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“I have no idea. I can’t even tell what it is.”
After a long silence, Gild responded, “The legendary chicken-snake.”
A snicker escaped from Serilda before she could stop it. She glanced at Gild over her shoulder. He returned a teasing smile. “As good a guess as any.”
Shaking her head, she turned back to the cage.
And screamed.
Gild yelped and pulled her tight against him. They both backed a few steps away.
For in that breadth of a moment when they’d been distracted, the creature had moved. Without a sound—no squawk, no rustle of feathers, no soggy plodding through whatever that mess was on the bottom of the cage—it had deserted its corner and come to stand right in front of them. If it had not been blinded, Serilda would have thought it was peering at them through the bars. Instead, after a second, it tilted its head to one side, as if listening.
“Do chickens have ears?” Gild whispered.
“Hush,” she replied.
And thus began a very awkward, very tedious staring contest.
The creature did not move.
She and Gild did not move.
She could not fully understand the fear that curdled in her stomach, the instinct she felt to hold perfectly still, lest it could find her. It was trapped in a cage. It didn’t have eyes. It was achicken.Mostly.
And yet, she felt an overwhelming terror as she took in its pointed yellow110beak, long scaly toes, and the vibrant tail whipping back and forth against the golden bars. Though she could not explain it, this bizarre little monster conjured as much fear inside her as had the drudes, the nachtkrapp, even the enormous bärgeist. And if the way Gild’s fingers were digging into her sides was any indication, Gild felt it, too.
Finally, gathering up every ounce of courage, Serilda cleared her throat and murmured an uncertain hello.
The bird …thing…bobbed its head, every bit like the chickens she’d often seen pecking around farms, searching for worms.
It opened its beak. But it did not cluck.
Instead, it hissed.
And sent a glob of goop, as thick and disgusting as the substance beneath it, straight at them. Serilda and Gild jumped away. The substance landed on the hem of Serilda’s gown.
The fabric began to hiss as the slimy liquid burned a hole into the brocade. It sizzled and smoked, releasing a putrid odor into the room.
Serilda’s eyes widened.
Within seconds, the hole in the material began to spread, scorching through the first layer of thick, luxurious fabric, eating away at the intricate design of golden lily flowers. Spreading along Serilda’s calf, up past her knees, revealing the petticoat beneath. She cried out and backed farther away from the cage, but she could hardly escape her own gown.
“Gild!” she cried, as a drop of the venom touched the petticoat, and that, too, began to disintegrate into ashes. “Get it off! I have to get it off!”
Before she’d even finished talking, he was yanking at the laces on the back of the dress.
“Cut them!” she screeched, watching the fabric burn away. Ashes up to her thigh. Soon it would be at her hips, her waist, and then there would be no keeping it off her skin. “Gild!”
“I don’t have anything to cut with!” he hollered, hands scrabbling, yanking at the ties. “Almost. Almost.”
One last yank. The dress’s bodice loosened. Serilda pulled her arms from111the sleeves as Gild shoved the dress past her hips. She fell onto her backside in an effort to scramble out of the material as fast as she could. As soon as the heavy brocade gown was off, she took hold of the petticoat’s muslin and ripped, tearing off the skirt, including the panels being ravaged by venom. She kicked the tarnished material away. The gown landed on top of the pool of gossamer curtains, and together, Gild and Serilda watched as the dress dissolved. Then the muslin skirt. Then, even the curtains that had kept the creature’s cage hidden.
Within minutes it was all destroyed.
Every last thread.
Serilda and Gild pushed themselves back against the door and stood, panting. An acrid stench hung in the air, stinging the back of Serilda’s throat.