"Professor Gammel?"

Gammel Dore, headmaster of the Magic Academy at the Silver Star Tower and the kingdom's most celebrated magician, looked up from the grimoire he was studying. The voice was that of Lillet Blan, one of his students--at least nominally, although she'd already completed all the courses of study.

"Yes, Miss Blan?"

"I'm not bothering you, am I?"

Gammel stroked his long, flowing beard. While Lillet, even in her steeple hat, was a pretty blonde teenager whom no one would expect to be a master magician, Gammel looked his part, an elderly man with white hair and robes.

"Not at all. If one of my students wishes to see me at two in the morning, then I assume that there's good reason for it."

Lillet blushed.

"I couldn't sleep," she admitted. "I've had something stuck in my head all day and it's been bothering me so much I can't sleep, so I decided finally to come right out and ask. I can come back tomorrow if you like."

"Not at all. As you can see, I am also awake, so go ahead."

Lillet nodded. She shut the door behind her and crossed the study. She stopped before the great brass orrery that filled the center of the room, watching the green figures of the currently dominant astrological influences dance through the air.

"You...know what happened to me, don't you?" she finally began.

"The Philosopher's Stone, you mean?"

"Yes."

Gammel nodded.

"I believe so. You gave me to understand that on your first night here, you inadvertently formed a link with the Philosopher's Stone, which trapped you in a loop of time. When five days passed, your soul returned through time to that moment, to relive those five days over and over again. My understanding is this occurred countless dozens of times, although you yourself hold only the memories of the last five repetitions, owing to the workings of this particular magic."

"That's right. So while five days passed for you and everyone else, I had a chance to observe how events played out until I could find a plan to defeat the spirit of Archmage Calvaros and the devil Grimlet. I also had years, decades, or even centuries to study magic until I finally got everything to turn out right and had the power to destroy the Philosopher's Stone and free myself from the loops of time."

Gammel nodded again.

"That is how I understood things. You were interrogated quite closely, after all, since you destroyed a priceless, perhaps irreplaceable magical treasure, which was technically the kingdom's property."

"You supported me, though, Professor."

Chuckling, Gammel said, "Well, it would have been most inconvenient for all of us had history been permanently frozen within those five days. Destroying the Philosopher's Stone was positively necessary to preserve the natural order of things."

Lillet smiled.

"That was kind of how I saw it, too."

"So how does this relate to your trouble?"

"Did you...did you do it on purpose, Professor Gammel?"

His expression was one of confusion.

"Did I do what?"

"When I came here, you assigned me to that room, and it turned out that the Philosopher's Stone was right underneath it. Other students have stayed in that room before, though, and they'd never formed a bond with the Stone. So why me? I didn't do anything special. So I started to wonder...did you do it?"

Gammel was flabbergasted.

"Miss Blan, are you asking me if I deliberately caused you to become linked with the Philosopher's Stone?"

Lillet nodded.

"Did you?"

"Why would you ask something like that?"

The young witch grinned.

"Because I'd have done it in your place." She walked over to Gammel's desk and hopped up on the corner. "When I came here, you had two major problems. On the one hand the Archmage's minions were plotting to free him. You had to keep his spirit around in the soul container because he was the only one who knew where he'd hidden the Philosopher's Stone, but so long as he was here there was always the chance of him getting free."

Lillet picked up a pen and toyed idly with it.

"On the other hand, you had an even worse problem. The Archmage's devil, Grimlet, was stirring. It isn't easy to seal away an archduke of Hell in any manner, and Amoretta's presence in the tower had aroused him from his sleep. Ms. Opalneria was working on magic of Lujei Piche's to potentially destroy him, but you had no idea whether or not it would work. Basically, this tower had two major disasters ready to happen when I arrived, right?"

"Yes, but how...?"

"When I became locked in time, several things happened. On the one hand, time immediately stopped. The cork was put in the bottle. No matter what the Archmage or Grimlet did, they couldn't get out into the world to wreak havoc because the loops of time stopped them. Nobody but me could advance beyond that fifth day mentally or physically. The odds were that if I ever figured out a way to get myself out of the trap, I'd take at least one of them out along the way. Better yet, since I had to break the Philosopher's Stone, even if Grimlet or Calvaros survived they wouldn't have its power in addition to their own, limiting their possible damage."

Gammel still couldn't believe she was saying all this.

"As it turned out," Lillet continued, "that was a moot point. What's not a moot point is that you'd promised to recover the Philosopher's Stone for Her Majesty, and now you're off the hook. You've always seemed like a kind and wise magician, and I have to wonder if you'd really trust anyone, even yourself, with that kind of power. It corrupted Calvaros, and Lujei was killed because she wanted to take it herself. I really think it's just too much power for any ordinary person to control. With me caught in the loops of time, though, the Philosopher's Stone had to be destroyed. That gave you a perfect excuse to not turn it over--and at the same time Her Majesty would be reassured that no one else could have it to use against her."

A dry chuckle echoed through the room. A small, black rat scuttled out from beneath a rack of shelves and before the two magicians' eyes swelled into the form of a young man with brown hair and saturnine, angular good looks.

"Why, Gammel, I had no idea you were so devious."

"Mr. Advocat!" Lillet said, surprised. Gammel just sighed.

"Spying again, are you? Just how long have you been there this time?"

"Since the very beginning, of course. Mysterious conferences between magicians held in the middle of the night are always of interest. For all I knew you might be consulting her expertise in dispatching devils."

Gammel chuckled, making Lillet blush.

"There you are, Lillet; your accomplishments even make devils nervous." Advocat was a devil, every bit the defeated Grimlet's equal or even superior in power. Through an arrangement with Gammel, he served as the sorcery instructor at the Magic Academy--who better, after all, to teach the art of summoning and controlling devils?

"Really, Gammel, if you're going to be rude, I'll just have to assume Lillet Blan was right about you and that you're trying to distract me."

"Advocat..."

"Do go on," Advocat said to her. "This is positively fascinating. I suppose this means that Gammel had already found the Philosopher's Stone in the past?"

"Well, he'd have to know where Calvaros had secured it, at least. But it's possible. Lujei was assassinated because she tried to seize the Philosopher's Stone for herself, so she must have been able to find it, and if she could do it, then Professor Gammel could. Especially since he's had a lot longer to look."

"If he knew where it was, then why not simply retrieve it?"

"If he did that, he'd have to either give it up to the government, or refuse to do so and claim it for himself. The first option would have been too risky, like I said, but I also don't think Professor Gammel wanted to rebel against the kingdom, which ruled out the second option."

Advocat looked Gammel over, then shook his head.

"No, I'm afraid he doesn't really have that kind of ambition in him. Pity; I might have made something of him."

"You're determined to bait me tonight, aren't you, Advocat?"

"It's impossible to resist! After all, here we all are, convinced that you were the very image of the kindly and wise but stodgy and ineffectual wizard, and your dear little protege is trying to make you out to be some kind of devious mastermind, maneuvering us all so we'd have to do what you wanted." He assumed a thoughtful air, cupping his chin in one hand. "I'm quite impressed, really."

Gammel snorted.

"Surely you don't believe that."

"Oh, but I've learned that when it comes to deviousness and trickery, Lillet Blan is quite the expert."

"Gee, I don't know whether to feel complimented or insulted," Lillet said brightly.

Shaking his head, Gammel let out a long sigh. Discussing this with Lillet was one thing, but having Advocat's antics mixed in made him begin to feel the lateness of the hour.

"Even assuming the rest of this is true, Miss Blan, and that I did know of the Philosopher's Stone's location and possessed enough control over it to forge a link between it and you, then why would I pick you? As you pointed out, you were not guaranteed to defeat both Grimlet and Calvaros. Your own solution to the dilemma might have let one or both go, or might have cost lives in the process. Wouldn't it have been wiser to use myself as the subject, so I could be sure to accomplish my goals?"

"Oh, yes, but you couldn't do that, Professor Gammel. Grimlet wouldn't let you. If he took possession of your body, you couldn't act to stop him, and in a worst-case scenario it might be his mind sent back in time if he was in control when the five days elapsed. You might not know what kind of person I was or how I'd react, but I'm a safer risk than Grimlet would be."

"Very good," Advocat applauded. "I'd wondered if you'd catch that point."

"Well, you have taught me a lot about devils, Mr. Advocat."

"It's refreshing to have a student who pays attention in class."

The two of them turned expectantly to Gammel.

"That's all," Lillet concluded. "That's how I thought it all through. There's no proof, but it is interesting how you were the only person who had any control over the situation that gained any benefit out of it. Ms. Opalneria and Dr. Chartreuse didn't know enough about the Philosopher's Stone, and Mr. Advocat didn't gain anything from the events so it couldn't have been him."

It was interesting, Gammel thought, how she'd laid it all out. He'd had evidence enough before now, but it was the first time he'd been given direct-first hand insight into the way Lillet thought and planned. A great magician, after all, couldn't just be intelligent, but also needed cleverness and foresight; one reason why Chartreuse Grande, for example, was an excellent teacher and researcher but would not make a good headmaster or serve well at Court. Lillet, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on such things. He believed her when she said the plan she'd outlined was what she'd have done in Gammel's own place.

"So..." she asked, a bit hesitantly, since she'd come to the sticking point, "did you set it up on purpose, Professor Gammel?"

He glanced at Advocat.

"Yes, Gammel, do tell. I'm positively mad with curiosity."

He was tempted to remain silent. Having Advocat there listening made him uncomfortable; whatever Gammel's answer revealed, the devil was sure to turn that information against him in their ongoing battle of wits. But Lillet had spoken truly when she said that all his goals had been accomplished. Casting Grimlet back to Hell, permanently defeating the Archmage, and destroying the temptation of the Philosopher's Stone had neatly resolved all of the major problems at the Silver Star Tower. Lillet deserved the answer.

So he told her the truth.

--

NOTE: I can't believe it took me five months to think of this idea. Lillet would have probably come up with it about a day or two after getting out of the loops of time...and only that long because she'd have been thinking about the problems she was actually dealing with before that.

Oh, and as for Gammel's answer? Was he really the Dumbledore manipulating events behind the scenes so the protagonist could succeed where he couldn't? Had he even hand-picked Lillet from the Magical Society's apprentice candidates because he believed she was best capable of fulfilling those plans? Or was he just what he appeared to be--in over his head and needing a lot of luck that his newest student could be capable of a miracle?

You decide. :)