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The gods watched with piercing eyes as Perchta went to stand beside the Erlking.
“For my wish,” the Erlking declared, “I would have the veil between our world and the mortal realm destroyed.”
“No!” cried Serilda. This could not be happening already, so soon. Didn’t there need to be a ritual of some sort? A casting of black magic? Runes drawn in blood and black wine drunk from crystal goblets and chants muttered to the gray sky?
Seven beasts. Seven gods. A solstice moon and a wish.
Was that all it would take?
Her eyes darted toward the castle walls. Were the moss maidens there yet? Had they had enough time? It was too early, too soon, and with the dark one pinning her arms, she could not reach the reed whistle.
In the wake of the Erlking’s wish, a silence draped itself thicker than the blanket of snow at their feet. The gods did not move, but for the occasional blink of narrowed eyes.
The Erlking cocked his head, and when he spoke again, his voice carried a new current of brutality. “Would you dare to deny me?”
The tatzelwurm rose up, pushing back on its two clawed forelegs, one still bent at an unnatural angle. Its feline ears twitched, turning inward toward the Erlking. A gash in its side was dripping emerald blood, and Serilda realized that the arrow had been removed. The one that had long kept Hulda trapped in the body of the tatzelwurm.
With an annoyed huff, the Erlking strode toward the beast. He reached for the golden chains around the tatzelwurm’s throat and unraveled them, throwing them to the ground. With so many hunters gathered, he must have been confident that the gods would not attempt to escape, even with their chains undone.
“Go on,” said the Erlking. “If you wish to speak to me, speak.”455
The tatzelwurm held his gaze, looking very much like it wanted to devour him whole.
Instead, the beast curled its long serpentine tail around its body. The transformation was quick. A blink and Serilda would have missed it, for the creature shed its beastly form and emerged a human as quickly as Serilda would peel off her cloak.
Hulda was not as tall as Wyrdith or Velos, but they were still an imposing figure, with honey-colored skin and pointed, catlike ears surrounded by tufts of speckled fur. Their eyes remained catlike, too, piercing yellow with diamond-shaped pupils. Their hands were enormous and powerful, made for labor.
“We cannot fulfill your wish as you’ve made it,” said Hulda, as if this should have been obvious.
“I have made my wish beneath this Endless Moon,” growled the Erlking. “By the laws of your own magic, you must fulfill it.”
“What you have asked for,” Hulda said, “is no small trifle.”
The king’s fingers flexed, as if he were tempted to reach for one of the swords at his hip and impale the god for nothing more than the pure enjoyment of it.
“You created the veil. I know you can undo it.”
Hulda pressed their lips into a thin line. After a long moment, they responded, “The creation of the veil required a sacrifice from each of us. To destroy it will require a sacrifice as well.”
“Fine,” said the Erlking. “Sacrifice whatever suits you. It matters not to me.”
“Not from us, Erlkönig. This wish belongs to you and your demons. The sacrifice must be yours as well.”
Perchta let out a guttural laugh. “That is the problem with you gods. Always demanding a payment.”
“All magic comes with a price,” said Hulda. “And this is very powerful magic you are asking for.”456
“If you insist.” Perchta gestured to the shadows. “You, human girl. Come here.”
Leyna’s expression flushed with horror.
Again Serilda tried to pull away from the dark one, but his grip was iron.
Slowly, uncertainly, Leyna ducked beneath the chains that connected the gryphon and the wolf, still clutching the sleeping baby in her arms.
“Give me the child,” said Perchta, taking the baby from her without ceremony. She hefted the newborn in one arm, then grabbed Leyna’s arm and tossed her down to her knees in the middle of the ring of gods. “There. A perfectly healthy mortal girl. Darling thing. Quite responsible. Will be terribly missed by whoever that woman was at the inn. What better sacrifice could you ask for? I’ll even do the honors myself. My star, would you hold the baby?”
“No!” Serilda screamed, struggling against her captor. “You can’t!”