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Series are multiple stories that go together; the order they are listed in on the tables of contents and directory pages are their chronological orders within the universe, not the order they were written or posted in. A tilde (~) denotes an original fiction series, while an abbreviation such as HP denotes a fanfiction series.

Lythande Fanfiction: The Day That I Die

TITLE: The Day That I Die
CHAPTER: oneshot
AUTHOR: Ankh Ascendant ( setosgirl0 / neferseti0 )
DATE: 11-2009
FANDOM: Lythande
DISCLAIMER: I don’t own Lythande.
PAIRINGS: none
TYPE: Normal? Put under Drama.
RATING: PG
WARNINGS: none
OCs: all the side characters
BETA: Silver
WORDS: 6383
SUMMARY: Even a Pilgrim Adept of the Blue Star can’t fight fate…
NOTES: This seems way more like an original story than a fanfiction, but sadly I have to put it there… I wrote this for NaNoWriMo last year; it has not been published anywhere else online (or elsewhere, obviously). Call it a Lythandeland exclusive.

* * *

The Day That I Die

If any day can be said to be truly ordinary, the day that brought about the death of Lythande was one such.

It was morning, and the sun hung low in the east, promising to become hot in time but for the moment only pleasantly warm. The dust of the path had not yet been stirred into the air by passing feet to make a dry cloud that crawled down one’s throat, and as Lythande fully intended to be off of it before it was, she could enjoy the walk as she approached the town on foot.

Perhaps such a normal day should have set her on edge. The magician had at times had occasion to reflect that one should not put much faith in the ordinariness of ordinary things, and especially ordinary days. There were extraordinary things around many ordinary corners, and at any rate, one should never take too much of the world at its face value.

She herself was proof of this latter maxim. A tall, gaunt figure of some apparent age between twenty and fifty, but otherwise indeterminate, dressed in worn traveling clothes that were not as fine as they had been and sturdy boots, with a pair of short-swords at her narrow hips, the dark seamless cloth of the mage cloak above all – her face value was nothing of a woman, and she appeared as she had for centuries an eccentric man. A student of magic was almost by his nature an eccentric creature, however, and Lythande’s peculiarities of appearance, the excruciating thinness and the hairless visage, raised few eyebrows.

Well it was, because this guise would have to serve her for the rest of her life, which she had assumed would be close to eternity. A Pilgrim Adept of the Blue Star, such as Lythande was, was not constrained within a single human lifespan, but held magically safe from the ravages of time so long as they were possessed of their power. At the end of all things, when Chaos reclaimed all, the last to fall to it would be any Pilgrim Adepts who had survived that long with their power intact. The price of this power – for there must be one, as there was a price for everything – was a secret, to which the power of the Adept was tied, and in the discovery thereof lay their ruin. Lythande’s secret, which could never be uttered in the presence of any man, was that she was no man at all, but a female interloper who had disguised her way into their brotherhood and been discovered only when the blue star lay already upon her brow, protecting her by their own sanctions from execution.

But such thoughts, integral to her life as they were, did not bother her mind on such an ordinary morning. This many years past, the thought of the secret and its consequences could not rouse too much unnecessary excitement in her, and at any rate, there was nothing to draw her mind to those thoughts. Though she perhaps should have been wary of the ordinary sunshine and road-dust, and the unspectacular forests where she had sung with the dryads and then the fields that gave way to a perfectly normal large town, she was not. In fact, she took the day completely at its face.

The only thoughts that darkened the magician’s narrow brow as she passed into the town were thoughts of the light purse at her belt, and where she might find the nearest tavern, or whether there would be employment for a mercenary mage here. The town certainly seemed large enough for her services to be called for, but she had been subject to a dry spell recently, a fact which accounted for the lack of gold in her possession. There was nothing to say she would have more luck here than in the last village, or the one before.

There was a vast forest that stretched almost to the mountains, encroaching on the fields of the villages and even this town; the people of the region would not hunt or gather and most definitely not clear any part of it, because the dryads and spirits that called the wood home were of an unusually active kind, with no love for the children of men. She had spent days walking through the forest, finding its beauty and virgin serenity refreshing, and making music with the forest spirits, finding also their energy and innate magic refreshing. Among them, she did not have to keep up her masculine guise – and couldn’t have, for they knew inherently when a woman walked among them – and that too was refreshing. Unfortunately, however, their zealous protection of their trees and the way they did not fear the humans on their borders had taught the villagers fear and distrust of magic, even human magic, and made her pickings for employment painfully slim.

Perhaps the larger towns would be less superstitiously hateful of magic than the smaller ones in this area had proved to be…

Or perhaps it would be the lute strapped across her back that would pay her way until she found herself back in more hospitable quarters. If so, it was no tragedy; this would not be the first time she had subsisted on her voice rather than her magic or her sword. For either the one or the other, however, she would need such an audience as was best found in the company of alcohol and dimness.

The citizens on the street hardly garnered any attention from Lythande, her mind occupied as it was in considering her semi-immediate future. She paid them just enough notice to weave among them, allowing no contact with the skin or garments of any of them with the ease of long practice, passing among them like a silent breeze. She was not likely, she knew, to find any work for any of her professions in the bright light of midmorning, and her thoughts turned toward where it might be best to pass the time until evening, when the shadows with whom she was most likely to do business would come out.

The murmur of life around her passed unheeded over her ears, and she would have been just as happy to let it go on that way, had her attention not been arrested by a phrase directed sharply toward her.

“This is the day of your demise.”

Movement was arrested with attention; she stopped stock still in the street and sought the speaker. A bent beggar woman in rags was pushing herself to her feet from the dirty street, watching her at an angle with eyes that spoke little of sanity. Seeing that she had her target’s attention, she gave a smile that she might have thought was mysterious; the rotten stumps of the few teeth left in her jaw only served to be off-putting.

“Hear ye? I say this be your last day.” She stood away from the wall; a step closer and Lythande would have to smell her breath.

“Nonsense.” A glance more amused than annoyed swept the would-be oracle. “See you this star on my brow, woman? It marks me for the last battle between Order and Chaos at the end of time, and not a casual death at any hands before then. I should take more care in the marks I choose for my hearth-tricks were I you.”

“Nonsense ye’self, magician.” One gnarled hand darted out like a snake and Lythande, unaccustomed to much contact with anything human or living, felt an unpleasant thrill run along her nerves as the bony fingers closed around her equally bony wrist, protected only by a thin layer of mage cloak. “I ken who ye are, Lythande the magician, the shadow, lord of the star.” The harsh emphasis on the word ‘lord’ made that unpleasant thrill settle in the back of her mind and whisper that her secret was not safe – this woman knew, though how she knew was a mystery, and that mystery was worse than an accusation, for what she knew with no explanation someone else could know as easily. But the reaction was only instinctive and passing, and the bearing it held on the woman’s words little. “The star of ye order aint a promise, but a offer… Heed ye, sorcerer, for ye aint impervious to the spell o’ darkness whatever power ye fain ye’self to be possessed of… Death will come to ye ere ye sleep this night, and all ye magic willna save ye – nae, nor the swords ye wear so casually…”

With a start, Lythande realized that the tingle crawling from the very ends of her nerves was not fading, but growing, and coming to rest centered in the star on her brow. It was a distinctive feeling, as though her nerves were trying to crawl out of her skin, and it meant only one thing – magic was being performed, here, now. Scoff as she might, she could not force herself to believe this woman powerless at this moment. No simple hearth-tricks would cause the star to burn and flicker in alarm, or her own mind to feel unsettled as she could not deny it did.

Was this beggarly fortune-teller the vessel of true prophecy?

Nonsense, she repeated to herself, and again. Nonsense. Finding the will to move that had thus far been robbed of her, she yanked her hand away and gave the woman a cold look. “Turn your gifts elsewhere, hearth-witch,” she advised, and the star between her narrow brows flashed a warning. “I place no stock in prophecy, and less in the crafted words of a fortune-peddler on the street, wrought just so as to part the superstitious from their purses as they pay for your charms against destiny. I will have none of your trinkets; turn that shrewd eye elsewhere.”

The woman cackled, a dark glee in her broken voice. “I wouldna sell ye so much as a word o’ advice for all the gold ye could summon from yonder palace, wizard – nae, not even were ye on ye knees before me beggin!”

Lythande had enough restraint to not smite the woman where she stood, but it was a bare thing, and not a little influenced by the throngs of people on the streets who would be witness to the display of temper. One hand gripped tightly the hilt of a sword, the red-bound one meant for enemies of magical nature, as she turned on her heel and strode back the way she had come. The star blazed; the denizens of the streets made a path for her, the weakest-willed fleeing before her step.

Half-sane laughter trailed her, piercing the noise of the street and seeking her inner ear. “Ye put no stock in aught but ye’self, sorcerer, and ye won’t live to regret it!”

The packed earth beneath her boots cracked and fissured back along her path, and in that commotion she quit the city, and strove to abandon the uninvited and unlovely prophecy it had given her.

Nonsense, she thought again, with such force and conviction as would normally carry a gutter oath. But the word was hollow.

The town fell back behind her, and with it her ire faded enough for her to eventually stop walking. A low stone wall, crumbled with age, ran along the field beside the road, and she chose a spot more level and maybe more stable than the rest to sit. Elegant fingers drew from within her cloak a small quantity of dried herbs that she rolled into a tube; agitation made her movements abrupt, and she spilled a small scattering of herbs along the ground; in annoyance, she ignored them, and set the end of the tube alight with a quick gesture.

The fragrant smoke drifted around her head, and escaped her nostrils, helping to settle her nerves as she slowly drew on the tube. Her agitation didn’t disappear, but the flashes of the blue star calmed and she was able to push it to the back of her mind, and begin to try to think rationally.

If there were a plot by Fate against her, whatever its agents might be, there was but one certainty. She must search for the presence of another who wore the blue star of the Pilgrim Adepts; she was not self-deprecating enough to believe there was much else that could be the instrument of her death. Mortal and magic enemies held no fear for her, save that her secret be found out…

And here she was, making plans as though the words of the alley-witch’s prophecy had touched her! Did she believe the disconnected babblings of a rude and dirty old woman? She honestly could not say – perhaps not, but it would do no harm to take care.

Almost she wished that she had her own resources to check the truth in the woman’s words, some source of prophecy of her own, but that was only an idle thought, and pointless. Divination was not a school of magic in which Lythande had any great talents or practice, nor did she have in it any interest. As tedious as existence could now and then become, knowing all about it beforehand would be worse, so much so as to be unthinkable. Still, at this juncture, a talent for prophecy would be useful…

And if such wishes were fishes there should be no room in any of the seven great seas for their water. Lythande put it out of her mind, but did stop to consider a kernel of an idea the wish stopped to plant on its way. To work any spell of prophecy, a certain setting would be best, and even without such a spell, that setting might serve her now…

Cool eyes idly followed the path of a colorful butterfly as it traced its path toward the wood, lighting a moment on a bright flower. Such an ordinary thing. With a small shake of her head, she held the smoking herbs in her thin lips and drew the mage robe tighter around her, pulling it up to obscure the light of the day. The blue star on her forehead pulsed with colorful lights and the will behind the spell, until the darkness gave way to something else.

Neutral gray light in a neutral gray area of no size or shape lit the magician, and she leaned back against the nonexistent wall, taking hold of her diversion again and smoking as she contemplate the Place That Is Not. This was a place accessible only, or that existed (such as it did) only, to the sorcerers of their order, a place of magical privacy and conference.

Though privacy was always welcomed, it wasn’t actually that which Lythande sought here – time did not rightly exist in this Place, and it was that quality that the magician wanted now. She might lose a few days of her life, but she could probably spare them, and if that was the only cost for thwarting the prophecy – which, she reminded herself, she did not really believe, but would take some pleasure in thwarting anyway – it was well paid. The words of the old woman had been very clear – tonight would be her death.

That would be a hard prophecy to fulfill if she did not exist for that night.

Fleeing and hiding were not usually her wont, but in this case removal from the situation seemed the most thorough and expedient solution. There would be no enemies here, or unwanted intruders; in short, no danger, and no chance of the ‘prophecy’ coming to pass.

She let the herbs burn away, enjoying the smell, and pulled from a hidden pocket dried fruit and meat that she let herself savor slowly in this rare privacy. It was forbidden for any Pilgrim Adept to let for or drink pass his lips in the sight of any man; from more decades than she cared to think on of the practice, she could not have forced herself to eat in the company of anyone now alive, and more often than not her meals were hurried mouthfuls sneaked on the uncertain privacy of the road. A strange gesture of her fingers drew from the air a fine goblet full to the brim with sweet wine, which she sipped with relish. The drink didn’t go down in the cup, but when she had had her fill the food and wine both disappeared, each to their respective hiding place.

It would be useless to try to sleep; she had woken only hours before to set on her way into town, and she was not accustomed to spending too many hours in repose. Her long fingers sought the strings of the lute beside her, plucking out a simple tune that fell desolately into the silence of the Place. Her neutral voice hummed wordlessly with it, but that too was a more depressing sound than it ought to be, that only served to highlight the lonely emptiness. Music could not live well where there was no life, and she alone was not enough to make up for the expansive nothingness.

Her fingers fell from the lute and she closed gray eyes, considering. Well, there was no reason to keep this lonely exile; after all, time would move as it would regardless of how long she stayed here. Any further tarrying and one might be forced to believe she imagined truth in the old woman’s words after all, or thought she had something to fear from the real world – and that, of course, was pure foolishness.

A thin smile found its way across her face as she opened her eyes and stirred, at the thought of finding that beggar witch again. Would it be uncalled for to give her thanks for her advice? Perhaps… But at any rate, she must flaunt her still living state.

With such thoughts, she made a curious gesture, and the gray nothing flowed away, resolving itself back into the sunlit road and green fields extending toward the trees. She blinked and placed her hand on the wall to steady her, disconcerted, not by the obvious passage of time by by the lack of it. It must have been at least an entire day, then…

A movement caught her eye, and she turned her head, to watch the small butterfly take wing and abandon the flower… The same butterfly, the same flower – the same moment in time. Her genial mood evaporated at once. “What!” she cried to the empty air, or any extant gods that lent their ear that way. “Do you mock me now?” It was incredibly rare to not lose at least as much time as it felt had passed in the Place That Is Not, and never before had she lost no time at all.

“This is absurd,” the magician fumed aloud as she quit the wall; nothing responded or seemed to hear. It was only the ravings of some money-starved false street witch, why should the Place That Is Not bend to her word? Absurd!

Annoyed, beyond annoyed, the lute back across her back, she resolutely set her steps away from the town, toward the forest back the way she had come. Almost immediately she turned on her heel and turned back toward the habitations instead. She would not even seem to run from this nonsense. Let no one say she had fled from the words and coincidences of this cursed morning – no, not even her own conscience.

The flare of the star sent the men and women out of her way once more as she strode the street, and she paid them no heed, eyes combing the buildings for the sign of an inn, intent only to follow her original plan, to find work and perhaps passage away from this annoying place, and ignore the woman’s existence.

She would have succeeded better if the voice had not rung out across the street. “Hark, the magician!” the old woman’s voice called over the other voices and noises. “He spends his last day walking amongst the mortals! Feel blessed, all ye who see him in his final hour!”

“Silence.” No one could truthfully have said that they saw Lythande cross the distance, only that the magician suddenly appeared looming over the street oracle, the blue star flashing ominously. The sunlit day seemed to darken for a timeless moment.

“Silence, woman,” Lythande commanded, and the street witch was quiet, her half mad eyes wide and solemn as she stared up into the hard face. Her mockery had vanished, and she pressed herself to the dirty wall as though she could disappear. “Silence, before you learn what it is to have me your enemy.”

Stillness spread both ways down the street, all eyes drawn to the figures. Even so, none could say when Lythande disappeared or where she vanished to, only that the day seemed to brighten and time to move again, and there was no sign of the magician.

Lythande left that street and the cowed woman behind, letting the hood of the mage robe fall over her brow and hide her from the sunlight. Uneasy thoughts tried to intrude upon her mind; she put up a feeble resistance, then let them in, feeling finally that they might have some substance to them.

Whether the woman was a true oracle or just an unpleasant hag, there had been magic there; she could feel it still crawling over her skin. It was possible – only possible, not likely or probable – that she did see something in the hazes of the future that Lythande would be a fool to completely disregard.

And, if the magic there were not hers, it was magic upon her. It was maybe more likely that the woman was a pawn, a tool in the hands of another sorcerer… another Adept, perhaps, using her to try to coax from Lythande some hint of her secret. The stars knew there were enough of them who would be her enemy and would not mind to take her power and her life.

This other Adept – if Adept it was – would not drive her into panic and carelessness. She lifted her face, and flinty eyes scanned the back alleys where she walked. She would search for him, rather than waiting for his trap to spring, and do more than react to his plans.

Thus resolved, she set her face toward the streets and began her exploration.

The sun was setting before she admitted her search would bear no fruit. No matter where or how she asked, the questions yielded no rumors of another with a star on their brow or any sign of magic about them.

The fact meant nothing, she knew. There were those among her order who were accomplished at disguise and would walk among the ordinary mortals as one of them if it suited his purposes. She would prefer not to have to fight one of them – she preferred things to be generally straightforward, and had no relish for the tricks and subtleties of some of her kind – but at least she knew now the character of her enemy.

Leaning on the side wall of the inn she had finally found in her search, she smoked and silently watched the red light of the sun paint the houses bloody as it dipped between them, dying slowly. Her thoughts had a morbid bent this evening that she could not curb, and didn’t try to overly much.

It had occurred to her to go inside this building, and seek work and move on. She fancied she could feel magic moving the air as she thought it, though. Was this where the woman’s words were to be fulfilled – where the trap would spring? Well, she would not play into a trap so easily.

Her mind calm, if morbid, she turned from the building and the town, drifting as a shadow back along the road in the falling darkness. She would in fact let the trap spring, but on her own terms…. she would not be the one caught in it, in the end. Who would it be, she wondered, when the one who had been toying with her was revealed? There were too many who bore her a grudge to begin to guess; the list of names would be as long as her forearm, and more if she counted those who did not wear the blue star…

The moon was beginning to rise before she reentered the forest beyond the fields. The leaves rustled with more than wind at her passage, but she ignored the forest spirits now; she was not here to pass time in song with any of them. If her enemy were a native of the area, she knew, he would never enter this wood for the superstitious fear with which it was regarded; she doubted he was, and that meant only that they should have privacy.

A small rocky outcrop beside a small brook in the wood caught her eye in the moonlight, and she approached it, choosing a seat in the damp earth beneath a slight overhang. It extended almost impassable above and behind her, and shielded one side; the brook, too wide to jump, was on the other. There was now only on direction for her foe to approach her from, unless he felt the need to disguise himself as a mole and come from beneath, and she doubted that was very likely.

Her swords she unsheathed and embedded in the soft earth behind her, each within easy reach. Her lute and pack she set aside to keep out of the way, and then she sat as still as a statue in the darkness, waiting patiently. The moonlight through the tree branches threw vague leaf shadows on the ground, that danced with the breeze, but did not disturb her. When her enemy came, she would know.

And he was coming, however slowly, she was certain of that. It was not imagination that she felt the stirrings of magic in the air with that extra sense. There was something happening.

She smirked to herself, and her hands made a curious gesture. In an instant the heavy feeling in the air and along her nerves disappeared, as her spell nullified all man-made magic around her. This included her own, but the loss was temporary and not so great as it was to the man who must now be aware that he was noticed; though she could not yet see him; if she had read her opponent’s character correctly, she faced one of those narrow-minded spell-casters who relied on his magic to protect him, and was helpless when deprived of it. Her hand touched the hilt of a sword; she was not one such.

A soft sound reached her ears, like a distant step; in a moment, a vaguely human figure resolved itself in the moonlight beneath a tree.

“I have you!” Her hands closed each around a sword hilt and she shifted her feet beneath her into a crouch. In a smooth movement she pulled the swords free of the earth with little resistance.

A drifting of damp earth in front of her vision was her only warning. An almost inaudible rumble in the ground jarred her feet from under her and her attention abandoned the figure. A heavy stone slammed into the ground beside her, blocking the brook and knocking her to the ground with the impact. She tried to roll out of the way, but dark earth and small rocks rained down around her, interspersed with larger ones. Pebbles glanced off her shoulders and face; the larger ones left bruises. When she saw a looming bright spot in the darkness she could only cover her head and mutter a spell that was useless with her magic damped.

The stone slammed into her side, not a direct blow but bad enough. Breath was forced out, along with a hacking slime of blood that coated her tongue, and she struggled against the pain of broken ribs. The rock still held her to the ground, its weight pressing on her when she tried to breathe. She could not move her arms from her face yet for the rocks and earth that rained down still, and she could feel her legs trapped under the weight of it already.

When the ground subsided – it could only have been half a minute since she pulled her swords and jarred it loose, but it felt like much longer – she was entombed. Her legs could not move at all, no matter how she strained, and the effort made pain wash over her from the great stone pinning her side. Her arms had protected her head and left her a small pocket of air, but they too couldn’t move – not that she would want to take them away and bury her face. She could only take small breaths, and they were agonizing, but they were better than not breathing at all.

It took a minute or so of uselessly struggling against the trapping earth and stones before she relaxed as well as she could and closed her eyes. There was no physical way out, she was not so foolish she wouldn’t realize that. There was only to wait to see if her spell would fade before she suffocated, and let her magic return… That was not a likely prospect.

She could almost have laughed, if her body would cooperate. It would not have been a lovely sound in the darkness, though, most likely bitter and harsh.

Death came tonight indeed… and all her magic would not save her, nor her swords… No, in fact both had killed her. Most likely there was no other magician within a hundred miles of this accursed place – save for that street witch. And if she had only ignored her properly, or if she had demanded an explanation, this would not be happening now.

The gods laughed, she was sure of it. Lythande brought down by her own pride… Well, she would be the laughingstock in their own presence soon enough.

A thick cough escaped her, and she couldn’t draw another breath. Still her magic was damped and untouchable; it would not save her.

There was a long moment of fruitless gasping, and the heavy feeling of suffocating in the air. Soon enough, it gave way to deep darkness and she knew nothing more.

A gentle song drifted into the darkness, bringing with it a touch of light, something from the world beyond.

Her mind considered the song curiously. Was this the voice from the courts of light? A spirit who played and sang for the gods? It was well worthy of it… The light melody was wordless, or had no words that she could understand, but it made her soul stir; she felt that soon she could rouse, and go on to see the source of that voice.

As she listened the melody changed. It dropped, gaining a note of sorrow that made her heart ache; she felt the overpowering urge to find the singer and console her, to lift that song back into joyous heights where that voice belonged.

Even as her soul strained toward that voice, the song shifted into a forlorn cry of yearning, all the more powerful because it had no lyrics, only a deeply powerful note that keened in loss and need. She gasped, feeling the singer’s pain as her own, and stretched toward it…

Her hand closed around another’s, and she took a sharp breath as her eyes snapped open. Pain flooded her senses, and made the moonlight waver for a moment, but the hand squeezed hers in turn and she was able to focus on that and hold onto consciousness. The song remained a moment longer, quiet and intimate but close at hand, spiraling up into a high sound of joy before it faded away.

“You live, sister!” It was the voice that had been singing, sweet and clear. A voice she recognized; the hand in hers thrummed with power, muted but deep, also recognized.

“Did you worry, Sylvan?” she murmured; the words hurt her ribs and tasted of blood, but the pain no longer worried her. Her eyes sought the face of her rescuer, to affirm what she knew already. It was a spirit of the forest, a dryad, maybe even the one she had seen in that moment before the rocks began to fall – maybe one that she had sung with days before. The moonligt lit her pale face with a gentle glow; her hair was wild, and seem to throw leaf shadows on her visage. The tree Lythande rested against grew tall and wide; it was probably as old as she was, and she could feel that it was the home to this spirit (for where else would the dryad bring her but to her own tree?), but the face that looked at her was the pretty, innocent face of a girl of maybe fifteen years. Such was their nature.

“I did.” The spirit’s face showed open concern. “You were still and did not breathe… I wasn’t sure at all that I could bring you back. But the spark of life was not yet gone.” She sighed in content.

“I thank you,” she said sincerely, and pushed herself painfully up to sit. Her ribs and legs protested loudly against the motion.

The warm hand moved from hers to her shoulder, holding her gently as though to keep her from getting up. “You aren’t well, sister,” she fussed.

“No,” she agreed. Lythande did not make the mistake of attributing any deep meaning to the mercy and concern of the dryad, or any real personal connection. If she had been a deer or bird caught in the same earth prison the dryad would have shown the same mercy, if she felt the mood, or if her mood had been slightly different she could have passed by without thought. It was not in their nature to be very stable, or worry overly much about morality and responsibility. Still, her concern was genuine for now, and she owed her gratitude. It would not do to take the chance of angering such a capricious spirit, either. “No,” she repeated, “my body is in poor shape for now, but I will recover.”

“Can humans do that?”

“Recover?” Lythande looked at her with some quiet amusement. “Yes, they heal eventually, and I have learned some tricks to speed the process.”

“I didn’t know that could be done.” The dryad gave her a bright smile and let her shoulder go. “You can stay here and heal then.”

“Thank you sister.” She closed her eyes to focus on the damage in her body and exercise the methods she had learned in another time and another world. “So that was you then?” she asked casually.

“What was me?” The sylph’s deceptively youthful face watched her without guile when she looked at her again.

“The woman in the town, who spoke the prophecy that sent me out here to my meeting with you…”

With a slow shake of her head, the spirit denied it, but she needn’t have bothered; Lythande could see the truth in her face. “No, sister, I don’t go into town for anything, and I’m no great illusionist to appear as anyone but myself.”

“An agent of yours, then?” Though she knew it was not so, she wanted it to be, and so pressed forward with her questions.

“No…” With a small, shy smile – so endearing, the way it made her look so young – the dryad shook her head. “No, I haven’t any human agents. Why do you grasp so?”

Lythande gave a heavy sigh and let her eyes drift up through the leaves of the tree, filtering the light oddly above her head. “I think that the gods are trying to teach me a lesson, sister…”

“What lesson could you need to learn?”

“To trust my fellow Man, apparently.”

“And have you learned, Lythande?” The spirit looked curiously at her, intrigued in the flighty way of all her kind.

“Oh yes,” she agreed calmly, reclining against the tree that held the spirit. “The lesson has been taken to heart… I doubt I shall forget it ever.”

The dryad smiled and sat on her knees beside her, the woody hand resting intimately on her own. “Does this mean you will allow others close to you? Will you trust in your kind?”

“Hardly,” Lythande said, and gave a thin smile. “But I shall never again listen to a word of prophecy.”

A second passed while the nymph regarded her in surprise, and then the spirit’s soft laughter welled up and escaped her, hidden demurely behind a pale hand. The magician smiled to herself and closed her eyes on that sweet music, letting it soothe her while she would let her body heal.

* * *

When she woke it was sunlight, and the dryad was gone. She was not surprised; watching a human sleep would be incredibly boring too such a flighty creature.

Experimentally, she stretched; her ribs twinged, but otherwise she felt nearly normal. Satisfied with that, she pushed herself to her feet and glanced around to get her bearings. Her swords lay at the foot of the tree, drawn by the binding spell that bound them to her, and she picked them up and resheathed them. Her lute and pack were both still buried, and there they would remain; the instrument would be ruined, and there was nothing there she couldn’t bear to part with.

“Thank you again, sister,” she said aloud to the tree, to guard against offending the dryad by her departure, then struck back toward town.

She found the one she sought on the street still. She knew she must have looked quite a sight – dirty, bloody, bedraggled – but very much alive. A thin smirk graced her lips as she passed the street witch, hearing a hiss of surprise.

Then she set her face out of town and carried on.

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