Chapter 17

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It was impossible to tell how long she sat in the courtyard, throat raw, salt the only thing she could taste. At some point Ria became aware of something insistently bumping her arm and jerked away from the little madag.

"Stop leaking. You'll run out of water and shrivel up!" it said in obvious worry. The bald innocence of the creature's concern buoyed Ria out of her grief long enough she cracked a thin smile and wipe at her eyes.

"I kill every plant I touch, so it wouldn't surprise me if I died too." That was dark even for her, but what hope was there now? In the span of a day, she'd lost everything.

"You're still alive aren't you? And you're mine," it declared with rock-solid finality. "Which means I'll take care of you until Ostara. Promise."

Still alive. Oh yes, Ria was alive but she couldn't count herself lucky for it. If the wolves hadn't killed her, exposure and the monsters who apparently called this ruin home certainly would.

So that was it then. The end of her story and the legacy of her family. Stolen in one fell swoop by forces beyond her control.

"No," she growled, hands closing into tight fists. Her mother and father hadn't spirited them out of London while the city-wide fires painted the sky blood red for her to shrivel up and die in a glorified fae greenhouse. She also had a sister to return home to.

Stubborn resolve reenforcing her spine, Ria gathered the scraps of her courage and stood, brushing dirt and the insurmountable odds from her skirt.

Picking her way towards the expansive open field beyond the castle's main walls, Ria surveyed her strange surroundings. Seventy or so yards out, the green grass abruptly ended, giving way to a glittering, snow-dusted landscape. It was towards the divorce in the land Ria pointed herself, surprise lifting her brow when the tips of her fingers brushed the warm, glass-smooth expanse of a magical barricade at the end of the grass boundary. Faint blue lines raced away from her like ripples in a pond, revealing the latticework of interwoven magic making up the invisible wall.

"It's the barrier," Ria heard the madag explain from beside her.

"I can see that. Why is it here?" she chanced asking in an attempt to gather useful information.

"It rises every year before the winter solstice and doesn't come down until the spring equinox."


"Because the Horned Lord wills it." The spines running the length of the creature's back quivered as it arched like a cat, eyes burning with focused intensity at something moving in the grass.

"Horned Lord? You mean Orphan?"

"Orin," the madag corrected from its predatory stalking. "And no, Orin isn't the Horned Lord. Just his servant and the master of Tree Spring—got you!" It sprang into the air like a fox chasing a martin, squirrel-like paws nabbing whatever it was hunting.

"Where can I find this Horned Lord?"

"Deep in the Underdark, but he doesn't talk to anyone but Orin," the madag replied around a mouthful of beetle. It happily munched in silence before cleaning its face and looking back at Ria with an innocent smile.

"Of course," Ria muttered, giving the barrier one last hopeful push. She found it profoundly unsettling looking out at the world—her world—as if trapped within a glass jar. There was a line of snow not three inches from her foot. She should have been able to reach out and touch it.

"What powers the barrier?"

"What?" the madag cocked its head.

Ria rapped on the wall with her knuckles. "All magic has a source. Wards. Sigils. Charms. Something that threads it together and keeps it stable. This thing just doesn't rise out of the ground like this. Something has to thread the magic together and power it all."

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