Chapter no 15 – Nikolai

King of Scars

‌NIKOLAI HAD SEEN MANY ASTONISHING things—the fog ponies of the Zemeni frontier, said to be so fast that when they ran they became invisible; a sea serpent thrashing its way through the northern ice; the world unspooling before him as he rode the winds with the wings of a monster at his back—but his eyes could not make sense of what he saw swooping toward him in the sky.

Yuri was on his knees, praying. Zoya had her arms raised, and Nikolai could already feel the sand whipping around the skiff as she summoned the wind to their defense.

As soon as he’d heard that shriek in the air, Nikolai had drawn his revolvers and prepared to face the volcra. He had expected shadow monsters or some new embodiment of the Darkling’s power. Hell, maybe some part of him had expected the Darkling himself, the Starless Saint resurrected, come to plague them all with charisma and ill intent.

Instead he saw … bees, a vast swath of them, moving through a sky the color of porridge, shifting and clustering into what might have been the shape of a woman. Behind the swarm, a grotesque loped over the sand, a massive body that kept forming and re-forming—two heads, then three; a thousand arms; a humped back with a spine that twisted in sinuous ridges; ten, twenty, thirty long, spindly legs moving in tandem. The forms were human one moment, animal the next—thick with fur and gnashing teeth. And there, circling high above, a third monstrosity, wings wide and scales gleaming …

“Zoya, say something spiteful.” “Why?” she asked faintly.

“Because I’m fairly certain I’m hallucinating, and in my dreams you’re much nicer.”

“You’re an idiot, Nikolai.” “Not your best work.”

“I’m sorry I can’t deliver better wordplay right now. I seem to be paralyzed with fear.”

Her voice was trembling—and if ruthless, unshakable Zoya was that frightened, then everything he was seeing was real: the bees, the grotesque, and yes, impossible but there nonetheless, the dragon, vast in size, its arching wings leathery, its scales glinting black, green, blue, gold in the flat gray light.

“Zoya, whatever you did to bring us here, this would be the time to undo it.”

“If I could, I would,” she growled, then hurled a wall of wind upward.

The bees struck it, like water parting around a rock in a stream, their loud buzz filling Nikolai’s ears.

“Do something!” said Zoya. “Like what?”

“You have guns!”

“I’m not going to shoot at bees.” “Then shoot at that thing.”

Nikolai opened fire at the grotesque. His bullets struck its shifting body—a head, an arm, another arm, a distended chest. Now that the thing was closer, he glimpsed claws, jaws thick with canines, the dense brown pelt of what looked like a bear. All of his bullets were absorbed in the grotesque’s body, then emerged a second later as if the writhing flesh had simply spat them out.

High above, the dragon roared and spread its enormous wings. A fountain of flame erupted from the beast’s mouth and blasted toward them.

Zoya’s hands shot upward, and a dome of air formed over their heads. The flames beat at the barrier. Nikolai could feel the heat singeing his brows.

The blast relented and the dragon shrieked again, wheeling above them.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re outgunned,” said Nikolai.

“Lay down your arms,” the grotesque said in a chorus of voices from a hundred mouths.

“In a moment,” replied Nikolai. “I’m finding them very reassuring right now. Yuri, get off of your damned knees and at least try to look like

you can fight.”

“You don’t understand,” said Yuri, his eyes full of tears. “That is entirely correct.”

“I’m going to raise the sands again,” said Zoya. “If I bring a big enough storm, we’ll have cover to get … somewhere. You’ll need to work the sails; I won’t be able to control the storm and direct the skiff.”

“Do it,” said Nikolai, eyeing the lines. They were primitive at best, but he had managed rockier seas than these.

He opened fire, trying to lend Zoya cover as she swept her arms forward and the sands of the Fold—or wherever they were—rose with a whoosh. There was no subtlety now, no need to mask her actions to fool the pilgrims. Instead the storm came to life with a start like a man waking from a bad dream, a sudden wall of force that thrust the creatures back, the sands forming a whirling wall to hide the skiff’s escape.

Nikolai holstered his revolvers and seized the lines, releasing the sail. The canvas snapped, filling with air, driving them east and back toward what he hoped were still the borders of the Fold. Whatever these creatures were, their power had to be tied to this place.

Suddenly the ground beneath them seemed to buckle. The skiff listed precariously starboard as one of its runners peeled away from the sand. Zoya and Yuri lost their footing, but Zoya did not falter. Even on her back, she kept the winds in motion. Nikolai held tight to the lines, trying to use the storm to help right the skiff. But the ground was bucking like a wild animal, as if the very sands beneath them had life.

The skiff tilted higher on its single runner. “We’re going over!” Nikolai shouted. He had the uncanny sense that a giant hand was deliberately tipping them out onto the sands.

They landed in an unceremonious heap. Nikolai was on his feet in an instant, grabbing for Zoya and Yuri to roll all of them to safety. But the skiff thumped harmlessly down to its other side, and the sands instantly calmed.

Without Zoya’s storm raging, the skies were clear again. A shape emerged out of the sand before them, then another, then another—a regiment of sand soldiers. They were faceless, but their uniforms were elaborately detailed. They looked like the paintings of ancient Ravkan soldiers, the army of Yaromir the Determined, dressed in furs and bronze, but all of it wrought in sand. Zoya raised her hands and sent a fierce gust of wind slamming into the ranks of soldiers, but they stood

solid and unmoving.

“What are they?” Zoya asked.

The soldiers continued to emerge in a rippling wave, an army that stretched to the horizon, where the castle still loomed.

“I think we’re being shown just how overmatched we are,” Nikolai said.

“By whom?”

The sand soldiers stepped forward as one, and the sound was like a shotgun blast. Zoya and Nikolai stood back-to-back, surrounded. Next to them, Yuri remained on his knees, his face filled with a kind of manic elation.

“I don’t know how to fight this,” Zoya said. She’d somehow steadied her voice, but he could hear the fear in it anyway. “Is this the part where we die well?”

The dragon was wheeling overhead. If these creatures wanted Nikolai dead, they’d chosen an elaborate means of making it happen, so something else had to be in play—hopefully something that would allow him to negotiate for Zoya’s and Yuri’s safety.

“No, this is the part where the king of Ravka surrenders himself, and the love we never had lives on in ballads and song.”

“Nikolai,” snapped Zoya, “don’t you dare.”

“Give me another option, Nazyalensky. One of us needs to survive this.” Then he lowered his voice. “Get back to the capital and rally the Grisha.” Assuming she could even get back to Os Alta from here.

He tossed his revolvers to the sand and raised his hands, scanning the rows of sand soldiers, the figures in the sky, the mountainous body of the grotesque hovering behind their ranks. “I’m not sure who I’m surrendering to—”

The dragon turned sharply in the air and dove for them. Maybe they did intend to kill him, after all.

“Zoya, get down!” Nikolai shouted, lunging for her.

“Like hell,” she muttered, and knocked him into the sands, bracing before him with her feet planted and her arms raised.

The dragon unleashed its fire and Zoya let loose the storm. For a moment they seemed evenly matched—a golden cascade of flame buffeted by a wall of wind. Then Zoya swept her arms in a loop and cast them to the sides like a conductor concluding a symphony. For a moment Nikolai didn’t understand, but then the flames collapsed. The dragon

reared back, a choked wheeze emerging from its throat. Zoya had stolen its breath; she’d banished the air from the fire, depriving it of fuel, and left the dragon gasping.

Nikolai leapt for his guns, ready to seize the opportunity she’d offered, but before he could even aim, the dragon released a deafening roar. Its jaws opened and fire spurted forth. This time the flame burned blue, brighter and hotter than before, hot enough to melt stone—or sand.

“Zoya!” Nikolai shouted, but Zoya had already fisted her hands and raised them again, driving an icy wind against the dragon’s onslaught.

Blue fire lit her face. Her hair rose like a black crown around her head, and her eyes blazed cobalt as if she too burned with the dragon’s fire.

Zoya screamed as the dragon’s flames pounded against the force of her power. She gritted her teeth, and Nikolai saw beads of sweat bloom on her brow. He opened fire on the dragon, but his bullets seemed to melt before they even came near the creature’s scales. Ice crystalized on the fallen skiff, coated Nikolai’s hands and the ranks of the sand soldiers surrounding them.

And then Zoya collapsed. She fell to her knees, and the winter storm evaporated, leaving nothing but a thin shell of melting frost in its wake.

Nikolai was on his feet, stumbling toward her, certain he was about to see her consumed by flame. But the dragon withdrew its fire. It hovered in the air, watching.

“Zoya,” Nikolai said as he went to his knees beside her, catching her in his arms before she could topple. Her skin was aglow with the light of Grisha power, but her nose was bleeding and she was shaking.

The dragon landed before them, folding its vast wings. Perhaps it wanted to play with its food.

“Stay back,” Nikolai said, though he had no way of preventing the beast’s advance. His weapons were as good as toys. Yuri was still on his knees, swaying like a drunk who couldn’t decide whether it was worth the effort to try to stand.

“The boy king,” said the dragon, prowling forward, tail lashing the air. Its voice was a low rumble, like thunder on a distant peak. “The war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart.” Nikolai wasn’t sure if he was more startled that the creature could speak or that it knew what had brought them on this cursed journey.

The dragon leaned forward. Its eyes were large and silver, its pupils black slits.

“If I wanted to harm her, she would be ashes, boy. So would you all.” “It sure looked like you wanted to harm her,” Nikolai said. “Or is that

how your kind says a friendly hello?”

The dragon rumbled what might have been a laugh. “I wanted to see what she could do.”

Zoya released a howl of pure anguish. It was a sound so desperate, so raw, Nikolai could hardly believe it was coming from his general’s mouth.

“What is it?” he pleaded, his arm tightening around her as he scanned her body for wounds, for blood.

But she cast him off, scrabbling in the sand, another wail of rage and pain tearing from her chest.

“For Saints’ sake, Zoya, what’s wrong?”

She snatched up something that glinted in her hand and clutched it to her chest, her sobs like nothing he had heard before. It took him a moment to force her fingers open. Cradled in her palm, he saw the broken halves of her silver cuff. Her amplifier had shattered.

“No,” she sobbed. “No.” “Yes,” hissed the dragon.

“Juris, stop this,” said a woman, emerging from between the rows of soldiers. She wore a dress of blooming roses that blossomed and died in curling vines around her body. Her golden hair was a buzzing mass of bees that swarmed and clustered around her radiant face. “You got your battle. They know what they are facing.”

“The first bit of excitement we’ve had in years, Elizaveta, and you seem determined to deny me my fun. Very well.”

The dragon heaved its shoulders in a shrug, and then, before Nikolai’s bewildered eyes, it seemed to shift and shrink, becoming a towering man in finely wrought chain mail that glittered like black scales. The sand soldiers parted to reveal the grotesque, his body still shifting and changing, now covered in eyes as if to better take in every inch of them.

“What is this?” Nikolai demanded. “Who are you?”

“Do the people not pray for Saints?” asked the man called Juris. “At last,” wept Yuri, still kneeling. “At last.”

“Come,” said Elizaveta, extending a hand, the bees buzzing gently around her in a hum that was almost soothing. “We will explain all.”

But Nikolai’s mind had already leapt a chasm into preposterous territory. Sankta Lizabeta, who had been martyred in a field of roses.

Sankt Juris, who …

“You slew the dragon,” said Nikolai. “It’s … it’s in all of the stories.” “Sometimes the stories are rough on the details,” said Juris with a

gleaming smile. “Come, boy king. It’s time we talked.”

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