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It happened so fast that Serilda did not have time to think. The way the king slung the crossbow off his back with the grace of one who had done so a thousand times. So close to Leyna, he did not even have to aim. A blink and an arrow was nocked. A gasp and the trigger was pulled.
She heard the hollow thump even as she started to scream. As her hands reached to shove Leyna out of the way.
But her hands passed right through the girl.
Just as the arrow had.
Serilda’s scream died on her tongue.
She was too late, but so was the king.
Or perhaps he had timed it that way on purpose. He seemed unperturbed and unsurprised as he tossed the bow again over his shoulder. Then he sauntered right through Leyna’s hazy figure to collect the bolt that had struck the grass.
Heart in her throat, Serilda fell to her knees and reached again for Leyna, but she could not touch her. Though the sun had not yet climbed over the castle walls, the highest tower windows were sparkling gold in the morning light. Beyond the castle, the sun had risen. The solstice was over. The veil had fallen, and Leyna, still alive and mortal, was on the other side.
Leyna stood petrified, her eyes wide but no longer seeing Serilda or83the Erlking or the caged beasts. Serilda knew from her own experiences of being inside the castle when the veil fell that Leyna was now seeing the castle as it was in the mortal world. Crumbling, decaying, overgrown and wild and abandoned.
And haunted.
Soon Leyna would see the ghosts. Not as they were here—mild-mannered, gracious, tragic figures. But as they had been the night the dark ones stormed into the castle and massacred them all. There would be screams and blood and sobs and shadowy figures falling to blades wielded by invisible enemies.
There would be monsters, too. Creatures like the nachtkrapp and the drudes that were not trapped on this side of the veil as the dark ones were. They seemed to become extra restless when an intruder was inside these walls.
“Run,” said Serilda, wishing she could grab Leyna and shake her. “Run. Get out.”
“She cannot hear you,” said the Erlking, examining the tip of his reclaimed bolt before sliding it back into the quiver.
“I know she can’t hear me,” Serilda retorted, her fury at his last stunt writhing inside her. Was it a stunt? Had he meant to kill her? She hated that she couldn’t tell.
Leyna’s breaths were coming in quick, uneven gasps as she put a hand over her heart, where the king’s arrow should have struck her.
A caw echoed over the gardens. Serilda and Leyna both glanced up to see the eyeless raven perched on the wrought-iron gate.
It was enough to shake Leyna from her stupor. “S-Serilda?” she said, glancing around. “Are you still there?”
“Just go,” said Serilda. “What are you waiting for?”
Another cry from the bird. This time it flapped its wings, showing off its tattered feathers.
Leyna took a couple of steps away from it, wrapping her arms around her body. Though the day would turn sunny and warm, the morning carried a84sharp chill. Dew clung to the grasses. Mist would soon be rising over the gardens as the sun’s rays swept across the grounds.
Leyna squeezed her eyes tight. “Serilda, if you’re there … if you can hear me … I want you to know that I miss you. And I’ll never forget you. And …”
The nachtkrapp squawked again. Leyna jumped, her eyes snapping open again, and her last words came out in a rush. “And I hope you’ll enjoy the cakes!”
Then she turned on her heels and ran as fast as she could through the gardens.
Serilda clasped her hands together, watching until Leyna’s small form disappeared behind the foliage. “Please let her be all right.”
The king snorted. “I find your affection for these human parasites to be most disconcerting.”
She glared at him, but her pulse skipped when she saw that he wasn’t looking at her. He was inspecting the small golden figurine, turning it over in his hand. With a flourish, he tucked it into a pocket on his leather jerkin and smiled at her.
“What an odd little treasure you are, my queen,” he said, holding a hand out to her. “Come. Let us bid the court good night and retire to our bridal suite.”
She snarled. “I would rather retire to a pit of worms.”
He laughed, frustratingly jovial. “Do not tempt me, love.”