King in the Mountain

No one was quite sure where he had come from.

One day, the Blue Dragon's banner flapped in the capital when the Archmage walked before her Majesty, smiling with charm and eloquence. He greeted the court with presents and grimoires as a sign of his goodwill, before begging leave to journey to the Silver Star Tower to teach magic.

Prince Hiram, a schooled Magician, had requested a friendly duel for the Royal Magicians to fairly judge the power of the new arrival. Her Majesty had granted permission, and all the Court had watched with mesmerized eyes.

Never since Lillet Blan had the Court ever seen such power and brilliance. And that had been more than twenty years ago, far too long for wonder to remain in memory.

So they had all marvelled and applauded his aptitude.

Never knowing…never suspecting…

Two years. That was how long the Archmage Bleu waited before striking at his colleagues at the Silver Star Tower. Dr. Chartreuse, eaten by dragons—blue dragons, the same ones who flew on the flags raised on all the turrets that night. Gammel Dore, torn to pieces by chimera—sorcery and alchemy were the new Archmage's specialities, after all. Terribly, terribly similar to the previous Archmage Calvaros…maybe those great Magicians should have been warier. But of course, it is bad taste to speak ill of the dead.

The devil, no one knows where he had gone. But just as with Calvaros, it is rumoured that Archmage Bleu had formed many pacts with devils to gain such power and twisted ambition. Maybe Mephistopheles had fled, or maybe he had dealed…but no matter what the devil had done, the end result was the same.

Archmage Bleu now held the Tower under the banner of the Blue Dragon.

For years, the Archmage conquered the lands surrounding the ancient Tower, burning and bribing and swaying peasants and magicians to his side. Calvaros' old followers welcomed him, and with the aid of such established conspiracies, the Archmage's power grew.

The Crown hesitated to march against the Archmage—and who could blame it, knowing what monsters and familiars the Archmage had at his disposal? But then the Queen died five winters later…her cause of death was said to be natural, but no details were ever shared. And seeing the fury in Prince Hiram's eyes, how could any of us think anything else but regicide? Even then the Archmage taunted the Court with his silver tongue, sending his regrets for her Majesty's death…

But the Crown did not declare war until after Prince Hiram's lover, the powerful necromancer Opalnaria, finally flew to the Tower to confront the Archmage herself, as one of the few remaining powerful Magicians in our country.

No one knows what had happened to her. Opalnaria's disappearance sparked a wretched rage in the Prince's heart and the march of a hundred companies and squadrons of magicians. With the loss of such an ally, the Crown marched its armies to the Tower, ready to draw its line in the sand. The result is history, bloody history. With his brothers' corpses at his feet and a sea of bodies before him, Prince Hiram saved the lives of his people by—

**O**

"—by scampering the lot back to the capital with their tails between their legs," a mocking voice interrupted.

"THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED!" Royal Magician Fernet practically howled, furious at being interrupted during his recital of the first part of his very important message. God, he had finally zoned out of the constant throbbing in his thighs and back as they climbed this devilishly steep mountain, happily in automaton mode, when his travel companion just had to interject with sarcasm and knock Fernet back to aching reality.

She snorted, glancing back over her shoulder at him scornfully. "You weren't even alive then, how would you know? Take it from someone who was there—Hiram and his ministers were freaking out and yelling for everyone to run, but since it took so long for them to decide whether to call it a retreat or a regroup or whatever military term was supposed to be used, half the army got slaughtered before Bleu let us go. Damn mage was probably laughing his head off as he watched."

"You were there?" Fernet gaped, stopping in his tracks. His knees promptly gave out from under him, forcing an undignified sit lest he fall completely. Even though magicians were long-lived, the young woman standing in front of him scarcely looked any older than Fernet himself!

"Surprise!" The woman laughed, turning to look at him with a hand on the black dagger at her waist. "You must not have been paying attention when Hiram introduced me. We had all gone to school together; him, me, and my old friend who you're about to beg aid from."

"Beg?" Fernet gritted his teeth. "I'm not begging! I am delivering a message entrusted to me by the Royal House of Magic, in the name of his Majesty King Hiram—" Why was he explaining himself to the hired help? Fernet scoffed and scrambled to his feet, trudging forward up the path again. "I'm a messenger."

Miss Margarita's low laughter just made Fernet flush redder, although he hid his face from her. There was no point in denying the truth to himself; he was sent here to beg, since none of the other Royal Magicians would have wanted either the task of climbing this great mountain or of debasing themselves to beg hellp from one of their own who had quit their fraternity. As the youngest and newest Royal Magician, Fernet had been "honoured" with this "important" task.

…It was important. It had been twenty-five years since the Archmage had devastated the Crown Army but allowed them to escape, but under the surface everyone knew that the Archmage was extending his reach throughout their country, his front line coming closer and closer to the capital with every year. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before he descended upon the capital city itself.

And not even the full strength of the diminished Royal Magicians could stand against him then.

And so here Fernet was, sent by his peers to beg help from the only person who stood a chance to face the Archmage and win. Someone who had crushed an Archmage once before…

Former Royal Magician, ex-Mage Consul, magical prodigy…Lillet Blan.

"I'm surprised that it took this long for the Court to come begging," Margarita commented, striding easily beside Fernet. He had heard about her before they had been sent on this mission together; Margarita Surprise, the renegade magician who had spent decades hunting down Archmage Calvaros' old followers, skirting the line between vigilantism and murder. She definitely looked the part, dressed in black with her clothes master-worked into something that had the look of a fancy dress and practical fighting wear all in one. Clothes like that screamed assassin! even before the sight of the long gem-hilted athame on her belt finished the image.

However, the delicate pince-nez glasses perched on her nose hinted at the cunning behind her girlish features. How else could a cute, bookish-looking young woman like her hunt down old and dangerous magicians all on her own?

Despite the fact that Margarita could probably gut him or set a horde of familiars on him before he could retaliate, Fernet spat angrily, "That's because we don't deal with traitors."

"If you were talking about me, I'll let that go," Margarita said softly, turning a hazel eye his way. "But if you meant Lillet…"

"I did," Fernet asserted, shaking slightly but he stuck out his chin. "Lillet Blan had been asked before to come and help save our country against the Archmage, but she has refused both times. Refused her duty to our country! How many people have died in the meantime because of her selfishness?"

"Lillet's my friend," Margarita hissed, her eyes narrowed. She looked like she was trying very hard to physically restrain herself from tossing him off the mountain ledge. "I don't think that the House you come from can afford to throw stones. I don't know why Lillet left the Royal Magicians fifty years ago, but I'd bet that it was something the Royal Magicians did to her, rather than the other way around. You can't always trust the Court to do what's right over what's easy."

"I don't believe it," Fernet said flatly.

Margarita laughed, a bitter, taunting edge in the sound. "The more time you spend outside of the capital, among the normal people? You'll see."

Thankfully, he was saved from trying to find a reply when the next rise revealed ornate gates built into the sides of the mountain path. At either side of the iron gates stood a Guardian and a Talisman, two pairs of them. Glancing upwards, Fernet could see Gargoyles perched along the mountain face, their stone faces staring expressionlessly down at Margarita and himself.

From the sheer number of them, Fernet wouldn't want to be the foolish magician who tried to trespass on Lillet Blan's domain from the skies, even if he had been riding a dragon. The gate it was, then.

Swallowing hard, Fernet cautiously approached the gate. The succubi Guardians stirred, raising their heads to look at him as he came up, but they remained silent.

"Um…" Fernet glanced back at Margarita, who just shrugged. He turned back to the gate, looking for someone to address. He finally faced the Guardian again. It probably wouldn't respond to him, but he felt less stupid talking to a Guardian than to the empty gate. "I am Royal Magician Fernet Branca, sent here from the Royal House of Magic in the name of his Majesty King Hiram Menthe, to speak with Lillet Blan."

"That was a mouthful," Margarita commented.

He scowled at her.

Nobody responded to him. The succubi closed their eyes again, dismissing him.

"I need to speak with Lillet Blan!"

"Why don't you send a fairy messenger to Lillet?" Margarita glanced at the Talismans and the Guardians. "That is, if those things let her through."

"We're guests. Guests don't put themselves out like that."

"I thought you were a messenger?"

Fernet rattled the gate bars, frustrated. What was he supposed to do? He had to get in, that's for sure—but breaking down her gate probably wasn't the best way to get Lillet Blan's approval. The gate itself didn't look magically enforced, but even so combat magic wasn't Fernet's specialty, hence why Margarita Surprise had been sent with him.

"Fine," he grumbled. While he did have the Fairy Ring grimoire in his pack, that Rune was one Fernet had made enough times in his life that he had it entirely memorized.

The ground by his feet glowed green.

"WATCH IT!"

Fernet yelped as Margarita tackled him, bouncing both of them across the stony path to crash against the mountain face. An explosion of gravel and dust blew into the air where he had been, glowing embers and light sparks from the Guardian and Talisman attacks just fading away.

"Must have been the Rune," Margarita said, peering over a boulder. "Uh oh."

Fernet peeked out as well, and squeaked. Golem sentries had uncurled themselves off the ground, and were approaching in line with a row of demons and skullmages. Red light shone beside them as Margarita conjured up a Hell Gate which immediately started spewing forth imps.

"Stop!" A squeaky voice called out. The row of defensive familiars halted, although oddly enough the demons had sullen expressions as if annoyed to be cheated out of their fun. Margarita halted her summoning as a small elf ran up to the gate, panting.

"Who are you? What do you want?"

Fernet saw Margarita tilt her head, then ask hesitantly, "Gaff?"

"Hey, how do you know my name?" Gaff squinted at them. "Do I know you?"

"I've changed a bit," Margarita admitted, a small smile on her face. "I was Lillet's friend back at the Silver Star Tower, Margarita Surprise."

"Hmm," Gaff hummed doubtfully. But knowing the cheery obliviousness that characterized most elves, Fernet would have bet that Gaff had just forgotten. It seemed like Gaff had reached the same conclusion himself, as he waved off the familiars. "I'll take you two to see Lillet. Come on."

Fernet scrambled to his feet, dusting off his pants. The golems were settling back in their positions while the demons and skullmages disappeared back inside a series of cave mouths in the mountain. That surprised him. Usually, summoned familiars simply vanished, didn't they?

But then again, usually the magician herself would be present for the battle, but Lillet Blan was clearly absent.

A groan of stiff metal interrupted his thoughts, and Fernet watched the large gates creep open, folding inwards. He stuck by Margarita's heels as they entered, and while he managed to control his nervousness by not looking anxiously backwards at the closing gates he couldn't help jump slightly at the loud clang as they shut.

"Come along," Gaff said impatiently, trotting down the bricked path towards a wall of hedges.

From his many travels studying Glamour magic, Fernet had seen quite a number of marvellous gardens and forests. But the moment he stepped past the tall hedge and into Lillet Blan's garden he gasped like a little boy at Christmas time.

Everything glowed green and gold, not by some magician's trick but just the way the mid-day sun struck the thousands of leaves and flower petals. Fruit trees shone red and orange and gold, while the pale bricks giving a touch of human order to the massive nature garden shone matte yellow. The scents of a hundred flowers flowed sweetly in the air, carrying with them rabbles of butterflies glinting translucently in the light.

And seated around the sapphire and emerald pond at the centre of the garden was the bent back of a young woman, talking quietly with a trio of Morning Stars hovering over the damp grass.

"Lillet!" Margarita called.

Fernet held his breath, staring as the young woman turned, rising from the bench to face them.

This was Lillet Blan, the most powerful magician to have ever graduated from the Silver Star Tower. She had defeated a duke of hell, Grimlet, and banished the ghost of the Archmage Calvaros. Through the loops of time Lillet Blan had learnt magic for years, before she finally destroyed the legendary Philosopher's Stone to free the Tower from the Stone's hold.

Such a powerful magician had done nothing while the new Archmage Bleu ravaged the country for the last twenty-five years.

"Margarita?" Lillet asked, setting aside the grimoire that had been in her lap. It didn't look like any grimoire Fernet recognized. A chill went down his spine as he saw Lillet cap a bottle of ink and lay her pen aside. At the same time though, he chided himself for being so surprised—it should be expected that someone like Lillet Blan would be writing her own grimoires.

"It's been so long!" Margarita ran over, hugging her old friend. Lillet tensed at the initial contact, clearly unsettled, before relaxing and giving her friend a cautious squeeze back. "Have you been cooped up here all these fifty years?"

Lillet flinched, her bright purple eyes darkening slightly. "Well…I like it here. It's quiet and—"

"Lillet Blan!" Fernet burst out, attracting their attention.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Lillet said, brushing back her blonde hair and fixing her hat. "You are…"

Fernet stood up straighter, his chest swelling. "I am Royal Magician Fernet Branca, master of Glamour at the Royal House of Magic." Okay, he was inflating his titles a bit, but faced with the country-girl simplicity of such a legendary magician made Fernet more anxious to assert his worth in her eyes. "I have been sent as a messenger from his Majesty—"

"No."

"—King Hi…what?"

"Um…you're not even going to let him finish reciting his message?" Margarita asked.

Lillet shook her head. Now that he had a closer look, Fernet could see that she looked tired, more in her eyes than physically, although she also had the "researcher look" of one who spent most of her nights in a library or laboratory than in bed. Like Margarita, Lillet also looked no older than her early twenties. There were grass stains on the hems of her purple dress, a dress that looked like the seams had been taken in more than once, and ink stains blotted her fingertips. A small clear bottle hung on a chain around her neck, filled with tiny glittering crystals, or glass, resting against her chest on the red shirt that peeked out beneath her collar. She looked pale despite her light tan as she said, "I don't want to waste your time. My answer is no."

"You didn't even hear the question!" Fernet complained, a little bewildered at the proceedings. This wasn't going to plan at all!

"I don't have to," Lillet said tiredly. "The question is always the same. No, I won't go duel the Archmage for the Crown."

"I…You…Will you at least hear me out first?" Fernet pleaded, sweating. "At least, let me tell you about the latest news since the last messenger was here. Is that fair?"

"We did make a pretty long trek," Margarita said, shrugging sheepishly as Lillet gave her a mildly betrayed look. Fernet didn't think that she'd be on his side for long if it came down to him or her old friend, so Fernet rushed through his argument as quickly as he could while Lillet still seemed to be tolerating his presence.

"Please, Miss Blan—ever since the Archmage defeated the Crown army at the Tower, we've been forced to leave him his stronghold in the north. Even though he had won the Tower through the blood of Gammel Dore and the other great magicians there—" He noted the small reaction that the mention of her former teachers had on Lillet, but continued on. "—Bleu seemed to be content for some time with his territory. Since the Crown did not have the power to expel him, we had no choice but to retire to the capital and do nothing but watch him warily, just waiting for him to turn on us.

"For twenty years, the Archmage seemed on the surface to be a ruthless but fairly benign warlord. But we knew better—year by year, his power grew among the people as he found Calvaros' old followers and used them to spread his reign."

"It was the only reason I got involved in this," Margarita interjected, and Fernet let her do it. "I've been tracking down Calvaros' minions, as you know, and I really hadn't cared at all that much about the mess between the Crown and Bleu until I found that out."

"So you came here to help them convince me?"

Margarita chuckled, scuffing a boot idly. "No, Hiram offered me clemency on all my murders of Calvaros' followers—the ones he had proof against me for, anyway—if I made sure that this boy got here safely. And since I liked the chance to see you again too, I said sure." She jerked her head at Fernet. "He's not much of a fighter, more like one of those book-bound magicians."

"I'm twenty-two, and a Royal Magician, not a boy!" Fernet glared at her, but quickly turned back to Lillet.

The blonde had an eyebrow raised. "That's…fairly young to be a Royal Magician. Not that age has anything to do with experience…"

Fernet bit his lip, sighing when Margarita replied for him wickedly, "Clearly, the standards of the Royal House of Magic have gone down since you left, Lillet."

More like anyone with any skill has been killed or corrupted already. But Fernet didn't say that.

"Indeed," Lillet said coolly, ice in her voice again. To Fernet, she said, "Is that all?"

"Wait," Fernet stammered. "We believe that soon, the Archmage will strike at the capital city, and gain the throne through a coup d'état. You must know that there's some evidence that he had murdered the late Queen? Well, he'll likely do the same to King Hiram, who was your friend once. And there's no way the Archmage will let any of the Royal Magicians live to possibly rebel against him once he strikes…so please, Lillet Blan, I'm begging you, on behalf of the Royal House of Magic…" He clasped his hands before him helplessly. "Please help us."

Lillet gave him a pitying smile. "I'm sorry. But the answer is no."

He hadn't wanted to pull out his big guns…one of his mentors at the Royal House of Magic had given him this tidbit, and while Fernet didn't want to play dirty he had agreed with his old mentor that it was a low blow that just might work. "Please, Lillet Blan…if you would not help to serve your country, then perhaps you would help for the ones you love? You have family and friends who live in this country—they live free under the King's rule, but once the Archmage takes power who knows what he may do to innocent civilians. If you won't help us, would you not help ensure the future of your loved ones?"

They had told him that Lillet Blan was an emotional idealist. An argument like that should have brought tears to her eyes and uncertainty in her heart…but instead, Lillet Blan laughed at him.

Fernet gaped, floored.

"My family? Royal Magician Fernet, I would have thought that the answer was obvious. I'm a magician; while I may look like this, I've already lived over seventy-five years. My parents and brother are long dead, with my youngest brother soon to be. My nieces and nephews are all dead or fled beyond our borders." Lillet's lips twitched in a pained smirk. "And my friends are either dead or more than capable of taking care of themselves. Royal Magician Fernet, I have no friends or family to passionately protect. Knowing who had likely put that argument into your head, it was a good try—but they're fifty years too late on that one."

The anger in that last sentence had Fernet speechless.

Looking just as shaken, Margarita said gingerly, "Lillet?"

Lillet shook her head harshly, her eyes grim and bitter. "Let me tell you a story, an old story that had been buried in obscurity by those afraid of losing their power. I once served this country proudly, happy to uphold its laws and to help the Queen achieve her dream of creating a country where magic is welcomed instead of feared. I wrote grimoires, I apprehended lawbreakers, I became Mage Consul…I was in love."

Margarita's eyes widened. "Amoretta?"

Something broke in Lillet's face, and Fernet felt a twinge of sympathy at the haunted heartbreak on the young woman's face. Yet love crept into Lillet's tone as she said hoarsely, her eyes distant in memories, "Amoretta…we loved each other. We were perverse, in some people's eyes, because we were both women…but most people didn't care about that. And there were some people who despised us because she wasn't human. After all, a homunculus is really just a familiar, right?"

"You were in love with a f—" Fernet bit his lip, suppressing his initial horrified remark. Seeing the real love in Lillet's eyes, he couldn't quite bring up the typical dogma that he had been taught as a magician. Besides, it wasn't like he himself really had any personal opinions on relationships between magicians and familiars… "—a homunculus?"

"She was just…Amoretta." Lillet let out a breath, closing her eyes. Tears glinted under her eyelashes. "Fernet, you must know what the Court is like. Politics and power…that's all people cared about. I tried not to care, but it was hopeless. But you see…" The bitterness was back. "Some Royal Magicians cared a lot."

"I had been the Mage Consul. And some people were jealous of my age, you see, caring more for their dignity and rank than for the quality of the magician. And one Royal Magician decided that he would get back at me for his shame in being passed over…"

"Oh no," Margarita gasped, horrified. Fernet tried to keep up—revenge? Against Lillet…her homunculus…they lived in flasks, right? No, wait, Fernet had heard about the homunculi developed by the late Chartreuse Grande who could live outside their flasks…

Live outside their flasks, only if the flasks remained unbroken.

Lillet continued blankly, confirming Fernet's guess. "I didn't know that it had been murder, at the time. I had been holding Amoretta's hand…" Lillet's right hand twitched, as if she could still feel her lover's fingers there. "…and then I heard the breaking glass. And…she was gone."

"Lillet…" Margarita stepped forward, but then stopped, unsure if comfort was the right thing to give at the moment.

"Of course," intoned Lillet, "I found the one who had done it. I built my case carefully, gathering concrete evidence, so that no one could refute his crime. It took me two months, but I finally brought the case before the House. I could have gotten my revenge on him any number of ways, but I wanted justice." Now Lillet looked straight at Fernet, making him gulp. "And do you know what they said to me?"

"No," he whispered, but he knew.

"A homunculus is classified as a familiar. Familiars destroyed during a conflict between two magicians is nothing more than the natural progression of a magic battle," Lillet recited, her intonation that of an advocate. Those words must have been burnt into her mind. Her eyes actually met Fernet's, her mind coming back from cruel memories and back to the present. For an instant, Fernet thought that he saw dulled pain, but then he realized that he was mistaken.

The pain hadn't diminished over the years at all, but all the idealism in Lillet Blan had.

And while Fernet sympathized…he couldn't remain silent. He owed it to his country, and his countrymen…because if he couldn't convince Lillet Blan, then they were all doomed. "So you left the Royal Magicians, and refused all their pleas for help…because of one girl?"

"Take that back," snapped Margarita, her hand flying to the knife at her waist, "Or I'll—"

"It's not that Amoretta died," Lillet said sharply, the first hints of real emotion coming into her voice. One hand was balled into a fist in her skirts—the other clutched the bottle of glass dust hanging around her neck. "As deep of a wound as her death had carved inside me, I didn't walk away from everything just because of that. It was your fault—you and your kind, the Royal Magicians; how could I continue serving a country that employed people who would kill an innocent girl for political advantage? I won't be a part of a government who refused to see value in the familiars that magicians used so thoughtlessly, as if they were just…just things."

Lillet closed her eyes then opened them again, glaring at Fernet with her deep purple eyes. "Even if not all familiars die when they're defeated, there was no justice in how the Royal Magicians treated them. But it wasn't the men and women's faults…none of them acted any differently than how they had been taught to believe—that a familiar had no value in and of itself beyond its use to its master. The system, the laws of our land, that's Amoretta's murderer. And I will never forgive it."

"Heartless jerks," Margarita muttered, glaring at Fernet. She must look at her victims with that black glare before she killed them. And Lillet Blan didn't seem to care at all.

Fernet inhaled tremblingly, but he refused to take a step back. In a small voice, he whispered, "But…it wasn't my fault."

His words made both women freeze.

Slowly, the light faded from Lillet's eyes. When she spoke, each word came broken and heavy as she turned to walk a few mindless steps away from them. "No…it wasn't your fault."

Margarita and Fernet exchanged mutual looks of panic. Somehow, an angry Lillet Blan Fernet could deal with—even a forlorn Lillet Blan. But this hopeless, broken Lillet made Fernet uncomfortably panicked.

Thankfully, Margarita saved him. She gently took Lillet's elbow, slowly drawing the magician's attention back to her. "Lillet? Um…why don't you show us around your place? Tell us what you've been up to these last few decades?"

Fernet nodded wildly, relieved. Still, hearing Lillet's story had his mind on fire with doubts and confusion, so that when something suddenly nipped at his sleeve he yelled and jumped straight up in the air.

"You sissy, that's just a unicorn," Margarita teased.

He was already feeling embarrassed as he tried to stop the unicorn from eating his shirt cuff. "Wait…" Fernet stared at the unicorn more closely, then looked at Lillet in astonishment. "It's not a summon!"

Lillet stirred a little, sighing as she looked at them again. "None of the beings here are summons."

"What?" Fernet's jaw dropped. "None? Not even the demons…or the skullmages? And…" Now that he was actually looking out for them, he could see the small beings flitting around in the bushes. "And the fairies?" He gulped as he saw the Morning Stars from before drift by, awed at their majestic beauty. The thought that such wondrous beings existed—Fernet had only summoned Morning Stars twice in his life—was awing enough…but the thought that they were here of their own will?

He was humbled, and amazed.

"I did summon familiars when I first came here," Lillet said, starting to walk down the path towards the small stone keep and the outbuildings in the middle of the open natural space at the summit. "They helped me build this place. But then I told them all that they were welcome to come and live here with me. Everyone lives here together, where we're all just ourselves, and not magicians or familiars."

"Is that how you created such a fantastic garden?" Farnet asked, letting his researcher's curiosity through. "I've never seen human-made gardens as wonderful as that one before. Did the elves and fairies make it themselves?"

"They did. Gaff likes it, but he seems to like helping me up at the keep better." Lillet pointed at the small buildings as they came up to them. "I live in the keep. The library's there too."

"As expected," Margarita giggled, drawing a small smile from Lillet.

"Can we see?" Fernet nearly panted, excited. Maybe he could find something special in there that could help.

Lillet obliged, opening the door for them. It didn't look like any of the doors had locks on them. An entire living quarters had been built into the library, as it was the latter that filled the entire building on bookshelves that stretched up through the entire centre of the tower. Farnet stepped closer to the shelves, casting a glance over the spines of the grimoires there.

"You…wrote most of these, didn't you?"

"Yes. I've had fifty years and many good friends to help me."

"It's amazing." Farnet scratched his jaw, feeling some rough stubble. It had been a long day. "Why didn't you share any of these? Other people could have benefited from the knowledge here."

"Share with the Royal Court?" Lillet shook her head, more tired than spiteful. "As far as I've heard, in the last few decades the Royal House of Magic seemed more interested in war magic than in anything I've been writing. Maybe once they've developed an appreciation for what I love, then I'll share with them what I've learned."

They trailed out of the library, heading down another path that looped around the garden towards the gate. Lillet paused halfway, and looked out at the horizon. From the angle of the setting sun, Fernet could tell that the tall spire sticking out of the forest in the distance was the Silver Star Tower, all the way on the other side of the kingdom.

He wondered if he should make some leading remarks about the Tower, and try to hook Lillet's sympathies by reminding her of the deaths of her old teachers. But Lillet had started walking again, and Fernet let the moment go.

At some level…Fernet felt sorry for Lillet Blan.

He really shouldn't. After all, he had spent most of his life hearing her name be associated with hope and spite and desperation. The only magician powerful enough to stand a chance against Archmage Bleu! People had theorized for decades why Lillet Blan had never challenged Bleu. Some people said that they were actually the same person. Some people said that maybe they had been friends, once.

Some people called her a selfish traitor.

Fernet couldn't quite decide if he thought she was selfish or pitiable.

It hadn't been heartbreak that had driven Lillet up here in the mountains, living alone and depressed and secluded from the rest of humanity. It had been disillusionment and betrayal, from the very people Fernet was trying to convince her to save.

Could he really blame her for saying no?

But still…people were dying. People were suffering, and scared, and they needed someone to save them.

"…the crater? Oh, that's from where your Guardians and Talismans had blasted Fernet when he summoned up a Rune."

"Really? I'm sorry about that. Hm…maybe I should station some Grimalkin there instead? Instead of blasting intruders, they could just put them to sleep. But Grimalkin don't really seem to like living in the caves like the demons do, so I can't make any of them stay by the gates instead of up at the keep if they don't want to." Lillet and Margarita's conversation made Fernet aware that they had reached the gates already.

"I'm sorry that my sentries attacked you two so violently," Lillet apologized as she opened the gates to step outside and speak softly with the succubi curled up in the Guardians. She turned to look at Margarita and Fernet with a nod. "Don't worry, they won't attack you as you go, I promise."

Now, that was just about the politest, least subtle dismissal Fernet had ever heard. While Margarita sighed sadly, and promised Lillet that she'd come visit sometime, Fernet bit his lip, his brow furrowed as he looked at Lillet.

"Lillet Blan…won't you please reconsider? Even if the Royal Magicians have not always been very kind or fair to you, there are many innocent people who are hoping for a hero…a champion against the Archmage. Please…won't you reconsider?"

Fernet had hoped that she would have reacted, if just a little bit. A small hesitation, a twitch…something to show that the thought had indeed crossed her mind. Fifty years was a long time to hold onto heartbreak, wasn't it? Or was fifty years not nearly long enough in the long lives of magicians?

Either way, Lillet Blan only shook her head once more, smiling sadly at him. "I'm sorry, Fernet. It's not just that there's nothing left for me to want to fight for…but I don't want to use magic to fight anymore. There are so many wonderful things about magic that I forget when all people use it for is war."

And she was gone, walking back into her peaceful domain.

Fernet turned and walked after the silent Margarita, a heavy stone in his gut. He didn't look back, not even when the clang of iron gates shutting sounded behind him.

**O**

Thirty years after the Archmage Bleu had defeated the Crown army at the Silver Star Tower, the Archmage finally swept his armies towards the capital. The Royal House of Magic fell, the surviving magicians either swayed to the Archmage's side or fled for their lives. The royal family had vanished as well, their fate unknown, although most believe them alive and hiding, driven out of their own country.

In those first few years after the Archmage's conquest, he governed well, as fair as a warlord magician could be. But as the years passed, either his arrogance grew as his patience waned, or his devils did indeed come to collect their bargains with him…but soon the Archmage turned as tyrant as the peasants feared him becoming, and soon the lands darkened with blood and misery.

Pockets of resistance continued throughout this black time, as renegade magicians and fighters fought against the Archmage's tyranny. However, none could match his power.

Hopeless decades passed by, until a strand of rumour, of legend, of hope, began to creep in whispers throughout the land—

In a mountain paradise high above the beaten cities lives a powerful magician…one who would come, if someone was hero enough to seek her out, to save our country…


Author's Note: This story was written for DezoPenguin as a birthday present ^^. The poor guy has had to endure the agony of hearing all my fic ideas, but only getting to read a few of them completed!

The Archmage "Bleu" comes from Dragon Bleu (which should make the blue dragon banners self-explanatory! ^_^), a French vodka.

Royal Magician "Fernet Branca" comes from the brand of the same name, Fernet Branca.