Tamar hurdled over a pew and shot past me up the aisle. “Come on!”
I watched her in confusion. Just where were we supposed to go?
She tore past the altar and grasped one gilded wood corner of the triptych. I gaped as the water-damaged panel swung open, revealing the dark mouth of a passageway. This was how the sun soldiers had gotten onto the grounds. And how the Apparat had escaped from the Grand Palace.
“Where does it go?” asked David.
“Does it matter?” Zoya shot back.
The building shook as a loud crack of thunder split the air. The chapel door blew to pieces. Tolya was thrown backward, and darkness flooded through.
The Darkling came borne on a tide of shadow, held aloft by monsters who set his feet upon the chapel floor with infinite care.
“Fire!” Tamar shouted.
Shots rang out. The nichevo’ya writhed and whirled around the Darkling, shifting and re-forming as the bullets struck their bodies, one taking the place of another in a seamless tide of shadow. He didn’t even break stride.
Nichevo’ya were streaming through the chapel door. Tolya was already on his feet and rushing to my side with pistols drawn. Tamar and Mal flanked me, the Grisha arrayed behind us. I raised my hands, summoning the light, bracing for the onslaught.
“Stand down, Alina,” said the Darkling. His cool voice echoed through the chapel, cutting through the noise and chaos. “Stand down, and I will spare them.”
In answer, Tamar scraped one axe blade over the other, raising a horrible shriek of metal on metal. The sun soldiers lifted their rifles, and I heard the sound of Inferni flint being struck.
“Look around, Alina,” the Darkling said. “You cannot win. You can only watch them die. Come to me now, and I will do them no harm—not your zealot soldiers, not even the Grisha traitors.”
I took in the nightmare of the chapel. The nichevo’ya swarmed above us, crowding up against the inside of the dome. They clustered around the Darkling in a dense cloud of bodies and wings. Through the windows I could see more, hovering in the twilight sky.
The sun soldiers’ faces were determined, but their ranks had been badly thinned. One of them had pimples on his chin. Beneath his tattoo, he didn’t look much older than twelve. They needed a miracle from their Saint, one I couldn’t perform.
Tolya cocked the triggers on his pistols.
“Hold,” I said.
“Alina,” Tamar whispered, “we can still get you out.”
“Hold,” I repeated.
The sun soldiers lowered their rifles. Tamar brought her axes to her hips but kept her grip tight.
“What are your terms?” I asked.
Mal frowned. Tolya shook his head. I didn’t care. I knew it might be a ploy, but if there was even a chance of saving their lives, I had to take it.
“Give yourself up,” said the Darkling. “And they all go free. They can climb down that rabbit hole and disappear forever.”
“Free?” Sergei whispered.
“He’s lying,” said Mal. “It’s what he does.”
“I don’t need to lie,” said the Darkling. “Alina wants to come with me.”
“She doesn’t want any part of you,” Mal spat.
“No?” the Darkling asked. His dark hair gleamed in the lamplight of the chapel. Summoning his shadow army had taken its toll. He was thinner, paler, but somehow the sharp angles of his face had only become more beautiful. “I warned you that your otkazat’sya could never understand you, Alina. I told you that he would only come to fear you and resent your power. Tell me I was wrong.”
“You were wrong.” My voice was steady, but doubt rustled in my heart.
The Darkling shook his head. “You cannot lie to me. Do you think I could have come to you again and again, if you had been less alone? You called to me, and I answered.”
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “You … you were there?”
“On the Fold. In the palace. Last night.”
I flushed as I remembered his body on top of mine. Shame washed through me, but with it came overwhelming relief. I hadn’t imagined it all.
“That isn’t possible,” Mal bit out.
“You have no idea what I can make possible, tracker.”
I shut my eyes.
“I’ve seen what you truly are,” said the Darkling, “and I’ve never turned away. I never will. Can he say the same?”
“You don’t know anything about her,” Mal said fiercely.
“Come with me now, and it all stops—the fear, the uncertainty, the bloodshed. Let him go, Alina. Let them all go.”
“No,” I said. But even as I shook my head, something in me cried out, Yes.
The Darkling sighed and glanced back over his shoulder. “Bring her,” he said.
A figure shuffled forward, draped in a heavy shawl, hunched and slow-moving, as if every step brought pain. Baghra.
My stomach twisted sickly. Why did she have to be so stubborn? Why couldn’t she have gone with Nikolai? Unless Nikolai had never made it out.
The Darkling laid a hand on Baghra’s shoulder. She flinched.
“Leave her alone,” I said angrily.
“Show them,” he said.
She unwound her shawl. I drew in a sharp breath. I heard someone behind me moan.
It was not Baghra. I didn’t know what it was. The bites were everywhere, raised black ridges of flesh, twisting lumps of tissue that could never be healed, not by Grisha hand or by any other, the unmistakable marks of the nichevo’ya. Then I saw the faded flame of her hair, the lovely amber hue of her one remaining eye.
“Genya,” I gasped.
We stood in terrible silence. I took a step toward her. Then David pushed past me down the altar steps. Genya cringed away from him, pulling up her shawl, and turned to hide her face.
David slowed. He hesitated. Gently, he reached out to touch her shoulder. I saw the rise and fall of her back, and knew she was crying.
I covered my mouth as a sob tore free from my throat.
I’d seen a thousand horrors on this long day, but this was the one that broke me, Genya cringing away from David like a frightened animal. Luminous Genya, with her alabaster skin and graceful hands. Resilient Genya, who had endured countless indignities and insults, but who had always held her lovely chin high. Foolish Genya, who had tried to be my friend, who had dared to show me mercy.
David drew his arm around Genya’s shoulders and slowly led her back up the aisle. The Darkling didn’t stop them.
“I’ve waged the war you forced me to, Alina,” said the Darkling. “If you hadn’t run from me, the Second Army would still be intact. All those Grisha would still be alive. Your tracker would be safe and happy with his regiment. When will it be enough? When will you let me stop?”
You cannot be helped. Your only hope was to run. Baghra was right. I’d been a fool to think I could fight him. I’d tried, and countless people had lost their lives for it.
“You mourn the people killed in Novokribirsk,” the Darkling continued, “the people lost to the Fold. But what of the thousands that came before them, given over to endless wars? What of the others dying now on distant shores? Together, we can put an end to all of it.”
Reasonable. Logical. For once, I let the words in. An end to all of it.
I should have felt beaten down by the thought, defeated, but instead it filled me with a curious lightness. Hadn’t some part of me known it would end this way all along?
The moment the Darkling had slipped his hand over my arm in the Grisha pavilion so long ago, he’d taken possession of me. I just hadn’t realized it.
“All right,” I whispered.
“Alina, no!” Mal said furiously.
“You’ll let them go?” I asked. “All of them?”
“We need the tracker,” said the Darkling. “For the firebird.”
“He goes free. You can’t have both of us.”
The Darkling paused, then nodded once. I knew he thought he would find a way to claim Mal. Let him believe it. I would never let it happen.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Mal said through clenched teeth.
I turned to Tolya and Tamar. “Take him from here. Even if you have to carry him.”
“We won’t go,” said Tamar. “We are sworn.”
Tolya shook his huge head. “We pledged our lives to you. All of us.”
I turned to face them. “Then do as I command,” I said. “Tolya Yul-Baatar, Tamar Kir-Baatar, you will take these people from here to safety.” I summoned the light, letting it blaze in a glorious halo around me. A cheap trick, but a good one. Nikolai would have been proud. “Do not fail me.”
Tamar had tears in her eyes, but she and her brother bowed their heads.
Mal hooked my arm and turned me around roughly. “What are you doing?”
“I want this.” I need it. Sacrifice or selfishness, it didn’t matter anymore.
“I don’t believe you.”
“I can’t run from what I am, Mal, from what I’m becoming. I can’t bring the Alina you knew back, but I can set you free.”
“You can’t … you can’t choose him.”
“There isn’t any choice to make. This is what was meant to be.” It was true. I felt it in the collar, in the weight of the fetter. For the first time in weeks, I felt strong.
He shook his head. “This is all wrong.” The look on his face almost undid me. It was lost, startled, like a little boy standing alone in the ruin of a burning village. “Please, Alina,” he said softly. “Please. This can’t be how it ends.”
I rested my hand on his cheek, hoping that there was still enough between us that he would understand. I stood on my toes and kissed the scar on his jaw.
“I have loved you all my life, Mal,” I whispered through my tears. “There is no end to our story.”
I stepped back, memorizing every line of his beloved face. Then I turned and walked up the aisle. My steps were sure. Mal would have a life. He’d find his purpose. I had to seek mine. Nikolai had promised me a chance to save Ravka, to make amends for all I’d done. He’d tried, but it was the Darkling’s gift to give.
“Alina!” Mal shouted. I heard scuffling behind me and knew Tolya had taken hold of him. “Alina!” His voice was raw white wood, torn from the heart of a tree. I did not turn.
The Darkling stood waiting, his shadow guard hovering and shifting around him.
I was afraid, but beneath the fear, I was eager.
“We are alike,” he said, “as no one else is, as no one else will ever be.”
The truth of it rang through me. Like calls to like.
He held out his hand, and I stepped into his arms.
I cupped the back of his neck, feeling the silken brush of his hair on my fingertips. I knew Mal was watching. I needed him to turn away. I needed him to go. I tilted my face up to the Darkling’s.
“My power is yours,” I whispered.
I saw the elation and triumph in his eyes as he lowered his mouth to mine. Our lips met, and the connection between us opened. This was not the way he’d touched me in my visions, when he’d come to me as shadow. This was real, and I could drown in it.