“Well,” said Zoya angrily, “where is it?”
Mal walked to the edge of the falls and looked out at the valley.
“I thought you were supposed to be the best tracker in all of Ravka,” she said. “Just where do we go now?”
Mal rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Down one mountain, up the next. That’s the way it works, Zoya.”
“For how long?” she said. “We can’t just keep on this way.”
“Zoya,” Tolya cautioned.
“How do we even know this thing exists?”
“What were you expecting?” asked Tolya. “A nest?”
“Why not? A nest, a feather, a steaming pile of dung. Something. Anything.”
Zoya was the one saying it, but I sensed the fatigue and disappointment in the others. Tolya would keep going until he collapsed. I wasn’t sure Harshaw and Zoya could take much more.
“It’s too wet to make camp here,” I said. I pointed toward the woods behind the plateau where the trees were reassuringly ordinary, their leaves lit with red and gold. “Head that way until you find a dry spot. Make a fire. We’ll figure out what to do after dinner. Maybe it’s time to split up.”
“You can’t go farther into the Shu Han without protection,” Tolya objected.
Harshaw said nothing, just nuzzled Oncat and failed to meet my eyes.
“We don’t have to decide right now. Just go make camp.”
Carefully, I crossed to the edge of the plateau to join Mal. The drop was dizzying, so I looked into the distance instead. If I squinted, I thought I could just make out the burned field where we’d chased off the thieves, but it might have been imagination.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last.
“Don’t apologize. For all we know, there is no firebird.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“No, but maybe we weren’t meant to find it.”
“You don’t believe that either.” He sighed. “So much for the good soldier.”
I winced. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You once put goose droppings in my shoes, Alina. A bad mood I can handle.” He glanced at me and said, “We all know the burden you’re carrying. You don’t have to bear it alone.”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand. You can’t.”
“Maybe not. But I saw this with soldiers in my unit. You keep storing up all that anger and grief. Eventually it spills over. Or you drown in it.”
He’d been telling me the same thing when we’d first arrived at the mine, when he’d said the others needed to grieve with me. I’d needed it too, even if I hadn’t wanted to admit it. I’d needed to not be alone. And he was right. I did feel like I was drowning, fear closing in over me like an icy sea.
“It’s not that easy,” I said. “I’m not like them. I’m not like anyone.” I hesitated then added, “Except him.”
“You’re nothing like the Darkling.”
“I am, even if you don’t want to see it.”
Mal raised a brow. “Because he’s powerful and dangerous and eternal?” He gave a rueful laugh. “Tell me something. Would the Darkling ever have forgiven Genya? Or Tolya and Tamar? Or Zoya? Or me?”
“It’s different for us,” I said. “Harder to trust.”
“I have news for you, Alina. That’s tough for everyone.”
“I know, I know. I don’t get it. I just know there’s no way to live without pain—no matter how long or short your life is. People let you down. You get hurt and do damage in return. But what the Darkling did to Genya? To Baghra? What he tried to do to you with that collar? That’s weakness. That’s a man afraid.” He peered out at the valley. “I may never be able to understand what it is to live with your power, but I know you’re better than that. And they all know it too,” he said with a nod back to where the others had gone to make camp. “That’s why we’re here, fighting beside you. That’s why Zoya and Harshaw will whine all night, but tomorrow they’ll stay.”
He nodded. “We’ll eat, we’ll sleep, and then we see what happens next.”
I sighed. “Just keep going.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “You move forward, and when you falter, you get up. And when you can’t, you let us carry you. You let me carry you.” He dropped his hand. “Don’t stay out here too long,” he said, then turned and strode back over the plateau.
I won’t fail you again.
The night before Mal and I had first entered the Fold, he’d promised that we would survive. We’re going to be fine, he’d told me. We always are. In the year since, we’d been tortured and terrorized, broken and rebuilt. We would probably never feel fine again, but I’d needed that lie then, and I needed it now. It kept us standing, kept us fighting another day. It was what we’d been doing our whole lives.
The sun was just starting to set. I stood at the edge of the falls, listening to the rush of the water. As the sun dipped, the falls caught fire, and I watched the pools in the valley turn gold. I leaned over the drop, glimpsing the pile of bones below. Whatever Mal had been hunting, it was big. I peered into the mist rising off the rocks at the base of the falls. The way it billowed and shifted, it almost looked like it was alive, as if—
Something came rushing up at me. I stumbled backward and hit the ground with a jarring thud to my tailbone. A cry cut through the silence.
My eyes searched the sky. A huge winged shape soared above me in a widening arc.
“Mal!” I shouted. My pack was at the edge of the plateau, along with my rifle and bow. I made a dash for them, and the firebird came straight at me.
It was huge, white like the stag and the sea whip, its vast wings tinged with golden flame. They beat the air, the gust driving me backward. Its call echoed through the valley as it opened its massive beak. It was big enough to take my arm off in one bite, maybe my head. Its talons gleamed, long and sharp.
I raised my hands to use the Cut, but I couldn’t keep my footing. I slipped and felt myself tumbling toward the cliff’s edge—hip, then head, striking damp rock. The bones, I thought. Oh, Saints, the bones at the bottom of the falls. This was how it killed.
I clawed at the slick stone, trying to find purchase—and then I was falling.
My scream caught on my lips as my arm was nearly wrenched from its socket. Mal had hold of me just below my elbow. He was on his stomach, hanging over the cliff face, the firebird circling above him in the fading light.
“I’ve got you!” he shouted, but his grip was slipping up the damp skin of my forearm.
My feet dangled over nothing, my heart pounding in my chest. “Mal…” I said desperately.
He leaned out farther. We were both going over.
“I’ve got you,” he repeated, his blue eyes blazing. His fingertips closed around my wrist.
The jolt slammed through us at the same time, the same crackling shock we’d felt that night in the woods near the banya. He flinched. This time we had no choice but to hold tight. Our eyes met, and power surged between us, bright and inevitable. I had the sense of a door swinging open, and all I wanted was to step through—this taste of perfect, gleaming elation was nothing compared to what lay on the other side. I forgot where I was, forgot everything but the need to cross that threshold, to claim that power.
And with that hunger came horrible understanding. No, I thought desperately. Not this.
But it was too late. I knew.
Mal gritted his teeth. I felt his grip go even tighter. My bones rubbed together. The burn of power was almost unendurable, a dull whine that filled my head. My heart beat so hard I thought I might not survive it. I needed to walk through that door.
Then, miraculously, he was pulling me higher, inch by inch. I pawed at the rock with my other hand, searching for the top of the cliff, and finally made contact. Mal took hold of both my arms, and I wriggled onto the safety of the plateau.
As soon as his hand released my wrist, the shuddering rush of power relented. We dragged ourselves away from the edge, muscles trembling, panting for breath.
That echoing call sounded again. The firebird hurtled toward us. We shoved up to our knees. Mal had no time to draw his bow. He threw himself in front of me, arms spread wide as the firebird shrieked and dove, its talons extended directly toward him.
The impact never came. The firebird drew up short, its claws bare inches from Mal’s chest. Its wings beat once, twice, driving us back. Time seemed to slow. I could see us both reflected in its great golden eyes. Its beak was razor sharp, and its feathers seemed to blaze with a light of their own. Even through my fear, I felt awe. The firebird was Ravka. It was right that we should kneel.
It gave another piercing cry, then whirled and flapped its wings, soaring into the gathering dusk.
We sank to the ground, breathing hard.
“Why did it stop?” I gasped.
A long moment passed. Then Mal said, “We’re not hunting it anymore.”
He knew. Just as I did. He knew.
“We need to get out of here,” he said. “It still might come back.”
Dimly, I was aware of the others running toward us over the slippery rock as we got to our feet. They must have heard my screams.
“That was it!” shouted Zoya, pointing at the disappearing shape of the firebird. She lifted her hands to try to bring it back in a downdraft.
“Zoya, stop,” said Mal. “Let it go.”
“Why? What happened? Why didn’t you kill it?”
“It’s not the amplifier.”
“How can you know that?”
Neither of us answered.
“What is going on?” she shouted.
“It’s Mal,” I said finally.
“What’s Mal?” asked Harshaw.
“Mal is the third amplifier.” The words came out in a rasp, but solid, so much more even and strong than I ever would have anticipated.
“What are you talking about?” Zoya’s fists were clenched, and there were hectic spots of color on her cheeks.
“We should find cover,” said Tolya.
We limped across the plateau and followed the others a short distance up the next hill to the camp they’d made near a tall poplar.
Mal dropped his rifle and unslung his bow. “I’m going to go catch dinner,” he said, and melted into the woods before I could think to form a protest.
I slumped down on the ground. Harshaw started the fire, and I sat before it, staring at the flames, barely feeling their warmth. Tolya handed me a flask, then dropped into a crouch, and after waiting for a nod from me, slammed my shoulder back into its socket. The pain wasn’t enough to stop the images pouring through my head, the connections my mind wouldn’t stop making.
A girl in a field, standing over her slain sister, the black wisps of the Cut rising from her body, a father kneeling beside her.
He was a great Healer. Baghra had gotten it wrong. It had taken more than the Small Science to save Morozova’s other daughter. It had taken merzost, resurrection. I’d been wrong too. Baghra’s sister hadn’t been Grisha. She’d been otkazat’sya after all.
“You must have known,” said Zoya, sitting down on the other side of the fire. Her gaze was accusatory.
Had I? The jolt that night by the banya, I’d assumed it was something in me.
And yet, when I looked back, the pattern seemed clear. The first time I’d used my power had been when Mal lay dying in my arms. We’d searched for the stag for weeks, but we’d found it after our first kiss. When the sea whip had revealed itself, I’d been standing in the circle of his arms, close to him for the first time since we’d been forced aboard the Darkling’s ship. The amplifiers wanted to be brought together.
And hadn’t our lives been bound from the first? By war. By abandonment. Maybe by something more. It couldn’t be chance that we’d been born into neighboring villages, that we’d survived the war that had taken both of our families, that we’d both ended up at Keramzin.
Was this the truth behind Mal’s gift for tracking, that he was somehow tied to everything, to the making at the heart of the world? Not a Grisha, and no ordinary amplifier, but something else entirely?
I am become a blade. A weapon to be used. How right he’d been.
I covered my face with my hands. I wanted to blot out this knowledge, carve it from my skull. Because I hungered for the power that lay beyond that golden door, desired it with a kind of pure and aching fever that made me want to tear at my skin. The price for that power would be Mal’s life.
What had Baghra said? You may not be able to survive the sacrifice that merzost requires.
Mal returned a little while later. He’d brought back two fat rabbits. I heard the sounds of him and Tolya working as they cleaned and spitted the animals, and soon I smelled cooking meat. I had no appetite.
We sat there, listening to the branches pop and hiss in the heat of the flame, until finally Harshaw spoke. “If someone doesn’t talk soon, I’m going to set fire to the woods.”
So I took a sip from Zoya’s flask, and I talked. The words came more easily than I expected. I told them Baghra’s story, the horrible tale of a man obsessed, of the daughter he neglected, of the other daughter who had nearly died because of it.
“No,” I corrected myself. “She did die that day. Baghra killed her. And Morozova brought her back.”
“No one can—”
“He could. It wasn’t healing. It was resurrection, the same process he used to create the other amplifiers. It’s all in his journals.” The means of keeping oxygen in the blood, the method for preventing decay. The power of the Healer and the Fabrikator pushed to their limits and well beyond, taken to a place they were never meant to go.