Chapter 38

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It went without saying by the time Hissy reached Tree Spring Orin's temper had angled itself like a shard of glass narrowing light into a white-hot pinprick, blistering anything straying too close. He woke that morning in an overly ripe gray mood that soured after another brutal feeding from the Tree.

Three days after the disaster that put Ria in a catatonic state and blew a gaping crater in the Underdark's ceiling, the Tree took on the voracious appetite of the truly starving, locking onto its blood donor like a leech burrowing into an artery. Orin stumbled away from his feedings disoriented and semi-conscious, barely able to see straight let alone stand or walk. Every joint and bend of his body burned. His skin felt leathery, the moisture drawn from the cells as the vines wriggling in his arms climbed higher.

On rare occasions, he could summon the stamina to shadow-jump to the Spring and use its healing waters to replenish and repair the damage, but with his cognitive abilities severely addled by blood loss and pain, Orin missed his mark a number of times and wound up unconscious in the grass or somewhere within the castle. A worried Bracken usually roused him-following the scent of blood-but more than once, Orin awoke to being jostled by cautious fae.

This particular evening his feeding had been marginally less brutal, leaving him with enough energy to wobble back to his room with the hopes of curling atop his sleeping nest only to come face-to-face with an agitated Madag Lord.

"We have a problem," Bracken growled, pausing his circuit around the room. Weak and woozy, Orin's unsteady gaze snapped down to Ria, alarm plain in the lift of his brow and ears. Bracken noticed and bitterly scoffed. "Not your pet. An emissary from the Winter Court informed me one of our own has gone out of bounds. Two guesses who that little rattling irritation is. They're approaching the barrier now, and it appears my budling has picked up a traveler along the way."

Tightness torqued the already sore muscles of Orin's back, making him stand straighter against an icy burst of shock. With little regard to his already abused body, he blinked from his chambers and into the lush lawn, following the stretch of shadows down to the barrier's edge. Bracken joined him, the two waiting in stony silence as the madag trotted into view, guest in tow.

It only took one look for Hissy to spot what waited for her and she drooped like a flower missing the sun.

Today, Orin had very little room for patience or compassion. Tired, aching, bloody and drained, this was the last thing the Master of Tree Spring wanted compounded with whatever was still happening to Ria.

Ears flat and tail down, Hissy slunk through the barrier, unable to maintain eye contact. From her back, a cluster of berry-fae shot into the air like startled pheasants, leaving the magad to her fate. Their presence, however, didn't go unnoticed. Orin would deal with them in short order.

Hissy was another matter.

Lashing out like a hawk pouncing on a rabbit, Bracken snatched his budling from the ground by the back of the neck and twisted his wrist until Hissy's head was forced to the side, exposing her most vulnerable parts like a dog being scruffed. Held suspended, she whimpered, unconsciously drawing her forepaws and hindlegs towards her exposed belly. Bracken flicked a look at Orin who could barely keep his friend in focus. The world felt like it had filled with water, suspending him between heaven and earth.

"She is yours to discipline," Orin rumbled, swollen tongue barely able to form the words.

"Three rules govern us here," Bracken said, his free hand reaching around to grasp a thick, mature quill at the base of Hissy's tail. The madag came alive with sudden, desperate thrashing, sensing what was about to happen. "Take only what you need. Bring all grievances to the Master. Do not stray from the territory after dark. Three things, and you broke them all, so I will take for what you broke."

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