“No!” Serilda screamed.
It didn’t matter. Perchta was too quick, dodging out of the creature’s reach and rushing forward to grab hold of its long, shaggy coat. Even with Serilda’s unfamiliar body, even with a child growing inside her, Perchta was as quick as a fox, spry as a cat. She took the arrow shaft into her teeth and pulled herself onto the wolf’s back, both fists clinging to its fur.
Velos howled, trying to shake her off, but Perchta cackled, her eyes lit with inhuman delight. “I have dreamed of this many times, you ancient mutt!”
A low, crooning noise reverberated off the stone walls—the king’s hunting horn. The bellow was followed by a thunder of footsteps. At first Serilda thought they were coming from the castle upstairs, but then, a swarm of figures began to emerge on the steps leading to Verloren, flooding back in through the gates.
Not ghosts. Not lost spirits.
The same who had been bound and reclaimed by the god of death. The golden chains shimmered on their wrists, but their looks of betrayal had transformed into looks of victory.
“Now, my love!” yelled the Erlking.
Perchta lifted her half of the arrow. The gold tip gleamed in the torchlight. Velos jerked upward, but when she would not be thrown, the wolf began to shift. For barely a moment, Serilda could see the beastly form beginning to grow smaller, the black fur lengthening, turning back into the god’s dark cloak.
But then Perchta let out a war cry and drove the arrow down into the back of the wolf’s neck.
An unworldly scream erupted from the beast’s throat. A sound that shook Serilda to her core. A cry that made the earth itself tremble. The stone beneath them split—a single jagged cut snaking in from the gates of Verloren, like a bolt of lightning that shot straight across to the castle steps. Stone rattled and groaned as the earth split apart beneath them.
“Now!” yelled the Erlking. “Quickly!”
The dark ones surged forward, tearing the golden chains from their own limbs. They must have planned this. Practiced this. How they would fool the god into believing the chains had claimed them, when the Erlking never intended to uphold his side of the bargain at all.
With breathless precision, the hunters surrounded the great wolf and hefted the golden chains around its massive form. The creature bucked and struggled and snapped, but the dark ones were too numerous, and as soon as the chains were tight around its body, the fight drained away. Velos was left panting, the chains entrapping their body from throat to hind legs, rendering them helpless.
“Finally,” said the Erlking, stepping forward to stare the great beast in the eye. “To conquer Eostrig was a joy, but to have the lord of death? I have waited long to have you at my feet.Master.” He snarled in disgust. “Did you really think I would give up my entire court? That I would sacrifice them to332you?” He clicked his tongue. “You might be a god, butIam the Alder King. The dark ones aremine.”
The Erlking lifted a hand to Perchta. She took it, as if she were a bride being helped from her wedding carriage. She slid from the wolf’s back and into the Erlking’s arms.
Around them, the walls groaned. The jagged crevice in the floor widened, yawning open. The gates shuddered. Motes of dust and pieces of rock fell from the trembling ceiling.
The edge of the destruction closest to the gates yawned open with a scream that burrowed into Serilda’s head. She covered her ears. Even the dark ones cringed at the unholy noise, backing away as the ground tore itself apart.
The gates began to fall. Splintering wood and crumbling ash, collapsing down into the open earth. Beyond the gates, the stairway too trembled and began to fall. The bridge to Verloren—
“Come on!” Gild yelled, though Serilda could barely hear him above the chaos. He yanked her away from the destruction, through the archway. The walls shook as they ran upward. The stairs groaned, the cracks spread.
“What’s happening?” Serilda cried.
“They captured Velos,” Gild shouted back. “Maybe the gates were sustained by the god’s magic?”
As they neared the top of the staircase, she noticed the walls were no longer trembling. The earth had stilled. But Serilda worried that it would follow them. That the gap beneath the castle would open so wide, it would swallow all of Gravenstone, taking them with it.
They had to get out.
Serilda was no longer tethered, no longer cursed. But could Gild leave? His body was in Adalheid, but with him imprisoned in the dungeons here, they had not been able to test what would happen if he stepped beyond these walls. Serilda had not dared to leave Gravenstone since their arrival, as she couldn’t have taken the children with her. Besides, they were surrounded on every side by the Aschen Wood. Where would she have gone?333
They reached the top of the steps and she spied the light of the Mourning Moon shining through the glass ceiling of the lunar rotunda, casting the walls in silver.
But no sooner had they run out into the rotunda than a swath of heavy cloth was thrown over them, cloaking them in darkness. Serilda screamed and shoved against the fabric, trying to find her way out of it, but it only tightened around her. “Gild!”
“Hold still!” he yelled. He drove the tip of his sword up through the fabric, then slashed downward, slicing a hole through it.
“Wait!” yelled a child’s voice. “It isn’t Erlkönig!”