In the center of the room the Erlking stood near a flat stone altar, on top of which rested a wooden box.
A box she recognized.
As the dark ones poured in around her, sticking their torches into iron brackets on the walls, Serilda stared at the coffin where last she had seen her body. A wooden lid had been cut to fit the top, but she knew, sheknew, her body was still inside.
So, this was where he had hidden it. In the very last place she would ever have dared to venture.
Serilda barely felt the slippery press of the children’s hands grabbing her304arms and hands. Trying to wet her parched lips, she tore her gaze from the coffin and looked past the altar. On the far side of the chamber, enormous glossy black monoliths had been toppled over into the dust, all pointing to where the roots from the alder tree climbed down the dirt walls, forming the foundations of the castle above.
Between two of the massive roots was an opening.
There, the roots were blackened and twisted with dead twigs and brambles like those climbing up the steps.
An abyss lay beyond that opening. Pitch-black nothingness at first, but the more Serilda stared, the more her eyes detected faint lights shimmering deep, deep in the darkness, pale blue and lavender fireflies shifting in and out of a thick fog. An entire ocean of shining black reflecting the constellations of a midnight sky.
Serilda felt a tension building up inside her. The sight beckoned her and repelled her at the same time.
She heard them again. Climbing up from those hallowed depths.
More distinct now.
Tears gathered in her eyes. She tried to nudge the children away. Back toward the stairs—
The Erlking noticed and cocked his head at her. “Don’t be hasty, my queen. You’ve only just arrived.”
“W-we shouldn’t be here,” said Serilda, not ashamed at the crack in her voice. “It’s not … it isn’t n-natural for the living to be so … so close to this place.”
He barked a laugh and swept an arm around the room. “Who among us is living?”
Her gut tightened.
Shewas living, she wanted to say. She was not dead yet. Cursed—but not dead.305
Before she could form a response, though, the voice called to her again.
Serilda … my sweet daughter …
Her lower lip trembled. She could not help taking half a step toward the gate before she felt Nickel’s hand on her wrist, and the slickness of this cool, ghostly flesh made her wince. She shook him off before she realized she’d done it, and glanced back in time to see his hurt expression.
Regret coursed through her.
Get away…, urged the voice.Run while you can …
“Papa?” she squeaked, as the first tear slipped past her lashes.
“No,” murmured Hans. “It isn’t your father. It’s … I hear my granddad.”
Serilda stilled. “What?”
“He passed when I was eight,” he said, so quietly. “But he’s calling to me now.” His eyes were on the gate, his expression part fear, but more longing.
“Telling you to run?” Serilda breathed.