Zoya lifted one elegant shoulder. “I’d rather have the emerald.”
I stared at her, then shook my head and released something between a laugh and a sigh. My anger went out of me, leaving me feeling petty and embarrassed. Mal hadn’t deserved that. None of them had.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Maybe you’re hungry,” said Zoya. “I always get mean when I’m hungry.”
“Are you hungry all the time?” asked Harshaw.
“You haven’t seen me mean. When you do, you’ll require a very big hanky.”
He snorted. “To dry my tears?”
“To stanch the bleeding.”
This time my laugh was real. Somehow a little of Zoya’s poison was exactly what I needed. Then, despite all my better judgment, I asked the question I’d wanted to ask for nearly a year. “You and Mal, back in Kribirsk—”
I knew that and I knew there had been plenty of others before her, but it still stung. Zoya glanced at me, her long black lashes sparkling with rain. “But never since,” she said grudgingly, “and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. If a man can say no to me, that’s something.”
I rolled my eyes. Zoya poked me in the arm with one long finger. “He hasn’t been with anyone, you idiot. Do you know what the girls back at the White Cathedral called him? Beznako.”
A lost cause.
“It’s funny,” Zoya said contemplatively. “I understand why the Darkling and Nikolai want your power. But Mal looks at you like you’re … well, like you’re me.”
“No he doesn’t,” said Tolya. “He watches her the way Harshaw watches fire. Like he’ll never have enough of her. Like he’s trying to capture what he can before she’s gone.”
Zoya and I gaped at him. Then she scowled. “You know, if you turned a bit of that poetry on me, I might consider giving you a chance.”
“Who says I want one?”
“I want one!” called Harshaw.
Zoya blew a damp curl from her forehead. “Oncat has a better chance than you.”
Harshaw held the little tabby above him. “Why, Oncat,” he said. “You rogue.”
* * *
AS WE CLOSED IN on the area where the Cera Huo was rumored to be, our pace quickened. Mal grew even quieter, his blue eyes moving constantly over the hills. I owed him an apology, but I never seemed to find the right moment to speak to him.
Almost exactly a week into the journey, we came across what we thought was a dry creek bed that ran between two steep rock walls. We’d been following it nearly ten minutes when Mal knelt and ran his hand through the grass.
“Harshaw,” he said, “can you burn some of this scrub away?”
Harshaw struck his flint and sent a low blanket of blue flame rolling over the creek bed, revealing a pattern of stones too regular to be anything but manmade. “It’s a road,” he said in surprise.
“Here?” I asked. We’d passed nothing but empty mountains for miles.
We stayed alert, searching for signs of what might have come before, hoping to see etched symbols, maybe the little altars we’d seen carved into the rock closer to Dva Stolba, eager for some kind of proof that we were on the right path. But the only lesson in the stones seemed to be that cities rose and fell and were forgotten. You live in a single moment. I live in a thousand. I might live long enough to see Os Alta turn to dust. Or maybe I’d turn my power back on myself and end it all before then. What would life be like when the people I loved were gone? When there were no mysteries left?
We followed the road to where it just seemed to end, buried in a slump of fallen rock covered in grass and yellow wildflowers. We scrambled over it, and when we reached the top, a sliver of ice crept into my bones.
It was as if the color had been leached out of the landscape. The field before us was gray grass. A black ridge stretched along the horizon, covered in trees, their bark smooth and glossy as polished slate, their angular branches free of leaves. But the eerie thing was the way they grew, in perfect, regular lines, equidistant, as if they had each been planted with infinite care.
“That looks wrong,” said Harshaw.
“They’re soldier trees,” said Mal. “It’s just the way they grow, like they’re keeping ranks.”
“That’s not the only reason,” said Tolya. “This is the ashwood. The gateway to the Cera Huo.”
Mal took out his map. “I don’t see it.”
“It’s a story. There was a massacre here.”
“A battle?” I asked.
“No. A Shu battalion was brought here by their enemies. They were prisoners of war.”
“Which enemies?” asked Harshaw.
Tolya shrugged. “Ravkan, Fjerdan, maybe other Shu. This was old days.”
“What happened to them?”
“They starved, and when the hunger became too great, they turned on each other. It’s said the last man standing planted a tree for each of his fallen brethren. And now they wait for travelers to pass too close to their branches, so they can claim a final meal.”
“Lovely,” grumbled Zoya. “Remind me to never ask you for a bedtime story.”
“It’s just a legend,” Mal said. “I’ve seen those trees near Balakirev.”
“Growing like that?” Harshaw asked.
“Not … exactly.”
I eyed the shadows in the grove. The trees did look like a regiment marching toward us. I’d heard similar stories about the woods near Duva, that in the long winters, the trees would snatch up girls to eat. Superstition, I told myself, but I didn’t want to take another step toward that hillside.
“Look!” said Harshaw.
I followed his gaze. There, amid the deep shadows of the trees, something white was moving, a fluttering shape that rose and fell, slipping between the branches.
“There’s another,” I gasped, pointing to where a whorl of white shimmered, then disappeared into nothing.
“It can’t be,” said Mal.
Another shape appeared between the trees, then another.
“I do not like this,” said Harshaw. “I do not like this at all.”
“Oh, for Saints’ sake,” sneered Zoya. “You really are peasants.”
She lifted her hands, and a massive gust of wind tore up the mountain. The white shapes seemed to retreat. Then Zoya hooked her arms, and they rushed at us in a moaning white cloud.
“Relax,” she said.
I threw up my arms to ward off whatever horrible thing Zoya had brought down on us. The cloud exploded. It burst into harmless flakes that drifted to the ground around us.
“Ash?” I reached out to catch some of it on my fingers. It was fine and white, the color of chalk.
“It’s just some kind of weather phenomenon,” Zoya said, sending the ashes rising again in lazy spirals. We looked back up the hill. The white clouds continued to move in shifts and gusts, but now that we knew what they were, they seemed slightly less sinister. “You didn’t really think they were ghosts, did you?”
I blushed and Tolya cleared his throat. Zoya rolled her eyes and strode toward the hill. “I am surrounded by fools.”
“They looked spooky,” Mal said to me with a shrug.
“They still do,” I muttered.
All the way up the rise, weird little blasts of wind struck us, hot and then cold. No matter what Zoya said, the grove was an eerie place. I steered clear of the trees’ grasping branches and tried to ignore the gooseflesh puckering my arms. Every time a white whorl rose up near us, I jumped and Oncat hissed from Harshaw’s shoulder.
When we finally crested the hill, we saw that the trees marched all the way into the valley, though here their branches were lush with purple leaves, their ranks spreading over the landscape below like the folds of a Fabrikator’s robe. But that wasn’t what stopped us in our tracks.
Ahead of us stood a towering cliff. It looked less a part of the mountains than like the wall of a giant’s stronghold. It was dark and massive, nearly flat at the top, the rock the heavy gray of iron. A tangle of dead trees had been blown against its base. The cliff was split down the middle by a roaring waterfall that fed a pool so clear we could see the rocks at the bottom. The lake stretched almost the length of the valley, surrounded by blooming soldier trees, then seemed to disappear belowground.
We made our way down to the valley floor, stepping around and over little pools and rivulets, the thunder of the falls filling our ears. When we reached the largest pool, we stopped to fill our canteens and rinse our faces in the water.
“Is this it?” Zoya asked. “The Cera Huo?”
Setting Oncat aside, Harshaw dunked his head in the water. “Must be,” he said. “What’s next?”
“Up, I think,” said Mal.
Tolya eyed the slick expanse of the cliff wall. The rock was wet with mist from the falls. “We’ll have to go around. There’s no way of scaling the face.”
“In the morning,” Mal replied. “Too dangerous to climb in this terrain at night.”
Harshaw tilted his head to one side. “We might want to camp a little farther off.”
“Why?” asked Zoya. “I’m tired.”
“Oncat objects to the landscaping.”
“That tabby can sleep at the bottom of the pool for all I care,” she snapped.
Harshaw just pointed toward the tangle of dead trees crowded around the bottom of the cliff. They weren’t trees at all. They were piles of bones.
“Saints,” Zoya said, backing away. “Are those animal or human?”
Harshaw hitched his thumb over his shoulder. “I saw a very welcoming bunch of boulders back that way.”
“Let’s go there,” said Zoya. “Now.”
We hurried from the falls, picking our way through the soldier trees and up the valley walls.
“Maybe the ash is volcanic,” I said hopefully. My imagination was getting the best of me, and I was suddenly sure that I had the ancient remains of burnt men in my hair.
“Could be,” said Harshaw. “There might be volcanic activity near here. Maybe that’s why they’re called the Firefalls.”
“No,” said Tolya. “That’s why.”
I looked back over my shoulder to the valley below. In the light of the setting sun, the falls had gone molten gold. It must have been a trick of the mist or the angle, but it was as if the very water had caught fire. The sun sank lower, setting every pool alight, turning the valley into a crucible.
“Incredible,” Harshaw groaned. Mal and I exchanged a glance. We’d be lucky if he didn’t try to throw himself in.
Zoya dumped her pack on the ground and slumped down on it. “You can keep your damn scenery. All I want is a warm bed and a glass of wine.”
Tolya frowned. “This is a holy place.”
“Great,” she retorted sourly. “See if you can pray me up a dry pair of socks.”
AT DAWN the next morning, while the others damped the fire and gnawed at pieces of hardtack, I drew on my coat and walked back a little ways to look at the falls. The mist was dense in the valley. From here, the bones at the base of the falls just looked like trees. No ghosts. No fire. It felt like a quiet place, somewhere to rest.
We were packing up the ash-covered tents when we heard it—a cry, high and piercing, echoing through the dawn. We halted, silent, waiting to see if it would sound again.
“Could just be a hawk,” warned Tolya.
Mal said nothing. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and plunged into the woods. We had to scurry to keep pace with him.
The climb up the back of the falls took us the better part of the day. It was steep and brutal, and though my feet had toughened and my legs were used to hard travel, I still felt the strain of it. My muscles ached beneath my pack, and despite the chill in the air, sweat beaded on my forehead.
“When we catch this thing,” panted Zoya, “I’m going to turn it into a stew.”
I could feel the excitement rippling through all of us, the sense that we were close now, and we drove each other to push harder up the mountain. In some places, the rise was nearly vertical. We had to pull ourselves higher by grabbing tight to the roots of scraggly trees or wedging our fingers into the rock. At one point, Tolya brought out iron spikes and hammered them directly into the mountain so we could use them as a makeshift ladder.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we hauled our bodies over a ragged stone lip and found ourselves on the flat top of the cliff wall, a smooth expanse of rock and moss, slick with mist and split by the frothing tide of the river.
Looking north, beyond the abrupt drop of the falls, we could see back the way we’d come—the far ridge of the valley, the gray field that led to the ashwood, the indentation of the old road, and beyond it, storms moving over the grass-covered foothills. And they were just foothills. That was clear now. Because if we turned south, we had our first real view of the mountains, the vast, white-capped Sikurzoi, the source of the snowmelt that fed the Cera Huo.
“They just go on and on,” said Harshaw wearily.
We made our way to the side of the rapids. It would be tricky fording them, and I wasn’t sure there was a point. We could see across to the other side, where the cliff simply ended. There was nothing there. The plateau was clearly and disappointingly empty.
The wind picked up, whipping through my hair and sending a fine mist stinging against my cheek. I glanced south at the white mountains. Autumn was here and winter was on its way. We’d been gone over a week. What if something had happened to the others back in Dva Stolba?