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“I know what it is you have come to seek,” said Velos, revealing sharp canine teeth. Their words were measured and thoughtful. “As you know, the price is too high, and you will not be willing to pay it.”
“To the contrary,” said the Erlking, whose own calm voice carried a roughened edge, “I am prepared to pay any price you ask.”
Velos listed their head to one side. They did not smile. They did not laugh. They said, simply, as if it were obvious, “Then I would ask foryou, in trade.”
The arms around Serilda tensed. Her own gut spasmed.
The Erlking in trade for what? For—
No. Not what. Forwhom.
He was asking for the return of Perchta.
Chapter Thirty-Six
This wasn’t supposed to happen now, tonight. Serilda had until the Endless Moon, which was still two months away. The Erlking could not demand a wish.
Though Serilda supposed he wasn’t making a wish. He was making a request. Asking for a trade.
And what trade would the god of death accept?
Only the Alder King himself.
The Erlking smiled, just slightly. “I think not.”
“Then there will be no bargain struck tonight.” Velos bent their head, almost in deference or perhaps a mutual respect. Serilda knew that the dark ones held great animosity toward this god, who had once been their lord and master. But if Velos harbored any of that same hatred, she could not see it on their face. “I have much work to do beneath this moon,” they went on. “You have my gratitude for reopening the gate, which makes my path into the mortal realm less treacherous. Please excuse me, for there are souls who wish to see their loved ones again.” Their eyes slipped toward Serilda, locking onto hers for the first time.
She froze, feeling both lost and found inside that peaceful gaze. A gaze that held worlds and eternities.
“Including,” Velos went on, “some who are here tonight.”
The Erlking let out an annoyed huff. “I did not reopen the gate so my309castle might serve as your toll road into the mortal realm. I am here to conduct business with you.”
Ignoring the Erlking, Velos reached their hand toward the staircase and beckoned toward the shadows.
With a snarl turning up one lip, the Erlking stepped closer. “Do not think to bring those pathetic souls into my court. I have plenty of my own.”
A figure shifted at the base of the steps, appearing on the near side of the bridge and drifting upward. Their body little more than a wisp of fog, but becoming corporeal as they moved closer to the gate.
Serilda’s eyes narrowed. There was something familiar in the way the figure walked. Something in the way they carried their shoulders.
“Unless you want me to keep them all,” the king growled, “I suggest you send them back.”
The figure on the steps glanced up.
“Papa!” Serilda cried.
Manfred’s arms tensed around her. Then, to her surprise, he let go. Serilda did not question if her freedom came from the ghost or the king. As soon as the arms fell away, she ran forward. Her father stepped through the gate. His soul solidified. He was whole. Not a nachzehrer. Not a corpse, his head cut off to stop his depraved hunger.
His eyes met hers.
A part of her worried she would rush right through him and find herself tumbling headfirst down the steps. But no—she reached for her father and threw her arms around him, and he was solid, he was real, he was—
Not alive. Of course not alive.
But not exactly a ghost either. He was more like her. A spirit. A soul, untethered by a mortal body.
He embraced her tight, squeezing her in arms made strong by years of working the heavy wheels at the mill.