Spoilers for Shadow and Bone seasons 1 and 2 ahead. Every fantasy hit has its own intricate version of magic. In the Netflix epic Shadow and Bone, based on author Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse book series, magic is known as Small Science and practiced by Grisha, members of the fictional countries born with the ability to manipulate the elements. Season 2 of Shadow and Bone follows the fated hero Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) as she trains to defeat the Darkling (Ben Barnes) who has tapped into dark magic to create near-unbeatable monsters made of shadow and an entire region tearing the country of Ravka in two.
Season 2 is even more complex than the first, as Alina continues her journey to collect the Amplifiers and untangles more of the Darklings' history. Read on for our breakdown of all the magic terms to know from Season 2. (We also have primers on the different types of Grisha and the Fold.)
Throughout season 2, Alina searches for the final two of the three Amplifiers, a set of legendary magical creatures formed by one of the first known Grisha, Ilya Morozova (known as the Bonesmith). Centuries ago, Morozova was searching for a way for Grisha to increase their powers and better protect themselves from persecution. He says he used merzost and his finger bones to create powerful animals that, when killed and fused into a Grisha’s body, boosts the person's power. While several amplifiers of varying power levels exist, including some humans, the three that Morozova created were super-potent, and knowledge of them has been passed down through Ravkan folklore. (I'll designate them as Amplifiers with a capital "A," but they're also known as Morozova's Beasts.)
We learned of the first Amplifier in Season 1, when Kirigan was determined to hunt down the stag to expand the Fold (though he told everyone the goal was to destroy it). Mal (Archie Renaux) is the one to track the stag down, and when he and Alina encounter it, she discovers she doesn’t need to kill it, since the stag chooses to share its power with her. However, Kirigan is ultimately the one to kill it, and he orders Fabrikator David Kostyk (Luke Pasqualino) to use its antlers to create a link between Kirigan and Alina's powers, by fusing the stag’s antlers into Alina’s collarbone and putting a piece of an antler into Kirigan's hand.
The Season 1 finale sees Alina breaking the link between their powers, by cutting the bit of antler out of his hand. At that point, she completely absorbed the stag's powers (and the antlers). However, some residue of the antler was left in Kirigan's hand, which is why the pair had a psychic link throughout Season 2 (until Baghra finally cut off Kirigan's hand in her dying moments).
The Sea Whip
The terrifying sea whip is the second beast Alina and Mal seek, and she eventually track it down with the help of privateer Nikolai (Patrick Gibson) and his crew. She gives the order to capture it alive, thinking it will act similarly as the stag and choose to bestow its power, but she ends up killing it when it attacks Mal. Later, Alina has two of the sea whip’s scales fused into her body, where they remain visible on her wrist like an embedded bracelet.
The taking of a second amplifier marks a significant moment in Grisha history. Before Alina, Grisha were worried that taking more than one amplifier in their lifetime could cause them to loose control of their powers, since amplifiers were created using merzost (more on that later). However, Alina's convinced that she's destined to collect all three of Morozova's Beasts and use them to bring down the Fold, despite the unknown danger.
The Shadow and Bone book trilogy actually sees Alina collect one Amplifier per book, with the search for the sea whip taking up Siege and Storm. Since the quest is over within two episodes, show fans don't get the backstory on the sea whip that's included in the books: legend says the creature is a cursed dragon prince named Rusalye (hence the episode title), who is forever stuck in the form of a sea serpent and made to guard the waters bordering the Bone Road, a northern portion of the True Sea. Folklore also says the prince routinely kidnapped women to be his underwater companions, but since there was nothing to feed them beneath the sea, they all starved to death, so there's that.
It takes Alina, Mal, and co. much longer to discover that the firebird is much closer than any of them expected. In Episode 6, we learn that orphan Mal's actually part of the Morozova bloodline (and a distant cousin of Kirigan and Baghra). On the trip to Morozova's workshop, Baghra reveals that she's actually the daughter of the Bonesmith. When Baghra was a child, she accidentally killed her sister using the Cut, and Morozova brought the sister back to life. Since that was forbidden magic, he was executed. But Baghra's sister survived and her bloodline flourished all the way down to Mal, who has a special power as her descendant.
Remember how there are some human Amplifiers? When Morozova brought Baghra's sister back to life, he used merzost and his finger bone, with the same process that he used to kill the stag and the sea whip and resurrect them as Amplifiers. So the girl was actually the third Amplifier, and the power was then passed down through her bloodline, and ultimately to her descendant, Mal.
Mal being the third Amplifier explains why he was able to track the stag and the sea whip, since he could naturally track their frequencies. It also explains why Mal and Alina have always been drawn to each other because they're connected as the firebird and the Sun Summoner. After acting on their romantic connection at the beginning of the season, the Firebird discovery devastates them both, as each Amplifier has to be killed for a Grisha to increase their power.
I'll get to the final battle between Alina and the Darkling below, but first a bit about how Mal learning that he's the Firebird affected him personally. After all the fighting's over and Mal is no longer an Amplifier, he can no longer track Grisha or feel his pull towards Alina. His destiny, the grand purpose of amplifying Alina's power, is now over, and he's left questioning both who he is without it, and what he and Alina are to each other without that level of fate. This is why they separate at the end of the season, so Mal can go off privateering and rediscover himself before coming back to fully be with Alina. (Also, she's about to be busy with A LOT in the upcoming season.)
The short answer for "what is merzost" is that it's Shadow and Bone's version of dark magic, a corrupted power that brings unthinkable consequences on those who use it. This dark power is what the Darkling used to create the Fold, and over the course of Season 2, it takes over his body to the point that he can't control it and it begins to kill him.
The long version: Grisha don't actually consider their magic "magic," instead calling it "small science" that works in accordance with the law of nature. Remember the rule, "matter can neither be created nor destroyed but only be transferred from one form to another"? Grisha keep their powers in line with that rule, but there are some (most notably Morozova and Kirigan) who use actual magic, a.k.a. creating something out of nothing, an abomination. That is merzost, and it's forbidden because of its hidden cost.
In Alina and Kirigan's final battle, they each use the Cut on each other, with the Darkling building his out of shadow and the Sun Summoner, well, summoning sun. Alina strikes Kirigan and deflects his Cut, but it ends up hitting Mal, leaving him mortally wounded. In order for Alina to amplify her power and destroy the Fold, she has to kill Mal, and after some hesitation she does, plunging a knife into his chest. It's Alina's biggest sacrifice, and it gives her enough power to destroy the Fold and all the Volcra in it.
Of course, Alina never wanted to kill Mal. The plan was for Heartrender Nina Zenick to resuscitate his heartbeat, but she gets knocked out and by the time she tries to restart Mal's heart, it's too late. Instead, Alina is the one to revive him, using Merzost in the same way that the Bonesmith reanimated his daughter all those years ago. But remember how Baghra repeatedly made Alina swear not to use Merzost, warning her that she won't be prepared for the price it requires? As always, Alina should've listened to her teacher, as her use of merzost changes everything we knew about her so far.
In the final scene of Season 1, we saw the assumed-dead Kirigan leave the Fold alive, followed by creatures of shadow. These aren't volcra, the winged monsters created from former residents of the land that was turned into the Fold. Instead, Kirigan used merzost again to create Nichevo'ya, near-invincible monsters of shadow that would emerge out of his body and kill his opponents throughout the season. Tapping into merzost to create these beasts came with a cost, as they fed off the Darkling's life force, leaving him near death by the end of the season.
We only see the Nichevo'ya die twice in the show. The first is when Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) kills them with Neshyenyer, a mythical sword so sharp that it can cut through shadow. The Crows travel to Shu Han to steal the sword from "the Disciple" and Sankt Neyar, who lends it to them to help fight the Darkling. The second time we see a Nichevo'ya die is when Kirigan does, and the shadow monster that was attacking Nikolai and the Crows disappears. The moment happens as the monster is piercing Nikolai's shoulder, and it leaves much more than a wound.
Fast forward to the scenes before Nikolai's coronation as king of Ravka. It turns out that when the Nichevo'ya pierced the prince, a bit of its darkness went into Nikolai himself. As he gets ready for the ceremony, Nikolai sees himself as a Nichevo'ya in the reflection of a mirror, after the viewer sees merzost spread from his wound. We don't know yet how much Nikolai is changing, as this is one of the many cliffhangers that the series sets up for season 3.
Alina's new powers
Alina becomes the protagonist of Shadow and Bone in season 1 as she's revealed as the world's first known sun-summoner, a powerful Grisha (known as a Saint) who can, well, summon sun. She's a vision of hope for the country, and a natural foil to the Darkling and his shadow summoning. However, her use of merzost to revive Mal makes her much more similar to her foe, as we see her summon shadow instead of sun to kill the Fjerdan Grisha assassin at Nikolai's coronation.
As the finale ends, it's clear that her sun summoning turning to shadow summoning is the cost of her using the dark magic. It's both the series' biggest cliffhanger and biggest deviation from the books. (In Ruin and Rising, Alina loses her powers after collecting all three Amplifiers and goes off to live a normal life with Mal.) By her smile in reaction to perfectly performing the Cut, a magic move she had been struggling to form with her sun summoning throughout the season, it's also clear that she's in danger of being corrupted by the corrupt magic.
Throughout season 2, Alina had been passionate about her quest to increase her power and be able to eventually take down the Fold. Her single-minded drive has also been driven by her visions of Kirigan throughout the season, as he tried to convince her that they are meant for each other. In some of his last words, the Darkling warned her that after many years of living with humans and TK, she would become like him. Though the two Grisha now have the use of Merzost and shadow-summoning in common, it's unclear as of now how Alina will change going forward. Can her purer motives win out, or will she become the Darkling herself?