat, Oretsev. You may want to grab it. Just in case.”
“You can’t take this thing into the Fold!” Mal bellowed.
“Why not? From what I understand, I’m traveling with the one person who can guarantee safe passage.”
I clenched my fists, rage suddenly driving fear from my mind. “Maybe I’ll just let the volcra have you and your crew for a late-night snack!”
Sturmhond kept one hand on the wheel and consulted his timepiece. “More of an early breakfast. We really are behind schedule. Besides,” he said, “it’s a long way down. Even for a Sun Summoner.”
I glanced at Mal and knew his fury must be mirrored on my own face.
The landscape was unrolling beneath us at a terrifying pace. I stood up, trying to get a sense for where we were.
“Saints,” I swore.
Behind us lay stars, moonlight, the living world. Ahead of us, there was nothing. He was really going to do it. He was taking us into the Fold.
“Gunners, at your stations,” Sturmhond called. “Squallers, hold steady.”
“Sturmhond, I’m going to kill you!” I shouted. “Turn this thing around right now!”
“Wish I could oblige. I’m afraid if you want to kill me, you’ll just have to wait until we land. Ready?”
“No!” I shrieked.
But the next moment, we were in darkness. It was like no night ever known—a perfect, deep, unnatural blackness that seemed to close around us in a suffocating grip. We were in the Fold.
THE MOMENT WE entered the Unsea, I knew something had changed.
Hurriedly, I braced my feet against the deck and threw up my hands, casting a wide golden swath of sunlight around the Hummingbird. As angry as I was with Sturmhond, I wasn’t going to let a flock of volcra bring us down only to prove a point.
With the power of both amplifiers, I barely had to think to summon the light. I tested its edges carefully, sensing none of the wild disruption that had overcome me the first time I’d used the fetter. But something was very wrong. The Fold felt different. I told myself it was just imagination, but it seemed like the darkness had a texture. I could almost feel it moving over my skin. The edges of the wound at my shoulder began to itch and pull, as if the flesh were restless.
I’d been on the Unsea twice before, and both times I’d felt like a stranger, like a vulnerable interloper in a dangerous, unnatural world that did not want me there. But now it was as if the Fold was reaching out to me, welcoming me. I knew it made no sense. The Fold was a dead and empty place, not a living thing.
It knows me, I thought. Like calls to like.
I was being ridiculous. I cleared my head and thrust the light out farther, letting the power pulse warm and reassuring around me. This was what I was. Not the darkness.
“They’re coming,” Mal said beside me. “Listen.”
Over the rush of the wind, I heard a cry echo through the Fold, and then the steady pounding of volcra wings. They’d found us quickly, drawn by the smell of human prey.
Their wings beat the air around the circle of light I’d created, pushing the darkness back at us in fluttering ripples. With crossings of the Fold at a standstill, they’d been too long without food. Appetite made them bold.
I spread my arms, letting the light bloom brighter, driving them back.
“No,” said Sturmhond. “Bring them closer.”
“What? Why?” I asked. The volcra were pure predators. They weren’t to be toyed with.
“They hunt us,” he said, raising his voice so everyone could hear him. “Maybe it’s time we hunted them.”
A warlike whoop went up from the crew, followed by a series of barks and howls.
“Pull back the light,” Sturmhond told me.
“He’s out of his mind,” I said to Mal. “Tell him he’s out of his mind.”
But Mal hesitated. “Well…”
“Well what?” I asked, incredulously. “In case you’ve forgotten, one of those things tried to eat you!”
He shrugged, and a grin touched his lips. “Maybe that’s why I’d like to see what those guns can do.”
I shook my head. I didn’t like this. Any of it.
“Just for a moment,” pressed Sturmhond. “Indulge me.”
Indulge him. Like he was asking for another slice of cake.
The crew was waiting. Tolya and Tamar were hunched over the protruding barrels of their guns. They looked like leather-backed insects.
“All right,” I said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Mal lifted his rifle to his shoulder.
“Here we go,” I muttered. I curled my fingers. The circle of light contracted, shrinking around the ship.
The volcra shrieked in excitement.
“All the way!” commanded Sturmhond.
I gritted my teeth in frustration, then did as he asked. The Fold went dark.
I heard a rustle of wings. The volcra dove.
“Now, Alina!” Sturmhond shouted. “Throw it wide!”
I didn’t stop to think. I cast the light out in a blazing wave. It showed the horror surrounding us in the harsh, unforgiving light of a noonday sun. There were volcra everywhere, suspended in the air around the ship, a mass of gray, winged, writhing bodies, milky, sightless eyes, and jaws crowded with teeth. Their resemblance to the nichevo’ya was unmistakable, and yet they were so much more grotesque, so much more clumsy.
“Fire!” Sturmhond cried.
Tolya and Tamar opened fire. It was a sound like I’d never heard, a relentless, skull-shattering thunder that shook the air around us and rattled my bones.
It was a massacre. The volcra plummeted from the skies around us, chests blown open, wings torn from their bodies. The spent cartridges pinged to the deck of the ship. The sharp burn of gunpowder filled the air.
Two hundred rounds per minute. So this was what a modern army could do.
The monsters didn’t seem to know what was happening. They whirled and beat the air, driven into a tizzy of bloodlust, hunger, and fear, tearing at each other in their confusion and desire to escape. Their screams … Baghra had once told me the volcra’s ancestors were human. I could have sworn I heard it in their cries.
The gunfire died away. My ears rang. I looked up and saw smears of black blood and bits of flesh on the canvas sails. A cold sweat had broken out over my brow. I thought I might be ill.
The quiet lasted only moments before Tolya threw back his head and gave a triumphant howl. The rest of the crew joined in, barking and yapping. I wanted to scream at all of them to shut up.
“Do you think we can draw another flock?” one of the Squallers asked.
“Maybe,” Sturmhond said. “But we should probably head east. It’s almost dawn, and I don’t want us to be spotted.”
Yes, I thought. Let’s head east. Let’s get out of here. My hands shook. The wound at my shoulder burned and throbbed. What was wrong with me? The volcra were monsters. They would have torn us apart without a thought. I knew that. And yet, I could still hear their cries.
“There are more of them,” Mal said suddenly. “A lot more.”
“How do you know?” asked Sturmhond.
“I just do.”
Sturmhond hesitated. Between the goggles, his hat, and the high collar, it was impossible to read his expression. “Where?” he said finally.
“Just a little north,” Mal said. “That way.” He pointed into the dark, and I had the urge to slap his hand. Just because he could track the volcra didn’t mean he had to.
Sturmhond called the bearing. My heart sank.
The Hummingbird dipped its wings and turned as Mal called out directions and Sturmhond corrected our course. I tried to focus on the light, on the comforting presence of my power, tried to ignore the sick feeling in my gut.
Sturmhond took us lower. My light shimmered over the Fold’s colorless sand and touched the shadowy bulk of a wrecked sandskiff.
A tremor passed through me as we drew closer. The skiff had been broken in half. One of its masts had snapped in two, and I could just make out the remnants of three ragged black sails. Mal had led us to the ruins of the Darkling’s skiff.
The little bit of calm I’d managed to pull together vanished.
The Hummingbird sank lower. Our shadow passed over the splintered deck.
I felt the tiniest bit of relief. Illogical as it was, I’d expected to see the bodies of the Grisha I’d left behind spread out on the deck, the skeletons of the King’s emissary and the foreign ambassadors huddled in a corner. But of course they were long gone, food for the volcra, their bones scattered over the barren reaches of the Fold.