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“Then I would have you try. I know a back way out. Let’s go.” Without waiting for a response, the girl ran past them into the corridor.
Serilda glanced back at the battle one last time.
Perchta, wearing Serilda’s skin as her own, moved with a grace and strength Serilda had never possessed. Though Agathe was a worthy opponent, Serilda knew she would not win this fight.
What would happen to her?
She had chosen to stay, to help them, when she could have gone on to Verloren with the other spirits. What would the Erlking do to her for this betrayal?
Then she saw the Erlking. Staring not at Perchta and Agathe—but at her. Intrigued. Curious.
He reached for the quiver on his back, pulling out an arrow tipped in black. Twice she had seen gods trapped by those black arrows—the basilisk and the unicorn. But she had seen the Erlking use a black-tipped arrow for something else, too. She had watched him kill a ghost. Free his spirit.
The Erlking loaded the arrow into his crossbow and leveled it at Serilda.
With a cry, she grabbed Gild and pulled him behind the corridor wall.
She heard thethunkof the crossbow firing, and ducked instinctively.
But he had not fired at her or Gild. Through the doorway they saw the arrow lodge itself into Agathe’s side. She gasped in pain. The blood that leaked from the wound was not red like that coating her tunic, but oily and black.
Perchta, who had been prepared to thrust the javelin down through Agathe’s calf, looked up with a snarl.
“Forgive the interference,” came the Erlking’s honeyed voice, “but I fear your prince is getting away.”343
“What are you two waiting for?” hissed the princess, reappearing down the corridor.
Beneath the lunar rotunda, Agathe’s eyes met Gild’s one last time. “Your Highness. Forgive me. I wanted to save the ghosts. I did not know … my loyalty to your family … my debt repaid …”
Gild shook his head, speechless.
“Go,” breathed Agathe. “Run!” It was the last word she managed before her body convulsed and she went still. The black blood crawled along her body, devouring her whole.
Serilda grabbed Gild’s arm and they ran.
Despite her short legs, the princess was quick on her feet, practically flying through the halls of the castle. Gild and Serilda panted after her, the red cloak billowing like a sail. Behind her, she could still hear Perchta laughing. Cruel and cold, in Serilda’s own voice.
The princess led them into a series of narrow servants’ passageways, down a flight of steps, past the kitchens, and finally outside.
They darted beneath the exterior colonnade and flattened themselves against a series of columns, listening for signs that they were being pursued. All Serilda could hear were the sounds of the surrounding forest. Wind knocking wooden branches and the thrum of insects and toads.
And a deeper sound. More distant, yet seeming to come from far beneath them. A groaning deep in the earth.
“Look!” cried Gild, pointing up.
The branches of the alder tree that formed a canopy over the whole castle were changing. The leaves were falling around them like a blizzard. It was autumn, made clear by the vibrant reds and oranges in the surrounding forest, but Serilda knew this was not the natural progression of an alder preparing itself for winter. She had seen it brought back to life by the unicorn, and now it was once again withering away into a hasty death.
“The alder tree grew from Verloren,” said Serilda. “If Verloren is dying—”
The princess snapped around. “What do you mean, if Verloren is dying?”344
Gild shook his head. “I don’t think we have time to explain.”
“Wait,” said Serilda, watching as the alder’s roots shriveled and blackened. “Eostrig and Freydon!”
“This isn’t the time for prayers,” muttered the princess.
Gild shrugged. “I might argue it’s exactly the time for prayers.”