I glanced back up to the whaler’s rigging. The tops of the masts were shrouded in mist now, but I could still make out the light of Tamar’s lantern burning steadily atop the main royal.
Another harpoon found its target and the sea whip began to sing, a sound more lovely than anything I’d ever heard, a choir of voices lifted in a plaintive, wordless song. No, I realized, not a song. The sea whip was crying out, writhing and rolling in the waves as the longboats gave chase, struggling to shake the hooked tips of the harpoons free. Fight, I pleaded silently. Once he has you, he’ll never let you go.
But I could already see the dragon slowing, its movements growing sluggish as its cries wavered, mournful now, their music bleak and fading.
Part of me wished the Darkling would just end it. Why didn’t he? Why not use the Cut on the sea whip and bind me to him as he had done with the stag?
“Nets!” shouted Sturmhond. But the mist had grown so thick that I couldn’t quite tell where his voice was coming from. I heard a series of thunks from somewhere near the starboard rail.
“Clear the mist,” ordered the Darkling. “We’re losing the longboat.”
I heard the Grisha calling to one another and then felt the billow of Squaller winds tugging at the hem of my coat.
The mist lifted, and my jaw dropped. The Darkling and his Grisha still stood on the starboard side, attention focused on the longboat that now seemed to be rowing away from the whaler. But on the port side, another ship had appeared as if from nowhere, a sleek schooner with gleaming masts and colors flying: a red dog on a teal field—and below it, in pale blue and gold, the Ravkan double eagle.
I heard another series of thunks and saw steel claws studding the whaler’s portside rail. Grappling hooks, I realized.
And then everything seemed to happen at once. A howl went up from somewhere, like a wolf baying at the moon. Men swarmed over the rail onto the whaler’s deck, pistols strapped to their chests, cutlasses in their hands, yowling and barking like a pack of wild dogs. I saw the Darkling turn, confusion and rage on his face.
“What the hell is going on?” Mal said, stepping in front of me as we edged toward the meager protection of the mizzenmast.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Something very good or something very, very bad.”
We stood back-to-back, my hands still trapped in irons, his still bound, powerless to defend ourselves as the deck erupted into fighting. Pistol shots rang out. The air came alive with Inferni fire. “To me, hounds!” Sturmhond shouted, and plunged into the action, a saber in his hands.
Barking, yipping, snarling men were descending on the Darkling’s Grisha from all sides—not just from the railing of the schooner but from the rigging of the whaler as well. Sturmhond’s men. Sturmhond was turning against the Darkling.
The privateer had clearly lost his mind. Yes, the Grisha were outnumbered, but numbers didn’t matter in a fight with the Darkling.
“Look!” Mal shouted.
Down in the water, the men in the remaining longboat had the struggling sea whip in tow. They had raised a sail, and a brisk wind was driving them, not toward the whaler but directly toward the schooner instead. The stiff breeze that carried them seemed to come from nowhere. I looked closer. A crewman was standing in the longboat, arms raised. There was no mistaking it: Sturmhond had a Squaller working for him.
Suddenly, an arm seized me around the waist and I was lifted off my feet. The world seemed to upend itself, and I shrieked as I was thrown over a huge shoulder.
I lifted my head, struggling against the arm that held me like a steel band, and saw Tamar rushing toward Mal, a knife gleaming in her hands. “No!” I screamed. “Mal!”
He put up his hands to defend himself, but all she did was slice through his bonds. “Go!” she shouted, tossing him the knife and drawing a sword from the scabbard at her hip.
Tolya clutched me tighter as he sprinted over the deck. Tamar and Mal were close behind.
“What are you doing?” I squawked, my head jouncing against the giant’s back.
“Just run!” Tamar replied, slashing at a Corporalnik who threw himself into her path.
“I can’t run,” I shouted back. “Your idiot brother has me slung over his shoulder like a ham!”
“Do you want to be rescued or not?”
I didn’t have time to answer.
“Hold tight,” Tolya said. “We’re going over.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, preparing to tumble into the icy water. But Tolya hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he gave a sudden grunt and fell to one knee, losing his grip on me. I toppled to the deck and rolled clumsily onto my side. When I looked up, I saw Ivan and a blue-robed Inferni standing over us.
Ivan’s hand was outstretched. He was crushing Tolya’s heart, and this time, Sturmhond wasn’t there to stop him.
The Inferni advanced on Tamar and Mal, flint in hand, arm already moving in an arc of flame. Over before it began, I thought miserably. But in the next moment, the Inferni stopped and gasped. His flames died on the air.
“What are you waiting for?” Ivan snarled.
The Inferni’s only response was a choked hiss. His eyes bulged. He clawed at his throat.
Tamar held her sword in her right hand, but her left fist was clenched.
“Good trick,” she said, swatting away the paralyzed Inferni’s flint. “I know a good trick, too.” She raised her blade, and as the Inferni stood helpless, desperate for air, she ran him through with one vicious thrust.
The Inferni crumpled to the deck. Ivan stared in confusion at Tamar standing over the lifeless body, her sword dripping blood. His concentration must have wavered, because in that moment, Tolya came up from his knee with a terrifying roar.
Ivan clenched his fist, refocusing his efforts. Tolya grimaced, but he did not fall. Then the giant’s hand shot out, and Ivan’s face spasmed in pain and bewilderment.
I looked from Tolya to Tamar, realization dawning. They were Grisha. Heartrenders.
“Do you like that, little man?” Tolya asked as he stalked toward Ivan. Desperately, Ivan cast out another hand. He was shaking, and I could see he was struggling for breath.
Tolya bobbled slightly but kept coming. “Now we learn who has the stronger heart,” he growled.
He strode slowly forward, like he was walking against a hard wind, his face beaded with sweat, his teeth bared in feral glee. I wondered if he and Ivan would both just fall down dead.
Then the fingers of Tolya’s outstretched hand curled into a fist. Ivan convulsed. His eyes rolled up in his head. A bubble of blood blossomed and burst on his lips. He collapsed onto the deck.
Dimly, I was aware of the chaos raging around me. Tamar was struggling with a Squaller. Two other Grisha had leapt onto Tolya. I heard a gunshot and realized Mal had gotten hold of a pistol. But all I could see was Ivan’s lifeless body.
He was dead. The Darkling’s right hand. One of the most powerful Heartrenders in the Second Army. He’d survived the Fold and the volcra, and now he was dead.
A tiny sob drew me out of my reverie. Genya stood gazing down at Ivan, her hands over her mouth.
“Genya—” I said.
“Stop them!” The shout came from across the deck. I turned and saw the Darkling grappling with an armed sailor.
Genya was shaking. She reached into the pocket of her kefta and drew out a pistol. Tolya lunged toward her.
“No!” I said, stepping between them. I wasn’t going to watch him kill Genya.
The heavy pistol trembled in her hand.
“Genya,” I said quietly, “are you really going to shoot me?” She looked around wildly, unsure of where to aim. I laid a hand on her sleeve. She flinched and turned the barrel on me.
A crack like thunder rent the air, and I knew the Darkling had gotten free. I looked back and saw a wave of darkness tumbling toward us. It’s over, I thought. We’re done for. But in the next instant, I glimpsed a bright flash and a shot rang out. The swell of darkness blew away to nothing, and I saw the Darkling clutching his arm, his face contorted in fury and pain. In disbelief, I realized he’d been shot.
Sturmhond was racing toward us, pistols in hand. “Run!” he shouted.
“Come on, Alina!” Mal cried, reaching for my arm.
“Genya,” I said desperately, “come with us.”
Her hand was shaking so badly I thought the pistol might fly from her grip. Tears spilled over her cheeks.
“I can’t,” she sobbed brokenly. She lowered her weapon. “Go, Alina,” she said. “Just go.”
In the next instant, Tolya had tossed me over his shoulder again. I beat futilely at his broad back. “No!” I yelled. “Wait!”
But no one paid me any mind. Tolya took a running leap and vaulted over the railing. I screamed as we plummeted toward the icy water, bracing for the impact. Instead, we were scooped up by what could only have been a Squaller wind and deposited on the attacking schooner’s deck with a bone-jarring thud. Tamar and Mal followed, with Sturmhond close behind.
“Give the signal,” Sturmhond shouted, springing to his feet.
A piercing whistle blew.
“Privyet,” he called to a crewman I didn’t recognize, “how many do we have?”
“Eight men down,” replied Privyet. “Four remaining on the whaler. Cargo on its way up.”
“Saints,” Sturmhond swore. He looked back to the whaler, struggling with himself. “Musketeers!” he shouted to the men on the schooner’s maintop. “Lend them cover!”
The musketeers began firing their rifles down onto the deck of the whaler. Tolya tossed Mal a rifle, then slung another over his back. He leapt into the rigging and began to climb. Tamar drew a pistol from her hip. I was still sprawled on the deck in an undignified tangle, my hands held useless in irons.
“Sea whip is secured, kapitan!” shouted Privyet.
Two more of Sturmhond’s men hurdled over the whaler’s railing and flew through the air, arms pinwheeling wildly, to crash in a heap on the schooner’s deck. One was bleeding badly from a wound to his arm.
Then it came again, the boom of thunder.
“He’s up!” called Tamar.
Blackness tumbled toward us, engulfing the schooner, blotting out everything in its path.
“Free me!” I pleaded. “Let me help!”
Sturmhond threw Tamar the keys and shouted, “Do it!”
Tamar reached for my wrists, fumbling with the key as darkness rolled over us.
We were blind. I heard someone scream. Then the lock clicked free. The irons fell from my wrists and hit the deck with a dull clang.
I raised my hands, and light blazed through the dark, pushing the blackness back over the whaler. A cheer went up from Sturmhond’s crew, but it withered on their lips as another sound filled the air—a grating shriek, piercing in its wrongness, the creak of a door swinging open, a door that should have remained forever shut. The wound in my shoulder gave a sharp throb. Nichevo’ya.
I turned to Sturmhond. “We have to get out of here,” I said. “Now.”
He hesitated, battling himself. Two of his men were still aboard the whaler. His expression hardened. “Topmen make sail!” he shouted. “Squallers due east!”