“You and me.”
She almost wavers in her stance. He takes her hands into his and her limbs betray her from moving away. His thumbs unconsciously create soothing swirls on her trembling knuckles, easing the seismic effect that courses through her body. She recognises the sensation and it runs wild within every crevice and depth of her being; their powers respond to each other after all in nature’s law of balance.
The polar opposites, the magnetic pull, and the unity within duality.
“You cannot do this alone.” The insistence in his voice almost has her flinching. She watches as he swallows hard and the edges of his eyes turn a bloodshot red. “And neither can I.” His voice breaks a little, as if he is trying to hold himself from breaking apart and releasing his innate response to draw up his shield of darkness. She can tell that he wants to lie to her but the words that were just said, she knows that they are true though not to the extent she wants them to be. It wrenches at her from the inside knowing that he still couldn’t let her past his manipulation and deception, and that he is still cowering behind the blinding regret and wrath of his own shadows.
“We could have had this,” she breaths out, watching the callous and almost soulless eyes – almost because she knew she had once saw solicitude and regret in them, and searching for a sign of the Aleksander she thought he was, “all of it.”
Alina is running headlong into a cold, defensive wall that threatens to take her breath away, literally if she would let him, and she is terrified but it is something to be said. Maybe she is being naïve, or maybe she is just foolishly optimistic – ‘or maybe because you care’ – the small voice in her heart screamed as she gazes down and admits what she thought they would have been and what she had saw for them.
“You could have made me your equal.” Alina chokes up.
She would fight for him, but not for the weaving threads of half-truths and hidden stories. She would fight with him, but not at the cost of gratuitous spilled blood and the benefit of perverse desires.
It is not that long ago that she believes them to be the equilibrium Ravka could have without the Shadow Fold.
Raging bitterness at his archaic beliefs sweeps into her heart and onto her tongue. “Instead, you made me this.”
Her hands place one of his onto her clavicle where she feels the reminder of his ravenous ambition and careless self-interest. She shifts her gaze back at him in pure spite, and steps away from him before his fingers can even leave their warmth on her skin.
His expression contorts in silent aghast with his lips parting but no words pass them so she soldiers on.
She ploughs deep in, hoping that she could help him see a return. A way back from his years of wrath and amorality from his misconstrued notion of saving Ravka, and Grisha.
“You don’t care who suffers, as long as you win.”
Caustic words hurled from her to him.
Alina stares hard at him, as if daring him to prove her wrong – ‘Saints, I want you to prove me wrong’.
She had glimpses of a man who was genuinely wounded by his past, who desired to protect others, who had lost people he cared about, and who had once thought of himself as eternally doomed to be alone. She knows the shadows that envelope him and which he calls upon are his default line of defence from the years that hardened his heart, but when she had reached for his wrist in the war room of his and dispelled the darkness by emitting the light of her own – his eyes took on sheer unadulterated relief as if she was his redemption. She was no absolution of course, his sins were his to bear and she could never, not even in a century, take away what he did in conjuring the Fold and after. Yet in that moment, he had let his guard down completely to let her lead him back. He followed and she knew then that he was searching for a way to heal if only he knew how to.
Everything that Baghra told her – she will not lie to say it doesn’t bring a strong metallic distaste of revulsion and betrayal. But she also knows that the centuries had ravaged his heart with anger and distrust in the mix of a broken pride and it would take years for anyone to help the broken soul to mend itself – yet if no one even tries to help, that soul will forever be lost with time as it had for Aleksander.
‘And damn it all, I want to help him. Even if I don’t know why.’
She doesn’t love him – not that way, but perhaps like the voice within pointed out and despite her reservations, because she does care for him. From the day he told her she was not alone.
She knows what’s it like to feel as if the whole world is against one, to be an outcast and not seen beyond the exterior appearance. Mal had saved her, healed her wounds and kept her safe – she is willing to do this for him if he would only let her. If he would allow her like he did back in his war room.
Alina watches him now and sees him holding his breath and she realises she is looking into the face of a man with a shattered heart.
And it breaks her own.
The world outside the tent is lost in sounds to her. She can only hear her own delicate heartbeats and if she strains her auditory senses, she swears she could hear his – the violent smashing sounds from what is left of the already unbearably fractured heart. There is a tinge of acrimonious regret in the air. She wants to cry out in anguish of the acute grief in her veins. She feels it, she feels him.
A coalescence of who they are to each other and together.
In the silent tension of the room, he looks down to his hands as if to hide his red-rimmed eyes from her, to obscure his weakness.
She almost bites her lower lip hard enough to spill blood as she wills her face not to crumple at his reaction. ‘Have I – we already lost him completely?’
Her gaze falls on his ring. The one he wears on his last finger and had used it to examine her powers. The look in his eyes then as she stared in shock at the surge of light that was released from her very being, was the same look he had when he clasped his hand around her wrist when they had their first audience with the royal family – conviction and belief in who she is. When her gaze levelled with his at the Winter Fete as she displayed her powers, his eyes had revealed his absolute esteem and dare she say it, even a surge of adoration. He cared. Aleksander, the Darkling, the Black Heretic, the general of the Second Army, was capable of caring for someone beyond himself and his own ambitions and power.
Alina looks up at him again and realises that he had inched his way into her days and into her life to earn her compassion. A rush of air flushes clear from her lungs and she looks at him through a tear-veiled gaze. “Do you not care anymore?” She whispers.
He finally looks up at her and she sees the proof of his humanity over his Grisha self – a single tear that crashes onto his cheekbone.
She allows herself to pull back her mask, letting her own tears to fall as he staggers, and falls onto the ground as if suddenly losing the strength in his knees to hold him up. She doesn’t make for him but instead watches him quietly crumble and the wisps of shadows beginning to form from and around him.
“I am sorry, Alina.” He chokes out. “I am sorry.”
“I wanted to destroy everyone in my path just like I did centuries ago when I created the wretched Fold. Whether or not you would be willing, I had wanted to use you, me – our powers against the West, the ambassadors – and then the throne.”
A frightened gasp escapes her. “What do you mean?”
Eyes as black as shungite look at her with unbridled disgrace. “I was going to expand the Fold.”
Alina’s shoulders tremble as she slowly shakes her head. “No. You can’t. What happened to destroying the Fold for Grisha? To unite Ravka as one?” She demands.
“It will never end, Alina.”
“So, you intend to take over Ravka by encompassing it in darkness? Is that your solution with a means to an end?”
He shakes his head, frustration spilling from his words, “Even if Ravka becomes one again – the other countries will still come at us, they will still attack Ravka for Grisha. They don’t have the understanding of the Small Science that we do and people fear the unknown with what they deem as powers that they cannot comprehend or achieve. That is why we have kings, queens and politics, armies and blind treaties. Each one trying to outdo and outwit each other in a show of power. Eventually it becomes greed for more, to be the superior kind over the other.”
He snorts in a self-deprecating manner, “I know, because that was what I did centuries ago. I was arrogant to assume if I helped the King then, he would acknowledge me for who I am.”
“And you thought that destroying others would justify your supposed protection of Grisha by the need to strike fear into the hearts of others? Of the Fjerdans, the Shus…” she trails off, almost in disbelief at his asinine judgment. “You want to be the superior one.” Fury emits from her being as she clenches her knuckles.
“I wanted them to acknowledge that the same blood that courses through their beings also runs through Grisha.” He says through gritted teeth. A snarl rises at the edge of his lips. “I wanted them to stop hunting, maltreating and experimenting on Grisha.”
“You are not the superior one. Even if you are– ” she pauses because she doesn’t want to acknowledge him for the abomination he has become as she still holds hope for him, “even if you are who they say.”
“You can say it,” the venom laces his tone with a glower marring his features, “the Black Heretic.”
Stubbornly refusing to admit defeat, she holds her chin up. “You are not greater, you don’t have to be greater. You may not be the kind who’d settle for a life on the farm or running a tavern of your own, but you can choose not to be the one that annihilates the world for his own purpose.”
He looks at her as if he wants to believe the words that she had uttered, as if she could take away the yoke he bears.
“What then, Alina? Without the Fold, will the west lay down their weapons and reunite with the east? Will the kings and queens after respect us, and the others not hunt us, us the occultists, the witches?” His face twists in the flash of confusion and exasperation. “Will they let Grisha be and or will Grisha have to serve to have some sort of caged freedom? What if they slaughter Grisha like they did centuries ago and all we – I,” he corrects himself and she is confound by his sudden dissociation of her being one with him and them, “wanted is to stop that from happening?” His voice is tired and broken.
She closes her eyes and mentally reprimands herself for thinking that a war is a simple affair that could be dealt with in one simple solution. She sits herself down, suddenly feeling drained by her emotions and the sudden knowledge of conflicting truths. Breathing in shakily, she pulls her knees close. “What happened?” She asks.
His expression asks a silent question and she nods.
“Tell me everything.” She firmly says, her jaws clenching themselves tightly with the thin firm line pulling at her lips. “The full story.”
And he does – his story that begins centuries ago as a young boy. There are moments when his voice cracks in tones of agony as he continues on despite the pain ripping in flashes across his features, and then there are the ones when it drops low in sheer loathing and resentment – all as he tells her the beginning, the middle and the present.
Somewhere beyond the solitude bubble between him and her, Alina can faintly hear the frantic shouts of panic and frenzied footsteps but she doesn’t need to look away from Aleksander to know he is the reason to them. His shadows had cloaked the tent they are in and beyond – it is as if a ghastly thunderstorm is rolling in except there is no flash of lightning or a crack of thunder to forewarn.
As she listens, his every emotion surges into her and she feels as if she had been there in the same moment and it sears deep into her consciousness as if they are of her own memories. A few times she finds herself trying to catch her breath but she steels herself – he had paused then, watching her with solemn apology in his expression but never reaching out to her as if fearing she would pull back from him and that reaction would ultimately destroy him. Or rather, the last remaining pieces of his heart.
She knows because in the span of his recount of his past, her own heart had been desperately clutching at her chest to find some sort of respite from all the unfathomable bitterness and scorching fury, the profuse misery and the riotous loneliness – and the long-entrenched guilt.
The voice gradually takes a notch softer and she notices it is when he is retelling of the days she entered his life. The lines on his facial features smoothen, eyebrows unknitting from the furrow they had been in, and just once his lips part with a broken smile as he recounts of the days that lead to up to this moment. When he tells her that he used a knowledge of Mal’s to win her affection, his eyes boldly meet hers but shame coloured the black irises.
“That is who I am, Alina. All that I am.” He finally says and she bravely meets his stare. Despite the red-rimmed eyes, he wears an expression of firmness as he articulates, “I am not proud of parts of it, and I am sorry for what I done – but I am not sorry for being what I am.” He swallows and she knows that he is willing himself to soldier on and not hide behind his guile like he had before, “I hope – that as I let you go, maybe one day, our paths would cross again and you’d be happier than you are now.”
“You are letting me go?” She repeats with disbelief colouring her tone.
He gestures a listless hand to the flap of the tent. “Go.” He resolutely says even as the tears betray him. “Find David and Genya before you leave the camp, they will help you with the monstrosity I had imprinted on you.”
“What about you?”
He pulls himself up, steadily walking towards a long table, his back turned to her. She slowly makes to stand, but the synapses within her are quicky firing off to make choices and decisions.
“I will destroy the Fold.”
The lights from the candles catch on to the glint of a sharp blade.
In a fluid swing downwards, the dagger pierces through skin, muscle and nerves. Alina almost screams but it gets caught in her throat as she comprehends the action and consequence. Darkness swarms the tent and it almost crushes her with its deep swirls of cold, unfeeling air.
The candles flicker but they don’t go out. Just as it had appeared, the darkness leaves in the same abruptness.
He turns to look at her, dropping the dagger – it clatters to the bloodied ground and next to the round piece of the antler that was infused to the back of his hand, and giving her another small broken smile.
“You are free, Miss Starkov.”
She watches through her tears as the dark crimson, almost a dull black, blood flows from his hand and he does nothing but to stand there – almost foolishly so, wordlessly pushing her away from him.
“How will you take it down yourself?”
“I single-handedly brought it upon us, so it’s only natural that I do all I can to end it.”
Sudden panic rises within her. Her feet carry her forward to him and to her inward relief, he stays where he is but he holds his bloodied hand up to stop her from coming closer. “You are going to sacrifice yourself?” She chokes out.
“I imagine that the volcra would find my flesh repugnant as much I would find them hilarious.” His attempt at a light joke is lost on her but she doesn’t miss the fact that he remembers. “The merzost, using it will hopefully enable me like it did then. I started it, so I will end it.”
“It will kill you this time.”
“Then so it will be.” He firmly answers. His gaze shifts from her to the flap of the tent again. “Go. Your tracker is waiting for you.”
She is unwilling to move from her stance in front of him as her only concern now is the fact that he is planning on sacrificing himself. This is not the outcome she had in mind when she wanted him to return to them, to Baghra, to Grisha, ‘and to me’ the voice within whispers.
Alina takes a deep breath, holding back from the bile rising to her throat with the sniffles from her nose. He refuses to look at her again, choosing to fixed his gaze on the tent’s entryway. Her fingers tentatively reach out to him but even without looking, he seems to know of her intention and he takes a step back, effectively widening the space between them. Alina swallows down the damnation he had decided upon himself. She turns and briskly walks away, pausing only for a second but wills herself not to turn and look back, before continuing with a push of the fabric to reveal the outside world.
The darkness has ceased. It is bright again – but not as bright as she would have liked it to be. She blinks once and sees Mal coming towards her in a run. She squares her shoulders and walks up to him to meet him halfway.
“Alina! Are you – what –”
She knows he is looking at her exposed collarbone and she quickly shakes her head, not wishing to speak about it public as murmurs begin around them. Mal shrugs off his military tunic and wraps it around her shoulders – she gives him a tight smile of gratitude, and leads her away from the vicinity of the Second Army. They stay in silence until he brings her to a quieter watchtower from the rest.
“Mal,” she begins as soon as they sit on the hard floorboards, knowing that the longer she waits, the more she would lose her grasp of courage, “General Kirigan has allowed me to leave but I’m not going to. You are not coming with me with where I’m going next,” it pains her to say it and the flash of hurt in Mal’s eyes only intensifies it, “but we will see each other again. I don’t know if it would be in the meadows, or somewhere in West Ravka or even here in the East, but Mal – I love you, know that I’ve always loved you.”
“Alina, what are you trying to say? Where are you going?” Her best friend takes her right hand and she can’t help but recall the feeling of his hands around hers.
“Don’t follow me, don’t track me until I find you. Promise me this much.”
“I can’t. You know I won’t.”
Alina squeezes his hand. “Mal, remember when you told me about true north?” He nods and she gives a shaky smile, “you’ve been mine once. And I’m grateful for that, but I am never truly yours.”
“No, you are my true north. You are my home.”
She quietly shakes her head and Mal looks at her with comprehension dawning on his features. She is wrecked with apologies wanting to gush forth from her lips but she knows he needs to come to terms with this on his own. She gently lifts his hand and turns the back of it to her mouth, pressing a soft kiss onto it.
“True north is home. It is where you feel safe and loved.” He softly says the words she has always held dear to her heart, like a comforting blanket to wrap her from the terrors of her greatest fears.
“It is also your gravitational orienting point. Unique to one, and it always beckons you because you know it is where you will always want to place your heart. No matter how far, how hard or how different you thought it would be, or even how much you run away from it.” She explains, in the same gentle soothing tones as if afraid that if she speaks it aloud, the revelation of her actual true north will be revealed before she is ready to admit it. “It’s steadfast. A constellating sensation that your heart will always yearn for until you are finally where it needs to be.”
“Alina – I can’t do this without you.”
The words twist deep within her gut. “You can, and you will.”
“Are you going to return to him?”
She softly sighs and looks up ahead, catching a glimpse of the tent she had exited from. “I don’t belong to him. I belong to no one but myself.”
“So why can’t I come with you and just – be by your side?”
A weary smile crosses her lips and she turns to Mal again, thinking of how much she will miss him but Saints, she hopes she will see him again. She wants to see him again, even if they can’t be what she had once thought they were or are or could be. It doesn’t go pass her notice that he hasn’t said that he loves her too, but she is glad that he doesn’t because it will be harder to part if he does. The years of memories they have together do not end with one day of revelation, but their childish forever does.
He wants to fight it, to refute her words and to challenge her but he won’t. Because he is Mal and he trusts her.
“You do know that I can’t just sit back and watch you throw yourself off the cliff or whatever it is that you plan to do, right?”
“I know, but I promise I am not throwing myself off a cliff if that helps.”
A slight chuckle escapes him and she knows that they will be alright. Mal will be alright.
“Mal, you are meant for more than just being a tracker with the First Army.” She nudges him in the shoulder. “You can do anything, you know that. You’re not the same boy as you had been in Keramzin.”
“Is this your way of getting rid of me quicker?”
She laughs – the first time for the day. “No, I truly mean it. I want you to find something else besides the military, besides the wars.” She uses the plural form because she is no longer disillusioned in thinking that any effort for Ravka will not take more than just a year or five, or even a decade and more. “People will always come up with ways to justify their greed, and to make others miserable. While you can, live out your days doing what you love.”
‘And find the real true north of yours.’ She finishes in her head.
“And you, are you going to be living out your days in that manner?”
Mal’s question is one that she had no answer to, she is not even sure if it’s the same – being destined to and preferring to one’s affection are two very different entities of an acceptance.
The voice in her heart tells her that while it may differ for many, for her, the Sun Summoner, the two are entwined. She only has to choose if she wants to go down that route of perspective or stubbornly keep to what she means to deny for as long as she can.
“I don’t know how to let you go, Alina.” He admits, looking down at their now intertwined fingers.
She knows he doesn’t mean physically, and neither is she sure on how she will bring herself to pull away from her place here right beside Mal, where she always thought she was meant to be.
‘Was.’ The word flashes in her mind and she understands that what she thought is not the same as what she needs. Deciding to bask in his presence and in the moment, she closes her eyes and drops her head onto Mal’s shoulder. She feels his head gently falling onto hers and she stores the memory safely in the confines of her heart, the part she keeps Mal in.
There is also the missing fragment she now feels within her. The vacuous space she cannot deny that she left behind in the tent.
“Be safe, Alina.” Mal whispers, his breath gently tickling the skin on her forehead.
“The same goes for you.” She breathes out, just as tender and earnest.
Time passes by them slowly and carefully, the sands of existence unhurried in the shelter of their connection. ‘Saints, keep him safe and happy.’
Genya’s harried voice lifts her head up from Mal’s shoulder as does his from her. She looks down to see the red-haired Grisha beckoning her. In her hands is what looks like a parchment letter. Beyond them, by the sandskiff, there seems to be a sudden commotion going on but her attention is currently torn between Mal and Genya. She looks at her best friend and he nods. Before he lets her go completely though, he pulls her close into a near crushing hug and she gratefully delves into it, filing away his scent and touch with the memory of her last moment of youth alone with Mal.
When she pulls away, her eyes are brimming with tears but she hurriedly turns away to avoid letting Mal see her cry. There’s no reason for her to make both of them feel anymore awful than they already do.
She reaches Genya and the Tailor presses the letter into her hands. “Read it. You have to read it.”
Alina looks at her in bewilderment and for a moment, she misses her first friend in the Little Palace and Genya looks equally downcast but it disappears just as quickly when Genya’s name is called. The Tailor looks to the Heartender who called out to her, and she gives Alina a quick squeeze of the wrist before hurrying away in the direction of the racquet. There are now shouts of demands and questions cutting across the camp site. A few Grisha appear to be equally in a hurry and Mal drops to her height. Her gaze flickers to him once before returning to the letter in her hand.
She rips the parchment from the sealing wax and her eyes quickly scan its contents in urgency when she realises the writer of the letter.
‘Caging you in the Little Palace and leaving you with little to no information of the truth was the most deceitful thing I could have done to you, amongst other things that I am not proud of. You deserve a choice and you were right on that day when we were ambushed by the Drüskelle. No one deserves a life to be hunted upon and to keep running. I should have offered you that choice and respected it – but I didn’t, and I’ve failed you.
I said I’d never leave you on your own, but that is not a promise for me to make without your consent.
I cannot atone for my sins, and the blood I have my hands soaked in will never be washed away. But I can give you what I should have given you before it came to this day – the truth. Do what you will with what I’ve told you, and make me your villain if you must.
There is just one more truth I’ve yet to tell you, if you would let me.
Your light is beyond just being the Sun Summoner. It found me in the midst of my shadows and offered me what I thought I could never have. What I had given up when I sought the merzost. Your light is the unwavering beacon of possibilities, for the one once lost and found again. The brightest constellation that leads the broken and beckons it to heal. I’d always choose to be in your orbit if I could.’
Alina releases the breath she didn’t notice she had been holding on. So, he knows, although not likely the exact term but the same concept. She looks to Mal and offers him a shaky smile of what she hopes for a temporary farewell. He nods as if in understanding. Her foot takes a step forward in the direction of the dock, holding the tunic close to her chest, just as a brashly impatient shout from the commotion finally reaches her ears.
“What in Saints’ name does General Kirigan have any right to refuse anyone passage on the damn sandskiff?”
Horror strikes at her and she immediately breaks out into a run as she quickly deduces what it all meant.
He is going to go into the Fold alone so he could spare everyone else, the rest of Grisha, even if it leaves him without any help to even control the skiff.
She reaches the dock to see the army, First and Second alike, pushing back everyone from the dock as the latter’s General, dressed only in his all-black kefta takes brisk strides to the skiff. She runs as if her life depends on it, tearing down the dock as fast as she possibly can, and narrowly missing the outstretched hands trying to stop her. The tunic she is wearing gets caught in someone’s grasp but she wriggles free and runs.
He is already on board and he looks ahead, as his shoulders square themselves and his arms move in a gesture she recognises to be a call to summon the shadows. She hastily flings herself to the stern just as the ramp rises to close and the skiff begins to move. Tumbling like a ragdoll, she almost hits her head against a crate but misses just by a very narrow margin. She does however, knock her elbow hard enough onto the crate that she thinks she can hear her bones rattle. The edge of her kefta rips at the tug from a plank and her dark hair falls loose around her face but she couldn’t care less as she struggles to stand.
The cold, unfeeling air whips at her face when she is upright, and she barely has a second before she finds herself taking a deep breath in as she had when she first went into the Fold that fateful day.
The billowing writhing mass of darkness greets her when she opens her eyes again. Malevolent obscurity wraps itself around the steadily moving sandskiff. Silence permeates the stench of horrors and lost souls. She almost feels weightless.
She reminds herself that she does not truly have a plan. The only plan she had when she left the tent was to get her affairs in order and to train for her light to be stronger – strong enough that she could help take down the Fold with him someday.
Alina takes a few quiet steps forward, her gaze searching. Aleksander turns around when she is just a few paces away from his ramrod straight posture as the fingers in his left hover in the air seemingly to control the stokes at the helm and the sail at the mast. His features soften when he sees her but it swiftly schools itself to a deep frown when she takes another step towards him.
“What are you doing here?”
“I won’t let you do this alone.”
“I am not alone.” He opens his arms, gesturing with his long fingers to the opposite ends as a smirk graces his features and his kefta swishes with the motion. “I am among monsters like myself.” Dark eyes boldly proclaiming as he holds his chin high.
Alina wants to scoff at him. “Bold of you to assume that the volcra accepts you as one of them.”
A stifled chuckle escapes him, and she knows she has worn down the audacious façade he is wearing.
“Miss Starkov,” she almost winces at his continuous attempt of distancing himself from her but she says nothing and bites the inside of her right cheek, “this skiff may not reach the other side. I cannot,” his voice drops a notch in humbled mortification, “promise you a safe passage.”
She quickly inhales, forming her composure. The burning anxiety she had held within since she discovered the skiff was leaving without anyone else but him has been voiced into the open.
Aleksander knows his powers alone cannot destroy the Fold – no one truly destroys a creation of merzost, unless it is the original wielder giving up what has been taken.
She thinks he is foolish to consider that she will not use what she can summon to protect him, them.
“We’ve passed the first marker. Hide yourself and do not come out no matter what happens.”
The words left unsaid are completed in her head, ‘–to me.’
Undaunted, she takes another few steps forward, closing the space between them where their kefta meets and brushes together, and one likely may not see where it begins and ends. She looks up at him.
“I am not hiding.”
He looks as if he wants to challenge her but his parted lips of surprise draw to a thin firm line instead. He takes a step back and sideways, positioning himself beside her instead.
“We’ll wait for the fourth marker.”
“And then what?”
The right edge of his lips quirk upwards, an almost amused smirk that she recognises in the so little moments he allows himself to show any indication of pleasure, “Did you bring yourself on board this skiff without so much of a thought of the consequences?”
“I did have a plan.” She answers with defiance, “the first half of it is to find you and to stop you from being flawlessly witless.” He raises an eyebrow and she is unable to resist the smile that is betraying her mockery of him. “I just didn’t have the time to think the other half of the plan.”
His smirk widens and she allows herself the little bit of mirth to spill from her lips, almost breathlessly in the whispers of the sentient darkness.
Flapping sounds from the distance draws her attention back to her surroundings. She quickly looks around but sees nothing.
“Stay alert.” His jaw locks and his stance is firm and unyielding as black eyes took a quick scan around him.
Her fingers unconsciously curl loosely into her palms as she realises she is readying herself for a fight. She hastily sifts through her trainings with Baghra and recollects the moments she was taught to draw the light from particles around her to turn them into solid matter.
“The second marker.” He murmurs. His expression is one of astute observation. “I cannot fight darkness against darkness, but I can call it to me to drain them.”
“You planned to be a sponge?”
“I prefer the term temporary parasite, but that works as well.”
Alina lightly snorts and he glances over but quickly shifts his look as soon as she meets his gaze. She wonders why is it now of all time and place that they are actually getting along.
It also brings a flicker in her heart at the thought that they could actually have this if only the lies and manipulation never took place. Now however – now is the present with an unforeseen future. Another flapping sound from afar is accompanied by a shrill cry. She tells herself not to move and tries to slow her heartbeats – half wishing a Heartrender is here to help her instead. Silence follows.
Aleksander’s presence beside her is an inexplicable invisible tie that binds her in reassurance and valour. She feels his heartbeats, steadily thrumming and she finds hers matching his with each passing second. So it is true – they are an amalgamation of nature. He feels her as she does with him – her mirth, her blithe spirit, and her compassion – she understands them to be the reasons why he chose to stop the deceptions. The poison within him is gradually ebbing away as his urge of vengeance recedes because they are not in her nature at all. He can’t help as much as she can’t with him to experience what she does.
The screeching sound is closer now – and she thinks she can hear another.
She remembers Mal and the rest of her friends, the Keramzin and Ana Kuya, Genya, Marie and Nadia, and her resolve strengthens. She thinks of him and his loneliness and how much she wants to take away the pain from him so he can be who he was – the Aleksander before all other identities he has taken on through the centuries. She turns her abhorrence for his deeds into a willingness for him to heal.
Alina fills the void within her heart with her own memories of him. The first time he allowed himself a smile at her, the certitude in his stare as his watched the light radiating from her, and his acceptance at her being his equal.
Beside her, he sharply exhales and she knows he is feeling the sensations radiating off her and into his being. The light from her shapes themselves into vines of bright hope and she wills them to reach him.
“The fourth marker.”
She suddenly comprehends that he had told her what he’s going to do but he didn’t tell her what she is to do. Her head shifts to look up at his visage and he meets her with an emboldening expression but says nothing.
The contents from his handwriting comes to mind, ‘I should have offered you that choice and respected it.’
Just as she is about to declare her choice, a sudden bestial growl erupts from somewhere to her diagonal left and she turns in time to dodge an outreaching claw for her head. She whips around at the following shrill howl of ire from the volcra and sees Aleksander wielding his shadows as a projecting shield before them. The skiff has drawn to a stop.
His right hand swiftly strikes out and he grunts as he pulls at an invisible force, causing the volcra to deafeningly scream and her eyes widen to see it writhing in mid-air, wings madly flapping as it chokes in mid scream. His eyes take on a darker hue to the point where she could not see the white sclera within.
A gust of wind from another set of wings from above her diverts her attention from him and without a second thought, she summons a solid sphere of light and hurls it right at the incoming creature. An angered screech escapes the volcra and she hurls another one, this time aiming for the area between its eyes. The ball of light bursts into two at the contact – the light filling the volcra’s eyes and its piercing wails to its death seem to serve to attract the others.
Something lands hard with a resounding thump at her feet.
It’s the first volcra that had attacked them and it is now a shrivelled, decaying figure of a carcass.
Shadows swirl around his kefta but before she can call out to him, another two volcra begin to descend on them. Gasping, Alina swiftly summons another sphere of light from her fingertips, each one more desperate than the one before as she tries to keep the creatures away. A third volcra sweeps in from the back and she barely manages a hasty duck when it almost swipes at her palm. Deciding that time is slipping through their fingers, she focuses her attention on moulding bolts of light instead, and each streak she draws is promptly slung into the bodies of the attacking volcra.
The skiff rocks and she is nearly thrown of her feet. She quickly realises that the volcra is trying to put them off course. Another loud bump at the hull and she feels the skiff shift slightly.
Another putrefied volcra falls somewhere near her but she doesn’t turn to look this time. She continues her own assault and wonders if his plan had been to take down every volcra till he exhausts himself without even getting to destroy the Fold.
‘Ridiculously and remarkably foolish of a plan, if you asked me.’ She grits her teeth as she aims another bolt of light at a volcra that had been targeting its unsightly jaw of deadly fangs of a teeth for his hand.
Out of the corner of her eyes however, she notices the blackened patch where the stag’s antler used to be. Said hand is now quivering although she cannot determine if it’s from his core of shadows that’s drawing the darkness from the volcra or because he is being weakened.
Her moment of distraction causes a volcra’s teeth to latch itself onto her shoulder despite the warning and she screams. Aleksander roars in rage and brusquely releases the volcra he had been draining from. He pulls himself to his full height and his hands make a deliberate sweeping motion to come together, one that she recognises to be his summoning of the Cut. She drops to her knees from the pain in her shoulder right at the very moment the lethal blade of shadows slices into the volcra. Blood spurts in jets of black across her kefta and onto the floorboards.
Bloodied limbs fall onto the ground but to her horror, they start to be pulled together by the darkness and she glances up at her former General. Mistake clearly written across his face, but Alina doesn’t waste a second as she summons a mass of blistering light and heaves it at the remains of the volcra that is assembling itself together again. The burst of light disintegrates the limbs almost immediately.
She gasps. ‘Saints. I didn’t think I had that in me.’
“I think we best leave the bodily injuries to me.” She breathes out, scrambling to her feet. Her shoulder is trembling in pain but she ignores it, despite the blood she can feel trailing down her arm, over and underneath her kefta.
“I concur.” He quickly nods and whips out his hand at another incoming volcra. His fingers make a pulling motion, knuckles tightening and the volcra thrashes in the air, slamming into another volcra and his other hand strikes up to drain the second at the same time.
Alina pulls at her light and hurls one blazing mass after another but each time she does, she can feel tendrils of exhaustion in her veins. A sense of depletion from within. Still, she keeps summoning the light into small spheres and bolts, catapulting them into the volcra’s eyes – blinding them before a scorching sphere of thunderous light that is meant to disintegrate its target is released.
The light from her brightens the atmosphere in the billows of darkness around them, like a lightning amongst the dark rain clouds. Each glowing spark from her fingers crackle into a mass of vehement energy.
A sudden wounded groan whips her head to her left and she sees a volcra’s claws digging deep into Aleksander’s back. They tug hard at him and he howls in unadulterated pain while trying to pull away from the volcra’s grip.
Blood, his blood, splatters on her face.
Both his arms reach back in attempt to release himself as another volcra sweeps overhead as if waiting on its prey.
Alina crosses her wrists and manifests a dagger-like form of light which she wields to her will and it stabs right into the volcra’s head. The volcra’s claws in Aleksander turn slack with the sudden assault and the second volcra tries to swoop in. Furious, she ignites two burning orbs, one in each palm and their intensity burning so brightly that it is almost blinding to anyone else but her. She only has one motive at this very moment and nothing is going to get in her way.
Incensed with a vicious snarl, Alina controls the orbs and drives them deep into the foreheads of the volcra as they emit strident cries – emitting aggrieved sounds of torture, but she doesn’t let go and continues to drives them in deep even as one thrashes away from Aleksander, dropping him to the ground on one knee and he struggles to pull himself up, she is still unrelenting. Her light reaches in and plunges into the volcra – lighting them up as if both are sudden signal fires. When she finally lets go, her fingers flicking, the volcra instantly burst into flames – one of them catching fire on the sail.
She breathes hard.
One volcra after another descends and she can’t help but think that the both of them are the definitive lure for the volcra.
She is getting tired.
“Alina! I’ll hold them off and you have to leave somehow, one way or another!”
“I’m not leaving you!” She shouts back, dodging an attack. “And we both know you are hopeless at doing any corporeal harm to them.”
“You cannot risk your life for this!” He growls, and that’s when she truly looks at him in the midst of the screeching darkness, occasional bright shimmers of light, and rotting flesh. Her breath is stuck at the column of her throat as she notices the thin swirls of black deepening on his skin, crawling up his neck. Each volcra he draws from, in his unwillingness to accept its manifestation as part of his powers, is fighting for his vitality, and it’s slowly killing him as much as he is for them.
“It’s my choice!” She challenges. His hand, the one now without the stag’s antler, is truly shaking now. She knows that while he may be the most powerful Grisha, the truth still holds – one cannot fight darkness against darkness. Her fingers reach to her collarbone where the stag’s antler is still fused with her being.
Maybe he cannot draw light from her anymore without the connection, but she can draw from it still and hope some form of the amplifier would serve its purpose. The stag should not have to die in vain.
She finds herself hurtling to the ground, his weight on her in one moment and then suddenly he isn’t above her in the next second. Two volcra had seized him, their claws digging into his kefta, through his flesh and muscles and one of them bends down, baring its teeth onto his right arm and Alina screams in absolute terror. A deluge of blood begins, dripping onto the floorboards and she watches as another claw lunges into Aleksander’s chest.
A flare of light, fuelled by her fury, bursts forth from her and Alina screams at the excruciating pain in her chest. The light brightens, blinding and arresting; a sudden combustion that detonates without regard. She feels the heat from it although it does nothing to her but to the volcra – they burn, the unmistakable hiss of burning flesh and all-agonising screams. She makes to stand up, her trembling open palm crossing over the other as she commands the scorching flames – she concentrates hard and she almost shrieks in pain as she feels the acute agony in her collarbone.
The volcra that had Aleksander lets go of him, dropping his body to the ground as it bursts into flames, burning the other next to it and all others within the vicinity like embers spreading a wildfire.
Alina keeps focusing and wills the movement of light to form what she had seen him done before – an armour that hovers over the skiff as it pushes forth and against the darkness.
Below her, his weary eyes meet hers and she resolves not to cry at the sight of the black scars marring his features as blood pools around him.
‘Get up. Get up.’
Tears are blurring her vision but she continues to push the sandskiff forth, the darkness slowly clearing a pathway for them. She continues to hear the screams of the volcra and the burning stench of flesh saturates the air.
Without leaving the safety of her gaze, he puts out one arm, bent at the elbow, in front of him and drags himself forth. She bites down hard at her trembling lower lip. The black irises are surrounded by flecks of crimson, a dreadful mixture of blood, tears and pain. He places another arm in front of him, the bloodied one that the volcra had latched onto, and pulls himself forward again.
Tears crash down her cheeks despite her unmoving stance, and it hurts her to know that she can’t go to him instead – not at the risk of diminishing the force field of light and stopping the skiff. She doesn’t even know if they are heading in the right direction of West Ravka’s docks.
For the first time, she sees the Black General being a weaker version of his reputation and she knows that he truly has let go of his deceptions – here he is letting her see him at his utmost frailest, when he is unable to summon the shadows, and when he is losing himself to his own sins.
With each excruciating crawl he takes towards her, she feels her heart tearing itself from the inside out, hurtling to the ground with a deafening crash.
She wills the skiff to move faster, she prays upon the Saints even if she hasn’t really prayed much in a long time to help them, and she keeps pushing her emotions of hope and redemption onto him – rolling in soothing waves.
Aleksander finally reaches her when the darkness of the Fold unfurls to reveal West Ravka and the sandskiff’s hull knocks into something hard – a rock or a dock, knocking her over and the dome of light drops. The skiff creaks and then stills. She crawls onto her knees and over to him.
“Aleksander?” She shakily whispers. “Tell me how can I take this pain away from you.” Her nose is running with sniffles and her tears are relentlessly flowing from her eyes.
“I am not – you can’t save a monster.”
“You are not a monster.” She pulls him into her arms. “We’re finally here. We can get Healers, Tailors, Fabrikators, Heartrenders – anyone to help you.”
“Miss Starkov –”
“Alina. It’s Alina, you arrogant fool.” She corrects him, choking back her sob.
“Alina.” Her name in his voice is tender and affectionate.
“You have to train me in the Small Science so we can bring down the Fold. Properly this time – not by getting distracted by the volcra.” Her words come fumbling through her lips, rushed and desperate. “We have to figure out a way to help Ravka and Grisha – all of Grisha. We have to build alliances or at least armistices with the other countries. We have to help the younger Grisha, the ones who are afraid like me and need someone like you to protect them and help them understand who they are.” She is almost delirious now, she knows, but the blood on her shaking hands, his blood on her hands from his chest, are leading her deeper into despair. The blood from his back soaks through her kefta.
“You can do all that and more, Alina. You are the Sun Summoner after all.”
She shakes her head. “No, not without you. Please.”
“This world needs a Saint but not the Starless Saint. It needs you – the one to bring hope to them. The brightest star. And I’m in her orbit right now.” A small smile appears at his lips.
Alina cries, her face scrunching in desolation, devastated by the dimming light from his shadows.
“With what you’ve displayed back in the Fold,” he continues with a barely-there smirk, “I’d be foolish to try train you. You are magnificently terrifying when you want to be, Alina.”
“You were right when you said the Drüskelle were more fearful of me than you.”
Her humour is greeted by a harsh, dry chuckle in response and she immediately regrets it. She feels his heartbeats slowing and her fingers quickly grasped at the wound in his chest. She looks around for the first time since they arrived in West Ravka and realises that they are not at the dock. Instead, they are at the corner of some quiet village port.
“I’m going to get help.”
His fingers reach for hers, a plea, “Don’t leave me alone.”
“You are not alone.” She promises and bends her head, tearfully pressing her lips to his forehead. She pushes back his hair as her fingers tingle at the brush of skin against skin. “I’ll come right back. Just wait for me, promise me this. Wait for me to bring help. I’m not letting you go yet, Aleksander.”
She smiles at him and he mirrors her expression – hopeful.
Darkness exists when there is no light. Yet light cannot come to be without darkness, and darkness needs light for a reason to being. They coexist as opposites to each other, dependent on one another.
The Sun Summoner and the Shadow Summoner. The Saint and the Darkling.
But mostly, they are just Alina and Aleksander.