I saw a row of sailors standing by the masts raise their arms and heard a whump as the canvas above us swelled with a hard-driving wind. Just how many Grisha did the privateer have in his crew?
But the Darkling’s Squallers had arranged themselves on the whaler’s deck and were sending their own winds to buffet us. The schooner rocked unsteadily.
“Portside guns!” roared Sturmhond. “Rolling broadside. On my signal!”
I heard two shrill whistle blasts. A deafening boom shook the ship, then another and another, as the schooner’s guns opened up a gaping hole in the whaler’s hull. A panicked shout went up from the Darkling’s ship. Sturmhond’s Squallers seized the advantage, and the schooner surged free.
As the smoke from the cannons cleared, I saw a figure in black step up to the railing of the disabled whaler. Another wave of darkness rushed toward us, but this one was different. It writhed over the water as if it were clawing its way forward, and with it came the eerie clicking of a thousand angry insects.
The darkness frothed and foamed, like a wave breaking over a boulder, and began to separate itself into shapes. Beside me, Mal muttered a prayer and lifted his rifle to his shoulder. I focused my power and slashed out with the Cut, burning through the black cloud, trying to destroy the nichevo’ya before they could take their full form. But I couldn’t stop them all. They came on in a moaning horde of black teeth and claws.
Sturmhond’s crew opened fire.
The nichevo’ya reached the masts of the schooner, whirling around the sails, plucking sailors from the rigging like fruit. Then they were skittering down onto the deck. Mal fired again and again as the crewmen drew their sabers, but bullets and blades seemed only to slow the monsters. Their shadow bodies wavered and re-formed, and they just kept coming.
The schooner was still moving ahead, widening the distance between itself and the whaler. Not fast enough. I heard that shrieking moan, and another wave of shifting, slithering dark was headed toward us, already separating into winged bodies, reinforcements for the shadow soldiers.
Sturmhond saw it, too. He pointed to one of the Squallers still summoning wind to the sails. “Lightning,” he shouted.
I flinched. He couldn’t mean it. Squallers were never permitted to draw lightning. It was too unpredictable, too dangerous—and on open seas? With wooden ships? But Sturmhond’s Grisha didn’t hesitate. The Squallers clapped their hands together, rubbing their palms back and forth. My ears popped as the pressure plummeted. The air crackled with current.
We had just enough time to hurl ourselves to the deck as jagged bolts of lightning zigzagged across the sky. The new wave of nichevo’ya scattered in momentary confusion.
“Go!” Sturmhond bellowed. “Squallers at full!” Mal and I were thrown against the railing as the schooner shot forward. The sleek ship seemed to fly over the waves.
I saw another black swell billow out from the side of the whaler. I lurched to my feet and braced myself, gathering my strength for another onslaught.
But it did not come. It seemed there was a limit to the Darkling’s power. We’d edged out of his range.
I leaned over the railing. The wind and sea spray stung my skin as the Darkling’s ship and his monsters disappeared from view. Something between a laugh and a sob racked my chest.
Mal threw his arms around me, and I held tight, feeling the wet press of his shirt against my cheek, listening to the pounding of his heart, clinging to the unbelievable truth that we were still alive.
Then, despite the blood they’d shed and the friends they’d lost, the schooner’s crew broke into cheers. They whooped and hollered and barked and growled. In the rigging, Tolya lifted his rifle with one hand and threw his head back, releasing a howl of triumph that lifted the hair on my arms.
Mal and I drew apart, gazing at the crewmen yipping and laughing around us. I knew we were both thinking the same thing: Just what had we gotten ourselves into?
WE SLUMPED BACK against the railing and scooted down until we were seated beside each other, exhausted and dazed. We’d escaped the Darkling, but we were on a strange ship, surrounded by a bunch of crazed Grisha dressed as sailors and howling like mad dogs.
“You all right?” Mal asked.
I nodded. The wound in my shoulder felt like it was on fire, but I was unhurt and my whole body was thrumming from using my power again.
“You?” I asked.
“Not a scratch on me,” Mal said in disbelief.
The ship rode the waves at seemingly impossible speed, driven forward by Squallers and what I realized were Tidemakers. As the terror and thrill of the battle receded, I noticed I was soaked. My teeth began to chatter. Mal put his arm around me, and at some point, one of the crew dropped a blanket over us.
Finally, Sturmhond called a halt and ordered the sails trimmed. The Squallers and Tidemakers dropped their arms and fell against each other, completely spent. Their power had left their faces glowing, their eyes alight.
The schooner slowed until it rocked gently in what suddenly seemed like an overwhelming silence.
“Keep a watch,” Sturmhond commanded, and Privyet sent a sailor up into the shrouds with a long glass. Mal and I slowly got to our feet.
Sturmhond walked down the row of exhausted Etherealki, clapping Squallers and Tidemakers on the back and saying quiet words to a few of them. I saw him directing injured sailors belowdecks, where I assumed they’d be seen by a ship’s surgeon or maybe a Corporalki Healer. The privateer seemed to have every kind of Grisha in his employ.
Then Sturmhond strode toward me, pulling a knife from his belt. My hands went up, and Mal stepped in front of me, leveling his rifle at Sturmhond’s chest. Instantly, I heard swords being drawn and pistols cocking all around us as the crew drew their weapons.
“Easy, Oretsev,” Sturmhond said, his steps slowing. “I’ve just gone to a lot of trouble and expense to put you on my ship. Be a shame to fill you full of holes now.” He flipped the knife over, offering the hilt to me. “This is for the beast.”
The sea whip. In the excitement of the battle, I’d almost forgotten.
Mal hesitated, then cautiously lowered his rifle.
“Stand down,” Sturmhond instructed his crew. They holstered their pistols and put up their swords.
Sturmhond nodded to Tamar. “Haul it in.”
On Tamar’s orders, a group of sailors leaned over the starboard rail and unlashed a complex webbing of ropes. They heaved, and slowly raised the sea whip’s body over the schooner’s side. It thumped to the deck, still struggling weakly in the silvery confines of the net. It gave a vicious thrash, its huge teeth snapping. We all jumped back.
“As I understand it, you have to be the one,” said Sturmhond, holding the knife out to me once more. I eyed the privateer, wondering how much he might know about amplifiers, and this amplifier in particular.
“Go on,” he said. “We need to get moving. The Darkling’s ship is disabled, but it won’t stay that way.”
The blade in Sturmhond’s hand gleamed dully in the sun. Grisha steel. Somehow I wasn’t surprised.
Still, I hesitated.
“I just lost thirteen good men,” Sturmhond said quietly. “Don’t tell me it was all for nothing.”
I looked at the sea whip. It lay twitching on the deck, air fluttering through its gills, its red eyes cloudy, but still full of rage. I remembered the stag’s dark, steady gaze, the quiet panic of its final moments.
The stag had lived so long in my imagination that, when it had finally stepped from the trees and into the snowy glade, it had been almost familiar to me, known. The sea whip was a stranger, more myth than reality, despite the sad and solid truth of its broken body.
“Either way, it won’t survive,” the privateer said.
I grasped the knife’s hilt. It felt heavy in my hand. Is this mercy? It certainly wasn’t the same mercy I had shown Morozova’s stag.
Rusalye. The cursed prince, guardian of the Bone Road. In the stories, he lured lonely maidens onto his back and carried them, laughing, over the waves, until they were too far from shore to cry for help. Then he dove down, dragging them beneath the surface to his underwater palace. The girls wasted away, for there was nothing to eat there but coral and pearls. Rusalye wept and sang his mournful song over their bodies, then returned to the surface to claim another queen.
Just stories, I told myself. It’s not a prince, just an animal in pain.
The sea whip’s sides heaved. It snapped its jaws uselessly in the air. Two harpoons extended from its back, watery blood trickling from the wounds. I held up the knife, unsure of what to do, where to put the blade. My arms shook. The sea whip gave a wheezing, pitiful sigh, a weak echo of that magical choir.
Mal strode forward. “End it, Alina,” he said hoarsely. “For Saints’ sake.”
He pulled the knife from my grip and dropped it to the deck. He took hold of my hands and closed them over the shaft of one of the harpoons. With one clean thrust, we drove it home.
The sea whip shuddered and then went still, its blood pooling on the deck.
Mal looked down at his hands, then wiped them on his torn shirt and turned away.
Tolya and Tamar came forward. My stomach churned. I knew what had to come next. That isn’t true, said a voice in my head. You can walk away. Leave it be. Again, I had the sense that things were moving too fast. But I couldn’t just throw an amplifier like this back into the sea. The dragon had already given up its life. And taking the amplifier didn’t necessarily mean that I would use it.
The sea whip’s scales were an iridescent white that shimmered with soft rainbows, except for a single strip that began between its large eyes and ran over the ridge of its skull into its soft mane—those were edged in gold.
Tamar slid a dagger from her belt and, with Tolya’s help, worked the scales free. I didn’t let myself look away. When they were done, they handed me seven perfect scales, still wet with blood.
“Let us bow our heads for the men lost today,” Sturmhond said. “Good sailors. Good soldiers. Let the sea carry them to safe harbor, and may the Saints receive them on a brighter shore.”
He repeated the Sailor’s Prayer in Kerch, then Tamar murmured the words in Shu. For a moment, we stood on the rocking ship, heads bent. A lump rose in my throat.
More men dead and another magical, ancient creature gone, its body desecrated by Grisha steel. I laid my hand on the sea whip’s shimmering hide. It was cool and slick beneath my fingers. Its red eyes were cloudy and blank. I gripped the golden scales in my palm, feeling their edges dig into my flesh. What Saints waited for creatures like this?
A long minute passed and then Sturmhond murmured, “Saints receive them.”
“Saints receive them,” replied the crew.
“We need to move,” Sturmhond said quietly. “The whaler’s hull was cracked, but the Darkling has Squallers and a Fabrikator or two, and for all I know, those monsters of his can be trained to use a hammer and nails. Let’s not take any chances.” He turned to Privyet. “Give the Squallers a few minutes to rest and get me a damage report, then make sail.”