David gave two hard blasts on the whistle around his neck. Nadia dropped her goggles, and the Durast manning the dish moved into position. I didn’t wait—I lifted my hands and sent light streaming at the dish. The whistle blew. The dish tilted. A single pure beam of light blasted from the mirrored surface. Even without the second dish, it skewered the sky, slashing through the nichevo’ya as they burned away to nothing.
The beam swept the air in a gleaming arc, dissolving black bodies before it, thinning the horde until we could see the deep Belyanoch twilight. A cheer went up from the Grisha at the first sight of stars, and a thin sliver of hope pierced my terror.
Then a nichevo’ya broke through. It dodged the beam and hurled itself at the dish, rocking it on its moorings.
Mal was on the creature in an instant, slashing and cutting. A group of Grisha tried to seize its muscled legs, but the thing shifted and skittered away from them. Then the nichevo’ya were descending from all sides. I saw one slip past the beam and dive straight into the back of the dish. The mirror rocked forward. The light faltered, then winked out.
“Nadia!” I screamed. She and the Durast leapt from the dish just in time. It toppled on its side in a tremendous crash of breaking glass as the nichevo’ya renewed their attack.
I threw out arc after arc of light.
“Get to the hall!” I cried. “Seal the doors!”
The Grisha ran, but they were not fast enough. I heard a shout and saw the brief flash of Fedyor’s face as he was lifted from his feet and tossed from the roof. I lay down a bright shower of cover, but the nichevo’ya just kept coming. If only we’d had both dishes. If only we’d had a little more time.
Mal was suddenly beside me again, rifle in hand. “It’s no good,” he said. “We have to get out of here.”
I nodded, and we backed toward the stairs as the sky grew dense with writhing shapes. My foot connected with something soft behind me, and I stumbled.
Sergei was huddled against the dome. He held Marie in his arms. She’d been torn open from neck to navel.
“There’s no one left,” he sobbed, tears running down his cheeks. “There’s no one left.” He rocked back and forth, holding Marie tighter. I couldn’t bear to look at her. Silly, giggling Marie with her lovely brown curls.
The nichevo’ya were skittering over the roof, rushing toward us in a black tide.
“Mal, get him up!” I shouted. I slashed out at the throng of shadows rushing toward us.
Mal grabbed Sergei and pulled him away from Marie. He flailed and struggled, but we got him inside and banged the door shut behind us. We half carried, half shoved him down the stairs. On the second flight, we heard the roof door blow open above us. I threw a slicing cut of light high, hoping to hit something other than the staircase, and we tumbled down the final flight.
We threw ourselves into the main hall, and the doors crashed closed behind us as the Grisha rammed the lock into place. There was a loud thud and then another as the nichevo’ya tried to break through the door.
“Alina!” Mal shouted. I turned and saw that the other doors were sealed, but there were still nichevo’ya inside. Zoya and Nadia’s brother were backed against a wall, using Squaller winds to heave tables and chairs and broken bits of furniture at an oncoming pack of shadow soldiers.
I raised my hands, and the light swept forward in sizzling cords, tearing through the nichevo’ya one by one, until they were gone. Zoya dropped her hands, and a samovar fell with a loud clang.
At every door we heard thumping and scraping. The nichevo’ya were clawing at the wood, trying to get in, searching for a crack or gap to seep through. The buzzing and clicking seemed to come from all sides. But the Fabrikators had done their work well. The seals would hold, at least for a little while.
Then I looked around the room. The hall was bathed in blood. The walls were smeared with it, the stone floor was wet with it. There were bodies everywhere, little heaps of purple, red, and blue.
“Are there any others?” I asked. I couldn’t keep the tremor from my voice.
Zoya gave a single, dazed shake of her head. A spatter of blood covered one of her cheeks. “We were at dinner,” she said. “We heard the bells. We didn’t have time to seal the doors. They were just … everywhere.”
Sergei was sobbing quietly. David looked pale, but calm. Nadia had made it down to the hall. She had her arm around Adrik, and he still had that stubborn tilt to his chin, though he was shaking. There were three Inferni and two more Corporalki—one Healer and one Heartrender. They were all that remained of the Second Army.
“Did anyone see Tolya and Tamar?” I asked. But no one had. They might be dead. Or maybe they’d played some part in this disaster. Tamar had disappeared from the dining room. For all I knew, they’d been working with the Darkling all along.
“Nikolai might not have left yet,” Mal said. “We could try to make it to the Kingfisher.”
I shook my head. If Nikolai wasn’t gone, then he and the rest of his family were dead, and possibly Baghra too. I had a sudden image of Nikolai’s body floating facedown in the lake beside the splintered pieces of the Kingfisher.
No. I would not think that way. I remembered what I’d thought of Nikolai the first time I’d met him. I had to believe the clever fox would escape this trap, too.
“The Darkling concentrated his forces here,” I said. “We can make a run for the upper town and try to fight our way out from there.”
“We’ll never make it,” said Sergei hopelessly. “There are too many of them.” It was true. We’d known it might come to this, but we’d assumed we’d have greater numbers, and the hope of reinforcements from Poliznaya.
From somewhere in the distance, we heard a rolling crack of thunder.
“He’s coming,” moaned one of the Inferni. “Oh, Saints, he’s coming.”
“He’ll kill us all,” whispered Sergei.
“If we’re lucky,” replied Zoya.
It wasn’t the most helpful thing to say, but she was right. I’d seen the truth of how the Darkling dealt with traitors in the shadowy depths of his own mother’s eyes, and I suspected Zoya and the others would be treated far more harshly.
Zoya tried to wipe the blood from her face, but only succeeded in leaving a smear across her cheek. “I say we try to get to the upper town. I’d rather take my chances with the monsters outside than sit here waiting for the Darkling.”
“The odds aren’t good,” I warned, hating that I had no hope to offer. “I’m not strong enough to stop them all.”
“At least with the nichevo’ya it will be relatively quick,” David said. “I say we go down fighting.” We all turned to look at him. He seemed a little surprised himself. Then he shrugged. He met my eyes and said, “We do the best we can.”
I looked around the circle. One by one they nodded.
I took a breath. “David, do you have any grenatki left?”
He pulled two iron cylinders from his kefta. “These are the last.”
“Use one, keep the other in reserve. I’ll give the signal. When I open the doors, run for the palace gates.”
“I’m staying with you,” Mal said.
I opened my mouth to argue, but one look told me there would be no point.
“Don’t wait for us,” I said to the others. “I’ll give you as much cover as I can.”
Another clap of thunder split the air.
The Grisha plucked rifles from the arms of the dead and gathered around me at the door.
“All right,” I said. I turned and laid my hands on the carved handles. Through my palms, I felt the thump of nichevo’ya bodies as they heaved themselves against the wood. My wound gave a searing throb.
I nodded to Zoya. The lock snicked back.
I threw the door open and shouted, “Now!”
David lobbed the flash bomb into the twilight as Zoya swooped her arms through the air, lofting the cylinder higher on a Squaller draft.
“Get down!” David yelled. We turned toward the shelter of the hall, eyes squeezed shut, hands thrown over our heads, bracing for the explosion.
The blast shook the stone floor beneath our feet, and the glare burned red across my closed lids.
We ran. The nichevo’ya had scattered, startled by the burst of light and sound, but only seconds later, they were whirling back toward us.
“Run!” I shouted. I raised my arms and brought the light down in fiery scythes, cutting through the violet sky, carving through one nichevo’ya after the next as Mal opened fire. The Grisha ran for the wooded tunnel.
I called on every bit of the stag’s power, the sea whip’s strength, every trick Baghra had ever taught me. I pulled the light toward me and honed it into searing arcs that cut luminous trails through the shadow army.
But there were just too many of them. What had it cost the Darkling to raise such a multitude? They surged forward, bodies shifting and whirling like a glittering cloud of beetles, arms stretched forward, sharp talons bared. They pushed the Grisha back from the tunnel, black wings beating the air, the wide, twisted holes of their mouths already yawning open.
Then the air came alive with the rattle of gunfire. There were soldiers pouring out of the woods to my left, shooting as they ran. The war cry that issued from their lips raised the hair on my arms. Sankta Alina.
They hurtled toward the nichevo’ya, drawing swords and sabers, slashing out at the monsters with terrifying ferocity. Some were dressed as farmers, some wore ragged First Army uniforms, but each of them bore identical tattoos: my sunburst, wrought in ink over the sides of their faces.
Only two were unmarked. Tolya and Tamar led the charge, eyes wild, blades flashing, roaring my name.
THE SUN SOLDIERS plunged into the shadow horde, cutting and thrusting, pushing the nichevo’ya back as the riflemen fired again and again. But despite their ferocity, they were only human, flesh and steel pitted against living shadow. One by one, the nichevo’ya began to pick them off.
“Make for the chapel!” Tamar shouted.
The chapel? Did she plan to throw hymnals at the Darkling?
“We’ll be trapped!” cried Sergei, running toward me.
“We’re already trapped,” Mal replied, slinging his rifle onto his back and grabbing my arm. “Let’s go!”
I didn’t know what to think, but we were out of options.
“David!” I yelled. “The second bomb!”
He flung it toward the nichevo’ya. His aim was wild, but Zoya was there to help it along.
We dove into the woods, the sun soldiers bringing up the rear. The blast tore through the trees in a gust of white light.
Lamps had been lit in the chapel and the door stood open. We burst inside, the echoes from our footfalls bouncing up over the pews and off the glazed blue dome.
“Where do we go?” Sergei cried in panic.
Already we could hear the whirring, clicking hum from outside. Tolya slammed the chapel door shut, dropping a heavy wooden bolt into place. The sun soldiers took up positions by the windows, rifles in hand.