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Serilda heard the crack of bones and flinched.
As the monster shrieked, the Erlking lifted it to eye level and studied it for a long, awful moment.
“We have been looking for you,” he said. “Why have you been hiding from my hunters?”
In response, the drude hissed again, its forked tongue darting at the Erlking’s face.
Serilda could not tell whether the Erlking expected an answer, but he seemed neither surprised nor disappointed as he used the point of the dagger to unfold the uninjured wing, inspecting the creature from every angle.
“I want to know what has happened since we left,” he said. “Where are the rest of my monsters?”
The creature’s eyes brightened until they were almost golden orange. Its talons clicked.
“Go ahead,” said the Erlking. “I do not fear your nightmares. Show me.”
Serilda’s lips parted. The Erlkingwantedthe drude to enter his mind, to give him—not a nightmare—but the truth of whatever had come to pass here since the dark ones had been gone.
But the drude did not.
Instead, the small beast took its talons and drove them into its own chest.
The Erlking’s eyes widened and he dropped the drude to the floor. He stepped away, and together he and Serilda watched as the life bled out from the beast in rivulets of dark, viscous blood.
“Well,” said the Erlking, with a sharp edge to his tone, “I suppose it had nothing to say.”237
Serilda let out a shaky breath. “I … I need to check on Gerdrut.”
Without waiting for his response, she darted back to the bedroom.
The children were gathered on the bed, holding one another. Protecting one another.
“Gerdy,” said Serilda, sitting beside Gerdrut and taking her hand. “Are you all right?”
Gerdrut gave her a weak smile. “I’m all right.”
“Good. It’s over now. The drude is dead. It won’t hurt you again. And I swear … it was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.”
A haunted look crept over the child’s expression. She glanced at Hans, who gave her an encouraging nod.
“She was telling us about the dream,” Nickel explained. “Go on, Gerdy. Tell Serilda.”
Serilda braced herself. She had been the victim of a drude’s attack before. She had seen things in those visions that still sometimes woke her, shivering, in the middle of the night. She had heard tales of the drudes causing so much terror that a person had literally died of fright.
She hated to think what that beast had done to this poor, sweet child …
“Go on,” said Serilda. “I’m listening, if you want to tell me about it.”
Gerdrut sniffled. She’d been crying, and Serilda’s heart would have broken, if she’d had one.
“I saw m-my grandmother,” said Gerdrut.
Gerdrut’s grandmother had passed on to Verloren just over a year before. She had always been a kindly lady, the sort that had extra sweets for the children on holidays, and who was one of the few that had never turned a suspicious glare on Serilda.
“She was helping me make dolls out of leftover muslin scraps,” Gerdrut went on. “I was cutting out the pieces and she was adding buttons and flowers. And then …”
Serilda bit her lower lip, waiting for the moment when the dream turned to nightmare.
“She hugged me,” said Gerdrut, falling forward with a sob. “And told me238how much she loved me and couldn’t wait to be with me again. She said she was waiting for me, and that someday we’d be together again. And I … I miss her so much, Serilda.”