Surprise shot through Hans’s expression and he shook his head. “Telling me to come with him.”
Serilda looked at the Erlking, who seemed to be watching her. Waiting for … something.
Swallowing, she walked past him, past the coffin, until she was close enough to see beyond the edges of the gates, into the mist that lay beyond.
In the distance, as if she were barely making out a moonlit reflection in a pool of ink, she could see a white bridge stretching out across—well, she wasn’t sure. A ravine. A river. Golden candlelight illuminated the bridge’s stark white stones. The mist gathered thick at its far end, obscuring what lay beyond.
Then—a single light. Moving closer. Swaying gently back and forth.
Hope leaped inside her, bright as a matchstick unexpectedly struck.
“Papa,” she whispered, before she could stop herself. She took another step forward, but then a hand was on her elbow, holding her back. She shuddered and ripped her arm away from the Erlking’s grip, her eyes locked on the swaying lantern, the figure emerging from the mist.306
Crossing the bridge, step by unhurried step.
Tall. Slender. Wearing an emerald cloak trimmed in shaggy black fur.
Not her father.
And then she remembered what they were doing here.
“No!” she screamed, the sound ripping from her throat before she knew what she was thinking. “Run! Velos! He means to—”
Hands grabbed her, a palm pressing against her mouth, muffling her cries. She writhed, trying to pull away from the hand silencing her but, even more, from the smothering feeling of death and wrongness.
“I am sorry,” whispered a broken voice.
Serilda stopped struggling. Tears were dripping down both cheeks now, her limbs tensed from revulsion.
She craned her neck to see Manfred peering down at her, his expression tormented.
With that look, Serilda felt the fight draining out of her. She couldn’t fight Manfred. She didn’t want to. He was not her enemy.
With a quiet sob, she turned her attention back to the gates.
Manfred hesitantly let his hand fall from her mouth, but he did not release her.
Velos had reached their side of the bridge. Serilda could not make out their face yet as they drifted up the steps. There was a subtle grace to their movements. A mesmerizing rhythm.
She had seen Velos once before, when she had drunk the death potion prepared by Madam Sauer. It had put her into a deathlike state during the night of the Awakening Moon. For a time, she had forgotten to take hold of the ash branch that would keep her spirit tethered to the earth until Madam Sauer could revive her. She had begun to drift away. She had seen Velos and their lamp, waiting for her. Beckoning to her. Prepared to walk with her soul into Verloren.
She had not been afraid then, and she wasn’t afraid now. Not of this god.
She was afraid only of what the Erlking planned to do.307
Velos stepped through the gate and peered serenely into the face of the Erlking.
With the lantern hanging from their elbow, the god reached up with their other hand and pulled back the hood of their cloak, letting it settle over their shoulders. Serilda stared, breathless, taking in the features that were somehow both youthful and ancient. The god had white skin that shimmered like pearls, a delicate nose and mouth, and short black hair that curled softly around their ears. Their expression held no cruelty, but neither did it hold much kindness.
Run, she pleaded silently, hoping the god might look at her and understand. But the god of death had eyes only for the Erlking. Not frightened. Not even wary. More … curious.
Slowly, the Erlking spread out his hands, revealing open palms. “The Mourning Moon greets you, Velos. I hoped we might conduct a peaceful discussion.”
Velos tilted up their chin and Serilda noted the first touch of emotion on their sharp features. Not arrogance. Not amusement.