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“Your body is in Adalheid,” said Gild. “If I can get to it, I can break your curse. Untether you from Gravenstone. But I need time. Please, don’t challenge her. Not now. You have to hide!”
The princess slowly shook her head, still facing the huntress as she prowled ever closer.
“What do you care?” said the princess, knuckles tightening around the handle of her ax. “These demons … they come and they want to takeeverythingfrom me. I will not allow it. Not again!” She raised her voice, speaking to Perchta and the Erlking, who stood by watching as if the battle were a great show performed for his amusement. “You might be the huntress, but your body looks very fragile, if you ask me.”
Perchta grinned and smoothed one hand down the side of her belly. “It suits me more than I expected. Makes it all feel a bit more …dangerous.” She swiped a dagger from a fallen dark one and lifted it over her shoulder.340“I suppose you probably can’t die, but there are other ways to punish such disrespect.”
She cackled and flung the dagger. Gild launched himself at the princess. He knocked her to the ground, his body bracing for the impact of the knife.
In the same instant, a shape dropped from the sky with a shrieking caw. A nachtkrapp split the air between Gild and the huntress, catching the blade in its wing. It shrieked in pain and fell, skidding across the tile floor.
“Lovis!” cried the princess, struggling underneath Gild’s weight. “No! Get off me!”
Perchta placed a hand to her cheek in mockery. “Oh, my darling beastie! How tragic!”
The princess roared, shoving at Gild. “I’m going to kill her!I’ll kill her!”
“Oh, please do try,” said Perchta.
Gild staggered to his feet and grabbed the princess, thrusting her behind him. He raised his sword.
Perchta snarled. “Even better. I have been waiting a long time to have my revenge againstyou, princeling.”
“If you want him,” called a new voice, “you will have to fightmefirst.”
Agathe appeared with a short sword in each hand, cutting easily through any dark one who dared to enter her path, until she had placed herself as a shield in front of Gild and the princess.
Perchta lifted an unimpressed eyebrow. “And who are you?”
“A huntress and a warrior, like yourself. One who owes a great debt to the prince of Adalheid.”
Perchta studied her. “You look like a sad little ghost to me. Why weren’t you taken with the others?”
“I requested to stay. I had other business to attend to. Agathe’s gaze darted toward the Erlking, who was leaning against the black wolf’s shoulder as comfortably as one would lean against a wingback chair. “And yes, His Grim could force me to my knees. He could insist that I relinquish341my weapons and put up no fight while you demons cut the head from my shoulders a second time. But I don’t think he will.” She fixed a wolfish smile on the huntress. “We wouldn’t want to ruin the fun, would we?”
Agathe lunged.
Perchta cackled, weaving in and out of Agathe’s attacks until she managed to grab a javelin off the ground. Weapon in hand, she met Agathe blow for blow, like two dancers in a choreographed match.
Agathe deflected the javelin’s point, pushing back the huntress. “Your Highness, run! Get out of here, you fools!”
“Yes, run!” said Perchta. “But don’t go far. I am not finished with you yet!”
Serilda tore her focus from the battle and saw that the princess was crouched over the nachtkrapp that had taken the dagger for her, tears streaming down her dust-covered cheeks. The night raven was an eyeless, soulless thing that had, somehow, come to love this girl. Or at least admire her enough to sacrifice itself to protect her. Serilda could hardly believe it was possible.
“Princess,” said Serilda. “This might be our only chance. You’ve been hiding all this time. If you can just hide a little longer, we will go to Adalheid and break your curse.”
“I am not a princess,” she said, but much of the fire had gone from her voice. “I am the queen of Gravenstone. The only queen it has had for a very long time.”
She took the blade from the bird’s wing. It was still breathing, but barely. Its body twitched in pain.
“My dear Lovis, I am sorry,” she whispered, before plunging the dagger into its heart.
Serilda flinched, though she knew this quick death was a mercy.
“Your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” said the princess, her voice wavering. “Nor shall it go to waste.” Inhaling deeply, she stood and looked around at so many fallen creatures. The floor was thick with blood, some red, but other splatters and pools made of sticky black or even shimmering gold. The342monsters’ blood. “None of these sacrifices shall go to waste.” She faced Gild and Serilda with a fierce nod. “You’re sure you can free me from these walls?”
“Sure, no,” said Gild. “But I think I can.”