In Ravkan, the word for magic and abomination was the same. Basic Grisha theory stated that matter couldn’t just be created from nothing. But that was a tenet of the Small Science. Merzost was different, a corruption of the making at the heart of the world

To some, Grisha accomplishments may appear magical, but as Alina explains in Chapter 15, the Grisha simply perceive and thus manipulate the natural world differently than others. They do so using the Small Science, a practice that entails manipulating natural forces. By contrast, the Darkling, and apparently Ilya Morozova, engage in a deeper, more primal practice called merzost that draws upon universal forces to summon nonexistent materials into being. This power is distrusted and even feared by the Grisha who view it as unnatural, and their belief seems justified in the case of the Darkling. His creation of the Fold destroyed the people of Novokribirsk and turned them into the volcra, a screaming shadow army desperate to feast on human flesh in order to feel a semblance of their former humanity. While the Grisha’s fear of this power appears to have merit, Alina continues to pursue the merzost with which Morozova experimented.

I’m already responsible for the Grisha. I don’t want the burden of an army of helpless otkazat’sya.

In Chapter 16, after the Apparat accosts Alina, she and Mal discuss the possibility of a vast army of pilgrims that the Apparat may or may not be leading. Mal is intrigued, in part because he wants to bolster their numbers and in part because Alina is not being completely honest with him. She withholds information about Morozova’s journals and the experiments she believes will help her find the third amplifier. Instead, Alina tries to dissuade Mal by sharing her feelings, claiming to be overwhelmed by the burden of her current leadership and unwilling to take on more. Unfortunately, her poor choice of words is highly insulting to Mal. Like Alina, Mal is an orphan and an outsider in Ravka. Unlike her, he is not a Grisha, and he is technically a traitor to the kingdom because they engaged with the Darkling. He also has no special skills other than his tracking ability, making him an ordinary commoner, one of the otkazat’sya that Alina finds burdensome. This comment sends Mal on a dangerous journey of self-harm as he attempts to prove that he is worthy of being the head of her personal guard by participating in dangerous fights against Grisha, despite already having that honor and Alina’s confidence.

I’d seen a thousand horrors on this long day, but this was the one that broke me, Genya cringing away from David like a frightened animal.

In Chapter 23, Alina sees what the Darkling has done to Genya and faces him down. For Alina to defect to the Darkling’s side with the intention of destroying both herself and him, she must have a powerful motivator. Although Genya betrayed Alina, the two had been friends for a time. In Alina’s first uncertain days in an Os Alta that wanted little to do with her, Genya was the only person who treated with her kindness, and the two shared many secrets. Even onboard the Volkvony, Alina still admires Genya’s beauty and grace and she wishes the two could find their way to back to their former friendship. That possibility is shattered when Genya pulls a gun on her and chooses to remain with the Darkling. In Baghra’s ruined eyes, Alina sees what the Darkling can do when he wishes to punish someone. His willingness to inflict such torture on Genya, who only ever served him faithfully, proves to Alina the extent of the carnage that is sure to follow if she does not take matters into her own hands. Only by destroying him—even at the cost of her own destruction—can she truly lead her people to safety.