Eryk stayed quiet. This was the time to say something about his father, fallen in battle. But living or dead, he had no memories of the man to share.
“The witchhunters had these horses,” Annika said, her face tilted up to the night sky. “I know I was scared, but I swear they were big as houses.”
“They do have special breeds of horses for the drüskelle.”
He had to be cautious about revealing where he’d been or what he’d learned, but this felt safe enough. “They’re bred for size and demeanor. They don’t spook at fire or storms. Perfect for battle against Grisha.”
“It wasn’t a battle. It wasn’t even a fight. My father couldn’t protect us.”
“He got you and Sylvi away safely.”
“I guess.” She kicked off toward shore. “I’m going to dive!”
“Are you sure it’s deep enough?”
“I do it all the time.” She clambered out of the pond, wringing water from her shift, and scaled one of the boulders bordering the shore.
“Careful!” he called. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe his mother’s overprotectiveness was rubbing off on him.
She raised her hands, preparing to launch herself into the water, then paused.
Eryk shivered; maybe the water wasn’t as warm as he thought. “What are you waiting for?”
“Nothing,” she said, hands still held out.
A chill passed through him. It was then that he realized he could barely move his arms. He tried to lift his hands, but it was too late. The water felt thick around him. It was hardening to ice.
“What are you doing?” he asked, hoping this was some kind of game, a joke. Eryk started to tremble, his heart pounding a panicked beat as his body went cold. He could still move his legs, just barely scrape the muddy bottom of the pond with his frantically kicking toes, but his chest and his arms were held motionless, the ice pressing in around him. “Annika?”
She had climbed down from the boulder and was picking her way carefully over the frozen pond. She was shaking, her feet still bare, her shift drenched and clinging to her skin. She had a rock in her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her teeth were chattering, but her face was determined. “I need an amplifier.”
“The elders would never let me hunt one. They’d give it to a powerful Grisha like Lev or his father.”
“Annika, listen to me—”
“My father can’t protect us.”
“I can protect you. We’re friends.”
She shook her head. “We’re lucky they even let us stay here.”
“What are you doing, Annika?” he pleaded, though he knew well enough.
“Yes, what are you doing, Annika?”
He turned his head as best he could. Lev was standing on the far shore.
“Go away!” she shouted.
“That little freak and I have unfinished business. So do you and I, for that matter.”
“Go back to camp, Lev.”
“Are you giving me orders?”
She ignored him, moving across the ice. It creaked underneath her feet. Annika was right: she wasn’t strong. She’d been unable to freeze the ice through.
“Do it, Annika,” Eryk said, loudly. “If I’m going to die, I don’t want Lev using my power.”
“What are you talking about?” said Lev, putting a tentative foot on the icy surface of the pond.
“Be quiet,” Annika whispered furiously.
“I’m an amplifier. And once Annika wears my bones, you won’t be able to push her or her sister around anymore.”
“Shut up,” she screamed.
Eryk saw understanding dawn on Lev’s face, and in the next minute, he was sprinting across the ice. It cracked beneath Lev’s bulk. Closer, Eryk urged silently, but Annika was already upon him.
“I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I’m so sorry.” She was crying as she brought the rock down on his head.
Pain exploded over his right temple, and his vision blurred. Don’t faint. He gave his head a shake despite the tide of pain that came with it. He saw Annika lifting the rock again. It was wet with his blood.
A gust of air struck her, sending her sliding back over the ice.
“No!” she cried. “He’s mine!”
Lev was pounding over the ice toward Eryk. He already had a knife in his hand. Eryk knew his power would belong to whomever made the kill. That was the way amplifiers worked. Never let them touch you. Because one touch was enough to reveal it, this gift lurking inside him. It was enough to make him less a boy than a prize.
Annika was lifting the rock again. This would be the strike that broke his skull open. He knew it. Eryk concentrated on Lev’s boots, the cracks spreading out from them. He stretched his legs, then brought his knees up to slam against the ice. Nothing. Despite the nausea gripping him, he did it again. His knees hit the ice from below with a painful crunch. The ice around him ruptured. Then Annika was toppling, collapsing into the water, the stone slipping from her hands.
Eryk wrenched his arms free and plunged beneath the surface. Under the water, he could see nothing but darkness. He kicked hard. He had no idea which direction he was going, but he had to make it to shore before Annika could freeze the pond again. His feet touched bottom, and he half swam, half dragged himself toward the shallows. A hand closed around his ankle.
Annika was on top of him, using her weight to hold him down. He screamed, thrashing in her arms. Then Lev was there, shoving her aside, grabbing a handful of Eryk’s shirt, lifting the knife. Everyone was shouting. Eryk wasn’t sure who had hold of him. A knee pressed into his chest. Someone shoved his head beneath the surface again. Water flooded up his nose and into his lungs. I’m going to die here. They’ll wear my bones.
In the eerie, muffled silence of the water, he heard his mother’s voice, vicious like a whip crack. She was always asking more of him, demanding it, and now she told him to fight. She spoke his true name, the one she only used when they trained, the name tattooed on his heart. A heart that had not stopped beating. A heart that still had life.
With the last bit of his strength, he tore his arm free and lashed out blindly, furiously, with all his terror and rage, with all the hope that had been born and died this day. Let me make a mark on this world before I leave it.
The weight slid off his chest. He struggled to sit up, choking and gasping, water spilling from his mouth. He coughed and heaved, then managed to draw a thready, painful breath. He looked around.
Lev floated facedown beside him, dark blood pluming from a deep diagonal slash that ran from his hip almost straight through his chest. His shirt was torn, and it flapped backward in the water, revealing pale skin that glowed fish-belly white in the moonlight.
Annika was on his other side, sprawled in the shallows, her eyes wide and panicked. A deep gash ran from her shoulder up through the side of her throat. She had a hand pressed to her neck to try to stop the flow of blood. Her fingers and sleeve were dripping with it.
He’d finally managed to use the Cut. It had torn through them both.
“Help me,” she croaked. “Please, Eryk.”
“That’s not my name.”
He didn’t move. He sat and watched as her eyes went glassy, as her hand dropped away, as at last she slumped backward, her empty gaze fastened on the moon. He watched the remaining chunks of ice bobbing on the surface slowly melt away. His head throbbed, and he was dizzy with the pain. But his mother had taught him to think clearly, even when he was hurting, even when he wasn’t so sure he wanted to go on.
They would blame him for this. No matter what Annika and Lev had intended, they would blame him. They’d put him and his mother to death and give their bones to the Ulle or some other Grisha of rank. Unless he could give them someone else to hate. That meant he needed a better wound. A killing wound.
He’d lost a lot of blood. He might not survive it, but he knew what he had to do. He knew what he could do
now. The evidence was all around him.
He waited until the sky had begun to lighten. Only then did he summon the shadows and from them draw a dark blade.
* * *
When the Ulle’s men woke him on the shore, he gave them the answers they needed, the truth they were only too eager to see in the corpses of their children, in deep, slicing wounds they were sure had been made by otkazat’sya swords.
He lost consciousness as they carried him to camp, and it was many long hours later that he came back to himself, this time in the snug little hut. His mother was once again beside him, but now her face was smudged with blood and ash. She smelled of bonfires. The Ulle sat in the corner, his head in his hands.
“He’s awake,” said his mother.
The Ulle looked up sharply and rose to his feet.
Eryk’s mother pressed a cup of water to his lips. “Drink.”
The Ulle towered over Eryk’s bed. His features were haggard and coated in soot. “You are all right?” he asked.