Home > Cursed (Gilded Book 2)

Cursed (Gilded Book 2)
Author: Marissa Meyer

 


Be still now, and I will tell you a tale.

It begins deep within Verloren, the land of the lost. From the time the first humans were buried in damp, fertile earth or sent out to sea on burning pyres, their souls have been guided into Verloren by the eternal lantern of Velos, the god of wisdom and death. Taken to rest and to dream and—once a year, beneath the Mourning Moon—to return as spirits to the mortal realm and spend one night in the company of their loved ones left behind.

No, no, of course that does not happen anymore. This was a very long time ago. Hush, now, and listen.

Though Velos has always been the ruler of the underworld, there was a time when the god was not alone. Monsters roamed the dark kingdom, and spirits filled the caverns with laughter and song.

And then there were the demons. Wicked beings, the embodiment of all things foul and cruel, made of mortals’ sin and shame. When humans passed through the gates into Verloren, these despairs drained out of them, step by step, staining the bridge that connected our world to the next and dripping into the river beneath. It was from these poisoned waters that the demons were born, flesh and beauty—crafted from the regrets and secrets and selfish deeds that mortals carried with them after death. Today, we call these demons the dark ones.

Their numbers swelled as centuries passed, and with time the dark ones grew restless. They yearned for independence. Thirsted for a life beyond the shimmering caves and misted swamps of Verloren. They went to Velos and asked to be allowed to travel forth into the mortal realm, to gaze upon the constellations of stars, to taste a salty wind on their tongues, to feel the press of warm sunlight on their ice-cold skin.

But Velos ignored such pleas, for even gods can be foolish.

Or perhaps it was not foolishness, but cruelty, for the god to keep the demons thus imprisoned, century after century. Or perhaps it was wise, for having been born of wickedness, the demons were capable of nothing but envy, brutality, and deception. Perhaps the god already knew the truth: There was no place for these creatures among humans, who—despite their many faults—had also shown that they could lead lives full of goodness and grace.

The dark ones stopped asking for freedom, and instead—clever things—they waited.

Hundreds of years they waited.

Watching and listening and planning.

Until one Mourning Moon, when the sky was so thick with clouds the moon’s swell was shrouded from view. While Velos held their lantern aloft at the gates, showing the lost souls the way to return to the world above—the dark ones suddenly surged forward.

They cut through the throngs of waiting spirits. Slaughtered what beasts tried to stop them. They were prepared for the hellhounds, Velos’s beloved servants, having cut strips of their own bodies’ flesh to lure the hounds to their side. It worked. With the hounds placated and the god unprepared, the demons overtook the bridge.

In a desperate attempt to stop the horde, Velos shifted into their beastly form—the great black wolf that even today is said to guard Verloren’s gates. The beast was as big as a house, with fur like ink, massive, protruding fangs, and twin stars like burning flames buried deep in each eye socket.

But the dark ones were not frightened.

The one who would become Erlkönig, the Alder King, lifted a bow that he himself had crafted from the bones of heroes and the ligaments of warriors. From his quiver, he took an arrow—its fletching made from the fingernails of dead children, its head cut from the hardened tears of their mothers.

The demon nocked the arrow into place, took his aim, and let it fly.

Straight into the heart of the god of death.

The wolf roared and stumbled from the bridge, down into the depths of the thrashing river below.

Where Velos fell, the arrow that had pierced their heart stuck deep into the riverbed, where it would take root. Where it would grow, pushing past the bridge and through the gates. A great alder tree that would never stop reaching for the sky.

Velos would not die that day, if gods can die at all. But while the god of death lay powerless in the river below, the dark ones stormed overhead, their king at the helm. They emerged into a pitch-black night. Torrents of rain splattered upon their glorious faces, while the Mourning Moon hid behind lightning and thunder, choosing not to bear witness to the horrors that had just been unleashed upon the mortal world.

 

 

THE

SUMMER

SOLSTICE

 

 

Chapter One

 


Serilda stopped telling her tale, checking to see if the children had finally fallen asleep.

A moment passed, before Nickel opened bleary eyes. “Is the story over already?”

Serilda shifted toward him. “You should know by now,” she whispered, pressing down a lock of his fluffy blond hair, “that the best stories are never truly over. I would argue that ‘happily ever after’ is one of my more popular lies.”

He yawned. “Maybe. But it sure is a nice lie.”

“It sure is,” she agreed. “Now hush. It’s time to go to sleep. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.”

He posed no argument, just rolled onto his side to make more space for little Gerdrut, who was sandwiched between Nickel and Hans, with Fricz and Anna splayed at awkward angles at the foot of the bed. The five children had taken to sleeping in Serilda’s bed, even though they had been given their own cots in the servants’ halls. She didn’t mind. There was something about their cluster of tangled limbs and open mouths, blue-tinged eyelids and muttered complaints that someone was hogging the blankets that filled her heart with something close to contentment.

How she did love these children.

How she hated what had been done to them. How she tortured herself with guilt, knowing it was her fault. Her and her traitorous tongue and the stories she couldn’t stop telling. The imagination that had carried her away on so many fancies ever since she could remember … yet had brought her nothing but trouble. A life full of misfortunes.

The worst misfortune of all—the lives taken from these five precious souls.

But they kept asking her to tell her tales, so what could she say? She could deny them nothing.

“Good night.” She tugged the blankets up to Nickel’s chin, covering the spot of blood that had leaked through his nightshirt over the hole in his chest, where the Erlking’s night ravens had eaten his heart.

Leaning forward, she brushed a kiss to Nickel’s temple. She had to bite back a grimace at the sensation of cool slipperiness on his skin. As though even the gentlest touch might crush his skull, as if he were as brittle as autumn leaves in a child’s fist. Ghosts were not delicate beings—they were already dead, and not much more harm could come to them. But they were caught somewhere in between their mortal forms and decaying corpses, and as such, it was as though their figures could not decide where to end, what amount of space to occupy. To look at a ghost was a bit like looking at a mirage, their outlines shifting and blurring into the air. To touch one felt like the most unnatural thing in the world. A bit like touching a dead slug, one that had been left to rot in blistering-hot sun. But … colder.

Still, Serilda loved these five little ghosts with all her being, and even if her body was missing, trapped in a haunted castle, and she could no longer feel her heart beat, she would never let them know how much she wanted to pull away every time one of them wrapped her in a hug or slipped their dead little hand into hers.

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