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Exiled to the Couch
The Loops Before - Story Chapters
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The Loops Before - Story Chapters
It looked like an office workroom of some kind. Beautifully bound books, some of them grimoires and others unmarked old tomes, filled up a bookshelf that took up the entirety of one wall. The wall next to it seemed stuffed with various arcane objects, most of them either shimmering ghostily or glowing with undulating waves of light, captivating Lillet’s attention. The rest of the space held leather chairs and dark wooden tables that refused to hold the blue candlelight lighting the room and so appearing shadowed and grim. Red and gold drapes hung from the arched rafters, the braided tassels hanging downward in strange bursts of warm colour in the otherwise gloomy décor. The remaining sides of the room didn’t seem to have walls, but instead led outward into further open rooms, the boundaries marked only by the white pillars that held up the ornate ceiling rafters.
There was only one door in this strange room, and it was shut.
Lillet hesitated—if this was a professor’s office, then she probably shouldn’t snoop. But Margarita had just come from here, hadn’t she? Surely it couldn’t be anywhere grossly out of bounds.
She touched the door lever. Something about the door made Lillet pause, and shiver slightly as an intrigued chill swept through her like a ghostly wind. Lillet felt a strange attraction, as if there was something powerful and dreadful behind that door.
She cracked it open.
There was a massive Rune shimmering on the floor inside, glowing pale blue. Necromancy, no doubt—which meant that this was likely Miss Opalneria’s office. Lillet was about to shut the door when something inside caught her eye.
The only furniture in the room was a plain wooden stand, and Lillet felt her blood run cold when she saw what was resting on it.
The Archmage’s soul container!
The last time she had seen it, it had been crushed in the laughing Archmage’s gauntlet as the ghostly apparition smoked into being in front of Lillet and the other horrified apprentices.
A metallic rattle startled Lillet, making her jump back and slam the door shut.
“What are you doing here?” A sharp voice demanded—Opalneria stood in the hall doorway, her eyes narrowed behind her thin spectacles as she eyed Lillet with suspicion. “You’re—”
“The new student,” Lillet said quickly, turning around and keeping her body language as innoculous as she could. “Lillet Blan. I’m sorry for intruding on you, Miss Opalneria, but I was hoping that you could instruct me in Necromancy.”
“Oh?” Opalneria looked surprised, her stern expression easing a little as she walked into her office. “Aren’t you Sir Gammel’s student?”
“Yes, ma’am, but Professor Gammel gave me permission to learn with other professors if I wanted.” Lillet smiled earnestly. “I don’t know much about Necromancy at all, and I was hoping to at least learn the basics from you.”
“Hm.” Opalneria studied Lillet for a moment, and just as Lillet started to worry that she had messed up and gave her lie away somewhere, the necromancer nodded. “Very well. Here—” She pulled a grimoire off her bookcase, and Lillet recognized it as a beginner’s grimoire, the Hades Gate. “We can begin our first lesson now.”
They moved into the corridor and into a workroom across the hall, and Lillet stifled a sigh at the interruption to her main quest. She’ll lose at least an afternoon’s worth of time when she could have been looking for information or leads about the Philosopher’s Stone. Still, knowledge was power, and Lillet supposed that being proficient in as many magical types as possible could only be an asset.
“Necromancy,” lectured Opalneria, “is a holy magic, and yet, it is categorized as a dark art. Controlling death and contacting souls are normally in God’s domain, but Necromancers must harness this power in order to summon our familiars. The simplest familiars are Ghosts, which are classified as Astral beings. That means that they are made of matter that is not of this world, making them intangible like illusions.”
She started sketching a Rune on the floor, continuing to speak. “Only magic that specifically affects Astrals stands a chance against Ghosts, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lillet nodded, watching the Hades Gate Rune spring to life. “Substance magic like Glamour wouldn’t work against Necromancy then.” Then she corrected herself, remembering the new spells in her Fairy Ring grimoire and her new Wicca grimoire that she had been instructed to study, “Unless the Substance familiars are spelled to Astral form or have special abilities like Astral Hold and such.”
“Exactly.” Opalneria turned to gesture for Lillet to open her grimoire, but gave a brief smile when she saw that Lillet already had it open to follow along. “Now tell me—what is Necromancy most effective against?”
“Sorcery, ma’am,” Lillet answered immediately.
“Yes. Devilry tempts mankind through the pleasures and pain of their flesh, and so a sublimated spirit is above their evil powers. Spirits hold similar power to that greater power that evil fears, and thus naturally oppose Sorcery.”
Just as Glamour is most effective against Necromancy, Lillet thought to herself. Why, perhaps it would be wise to learn as much as she could of all the magic types, if only to make sure that she had the best offence against all the different opponents she could possibly encounter.
“Now, Lillet Blan, I want you to summon ten Ghosts…”
The rest of the lesson was tedious, but still fun in a very scholarly way. Lillet seemed to pick up Necromancy faster than Opalneria expected, surprising both of them. Lillet doubted that Opalneria had meant for them to move on to summoning Phantoms so early in her lessons, but they had finished the lecture on the second level of Hades Gate before Opalneria had ended their practical session.
“Very good, Miss Blan,” Opalneria said as she banished the Runes she had cast for their practice battles. “You picked up Necromancy very quickly—it’s unexpected in a new student such as yourself.”
“Thank you,” Lillet demurred, shutting her grimoire. Really, that was shocking—could she really have an aptitude in so many different types of magic? She had learnt Glamour swiftly, and had blazed through so many levels of Sorcery with Advocat that the idea of
being skilled in Necromancy was puzzling.
“Normally I would advise against spreading your academic focus too broadly,” Opalneria told her, “but perhaps it would be beneficial for you to branch out until you find your preferred aptitude.”
“Sir Gammel would be able to advise you best, as he is your mentor.”
“Of course,” blushed Lillet—it was strange to remember that in
timeline, she was Gammel’s apprentice, not Advocat’s. “I’ll consult with Professor Gammel as soon as I can.”
“Your mentor is your foremost teacher in magic,” Opalneria instructed sternly. “As an apprentice, you must trust the wisdom and experience of your mentor in all things.” She opened the workroom door. “That’s all for today. Make sure to study the rest of that grimoire on your own time.”
Lillet didn’t exactly agree, but as she suddenly recalled Opalneria’s words towards her own mentor, Lujei, things started to make a little more sense. The last time around, Opalneria had died casting a spell that Lujei had told her to execute without question. It seemed too cruel, for Lujei to have been so casual about telling her former student to follow an uncertain plan that led to her death! Lujei was dead, so why would she care about—
“Oh,” whispered Lillet, raising a hand to her lips in epiphany.
She just remembered.
The Archmage hadn’t made the Philosopher’s Stone on his own. He had needed the collaboration of two other powerful magicians before that extraordinary relic could be created, one of which could care less about the affairs of mortal beings, and thus keep Lillet’s interest secret from the others in the Tower.
She needed to talk with Lujei Piche.
Second Day Three, Part 1
Cold shivers ran down Lillet's spine in the wake of the midnight bells, shivers most definitely not caused by the night wind whistling through the open archways of the Tower's external corridor.
"This is a really, really bad idea, Lillet," Gaff whimpered from behind her. His opinion had not wavered in the slightest since Lillet had left her room; he'd done pretty much everything but grab her skirt and dig in his heels to try to get her to stop and go back.
"I'm scared enough as it is, Gaff, and you're not helping!"
"You should be scared! I know I tell creepy stories about her sometimes, and it sounds like I'm just making up legends, but I'm not! Every word of them is true!"
"If that's the case, why does Professor Gammel let her run loose?"
"She's the ghost of the Grand Witch! She was as powerful a magician as Professor Gammel, maybe even the Archmage. I'm not sure who'd win that fight, truly."
And Ms. Opalneria would probably side with Lujei, too,
considering what she told me about the loyalty between mentor and student.
Banishing Lujei could start a war between magicians and would tear the academy apart. She could only imagine what that would do to the reputation of magic and magicians in the kingdom, to all the hard work Gammel had done to make it a reputable craft.
"Besides," Gaff added, "she helps to keep students from sneaking around at night and getting up to no good."
"Isn't there a better way to do that than to have a...a murdering ghost running loose?"
"There's only four teachers, after all—and the students are all magicians, which means there's a
of trouble they can get into. There's even been spies here before, sent by other countries."
"Spies?" Lillet was caught off-guard, but she realized after a moment how obvious it really was, considering the wealth of magical knowledge and objects of power in the Silver Star Tower. "I didn't think about that. I guess a spy would be able to get past magical wards and guard familiars, but not a magician's ghost as strong as Lujei."
Assuming, of course, that Lujei was willing to act as a guard. If she didn't care about sending her own apprentice to her death, would she bother to lift a finger to stop a spy? But if she
care, then didn't that mean that Lillet's assumptions were wrong about why Lujei would be the right person to talk to? Or was it just that the ghost witch was more like a roving deathtrap that anyone, be it spies out to commit crimes or students with pranks, would indiscriminately be consumed by?
"Exactly!" Gaff said in response to her last out-loud thought, unaware of the sudden turmoil in her mind. "And a student who's only been here two days would be even worse off! So can we just
Lillet was starting to have second thoughts herself about her idea. Everything had seemed so clear-cut after Ms. Opalneria's lectures, and yet now her thoughts were twisting one upon the other. Or was she just second-guessing herself because of fear?
I'm not going to find out anything cowering in my room,
she told herself firmly.
And if I don't learn something about the Philosopher's Stone, who knows what might happen?
"No," she declared. "I'm going to find Lujei."
"I have to do this, Gaff; you're not going to change my mind." She suddenly smiled at him. "Though it's really sweet that you care so much."
"T-that isn't it! I...just don't want to wait around with nothing to do until Professor Gammel finds another student, that's all."
Lillet's smile didn't shrink at all. It was
how the elf boy wouldn't admit his affection. Just like her little brothers; the elder one was just at that age where he'd swallow coals before saying "I like you and don't want you to get hurt."
Then Gaff's defiantly embarrassed expression turned at once to blind, staring panic.
"I-it's Lujei!" he half gasped, half screamed. Lillet turned, and saw a pale glow not unlike the light of necromancy from the previous day's lessons flickering and swelling from one of the inner passages. From behind her, she heard the patter of feet, and she realized that Gaff's courage had broken completely. She couldn't keep herself from trembling, either, as the light grew brighter and brighter.
And then she was there.
The Grand Witch looked just like she had when Lillet had seen her with Opalneria, but somehow it seemed completely different, more overwhelming, when it was just the two of them in the corridor. Again, she saw the incongruity of the ghost's appearance. Rather than a fearsome crone out of a fairy tale, her age telling of her power and her fearful visage the threat she posed, or failing that a stately, regal woman similar in bearing to Ms. Opalneria's icy veneer, Lillet saw the beautiful face of a woman in her twenties, a swirling aura of blonde hair, and a diaphanous white outfit that was more nightgown than dress. The outfit revealed a great deal of lushly curved, pale flesh—yet flesh that had oddly mottled patches here and there, unnatural shadings beneath the skin. A rose vine bearing deep blue blooms embraced her body, serpent-like, and Lillet realized with some surprise that in places it seemed to be piercing her, the thorns thrust deep into her skin. Her body was limned in the pale radiance that had flowed through the halls, or perhaps more accurately was
that light, for there was a translucence about Lujei that if she squinted at her, she could faintly see the corridor walls and arched windows behind her.
The ghost floated, bare-footed, above the ground, making her identity plain, and grasped her long wizard's staff capped macabrely by a human skull.
"Well, well, what have we here? Quite a tasty little mousey she is." Indeed, the smile she directed at Lillet was quite catlike and predatory, suiting her description of the apprentice. "Didn't you listen to Gammel? Bad girl."
"N-now, Mistress Lujei," interjected a hollow-sounding but definitely
voice, "is it really necessary to do something awful?" With a start, Lillet realized that the voice was coming from the skull, that its jaw was moving even as it spoke.
"Of course it's necessary, Mevy, darling." Lujei ran her free hand over the skull's bony cheek in a parody of a caress. "Dear Gammel agreed that he and his students wouldn't interfere with me. Why, if I let the cute little mousey run to its hole, I would be as good as breaking my side of a promise...and you
Blue fire suddenly whirled up the staff from the hand holding it and flooded through the skull, fountaining through its eye sockets and mouth. The jaw lolled open and a scream echoed through the winding hall.
"Ah! Grand Witch Lujei!" Lillet gasped.
The ghost turned back to her.
"Oh, are you still here?" She clucked her tongue at Lillet. "Foolish once to be here, foolish twice to not take advantage of my having more
...punishments...to hand out. One would almost think that you
to die by my hand." She gave a sudden, girlish laugh. "I must think of something very special for you, then. I'd hate to disappoint. I have my reputation to think of, you know."
Lillet's blood seemed to turn to ice water in her veins as she listened to this little speech. Lujei's words, her reactions...they all pointed in one direction.
The Grand Witch was insane.
The next time Gaff gives me advice, I'm going to take it!
But, in for a penny, in for a crown, as the saying went, so Lillet steeled herself. Mad or not, Lujei clearly had an awareness of reality, even if little things like the value of a person's life were not part of her perceptions.
"I wanted to talk to you, Mistress Lujei. That's why I'm here. My name is Lillet Blan, and I'm Professor Gammel's apprentice."
, she amended mentally. At least something good had come of the looping time; even if the Archmage hadn't been freed, in the first timeline she would have been Mr. Advocat's apprentice.
"That old fussbudget!" Lujei mocked, as if she hadn't just been talking about him a few moments ago. "He won't even come and talk to his old friend himself but sends a girl in his place? Why, you'd think he was afraid of me. Of course, he should be; he was always the least of the three of us. Why, the only trick he could pull off the best was to stay alive where his betters ended up dead, and that's really not very important if you should ask me. Now, what did he send you to me for? And do try to make it more entertaining than the fun of killing you in some never-before-seen fashion. I wouldn't want to think I missed an opportunity."
Opportunity was on Lillet's mind as well, because caught up in Lujei's words she saw one, and quickly spoke.
"Can you tell me about the Philosopher's Stone?"
Lujei's eyebrows rose.
"You came out here to ask me about that?"
"Yes, Mistress Lujei. After all, you were one of the three magicians who created it, weren't you? Who better than you to explain it?"
"What about your own mentor?" came the reply at once. "Dear Gammel was one of the three as well. Wouldn't he be the natural person to ask?"
Lillet thought fast, though.
"He was the one who sent me to you," she said, hoping that Lujei and Gammel really didn't talk regularly. "Professor Gammel had reasons for not telling me himself, but he didn't tell me why."
I hope you'll forgive me, Professor,
she offered a silent apology for the lie, and was surprised by how easily it came to her lips.
"Of course he didn't tell you. He is the teacher, you are the student. It is your job to follow his instructions, not question their purpose."
"Yes, Mistress Lujei."
"Besides, I know why he did that without being told.
is bound to the government, to search out the Stone and give it to them. His servitude is why they allow him to run this school and train magicians. But I am bound by no such oaths. Indeed, if I was, they'd have broken them first, as dear Mevy knows so well."
She whipped the staff down in an arc, savagely cracking the skull against the stone-flagged floor. The blow didn't appear to have done any damage, but made the skull yelp in apparent pain.
will be more than happy to tell you all about the Philosopher's Stone. I think. Perhaps I should have you come back tomorrow night?"
"I think Professor Gammel wants me to learn tonight, so he can do something in today's lesson."
"Ah, but what do I care about that?
don't need you to know."
"Mistress, have pity," the skull—Mevy, Lillet assumed—chipped in.
"Oh, very well."
She swirled around Lillet, her floating motion almost too fast to follow, then flicked out of existence. Lillet gaped, wondering if something had happened, when she suddenly heard a purring voice in her ear as Lujei reappeared behind her.
"The Philosopher's Stone is the ultimate expression of mortal magic. Each of the four fields of magic has its strengths and weaknesses, for they are but a fragment of the true power. The Philosopher's Stone unifies all magics in one, creating from them a unity akin to Divine Will. With it, all miracles are possible, any manipulation of the world's natural existence, save only the act of true Creation itself. Its wielder is limited only by the power he or she has available, and the Stone itself is a source of immense mana. Do you understand, child?"
Strangely, Lillet thought that she did. Despite only having seven days' advanced education in magic—less, really, considering some of her skipped lessons—the concepts Lujei described seemed to touch something within her. She found them familiar, even comfortable, slipping into place in orderly fashion.
It was almost exactly the same way that she'd felt when studying magic, the way she seemed to have an aptitude for so many different kinds of Runes and magic types. This more esoteric knowledge seemed to be just more of the same.
when asked a question, Lillet Blan," Lujei said, a warning growl coming into her tone.
"Yes, I believe that I do. The Philosopher's Stone is a tool which allows the wielder to use the power of magic without the spells and rituals and Runes of magic. And it also serves as a power source which the wielder can channel into ordinary magic as well, making him or her much more powerful than any human magician could ever be."
"Exactly right! The Philosopher's Stone is the ultimate expression of magic, a pure, fifth type that is the combination of the four ordinary types—and in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With the Philosopher's Stone, Calvaros made that brute of an archdevil sit and stay at his command, in defiance of the contract between them."
Calvaros and Mr. Advocat had a contract?
But that couldn't be right; whatever the devil teacher was, he was not someone who could be called a "brute."
She must mean the other one, the one Ms. Opalneria's spell is designed to destroy. I think Hiram called him Grimlet?
"That's amazing! But even with that power, the Archmage was still brought down?"
"Calvaros was a boring man with boring dreams, just like his apprentice. He had no subtlety whatsoever, but immediately started to establish his little kingdom by brute force. He made everyone he met a slave or an enemy, and so of course we all chose to fight him. And there is a lesson for you, dear girl. Power and skill are two very different things. Calvaros never knew that, and so I put his soul into an eentsy little box. Given the extent of his imagination, he probably hasn't noticed yet."
She laughed mockingly, floated away from Lillet, planted the staff on the floor and spun herself around it almost as if she was dancing.
"Could the Philosopher's Stone be used to travel in time?"
Lujei stopped in mid-whirl, which was rather disconcerting as she was nearly horizontal at the time, as if she was lying on the air.
"Time travel? What a fascinating idea. But yes, I'm sure that it would work. What we call 'space' and 'time' are merely the building blocks God used to define this world, after all, and with the Philosopher's Stone, one could control any part of the world. Travel in space, travel in time, it's all the same, if you know what you're doing." The amused look vanished from her face in a moment, and her eyes threatened. "But Gammel didn't tell you to ask that question. He may have more imagination than Calvaros did, but he wouldn't consider that particular idea without provocation. No, that question came purely from you, Lillet Blan."
"Mistress, what are you doing?" the skull babbled, worry in its hollow voice.
"What am I doing, my beloved?" she purred at him, her staff scratching across the floor. "I'm making certain that I do not become what you were, a tool to be used."
Lujei raised the staff and smacked it down sharply on the floor. A pale blue Rune blazed up into existence, one Lillet realized that Lujei must have been sketching out the entire time they'd talked, with idle gestures that had seemed harmless. The part of Lillet that was the eager young magic student wondered at how the ghost witch could have done it so precisely, while still talking, without being able to actually see where she was drawing the lines and sigils that made it up.
The rest of Lillet was just scared.
She backed away slowly, stepping back off the unfamiliar necromantic Rune.
"I hope that you make this fun for me, little mousey!" Lujei laughed, and the Rune blazed with light. She drifted back and began to draw out a second Rune.
Lillet's brain screamed, but she mastered that fear. What good would running do against an army of ghosts that could fly right through walls and doors? Her only hope was magic, and there was only one thing she knew that made any sense at all. Desperately, she began to sketch out a Rune of her own, the rich green light of Glamour following the sweeps of her wand. The Rune kindled, ringing in her mind like a bell.
I don't even know if I can do this
, she thought. She'd been studying the grimoire, but had never tried these variations in practice before. Only desperation drove her on, as she saw what had taken shape: a huge ghost like a shrouded, skeletal figure standing in the prow of a boat, cradling a scythe in its emaciated hands.
The reaper of souls, Death itself given form to ferry the dead to the afterlife?
was all she could think.
She should have been paralyzed with fear. After all, she'd had to wrestle down her terror of dragons just to come to the Magic Academy and that creature had been friendly! But something had changed in the young witch along the way. Perhaps it had been standing side-by-side with her fellow apprentices against the Archmage. For whatever reason, the fearful spectre did not paralyze her into immobility, but drove her on to do more.
Lujei had finished her second Rune by the time Lillet had commenced her summoning. This one Lillet knew; Hiram had used it in the fight against the Archmage, as had Calvaros himself: Purgatory. And not long after, the rattle of bones heralded the arrival of the first skullmage. Two more had appeared by the time a whinny echoed through the corridor and a unicorn bounded forth from Lillet's Rune. Its coat shone a brilliant white, and its mane was like a flare of golden sunlight illuminating the darkness.
The reaper-like spirit swept its scythe above the head of the nearest skeleton, and the skullmage dissolved into ghost-light that flowed through the air into the boat behind the cloaked ferryman.
, the name leapt into Lillet's mind.
The boatman of the dead
Yes, running would have been a very bad idea, Lillet decided. The Charon could carry a whole army of familiars with it, no doubt faster than she could move. Taking the other two skullmages aboard, it drifted towards Lillet and her Rune.
The unicorn bowed its head, leveled its spiraled horn, and fired a bolt of light at the reaper. The Charon froze, crackling light playing over it as the unicorn's ability to paralyze astral creatures seized it fast. The unicorn leapt, even as a second one emerged from Lillet's Rune to join it, and with several slashes of their horns the Charon fell apart like a shattering mirror, taking its passengers with it.
Lujei spun in the air, giggling.
fun," she laughed. "I haven't held myself back like that in forever. Go scuttle back to your hole, little mousey, but be warned. If I catch you again, I'll be sure to have something...special planned."
"M-mistress?" the skull babbled.
Unlike Mevy, Lillet knew when to take a hint. She left the hall at once, her legs shaking. She had barely survived the fight, and that by stretching her knowledge of Wicca beyond what it had been. She'd virtually drained all her mana in that desperate defense, and had no way to get more quickly, while Lujei...no, there was no mistaking it. Lujei had not been fighting seriously by any measure. To her, this was only a game. Or perhaps a test. But if it was a test, then what was being tested?
She did know one thing, and that was that she'd never been so happy to see the inside of her room.
"Lillet! You're back!"
"Gaff? What are you doing here?"
"I couldn't sleep without knowing that you got back safely," he cried at once, his relief and agitation so great that they completely ran over his normal instinct to hide his softer feelings. "I...I..." In the next instant the young elf ran at her, flinging his arms around Lillet's hips. "I'm so sorry that I ran away, Lillet! I shouldn't have left you all alone with her, but I was just so scared..." he sobbed.
"Shhh, it's all right," she told the elf gently, stroking his find blond hair. He really did remind her of her brother, and she wondered just how young Gaff really was as elves went. "No one expects you to stand and fight against her. You did the best you could by trying to stop me from going at all. And seem it all turned out all right. So you didn't leave me in danger because I was fine, like I'd said I'd be. Don't blame yourself for something like that!"
Especially since, more than likely, I'm going to have to take much worse risks than this one to figure out what's going on.
Second Day Three, Part 2
"Lillet? Lillet, wake up!"
Lillet groaned, shifting in bed.
"Gaff?" she mumbled. "Go 'way."
Her eyes started to drift shut again, but the elf's small hands kept shaking her insistently.
"Lillet, if you don't get up, you'll miss your morning lecture! Professor Gammel will get really mad!"
The words tried to fight their way through her sleep-fogged brain.
"Get up, Lillet. He sent me to get you!"
" She sat bolt upright in bed.
had gotten her going, if nothing else had. Professor Gammel had
him to make sure she didn't miss her lecture? Why would he do that? She didn't have a class scheduled with him, and it certainly didn't fit with his "classes are arranged around you" theme the Magic Academy ran by. She could only think of one possible explanation.
I'm in trouble.
Had news of her nocturnal expedition gotten around? Or maybe it was something else? Her apparent affinity for Sorcery had made Hiram suspicious of her before time had looped back, and this time she'd displayed an equal proficiency in Glamour and Necromancy. Given what Gaff had told her about foreign spies, she could understand why too much skill could make someone suspicious.
"He sent me to get you," Gaff said, answering her one-word question while unaware of the thoughts crashing pell-mell through her head. "He wanted to make sure that you didn't miss your class with him this morning."
Lillet yawned, mental excitement not a complete cure for physical exhaustion. This was the down side to staying up until several hours past midnight and having magical battles besides. On her parents' farm she was more used to "early to bed, early to rise" since that was the schedule decreed by the animals' biology and by the sun.
I guess this is why they say students are "burning the midnight oil."
"How late am I?"
Gaff pointed to the clock in the corner. It read half past seven. She only had half an hour left.
"Oh, this is bad." She threw off the blankets and swung her legs out of bed, wincing as her bare feet touched the cold floor. For a room in the middle of a massive tower, this one was certainly drafty, she told herself before realizing that she was just letting herself get distracted because it was easier than thinking about the upcoming lecture with Professor Gammel.
"Thanks for getting me up, Gaff," she told him, pulling off her nightcap. "I guess I'd better hurry up."
Twenty minutes later Lillet was washed, dried, dressed, shod, and walking into Professor Gammel's study. The massive bronze orrery towered over Lillet, and over her head constellations took shape in green flame, a unicorn and a swan showing the astrological influences presently effective.
"Good morning. Please come in, Miss Lillet, and close the door behind you. We wouldn't want any rats slipping in."
"Rats?" she asked, while doing as he said.
"Eavesdroppers are a common problem when one is dealing with important matters. As a magician, you would likely find this out soon enough, but it's never too early to learn."
"Eavesdroppers? You mean, like spies, Professor Gammel?"
Oh, no. Talk about letting my mouth run away with me.
Gammel did not answer her at once, but regarded her impassively while stroking his beard.
"That isn't precisely what I was thinking of on this occasion, but that, too, is relevant. You see, Miss Lillet, there appears to be a spy among us."
"There is?" She tried really hard not to squeak.
"Indeed. A valuable grimoire was stolen from this room. That is why I wanted to speak with you this morning."
"I didn't take it, Professor Gammel!"
"I know that you didn't."
"I don't understand. I mean,
know that I didn't, but...are you saying that you already know who did, Professor?"
He shook his head.
"No, I'm afraid not. I only know that it was not you."
"Oh, because it happened before I got here?" Lillet deduced.
He shook his head again, and this time there was a faint smile on his lips.
"No, it was afterwards, and indeed for a time I did consider you to be a viable suspect. Your proficiency in magic quite exceeds what I would expect from one who has only studied at the Magical Society."
Lillet blushed at the compliment, though she wished she herself knew how to explain it.
"So you thought I might be shamming ignorance?"
"I did, but last night you proved your innocence."
"Lujei and I still do talk to one another."
If Lujei told him that I was asking about the Philosopher's Stone, he's sure to think that I really am a spy!
But it seemed that she hadn't, or else if she had he wasn't saying so, because he went in a completely different conversational direction.
"I had told her of the theft, and she took it upon herself to test you last night."
A test. At once Lillet thought of the fight, and how she'd asked herself if, indeed, it had been a test and if so of what. It seemed that she was about to get her answer.
"I cannot say that I necessarily agree with her methods, but she was effective in demonstrating your innocence."
"To explain that, I first need to tell you what was stolen."
"You said that it was a rare and valuable grimoire..."
He paused, and Lillet assumed that he meant it as an invitation for her to comment. Unfortunately, she didn't really have any comment to make. She racked her brain for anything relevant she could say, and finally managed to remember, "Isn't that the name of some kind of fairy queen in some stories?"
"Yes, indeed, and as you may suspect from that association, Titania is a grimoire of Glamour. It is also known as the Book of the Morning Star; its Rune initially strengthens familiars of all Glamour types and even makes them easier to summon, but its most important and powerful work is to summon the Spirit of the Morning Star, to cast its pure light down on its master's enemies. Its holy light is most particularly damaging to Astral entities, making it the scourge of ghosts."
"Ah!" The ideas came together in Lillet's mind. "The Charon that Grand Witch Lujei summoned!"
"Yes, that's it exactly. Had you possessed the Grimoire of the Morning Star, you would surely have used it to defend yourself, when you believed yourself to be in mortal danger. Instead, you relied on a much riskier strategy."
She almost protested that a spirit—probably an Astral entity—wouldn't have been the best weapon against Lujei's skullmages, but then realized that while that consideration might have applied later in the battle, at the time it began, when Lillet had chosen her first Rune, Lujei hadn't even begun sketching out her Purgatory Rune, let alone summoning skullmages with it. The two master magicians had of course realized the implications at once. It wasn't actually absolute proof, since even the real thief might not have wanted to put his or her trust in an untried Rune, but she wasn't going to point it out! After all, she
innocent, and she didn't want to do anything that might break the professor's belief in that.
"Did you know I was going to meet with Lujei?" Lillet asked. If so, it suggested that Gammel was a lot more aware of what was going on in the Tower than Lillet had believed. But he denied it.
"No, I had only told Lujei about the theft. The decision to test you was her own." The old man's face grew stern. "As to that, I must warn you most strictly against seeking her out again. It is dangerous to confront her, for she always was a creature of whim, allied to her own goals alone, and since her death has become even more dangerous, for the dead do not see the world as do the living. Ms. Opalneria and I are, I think, the only ones for whom she retains affectionate feelings."
That did it.
Thinking about it later, Lillet would decide that it was the combination of the two factors that had done it. Either alone probably wouldn't have been enough, not when she'd spent so much time being afraid of being accused of being a spy or a minion of the Archmage. But when Gammel expressed concern for her safety from encountering Lujei, and in the same breath mentioned Ms. Opalneria's name, there was no way Lillet could bring herself to stay quiet.
"Professor Gammel, there's something I have to tell you. It's really important. It's about the spell Mistress Lujei is teaching Ms. Opalneria to use to destroy the devil."
The professor's eyebrows shot up. "How do you know about that?"
"I overheard the two of them talking." That was the truth, even if she'd happened to hear them on a night that hadn't yet happened, in time that had come unwound.
"Oh? When was that?"
"The night before last. I was so excited about being here that I couldn't sleep, so I went out for some night air." If it was good enough for Margarita, she decided, it was good enough for her. "I didn't realize how dangerous it could be! I saw them, but I hid, because I didn't want Ms. Opalneria to catch me breaking the rules, and I heard them talking about the spell."
"Yes; it is fortunate that Lujei had begun researching this Rune before her death. We shall be able to deal with Grimlet for once and for all, and not a moment too soon."
"No!" Lillet said at once, realizing that she'd nearly gotten so caught up in the backstory that she'd almost missed the actual point. "I mean, Ms. Opalneria can't use that Rune."
"Why not, child?"
"If she does, it will kill her." Before he could object, as she was certain he would, she rushed on. "I heard Lujei talking to, um, the skull on her staff after Ms. Opalneria had gone. The magic will work, but it's unfinished, and the one who casts the Rune could die."
"And you say that you actually heard Lujei say this?"
"Yes, Professor Gammel."
Well, actually, I just heard her say that it could "fail," but I know what that failure means from when she actually used it!
"Blast! It would be so like her, as well. But I can feel Grimlet stirring, and we need to take action quickly, before he can awaken. Without the Philosopher's Stone, there is no way to control him, so he
be exorcised—but how?"
He was clearly talking to himself, and Lillet wasn't entirely sure what he meant. Grimlet was obviously a serious problem, and yet at least the professor knew about him. Gammel had no idea about the Archmage's coming revival, and Lillet couldn't think of a way to tell him.
The teachers can't stop him if they don't know about him.
Gammel shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Lillet, but the rest of our conversation is going to have to wait until I can deal with this immediate crisis you've presented me with. I'll have to take a look at Lujei's Rune myself to see what if anything can be done." He stroked his beard, thinking. "In the meantime, if you hear anything of the Titania grimoire, get word to me at once. But take care of yourself, besides. The thief could be very dangerous."
"I'll be careful, Professor," she assured him, although at this point she had no idea, how, exactly, she was supposed to keep that promise. The Archmage, Lujei, the grimoire thief, and now Grimlet! Four different dangers, in only eight days. And she still had only taken baby steps towards solving the riddle of the looping time. It seemed obvious that the Philosopher's Stone was involved in that, but how? Lillet hadn't seen it, or so she believed. Maybe she had and just didn't know it?
It had to have happened
, or else the time loop wouldn't have occurred. But how? When? And who used it?
Lillet didn't think that the Stone could act on its own, without a wielder, at least not the way Lujei had described it. But if that was the case, why was
the one affected, and not the wielder? Everyone else she'd talked with seemed to be ignorant of the events of the first five days. And then there were Lillet's grimoires. She'd arrived at the Tower with only the Fairy Ring, the most common of basic grimoires, but somehow she'd kept the Hell Gate and Gehenna grimoires that Mr. Advocat had given her in the looped time.
It doesn't make sense, any more than someone deliberately freeing the Archmage does. Who in their right mind would—
"Oh!" Lillet gasped. She'd been so lost in thought since leaving Professor Gammel's study that she hadn't been looking where she was going and had collided with Amoretta while going around a corner, actually knocking the beautiful blonde student (wait, no, hadn't she said that she
a student?) down. "I...I'm so sorry. Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine," Amoretta said.
"That's good," Lillet said with relief. She bent over and extended a hand. "You should be careful while wearing those boots! They're kind of dangerous when there are clumsy apprentices around."
"They're the only boots I have. Is there something wrong with them?" the ash-blonde replied when Lillet helped her to her feet. The other girl's hand was dry and cool, the skin soft.
"What? Oh, no, that's not it. It was just a joke, making fun of me rather than your boots."
"I see. I'm sorry; I can't always tell when people are being funny." She tipped her head to one side in a curious attitude and asked bluntly, "Who are you?"
That's right; I haven't met her yet since time looped back.
That provided more confirmation, if she needed any, that the memories of the others had
been preserved; someone like Grand Magician Gammel might have feigned ignorance for the sake of some unknown reason, but this girl was different.
"My name is Lillet Blan. I'm a new student studying with Professor Gammel. I just started here three days ago."
"Oh, yes! Creator said that someone new had arrived, but since I usually don't take meals with the students I hadn't gotten a chance to meet you yet. I'm Amoretta, by the way."
"It's nice to finally run into you, though I wish it hadn't had to be literally." Then one word punched through Lillet's veil of "act like you don't know her" that was occupying her thoughts. "Excuse me, did you say 'Creator'?"
"Yes, Dr. Chartreuse Grande. He's one of the teachers here."
That had to be the Alchemy master, Lillet decided, since she'd met the teachers in charge of the other three fields.
"So you call him the Creator because he makes things with Alchemy?"
Amoretta shook her head.
"No, I call him creator because he created
Lillet blinked, staring at her in confusion.
"I don't understand."
"I am a homunculus," Amoretta explained.
"But...I thought...at the Magical Society they told us that a homunculus couldn't exist outside of the flask that contained the magical reaction that fuels their life?"
Amoretta smiled at that, but it was sad and wistful.
"That's normally true. It's why he calls me his 'ultimate homunculus,' because he built me so that I can be separate from mine."
But...didn't she use magic when we fought the Archmage? How can a homunculus do that?
Was it all some kind of extended joke at Lillet's expense, a petty revenge for knocking her down? But everything in Lillet's soul rose up to reject that interpretation. She had no idea why, but she felt that she could absolutely trust this strange girl.
And if nothing else, it explained her brilliant red eyes.
"It's just the truth," Amoretta said. "And it's not really all that amazing." She paused, then added, "I probably shouldn't have told you. Creator doesn't want the information about me to just be handed out to everyone in general."
"Oh, I see. I guess it must be an important magical secret he wants to keep safe. Or for your protection too! Don't worry; I won't tell anyone else." Lillet gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I don't gossip about my friends."
"Friends? But we've only just met."
From your point of view, at least.
"I know, but there's no time requirement for these things, is there?"
"I've never heard of such a rule," Amoretta agreed seriously. She definitely tended to take things literally, and Lillet wondered how old the homunculus was. She looked to be around eighteen, a couple of years older than Lillet, but that didn't have to be true with magic involved.
"Good! Then it's settled." She clasped Amoretta's hand between hers and gave it a squeeze. The other girl glanced down shyly, a faint brush of rose coming into her cheeks.
"Your hands are so warm, Lillet Blan. I don't think I've ever felt this way."
"That's a good thing, though, right?"
"Mm-hm! Very much so."
At least something good happened today!
Just then, Lillet's stomach decided to offer its own comment on the matter.
"Are you all right?" Amoretta asked at once, making Lillet blush.
"I was up too late last night, so I didn't have a chance to get breakfast before going to see Professor Gammel," Lillet admitted, her blush redoubling.
"You shouldn't skip meals. Bartido always has to remind Creator of that when he gets too involved in research."
Lillet giggled at the thought.
"You're right. Does the dining hall still serve food this late in the morning?"
"I think you can eat at any time, though they probably won't have as good a selection as if you go during normal dining hours."
"Good! That's my next stop. Um...I know you said that you don't ordinarily eat with the other students, but if you're not busy, would you like to come along? I'd enjoy talking with you more."
Amoretta smiled back at her, and the expression was almost radiant.
"I'd like that very much."
Fuyu no Sora
Second Day Three - Continued
Lillet’s stomach acted up once again right then and there. Except she was sure it had nothing to do with her hunger.
“Are you really going to be eating all that?” Amoretta asked, impressed by the large amount of food that Lillet had placed on her tray.
The magician’s cheeks colored slightly. “It’s a habit by now. My parents are farmers and I used to help with the chores when I lived at home. We started work before dawn and that made us really hungry when we reached the breakfast table, not to mention that we had to fuel up for the rest of the day. I became used to having large breakfasts, though now that I’m practicing magic I’m beginning to think it’s a good habit, because magical practice takes as much, if not more, energy.”
Amoretta nodded, taking in Lillet’s words with the same seriousness as before. “I see. Food is the primary source of energy for humans, so it makes sense.”
That statement got Lillet thinking.
“Amoretta, would you mind if I ask about you?”
“What about me?”
“Um…about your nature as a homunculus. I would like to know more about you.” She then remembered what the ash-blonde had said before about her Creator not wanting information about her to spread. “I won’t tell anyone else, I promise! I just…want to get to know you better. And I’d like for you to know more about me, too. It’s what friends do, right?”
“I believe you when you say you won’t tell anyone else, Lillet. You can ask about me and I’ll answer as best as I can. I’ll do the same for you.”
Lillet beamed at this, glad that Amoretta trusted her.
“Let’s find a table before we start, then. It’ll be more comfortable than standing here, and more private, too.” Not that there was anyone in the dining hall besides the kitchen staff and themselves, but Lillet still wasn’t comfortable discussing private matters while standing in the middle of a common room where anybody could waltz in when they pleased.
A minute later found the two at a table near a corner where they were sure to have as much privacy as they could have in a public place.
“So, first question. Are
really going to eat only that?” Lillet asked as she looked at the other girl’s plate, which had nothing but a small sweet bread bun on it. Amoretta looked very much like a noble-born girl who would be used to eating about a tenth of what common folks would have because it was part of courtly manners, but from what little she knew of the ash-blonde, Lillet was sure that it had nothing to do with something so superficial. She somehow knew that Amoretta was above that kind of thing.
“I don’t need food in the way humans do. I enjoy it, but most of my energy and other regenerative processes come from my flask. I’m independent and can move about freely, but I’m still a homunculus.” Amoretta said before nibbling delicately on her sweet bread in a fashion that for some reason Lillet found fascinating. “I think it’s something that makes others nervous.”
“I think I get it. You can and will eat food, but only enough to cover the basic needs of your body since most of what you need you get from your flask. Sort of like any human, except that since your body is a magical creation, it needs that extra…process?” She wondered if she was wording that correctly.
The homunculus nodded.
“That’s right. If I understood what Creator said correctly, I’m over-mastery work in Alchemy because I’m not technically an incomplete being, like a chimera or most man-made lives in general. I have sentience and I’m not restricted to staying within or even near the flask; it just has to remain intact and I will live. I’m also not bound to the will of Dr. Chartreuse in the way familiars usually are, which he was happy to know when he first learned of it.”
Lillet couldn’t help but wince at the dispassionate and matter-of-fact way in which Amoretta described her creation. Had she had any doubts about the beautiful girl’s true nature, this certainly would have erased all of them. Nobody would speak of themselves in such a way, as if they were
“You shouldn’t talk about yourself in that way.”
“In what way?”
“As if you were a
. You’re more than that, Amoretta, so much more. You might be an alchemical creation, your body made by magic instead of being born like the rest of us, but you’re also a person. The fact that you’re here, in front of me, talking, thinking, feeling, is only proof.” A fire seemed to have been lit in Lillet at the mere suggestion that her new friend might be described, even by herself, as an object. Her violet eyes blazed, earnestly looking into Amoretta’s with so many emotions tumbling one after the other with such speed that it made the homunculus’ mind spin, even as this little speech stirred something within her.
The honesty she could feel, almost as if it were a tangible thing, coming from the honey-blonde, the way Lillet’s eyes were burning into hers with the conviction that she should value herself, made her smile at the magician.
“I wasn’t trying to be derisive of myself, just stating what I know about my creation and about what I am. I’ve been told before that I’m too blunt for most people’s sensibilities to handle, but it is the way I am. It’s the only way I know how to be.”
Lillet relaxed at this, her shoulders visibly becoming less tense and the fire in her eyes dimming back down to the spark of curiosity that had been there before emotion overtook her.
“I don’t think you’re wrong in being the way you are. I just misinterpreted what you meant. Sorry about that, by the way.”
Amoretta giggled at the way Lillet’s cheeks colored at the admission. The sound was soft and sweet, with that hint of breathiness to it that made Lillet’s heart flutter. She didn’t know why she was reacting so strangely.
But, even as she was transfixed by the sound and the smile of the girl before her, a part of Lillet’s mind had noticed that there was something amiss when Amoretta laughed. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, not really, but she could feel that there was something vital missing in those smiles, in her laughter, and she wanted to know what that was.
It was probably that which made her do what she did next.
Her body felt as though someone had taken over it, her hands acting of their own accord as they reached out to the other girl and gently cupped her face.
“Why do you look so sad…?” The question came out without her even knowing she had said it. As if she were drawn in by some irresistible force, she got closer and closer to Amoretta, her gaze fixed on the taller girl’s surprised eyes…
Before she remembered herself and pulled away, sitting back on her chair (when had she left it?), her face burning so much that Lillet thought most of the blood in her body must have rushed there.
“I…I…I’m sorry. I-I don’t know what came over me.” She stammered, unsure of just what had happened to her.
Amoretta was still frozen, shock and confusion visible on her face.
“Amoretta?” Lillet called out to the homunculus, wondering if she’d messed up so badly that their friendship would end right there.
Amoretta blinked a couple of times, then sighed deeply. “You surprised me.”
“I’m really sorry. I honestly don’t know what happened there.”
Because she didn’t know what else to say, the homunculus decided to change the topic and put the strange moment behind them. “It’s all right. Would you mind if I ask you something?”
“Why did you decide to become a magician?”
The complete change of topic made Lillet pause for a few moments as her brain tried to adjust to the new subject, but eventually she managed to compute the question.
“Oh. Um…I was always interested in the arcane arts, but I decided I really wanted to pursue magic as a career because I would be able to help my family. I have two little brothers that will be going to school soon, and I would like for them to grow up and achieve their dreams, so if I can get a good job and help out with that, I’d be very happy.”
Amoretta found herself smiling again at the selfless response she’d gotten from Lillet.
She is definitely an interesting person.
“That is very noble of you.”
“I don’t think so, but thank you for saying that.” Lillet replied warmly. “Say, can you use magic?”
“Somewhat. I don’t have the powers of the normal kind of homunculi, but I do have some personal abilities. On the other hand, I can use basic rune magic, which probably stems from my spirit. I’m best at Alchemy, of course.”
“The reason I can be separate from my flask is that Dr. Chartreuse built my body with a preexisting spirit serving as the core and anchor of my existence. Alchemical creations are made with materials of this world and though they may have a semblance of sentience, they do not possess souls, which are of God’s domain. That’s why they’re incomplete beings, and I, technically, am not.”
There was that word again. That was the second time that Amoretta had described herself as not ‘technically’ incomplete.
“What do you mean….you’re ‘technically’ a complete being?”
Amoretta gave her a strained smile.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Oh, no, it’s perfectly all right.” Lillet hastened to apologize. “I’m sorry, I’ve been asking too much, haven’t I?”
“Not really. I just don’t want to talk about it.”
Okay, so that’s a touchy subject.
Lillet made a mental note to be a bit more tactful next time. And since she wanted to continue talking to the ash-blonde, she changed the subject back to safe ground.
“What kind of Runes can you use?”
Amoretta’s smile lost the strain it had acquired when Lillet brought up the subject of her incompleteness. “Basic ones. For created lives I can synthesize Blobs and other Homunculi, even Golems, but that’s about the extent of my skill in Alchemy. Glamour spirits like Fairies and Elves are not sure whether they like me or not, but Pixies are attracted to and obey me.”
Lillet gaped, impressed. While she had some basic knowledge of Alchemy from her studies at the Magical Society, she hadn’t studied it in depth and thus wasn’t sure just how skilled Amoretta really was. What surprised her was what the other girl had said about the Glamour spirits. Pixies were whimsical creatures that were unreliable due to their unwillingness to help magicians unless there was payment involved, thus why they were not commonly-summoned familiars. Lillet could only wonder how Amoretta had managed to make them like her. Not that she wasn’t charming, but it was said that Pixies were cautious creatures that disliked those that weren’t like themselves and the reason they tolerated magicians was because there weren’t that many differences between the fey-folk and humans.
“You’ll have to show me how you handle Pixies sometime. More importantly, you said you’re best in Alchemy, yes?”
“Then, would you mind showing me?” Lillet blushed faintly, pushing her index fingers together in a nervous little gesture. “I haven’t had the chance to see Dr. Chartreuse yet, so I haven’t studied much Alchemy yet.”
The smile that Amoretta gave her made Lillet catch her breath.
“I wouldn’t mind at all.”
“You did really well, Lillet.” Amoretta nodded approvingly some hours later as she dismissed her Runes and watched Lillet do the same. “Are you sure you never studied Alchemy before? You had very little trouble copying the Laboratory and Engrave even though you didn’t have the grimoires with you.”
“I’m sure I haven’t studied anything beyond what they taught us at the Magical Society. It’s been happening with the other subjects, too. I wonder if I should be worried…”
Amoretta looked at the other girl pensively. “Maybe you’re just gifted?”
“Maybe.” Lillet wasn’t sure, but she had no other answer. She was about to propose they take a break or do something else when Amoretta’s face paled and she started wobbling. The magician immediately rushed to her side and helped to keep her balance. “Amoretta! Are you all right?”
The homunculus nodded. “I’m fine. I think this is a sign that I should go back to the lab to rest.”
“I’ll take you there, but you’ll have to guide me. I haven’t been to the lab yet.”
Amoretta nodded weakly and started giving her directions.
The first thought that went through Lillet’s mind was that the laboratory was not as she had expected. While the place certainly fitted with the popular image – flasks and beakers full of liquids cooling in specific racks, pipettes and other delicate equipment full of wondrous concoctions either under a small fire or on metal plaques waiting for their turn to be used – it also had a certain coziness to it that Lillet wouldn’t have thought would be there.
She quickly dispelled the thoughts from her mind, though, as she remembered just what had brought her here.
“Dr. Chartreuse? Dr. Chartreuse, we need your help!”
She waited a few seconds that seemed to stretch into forever in their silence. She was about to call again when she heard rustling, and it took all her willpower to not jump back in fright when a figure appeared from around a corner. Long blond shaggy hair fell in disarray past his neckline, his body was covered in bronze-colored fur and his hands were paw-like with claws. A long tail was poking from behind the creature, but what made the biggest impression was the massive lion’s head that sat atop its shoulders. Lillet was completely speechless, wondering if she’d somehow fallen asleep and was having a very, very weird dream.
“Creator…” Amoretta said weakly, still leaning heavily on Lillet.
The creature’s eyes widened and it was immediately by the homunculus’s side, holding her up and looking her over.
“Amoretta, are you hurt? What is it?”
“I’m not feeling too well. I need to rest in the tank.”
He frowned. “You haven’t been refreshing yourself as you should have, so now your body has weakened. Resting will do you well. You need adjustments anyway so the timing is certainly fortuitous.”
The lion-headed humanoid gently began to lead Amoretta to the back of the laboratory, where Lillet could barely see the door to an adjoining room. From what she had seen, she supposed that was Dr. Chartreuse, the Alchemy master. His appearance, however, was most surprising. Lillet couldn’t imagine what could have happened to make a master magician appear half-human half-beast.
I suppose it all fits in a magical school, but I’ve seen some of the weirdest things ever since I came to this tower!
Soon enough she saw the alchemist coming back, mumbling to himself.
“Dr. Chartreuse?” She asked hesitantly, wanting to be sure she was talking to the right person.
The massive lion’s head bobbed in a nod. “Sorry for the late introduction, but yes, I’m Chartreuse, the Alchemy teacher.”
“Hello,” Lillet replied, her manners reminding her that she hadn’t introduced herself either. “I’m Lillet Blan, the new student at the tower. Is Amoretta okay?”
“Yes, she’ll be all right. She hasn’t been…resting…properly so she’s currently a little weak. She’s sleeping now, so she should be fine in a few hours.”
Lillet released a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. “Thank goodness. When she almost collapsed in the summoning room I was worried something had happened to her. I’m afraid I don’t know much about homunculi.”
Chartreuse looked surprised at her statement. “You know about her?”
Lillet nodded. “She told me a little about herself when we were having breakfast. I, literally, ran into her coming out of Professor Gammel’s study and asked her to accompany me to make it up to her. We started talking and she told me about her creation.”
“I see. I’m surprised, however. Amoretta rarely talks to others about herself as she knows the implications of doing so. She must have had a good impression of you, Miss Lillet.” The man regarded her thoughtfully,
The girl blushed. “She wasn’t aloof at all. A little blunt perhaps, but she was very kind, too. I asked her if she’d teach me what she knows of Alchemy and she agreed on the spot.”
“Oh? How did that go?”
“She’s a very good teacher. She taught me how to draw and use the Laboratory and Engrave in a couple of hours.”
Once again, Chartreuse looked surprise at Lillet’s words.
“You said you can actually conjure the Laboratory and Engrave Runes without having studied the grimoires – just from having Amoretta teach you for a couple of hours?”
Lillet gulped silently. “Y-Yes. Is there something wrong?”
Chartreuse rubbed his hands together, a big smile on his lips. “On the contrary, Miss Lillet. I believe this is great news. Would you like to –”
“Look out!” Lillet cut him off as she tackled the alchemist and threw them both to the ground. In the next second a massive fireball crashed against the spot where they had been standing milliseconds ago.
“Dr. Chartreuse, are you okay?!”
The man groaned. “Not again. The Golems have started running out of control, and I bet my flasks that the Homunculi have started to lose it as well. Blast it, Opalneria, must you insist in making my life difficult?”
Lillet looked around to make sure they weren’t going to be immediately assaulted before carefully getting to her feet. “Is this because of Ms. Opalneria?”
Chartreuse followed her example and surveyed the room slowly before standing up. “Yes, she insists on stopping by every once in a while to make a complete nuisance of herself.” He looked at the girl with a tired air. “Would you mind giving me a hand? I know it wasn’t the purpose of your visit, but I will need as much help as I can get before more of my equipment is broken.”
Lillet nodded at once. “Of course, Dr. Please tell me how I can be of assistance.”
Lillet ducked behind a Gargoyle, covering her ears as the impact of the Golem’s attack made a deafening sound when it collided with the magical stone of the guard. She winced as she commanded a small group of Demons to finish it off and when the threat has gone, she dusted herself and once again resumed a defensive position near her Rune. As Dr. Chartreuse had said, the Golems and Homunculi that were already in the laboratory at the time of Ms. Opalneria’s disruption of the equipment that maintained their sanity had caused the familiars to run rampant, attacking anything that moved. Though he had been reluctant to give her the order (Lillet could see him struggle to say it), the alchemist had told her that if she was attacked by any of them, she should destroy them.
“They’re getting more and more violent.” Chartreuse sighed, hanging his head in defeat. “At this rate we might have to destroy all of them. Miss Lillet, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, professor.” Lillet coughed lightly, the blast having stunned her for a few moments, even though she had been hiding.
I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if it was a direct hit!
“Thank goodness. The Homunculi have been able to pinpoint the general location of Opalneria’s Runes. They’re heavily guarded, and she’s used some Sorcery besides. More than likely just to make my familiars’ lives more difficult.”
Lillet nodded and started thinking quickly. She knew that Golems had no attacks that could affect the Astral entities that dominated the arcana of Necromancy, but she also knew that it would be a very bad idea to fight fire with fire in this instance. Opalneria was a master Necromancer, and if Lillet tried to retaliate with the same type of magic, she’d soon find herself outmatched by one whose skills were far above her own. Sorcery, through the use of brute force, might be able to push through, but the creatures summoned through this art where inherently weak to Necromancy, and the teacher’s ghosts were bound to be at their best in terms of strength and speed. The best thing to do, then, would be to send her Imps and Demons to fight against the devils that Opalneria had summoned. She might not be at a teacher’s level, but she had studied extensively under Mr. Advocat, a high-ranking devil himself who had repeatedly told her she had potential for this particular art.
That still left the problem of the Necromancy Runes and its familiars, which highly outnumbered the Sorcery ones. Glamour was what worked best against them, but while the fey spirits were loyal and kind they were not robust in nature and thus were easily injured, and Lillet didn’t want any of them to die for her sake! She didn’t know what she could do to be able to overcome this.
It was only belatedly that Lillet realized that she was forgetting something important: She wasn’t fighting alone. She could count on Dr. Chartreuse’s familiars to help her out in this. A wide grin then graced her face as she realized how they could get out of this situation.
“Dr. Chartreuse, is there any way your familiars can fight against Astral entities?”
“Yes. Homunculi are one of the strongest Alchemical creations because their very keen senses and mental powers allow them to temporarily bridge the Substance and Astral worlds. Their Clairvoyance ability serves as a searching tool that will be able to bring magical light to a spot chosen by the Alchemist, but it has the secondary effect of allowing Substance creatures that possess no magical capacity to be able to touch ghosts. Then there’s their Psychic Storm ability. While it has a reduced effect on fleshly beings, it is a devastating attack against bodiless spirits.”
Lillet’s grin widened. “Then I think I have a plan. I will send my Demons to dispel Ms. Opalneria’s Sorcery Runes and fight any familiars that might be waiting there. The defenses are heavy and they might not make it unscathed, but if you could lend me a couple of Golems to go with them it should be all right. In the meantime, I will summon Glamour familiars to destroy the Necromancy Runes and if they find themselves attacked by Phantoms or Charon, your Homunculi would be able to make short work of them. If they run into trouble and the Demons are alive, they could always join them later.”
Chartreuse nodded in understanding. “It’s a plan that has its risks, but it’s the only thing we have. Very well Miss Lillet. Let’s get to it then.”
“Thank…God.” Lillet wheezed out tiredly as she dropped to all fours, sweat dripping down her face, her breathing ragged as she tried to recover.
The plan had worked well, Lillet’s strategy getting the better of Opalneria’s Demons and Phantoms, the joint effort between master alchemist and zealous apprentice breaking through the shortcomings of a hasty counter.
Things would have gone without a hitch had it not been for the last of Opalneria’s Runes being close, much too close, to a sleeping Chimera. The commotion caused by the battle hadn’t been enough to disturb the creature, but when the battlefield moved directly to where it was resting it had awoken, tearing through friend and foe and obliterating all of Lillet’s and Chartreuse’s forces. The monster had bellowed a terrible, soul-chilling screech as its mind’s confusion sent it into a berserker rage, its ensuing rampage being one that finished destroying half the laboratory.
The already-tired magicians had been forced once again into action. Lillet had ended up finding herself trying to re-summon a force that would be able to deal with the Chimera while Dr. Chartreuse worked desperately at trying to get it back under control. The task was much more difficult than it should have been, because as soon as it sensed a magical force the Chimera went straight for it, wreaking havoc everywhere it went.
Lillet and Chartreuse had been forced to split up, with Lillet taking cover behind the magical wards and re-establishing a base from where she kept sending Imps and Demons against the creature, while Chartreuse moved to the mostly untouched part of his laboratory and attempted to regain control of his creation. They’d been at it for more than an hour and Lillet had already reached and passed her limit when the alchemist was finally able to subdue the creature, sending it back to sleep in some obscure corner of the lab.
As soon as the Chimera was harmless again, the alchemist went to look for her. When he reached her, she looked at him to see if he was all right. Chartreuse looked frazzled but was definitely unhurt. Lillet herself had sustained no injuries to speak of, though she was extremely tired.
It was Lillet’s last thought as her body caved to the tiredness from the exertion she had put it through and the world faded to black without her either noticing nor caring.
Fuyu no Sora
Second Day Four
The first thing Lillet knew when she woke up was pain. Muscles she didn’t know she had made their presence known to her now, her whole body feeling as though it had been lit on fire. She tried breathing in deeply and slowly, but that too backfired on her when her chest made it known that it was suffering just as badly as the rest.
Okay…so going over the limits of what one can do is bad.
This was as mild as the situation could be put. If even breathing was painful at this point…
“You’re awake!” A soft voice cut through Lillet’s thoughts.
The honey-blonde’s gaze followed the sound and found Amoretta staring intently at her, worry and relief both reflected in her blood-colored eyes.
“Amoretta!” Reflexively Lillet tried to sit up, the excitement at seeing that her friend was all right getting the better of her. However, she’d forgotten she had thoroughly abused her body some hours earlier and was given a sharp reminder that her system was still badly battered when her limbs flared up, forcing her back down into the bed with a pained yelp.
Bed? But I was in the laboratory and Dr. Chartreuse had finally gotten the Chimera under control…
She looked around, trying to not move too much lest she do something to make her situation worse.
“Amoretta, where am I?”
Amoretta went to sit beside her on a strategically placed chair that was not too far away from the bed. “You’re still in the lab, Lillet. You collapsed after your fight with the Chimera and have been out ever since. It’s currently seven o’clock.”
Lillet looked startled. “I’ve been sleeping for four hours?”
The homunculus shook her head. “I meant seven in the morning, Lillet. Professor Gammel said that you would probably be sleeping for the rest of the day and maybe until tomorrow. He also said that while he understood the reasons for it, it was important he talk to you about magicians overstepping their limits. I was asked to call him when you woke up.”
Lillet winced at that, part of her unable to believe that she’d been knocked out cold for sixteen hours and had been expected to be unconscious even longer. And even with all that rest, her body hurt badly.
She sighed. “This pretty much shoots my plans for the day right in the center. I don’t think I can move.”
“I don’t think you’re
to move.” Amoretta said, giving the other girl a look of sympathy. “I’ll be back shortly. I have to go see Professor Gammel.”
The ash-blonde rose from her seat and started to leave when Lillet called her back.
“Are you all right now?”
A small smile. “As much as I can be, yes. You should start worrying a bit more about yourself, Lillet. I’ll be back with the Professor soon.”
Now she did leave, leaving the door open as she went. This allowed Lillet to see outside and confirmed that she was indeed still at the lab, though in one of the unused rooms since she hadn’t seen any equipment where she was.
The magician sighed, frustration welling up inside her. While she didn’t regret what she had done (indeed, she and Dr. Chartreuse might have ended up in a worse situation if she hadn’t held her ground), being bedridden all day would be bad, plain and simple. Since she had spent most of yesterday sleeping, it meant that she had wasted a good couple of hours she could have otherwise spent investigating the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, or perhaps gotten some leads on who had stolen Professor Gammel’s Titania.
She also still had no idea who had freed the Archmage from his soul container. This was the fourth day since she’d come to the Tower, and if the progression of events went in the same fashion as her memory indicated, sometime in the early hours of the morning someone would liberate Calvaros from his prison. She couldn't spend the day stuck to a bed just because she’d gone and spent all her mana and then some fighting a silly Chimera.
I’m the only one who knows about what’s going to happen. I have to protect them. I have to do something.
Lillet felt determination and righteousness of purpose then taking the place of frustration. Determination was good. Determination allowed people to focus, to accomplish things despite setbacks. Lillet gritted her teeth as she steeled herself and pushed herself up and off the bed, forcing down a pained cry as her body protested the action and tried to get her to lie down again.
“Miss Lillet! You’re supposed to be resting!”
The sharp voice cut through Lillet’s concentration and made her lose both her focus and her balance, the young magician falling back on the bed with a grunt.
She kept her eyes closed for a few moments to still the dizziness that had suddenly enveloped her head and also started preparing herself for the scolding she was sure she was about to get.
Indeed, when she opened her eyes, she found Professor Gammel staring at her sternly and a frowning Amoretta doing pretty much the same thing.
“Miss Lillet, you must stay in bed and rest for now.” Gammel started. “What you did yesterday was very brave and though I’m glad that you are intelligent and skilled, I believe that pushing yourself past your limits is also very reckless. Dr. Chartreuse tells me that you were using Sorcery to fight the Chimera off. This is perhaps the most dangerous of our arts, and a tired magician might not have the energy to keep their summons under control. Fairly minor as those devils are, if they had turned on you while you were tired, they might have killed you or worse.”
Gammel looked at her straight in the eye to drive his point home, his tone solemn.
“Please remember, Miss Lillet, that we, as magicians must wield our powers responsibly. We have a duty to ourselves, too, and it is one of our priorities to know when to stop. As I have said, I believe that what you did was brave and it showed that you have a keen mind, but it is also important to take care of yourself and to know your limits.”
“Now, I would like for you to stay in bed and rest up. You had a hard day yesterday and I believe your body has not fully recovered from it, am I correct?”
Lillet sighed inwardly. “Yes, Professor.”
The man’s face relaxed. “Good, good. You may continue your studies, of course, but you will be unable to practice. I know that for a young, energetic student such as yourself that must be difficult, but remember what I have said to you.”
“Yes, Professor. I have a question, however.”
Gammel nodded and waited for Lillet to ask.
“Um…is there any way I can get better faster? I understand I must rest for today, but I don’t want to stay like this for too long.”
Gammel stroked his beard pensively. “Well, seeing as you expended all your mana yesterday, perhaps it might help you if some of it is restored for you. I will summon Elves to help with that.”
The honey-blonde thanked him, relieved as she watched him summon the familiars and sent them to their task.
Hopefully I won’t have to stay all day like this.
“Well, I must be returning to work. Do not exert yourself, Miss Lillet, and get better soon.”
“Thank you again, Professor. I promise I will try to be less reckless in the future.”
Gammel nodded approvingly, then made for the door. “That is well. Oh, by the way, I have asked Amoretta to watch over you and she has graciously agreed. She will be with you and help you with anything you need.”
She was about to protest, but the man had already left, the door making a soft noise as it was closed again. Sighing inwardly again, she turned to Amoretta. “I’m sorry about that. You don’t have to stay with me if you don’t want to.”
Amoretta once again sat beside her. “But I do want to. You helped me yesterday, and if it hadn’t been for me you wouldn’t have come to the lab and gotten into all of this in the first place.”
Lillet didn’t know what to say to that so she stayed silent. The homunculus noticed this and went on with her explanation.
“It’s really all right. I don’t mind at all, Lillet.” Then she smiled shyly at the magician. “Besides, friends take care of each other, right?”
Lillet found herself smiling happily at that.
“Yes, they do."
Second Day 5
Lillet hummed as she quickened her pace down the staircase, barely resisting sliding down the banister. It was a little strange to her that she was so excited to be at a tutoring session, but Lillet supposed that she had a real interest in magic. Besides, Lillet liked spending time with Amoretta—the other girl had spent nearly all of the previous day with Lillet, patiently working quietly in the room as Lillet came in and out of a weary doze. Only a good friend would do that.
At the base of the stairs Lillet spotted Professor Gammel at the same time that he saw her. “Ah, good evening Miss Blan!” Gammel greeted. “Busy at this late hour?”
“I’m going to study further levels of the Laboratory Rune with Amoretta.” Lillet stuttered belatedly, “Of course, I had already practiced the Fairy Ring Astral Change and Power Up spells with the fairies from this morning, so I thought I could do some other reading…”
“No worries, Miss Blan, you can take your time,” chuckled Gammel. “There’s no rush to learn everything in a few days! Besides, it is good for you to have a good breadth of magic early in your studies. I find that having a varied experience in the arcane arts is a wise choice. Specializing may allow for power and expertise, but I think most apprentices misjudge the synergy granted from knowing the balance of all the domains.”
“Like the Philosopher’s Stone?” For a moment, Lillet feared that she might have made a mistake, as Gammel looked startled, then curiously wary.
“What do you know of the Philosopher’s Stone?”
“Just what the apprentices gossiped about,” Lillet said, grimacing as if she was curious about a topic but couldn’t find much information about it. It wasn’t exactly a lie, anyway—the other apprentices
told her about it in the last timeline.
“Hm,” Gammel said, squinting his bushy eyebrows at her, running one hand contemplatingly through his beard. “Well, they are correct. One reason for the Philosopher’s Stone’s power comes from the synergy of all four magicks.”
Lillet didn’t dare ask directly though. “Professor Gammel…I just had a thought. If the Stone was so powerful, then why couldn’t the Archmage use it to break his contract with Grimlet? If it transcends normal magical types—” Oh dear, Lillet was going to have to tread carefully if she didn’t want to reveal the full extent of her knowledge about the Stone! “—then couldn’t it be used to unbind things that normally can’t be undone?”
Like the whorls of Time…
“Grimlet?” Gammel’s face twitched, and his wrinkled brow creased. “Impossible, Miss Blan. Devilry is not the same as Sorcery, and you’d best beware when dealing with devils. Too many magicians, Calvaros included, forget that devils are bound only by their own code, and have nothing to do with ours.”
Lillet flashed back to Mr. Advocat—she hadn’t seen much of him in this time loop, but she had been his apprentice in the last. What codes did Mr. Advocat live by? If Mr. Adovcat and Grimlet were comparable archdevils, then maybe the former could shed light into the weaknesses of the latter.
“Speaking of Grimlet,” Gammel said, his tone jovial but his face growing haggard, “I’m pleased to say that the other professors and myself looked into Lujei’s rune, and we believe…” he trailed off for a second, beads of sweat sliding down his white temples. “We believe that we found and fixed…the error…”
“Professor Gammel?” Lillet asked in concern as her mentor grimaced and raised a hand to his chest.
“Apologies, Miss Blan, I…” Gammel coughed, choked, then crumpled, his hands grasping around the lapels of his greatcoat.
“Professor!” Lilet yelled, then she yelped as a blinding flash of red light and smoke erupted from Gammel’s front, flooding over him and exploding outwards in a fiery burst.
On the ground, Lillet coughed out a mouthful of ash as she looked up, freezing.
Where Gammel had stood was a bright red devil, its skeletal features twisted in an triumphant pointed grin.
“Free at last!”
Grimlet boomed, his clawed fingers flexing languidly as he tipped his horns back in a laugh.
“Gammel, you fool—did you think that I would let you
to destroy me?”
His pitted eyes swept through the hall and focused on Lillet cowering on the ground.
Grimlet growled, seizing her by the neck with one hand, his talons cutting into Lillet’s jaw.
“Tell me where they keep the Rune!”
A strangled scream burst from Lillet’s lips—was there anyone who could hear her? Come to her aid? She grabbed at Grimlet’s wrist as he hoisted her into the air, trying to prevent herself from being strangled. Simply touching his scaly skin burned her fingers, and Lillet whimpered.
What was the point? Grimlet would kill her anyway, and Lillet wasn’t going to give up their chance of destroying him. She stubbornly kept quiet, although if he hadn’t been gripping her jaw her teeth would have been chattering in terror.
Low chuckling echoed through the stone walls as Grimlet shook Lillet amusedly.
“Little girl, do you think to stop me by your silence? I will rend the stones of this tower apart to find what I want, killing all living things as I go, and in the end I will still find that Rune. And you?”
He smiled, a lipless smile full of black fangs. Grimlet brought his other paw up and laid a sharp claw gently on the lid of Lillet’s right eye.
“There are many things I can do to you before you die.”
Lillet cried, shaking as she choked, feeling the tip of Grimlet’s claw on the soft flesh of her eyelid.
Grimlet waited, then grinned in devilish delight.
“OPALNERIA!” Lillet screamed, sobbing at her own betrayal. She didn’t know or care if Grimlet was going to kill her anyway. There was no victory when bargaining with a devil, but Lillet would say anything to stop the black fear paralyzing her nerves as a bead of blood seeped into her eye.
Grimlet roared, all the torches in the hall turning into flaming torrents as he drew his arm back and flung Lillet towards the wall.
She may have fainted, because Lillet never felt the impact of the wall against her body. Or she may have died.
It was cold.
She was floating.
Then someone touched her cheek, grasping her face with both hands. “Lillet!”
The touch brought Lillet back into her body, and she let out a little cry as her pounding head and throbbing limbs snapped Lillet entirely into the present.
“Can you move?” Amoretta stroked Lillet’s cheek, coaxing her to sit up. “We need to hide.”
“Grimlet!” gasped Lillet, closing her eyes as a bolt of pain flashed in her skull. “He’s—”
“He already attacked the teachers,” Amoretta said, peering worriedly into Lillet’s eyes as she tried to assess Lillet’s health. “He’ll be coming for us now.”
“Us?” mumbled Lillet, seeing black spots in her vision when Amoretta gave her a hand up. The pale blonde girl had to hold Lillet’s arm until the magician’s knees cooperated. Lillet rested her aching forehead on Amoretta’s shoulder, feeling a bit better immediately. “What about everyone else? The students? Are they okay?”
“I don’t know,” Amoretta said, one hand kneading the painful knots from the back of Lillet’s neck. It soothed and aggravated Lillet’s headache at once, although Lillet was determined not to cry like a little girl anymore. “But we have to move, now.” Right then, a tremour swept through Amoretta’s willowy frame.
That jolted Lillet’s feet into motion as she let Amoretta drag her down the hall—all the torches were out, and only the intermittent silver moonlight rays through the tall windows lit their way towards Dr. Chartreuse’s laboratory. The whole tower was eerily silent, as if all the familiars and devils who might otherwise take advantage of the scattered magicians had fled for safety of their own. Lillet almost would have wished for there to be
sound from a source other than them, but she regretted the thought immediately when an echoing, malicious laughter filled the night.
The alchemy labs were guarded by a pair of gargoyles, but they seemed there more out of tradition than for security. Lillet gulped as she helped Amoretta shut the great doors, watching the doors bolt themselves. “That’s not going to stop Grimlet for long, is it?”
Amoretta squeezed Lillet’s hand, and they shared a look before Amoretta let go and picked up a case from one of the shelves.
“What—” Lillet jumped back as the entire wall shook as something slammed it from the other side.
“Get away from the door,” Amoretta implored, as she lifted the lid off her box.
Lillet backed away towards Amoretta, swallowing as she saw smoke creep through around the doors. She didn’t have any grimoires with her, and her experience with Necromancy wasn’t good enough to draw the Hades Gate rune from memory. Lillet went for the safer option—she cast a Fairy Ring, the Rune easy to write from memory at this point. As the fairies chorused their arrival, Lillet levelled up the Fairy Ring, casting Astral Change over the five fairies she had summoned. Hopefully that way, they would last longer in a fight against a substance opponent. The fairies turned incorporeal, although the arrows in their curved bows still looked wickedly sharp.
Against an archdevil though? Lillet tried not to think so depressingly.
“What are you doing?” She asked Amoretta as the homunculus drew something out of her box. Lillet had expected some kind of weapon, but all the other girl was holding was a slender, round-bottomed flask.
“What is that?” Lillet asked, frowning. Something was making her nervous and upset, and Lillet racked her brain to try and remember why.
Grimlet roared as the doors blew open, smashing into chunks against the stone walls. He stalked forward, completely ignoring the fairy arrows as they struck and splintered into sparks against his red skin.
Cackling, Grimlet turned his black eyes on Amoretta, who had just grabbed Lillet’s arm and pulled her back against the lab bookshelves.
“Angel…you have tempted us with your presence for too long. I will consume you, and grow stronger when your spirit dies in my gullet.”
“No!” Lillet shouted, even though she was helpless to do anything.
“It will be you who dies tonight, Grimlet,” Amoretta said, her breathy voice steady and confident.
“Can a holy being like you, commit suicide?”
Grimlet laughed, dismissing her threat.
“Imprisoned in your flesh and bone shell, your angelic spirit cannot harm me.”
Amoretta smiled, stepping forward towards the devil. “For the one who has given me the only thing I need, I will sin. I will do anything to save Lillet from the likes of you.”
“What?” Lillet cried. What had she given Amoretta? What was Amoretta about to do? Lillet had to stop her!
Grimlet charged forward, his claws extended in furious desperation.
Right then, Lillet remembered.
It had been right in front of her, from the first Alchemy lesson she had learnt from Amoretta.
The life of a homunculus is in their flask.
“Amoretta! No!” screamed Lillet. Grimlet was almost upon them, and Lillet couldn’t reach Amoretta before Grimlet did. Her hands scrabbled against the bookshelf, searching for a grimoire, anything that could help Amoretta. Anything! She yanked a heavy tome off, but instead of the engraved face of a Laboratory grimoire that Lillet could cast, it was a strange tome, the cover a snake-like coil wrapped around a vertical bar.
Lillet sobbed uselessly as she looked back at Amoretta and Grimlet, just in time to see Amoretta drop the delicate flask that contained her life.
The sound of shattering glass was like a heart attack.
Grimlet wailed, recoiling as the most brilliant white light erupted from Amoretta, bathing the entire room with waves of holy light. Lillet squinted, cowering from the brightness of the light as well, not because it pained her but because it was too beautiful to look at. But she had to, she had to see Amoretta—Lillet couldn’t let her go, she had to save her—
Black ash burned over Grimlet’s face and skin as the devil howled, his deep voice in accompaniment with the deep tolling of the midnight bell. Lillet pulled herself forward with one arm, crying as she tried to reach for Amoretta.
Lillet had to reach her.
The one she—
The angelic light intensified, flooding out all other colour and sensation. All except for the knelling of the tower bells.
Third Night Before
"Amor—" Lillet began to scream.
The bells tolled, a dirge for the fallen homunculus. And as they tolled, the laboratory, drowning in brilliant golden light, faded.
The end of Lillet's cry echoed through her bedroom. She staggered from the emotional shock of it, the sudden twisting of the world into a place where none of it was before her.
"Lillet? What was that about?"
She turned to look at Gaff.
"Whoa, you really don't look okay," he said. "What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
Lillet could only imagine how she seemed to him. After all, a face that had just seen death before its eyes...
when that face appears out of nowhere.
It had happened again. At the moment the bells had rung on the fifth day, she had been pulled away from disaster, and left back in her own room.
"Gaff, what day did I come here?"
"Today. Well, okay, it's past midnight so it's yesterday if you want to get all strict about it, but really, Lillet, how could you not know that?"
Then it's true,
I've traveled back in time again, and in the same way.
Once could have been a freak accident of some kind, but twice now, and when she'd been in completely different circumstances besides, told her that something else was going on. There had to be some kind of outside influence at work.
But whatever that influence was, it had saved Amoretta and everyone else besides. She could have almost sobbed in relief; it had been so
that had consumed Professor Gammel's body! The Archmage's spirit had been frightening, but Grimlet had been a thousand times worse. They shared that aura of overwhelming power, but Grimlet's evil was a palpable thing. Pain, degradation, and torment were like meat and drink to it, like it was the living expression of all that was foul in the world. She could still feel his claws on her face...
...and that brilliant golden light, awash with a terrifying purity, swallowing that devil in a way that somehow, some way, frightened her
No, not "somehow." For a reason. Because it was Amoretta's death. because she'd known what would happen and done it anyway, to save me. She sacrificed her life for me, because I'd given her something so precious that she considered it a fair exchange.
And I have no idea what it was.
But then, if time had turned back, Lillet hadn't given it to her anyway. And if it would make her throw her life away for Lillet's sake, it might be a good thing the gift had been unwound. And yet again...
"Lillet?" Gaff asked again. "You're really not looking so good. Maybe you'd better sit down?"
She allowed him to steer her to the bed, which was nearer to hand than a chair, and she perched on the edge of it. It was all so
to handle, at once: time travel, Grimlet, Amoretta. What had that golden light even
? Grimlet had talked about an angel, and it had been so beautiful, so pure that Lillet could honestly believe that the work of the divine was involved. No matter how fearful it had been, in the moment the light had washed over her it was as if she were swallowed up in an embrace so tender and loving that it suffused her whole being, not just her body.
In some ways, that was the very worst of all of it, to have that sensation, something unreservedly shining and capital-G Good, to be associated with suicide and death.
But once again, she'd been given a second—third, now—chance to turn things around, to answer some of those questions that she'd been gathering and, just maybe, to find a solution.
She inhaled, taking a long, deep breath, and then let it out just as slowly. This wasn't something she was ready for. The Archmage, Grimlet, these weren't problems for an apprentice to solve, no matter how much of a prodigy she was.
Which was another question to answer, because she
a prodigy, That is, she'd been judged good enough by the Magical Society to be recommended to the Tower, yes, which definitely put her potential at above hedge-wizard status, but that didn't explain how she'd been able to master a number of Runes across the disciplines in only a few days. The idea that she had a natural affinity for Sorcery had been upsetting, but it simply wasn't possible that she had an affinity for
, was it? Nor had her studies before coming here suggested that she was some kind of unparalleled magical genius.
I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, though!
The few Runes she knew might have been dwarfed by Calvaros or Grimlet's power, but they gave her options that the untutored apprentice she'd been ten (for her) days ago wouldn't have had.
"What happened to you, Lillet?" Gaff asked, worry plain on his cherubic face.
"I...I don't really know," she temporized. "I was just standing there, when suddenly...I was just overwhelmed by this...
. It was all so real, as if it had just happened to me." She was actually kind of proud of herself for that explanation, since it was the literal truth once one factored in the difference between her perspective on the flow of time and Gaff's.
"Do you need to talk to someone? I could go tell Professor Gammel if you want."
Lillet shook her head.
"No...no, I think I'll be all right, now."
"If you say so." Gaff sounded pretty dubious about it, which didn't surprise Lillet at all. She'd have been dubious in his place, and her experience with meeting Lujei in the last loop of time had told her a lot about how much the elven boy cared.
The knock at the door interrupted whatever else he might have said.
"Come in, Margarita," Lillet called.
The door swung open to reveal the brown-haired girl, her frog still perched on her head.
"How did you know it was me?" Margarita asked.
Lillet smiled wanly.
"Who else would surprise me like that?"
Gaff and Margarita both groaned at the pun on the young witch's name.
"Okay, now I
something's wrong with you," Gaff groused. "But geez, Margarita, what are you doing out at this hour?"
"I like the night air," she said.
"And that's important enough for you to risk getting caught by Lujei's ghost? You could be killed!"
"Oh, don't worry so much. Surely here can tell when the ghost is getting near, and I get out of the hall."
"Is that why you asked to come in?" Lillet spoke up.
"Uh-huh. You definitely don't want to be caught by her!"
I can't disagree with that!
Lillet thought, thinking of her own meeting with the insane ghost.
"And yet you just won't be satisfied until you get caught, will you?" Gaff sighed. His tone exactly matched that of Lillet's mother when Lillet's father was dead-set on some course of action she disagreed with, and especially hearing it in the elf's high-pitched, boyish voice made Lillet want to giggle.
"I'm not going to get caught, pipsqueak," Margarita shot back, not
unlike Lillet's dad when her mom had repeated the same nag once too often in too little time. This time, she
giggle, drawing everyone else's attention.
"I'm sorry; it's just that you two sounded so much like my parents just then," she explained.
Margarita and Gaff gave her identical what-are-you-babbling-about-now looks (ironically making them look even more like a couple, though it was an expression Lillet more often saw directed at the younger of her little brothers when he tried to explain the thought process behind some utterly foolish stunt rather than at herself).
"I didn't realize how late it really is," Margarita said. "Maybe I should just let you get to sleep, Lillet."
"Yeah, it's been a big day for you, coming here," Gaff agreed. "You'd better just get to bed, really."
Lillet couldn't help but smile at the two of them. It was kind of weird, honestly:
for ten days now, while they'd only known her for a few hours.
She had better friends than even
"Is Lujei still hanging around outside here, Surely?" Margarita asked.
"Her presence has faded. It seems the witch has passed," the frog answered in his deep basso, his speaking voice not anything like a croak at all.
"All right, then. We'd better get going. Good night, Lillet. I hope you have fun tomorrow in your first classes."
"Me, too. Good night. And be careful!"
"Don't worry. I'm going straight to bed."
She turned to go, even took a couple of steps towards the door.
"Huh? What is it?"
"I need to talk to you about something. It's kind of important and it's private."
"All right. I can stay a little longer."
"Not now; I'm way too tired to make any sense right now."
And to sort it all out in my own mind.
"She's got that right," Gaff murmured.
"Well, okay. But just let me know, all right? What are friends for?"
Telling Professor Gammel about the problems with Ms. Opalneria's Rune hadn't done any good. They'd found that there was a problem, but Grimlet had gotten loose! That
didn't help anything! But the students...she remembered how they'd all stood together, fighting the Archmage on the last day of the first loop in time, and doing well, too, despite having no advance plan, no strategy. Maybe if they
have some kind of plan, they could succeed where the teachers failed.
Amoretta might have been a better choice than Margarita. Certainly, the homunculus was someone she could trust and who would stand by her when needed. But she wasn't sure that she wanted to do that. She definitely didn't want to get on a path that led to Amoretta killing herself for Lillet! Probably it would be better if she avoided Amoretta, at least until she could figure out what it was she'd given the homunculus, and why it had so affected her.
Not to mention the tangled knot of feelings that Lillet herself felt about the sacrifice.
There were also the boys. Hiram seemed a bit too straight-laced, even a little forbidding, but Bartido had been nice enough. A bit prone to leering, of course...She could only imagine what he'd say if she genuinely asked him for his help!
So, Margarita it was, then. Her first friend at the Magic Academy, and the first magician she'd met who was her own age. She certainly didn't lack for courage, if she routinely went out walking where Lujei might catch her! Lillet didn't know when she'd get a chance to sit down and talk with her, but she hoped it would be soon. She had hold of too many threads; it would be nice to have someone else's help to sort them out.
"No need to thank me," Margarita said. "After all, friends are supposed to help each other, right?" She flashed Lillet a warm smile, but for some reason it wasn't
face that Lillet was looking at, but rather Surely's. Maybe it was only her imagination, since after all he was a toad, not a human, but she would have sworn that the familiar was staring at her with a look that could only be described as gluttonous.
Third Day One
Rather than waste her time at any lessons this time (though there was a part of her that railed against this decision), Lillet immediately headed for the library. The place where she had sat with the rest of the students in the Tower for a while. Where she hoped to find Margarita this morning. It turned out that her luck was in, as was her peer, pouring over a book on Glamour rituals. As Lillet walked up to her, and suddenly Margarita jumped into the air and shut the book with a snap. "Lillet! Don't scare me like that."
"Don't get all wrapped up in your book, then," Lillet replied with a smile to soften the words. Margarita smiled back, though she held a hand to her chest as she breathed quickly.
Lillet's eyes went to Surely's. "How are you, Surely?"
Lillet suddenly realized that Surely hadn't really spoken to anyone but Margarita directly, and might have been uncomfortable about it. So, Lillet returned her attention to her friend. "Are you busy? I don't want to interrupt you if you're in the middle of something." Well, a partial lie, but if Margarita wasn't willing to be pulled away from whatever it was that she was doing, then it would be pointless to ask her anything about what was going on in the Tower.
"No... No. I was just... No," Margarita said haltingly. She paused and put her finger to her lip, then took it away and gave Lillet a warm smile. "It's fine. I remember you saying that you wanted to talk to me about something last night. Is that what you want to talk about now?"
"Yes... um... but before we start..." Lillet's eyes flicked up to Surely. Margarita seemed to get it immediately as she nodded.
"Surely can be trusted as well as I can. He's my familiar, you know? He's not going to go jawing around about anything that you tell me."
"Okay," Lillet said, and she did feel better from Margarita's quick explanation. "Then let's get down to business."
Margarita was silent for a bit after Lillet explained to her what she thought was going on. "You don't believe me?" Lillet asked, her hopes falling.
"Normally, I would laugh it off, but you look too serious to be lying!" Margarita said, with a somewhat too cheery smile on her face. "It's just that it's a lot to take in all at once. I mean, with all of the things that you say are going to happen within your first five days at the Tower... I mean, it's a lot to process."
"I know," Lillet said, nodding along. "I'm just so worried about it all... and it was hard for me to really understand it myself."
Margarita took a deep breath. "Well, since I don't want to die either, and it sounds like the professors aren't very dependable... Someone takes the container with Calvaros's soul and releases him, right?"
Lillet nodded, and Margarita pressed on. "Say... what if we get there first, and hide the container?"
"But how are we going to find it in a room with all of those runes? It's impossible." Lillet said, feeling like the first idea is a bust.
"Ms. Opalneria uses Necromancy, so she probably has strong ghosts in there," Margarita said. "We would need strong Glamour in order to get past them. But I don't think it's impossible."
Lillet looked at Margarita with the question plastered on her face. "What do you mean?"
"Well... I've been working on my Glamour lately," Margarita said. "And I think I might be able to make an attempt tomorrow. How long do we have until it's stolen, anyway?"
"A couple days... We can make the attempt tomorrow," Lillet said.
"Hmm..." Margarita trailed off in thought, then brought fist to palm shortly afterward. "I've got it! I... No... no, never mind."
"What is it?" Lillet asked.
"Well..." Margarita said, then waved Lillet to look at the book that she had been looking at when Lillet walked in. "I was reading up on my Glamour lately, after all, and I read about a Grimoire of the Morning Star... and the spirit that can be summoned from it. With that, I bet we could manage to get past Ms. Opalneria's defenses."
Lillet's eyes widened.
So the theft of the Morning Star and the breaking of Calvaros's seal
Then another thought struck Lillet, and this one she didn't want to believe at all.
What if Margarita...
It was certainly possible. There was really no one in the castle -- other than Professor Gammel and probably the rest of the faculty -- than had been truly proven innocent of either the theft of the Grimoire or the breaking of Calvaros's seal. So why was it so hard for her to wrap it around her head that Margarita could be the one?
Margarita is my friend,
Lillet reminded herself.
And all I have is that she knows about the grimoire. That's not enough to conclude that she's the thief, anyway.
"So we're in this together, right?" Margarita asked, breaking Lillet out of her quick bout self doubt. "You'll be with me tomorrow?"
"Of course," Lillet said. "I wouldn't ask you to do something that I wouldn't do myself."
"Alright. Work on your Glamour, right? We'll both need to have ourselves ready tomorrow to face a lot of Necromancy," Margarita said, and then she opened the book that was on the table and started to read it again.
"Margarita," Lillet said, causing her friend to look up. "Thank you, thank you so much."
Margarita smiled at her again, this time the smile was definitely more genuine. "We've got this, Lillet."
The first thing Lillet realized after she left Margarita to her studies of the Glamour book that she had been pouring over, is that a good portion of the rest of the people in the castle were in the Alchemy wing. The one place that Lillet didn't want to be, if she was going to avoid Amoretta. And until she was sure about what... what she felt about those events at the end of her second run through her first five days...
She went over what she knew about Amoretta as she walked through the halls and staircases of the Silver Star Tower. Amoretta was a homunculus, and not just any homunculus. She didn't need to remain in her flask to live, so long as it wasn't broken, she had been created not so long ago, and she was a complete being. And Grimlet had known something about her... that she was an... angel? Something about angels, anyway. She was a homunculus. Not an angel.
Well, file that under things that she
"Oh? You must be the new student that Margarita told me about," a measured voice came from behind her. Lillet spun to face Hiram, who was thankfully the person that Lillet thought it would be when she heard the tone of the statement.
"Yes... I mean, I must be... I mean..." Lillet shook her head, then smiled at Hiram. "I'm Lillet Blan, the new student. So if Margarita was talking about a new student..." Lillet trailed off and raised her hands in a shrug. "It has to be me."
"So I must conclude," Hiram said, a smile playing on his lips. "It's nice to meet you, Lillet Blan. I'm Hiram Menthe; I apprentice to Ms. Opalneria in Necromancy."
"It's nice to meet you too, Hiram Menthe," Lillet said.
"Are you up to anything in particular today, Hiram?"
"No, I have been doing my research and support tasks as per my usual duties," Hiram replied.
"I'm sorry that I'm not that interesting."
"That's not what I meant at all," Lillet said, raising her hands in a surrender pose. "I just wanted to get to know you a little bit, since we're going to be students together here."
"Well, then, instead of being sorry for that, then I'll just apologize for not having a good answer today."
"And I'll apologize for bothering you," Lillet said, bowing and moving aside in a clear signal that she didn't want to bother him further.
"It was not a bother; you are a fellow student, as you said," Hiram said, though he did move toward the gap that Lillet made in the hallway. "I would be upset if you never talked to me because you thought that I was always too busy."
Lillet smiled at him as he passed. "I'll keep that in mind."
After Lillet watched Hiram walk off to whatever he was off to do, she continued on her own way. If she remembered correctly, practically everyone was going to be involved with the chimera incident in the Alchemy lab, which made that lab the last place that she wanted to be. And she had already spoken to both of the students who were completely uninvolved. It was only when she thought about keeping an eye out for the one teacher that would have nothing to do with the event that she saw -- something -- dart through a doorway in front of her.
She stopped. Was that Mr. Advocat? She remembered that he had a propensity for showing up at odd times in nearly impossible locations, but she hadn't seen how he did it. Was he able to shapeshift or something? She realized that -- despite being apprenticed to a devil her first time through -- she still didn't know all that much about the Devilry aspects or Mr. Advocat; he had only trained her in Sorcery, after all. So she didn't really know what he could do. Nor Grimlet, for that matter. And it was for that reason that she decided it would be nice to speak to Mr. Advocat for a few minutes, if she could. Though she would have to be very careful with the conversation.
Lillet peered around the corner into the room that she had seen the something dart into. The door was wide open, though there were no lights in the room for her to see anything of note. It seemed that if she
spotted anything, they would come up behind her as she walked on and continued to familiarize herself with the parts of the Tower that she hadn't been yet.
"Aha! Do I spy the new student wandering around the Tower?"
It was no comfort to be right in this case, as while she managed not to jump, she didn't manage to quell the squeak that tore out of her completely. She spun around with her wand coming to her hand -- even though she had also not meant to do
-- and found precisely who she had been expecting standing behind her with his trademark smirk and regal bearing. Not that the destinctive lilt and haughty tone hadn't already told her that Mr. Advocat indeed had managed to get behind her.
At least she had expected something like that to happen?
"Er..." Lillet stalled a bit, forming her words carefully as to not reveal that she had met this devil in another lifetime. "I... didn't see you there, Professor."
"Indeed; I am not a professor of anything, though I appreciate you having manners about it," the devil said, his demeanor unchanged. "I would like to know your name, however. I'll tell you mine in return; how about that?"
"Uh... Lillet Blan, uh... sir."
"Splendid! I am Advocat, teacher of Sorcery at this school."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Advocat," Lillet replied, happy to finally be able to call him what she called him in her head aloud again.
"And what is Lillet Blan doing on this busy day?" Advocat asked, savoring Lillet's name once again. Lillet's mind immediately wondered whether he'd do that every time they met, but she didn't have the luxury of idling on that thought for long. "Quite a bit of trouble happening in the labs right now."
"Oh? I hadn't heard," Lillet said. And it was half true. "I was just trying to familiarize myself with the layout of the Tower so that I don't get lost if I have to go some place quickly."
"I see," Advocat said, hand to his chin. "Then I would merely recommend that you not go inside any closed doors -- particularly in this wing of the Tower. They're still being cleared out of dangerous things. And we wouldn't want a wee student getting mixed up in that."
"No, Mr. Advocat, of course not," Lillet replied, though she wasn't sure that she'd keep that promise at all. "I wouldn't want to be hurt on my first day here!" And she hadn't been.
"Good," Advocat said. His eyes gave Lillet a once over, and he nodded as if she had passed the inspection. "I imagine I will see you again soon enough. Until then, Lillet Blan." He then walked off, taking a quick corner, after which Lillet could no longer hear any footsteps.
While Lillet had been confident that Mr. Advocat had not intended her any harm despite already knowing his nature, she wondered why he didn't volunteer the information. Maybe to help get her to trust him? She couldn't be sure. Perhaps, despite being his apprentice the first time through, Advocat was the being in the Tower she truly knew the least.
Third Day Two
Vivid green light filled the dark room, flooding through the blue tint in Opalneria’s workroom.
“Defend our Runes while I summon the Morning Star!” Margarita cried out, her glasses shining green in the light of the Titania Rune beneath her feet.
Lillet continued summoning, arranging fairies into defensive positions. She didn't know if she should have insisted that she summon the Morning Star and maintain that mana source herself instead of Margarita, but tactically it might not be a bad idea for Lillet to focus on defence rather than offence. Quickly Lillet drew a Laboratory and Chimera Spawn Rune as well, readying her defence of their location.
She had learnt through experience that utilizing her summons' unique abilities strategically was a good way to outlast her opponents. Her travels through time have given her more knowledge than people thought she had, and more access to higher levels of magic than she should.
“Good god, Lillet,” Margarita gaped when she had turned around to check on Lillet's progress. “Are you summoning homunculi? I didn’t know you had Alchemy lessons already.”
“Don’t mind me, concentrate!” Lillet had to resist drawing more Runes—she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself. The thought of summoning a dragon to smash through Opalneria’s defenses was tempting, but it would cause too much destruction for them to get away with it.
Just when the first Morning Star materialized, Opalneria’s familiars attacked, swarming down from the heights.
The fight, Lillet found, wasn’t as difficult as she had feared.
Of course, she had a bit of an advantage, having had the chance to practice more types of magic than the average new apprentice. And Margarita wasn’t a weak magician either—that, or she had practiced long and hard with the Titania Rune in order to continue summoning Morning Stars and supplying their starchilds with enough mana to attack.
Finally, the last of Opalneria’s Runes faded away in a burst of light from the last surviving Morning Star. “We did it!” Margarita did a little victorious jump of joy. She turned to smile at Lillet proudly. “You’re pretty handy with Runes. When did you get a chance to learn Alchemy and Sorcery?”
“Um…I learnt some of it when I was at the Magic Society. Anyway, there’s the soul container!” Lillet moved forward just as Margarita lurched forward as well, despite being further away. They both stopped.
“Well…” Margarita fidgeted, blinking rapidly behind her spectacles. “We should be careful with that. I read about how delicate complex devices like the soul container are. We don’t want to accidentally break it and let the Archmage loose.”
“I know,” Lillet agreed. She started to say more but then decided to remain quiet.
Margarita’s hands trembled. “Let’s be careful with it.” She took a few more steps closer to the soul container.
Lillet moved over as well, turning slightly so that she was approaching nearly directly opposite Margarita. “I’ll take it, Margarita. I know somewhere we can hide it safely.”
The other girl swallowed, and Lillet noticed that her hands had curled into fists.
“Nonsense, girl,” Surely intoned, his bulbous eyes staring unblinkingly at Lillet. “Leave this to someone with more expertise. Your job is done.”
“Don’t, Margarita,” Lillet said quietly, and bit her lip as Margarita’s eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry, Lillet.”
The Morning Star lifted her starchild and launched a bolt at Lillet, but a unicorn leapt in front of Lillet, light blazing as the attack struck its holy barrier. Then the Morning Star reeled as a wave of light blasted through the room, turning the ghostly spirit into a solid being.
“Kill the homunculi!” Surely commanded, but it was too late.
From the darkened corners of the room came a high-pitched wheeze. An instant later a whirlwind of legs and claws burst into view, clawing through the stone as the chimera bore down on the Morning Star, its skeletal jaws agape. In a few moments the chimera's limbs slowed to a stop as it roared, victorious when the Morning Star collapsed and dissipated into the gloom.
Margarita fell to her knees, staring at her hands in despair.
Lillet brought her remaining familiars towards them, keeping her defences up. She had never felt so terrible being right about her suspicions. “Why, Margarita? Why would you want to free Calvaros? He wants to kill everyone here!”
Margarita had fought with them in that desperate battle against the Archmage with the other apprentices days before. Why had she done that if she had been the one to free him in the first place?
“Get the soul container!” Surely ordered, his throat swelling up.
Lillet cut him off when one of her fairies fired an arrow at the frog, knocking him off Margarita's head. Her bespectacled friend flinched, her face turning pale.
“They would have burned me as a witch,” Margarita whispered. “The Archmage's followers saved me. I...I owe them my life...Lillet, I didn't mean for all this to happen.”
“Then don't,” Lillet implored. She stepped up to Margarita and put her hands firmly on her friend's shoulders. “Professor Gammel will protect you.” It was a mild lie; given the state of affairs in the Tower at the moment, Professor Gammel wasn't able to even help himself. But Lillet couldn't bear it if she had to fight Margarita or turn her in, not when Margarita looked so small and lost and defeated. Even if Margarita couldn't remember, Lillet did. They were friends.
“Surely won't let me walk away,” Margarita mumbled.
“I'll bring you somewhere safe,” Lillet promised, taking Margarita's hand and tugging the other apprentice with her out of Ms. Opalneria's rooms. She carefully kept her other hand holding the soul container hidden in her skirts away from sight. It would hamper her efforts during this particular time loop if Lillet was mistakenly identified as the traitor who was trying to free Calvaros. Although admittedly she
stolen the soul container, she was working off of knowledge no one else in the tower was aware of.
Where could she take Margarita to keep her safe for the time being? Seeing how shaken her friend was, Lillet didn't want to send her off to her room by herself, not with Surely still lurking about the tower. But neither did Lillet want to test the trust she so easily placed in Margarita's defection by bringing the other girl around with her during her investigations.
She needed someone she trusted to look after Margarita, but also someone with a bendable set of morals to allow for a bit of rule-breaking in the name of the greater good.
Lillet sighed, her shoulders slumping.
It can't be helped...
“Come, sit down,” Amoretta told Margarita, the kind words sounding a little stiff. Not out of any bad intent, Lillet realized, but probably from unfamiliarity. The homunculus settled Margarita in one of the cushioned armchairs in the main Alchemy lab room before retaking her seat on the rug by the fire, gathering a black grimalkin back into her arms. Lillet became aware that she had been staring when Amoretta’s fingers slowed in her petting and a pair of red eyes settled on Lillet’s curiously for a moment. Lillet blushed and looked away, shamefully rude.
“Yeah, make yourselves at home.” Bartido waved towards the cupboards and small kitchen area opposite the hearth. “Food and tea there. How long are you going to stay with us anyway?”
“Umm…” Lillet hadn’t really thought that far. She had been lucky to find Bartido awake at this hour at all—apparently Dr. Chartreuse’s workaholic nature meant that the alchemy students had strange sleep cycles in order to keep up with the intense professor.
Now that she had the soul container, what she needed to focus on was a way to successfully banish the Archmage’s spirit and to defeat Grimlet that didn’t need…Lillet snuck an apprehensive glance at Amoretta, who was staring down at the cat in her lap. “Just…for a bit tonight.”
“So what’s going on?” Bartido asked, scrutinizing the pale and quiet Margarita, then over to Lillet, who tried to hide her fidgeting. “You’re obviously in some kind of trouble, but are you up to mischief or in over your heads about something?”
“Nothing terrible,” Lillet waved off, the guilty weight of the soul container heavy in her book satchel. “I just don’t want the teachers to find out about…something Margarita and I were working on. You’ll help us keep this low-key, right?”
“Sure,” Bartido agreed easily, smirking. Amoretta didn’t look as delighted as Bartido at the thought of conspiring against the professors, but she didn’t protest. “I’m game. Hey, Margarita, want Amoretta to show you how homunculi are made? My work space is just behind Chartreuse’s lab there.”
Lillet let out a relieved sigh as Amoretta led Margarita away, taking one worry off Lillet’s plate. Margarita didn’t deserve to get mixed up in all this because of something in the past. And Lillet didn’t want to see anyone else die.
She had no guarantees that time would loop back every midnight on the fifth day. Without the Philosopher’s Stone Lillet had no idea if she had a second chance to get things right if she failed.
But Lillet couldn’t just sit here—she was exhausted and craving a few hours of sleep. Still, she couldn’t rest. She couldn’t let any valuable time slip away.
She needed a plan.
“Hey.” Bartido grabbed Lillet’s wrist, making Lillet jump, startled. She had forgotten that she wasn’t alone. “What’s going on, for real?”
“Come on,” Bartido rolled his eyes. “I know you’re up to something.” He nodded firmly, his mouth a determined line. “It’s probably dangerous and against the rules, so I want in.”
“I don’t know what—”
“—I’m talking about? Please. I mean it, Lillet Blan. Either you let me help or I’m going to Professor Gammel.”
“You can’t!” The words burst from Lillet’s mouth before she could stop herself.
Bartido’s brows narrowed contemplatively. “It’s not just about getting in trouble, is it? I knew it. Spill.” His gaze softened a little, his voice uncharacteristically tame and without a shred of arrogance. “Trust me. I can help. I want to.”
Lillet had trusted Professor Gammel. And Amoretta. Even if they hadn’t meant to betray her they still had, and Lillet had been helpless to stop it.
Maybe it was the people she couldn’t quite trust who could give Lillet the information and help she needed to succeed. If she struck the right deal with them she could take all emotion from the situation and tackle this enigma with cool logic and detached determination.
Maybe Lillet needed an ally.
The stakes were too high otherwise.
“Well?” Bartido stared Lillet down, challenging.
“…All right then,” said Lillet, meeting his stare. “It’s…a lot to take in. But it’s all the truth.”
Where should she start? Should she tell him everything?
“Terrible things have been happening that I’m trying to stop. It starts with the Philosopher’s Stone…”
The Philosopher’s Stone
?” Bartido repeated, his eyes widening.
“Yes.” Lillet continued, trying to figure out a way to tell the story in a cohesive fashion. “It’s somewhere in this Tower, and for some reason it sends me back through time every five days to redo the events in the past…”
Bartido nodded slowly, listening to everything Lillet said, a contemplative look in his dark eyes.
Third Day Three
It felt good to be able to unburden herself to someone, Lillet Blan thought as she slipped through the dawn-lit corridors to her room. If her experiences held true, she had only three more days to figure out some way to deal with the Archmage and Grimlet, or else time would loop back again. Or maybe it would loop back again anyway. She’d made the first loop just in time to save herself from the Archmage, but had that actually been the trigger? It wasn’t as if the Philosopher’s Stone had been right there for her to interact with at the time...
She shook her head in frustration. There were still too many questions! But at least she’d solved the mystery of the stolen Titania grimoire and the identity of who’d freed the Archmage. And maybe with Bartido’s help, she could make some progress on the other problems.
I wish we’d had more time to talk
, she thought. But it had taken long enough just to tell her story, and work her way past his initial reluctance (which, she had to admit, hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as she’d feared), so they’d agreed to meet and talk more later in the day.
Besides which, the Alchemy lab was probably the worst place she could think of for a comfortable talk.
She hoped that Margarita would be all right. She was obviously terrified of what could happen to her, and without Professor Gammel’s protection it was entirely possible that her fears could come true. Lillet didn’t really understand how certain parts of the country could burn witches and others couldn’t—Lillet’s own family and neighbors had been excited for her when she’d proven to have magical talent, as a way for her to earn a better life than that of a country peasant, even if magic was a little spooky.
It didn’t do any good to save Margarita from the Archmage, after all, if it just led to her meeting the same end at the hands of the law.
Lillet’s mind was still racing through the various situations and problems she still faced as she changed into her nightdress and cap, but even mental excitement was nothing compared to the exhaustion caused by being up all night, conducting a magical battle, and having multiple confrontations with her friends. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
~X X X~
“Maybe I should have gone to Professor Gammel,” Bartido said darkly. “You should have seen Ms. Opalneria this morning. She was absolutely in a fury over the Archmage’s soul container being stolen. Mind you, I think it’s the first time I’ve seen her interrupt our work and get an actual reaction out of Dr. Chartreuse other than bored irritation. She ought to count that as a win.”
“Ms. Opalneria interrupts your work?” That was odd; she wondered what it meant. Was the alchemist up to something shady? Amoretta’s existence, certainly, was out of the ordinary...
“She’s got the hots for Dr. Chartreuse. Really, she’s like a lovesick schoolgirl, the way she carries on.”
Lillet tried to work her brain around the idea of the prim and reserved Ms. Opalneria acting like a lovesick anything, and failed miserably. It was just one of those things she’d have to see to believe.
“Mind you, she’s pretty hot when she starts getting excited. You’ve gotta like the Doctor’s willpower. Can’t say I’d have the strength to keep turning her down.” He shot her a huge grin.
“Geez! Could you be any ickier? I don’t know how Amoretta puts up with you!”
“Ohhh. don’t like me looking at other girls, do you?”
“...You know, this is a really tall perch for you to be such a smart-aleck on.”
They were sitting on the edge of one of the exterior corridors, a kind of arched breezeway that ran around the outside of the level. Lillet hadn’t wanted to risk talking anywhere near the professor’s research areas, and the library was out, too. She remembered seeing Margarita lurking and possibly listening when she’d been talking to Hiram and Bartido ten days ago.
Technically, I suppose it was today that I’d talked to them, just...two todays ago.
If this kept up for much longer, Lillet was afraid that she could end up getting very confused about what had and hadn’t happened from anyone else’s perspective!
In any case, she’d picked this open area since it would be almost impossible for anyone to get close enough to spy on them without being seen. Bartido had complimented her on her knack for intrigue, which she wasn’t sure was all that complimentary.
“But anyway,” he was saying, “you don’t have to be jealous of Amoretta. Sure, she’s pretty. Heck, she’s gorgeous—“
“You’re not really helping your case, Bartido.”
bother her, the idea of Bartido leering at Amoretta. It definitely raised her hackles to think of him saying something like “she’s pretty hot when she starts getting excited” about the homunculus. Moreover, Lillet recognized at once the difference there, between an amused snort at his appreciation of Ms. Opalneria’s looks and a genuine upset at the idea of his directing that same leering eye at Amoretta.
“You didn’t let me finish. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes, but...with her it’s like looking at a painting, or a sculpture, or that view out there.” He waved his hand at the panoramic view of the countryside offered by the open walk. “There’s nothing personal in it.”
“Well, you saw her there in the lab last night, so maybe you already thought something might be going on with her...” He hesitated, probably not sure if he should be giving away the secret, so Lillet solved his distress for him.
“She’s a homunculus, isn’t she?”
“Huh, so you did know. You’ve got a good eye.”
Lillet shook her head.
“No, it’s just that I’d learned it already, in one of the past trips through these five days.”
“Mm, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
“Imagine how I feel.”
“Point. Anyway, yeah, Amoretta is Dr. Chartreuse’s greatest creation, a homunculus that can exist outside of her flask and live an independent life. And she’s really amazing. She’s a genuine person, created through alchemy, not just an approximation of real life. But that’s just it; I helped create her. I was there when she first took shape, when her body stabilized for the first time, when she first opened her eyes and spoke. I watched her go from a complete blank slate to learning all kinds of things about the world, picking up in days what would take a normal person months. It would just be
to look at her as a woman after all that. I mean, I like a pretty girl as much as the next guy—“
“More than the next guy, I’d say.”
“If the next guy’s Hiram, yeah. But it’d just be creepy.”
“I see. That actually makes sense to me.”
Lillet was glad to know it, too. There was something wrong with the idea of a man building a woman through magic and then seeing his creation as someone to lust after. But learning that Bartido had been involved in creating Amoretta gave her another idea.
“I have another question, if you don’t mind.”
“I never mind answering questions from pretty girls.”
His open appreciation and broad smile made her blush a bit despite herself, something she had a sinking feeling that Bartido wasn’t going to miss.
And get the wrong idea about!
she huffed mentally, a little bit more forcefully than even she believed. It was just too strong a reaction, like...like she felt guilty for even giving him
reaction he could construe as approval.
And it was so silly! She actually
like him—he was smart, friendly, and had a sense of humor, all things she liked in a person. Even his confidence was nice, when it wasn’t leading him to make piggish comments about women. He reminded her a little of a male version of Margarita.
Though hopefully without the secret agenda!
Yet it almost felt like when she responded to his friendly flirting, she was betraying something, and it left her with a faintly sick sensation.
“Hey, are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guess I just looked down a little bit too long,” she lied, not wanting to get into a personal discussion aor put Bartido’s hackles up with a flat refusal to talk about it. “It took a couple of seconds to get my bearings.”
“You should be careful. Even if you’re not scared of heights they can sneak up on you. Anyway, what did you want to ask?”
“Well, it’s about Amoretta. I didn’t really understand it when I heard it the first time, but...there was something about an angel being inside of her? What does that mean?”
“Well, it means what it says. That’s the doctor’s technique.”
“So far as anyone can tell, a homunculus doesn’t have a soul.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’m not sure if that’s true. I mean, Alchemy only operates according to the laws of magic that God made, so if an intelligent creature is created through Alchemy, would God deny it a soul?”
“I don’t really know,” Lillet said. “I mean, I’d never even seen a homunculus before I came to this tower.”
“I don’t know, either. It just seemed kind of unfair to me, that’s all. But what’s definitely true is that they’re flawed and unstable lives. They can’t even leave their bottles, or they die. But Amoretta’s different. She definitely has a soul, or at least she has a spiritual core inside her that acts like one. It’s the bridge between the constructed biology of her body and the alchemical magic that sustains her.”
“Oh, I see. The core channels the energies of the flask even when she’s not inside it.” She almost started asking about some of the technical details of Amoretta’s creation before reining herself in. There were a lot more important things to worry about than her curiosity over esoteric magic! “And, that’s the angel, then?”
“That’s right. Dr. Chartreuse used the spirit of an angel as Amoretta’s core.”
“But how? Is there magic for summoning angels? Is that even possible?”
“Search me. I’d love to show off and say that I know, but I haven’t got any idea how he did it. I don’t think it would be as simple as him just summoning an angel and commanding it to surrender its life. He’s pretty fixated on his research, and he can be oblivious to the fine details, but he definitely knows the difference between right and wrong enough to know that using one of the heavenly host as experimental fodder is pretty far outside the lines of ethical magic.”
“I agree; he warned me against trusting devils, because they were at the root of every evil.”
“I think, though, he was hoping that as Amoretta’s creator, he’d be able to use the angel’s knowledge of Heaven to expand our knowledge of the ways of God and holy beings.” He grinned at Lillet. “The joke was on him, though, because she doesn’t have any such knowledge, or any memories from before she was created. But even so, she’s still an incredible success. Dr. Chartreuse proved a number of different theories about homunculi just by her being alive, and he’s learning more almost every day. So even if she isn’t a gateway to holy wisdom, she’s still amazing.”
“She really is,” Lillet murmured in agreement.
“But! She’s also got nothing to do with our problems, and while you might have all the time in the world—“
“Don’t say that! I mean, I’m glad that I’ve gotten a second and a third chance to get away from the Archmage and Grimlet, but sooner or later I need to find out how it’s happening and figure out a way to stop it! I don’t want to keep living these five days over and over again, seeing my friends get hurt or killed so many times.” The idea of witnessing Amoretta’s death all over again terrified her. And it might not be just once, either. If the circumstances were right, then time and time again she might—
No! I won’t let that happen! I’ll save her from that fate, I have to!
“Well, then, there’s only one thing to do. You’re going to have to find the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“I don’t know, but I’m betting you must have managed it at least once already, or else you wouldn’t have gotten into this situation in the first place.”
“I don’t remember anything like that, though.”
“You might not be able to. After all, we are talking about magic that can control time. Who knows what the side effects of that might be?”
She thought about that. Then she remembered the first night this had happened, when she’d tripped on the tattered hem of her nightgown.
Except that her nightdress hadn’t been tattered when she’d come to the Tower. It had been brand new, a gift from her parents (“At least you can get a comfy night’s sleep while you’re doing all that studying”) that she’d never before worn. And it wasn’t tattered
. But it had been, two of those strange loops of time ago.
“So, you think that...this has happened before? That there were loops of time that I
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. At some point you had to do something that began it all. The only question is, what and when?”
“I wish I knew.” It was terrifying, the idea that days of her life had just been erased from her memory by magic. Who knew what she’d done, what she’d seen...and then she thought of people like Amoretta and Bartido and Margarita who’d lost not just their memories of those days, but the actual days themselves. Their actions, thoughts, hopes, dreams, their heroism and their suffering, all of it wiped out and erased, with none but God to ever know of it. Of course, this meant that those who’d been killed got another chance at life, so there were some very good things about it, but even so, the thought of having moments of one’s existence out-and-out ripped away and rewritten that way, that something so important could be so ephemeral and fleeting...
I have to do this,
she vowed to herself.
For all of their sakes, I have to make it all come out right. I won’t let all of this be in vain.
“But because it happened once, we know that it’s possible to get to the Philosopher’s Stone again,” Bartido was saying enthusiastically. His voice had an odd timbre to it when he got so excited, Lillet noticed, but she didn’t point it out. She’d save it for when she needed a good zinger to embarrass him when he was getting a little too full of himself.
“Well, if anyone knows anything about it, it would be Professor Gammel. I can ask him tomorrow.”
“I don’t think he’s likely to just tell you,” Bartido sounded dubious.
Lillet smirked at him.
“But right now, I’ve got his stolen book,
the Archmage’s soul container. Maybe we can work out some kind of deal.”
“Damn, you’re sneaky.” He gave her another dazzling smile. “I knew there was a reason I liked you!”
Over the noise of her laughter, neither one of them heard the scratching of a rat’s claws as it scuttled away down the corridor floor.
Fuyu no Sora
Third Day Four
Lillet Blan stretched as she walked, trying to fully work out the kinks as she made her way through the hallways of the Tower toward Professor Gammel's study. As she'd mentioned to Bartido during their talk yesterday, she intended to ask the elder magician about the Philosopher's Stone today. Her friend —
I did compare him to a male Margarita. And he's always been kind until now!
— doubted that the school's headmaster would be willing to simply tell her what she wanted to know but, well, it wasn't as if she was going in without a plan. She knew that it was almost a certainty that just asking for the information she wanted would lead her nowhere, and when things went that way she would use the fact that she currently held both Titania and the Archmage's soul container in her favor. Her conscience nagged at her a bit, but she ignored it for the time being. Who knew if she'd get another chance like this one, where she had such good bargaining chips? If she had to do something slightly underhanded to get the answers she sought, so be it.
I have to do this. I won't let them die!
Lillet took a deep breath and steeled herself as she got to Professor Gammel's study. She knocked three times and waited.
Surprised, she tried again and this time called out for the master magician. "Professor Gammel? Um...I'd like to speak to you about something."
The silence continued.
Well, either he wasn't there or he was so absorbed in something that he hadn't heard her. She'd look in; if he wasn't there, she'd just have to come back at a later time. She couldn't afford to pass up this chance, so she either got her answers today or she got them
For someone who supposedly has all the time in the world, I'm racing against it...and losing as of yet.
Lillet opened the door and gingerly stepped into the study. "Professor Gammel?"
For the second time in five minutes she was surprised, though this one couldn't bode well for her at all. Instead of the elderly wizard, she found herself face-to-face with Mr. Advocat.
"Well, well, if it isn't Lillet Blan." The way he said her name always made her shudder a little inside. He positively
every time. "Gammel isn't here right now, but if you'd tell me what you meant to ask him, I could pass the message along when he comes back?"
The apprentice forced herself to rein in her panic. It was too much of a coincidence that just when she wanted to talk to the Professor about things no student should be asking about (and intended to go about it in a not-quite-proper manner too), the devil teacher would just happen to be waiting for her. The timing was too perfect and that made the honey-blonde's danger instincts flare up.
He'd somehow heard her conversation with Bartido yesterday. It was the only way he could possibly know. But how?
Professor Gammel said something about rats slipping in doors and eavesdroppers listening in on important discussions. He probably meant Mr. Advocat!
It stood to reason that a high-ranking devil like him would be able to transform into a rat. Unfortunately, this knowledge didn't help her right now whatsoever.
Advocat had to commend the girl on keeping her face schooled into impassive neutrality once she figured out what she'd just walked into. She wasn't skilled enough to keep the play of emotions from showing in her eyes, however, and he chuckled inwardly at the thoughts that must be going through her mind right then and there. Seeing no need to feign ignorance, he addressed the situation directly. "Quite an interesting little tale you were telling Bartido Ballentyne yesterday. If you're telling the truth about traveling through time then you should be able to do well against me. Come, Lillet Blan. We'll see how far you can go."
Having no choice but to comply, Lillet followed along, hoping that she'd at least be able to hold her own. She'd never fought Mr. Advocat before, but she was going to go out on a limb and guess that she'd be going against very powerful Sorcery. Her best option, then, would be to use Necromancy...except she only knew how to draw the Hades Gate, and even then, only what she'd learned from Ms. Opalneria during their one class last loop.
That's a lesson for me; I need to study more Necromancy!
That left her with Glamour, Sorcery, and Alchemy as options she could fully use. Well, using Sorcery against a devil might seem silly, but if she enhanced her summons they'd make for a good offensive or defensive force as the situation may call for it. Alchemy was inherently weak to Sorcery, but if she played her cards right she'd be able to use its creatures to her advantage despite the slight handicap. As for Glamour...the thought of sending Fairies or Unicorns to face off against a bunch of vicious Demons made her cringe, but in groups the fey creatures had proven to be deadly. Hopefully, if they became too injured, they'd just go back to Faerie instead of dying. The Morning Star on the other hand—
"Here we are." Advocat's voice cut through her internal musings. "Choose the spot in which you wish to establish your base."
A quick assessment of her surroundings made Lillet realize they were in one of those classrooms that wasn't all that wide (comparatively), but had various floors going downward, and if that was the case...
She immediately ran for the stairs, almost flying to the lower levels. With any kind of luck, she'd be able to find a spot where she could tap into two crystals at once. She would need a lot of mana if she was to have a chance to win, and if she got a good start she'd be able to work faster.
The young witch almost cried out in delight when, at the bottommost level, she found exactly what she was looking for. Near the corner of the last floor were two large crystals, just far apart enough to allow for a Rune in between.
Lillet ignored her racing heart and burning lungs and went to work at once, sketching a Hades Gate as fast as she could; that done, she called upon Ghosts as soon as the familiar bell-like chime rang in her mind. When the first two answered her summons, she directed one to each of the crystals and turned her attention to her next Rune. Gripping her wand a little tighter, she set about drawing a Hell's Gate. Part of her was still attentive to her Ghosts and she kept directing them to the crystals as she traced the lines and symbols until the last one heeded her call.
Finally the Rune took shape and Lillet began the process of powering it up. Yet not wanting to be caught unaware, she also powered up her Hades Gate and called upon four Phantoms, setting them in a defensive position on the nearest set of stairs. That served to reassure her a little, but she knew that the ghostly knights were barely more than a warning unit in case enemy familiars came to attack her; even so, they were better than nothing, and their presence allowed her to concentrate more on her other Rune. She injected more mana into her Hell's Gate, and she said a silent prayer of thanks for having decided to read a bit more into this grimoire as well as the Chimera Spawn last night. The knowledge would surely come in handy soon.
She was grateful when the Rune attained its most powerful level; now she could commence the
work. Lillet kindled the Hell's Gate, calling on the merciless devils that awaited on the other side.
She was in the middle of summoning her second Demon when she felt it. A powerful, loud rumbling that made everything shake around her, along with a fully-throated, menacing growl. She'd seen them in the battle she and the other students had waged against the Archmage, but not since then, and her blood became akin to ice water as her mind put a name to it.
Lillet fought to master her fear, applying logic to diminish the sense of panic that had almost completely overtaken her. 1. She couldn't feel any more rumbling, so the Dragon wasn't coming for her
. 2. Even if it
coming, she was at least twelve floors down and it would take the oversized, fire-breathing lizard some time to make it toward her, giving her time to continue summoning familiars to go against it. 3. Panicking would only make her freeze and then she'd
be in trouble. What she needed to do was take action and not give into the feeling of terror that would spell doom for her if she didn't push it away.
After a couple of deep, shaky breaths, Lillet was a bit more herself and she went back to her summons, this time feeling even more pressure than before. Soon enough she'd have to either go on the offensive or the defensive; Mr. Advocat wouldn't wait forever to make his move, and she was lucky to have been able to do this much uninterrupted. She had the suspicion that the devil teacher was going easy on her, and she didn't know if she should be grateful or suspect that he had something terrible in store for her.
Probably a bit of both.
The jingling of belled caps distracted her for a few moments and she saw a horde of Imps descended down the stairs like an avalanche. Her Phantoms valiantly swatted at them with their swords, but they were slow and some slipped by the long-fallen knights, chattering and giggling evilly as they approached.
Well, Lillet wasn't going to take that lying down. By now she'd managed to call upon two more Demons and was in the process of summoning two more. She sent the ones that were already there out to eliminate the Imps that had gotten past the small Phantom squad. The large devils laughed as their claws made quick work of the Imps, then proceeded to help the Astral knights with the rest of the lesser creatures.
Less than a minute later, the other two Demons appeared from the Rune, their hulking forms tense and waiting for orders. Lillet sent them to guard the stairs with the others and sighed softly as she leaned against a column to take a small breather. She hadn't fought a teacher like this before, and the stress was getting to her. Undoubtedly by this point, Mr. Advocat would have at least a dozen Runes and various familiars just waiting for her. She needed to pull something bigger out of her hat if she wanted to gain the upper hand.
Steadying herself, Lillet once again took out her wand and began sketching out a Rune; this time the lines were the soft amber of Alchemy. Now small but steady waves of Imps came and were quickly disposed of by her familiars; she didn't think the 'small' part would last much longer, so she tried to hasten. Her Rune took shape and, not bothering to level it up, she immediately began the synthesis process. In the meantime, though, the sounds of battle were so close to her that she could almost see herself in the middle of it. That would be disastrous for her; she needed to get the fight away from herself.
Lillet commanded her Demons to go up three floors and stay there, while her Phantoms would now take on the role of scouts, exploring the floors and showing her where the enemy might be lurking.
In the meantime her creation's body was stabilizing, so she began casting once again. The green light of Glamour joined the parade as the young witch etched the lines and symbols that would form Titania. It wasn't as if she was all that confident that she'd even be able to utilize it fully since she'd never even used the Rune before. During their break-in of Ms. Opalneria's room to secure the soul container, it had been Margarita who had used the grimoire, not her, but she needed the largest number of options as she could at her disposal; and if she recalled correctly, summoning Morning Stars took time. Not only because the ghostly maidens were very powerful and the Rune in itself was quite complex, but because it wasn't as simple as just drawing the Rune and then calling on the Star spirits. She had to go through three more levels into Titania before she could even
of summoning its familiars. In the back of her mind she knew she'd soon need another mana source if she wanted to keep up this pace, but she'd worry about that after she finished what she was doing then.
Just then an alarm rang in her mind and she turned her attention to where her Phantoms had encountered a cluster of enemy familiars. What surprised Lillet was that, among the Imps and Demons, there were also
that were attacking her own.
Ms. Opalneria said that devils fear Necromancy! How can Mr. Advocat use it, then?!
She didn't have time to dwell on it, because her own Phantoms soon fell and the area darkened once again. Not liking the look of things, Lillet summoned three more Demons and sent them over to stand guard with the other five. She had a bad feeling that she was going to be hammered soon.
Her feeling soon proved to be correct. From out of nowhere, four of her Demons suddenly fell asleep. Before Lillet could begin to wonder where that had come from, the Demons that had had her Phantoms for lunch began attacking her own. Claws clashed against claws, but two more sleeping spells incapacitated more of Lillet's forces. She frowned at the giggling Grimalkins and hoped her creation would be able to make it on time, otherwise she'd be in quite a pinch. The devil teacher's Demons were more powerful than her own as she'd expected; they moved at the same speed and seemed to have about the same amount of health, but their claws left, on contact, violent black and purple marks where they touched flesh that slowly drained away the life of their victim.
It must be some kind of curse.
she thought as she watched helplessly while her forces swiftly dwindled down. As soon as a Demon woke up, one of the Grimalkins would launch another sleeping spell and they'd be defenseless again. Only a minute later, there was nothing but black ash that remained from the eight Demons she'd summoned, with only three of Mr. Advocat's having suffered the same fate.
She winced as she saw the devils move toward her base, knowing they'd be there at any moment. She was now defenseless, and a perfect sitting duck. Lillet kindled the Hell's Gate again, calling on more Demons even as her teacher's minions arrived and began attacking one of her Hades Gates and the very same Hell's Gate from which she was trying to summon more familiars. Still, she knew the Demons wouldn't be able to make it, so her only hope was the alchemical being that was, still now, in the final stages of its creation.
Come on, make it!
A deep, screeching roar shook the classroom's walls, and made Lillet sigh out in relief, as her Chimera burst forth from its Rune. The creature growled deeply and moved at lightning speed toward the invading familiars, tearing at them with powerful movements of its talons and hooves. The draconic limbs slashed with sharp claws while the hooves battered at them. Having spent all their mana on keeping her Demons asleep, the Grimalkins hadn't had time to replenish their resources and could only stand there as the alchemical creature turned them into black smoke.
Lillet didn't stop to pat herself on the back for her small victory. She'd lost her four Phantoms and all of her Demons in the teacher's devastating attack, not to mention having had enemy devils far too close for comfort. Her Chimera was doing fine, but after the little display that she'd just witnessed, she was more certain than ever that she couldn't rely on Substance familiars alone. Mr. Advocat surely had more Grimalkins watching and waiting; it'd be a repeat of what had just happened, only on a larger scale, if she attacked thoughtlessly. Biting her lip, Lillet began the process of creation once more, commencing the synthesis of two more Chimeras and finishing with the leveling up of the Titania. Sweat dotted her forehead as she worked frantically, but precisely, this time setting up a Laboratory and creating a couple of Homunculi. A quick check-in with her Ghosts had informed Lillet that she was beginning to run short on mana and would need to find new crystals soon, hence the Homunculi. She recalled what Dr. Chartreuse had told her about the Clairvoyance ability the alchemical creatures had.
A flare that can bring magical light to the spot chosen by the magician. It's the perfect scouting tool, too! Why didn't I think of this before?
She'd be able to see what Mr. Advocat had in store for her as a bonus. Although the likely downside was that the teacher would figure that since she knew what he'd prepared for her, he'd just send all his forces at once.
It's a risk I'm going to have to take!
At her command, the catlike familiars began shooting flares at different spots on the various floors. Lillet examined them carefully, noting with a wince the large number of Guardians, Imps, and Demons that littered the upper floors. She soon found what she was looking for, though it was also guarded by a cluster of devils. She'd expected this, though, and was just waiting until her last Chimera finished stabilizing before she made her move.
It's my turn now. Mr. Advocat wanted to see how far I could go? He'll get what he wanted.
Advocat regarded the scene thoughtfully as three Chimeras destroyed one of his Gehennas and about six of his Guardians in order to secure the crystal that he'd advented nearby. He was certain, now, that Lillet Blan had been telling the truth when she'd talked to her uncouth friend yesterday, for no mere apprentice could have conjured the large array of Runes that she had on display right now. She seemed to be quite adept in the various fields of magic, though he noted a distinct lack of Necromancy in her arsenal. Not that he particularly minded it, since he quite disliked magicians who made it a habit to have pale friends as close company, but it would certainly prove to be a disadvantage to her in the near future.
He also had to compliment her for using Alchemy against him. For someone who had displayed this much knowledge of magic, he was certain she had to know that Alchemy was, in its essence, weak against the power of Sorcery, since its poor creatures were not made with God's blessing. It was a bold move and he liked that; she had spirit, intellect and was able to use her familiars' abilities strategically.
She's nearly a first-class magician. How many times has she gone through these loops of time to have achieved this?
Well, it wasn't as if that mattered. He was testing her, after all, and though she'd done well so far, it was time to step things up a little. After all, he was an elite from Hell and it wouldn't do to give her too easy a time.
Perhaps she'll be able to solve those little annoyances after all. Whatever the outcome, it will certainly be quite entertaining to watch.
With a wave of his hand he commanded three Dragons to start heading for the young apprentice. It might be a bit cruel to do that much, but he had been fairly patient and he wanted to see how she'd react to that. Despite his liking of her plan, it intrigued him that she'd decided to use Chimeras instead of Dragons against him, much like she'd matched his Demons with some of her own. Perhaps she hadn't seen the point, as his familiars were stronger than her own? He'd ask her after their battle...depending on how it ended, of course.
Lillet's blood almost turned to ice again when she felt the rumbling of the Dragon's footsteps again. This time they were approaching, though she'd expected as much. No, what had made her almost panic again was that she could now feel that the Dragon was not
Dragon, but Dragon
. In the plural, which meant more than one.
Remember, don't panic. What you need is action, so think about what to do!
Though somewhat damaged, she still had her three Chimeras up and obediently waiting for their next order. She had a Morning Star and a second one would come forth soon enough. She also had a third mana source now, and though her primary ones were decreasing at a rapid rate, there was still enough left in them to last a little while.
She took a deep breath.
All right. Send the Chimeras in first. They'll be able to do a fair bit of damage and, hopefully, take at least one of the Dragons with them. Being Astral spirits, Morning Stars should do well against them, too, but I can't just rely on them either. So...Unicorns or Fairies? Unicorns can be protected by their barriers and they're a bit more robust, but on the other hand Fairies attack faster and they can temporarily change to Astral form. Besides, I'm probably going to be needing healers, and if that's the case, I'll have to summon Elves as well.
Lillet nodded to herself.
The Fairy Ring it is.
Having decided on this, Lillet watched as said Fairy Ring began to spring to life with every new stroke she made. It was still a favorite Rune of hers, probably because she'd learnt it first. It was also fortunate that she had a Titania already drawn and at a high level. The mastery effect of the Rune would not only lower the mana she needed to summon them, it would also strengthen her Glamour familiars and give them a fairer chance against the devils they'd be facing. She was feeling a bit more confident now, even as the Dragons' footsteps rumbled ever nearer.
She followed her plan and directed her three Chimeras against where she knew the first Dragon would be coming from when she'd been scouting with Clairvoyance. She counted five more seconds and, as she thought, the second Morning Star joined the first one near Titania. She allowed it another few seconds to stock up on Starchilds before sending both of them toward the direction in which she could sense the other sets of footsteps were coming. As she did, though, she strengthened her Fairy Ring, waiting until it was almost at maximum level and then leaving it there in favor of resting against one of the columns once again. She was feeling the strain of supporting so many familiars at once and knew she had to take a small break or she risked losing control of all of them and then everything would turn chaotic.
She could watch the battles, though, and so turned her attention to how her familiars were doing. One of her Chimeras had just fallen and another was well on its way to joining it, too, but with a few more hits of their hooves and talons one of the red-scaled Dragons disappeared into nothingness. Her Morning Stars were weakening with every fiery breath the oversized lizards expelled from their mouths, but they were still going strong and the second of those Dragons had its life severely weakened by the Starchilds the ghostly maidens wielded. Lillet had them stock up more of the projectiles, sending her Chimeras to help them out as well. They'd be fine, and with the one of her alchemical creatures gone, the strain also lessened to something much more bearable.
Taking a deep breath, Lillet called up a squad of Fairies. The winged familiars chirped "I'm here!" happily as they arrived, and she couldn't help but smile at their enthusiasm.
Here goes nothing.
The honey-blonde directed her will to her familiars once again, verifying the location with her Homunculi's Clairvoyance and, that done, sending all of her forces to where she knew the bulk of Mr. Advocat's were waiting. As her small army made its way there, she felt the tell-tale sign of the Sanctuaries falling as the Crystals that they held were completely depleted of their mana. She hadn't seen any other untapped crystals in the area; likely they were under Mr. Advocat's control and near the upper levels, so she'd have to smash his forces before she could send her Ghosts back to work. That was for later though, because right now she had bigger things to worry about as her familiars collided against the devil teacher's.
The Chimeras roared as they tore at the protective Guardians, whose strong flames shot steadily at the alchemical creations. Demons growled dangerously as they clawed at the Morning Stars that hurled Starchild after Starchild at them, impacting not only them, but the surrounding area and turning the Imps that also clawed (futilely) at them into ash. Translucent Fairies shot arrows at the enemy Grimalkins while they, in turn, shot back magical blasts that Lillet noticed drained the Fairies of their mana, some of their health, and turned them back into Substance, making them perfect target for the chattering and waiting Imps.
She'd need to send reinforcements soon, so she kindled the Fairy Ring, the Titania, and the Chimera Spawn once again. She wanted to end this soon, because she didn't know how long she'd last as she continued casting spells, controlling her familiars, directing them, and supporting various types at the same time. She was only an apprentice after all; granted, one that was much more advanced than most, but still. She had to settle this battle one way or another.
No, not one way or another. I have to win. I don't want to think what would happen if I lose. I need to get the answers I came for!
She didn't know when she'd come to believe that Advocat would answer her questions if she won, but she felt that it was the case. Perhaps that's why he had even started this fight in the first place, but she didn't have time to dwell on that. Gritting her teeth, Lillet forced herself onward, directing her familiars ever more into the offensive. Growls, snarls and roars rang through the classroom and the floor and walls shook as Dragons, Chimeras, Imps, Fairies, Demons, Morning Stars, and Grimalkin clashed against one another, the familiars struggling to vanquish one another.
In the end, her last remaining Morning Star was able to finish off the last of the devil-teacher's Runes, one with a pattern of wings that Lillet vaguely recognized but couldn't put a name to right then and there, before it shattered as the Demons' curse finished draining her life away.
Lillet sagged against the wall, panting for breath as sweat dripped down her face and back, the girl tired beyond belief, but rather happy about what she'd accomplished.
She'd actually won against Mr. Advocat.
Advocat chuckled out loud as he approached the tired young witch. "First, I must compliment you. Though I exercised discretion, you did remarkably well. You're not an apprentice, Lillet Blan. You could actually qualify as a full-fledged magician if you took the examinations."
Lillet took deep breaths as she straightened herself and accepted the compliments. "Thank you, Mr. Advocat. Why did you do this, though?"
"As I said, I wanted to verify if your story was true. Of course, I suspected it was, since you know quite a few things that a new student who had arrived a mere four days ago couldn't possibly know, but I wanted to be certain. Besides, I wanted to see the extent of your abilities; to...test your mettle, if you will."
The honey-blonde sighed inwardly, wondering why people liked to test her, but she pushed those thoughts aside in favor of asking something that had been in her mind during the battle. "Tell me, Mr. Advocat, will you answer the questions I had for Professor Gammel?"
"I'd say that answering ignorant questions is part of my job description, but after seeing your abilities, I don't think 'ignorant' is a term I can apply to you. And while I know you want answers, I have a question of my own before I tell you anything." He looked at her questioningly. "Do you have the Chaos Nest?"
Lillet blinked at the devil teacher, wondering why he was asking her that.
That must be the wing-patterned Rune that I thought I recognized.
"No, I don't. You told me, when you saw I could handle summoning Guardians, that it was too early to give it to me and instead taught me how to power up the Hell's Gate to make Imps be able to attack."
Advocat nodded. "I thought as much. If you'd had the knowledge, even the most basic, of that Rune, the fight would have been much easier for you. I also noted a distinct lack of Necromancy in your arsenal, which made you have to resort to a costlier and riskier strategy in combat. You'll need to fix that, because it can be easily exploited."
"Now, what is it you want to know?"
The honey-blonde paused for a moment, trying to figure out what exactly she'd ask first. She had so many questions with almost no answers, and it was hard to decide what to inquire about. What was the most pressing issue?
That's exactly the issue. All of these are priority one problems and I have no clue how to resolve any of them. Today I wanted to talk to Professor Gammel about the Philosopher's Stone. That's as good a topic to start as any.
"What can you tell me about the Philosopher's Stone, Mr. Advocat?"
Advocat raised an eyebrow. "I can tell you plenty about that Stone, Lillet Blan. I'm afraid you're going to have to be more specific."
Lillet rolled her eyes at that. "Very well. I talked to Grand Witch Lujei about its properties already, so I don't really care to hear about that again." Actually she kind of did, but she couldn't waste time with satiating her scholarly curiosity! "Do you happen to know where it is? Or how I even managed to form some kind of link to it in the first place?"
The devil teacher cupped his chin as he thought the questions over. "I can answer your first question right away. I don't know where the Stone is; if I did, I can assure you that I would have done something with it already. Although I also haven't invested myself into searching for it for my own reasons. As for your second question, there are a few possibilities, the most likely of which being that you came into contact with it at a certain point. That, in turn, means you would have found it to have been able to form the link you have to it." He tapped his finger rhythmically as he talked, and the young witch wondered if it was a tic. "However, you were a new student here in this Tower that very first time; truly an apprentice. How would a bumbling apprentice stumble upon such a thing is the more interesting question. One that, I'm afraid, we probably won't find the answer to any time soon, since you have long since forgotten that very first time, likely centuries ago."
"Do you know why it is I can travel through ti–wait, did you just say
ago?!" Lillet yelped.
Advocat raised an eyebrow. "Does this surprise you? How do you think you have been able to master so many Runes so easily? How many loops have you, who is before me right now, have gone through? How many do you remember?"
"By my count this is the third loop. I came to the Tower fourteen days ago."
"And in fourteen days you have been able to learn and use Titania, the mark of a master of Glamour, the Chimera Spawn, the mark of a master in Alchemy, the highest level of the Hell's Gate, the highest level of the Fairy Ring and others. Do you not find this strange at all, Lillet Blan? How many magicians can do this? How many magicians do you think spend their entire lives devoted to research and yet they can only master one field, two at most?" The teacher's eyebrow rose higher. "You've likely gone through these loops thousands of times, for centuries on end, so that the you who is standing right here, has obtained the ability to go against an arch-devil and actually
. As I said, I exercised discretion, but you won through your own ability and effort, Lillet Blan."
Stunned, Lillet felt her legs wobble and she fell on her rump, shock overtaking her. Quite a lot of things made sense if she gave truth to the devil's theory.
The nightgown. The nightgown that was tattered on that very first loop, but that had been given to me new by my parents. I was wondering why it was so worn then...the only way it makes sense is if Mr. Advocat is right. But...I've been living through this for
How...How is that possible? Why don't I remember all that, but only three loops if that's the case?
But, despite her doubts, it was the only thing that made any sense at all. It explained why she'd been able to pick up on magic so quickly, why concepts that she'd been presented to that should have been too complex to understand (like what Lujei had explained to her about the Philosopher's Stone) hadn't been strange to Lillet but had instead slipped easily into place, like the pieces of a puzzle that were simply waiting to be discovered and put together.
It explained, too, her reactions to the people of the Tower. Why she felt at ease with Margarita despite knowing she was a (reluctant, granted, but still) follower of the Archmage and unsealed him; why she didn't really feel reservations in confiding in Bartido. Why she implicitly and completely trusted in Amoretta.
I must have come to know them really well during all these loops of time that I don't remember. My mind doesn't, but maybe my soul does?
The soul was eternal, after all. Every Necromancer would be able to vouch for that in a second. And that meant that, probably, events that had transpired, even though they'd faded from her mind, had remained etched deep in her soul, the very essence of her remembering things that her rational mind couldn't put a name to.
Advocat waited as she sorted out her feelings and came to her own conclusions. No wonder he found her to be an interesting character; she was but a slip of a girl, yet she'd lived through more than fifty magicians put together, he'd bet.
Truly, I don't think there's anyone quite like her in the world. I was right to become involved.
However, time was of essence. "If you're done being surprised, do you have any more questions for me?"
Lillet looked up at the teacher again, her eyes still full of thoughts that tumbled through her mind at an incredible pace. Yet she managed to find her voice again. "What you said explains a lot, Mr. Advocat. Thank you for that. I was asking you if you knew why I could travel through time when what you said sank in."
Advocat shrugged. "Likely it is because you wished with all of you to be able to somehow fix the situation you found yourself in during the fifth day that very first time you came to the Tower. The Philosopher's Stone is rumored among the ignorant masses to be an artifact that grants wishes and makes one immortal. While I highly doubt the immortality part to be true, maybe there is something to that idea of wish-granting. Whatever the case may be, you won't be able to resolve the situation you're in until you can break the bond you have with the Stone."
Lillet nodded and put that knowledge in a box in her mind labeled 'answered questions' before moving onto the next problem. She'd sort it all out later. "Can you tell me about Grimlet? I don't know anything except for the fact that he's the devil with which the Archmage had a contract." She paused, then corrected herself. "Or at least, that's the only thing I know this time around."
Nodding approvingly as she spotted her own mistake, the devil teacher cupped his chin once more. "Grimlet, eh? He's one of the princes of Hell, a very high-ranking devil that made a contract with him when Calvaros summoned him. He agreed to help create the world Calvaros wanted in exchange of his soul; however, with the Philosopher's Stone's power, Calvaros was able to control Grimlet to his whim without fulfilling his end of the deal. I can assure you that none of us in Hell were surprised when this was the case."
Lillet listened carefully, noting everything and carefully storing everything she was hearing. Yet, while she was grateful for everything Advocat was telling her willingly...Well. The fact that he was
her the information she wanted to know this easily unnerved the young witch. "Mr. Advocat, why are you helping me?"
The teacher regarded her thoughtfully. "I'll be very blunt, Lillet Blan. I'm not doing this out of the kindness of my heart or any some such nonsense; devils don't do 'nice' whatsoever. I've simply never liked Grimlet one bit, as he's not what I would call a 'clever' devil. To continue answering your other question: What he has aplenty of is raw power and malice, yet that is not everything there is to us." He grinned evilly at her. "Patience, cunning, and finesse are some of our characteristic traits...or at least
of us have that. Power and skill are not the same thing; although brute force by its very nature might be able to make sure someone wins most of the time, a weaker yet skilled opponent is likely to be able to turn the tide in their favor through observation and strategy."
The devil paused for a moment before chuckling and continuing his speech. "You've learned something about this, seeing as you just won our little match. I don't know if I have told you this before, but the riff-raf you magicians summon and that dance to your tune are vermin, the very lowest of Hell's minions. Nothing but base, visceral creatures that have equally base appetites. In comparison, we greater devils are much more complex beings and so we have complex desires that take time and careful planning to fulfill."
Judging from his tone and from what he'd said before, it was clear that her teacher didn't exactly apply this label to his fellow arch-devil. "But Grimlet is different?"
Advocat scoffed lightly. "Quite so. All brawn and little brain, he's one of those that can barely see past his own nose and so
managed to get himself sealed after Calvaros' defeat. Not only does it mar our reputation, but it allows for quite a bit of trouble to stir." He brushed nonexistent dust specks from the front of his shirt. "However temporary it might be, this is my home, and the only reason I haven’t minded Grimlet’s presence so far is because sealed up as he is he couldn’t bother me. I have a particular interest in not having him rampage, as it would be quite bothersome to me.”
He then looked at her pointedly. “However, I also have no intention to confront him directly. When devils fight, the priests win and fighting him myself would not only be annoying, but also would be much more trouble than it's worth. Not to mention that being provoked into such a thing would be quite vulgar. No, I will only lend you my aid in the form of knowledge that you can use as you see fit. You have a vested interest in getting rid of all these little problems, after all, and all the time you need to be able to figure out how to solve them. I see no personal disadvantage in helping you along."
Lillet found herself somewhat surprised to feel relieved at Advocat's words. The devil teacher's bluntness about the selfishness of his motives served to assuage the doubts that had begun forming as soon as he had decided to lend her a hand. Had he remained silent on the subject or given any hint at
to help without any kind of payment involved, alarm bells would have rung in her mind at once. After all, as he had said, 'nice' wasn't something that devils did particularly well or, really, at all. This way she could actually somewhat (never fully; she'd be quite naive otherwise) trust Advocat's intentions, and hope that he didn't have some kind of secret agenda that he would further with Lillet as his unwitting helper.
Her next question was more to confirm something she recalled from two loops past, but it was still an interesting point to clarify. "On my second day here you saved Amoretta and I from some Demons, which is when you began teaching me Sorcery. Before fleeing those Demons screamed 'Mephistopheles'. Is that your real name?"
Advocat tsk'd at that. "Nobody has called me that in a long time. 'Advocat' is much more low-key, don't you think?"
So it's true.
Bringing up Amoretta had also brought back the questions she had about the beautiful girl, though, and she couldn't help but inquire about her next. After all, she needed information on everything; especially if she was to prevent Amoretta from killing herself on Lillet's behalf again.
"Mr. Advocat, I don't know if you'll know the answer to this, but Amoretta told me that she is 'technically' a complete being. Do you know why she always uses that word to describe herself?"
The devil looked surprised at that. "You're interested in Amoretta?"
Lillet nodded, not willing to reveal the reason why, but figuring she should disclose she knew something about the ash-blonde. "I know she has an angel within her. What I don't understand is why she feels she's incomplete."
To her surprise, Advocat began to laugh. "It's no wonder she feels that way. Do you know the reason why Alchemical creatures are weak to Sorcery, Lillet Blan?"
The witch shook her head, wondering where he was going with this.
"It's because Alchemy is a field through which men manipulate God's laws and twist them into flawed patterns. Its creations are not of God but of man, and so have not been blessed by Him nor receive His protection. Amoretta is a homunculus; a perfected one, but a homunculus nonetheless. What she lacks is God's love, given to every creature at its birth if it comes from him. Being man-made, though, she doesn't feel that love and so is an incomplete being."
Lillet was stunned into shocked silence once again at the revelation. She recalled the words Amoretta had spoken on that horrible fifth day last time.
Amoretta was facing Grimlet, a smile on her lips as she confidently strode toward the arch-devil.
“For the one who has given me the only thing I need, I will sin. I will do anything to save Lillet from the likes of you.”
The young witch gasped at the recollection.
The one that gave her the only thing she needed. She needs love...I gave her love? I...I love Amoretta...?
Advocat's voice once again shook her out of her thoughts. "I'm afraid our little question and answer session has come to an end, Lillet Blan. Remember what I have told you; think carefully about what to do." He turned to leave but stopped, as if he had just remembered something. "Here. This is the Chaos Nest. I think you're more than ready to start remembering what you know about it already." He bowed and chuckled. "Good luck in ridding all of us of our problems."
With those words, the devil teacher disappeared. Lillet could see a rat scuttling into the shadows, though, and confirmed in her mind that that definitely was the way in which he'd listened in on her conversation with Bartido.
Absentmindedly, Lillet began making her way to the classroom's door. She had a lot to think about.
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