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She expected a small contingency. Herself and the Erlking. Perhaps a few hunters, maybe even Manfred or Agathe.
She did not expect the entire bloody court to be joining them on this ill-advised excursion, but as they began making their way through the winding castle halls, it struck her that every single demon and ghost who had come with them from Adalheid was following along, filling the corridors in their wake. Manfred, yes, and also the stable boy, the cooks, the chamber maids, the gardeners, the carpenters. The children huddled close behind her, and she could tell from their confused expressions they had no idea what was happening.
Fricz was waiting for them in the lunar rotunda. The Erlking took the red cloak and draped it around Serilda as solemnly as one might bestow a crown.
“I’m having second thoughts,” she said. “You go on ahead. The children and I will wait up here.”
His only response was an aggravating smirk before he led her toward the cavernous opening, stepping over the dead vines that littered the tile as if they were nothing more than a child’s playset left strewn about the floor. Without hesitation, he took a torch off the wall and disappeared into the shadows.
The moment he was out of view, Serilda gathered the children to her302and started inching them back toward the corridor—but a sharp point jabbed into her side.
She froze.
A hunter leered at her. She gave her knife a twirl, then cocked her head toward the opening. “After you … YourLuminance.”
“What’s going on?” whispered Anna.
Serilda shook her head. “Nothing. His Grim is just … showing off again. You know how he does.”
She approached the landing until she could see the flicker of the king’s torch gleaming across a steep, narrow staircase. Brambles covered the walls and ceiling, but there was space to walk on the stone steps.
Pulling the cloak around her, she forced herself forward. She did not look back, but she could hear the children and the dark ones and the ghosts following behind her. Many brought torches of their own, and soon the stairwell was lit as well as any tunnel to the land of death could be.
Ahead of her, the staircase curved sharply and the Erlking disappeared from view. Serilda swallowed, tempted to reach for the wall to keep her balance on the uneven steps, but the threatening thorns kept her hands gripping the fur inside her cloak instead. The air grew cold, until she could see her own breath in front of her. There was dampness down here. Rivulets of water dripping down the walls, gathering on the branches, puddling on the steps.
And again—she heard the whispers. Voices rising up from the depths of the earth, blending into an indiscernible choir.
Until a new sound cut through them all. A howl.
The god of death, who could transform into the great black wolf.
Serilda turned back so suddenly that Hans crashed into her. She barely caught his shoulders in time to steady him before he could grab one of the thorny branches.
The dark ones crowded into the staircase. Those nearest her glared and shouted for her to keep moving, but she ignored them.303
She saw it now. The occasional glint of gold on their belts or hidden beneath their cloaks.
They were going hunting tonight, after all.
But if this was about trying to capture Velos, what did the Erlking want with her and the ghosts?
“Go on,” said the hunter from before, flashing the hilt of her dagger. “Stop stalling.”
Serilda peered down at the children, studying each of their beloved faces. “Whatever happens, you stay close to me.”
She started her descent again. The stairs seemed never-ending and she could no longer see the glow of the Erlking’s torch.
The whispers returned, growing louder, while her steps grew more hesitant, more hushed.
Beneath the knotted vines, the walls turned from stone to hard-packed dirt.
She was so cold. She could no longer feel her toes or fingertips and wished she did not have to feel grateful that the king had sent for the cloak.
Finally, she saw a glimmer ahead, illuminating the base of the steps.
She held her breath as she passed through an arch of brambles, thick as tree trunks, into a vast chamber. It was bigger even than the great hall above. Octagonal in shape, cavelike, with walls made of dirt and stone and clay and a ceiling that rose far overhead.