Alina closed her eyes, surrounded by the children that she had cared for and loved after everything - she'd seen more than a few be brought away from Keramzin to become Grisha, though now it was their own choice to leave.
Her end was near - that she knew. Thirty years after the person she used to be had disappeared into Ravkan myth. Hers was an early death among most people, but the loss of her summoning had taken a toll on her that no otkazat’sya would ever understand. Not even her beloved Mal, her sweetheart through all of his flaws.
He held her hand now, still healthy even with the grey in his hair. She whispered a last admittance of love to him, feeling the way her lungs deflated with a gentle forcefulness, the way they seemed to tell her, “Enough. It is time for rest.”
And so this would be the life and death of Alina Starkov.
You were meant to save him.
And yet when things went still and her eyes fluttered open, thinking of an afterlife, of seeing Mal again - it was to see the roof of a tent. Dimly remembered, from a lifetime ago.
A cheerful voice called to her, before a familiar face popped into view. Alina was frozen, staring up at a friend she hadn't seen since she saw him in the claws of the volcra.
"C'mon Alina, you're going to be late for breakfast if you don't get a move on!"
"Alexei?" Her voice was a rough croak, as she shakily pushed herself up to look at him better, take stock of their surroundings. The military tent that she had shared with the other cartographer's assistants. It seemed so strange to be back here after so long, to feel just as sickly as she always had, yet without the weight of so many years of age upon her.
"Alina?" Alexei sounded more concerned now. "Why are you crying?"
Everything couldn't have been a dream. It couldn't have been. The Darkling, Baghra, Mal, Nikolai. All the horrors she had witnessed, all the cruelty brought down upon her and the innocent hands that tried so hard to help her. She shoved herself to her feet, wiping away the tears on her cheeks.
"Nothing. Just a nightmare." Unless this was her hell, a reminder of all the innocent lives that she had seen the end to.
Maybe she was destined to forever watch the people she cared about be ripped apart on the Fold while her light sustained her, infinitely.
Alexei nodded though, and waved a hand. "Alright. Come on though, seriously. Breakfast is going to end soon."
Alina followed him through the flap of their tent, into the milling crowd of military personnel. She saw flashes of old, half familiar faces and her heart clenched. So many had died in just this first day, the first day that she had found her powers. Alexei, Eva, half of the company torn apart by volcra. Then the guards on the Vy when the Darkling's carriage had been attacked, when she first saw the power that he commanded.
They weren't in Kribirsk yet, not in sight of the Fold and the black tent of Grisha where she had once felt so out of place. She wondered what it would be like now, if she would still recognize Sergei who had been so afraid when she had seen him torn to pieces by shadow soldiers. Or Zoya, sharp as a whip and so loyal it hurt.
Marie, she thought with a sick lurch. Pretty brown curls and a bright smile, whole and healthy instead of torn apart by claws. Fedyor, trustworthy until the end. She had seen so much death, the ends of so many lives that she had first touched here on the edge of the Darkling's creation.
And her heart shattered as none other than Mal trotted out of the crowd, his eyes young and glimmering with mischief and his face free of any mar, free of the scar that had changed him so drastically. Behind him Mikhael and Dubrov trailed, chatting aimlessly, carefree despite their coming journey. It would happen tomorrow, she knew in her gut.
Alexei tugged on her arm and she followed without complaint.
The day passed in a blur. Mal was distracted with Ruby and other pretty girls, and though jealousy sat heavy in her stomach despite the knowledge that Mal had come to love her, Alina found herself rather amused. This Mal was so innocent, with his messy hair and bright eyes and wide smile sure to lure anyone in.
"You're staring again," Alexei teased, walking alongside her. "Have you finally given up on not trying to moon over him?"
"No," she said simply. "Just thinking."
"Oh? About what? Trying to get into his-"
"Alexei, so help me if you finish that sentence I will put worms into your soup."
He pouted a little but shrugged and leaned away again. "Alright, alright, feel free to deny it. But I know what you're thinking Starkov, just remember that." He gave a teasingly threatening edge to his voice and she laughed.
So innocent. So pure she could be, before. She'd never been prone to laughter even before everything, and definitely not after. But if she was here again, then maybe she could change things.
Eventually the Fold came into view. This time she heard the rattle of carriages, and shuffled into the crowd in time to avoid almost being trampled. She still hasn't seen much more than glances of Mal, though he was never far. Still, she saw Zoya hanging out of the window of the carriage, her eyes drifting to who she knew was Mal in the crowd. Then she heard the whoops of amusement from Mikhael, and she smiled. And then wondered what would have happened between Mal and Zoya, if she hadn't been there to interfere.
Maybe he would have a different happy ending. One that didn't include so much death.
And maybe she would become Queen, with a too-clever fox beside her, and she would love him the way he had deserved after everything. She wanted to know if she could, if she had ever learned enough in her life to rule. Who knew, maybe running an orphanage and ruling a country wouldn't be so different.
Time seemed to slip through her fingers, and too soon she was falling asleep in her tent at Kribirsk, with the promise of the Fold in the morning. Unless she could save them, unless the lives that ended here and marked the beginning of her nightmare years could be spared. She remembered the flash she had seen of Alexei before the volcra had carried him off and shivered. Such a distant memory.
Sleep did not come easily. Not until she rolled over, summoning a dim glow in her palm under the blanket and smiled. It had been so long since she had felt that warm glow, felt the quiver of her summoning as a wash of pleasure. It came easy to her now, nothing like it had been the last time she had been here.
Her heart lightened. She would save them.
And in the morning, her heart still felt as if it was going to beat out of her chest. At some point she would have to face the Darkling again. She would have to see his face and remember the way it twisted, desperate, asking her to make sure there was nothing left of him so others couldn't desecrate his body, the perfect thing it had been.
Still, as she ate her breakfast she found herself oddly looking forward to seeing him again. To seeing Baghra, to seeing Fedyor and Marie and even Zoya, and all the others she had lost.
Loading onto the skiffs was just as nerve wracking as it had been the first time, though as she stepped onto it a familiar hand fell onto his shoulder.
"Alina, there you are. Have you been avoiding me?" Mal smiled at her and she grinned back, having to resist the temptation to lean into him.
"I should be asking you the same thing. Or have you just been too entranced with Zoya to bother seeking me out?" Alina watched as he blushed slightly, his mouth opening for a moment before snapping shut as he cleared his throat.
"How… how do you know her name?"
"Heard some of the other men talking about her." She shrugged and smiled. "I suppose you enjoyed your time with her?"
Mal flushed a bit more and gave her a sheepish grin. "Well… yeah."
A younger Alina would have been bitter. A younger Alina would never have brought it up, never wanted to acknowledge that Mal was wanted, that Mal wanted the pretty girls that fawned over him. But she had lived through so much already, and as much as she loved Mal with all of her heart and every fibre of her being, she wanted him to go down a different path.
They stood in silence as the Squallers raised their hands, filling the sails of the sand skiffs.
"We're going to make it," Alina said quietly as silence descended over the entirety of the skiffs.
Mal chuckled, but didn't respond. She could feel his nervousness, but she was confident. Even if she wasn't strong enough on her own, she had an amplifier beside her that was more powerful than anyone could imagine.
The darkness of the Fold blanketed them.
They slid along in silence, tense and thick with fear. No one felt good about this, as they should. No one was safe like this.
She reached for her light, taking a deep breath as she heard the first wing beats of the volcra.
And she found something like a wall in her way. She blinked, terror rising up in her throat as she reached for Mal's hand. She had forgotten how weak she was without her amplifiers, how weak she was before the months of training at Os Alta.
But the moment her fingers brushed his, there was a whoosh of movement and she heard his scream break the air.
Her heart shattered. The first blood drawn, and it had to be him.
A scream built in her throat as Inferni fire flashed in the dark, seeing him suspended by volcra claws.
And then burning pain ripped through her, embedded in her chest as leathery wings wrapped around herself as well.
And then light poured out of her, even as she knew it was too late.
So much for a second chance.
Save him. You must.
Save who? She wondered, floating at the edge of something bright, formless herself. There was no answer.
And then her eyes were blinking open. This time she was on her side, but she knew where she was. Right back where she had started.
This time it was a week before they got to Kribirsk.
And this time she went straight to the Darkling's tent.
She ignored the glances thrown her way, the whispers left in her wake. Not even dark out and this scrawny scrap of a girl was apparently intending to talk to some Grisha. Foolish.
When she came to the tent the oprichniki outside crossed their rifles over the entrance.
"Only Grisha are allowed without invitation."
"Good thing I'm Grisha then," Alina said flatly, ignoring the guard's disbelieving looks. Grisha were beautiful, healthy, nothing like her. So she rolled her eyes and spread her hands, shooting quick beams of sunlight into their eyes before ducking into the tent.
Inside was just as lavish as she remembered, something she guiltily missed. Pillows and low tables shoved into nooks and crannies - already she was seeing familiar faces, tears welling up in her eyes. They turned up to see her, eyebrows raised and eyes guarded. A lone, scrawny soldier, unarmed and walking through the Grisha tent with such intent? Was what she doing, walking for the Darkling's area so calmly?
And yet no one actually stopped her. An old part of her mind that sounded suspiciously like Nikolai murmured to her. Look like you know what you're doing and people won't question you.
So she strode through the tent until she reached the curtained-off area of blackness that was the Darkling's personal chambers in this place. And then she barely hesitated before nudging the curtains aside, without announcement, and stepping inside.
There she saw him, lounging on a pile of pillows with a book in had, his hair messy yet still so perfect. She thought she would never see him again, after plunging a blade into his chest. He looked up with narrowed eyes, his lips parted in a question that was most definitely going to be something along the lines of "what are you doing here" before she beat him to it.
"Aleksander," she breathed.
He blinked. No registration in his eyes - he likely thought she was talking about a fellow soldier, had walked into here to fight him. "Why are you in here?"
Alina took a deep breath and spread her hands. "Because I have something you want."
"And what would that be?"
She drew sunlight into the palms of her hands, seeing the way he lurched upright and smoothly came to his feet, stepping closer until he could get a good look at her. His grey eyes inspected her closely, looking for subterfuge or less, tricks of the light that she might somehow be pulling.
"What is your name?"
He hummed quietly, eyes calculating. "Alina… where have you been hiding?"
"Keramzin," she answered automatically. "That's where I grew up."
"The orphanage? How interesting. We send Grisha testers there every time there's new children."
"I was a mischievous child," she murmured. "I hid every time they came."
The Darkling barked a laugh. "How amusing… well, Alina. I'm going to have to send you to Os Alta."
"Only if you stop this crossing," she murmured.
He raised an eyebrow. "That's a very big request."
"Somewhere in this group of soldiers is one of Morozova's amplifiers." It was a desperate gamble, but one that could save dozens of lives. And the look of shock that fluttered over his features was worth it.
"How do you know about that?" His voice was a low hiss, his eyes blazing with a sudden, unreadable emotion.
And suddenly she was hit with the realization. Not a realization though - more like a memory of one.
Alina raised her hand, brushing her fingertips across his cheek. I had a taste for you once. She could feel the connection between them open, she could feel the wonder and the fear and the anger burning through him before he felt what she sent in return.
A simple, yet utterly complex sort of love. And hate. An adoration built on a sameness that they had once lost, a need for each other.
She saw his eyes open wide in shock once again, wonder far too innocent for his black heart taking over their connection. He couldn’t hide from her, not like this.
“I will not take the amplifiers,” she murmured. Even if she craved the power of them again, she wouldn’t. The stag, the sea whip, the love that she had almost sacrificed. “But if you have any wish to right the wrongs that you made all those years ago, to close the Fold, I will learn how. No matter how long it takes.”
And he jerked away, again that guard against her slamming shut. “How? Where did you learn of Morozova’s amplifiers? Who here is it?”
“I will not tell you. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how I know.”
“Tell me,” he growled. “Or I’ll send you to Os Alta in chains.”
“You will not.”
The Darkling glared at her, then paused. “How did you know-”
“Aleksander.” Alina sighed. “A common name. But you gave me the name once, and I would be a fool to forget something like that given by someone who refuses to go by anything more than a title anymore.”
“Who are you?” His voice was strong, but in his eyes there was an odd sort of horror - confusion, desperation, a loss of control. A question that held so much weight, a question of not just who she was, but what she was. How she had such knowledge.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I think I was meant to save you, Aleksander Morozova. Even if I don’t understand it myself.”
“I grow tired of your mind games,” even if she could see the panic in his eyes. “Be frank with me.”
Alina smiled placidly. “I lived a life before this. I knew you, I knew your sins and the weight of your years. I lost so many friends to your cruelty, and in the end you lost your life to my own hand. But then I died after living a peaceful life, and the universe now thinks it appropriate for me to either live an eternity being sent back to fix all my mistakes… or I have to save you. So this is either my hell, or a second chance. Third, if I take into account…” She shook her head with a grimace, trying to shake off the recent memory of being taken up by a volcra’s claws.
And the Darkling simply stared at her, eyes hard and calculating once more. “How?”
“I don’t know. Divine guidance, the universe simply wanting to play one giant prank on me? Hell, maybe the ghost of your mother has enough power that she reached through the fabric of reality to flick me back in time. She’s spiteful enough for that, I think.”
“Possibly,” he said, though there was a faint smile curving his lips. “But you still haven’t told me who is Morozova’s amplifier.”
“And I will not.” Alina crossed her arms over her chest, a challenge. “Tomorrow, the entirety of the skiffs that are going across will fall. You will lose precious Grisha, and one of the most powerful amplifiers that the world has ever seen. Unless you call it off.”
He stared at her, his face carefully blank. She was amazed by how easily she could read him, after a year of having him tethered to her. Because she could still see the calculation in his eyes, the almost nervous tick in the twitch of his clenched jaw.
“I knew you would see things my way,” Alina said with a smile. “Now, I do in fact wish to head for Os Alta - I am weaker than I remember, and I do think that I could use some help from Baghra. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Little Palace. But I have people to talk to before I go, and if I could get a properly fitted kefta to leave in this time, that would be nice.”
“How did you die?”
Her expression shifted into something sad. “I died on the Fold,” she murmured. “When I took the life of my first love.”
Let him take it as he may. She turned and walked back out of the space of his, seeing the faces peering back at her. Curious, mostly. But there were a few expressions of fear, of resentment. A few people even looked impressed.
She strode quickly out of the tent, back through the entrance guarded by the Darkling’s personal guard.
And she went to find Mal.
She found him throwing dice with Mikhael and Dubrov, a couple other men in his tracking group that hung around him that she had long forgotten the names to.
“Mal,” she called. “I need to talk to you.”
The two of them hadn’t been so distant this time around - she had been next to him when the carriage passed, when Zoya stared at him with her black hair whirling around her face like a picture of perfection.
He got up with a smile, grabbing a handful of coins that was apparently his, and trotted over to her. “What’s up?”
Alina stared up to his face, taking in the beauty that was Malyen. “I’m leaving for Os Alta tomorrow.”
It looked like he choked on his own tongue, his eyes growing comically wide as he opened his mouth silently for several moments. “Why?”
“You’ll find out in a little bit,” she said with a smile. “But Mal, promise me something.”
“What is it?” He stared down at her, blue eyes turning troubled.
She reached up, brushing her hand over his cheek. “Promise me that you’ll never track for the Darkling. You mustn’t, not ever.”
“Why that? What if it’s demanded of me?”
“Then you do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe, but until then promise me you won’t.”
“Alina…” His hand closed over hers. “What’s happening?”
She smiled back, closing her eyes for a moment. “What needs to be done, Malyen. Will you promise me that, though? Please.”
Hesitantly, he nodded. “Alright.”
“The crossing is going to be cancelled. I made sure of it.”
“Oh? How’d you do that?”
“I asked the Darkling nicely,” she said with a light grin. “Apparently he’s rather chivalrous when it comes to scrawny, weak girls.”
Mal snorted and laughed, releasing her hand. “I don’t understand a single thing that’s been going on with you, Alina.”
“Oh well. But can you trust me still?”
“Of course,” he said. “Always.”
“Hmm, maybe I need to change that,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe if I put some fresh owl pellets in your shoes you’d think twice.”
He grimaced at her, shaking his head. “Please no. Why do you always go for putting things in my shoes?”
Alina laughed, grinning widely. Some things never changed, and one of those things would forever be her love for Malyen Oretsev. But he couldn’t know, not right now. So instead she smiled and waved, promising to drop by again before she left. And then she checked in with Alexei and the other cartographer’s assistants, with pretty Ruby who had once served so loyally with the Soldat Sol and lost her life fighting for a Saint. She played social butterfly, thinking of Nikolai and how she missed him and his scarred hands, the way he changed so well to fit everyone’s needs. She wanted to see those hazel eyes again.
But finally night began to fall, and Alina craved for light again. And she realized that she needed to leave now, when Mal wouldn’t be there to see her off. She had to leave her love behind, learn how to save a man that hadn’t yet made himself unforgivable to Alina.
So she snuck out of the Documents Tent and made her way back to the Darkling’s pavilion.
This time she bent the light given by the moon around herself, shielding herself from unwanted eyes as she made her way to the massive black tent that stood stark against the night sky. And when she stepped inside once more, she let her half-illusion fade. She saw a couple of lights on throughout the pavilion, though they were dim and flickering, giving her enough cover to slip through without being seen.
And when she stepped into the Darkling’s area she found he was asleep - or at least feigning it.
She was about to step over and shake him awake when his voice sounded in the dark, quiet to her but loud enough to hear clearly.
“I was wondering when you would come back.”
“I was about to question the fact that you were asleep.”
He turned over, his torso bare now, face half buried in his black pillow. “I sleep lightly.”
“You know a lot of things about me, Alina.”
“Because I was quite the apt pupil when I knew you, Aleksander.”
“Did you love me?”
She came and sat down beside where he laid. “In my own way, for a time. Until you used me, and broke my heart. Tried to turn me into your tool to use, tried to murder the people I loved.”
“And if I do that again?”
“Then I will stop you again. I will not let you turn into the man that tried to make the world crash down around us.”
His lips pursed together, and gently he reached out. “How did you die, Alina?”
“I told you.” She moved her hand away. He didn’t need to know of her grief.
“You said that you killed the one you loved. I don’t think that I was that one.”
“You could have been.” I had a taste for you once.
“But I wasn’t.”
“I had to make sacrifices. I brought the three amplifiers together, and it tore my light from me. It gave the otkazat’sya around us the power to destroy the Fold, and when you realized what had happened to me, you…” Went mad. Nearly destroyed the hope they had brought.
“You used merzost. If I hadn’t killed you, it would have destroyed Ravka.” Dangerous, Alina. Don’t tell him too much.
“Merzost,” he breathed.
She pressed a hand to his chest, pushing him onto his back as she leaned over him, eyes blazing. “You will not use it. I will not let you corrupt yourself like that.” She felt the wavering hope, the hunger for power thrumming through him. And she pressed back with her anger, her grief, the remembered despair that had ruined her for so long.
“How will you stop me, Sun Summoner?” He growled back at her, grabbing her wrist. “You said it yourself, you are weak.”
“Because, you only learned to use it because of me,” she spat. “Because I tried to kill you time and time again, and it only made you stronger.”
At that, he faltered. “How?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?” He sat up, forcing her back as he maintained his grip on her wrist.
“Even if I did, do you think I would tell you?” She weakly smacked his chest with her free hand, hating how frail she felt. “I was forced to run from you, every time. Every time you caught me, more of my friends died, more of them sacrificed their lives to get me away, and you got stronger. I don’t know how.”
Suddenly she felt him drawing her power out of her, to the surface, and she clenched an invisible hand around it. And though she glowed, her skin alight with a gentle warmth, it wasn’t the light show that the Darkling wanted from her.
“Why should I ever trust you, if you tried so hard to be rid of me before?”
“Because, you’re not quite irredeemable yet. You’re not the man that I hated.” She jerked her arm back, or tried to, and only ended up bringing herself closer to him. “You’re almost the one that I loved, though I still don’t know if I loved you or the facade that you used to make me care.”
He stared at her for several moments before rather suddenly releasing her, the glow on her skin receding grudgingly. “What did you come here for, Alina,” he said flatly.
“I want to leave. Right now. Only you know of the Sun Summoner, but I’d rather get out of here and to the safety of Os Alta before word gets out. I need to start training again.”
The Darkling nodded slowly. “Alright.” And he got up, sliding from the sheets with an unnatural grace, unfolding a shirt to put on and grabbing up his kefta.
And then out of the tent they went, to the oprichniki. He woke a few, ordering them along, barely glancing at her as they moved through the camp. It was a quiet affair, the Darkling apparently not a stranger to leaving suddenly in the night. And yet he was the one to help her into his black carriage, a hand offered for her to take as it rocked with her weight.
“Give me Sergei, and Fedyor,” she said. “Follow in the morning, if you’re able to, once the crossing is called off. I won’t need anyone else.”
“Sergei is at the Little Palace,” the Darkling said with a raised eyebrow.
Alina cursed under her breath. It had been so many years, she’d forgotten that it was Ivan that had been with her. “Then just Fedyor. He’s loyal.”
“To who?” He looked rather unimpressed.
“To Ravka,” she said coldly, stepping into the carriage and settling in. The door closed behind her and she sighed, waiting in the dark for no more than ten minutes before it opened again and Fedyor and Ivan both climbed in.
She glared at Ivan, who glared back tiredly. The last time she’d seen him so close was on Sturmhond’s ship, his heart collapsed by Tolya in a battle between the two Heartrenders. She hadn’t missed him.
But Fedyor… seeing him again made her heart beat hard in her chest, remembering the way he’d screamed as the nichevo’ya carried him away.
“Hello,” she forced out.
“Who are you?” Ivan glared a bit harder and she rolled her eyes. “I hope there’s a good reason that I was woken up to escort a hissy like you to Os Alta.”
“I suggest that you watch your tongue,” she snapped. Saints, she was already tired of him.
“The Darkling wanted us to be with her on her way, Ivan. I doubt she’s just anyone.” Fedyor raised an eyebrow at the temperamental Heartrender.
Ivan simply huffed and sat back in his seat. “Sure.”
“I’m Alina,” she said with a small, smug smile.
“Fedyor, and grumpy guy is Ivan. Don’t worry about him.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
Her comment earned her a glare, and beside him Fedyor seemed just about ready to giggle himself out of his seat before he coughed and looked out the window of the carriage.
“Though I am curious, why are you so important to the Darkling?” His voice was easy, a little calming.
She yawned and stretched out on the carriage bench. “I’ll show you in the morning. I want to sleep right now.”
Both Heartrenders stared at her getting so comfortable in the Darkling’s personal carriage, but neither of them said anything. But before her eyes closed, she saw Fedyor nod and settle against the wall.