I knew what was expected, but I hugged him anyway. For a moment, he just stood there, then his arms closed hard around me. “Safe journey, Alina,” he whispered into my hair, and quickly stepped back.
“We’ll be on our way as soon as the Kingfisher returns. I expect to see you all safe and whole in one week’s time,” Nikolai said, “and packing some all-powerful bird bones.”
Mal bowed. “Saints’ speed, moi tsarevich.”
Nikolai offered his hand and they shook. “Good luck, Oretsev. Find the firebird, and when this is over, I’ll see you well rewarded. A farmhouse in Udova. A dacha near the city. Whatever you want.”
“I don’t need any of that. Just…” He dropped Nikolai’s hand and looked away. “Deserve her.”
He hastened back into the Spinning Wheel with Tamar behind him. Through the glass I saw them talking to Nadia and Harshaw.
“Well,” said Nikolai, “at least he’s learned to make an exit.”
I ignored the ache in my throat and said, “How long will it take us to reach Ketterdam?”
“Two to three days, depending on the weather and our Squallers. We’ll go north, then over the True Sea. It’s safer than traveling over Ravka.”
“What’s it like?”
He never finished his sentence. A shadowed blur cut across my vision, and Nikolai was gone. I stood staring at the place where he’d been, then screamed as I felt claws close over my shoulders and my feet lifted from the floor.
I glimpsed Mal bursting through the door to the terrace, Tamar on his heels. He lunged across the distance and seized me around the waist, yanking me back down. I twisted, arms moving in an arc, sending a blaze of light burning through the nichevo’ya that had hold of me. It wavered and exploded into nothing. I fell to the terrace in a heap, toppling with Mal, bleeding from where the monster’s talons had pierced my skin.
I was on my feet in seconds, horrified by what I saw. The air was full of darting black shapes, winged monsters that moved unlike any natural creature. Behind me, I heard chaos erupting in the hall, the smash of breaking glass as nichevo’ya hurled themselves against the windows.
“Get the others out,” I yelled to Tamar. “Get them away from here.”
“We can’t leave you—”
“I won’t lose them too!”
“Go!” Mal bellowed at her. He shouldered his rifle, taking aim at the attacking monsters. I lashed out with the Cut, but they were moving so quickly that I couldn’t target them. I craned my neck, searching the sky for Nikolai. My heart was pounding. Where was the Darkling? If his monsters were here, then he must be nearby.
He came from above. His creatures moved around him like a living cloak, their wings beating the air in a rippling black wave, forming and re-forming, bearing him aloft, their bodies slipping apart and together, absorbing the bullets from Mal’s gun.
“Saints,” Mal swore. “How did he find us?”
The answer came quickly. I saw a red shape suspended between two nichevo’ya, their black claws sunk deeply into their captive’s body. Sergei’s face was chalky, his eyes wide and terrified, his lips moving in a silent prayer.
“Shall I spare him, Alina?” said the Darkling.
“Leave him alone!”
“He betrayed you to the first oprichnik he could find. I wonder, will you offer him mercy or justice?”
“I don’t want him harmed,” I shouted.
My mind was reeling. Had Sergei really betrayed us? He’d been on edge since the battle at the Little Palace, but what if he’d been planning this all along? Maybe he’d just been trying to slip away during our fight with the militia, maybe he’d let Genya’s name drop deliberately. He’d been so ready to leave the Spinning Wheel.
That was when I realized what Sergei was muttering—not prayers, just one word over and over again: Safe. Safe. Safe.
“Give him to me,” I said.
“He betrayed me first, Alina. He remained in Os Alta when he should have come to my side. He sat on your council, plotted against me. He told me everything.”
Thank the Saints we’d kept the location of the firebird a secret.
“So,” said the Darkling, “the decision is mine. And I’m afraid that I choose justice.”
In one movement, the nichevo’ya ripped Sergei’s limbs from his body and severed his head from his neck. I had the briefest glimpse of the shock on his face, his mouth open in a silent scream, then the pieces disappeared beneath the cloud bank.
“All Saints,” Mal swore.
I gagged, but I had to shove down my terror. Mal and I turned in a slow circle, back to back. We were surrounded by nichevo’ya. Behind me, I could hear the sounds of screams and glass shattering in the Spinning Wheel.
“Here we are again, Alina. Your army against mine. Do you think your soldiers will fare any better this time?”
I ignored him and shouted into the misty grayness. “Nikolai!”
“Ah, the pirate prince. I have regretted many of the things I’ve had to do in this war,” said the Darkling. “This is not one of them.”
A shadow soldier swooped down. In horror, I saw it held Nikolai struggling in its arms. Any bit of courage I had evaporated. I couldn’t see Nikolai ripped limb from limb.
“Please!” The word tore from me, without dignity or constraint. “Please don’t!”
The Darkling raised his hand.
I clapped my fingers over my mouth, my legs already buckling.
But the nichevo’ya didn’t attack Nikolai. It tossed him onto the terrace. His body hit the stone with a sickening thud and rolled to a stop.
“Alina, don’t!” Mal tried to hold me back, but I broke free of him and ran to where Nikolai lay, falling to my knees beside him. He moaned. His coat was torn where the creature’s claws had shredded the fabric. He tried to push himself up on his elbows and blood dribbled from his mouth.
“This was unexpected,” he said weakly.
“You’re okay,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“I appreciate your optimism.”
I caught movement from the corner of my eye and saw two blots of shadow slip free of the Darkling’s hands. They slithered over the lip of the balcony, undulating like serpents, heading directly toward us. I raised my hands and slashed out with the Cut, obliterating one side of the terrace, but I was too slow. The shadows slithered lightning fast across the stone and darted into Nikolai’s mouth.
His eyes widened. His breath hitched in surprise, drawing whatever the Darkling had released into his lungs. We stared at each other in shock.
“What—what was that?” he choked.
He coughed, shuddered. Then his fingers flew to his chest, tearing open the remains of his shirt. We both looked down, and I saw shadow spreading beneath his skin in fragile black lines, splintering like veins in marble.
“No,” I groaned. “No. No.”
The cracks traveled across his stomach, down his arms.
“Alina?” he said helplessly. The darkness fractured beneath his skin, climbing his throat. He threw his head back and screamed, the tendons flexing in his neck as his whole body contorted, his back bowing. He shoved up to his knees, chest heaving. I reached for him as he convulsed.
He released another raw scream, and two black shards burst from his back. They unfurled. Like wings.
His head shot up. He looked at me, face beaded in sweat, gaze panicked and de
Then his eyes—his clever, hazel eyes—went black.
“Nikolai?” I whispered.
His lips curled back, revealing teeth of black onyx. They had formed fangs.
He snarled. I stumbled backward. His jaws snapped closed a bare inch from me.
“Hungry?” the Darkling asked. “I wonder which one of your friends you’ll eat first.”
I raised my hands, reluctant to use my power. I didn’t want to hurt him. “Nikolai,” I begged. “Don’t do this. Stay with me.”
His face spasmed in pain. He was in there, fighting himself, battling the appetite that had taken hold of him. His hands flexed—no, his claws. He howled, and the noise that came from him was desperate, shrieking, completely inhuman.
His wings beat the air as he rose from the terrace, monstrous, but still beautiful, still somehow Nikolai. He looked down at the dark veins coursing over his torso, at the razor-sharp talons that had pushed from his blackened fingertips. He held out his hands as if pleading with me for an answer.
“Nikolai,” I cried.
He turned in the air, wrenching himself away, and raced upward, as if he could somehow outpace the need inside him, his black wings carrying him higher as he cut through the nichevo’ya. He looked back once, and even from a distance, I felt his anguish and confusion.
Then he was gone, a black speck in the gray sky, while I remained trembling below.
“Eventually,” said the Darkling, “he will feed.”
I’d warned Nikolai of the Darkling’s vengeance, but even I couldn’t have foreseen the elegance of this, the perfect cruelty. Nikolai had made a fool of the Darkling, and now the Darkling had taken my polished, brilliant, noble prince and made him into a monster. Death would have been too kind.
A sound came from me, something guttural, animal, a noise I didn’t recognize. I raised my hands and brought the Cut blazing down in two furious arcs. They struck the whirring shapes that surrounded the Darkling and I saw some burst apart into nothing, only to have others take their place. I didn’t care. I struck him again and again. If I could knock the top off a mountain, surely my power was good for something in this battle.
“Fight me!” I screamed. “Let’s end this now! Here!”