Chapter 41

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The sun should have warmed her. After a week of shaded sedation, the radiance should have melted the ice between her joints and breathed life back into her soul, but Ria's existence circled the cold star of numb shock.

Waking changed beyond recognition tended to have that effect.

Orin had taken a seat in front of the rock Ria occupied, gently turning her arms over and examining the markings. Ria, by contrast, stared mutely down at the limbs that no longer belonged to her. They might as well have been a corpse's arms sewn onto her torso with the eerie ability to function.

This wasn't her skin.

These weren't her markings.

This was cruelty unimaginable. She'd been promised salvation, and like anyone faced with certain death, she'd taken the offered hand only to have safety ripped away. Freefall had been instantaneous, and she'd given a voice to her pain until all that remained was the empty impression of where hope once remained, a husk in human form.

But what was done was done.

The change was permanent.

Orin, however, seemed convinced if he examined her close enough he might find a way to reverse the rooting. Ria felt a faint flutter of appreciation at his earnest innocence. She liked this gentle side of him. The way he carefully handled her arms. The tight scrunch of his focused brow. Had the shock not numbed Ria, she might have even felt the gentle probes of Orin's magic touching the marks like a tuning fork.

In fact, there was a lot Ria neglected to take stock of. Like how little pain she was in after weeks of torment. How her body hummed at a new frequency. How the world seemed to settle like silt at the bottom of a lake. If she focused beyond the island of her turmoil, she would have felt two sets of tides ebbing and flowing in her blood. Two songs joined in harmony when once they warred like feuding kingdoms with her body as the battleground.

Healed would have been the word for it. Healed and made whole.

"Ria!"

The small voice was a crack of thunder in the suffocating silence. Ria barely had enough time to tense before a cannonball of grass and spines exploded against her chest, very nearly taking her off her perch. She didn't need to look to see who clung to her.

Unlike Orin and his hesitance to touch, Hissy had no issue taking Ria's face between her paws and smushing her cheeks together until the Green Witch's lips puckered.

"Don't ever do that again!" she cried. "Do you know how worried I've been? I thought I would never see you again. I thought you died, and I was scared! Then the vines came and I couldn't get near you and had it not been for Zacharias you wouldn't even-"

"Hey, hey, hey," Ria soothed after pulling the madag from her face and realizing the way Hissy trembled was eerily similar to how people shook when they cried. It was both a stunning realization and a sobering one. "Hissy, stop. I'm alright."

"But you weren't!"

"But I am now. See?" She smushed Hissy's face like the madag had done to her, leaning in close until their noses touched. "Here I am."

The madag tore her eyes away and proceeded to butt Ria with her head over and over again, making unhappy noises close to a sob. "You humans are so fragile," she sniffed. "How am I ever going to keep you alive forever?"

Heart clenching at the bald innocence, Ria couldn't bring herself to attempt an answer. Instead, she gently threaded her fingers into Hissy's coarse, viney fur and scratched lightly with her nails. It took several seconds for her to ferret out a safe topic change. "So something tells me I have you to thank for helping me."

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