“Yes, well … maybe someday you and I will come to an agreement.”
A distant sound made gooseflesh rise on Serilda’s arms. A long, crooning howl. She glanced toward the doorway. “Did you hear that?”
“Oh yes,” said the Erlking, sounding bored. “The wolf has been going on like that all week. You haven’t noticed?”
Serilda blinked at him. “The wolf?”
“Velos, guarding the gates to Verloren,” he said, as if they were discussing the pastry shop on the town square. “This library is awfully close.”
“Velos … guarding …” Serilda wanted to ask more, but words failed her.
The Erlking sighed. “As the Mourning Moon draws near, Velos becomes restless, now that the gates have been opened once more.” He smiled wistfully. “I do hope the god will pay us a visit.”
Serilda’s words came out little more than a whisper. “Gravenstone grew282out of the gates to Verloren, and the alder tree that sprouted from its depths.” She turned in the direction of the lunar rotunda. The cave. The brambles. The whispers.
Her father’s voice …
“Come,” said the Erlking, rising to his feet and extending a hand toward her. “I can see you are intrigued. I will show you.”
“Er—no. Thank you. I’m quite content here, with my poetry and fairy tales.”
He drew a step closer. “Are you reading fairy tales, miller’s daughter? Or are you living one?” He leaned closer, his voice dropping to a whisper, mocking her words to him in the dungeon. “It is only the gates to the land of the lost. What are you afraid will happen?”
She glared at him. Then, with a long inhale, she took his hand.
They did not have far to walk to the rotunda. The ghosts and dark ones she’d seen before were gone now, and the room felt unnaturally quiet, as if the walls were listening for the howls and whispers and voices that echoed from below. The room was as magnificent as she remembered, with its towering walls and circular glass ceiling, the mural of stars and moons scattered in every direction. But as Serilda’s gaze fell on the cave opening, a cold wash swept across her skin.
This time, the entrance stood unobstructed. There were still brambles emerging from its depths, spreading along the walls like a kraken climbing up from the depths of the sea, their thorns tearing into the stone and woodwork. But all those that had been woven across the opening had been cut back and removed. Now, one could walk right through that gaping hole.
She thought of all the ghosts that had been working earlier. The sounds of chisels and picks echoing up from its depths. Were they clearing a path to Verloren?
Serilda dared approach only close enough to see a narrow stairway that lay beyond the entrance, the jagged steps cut from stone and descending steeply out of sight. A lantern hung just inside on the cave wall, but it was283unlit, and the light from the rotunda hardly penetrated the darkness beyond. She expected the air wafting up from the void to be dank and stale, to smell of decay. Instead it smelled like all the rest of the castle—fertile soil and wood smoke.
“I would have thought the gates to Verloren would be more grandiose, somehow,” she murmured, feeling strangely disappointed.
“Oh, this is not the gate.”
She turned to him. “But you said—”
“This staircase leads down to the gates. There is a chamber below. It was caved in when we arrived, I suspect due to Pusch-Grohla’s magic. That chamber marks the end of my domain. It acts as a barrier between the upper world and Verloren. Beyond that … the gates. The bridge.” He swept a languid hand toward the opening. “The land of the lost.”
“You’ve been working to clear a path back down to that chamber, to the gates,” said Serilda. “But why? Couldn’t something … come out?”
“I suppose, if they were to make it past the bridge. But I daresay, Velos learned long ago to keep it better protected.”
“Your Grim?” A ghost seamstress with a bloodied, bludgeoned skull stood in one of the rotunda’s doorways, holding a large box. “As you requested.”
“My gratitude.” The Erlking swept forward and took the box from her. Relieved of her duty, she quickly spun on her heel and hurried away. The Erlking returned to Serilda, a giddiness in his eye. “Your gift.”
Serilda peered down at the box. It was wrapped in gauzy fabric, a sprig of holly berries tied into a black bow.
“Poisonous berries,” she said. “How … sweet.”
The points of his teeth flashed. “Go on.”
Serilda held her breath as she pulled out the holly with its sharp-pointed leaves and untied the bow. The ribbon slipped to the floor. She wrapped her hands around the box’s lid and lifted.