Something was moving. Writhing, crawling along the walls.232
Breaths coming in quick gasps, Serilda approached the cave on hesitant feet.
No, not snakes. It was brambles. A mess of thorn-covered vines slithering across the broken tiles on the rotunda floor. Masses of them had been hacked away, leaving broken thorns and splintered edges behind.
But they still appeared to be alive. Reaching for her. Writhing in the light, as if seeking the sun’s warmth.
She froze. That was not a child’s voice.
That voice belonged to an adult. A man. Someone familiar—
Her pulse drummed in her ears.
She had heard wrong. Her mind was playing tricks on her, cruelly taunting her.
It came again. Her name.
Louder now. More uncertain. More … hopeful.
“Papa?” she breathed, the word tenuous and fearful. She was sure the whisper was coming from this opening. She was sure it was her father calling to her.
But it was impossible.
He was dead.
She had seen him, turned into a nachzehrer, a flesh-eating monster. She had seen Madam Sauer drive the shovel through his neck.
He could not be here, in this awful castle in the middle of the Aschen Wood.
He could not be there, just beyond that yawning blackness.
Seril … da …
With a strangled sob, Serilda leaped forward and grabbed one of the vines, meaning to yank it away from the opening, to clear a path through the cave’s mouth.
Pain lanced through her palm. She hissed and pulled back. A thorn had233dug into the flesh below her thumb. The wound was slight, but burning, as she pressed it to her mouth to stop the bleeding.
Her gaze lifted. She stilled.
The brambles had begun to grow together, clustering in vicious knots over the cave’s mouth, forming a thick barrier.
She drew back, shaking.
“Get away from there!”
She spun around, startled to see a hunter marching toward her, pickaxe in his gloved hand. She cried out and scrambled away. Away from the hunter, away from the thorns.
“Foolish human,” he muttered. “Did you let it touch you? That will cost us hours of work.” He snarled at her. “Get out of here, before you ruin anything else!”
Serilda opened her mouth, wanting to tell him what she’d heard, wanting to ask where this cave led to, what was down there?
But the dark one had already turned away from her, inspecting the vines that had knotted back together as he shook his head in irritation.