"Do you truly think you have escaped me?"

The spectral figure towered over Lillet Blan, limned in pale blue light that wreathed its body like flame.

"A-Archmage Calvaros!" Lillet gasped.

Lillet.

"Did you think I was defeated? The greatest magician in history, overcome by a little girl?"

The ghost reached for her. Though his body lacked substance, Lillet could feel the bitter cold of his iron gauntlet as it closed around her throat, the pure psychic force of the Archmage's will making a physical manifestation from his disembodied soul.

Lillet!

"You...you're dead!" she gasped out. Her mind was blank; no Runes or summons came to her, nothing that could save her.

"Of course, as you soon will be. Only unlike me, when you go screaming into the dark it will be forever."

"N-no!"

The crushing grasp increased steadily, choking off her supply of air. Lillet felt the iron fingers dig into the skin of her throat, stabbing painfully.

Lillet!

What?

...crushing, grinding...

Lillet, wa--

Lillet's eyes snapped open.

"--ke up, already."

Lillet groaned.

"Go 'way," she murmured sleepily.

"Come on, Lillet!" Something poked at her face and neck. It was not the iron hand of Calvaros, but the prickly straw bristles of an ordinary broom.

"Geez, just because you haven't had to get up for morning lectures this past week, you've turned into a complete sleepyhead."

Awareness slowly returned to Lillet's mind. Calvaros was just a dream; he was dead and gone, his soul claimed by the devil Grimlet in fulfillment of their contract. Grimlet was gone, too, tricked into breaking a contract with Lillet and so bound in Hell for millennia to come. Lillet remained where she was, in her homey dormitory room at the Silver Star Tower, once Calvaros's stronghold but now a Magic Academy run by the great magician Gammel Dore. Lillet was a student there, studying under--

"Oh, no!" She sat bolt upright in bed. "Today's the graduation ceremony!"

"That's what I've been saying," explained the boy with the broom. His name was Gaff, and looked like a human child of around nine or ten, but his green outfit and cap and his pointed ears revealed him to be an elf, one of the faithful servants of wizards. Gaff worked for Gammel as a caretaker, but had become a loyal friend of Lillet's.

"What time is it?"

"The mid-morning bell just rang."

"Oh, good, I still have time!"

She bolted out of bed and all but flew to the wardrobe, pulling out a clean dress in her trademark purple (she liked the color because it matched her eyes and complimented her honey-blonde hair), then started fishing for underthings.

"Um, you've missed breakfast, but if you wanted me to bring you a tray with something..."

"Sorry, Gaff, but I can't wait." She tossed aside her nightcap and started fumbling with the laces on her sleeping-gown, barely noticing Gaff flush beet-red and bolt out the door. Ten minutes later her boots were echoing on the stairs leading up to Gammel Dore's workroom. Lillet paused on the threshold, patted her hair to make sure that it wasn't too unruly, straightened her high steeple hat, took a deep breath, and knocked.

"Come in, Miss Blan."

How did he--? Oh, well, he is the world's greatest living wizard.

She opened the door ans stepped inside. Lined with bookshelves, Gammel's workroom was dominated by a giant brass orrery that traced the movements of stars and planets through the night skies and indicated which influences were the strongest for magic worked in a given season. Glowing green figures arced through the air, constellations come to life.

"I'm sorry I'm late, Professor Gammel," Lillet apologized. "I overslept this morning; if Gaff hadn't gotten me up I might have been in bed until noon."

Gammel chuckled.

"Well, after the past few weeks you certainly deserve it."

Gammel Dore looked like a wizard. Perhaps, given his position as head of the Magic Academy and the public face of what proper, honorable magicians were, he cultivated the look on purpose. He was tall and imposing, with long, flowing white hair and beard, and wore formal robes. He always seemed to have a book in his hand, whichever reference work he was last consulting.

"Thank you, Professor, but--"

He chuckled again.

"Think nothing of it, Miss Blan. After all, this is a day of celebration. Never before has there been a prodigy who completed all the courses of study here in five days."

Lillet glanced down.

"You know that isn't true, Professor."

Five days, yes--but how many times had she repeated those five days? She'd been caught in the loops of time by Calvaros's greatest treasure, the Philosopher's Stone, carried back to repeat those five days over and over. How many times had it been, learning, seeking, then forgetting? She only remembered the final five loops of five, because she'd learned enough magic to shatter the Philosopher's Stone and escape the trap of time. It only seemed like five days to everyone else, but she'd had hundreds, perhaps thousands of days to master the teachings of the Magic Academy.

"Yes, I do," Gammel said, "but I also know that, regardless of how it came about, you have honestly completed your lectures and mastered the powers not just of a student, but of a full-fledged magician. And since you did save us all from Grimlet and the Archmage while doing so, then I daresay the knowledge you've gained is only a fair repayment for all that you've done."

"I...Thank you, Professor Gammel."

He seemed to sense her discomfort, for he waved the topic aside.

"In any event, this is not why I asked you to meet with me this morning. If I recall correctly, your ambition to become a magician was for your family's sake?"

Lillet nodded.

"That's right, Professor Gammel. I grew up on a farm in the country, just south of the capital. By learning magic, I hoped to be able to earn enough money to send my little brothers to school. That way if they want to work on the farm they can, but if they don't then they'll have the education to become merchants or scholars or military officers or anything they want!"

"A most laudable goal. I thought that was the case, so I wrote to a few friends of mine with a recommendation, and I heard back just yesterday." He held up a letter written on expensive-looking, cream-colored stationery, then extended it to her.

"'Dear Grand Magician Dore,'" Lillet read aloud. "'We have reviewed your request and upon your recommendation we would be pleased to extend an offer of employment at the Royal House of Magic to Lillet Blan.' The Royal House of Magic?" This was Her Majesty's personal ministry of magic, serving the kingdom through their arts. "I'm going to apprentice at the Royal House of Magic?" she repeated, wide-eyed.

"No, Miss Blan; read it all the way through."

She did so, concentrating despite her excitement. It helped to think of the letter as she would a magical grimoire during battle.

"They...they want to make me a full Royal Magician!" she squealed, barely believing it.

"As indeed they should. You're more than qualified, after all. I know most of the Royal Magicians, and while they have greater experience of the world at large, your magical skills are the equal of any of them."

Lillet crushed the letter to her chest and spun happily.

"Oh, Professor Gammel," she caroled, "this is a dream come true! Thank you! Thank you so much!" She'd have hugged him if she weren't so in awe of the master wizard.

"You're welcome, although truly it was no more than my duty as your teacher. The purpose of the Magic Academy is to encourage every student to develop their gifts--and to teach them to use those gifts to benefit society, as a good example to all magicians. You are a fine magician, Lillet Blan, and I daresay will one day become great, not just as a witch, but as a person."

"I...I don't know what to say," she murmured, overcome.

"There is no need to say anything al all. Now, I daresay I've taken up enough of your time. Go on with you, and remember that the ceremony is this evening after dinner."

"Thank you, Professor Gammel."

Royal Magician! Lillet could still barely believe it, though she held the proof in her hands. It meant a chance to work alongside some of the kingdom's finest wizards and witches. She'd live at the palace, and even get the chance to meet royalty! And best of all, with the kind of salary she'd earn, she could send money home to her parents. They could pay for her brothers' tuition to school, and to hire a farmhand so they could afford to keep the farm going without the boys to help. They were young now, but in a couple more years they'd be doing the work of an adult and that meant a lot on a working farm.

It's so wonderful! I can't wait to tell Am--

Lillet froze in place on the stairs as the thought hit her. She hadn't been thinking about it--indeed, some part of her had been actively trying to avoid thinking about it. Until now, she hadn't had any specific plans for after graduation. It was a formal step, an accomplishment, but not a turning point. Becoming a Royal Magician, though, was different. It meant moving on, taking up a new life, new responsibilities. She'd be working in the capital, at the Royal House of Magic.

It meant leaving the Silver Star Tower, her home for a month (or perhaps a century).

It meant leaving something much more precious than that.