King of Scars (King of Scars Duology #1)

She nodded, determined, touched her fingers to the jewels in her hair, lips moving in a whispered prayer. Nina could hear Leoni’s warning in her head: Poisons are tricky work.

The wave thundered toward them, churning with foam and bits of debris, so tall and wide it seemed to block out the sun.

“Get ready!” Adrik cried.

Leoni spread her arms.

Adrik thrust his hand forward, and the wave split, cleaved by the force of the gust he summoned, passing around the townspeople in an angry flood.

As the water passed, Leoni raised her hands and Nina saw a yellowy cloud appear in the air around her. She was drawing the poison from the water.

Grisha. Nina heard the word rise from the crowd. Drüsjen. Witches.

The cloud of poison grew above them as the water tumbled on and on. At last the tide had exhausted itself, but Leoni continued to draw the poison out until the flood had slowed to a trickle.

She stood with arms raised in the sudden silence as the crowd stared upward at the lethal mass of muddy yellow powder hovering over their heads.

“Pestijla!” they cried out. “Morden!” Poison. Death.

“No,” Nina murmured to herself. “Opportunity.” She reached into the waters of the flood, seeking the materials she needed, her power touching on the bones of girls lost in the dark. She grabbed hold.

Leoni’s arms were shaking, her lips pulled back in a grimace. Adrik whirled, focusing the wind, forming it into a tiny cyclone, gathering the poison and driving it into the empty guardhouse. With a twist of his wrist, the door slammed shut. He grabbed Leoni up against him before she could collapse.

In the new quiet, Nina could hear the babies wailing, people crying. She didn’t know how much damage the water might have done to the buildings below.

The crowd was staring at Adrik and Leoni. The soldiers raised their rifles. Nina prepared to call the corpses from the factory to protect them. But she hoped, she hoped …

“Look!” cried the man in the red cap.

In the wake of the water, a great ash tree stood in the center of the road, its white branches stretching to the sky, its thick roots sprawling in the mud.

“Djel and all his waters,” said the man from the tavern, beginning to weep. “It’s made of bone.”

The bones of the girls lost to the mountain, forged by Nina’s power into something new.

“Praise Djel,” said the young fisherman, and fell to his knees.

Nina was glad now that she could not hear Matthias’ voice, that he could not witness the way she had used his god. The trick she’d pulled wasn’t the act of a soldier with honor. It was a bit of theater, the low illusion of con men and thieves.

But she was not sorry. The work she and Adrik and Leoni had been doing, the work of the Hringsa, was not enough. No matter how many Grisha they saved, there would always be more they could not. There would always be Fjerda with its tanks and its pyres and men like Jarl Brum to light the match. Unless Nina found a way to change it all.

“Lay down your arms,” said the man in the red cap as the village of G?fvalle went to its knees. “We have seen miracles today.”

“Praise Djel!” shouted Nina. She knelt before Adrik and Leoni in her Springmaiden pinafore. “And praise the new Saints.”

ZOYA SPED ACROSS THE SANDS, praying she was not too late. She had once thought only a Grisha in the grip of parem could fly. Now she arrived on the storm, borne aloft by thunderheads. It was almost as if she could feel Juris beneath her.

The sight that greeted her was horrifying.

Grigori had spread himself over the thorn wood in a great dome, built and rebuilt of sinew, trying to keep Elizaveta and Yuri away from Nikolai and his shadow self. Zoya saw Elizaveta’s thorns stabbing through Grigori’s flesh, her stalks writhing like serpents, lashing out to puncture him again and again.

But when the Bodymaker began to scream, Zoya realized it was not the thorns that had undone him, but the insects Elizaveta had set upon his body. Tiny holes and furrows began to appear on his flesh as burrowing insects consumed him. His body broke apart, trying to escape itself. He shook and trembled and then opened a thousand mouths to cry out as he was devoured.

Yuri stood behind Elizaveta, like a child hiding behind his mother’s skirts, his hands pressed to his lips as if to stifle his own terror. Stupid boy. Had he known what Elizaveta intended to unleash? Had his Starless Saint promised him less bloodshed, or did a fanatic not care?

The Bodymaker shuddered and collapsed. Elizaveta gave a shout of triumph and descended upon the pinned bodies of Nikolai and the shadow creature, both of them now held in place by the vines of the thorn wood.

Zoya took two broken pieces of obsidian from her sleeve and cracked them together. The spark was all she needed. A gout of flame roared toward Elizaveta, who reared back in surprise.

Then the Saint’s lips quirked in amusement. “I thought you were wise enough to run, Zoya. You’re too late. The Darkling’s spirit will soon reenter his body. There’s no reason for you to be a casualty of this battle.”

“My king lies bleeding. I am his subject and his soldier, and I come to fight for him.”

“You are Grisha, Zoya Nazyalensky. You need be subject to no one and nothing.”

Zoya could feel the pull of power even now. It would always be with her, this hunger for more. But she had made the acquaintance of tyrants before. “Subject to no one but you? The Darkling?”

Elizaveta laughed. “We will not be rulers. We will be gods. If it’s a crown you want, take it. Sit the Ravkan throne. We will hold dominion over the world.”

“I saw his body on the pyre. I watched him burn.”

“I stole him from the sands of the Fold and left a facsimile in his place. It was well within my power.” Just as Zoya had suspected. And she didn’t care about the particulars. But she wanted to keep Elizaveta talking.

“You preserved his body?”

“In the hopes that he might be resurrected. I stored him in my hives. Yes, I know you were ready to believe my little story about my wound, my weariness. But you didn’t dare walk down that dark corridor, did you? No one wants to look too closely at another person’s pain. Did you really believe I would sacrifice an age of knowledge and power to become a mortal? Would you, Zoya?”

No. Never. But the power she was tied to now did not need to be seized or stolen. “And what will you do with the world once you possess it?”

“Is this where I present my grand vision for peace? For a unified empire without border or flag?” Elizaveta shrugged. “I could make that speech. Perhaps the Starless One will make that our endeavor. I know only that I want to be free and that I want to feel my power once more.”

It was a need Zoya understood, and she knew the questions to ask, the same questions she had posed to herself when the dark crept in.

“You don’t have enough of it?” Zoya asked, moving slowly around the circle of the wood. The shadow creature’s chest no longer glowed—so someone had managed to remove the thorn. Its shape was leeching slowly into the Darkling’s supine body. Nikolai lay dying, impaled on the thicket as his blood drained into the soil.

“What is power without someone to wield it over? I have lived in isolated splendor for too many lifetimes. What is it to be a god without worship? A queen without subjects? I was the witch in the wood, the queen on her throne, the goddess in her temple. I will be once more. I will savor fear and desire and awe again.”

“You’ll get none from me,” said Zoya. She raised her hands and her sleeves fell back. Black scales glittered in the twilight.

Elizaveta gave a beleaguered sigh. “I should have known Juris would hold on long enough to do something noble and misguided. Well, old friend,” she said, “it will not matter.” With a sweep of her arm, two iron-colored stalks shot toward Zoya, their thorns gleaming like the barbed tail of a sea creature.

Zoya drove her hands upward, and a ferocious whirlwind caught the stalks, twisting them around each other and yanking them from the thorn wood by the root. Zoya flung them back at Elizaveta.

“How fierce you are,” said the Saint. “Juris was right to make you his student. I’m sorry his knowledge will die with you.”

This time half the wood seemed to rise up, a snarling mass of fat, thorny stalks. Zoya pulled moisture from the air in a cold wave, coating the stalks in frost, freezing their sap from the inside out. With a rumbling gust of air, she shattered them on the wind.

“Such power. But you cannot defeat me, Zoya. I have the advantage of eternity.”