The Hummingbird banked starboard. My light pierced the murky depths of the broken hull. The screams began.
“Saints,” Mal swore, and raised his rifle.
Three large volcra cringed beneath the skiff’s hull, their backs to us, their wings spread wide. But it was what they were trying to shield with their bodies that sent a spike of fear and revulsion quaking through me: a sea of wriggling, twisted shapes, tiny, glistening arms, little backs split by the transparent membranes of barely formed wings. They mewled and whimpered, slithering over each other, trying to get away from the light.
We’d uncovered a nest.
The crew had gone silent. There was no barking or yapping now.
Sturmhond brought the ship around in another low arc. Then he shouted, “Tolya, Tamar, grenatki.”
The twins rolled out two cast-iron shells and hefted them to the edge of the rail.
Another wave of dread washed over me. They’re volcra, I reminded myself. Look at them. They’re monsters.
“Squallers, on my signal,” Sturmhond said grimly. “Fuses!” he shouted, then “Gunners, drop heavy!”
The instant the shells were released, Sturmhond roared, “Now!” and cut the ship’s wheel hard to the right.
The Squallers threw up their arms, and the Hummingbird shot skyward.
A silent second passed, then a massive boom sounded beneath us. The heat and force of the explosion struck the Hummingbird in a powerful gust.
“Steady!” Sturmhond bellowed.
The little craft foundered wildly, swinging like a pendulum beneath its canvas wings. Mal planted a hand to either side of me, shielding my body with his as I fought to keep my balance and hold the light alive around us.
Finally, the ship stopped swaying and settled into a smooth arc, tracing a wide circle high above the burning wreckage of the skiff.
I was shaking hard. The air stank of charred flesh. My lungs felt singed, and each breath seared my chest. Sturmhond’s crew were howling and barking again. Mal joined in, raising his rifle in the air in triumph. Above the cheering, I could hear the volcra’s screams, helpless and human to my ears, the keening of mothers mourning their young.
I closed my eyes. It was all I could do to keep from clamping my hands to my ears and crumpling to the deck.
“Enough,” I whispered. No one seemed to hear me. “Please,” I rasped. “Mal—”
“You’ve become quite the killer, Alina.”
That cool voice. My eyes flew open.
The Darkling stood before me, his black kefta rippling over the Hummingbird’s deck. I gasped and stepped back, staring wildly around me, but no one was watching. They were whooping and shouting, gazing down at the flames.
“Don’t worry,” the Darkling said gently. “It gets easier with time. Here, I’ll show you.”
He slid a knife from the sleeve of his kefta, and before I could cry out, he slashed toward my face. I threw my hands up to defend myself, a scream tearing loose from my throat. The light vanished, and the ship was plunged into darkness. I fell to my knees, huddling on the deck, ready to feel the piercing sting of Grisha steel.
It didn’t come. People were yelling in the darkness around me. Sturmhond was shouting my name. I heard the echoing shriek of a volcra. Close. Too close.
Someone wailed, and the ship listed sharply. I heard the thump of boots as the crew scrambled to keep their footing.
“Alina!” Mal’s voice this time.
I felt him fumbling toward me in the dark. Some bit of sense returned. I threw the light back up in a shining cascade.
The volcra that had descended upon us yowled and wheeled back into darkness, but one of the Squallers lay bleeding on the deck, his arm nearly torn from its socket. The sail above him flapped uselessly. The Hummingbird tilted, listing hard to starboard, rapidly losing altitude.
“Tamar, help him!” Sturmhond ordered. But Tolya and Tamar were already scrambling over the hulls toward the downed Squaller.
The other Squaller had both hands raised, her face rigid with strain as she tried to summon a strong enough current to keep us aloft. The ship bobbled and wavered. Sturmhond held fast to the wheel, yelling orders to the crewmen working the sails.
My heart hammered. I looked frantically over the deck, torn between terror and confusion. I’d seen the Darkling. I’d seen him.
“Are you all right?” Mal was asking beside me. “Are you hurt?”
I couldn’t look at him. I shook so badly that I thought I might fly apart. I focused all my effort on keeping the light blazing around us.
“Is she injured?” shouted Sturmhond.
“Just get us out of here!” Mal replied.
“Oh, is that what I should be trying to do?” Sturmhond barked back.
The volcra were shrieking and whirling, beating at the circle of light. Monsters they might be, but I wondered if they understood vengeance. The Hummingbird rocked and shuddered. I looked down and saw gray sands rushing up to meet us.
And then suddenly we were out of the darkness, bursting through the last black wisps of the Fold as we shot into the blue light of early dawn.
The ground loomed terrifyingly close beneath us.
“Lights out!” Sturmhond commanded.
I dropped my hands and took desperate hold of the cockpit’s rail. I could see a long stretch of road, a town’s lights glowing in the distance, and there, beyond a low rise of hills, a slender blue lake, morning light glinting off its surface.
“Just a little farther!” cried Sturmhond.
The Squaller let out a sob of effort, her arms trembling. The sails dipped. The Hummingbird continued to fall. Branches scraped the hull as we skimmed the treetops.
“Everyone get low and hold on tight!” shouted Sturmhond. Mal and I hunkered down into the cockpit, arms and legs braced against the sides, hands clasped. The little ship rattled and shook.
“We aren’t going to make it,” I rasped.
He said nothing, just squeezed my fingers tighter.
“Get ready!” Sturmhond roared.
At the last second, he hurled himself into the cockpit in a tangle of limbs. He just had time to say, “This is cozy,” before we struck land with a bone-shattering jolt.
Mal and I were thrown into the nose of the cockpit as the ship tore into the ground, clattering and banging, its hull splintering apart. There was a loud splash, and suddenly we were skimming across the water. I heard a terrible wrenching sound and knew that one of the hulls had broken free. We bounced roughly over the surface and then, miraculously, shuddered to a halt.
I tried to get my bearings. I was on my back, pressed up against the side of the cockpit. Someone was breathing hard beside me.
I shifted gingerly. I’d taken a hard knock to the head and cut open both of my palms, but I seemed to be in one piece.
Water was flooding in through the cockpit’s floor. I heard splashing, people calling to one another.
“Mal?” I ventured, my voice a quavery squeak.
“I’m okay,” he replied. He was somewhere to my left. “We need to get out of here.”
I peered around, but Sturmhond was nowhere to be seen.
As we clambered out of the cockpit, the broken ship began to tilt alarmingly. We heard a creaking sigh, and one of the masts gave way, collapsing into the lake beneath the weight of its sails.
We threw ourselves into the water, kicking hard as the lake tried to swallow us along with the ship.
One of the crewmen was tangled in the ropes. Mal dove down to help extricate him, and I nearly wept with relief when they both broke the surface.
I saw Tolya and Tamar paddling free, followed by the other crewmen. Tolya had the wounded Squaller in tow. Sturmhond swam behind, supporting an unconscious sailor beneath his arm. We made for the shore.
My bruised limbs felt heavy, weighted down by my sodden clothes, but finally we reached the shallows. We hauled ourselves out of the water, slogging through patches of slimy reeds, and threw our bodies down on the wide crescent of beach.
I lay there panting, listening to the oddly ordinary sounds of early morning: crickets in the grass, birds calling from somewhere in the woods, a frog’s low, tentative croak. Tolya was ministering to the injured Squaller, finishing the business of healing his arm, instructing him to flex his fingers, bend his elbow. I heard Sturmhond come ashore and hand the last sailor into Tamar’s care.
“He’s not breathing,” Sturmhond said, “and I don’t feel a pulse.”
I forced myself to sit up. The sun was rising behind us, warming my back, gilding the lake and the edges of the trees. Tamar had her hands pressed to the sailor’s chest, using her power to draw the water from his lungs and drive life back into his heart. The minutes seemed to stretch as the sailor lay motionless on the sand. Then he gasped. His eyes fluttered open, and he spewed lake water over his shirt.
I heaved a sigh of relief. One less death on my conscience.
Another crewman was clutching his side, testing to see if he’d broken any ribs. Mal had a nasty gash across his forehead. But we were all there. We’d made it.
Sturmhond waded back into the water. He stood knee deep in it, contemplating the smooth surface of the lake, his greatcoat pooling out behind him. Other than a torn-up stretch of earth along the shore, there was no sign that the Hummingbird had ever been.
The uninjured Squaller turned on me. “What happened back there?” she spat. “Kovu was almost killed. We all were!”
“I don’t know,” I said, resting my head against my knees.
Mal drew his arm around me, but I didn’t want comfort. I wanted an explanation for what I’d seen.
“You don’t know?” she said incredulously.
“I don’t know,” I repeated, surprised at the surge of anger that came with the words. “I didn’t ask to be shoved into the Fold. I’m not the one who went looking for a fight with the volcra. Why don’t you ask your captain what happened?”
“She’s right,” Sturmhond said, trudging out of the water and up the shore toward us as he stripped off his ruined gloves. “I should have given her more warning, and I shouldn’t have gone after the nest.”
Somehow the fact that he was agreeing with me just made me angrier. Then Sturmhond removed his hat and goggles, and my rage disappeared, replaced by complete and utter bewilderment.
Mal was on his feet in an instant. “What the hell is this?” he said, his voice low and dangerous.
I sat paralyzed, my pain and exhaustion eclipsed by the bizarre sight before me. I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I was glad Mal saw it, too. After what had happened on the Fold, I didn’t trust myself.
Sturmhond sighed and ran a hand over his face—a stranger’s face.
His chin had lost its pronounced point. His nose was still slightly crooked, but nothing like the busted lump it had been. His hair was no longer ruddy brown but dark gold, neatly cut to military length, and those strange, muddy green eyes were now a clear, bright hazel. He looked completely different, but he was unmistakably Sturmhond.
And he’s handsome, I thought with a baffling jab of resentment.
Mal and I were the only ones staring. None of Sturmhond’s crew seemed remotely surprised.
“You have a Tailor,” I said.