“Dirt and more dirt.”
“There are cities,” Tolya grumbled as we walked away.
“What did that woman have to say about the eastern mountains?” I asked.
“They’re sacred,” said Tolya, “and apparently haunted. She claims the Cera Huo is guarded by ghosts.”
A shiver ran up my spine. “What’s the Cera Huo?”
Tolya’s golden eyes glinted. “The Firefalls.”
* * *
I DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE the ruins until we were almost directly beneath them. They were that nondescript—two worn and weather-beaten spires of rock that flanked the road leading southeast out of the valley. They might have once been an arch. Or an aqueduct. Or two mills, as their name indicated. Or just two pointy bits of rock. What had I expected? Ilya Morozova by the side of the road in a golden halo, holding up a sign that read “You were right, Alina. This way to the firebird”?
But the angles seemed correct. I’d scrutinized the illustration of Sankt Ilya in Chains so often that the image was branded in my mind. The view of the Sikurzoi beyond the spindles matched up to my memory of the page. Had Morozova drawn it himself? Was he responsible for the map left behind in that illustration or had someone else pieced together his story? I might never know.
This is the place, I told myself. It has to be.
“Anything familiar?” I asked Mal.
He shook his head. “I guess I hoped…” He shrugged. He didn’t have to say more than that. I’d been carrying the same hope lodged in my heart, that once I was on this road, in this valley, more of my past might suddenly become clear. But all I had was my same worn set of memories: a dish of beets, a broad pair of shoulders, the sway of ox tails ahead of me.
We spotted a few refugees—a woman with a baby at her breast riding in a pony cart while her husband walked alongside, a group of people our age who I assumed were First Army deserters. But the road beneath the ruins was not crowded. The most popular places to try to enter the Shu Han were farther west, where the mountains were less steep and travel to the coast was easier.
The beauty of the Sikurzoi came on me suddenly. The only mountains I’d known were the icy peaks of the far north and the Petrazoi—jagged, gray, and forbidding. But these mountains were gentle, rolling, their soft slopes covered in tall grasses, the valleys between them crossed with slow-moving rivers that flashed blue and then gold in the sun. Even the sky felt welcoming, a prairie of infinite blue, thick white clouds stacked heavy on the horizon, the snowcapped peaks of the southern range visible in the distance.
I knew this was no-man’s-land, the dangerous boundary that marked the end of Ravka and the beginning of enemy territory, but it didn’t feel that way. There was ample water, space for grazing. If there hadn’t been a war, if the lines had somehow been drawn differently, this would have been a peaceful place.
We made no fire and camped in the open that night, our bedrolls spread beneath the stars. I listened to the sigh of the wind in the grasses and thought of Nikolai. Was he out there, tracking us as we tracked the firebird? Would he know us? Or had he lost himself completely? Would a day come when we’d simply be prey to him? I peered into the sky, waiting to see a winged shape blotting out the stars. Sleep did not come easily.
The next day, we left the main road and started to climb in earnest. Mal took us east, toward the Cera Huo, following a trail that seemed to appear and disappear as it wended through the mountains. Storms came on without warning, dense bursts of rain that turned the earth beneath our boots to sucking mud, then vanished as quickly as they’d arrived.
Tolya worried about flash floods, so we left the trail completely and headed for higher ground, spending the rest of the afternoon on the narrow back of a rocky ridge where we could see stormclouds chasing each other over the low hills and valleys, their dark swells glinting with brief flashes of lightning.
The days dragged on, and I was acutely conscious that every step we took deeper into the Shu Han was a step we would have to retrace back to Ravka. What would we find when we returned? Would the Darkling have already marched on West Ravka? And if we found the firebird, if the three amplifiers were brought together at last, would I be strong enough to face him? Mostly, I thought of Morozova and wondered if he’d once walked these same paths, gazed on these same mountains. Had his need to finish the task he’d begun driven him the way my desperation drove me now, forcing me to put one foot in front of the other, to take another step, ford another river, climb another hill?
That night, the temperature dropped enough that we had to set up tents. Zoya seemed to think I should be the one to put ours together, even if we were both going to sleep in it. I was cursing over the pile of canvas when Mal hushed me.
“Someone’s out there,” he said.
We were in a wide field of feather grass that stretched between two low hills. I peered into the dusk, unable to make anything out, and lifted my hands questioningly.
Mal gave a shake of his head. “As a last resort,” he whispered.
I nodded. I didn’t want us in another situation like the one we’d had with the militia.
Mal picked up his rifle and signaled. Tolya drew his sword, and we formed up, back to back, waiting. “Harshaw,” I whispered.
I heard Harshaw’s flint being struck. He stepped forward and spread his arms. A blazing gout of fire roared to life. It swept around us in a shining ring, illuminating the faces of the men crouched low in the field beyond. There were five, maybe six of them, golden-eyed and dressed in shearling. I saw bows drawn and the glint of light off at least one gun barrel.
“Now,” I said.
Zoya and Harshaw moved as one, throwing their arms out in wide arcs, the flames flaring across the grass like a living thing, borne by their combined power.
Men shouted. The fire licked out in hungry tongues. I heard a single shot of gunfire, and the thieves turned and ran. Harshaw and Zoya sent the fire after them, chasing them across the field.
“They might come back,” said Tolya. “Bring more men. You get good money for Grisha in Koba.” It was a city just south of the border.
For the first time, I thought about what it must have been like for Tolya and Tamar, never able to return to their father’s country, strangers in Ravka, strangers here too.
Zoya shivered. “They aren’t any better in Fjerda. There are witchhunters who don’t eat animals, won’t wear leather shoes or kill a spider in their homes, but they’ll burn Grisha alive on the pyre.”
“Shu doctors might not be so bad,” said Harshaw. He was still playing with the flames, sending them shooting up in loops and snaking tendrils. “At least they clean their instruments. On the Wandering Isle, they think Grisha blood is a cure-all—for impotence, wasting plague, you name it. When my brother’s power showed itself, they cut his throat and hung him upside down to drain like a pig in a slaughterhouse.”
“Saints, Harshaw,” Zoya gasped.
“I burned that village and everyone in it to the ground. Then I got on a boat and never looked back.”
I thought of the dream the Darkling had once had, that we might be Ravkans and not just Grisha. He’d tried to make a safe place for our kind, maybe the only one in the world. I understand the desire to remain free.
Was that why Harshaw kept fighting? Why he’d chosen to stay? He must have shared the Darkling’s dream once. Had he given its care over to me?
“We’ll keep a watch tonight,” Mal said, “and head farther east tomorrow.”
East to the Cera Huo, where phantoms stood guard. But we were already traveling with ghosts of our own.
* * *
THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE of the thieves the next morning, only a field scorched in bizarre patterns.
Mal took us farther into the mountains. Early in our journey, we’d seen the curling smoke of someone’s cookfire or the shape of a hut on a hillside. Now we were alone, our only company the lizards we saw sunning themselves on rocks and, once, a herd of elk grazing in a distant meadow.
If there were signs of the firebird, they were invisible to me, but I recognized the silence in Mal, the deep intent. I’d seen it in Tsibeya when we were hunting the stag and then again on the waters of the Bone Road.
According to Tolya, the Cera Huo was marked differently on every map, and we certainly had no way of knowing if that was where we’d find the firebird. But it had given Mal a direction and now he moved in that steady, reassuring way of his, as if everything in the wild world was already familiar to him, as if he knew all of its secrets. For the others, it became a kind of game, trying to predict which way he would take us.
“What do you see?” Harshaw asked in frustration when Mal turned us away from an easy trail.
Mal shrugged. “It’s more what I don’t see.” He pointed up to where a flock of geese were tacking south in a sharp wedge. “It’s the way the birds move, the way the animals hide in the underbrush.”
Harshaw scratched Oncat behind the ear and whispered loudly, “And people say I’m crazy.”
As the days passed, I felt my patience fraying. We had too much time walking with nothing to do but think, and there was no safe place for my thoughts to wander. The past was full of horrors, and the future left me with that breathless, rising panic.
The power inside me had once seemed so miraculous, but each confrontation with the Darkling drove home the limitations of my abilities. There is no fight to be had. Despite the death I’d seen and the desperation I felt, I was no closer to understanding or wielding merzost. I found myself resenting Mal’s calm, the surety he seemed to carry in his steps.
“Do you think it’s out there?” I asked one afternoon when we’d taken shelter in a dense cluster of pines to wait out a storm.
“Hard to say. Right now, I could just be tracking a big hawk. I’m going on my gut as much as anything, and that always makes me nervous.”
“You don’t seem nervous. You seem completely at ease.” I could hear the irritation in my voice.
Mal glanced at me. “It helps that no one’s threatening to cut you open.”
I said nothing. The thought of the Darkling’s knife was almost comforting—a simple fear, concrete, manageable.
He squinted out at the rain. “And it’s something else, something the Darkling said in the chapel. He thought he needed me to find the firebird. As much as I hate to admit it, that’s why I know I can do it now, because he was so sure.”
I understood. The Darkling’s faith in me had been an intoxicating thing. I wanted that certainty, the knowledge that everything would be dealt with, that someone was in control. Sergei had run to the Darkling looking for that reassurance. I just want to feel safe again.
“When the time comes,” Mal asked, “can you bring the firebird down?”
Yes. I was done with hesitation. It wasn’t just that we’d run out of options, or that so much was riding on the firebird’s power. I’d simply grown ruthless enough or selfish enough to take another creature’s life. But I missed the girl who had shown the stag mercy, who had been strong enough to turn away from the lure of power, who had believed in something more. Another casualty of this war.
“It still doesn’t seem real to me,” I said. “And even if it is, it may not be enough. The Darkling has an army. He has allies. We have…” A band of misfits? Some tattooed zealots? Even with the power of the amplifiers, it seemed a mismatched battle.
“Thanks,” Zoya said sourly.
“She has a point,” said Harshaw, propped against a tree. He had Oncat perched on his shoulder and was sending little flames dancing through the air. “I’m not really feeling up for much.”
“I didn’t mean that,” I protested.
“It’ll be enough,” said Mal. “We’ll find the firebird. You’ll face the Darkling. We’ll fight him, and we’ll win.”
“And then what?” I felt panic press in on me again. “Even if we beat the Darkling and I destroy the Fold, Ravka will be vulnerable.” No Lantsov prince to lead. No Darkling. Just a scrawny orphan from Keramzin with whatever force I might piece together from the Grisha who survived and the remnants of the First Army.
“There’s the Apparat,” said Tolya. “The priest may not be trustworthy, but your followers are.”
“And David thought he might be able to heal Nikolai,” Zoya put in.
I turned on her, my anger rising. “Do you think Fjerda will wait for us to find a cure? How about the Shu?”
“Then you’ll make a new alliance,” said Mal.
“Sell my power to the highest bidder?”
“You negotiate. Set your own terms.”
“Hash out a marriage contract, pick a Fjerdan noble or a Shu general? Hope my new husband doesn’t murder me in my sleep?”
“And where will you go?”
“I’ll stay by your side as long as you let me.”
“Noble Mal. Will you stand guard outside our bedchamber at night?” I knew I was being unfair, but in that moment I didn’t care.
His jaw set. “I’ll do what I have to do to keep you safe.”
“Keep your head down. Do your duty.”
“One foot in front of the other. Onward to the firebird. Keep marching like a good soldier.”
“That’s right, Alina. I’m a soldier.” I thought he might finally crack and give me the fight I wanted, that I was itching for. Instead, he stood and shook the water from his coat. “And I’ll keep marching because the firebird is all I can give you. No money. No army. No mountaintop stronghold.” He shouldered his pack. “This is all I have to offer. The same old trick.” He stepped out into the rain. I didn’t know if I wanted to run after him to apologize or knock him into the mud.