Power flowed through me—the power of the stag, its strong heart beating in both our bodies, the life he’d taken, the life I’d tried to save. But I also felt the Darkling’s power, the power of the Black Heretic, the power of the Fold.
Like calls to like. I’d sensed it when the Hummingbird entered the Unsea, but I’d been too afraid to embrace it. This time, I didn’t fight. I let go of my fear, my guilt, my shame. There was darkness inside me. He had put it there, and I would no longer deny it. The volcra, the nichevo’ya, they were my monsters, all of them. And he was my monster, too.
“My power is yours,” I repeated. His arms tightened around me. “And yours is mine,” I whispered against his lips.
Mine. The word reverberated through me, through both of us.
The shadow soldiers shifted and whirred.
I remembered the way it had felt in that snowy glade, when the Darkling had placed the collar around my neck and seized control of my power. I reached across the connection between us.
He reared back. “What are you doing?”
I knew why he had never intended to kill the sea whip himself, why he hadn’t wanted to form that second connection. He was afraid.
I forced my way across the bond forged by Morozova’s collar and grabbed hold of the Darkling’s power.
Darkness spilled from him, black ink from his palms, billowing and skittering, blooming into the shape of a nichevo’ya, forming hands, head, claws, wings. The first of my abominations.
The Darkling tried to pull away from me, but I clutched him tighter, calling his power, calling the darkness as he had once used the collar to summon my light.
Another creature burst forth, and then another. The Darkling cried out as it was wrenched from him. I felt it too, felt my heart constrict as each shadow soldier tore a little bit of me away, exacting the price of its creation.
“Stop,” the Darkling rasped.
The nichevo’ya whirred nervously around us, clicking and humming, faster and faster. One after another, I pulled my dark soldiers into being, and my army rose up around us.
The Darkling moaned, and so did I. We fell against each other, but still I did not relent.
“You’ll kill us both!” he cried.
“Yes,” I said.
The Darkling’s legs buckled, and we collapsed to our knees.
This was not the Small Science. This was magic, something ancient, the making at the heart of the world. It was terrifying, limitless. No wonder the Darkling hungered for more.
The darkness buzzed and clattered, a thousand locusts, beetles, hungry flies, clicking their legs, beating their wings. The nichevo’ya wavered and re-formed, whirring in a frenzy, driven on by his rage and my exultation.
Another monster. Another. Blood was pouring from the Darkling’s nose. The room seemed to rock, and I realized I was convulsing. I was dying, bit by bit, with every monster that wrenched itself free.
Just a little longer, I thought. Just a few more. Just enough so I know that I’ve sent him to the next world before I follow.
“Alina!” I heard Mal calling as if from a great distance. He was tugging at me, pulling me away.
“No!” I shouted. “Let me end this.”
Mal seized my wrist, and a shock passed through me. Through the haze of blood and shadow, I glimpsed something beautiful, as if through a golden door.
He wrenched me away from the Darkling, but not before I called out to my children in one final exhortation: Bring it down.
The Darkling slumped to the ground. The monsters rose in a whirling black column around him, then crashed against the walls of the chapel, shaking the little building to its very foundations.
Mal had me in his arms and was running up the aisle. The nichevo’ya were hurling themselves against the chapel walls. Slabs of plaster crashed to the floor. The blue dome swayed as its supports began to give way.
Mal leapt past the altar and plunged into the passage. The smell of wet earth and mold filled my nostrils, mingling with the sweet incense scent of the chapel. He ran, racing against the disaster I’d unleashed.
A boom sounded from somewhere far behind us as the chapel collapsed. The impact roared through the passageway. A cloud of dirt and debris struck us with the force of an oncoming wave. Mal flew forward. I tumbled from his arms, and the world came down around us.
* * *
THE FIRST THING I HEARD was the low rumble of Tolya’s voice. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream. All I knew was pain and the relentless weight of the earth. Later I would find out that they’d labored over me for hours, breathing air back into my lungs, staunching the flow of blood, trying to mend the worst breaks in my bones.
I drifted in and out of consciousness. My mouth felt dry and swollen shut. I was pretty sure I’d bitten my tongue. I heard Tamar giving orders.
“Bring the rest of the tunnel down. We need to get as far from here as we possibly can.”
Was he here? Buried beneath the rubble? I could not let them leave him. I forced my lips to form his name.
“Mal.” Could they even hear me? My voice sounded muffled and wrong to my ears.
“She’s hurting. Should we put her under?” Tamar asked.
“I don’t want to risk her heart stopping again,” replied Tolya.
“Mal,” I repeated.
“Leave the passage to the convent open,” Tamar said to someone. “Hopefully, he’ll think we went out there.”
The convent. Sankta Lizabeta. The gardens next to the Gritzki mansion. I couldn’t order my thoughts. I tried to speak Mal’s name again, but I couldn’t make my mouth work. The pain was crowding in on me. What if I’d lost him? If I’d had the strength, I would have screamed. I would have railed. Instead, I sank into darkness.
* * *
WHEN I CAME TO, the world was swaying beneath me. I remembered waking aboard the whaler, and for a terrifying moment, I thought I might be on a ship. I opened my eyes, saw earth and rock high above me. We were moving through a massive cavern. I was on my back on some kind of litter, borne between the shoulders of two men.
It was a struggle to stay conscious. I’d spent most of my life feeling sick and weak, but I’d never known fatigue like this. I was a husk, hollowed out, scraped clean. If any breeze could have reached us so far below the earth, I would have blown away to nothing.
Though every bone and muscle in my body shrieked in protest, I managed to turn my head.
Mal was there, lying on another litter, carried along just a few feet beside me. He was watching me, as if he’d been waiting for me to wake. He reached out.
I found some reservoir of strength and stretched my hand over the litter’s edge. When our fingers met, I heard a sob and realized I was crying. I wept with relief that I would not have to live with the burden of his death. But lodged in my gratitude, I felt a bright thorn of resentment. I wept with rage that I would have to live at all.
* * *
WE TRAVELED FOR MILES, through passages so tight that they had to lower my litter to the ground and slide me along the rock, through tunnels high and wide enough for ten haycarts. I don’t know how long we went on that way. There were no nights and days belowground.
Mal recovered before I did and limped along beside the litter. He’d been injured when the tunnel collapsed, but the Grisha had restored him. What I had endured, what I had embraced, they had no power to heal.
At some point, we stopped at a cave dripping with rows of stalactites. I’d heard one of my carriers call it the Worm’s Mouth. When they set me down, Mal was there, and with his help, I managed to get into a sitting position, propped against the cave wall. Even that effort left me dizzy, and when he dabbed his sleeve to my nose, I saw that I was bleeding.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You’ve looked better,” he admitted. “The pilgrims mentioned something called the White Cathedral. I think that’s where we’re headed.”
“They’re taking me to the Apparat.”
He glanced around the cavern. “This is how he escaped the Grand Palace after the coup. How he managed to evade capture for so long.”
“It’s also how he appeared and disappeared at the fortune-telling party. The mansion was next to the Convent of Sankta Lizabeta, remember? Tamar led me straight to him, and then she let him get away.” I heard the bitterness in my weak voice.
Slowly, my addled mind had pieced it all together. Only Tolya and Tamar had known about the party, and they’d arranged for the Apparat to meet me. They’d already been among the pilgrims that morning when I’d nearly started the riot, there to watch the sunrise with the faithful. That was how they’d gotten to me so quickly. And Tamar had vanished from the Eagle’s Nest as soon as she’d begun to suspect danger. I knew that the twins and their sun soldiers were the only reason any of the Grisha had survived, but their lies still stung.
“How are the others?”
Mal looked over to where the ragged group of Grisha huddled in the shadows.
“They know about the fetter,” he said. “They’re frightened.”
“And the firebird?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ll tell them soon enough.”
“Sergei isn’t doing well,” Mal continued. “I think he’s still in shock. The rest seem to be holding up.”
“She and David stay behind the group. She can’t move very quickly.” He paused. “The pilgrims call her Razrusha’ya.”
“I need to see Tolya and Tamar.”
“You need to rest.”
“Now,” I said. “Please.”
He stood, but hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was raw. “You should have told me what you intended to do.”
I looked away. The distance between us felt even deeper than it had before. I tried to free you, Mal. From the Darkling. From me.
“You should have let me finish him,” I said. “You should have let me die.”
When I heard his footsteps fade, I let my chin droop. I could hear my breath coming in shallow pants. When I worked up the strength to lift my eyes, Tolya and Tamar were kneeling before me, their heads bowed.
“Look at me,” I said.
They obeyed. Tolya’s sleeves were rolled up, and I saw that his massive forearms were emblazoned with suns.
“Why not just tell me?”
“You never would have let us stay so close,” replied Tamar.
That was true. Even now I wasn’t sure what to make of them.
“If you believe I’m a Saint, why not let me die in the chapel? What if that was meant to be my martyrdom?”
“Then you would have died,” said Tolya without hesitation. “We wouldn’t have found you in the rubble in time or been able to revive you.”
“You let Mal come back for me. After you gave me your vow.”
“He broke away,” said Tamar.
I lifted a brow. The day Mal could break Tolya’s hold was indeed a day of miracles.
Tolya hung his head and heaved his huge shoulders. “Forgive me,” he said. “I couldn’t be the one to keep him from you.”