Chapter 35

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"Are you sure we should be doing this?" one of the berry-fae whispered into Hissy's swiveling ears, voice little more than leaves rubbing together. In the valley below where the gathered fae hunkered along the rim of a steep embankment, smoke rose from twenty chimneys, slender white fingers reaching for the cloudy sky only to bend against the force of a periodic breeze. All seven fae could smell the nauseating odor of burning vegetation, but only one shivered with excitement while the others quailed with unease. Fire was no friend to plants.

"We don't have a choice," Hissy replied dourly, sharp eyes skimming the dwellings like a hawk searching for a mouse in the underbrush. A shiver worked up her spine, making her quills rattle. Oh yes, this was exciting indeed, but she had to focus. So much was at stake already.

Three days since Ria's fall into the Underdark and still she hadn't woken from her catatonic state. Nothing roused her. Not water dripped into her mouth from Orin. Not berries mashed and set on her tongue. No sting. No heat. Not even a roar from Bracken at the top of his lungs. It was as though Ria had become numb and blind to the world, the vines keeping her pinned to the bed working a strange form of magic.

And with each passing day, the pallor of her skin grew grayer.

There was little doubt among those who gathered around Ria that if something didn't change there was a very real possibility she would die before the barrier fell. The declaration came from a morose Orin who hadn't left the human's side save to feed the Tree. Ever stubborn, however, Hissy refused the acknowledge defeat. Ria was her charge; therefore, it was her responsibility to strike out into the unknown and find a cure.

Or attempt to.

She didn't have the first clue how to help a human in such a strange state, but Brenden did. At least, he was more helpful than Orin or Bracken who bickered among themselves about how to best deal with a fading human.

"I can tell you plainly, you won't find anything to help Ria in your oasis. She needs human food. Bread. Meat. Herbs her body knows and will react to," he told the madag when she sought him out among the ranks of Ryok's pack.

"You think those things will wake her?"

"I wish I could say yes. I'm a Shifter. We're not taught about the ether and its happenings, but I suspect familiarity might act as a grounding point for her. At any rate, it's worth a try. You'll need to find a human settlement, but the nearest is miles from here, and in which direction, I can't say."

"Leave that to me," Hissy bounced from foot-to-foot, a plan taking shape. "Tell me what I need to find and what to expect."

So here she and her ragtag troop were. As far from Tree Spring as any fae dared to go in the dead of winter. Perched on the edge of a foreign human village and curious as to what in the name of Danu they had gotten themselves into.

"A human settlement is the last place we need to be," the berry-fae nestled in Hissy's quills protested when the wind shifted direction and blew in their faces, making them cough and gag. "Witch or otherwise. Our kinds don't mingle for a reason."

"The Horned Lord said we have to remain in Tree Spring," another squeaked, timid as it watched the village with unsettled eyes. "It's the law! We're breaking fae law!"

"There's no law keeping us under the barrier. Bracken likes to tell tales." Hissy rolled her eyes from her place at the edge of a rotten log, toes itching the bite into the wintry wood. Her body hummed with readiness, tuning itself to the adventure to come. "We're not trapped there like Orin and Bracken. Only they're prevented from leaving."

"Technically, only Bracken is forbidden to leave. Orin can leave," an older fae with a spotted petal face corrected with a sniff. "He'll just be in his stag-form and mortal. But as master of Tree Spring and protector of all under the barrier, he should be the one out here, not us. It's his fault the human still lives. Therefore, it's his responsibility."

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