"Necessary?" Gammel Dore did not so much say as roared. "The assassination of a personal friend, the co-founder of this academy, and a magician without whose aid this kingdom would have been quivering under the Archmage's yoke these past years? That last ought to mean something to you even if the rest does not."
Vallancourt did not retreat quivering before the old wizard. He wanted to, of course--what sane man wouldn't?--but the will that had brought him to the post of Chamberlain kept him in place.
"All of those things mean something to me," he stated, not without some truth. "But I am not so thankful for her freeing us from Calvaros that I would give the country to her, instead."
"I'm sure you've heard the story already." Vallancourt nodded towards the student, who cringed back from the two men of power. "You wouldn't have summoned me here in such...intemperate terms if you had not."
Gammel's gaze swept from Vallancourt to Lujei's apprentice.
"Lujei seeking the Philosopher's Stone..." he muttered. "She was always a creature of whim, but this goes beyond caprice."
"You said it yourself, Grand Magician. The practice of magic needs to become no different from that of a physician, a lawyer, an architect, or any other profession requiring training and study, an ordinary part of society rather than something cloaked in superstition and hysteria. To have the protection of the law, however, requires that one be subject to the law."
"The law! Since when does the law encompass political assassination?"
"Can you seriously imagine arresting Lujei Piche? Or that she'd meekly submit to a proper trial for treason? Surely you are not so naive," he snapped back, unimpressed. "Should we have waited until she had the Philosopher's Stone in hand? How many men and women died fighting the Archmage?" Setting superstition aside himself, he met the old wizard's gaze. "I did what was necessary for the safety of the realm. It was an ugly act, but as you know, life is not pretty. Can you dispute me?"
"I wonder very much why a government that protects itself by such acts is worth protecting?"
"You are not protecting the government, Grand Magician Gammel," Vallancourt permitted himself a faint smile at his own expense. "I don't flatter myself that you would exert yourself specially for my sake or for assorted ministers and Court hangers-on. But I believe you and I are both alike in being loyal subjects of Her Majesty? To say nothing of the general welfare of the commonfolk."
Gammel scowled again.
"You argue like a devil, Vallancourt."
"A necessity, I am afraid, in our world. But then, I understand that an accomplished sorcerer would be aware that a bit of deviltry can serve the greater good."
"Your 'greater good' revolts me, Chamberlain."
"At times, Grand Magician Gammel, I revolt myself."
Their gazed met again.
"I can only hope for your sake, Chamberlain, that God is a more merciful judge than I would be in His place."
Vallancourt did not smile outwardly, but he was in his heart. One day, perhaps, he would fear divine judgment, but the main point was that he would not now fear Gammel's judgment. Her Majesty had a vested interest in the Grand Magician, and there was no doubt which of the two of them she would prefer to keep were Gammel to demand justice for Vallancourt's "creative solution" to the Lujei problem.
"There is one more thing," he said, changing the subject. "The Philosopher's Stone. Have you had any luck in following up on Grand Witch Lujei's ownership?"
Gammel shook his head.
"Unfortunately not. Whatever she may have done with the Archmage's minion, we have been unable to find out. Even after death, it seems that Lujei keeps her secrets."
"I will so inform Her Majesty. Good day, Grand Magician."
"Good day, Chamberlain."
Gammel watched impassively as one of the servant elves led the Chamberlain from the room. Only when the gray eminence had gone did he at last give forth a long, bitter sigh. Is this the point of all I've worked for? To watch friends die and to do nothing to save or avenge them? He wished they'd never heard of the Philosopher's Stone! The joy, the sheer triumph they'd felt at fulfilling the ultimate promise of magic had turned to dust. First Calvaros and now Lujei had been corrupted by the damned thing and killed because of it. Now Gammel was the only one left, and what was he? A helpless old man with a devil sleeping at his breast and a second waiting in the wings for his will to slacken.
"What are you still doing here?" he barked at the man who'd loved and betrayed Lujei.
"If only you'd thought then! You should have come to me, not the government! Something could have been done."
"No! I won't hear that title from your lips. You are no more a student than you are a lover. I may not be able to give you what you deserve, but at least I don't have to suffer your presence any longer than necessary. This is the last night you'll spend under this roof. Be gone by morning!"
-X X X-
Moonlight, the student thought, was for lovers. It was only appropriate, then, that there was no moon to be seen that night through the high, arched windows that lined the tower's outer hallway. He'd found himself too restless to sleep, but the night air was doing nothing to cool his fevered thoughts.
Couldn't Gammel understand? He'd been terrified, horror-struck to do what he did. He'd loved Lujei. It was just that the cost of letting her keep on was too high! It was he and he alone who would have to bear the pain of that choice. Vallancourt and his ilk cared nothing about it. To them human lives were pawns to use and discard; they had no personal stake, no morality, no emotions. He himself had been the only one to risk anything. Now his love was dead, his future destroyed.
He paused before one of the great arches, then turned to look out. The tower at this point was over a hundred feet high. High enough, flittered through his mind.
"Well, well. Contemplating suicide, are we?"
He jerked back from the window as if struck, spinning towards the voice--
Nothing. How could there be anything?
"Don't you know that's a mortal sin?"
He whirled again, looking up and down the hallway. There was nothing there, only the empty darkness. And yet, he'd heard it, twice.
"L-Lujei?" he stammered.
"An eternity in Hell..." Just behind him, this time. He spun around.
"...won't even begin to compare to your punishment." She was there, floating in front of him, as beautiful as ever. The blue rose-vine that embraced her like a lover had sprouted several new buds; she wore it almost like an accessory. Her body was faintly translucent so that he could just make out the shapes of the wall carvings behind her, and she glowed with a pale light.
The ghost smiled winsomely.
"I'm touched you remember me. After all, didn't you say that we'd be together forever?"
"Do you mean that you didn't mean it?" She batted her eyelashes in a parody of a winsome maiden as she drifted towards him. "Oh, I can't bear it. I love you too much to let you become a liar." Then she smiled, with a look that was neither winsome nor maidenly. "So I'll make sure it's the truth."
He backed--no, fell--away from her, reeling until he hit the far wall of the passage and could feel the elaborate stonework through his robes. His mind sought desperately for escape. He was a magician, after all, a master necromancer. Lujei was a ghost, theoretically subject to the power of necromancy.
He started to sketch a Rune, but a staff suddenly appeared in Lujei's hand and smacked down on his fingers. The gesture was like a teacher smacking a student's hand with a ruler for a mistake in penmanship; the blow itself snapped bone and made him scream in pain.
"Naughty boy. I certainly didn't teach you to use magic on your lover. Where did you ever learn such bad habits, hm?"
The spirits of the dead could still use some of the powers after death that they possessed in life. How much, then, did the Grand Witch's ghost hold?
Her body pressed against his in a parody of the embraces they'd shared in life. Her touch was cold, so cold it burned, and she exhaled rose-scented breath as she spoke in a purring whisper.
"Come with me, my love. How can we spend even another moment apart?" Pale flame swirled up around them as his world dissolved in a haze of pain.
-X X X-
"P-P-Professor G-Gammel! Professor Gammel!" Amanda Stoli babbled as she burst into the wizard's study, nearly crashing into the huge brass orrery that dominated the center of the room. Gammel looked up from his book, annoyed to be disturbed, but the second-year student's obvious agitation stilled that response at once.
"What is it, Miss Stoli?" he asked gently.
"It's...we found...there's a body, Professor Gammel!"
"A body?" he exclaimed.
"In the hallway outside my room, Professor! I swear it wasn't there when I went to bed last night!"
"Please, show me at once. Is it anyone you know? A student, or one of the teachers?"
"I--I don't know," she stammered out. "It was wearing robes, but..." Another shudder racked her. "The face...it was unrecognizably..."
There was no point in forcing her to endure the telling; he could see for himself. Rising, he let her lead the way through the tower's winding halls.
"T-there it is, Professor," Amanda said, pointing as they stepped off a curving stairway.
"Thank you, Miss Stoli. You may go now. I'll take it from here."
"Thank you, Professor," she replied with obvious gratitude that she wouldn't have to go near the corpse again. She scuttled off back down the stairs.
Gammel, however, had no one to life that burden. As he drew nearer, it became clear why Amanda had been so shaken. An unknown corpse was a bad enough thing to suddenly discover where one shouldn't be, but it was obvious this one had died violently and not quickly. The marks of torture revealed by the torn and bloodstained robe were obvious. His gorge rose at the brutality of it, then rose again as he realized what the student had been unable to express about the face.
The face was there. Indeed, it was unmarked by any injury, the only part of the body to be spared that. Yet it was still a horrid, distorted thing. Someone had apparently cut a long slit at the base of the neck and extracted the corpse's skull, leaving the skin intact like an empty pouch. Gammel had to repress a shudder at the thought not only of the killer keeping such a grisly trophy but the delicate operation it would take to remove it in such a way. It was as if a special point had been made to say, "I only need the skull; you can have the rest of this back."
The face was horribly distorted without a skull to shape it, and the clothing badly damaged by the tortures their wearer had endured, but Gammel was at last able to recognize the dark blue robe with green trim and a hint of the handsome and still-boyish features.
"I wanted you gone from this tower," he said with a sigh. The identity of the man he'd thought had left three days ago pointed all but inevitably to the killer; which in turn told Gammel why the skull had likely been taken thanks to his own knowledge of necromancy. "I suppose that someone else preferred that you stayed."
He sighed again. He'd have to investigate this to see precisely where they stood, but in an odd way his heart was lightened. He should have known that a little thing like murder wouldn't be enough to impose a mere government plotter's will on Lujei Piche.
-X X X-
"I never really appreciated the night air when I was alive," Lujei said as she floated through the moonlit corridor. "I guess the philosophers are right when they say that death puts everything else in perspective."
"I...don't think they meant it that way, Mistress." Though it had no lungs to draw breath nor larynx to vibrate, the skull mounted atop her staff spoke clearly and audibly with the movements of its jaw.
"That's only because only the living seem to write on the subject," Lujei caroled, spinning around the staff like it was a fixed column or pole. "They should try it sometime; it's really not all that bad. Of course, the travel restrictions are a bother. I don't know why the Philosopher's Stone should hold me here, since it's not like I ever touched it again after Calvaros stole the pesky thing. At this rate I won't be able to tell all those silly politicians what I think of their politics before they're gone, too." She smiled again, then nuzzled her translucent cheek against the skull. "But at least I can be together forever with the man who loves me beyond all...how did you whisper it to me in bed again? Oh, yes, 'beyond all others, more than the moon and the stars, with a love that not even the angels in heaven can match, forever and to eternity.' That was it."
She clenched her fingers tightly around the staff and white fire seemed to pulse up it from her grip and into the skull. The fleshless head seemed to shudder, then gave forth a sound somewhere between a shriek and a strangled gasp.
"Yes, I think forever will be just long enough, don't you, my darling?"