A Boy Less Ordinary - complete

by Eildon Rhymer

___

 

Thomas Brown was not an ordinary boy. People told him so frequently, so it had to be true.

 

"The trouble with you," his mother would say, peering down her sharp nose, "is that you're just not normal. Now, I'll ask you again, and this time I want a sensible answer: What do you want for dinner today?"

 

As Tom dragged himself up the winding stairs, after another humiliating day of lessons, his little sister jostled past him. "Out the way, weirdo," she spat. Obligingly, he pressed himself against the wall and let her slither past him. He suspected that the elbow she jabbed into his stomach was entirely deliberate.

 

"What did I do to produce a son like you?" his father asked loudly and often, throwing his hands up in the air. "Two normal sons - sons any father could be proud of. Two enchanting daughters. And then you. Weird. Up in your room doing the devil knows what. Though better in your room, I'd admit, than embarrassing me in front of my visitors."

 

Sighing, Tom opened his bedroom door, and threw his school bag onto the bed. Books spilled out, books with dark covers. What no-one knew was that some of the covers contained other books, stolen from guests. It was the only way Tom could get through a day of lessons. He would sit at the bench, muttering the rote words, but under the desk a forbidden book would be open, and in his heart he would be dreaming of other worlds.

 

Tom walked over to the window. In the courtyard below, his older brother was swaggering up and down with his followers. His older sister was watching, all curves and enchanting smiles, and his little sister was playing hide and seek. The evening sun was red, and smells of roasting flesh were seeping out of the kitchen.

 

Just a normal evening. Tom looked at his hands, then looked at himself in the mirror. Why did he find it so hard just to get up, go downstairs again, and join in, doing the sort of things that were expected of him? Why did he spend every evening closeted in his room, fighting urges to do forbidden things?

 

The door was thrown open, heavy feet stamping in without a knock or an invitation. "Knew you'd be here," said his twin.

 

Tom did not turn round from the window.

 

"Visitors coming tonight," his brother said. "Important ones. Dad says you're to make yourself scarce. Says he's got an image to keep up. Doesn't want it ruined by weirdoes and freaks."

 

Tom waited until the feet clattered out again. Turning away from the window, he went back to the bed. He opened the first book that came to hand, and started reading.

 

"Knew you'd be doing that," his brother taunted, through a crack in the door. "Reading stupid books and fantasies. Mum says it's unhealthy. She wants to burn them, so you have to live in the real world. Be a real member of this family, not a…"

 

"Weirdo," Tom said sadly. "I know."

 

Tom tried to lose himself in the book, but it was hard to keep the words in his head. Somewhere downstairs, his family was gathering, all thinking the same way, all wanting the same things. They were getting dressed, readying themselves for important visitors, and all the while he was banished to his room, because he was strange, and an embarrassment.

 

Books were his only comfort. Yes, he knew that the worlds he read about in stories did not really exist, but while reading them, he could pretend. The heroes of stories were often like him. They thought like him, and they dreamed of the same things that he dreamed of, and they lived in worlds where such things were completely normal. Fantasy, of course, but one day, perhaps… One day, if he longed for it enough…

 

He threw the book across the bed. Of course such things would never come true. His family were normal, and he was strange. The rest of the world was like them, no tlike him. Tom would never fit in.

 

"But I wish," he admitted out loud, "that they'd like me, just a little bit." Because in the stories, a child's parents usually loved them, even if they did unusual things.

 

"Maybe," said a reedy voice, "the fault is with them, and not with you."

 

Tom tore the covering off the cage. "How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?"

 

The creature in the hamster cage blinked up at him with silver eyes. "Oh, at least a hundred more." It danced in a circle around its water bowl. "Or you could try saying please."

 

"Please." Tom paused, tilting his head to one side. "Has it worked?"

 

"No." The creature beamed placidly. "Nice to hear it, though. I haven't heard a single polite word since I was enslaved. First it was the foul torments, of course, and then an eternity of hamster food and your self-pitying ramblings."

 

"It's not my fault," Tom protested. "I didn't ask for you. I just wanted a normal hamster. Besides," he added, "you're not enslaved. Or, if you are, you probably deserved it."

 

"Me?" The creature opened his eyes wide in pretended innocence. Then it turned its back, and pretended to be studying its food. "Of course I didn't, and if only you'd open your eyes…"

 

"Oh, be quiet," Tom commanded. "Besides," he said, wrinkling his nose, "you stink."

 

"Only because you don't clean the cage out often enough," the creature said sulkily.

 

Tom cleared his throat, all too aware that the accusation was true. He went to open a window, but all he let in was the smell of roasting meat, and the sound of screaming. Smoke prickled his nose, and dark birds flew across the bloody sun. As he leaned out, he heard the sound of rattling wheels, and saw one of his father's guests appear in his carriage, drawn by six black horses. The family was lining up, ready to greet him. They looked complete, nothing to show that one of their number was missing.

 

He slammed the window shut. "I wish I could show them!"

 

Shredded parchment skittered in the hamster cage. "Show them what?" The creature was alert again, silver eyes gleaming, all trace of sulkiness gone.

 

"That I have as much right as they do to be down there." He threw a few more books around. One hit the wall, and fell apart, the dark cover going one way, the forbidden pages another.

 

"Is that what you really want?" the creature asked.

 

Tom looked at it. Yes! he wanted to declare. They were his family. They were his parents, his brothers, his sisters. He was one of them and had as much right to…

 

"Do you really want to be ordinary," the creature asked quietly, "if they are the definition of what ordinary means?"

 

Tom let out a long breath. "No," he admitted. "I don't want to be like them. In fact…" He clenched a fist. "I want to…" He could not say it.

 

"Crush them?" the creature suggested gleefully. "Get your revenge for all those years of slights? Overthrow them?"

 

Tom shook his head. "I don't know. I just feel so alone. And, no, before you say it, strange creatures that are not quite hamsters don't count as company."

 

"I only look like this," the creature said, "because you wanted a hamster so much. Whatever a hamster is. Something from one of your books, I expect." It wrinkled its nose in disgust. "No, my true shape is beautiful. Be wasted on you, of course. Sadly, I'm under an enchantment to take the form of whatever my captor most wants to see. I bet you'd like to see what I looked like when your father had me."

 

"No." Tom shook his head vehemently. He could imagine it. "I don't know why I'm talking to you anyway. You never say anything useful."

 

"Just testing you, dear boy." The creature's voice sounded different. "You'll be pleased to hear that you've passed. I can give you the word now."

 

Tom frowned. "Word?" Muffled in the courtyard, trumpets sounded.

 

"That I came here to say, of course." The creature sounded impatient. "Of course, I was captured before I could say it. It doesn't seem to work in this pathetic little voice I've got now. Ages ago, I was captured. The hair and the clothes were frightful. I shudder to think of how I looked... But I digress." It drew itself up. Tom thought it was trying to look portentous, but was hampered by being in the body of an almost-hamster, with sawdust on its nose. "Years I have waited until there was someone worthy to… Oh, forget it. Just say the word."

 

"The word?" Tom leant close to the cage, then wished he hadn't. The smell was very horrible.

 

"Chrestomanci," whispered the not-quite-a-hamster. "Say it three times, and he will come, and your troubles will be ended."

 

"Chrestomanci," Tom said dubiously. "Chrestomanci?" He moistened his lips. "Chrestomanci."

 

Nothing happened. Tom let out a breath, annoyed with himself for even trying it. "That's it. That's the…" He felt a whoosh of air behind him, but he would have felt stupid to stop now. "…last time I listen to you," he finished, with less conviction than when he had started.

 

"Very wise," said a voice from behind him. "Talking animals are notoriously self-serving. Why, once I… Well, never mind. Another day, perhaps."

 

Tom had tried to whirl around, but his body would not obey him. The best it managed was a slow and creaky turn, with his mouth hanging open. "Are you…?" He tried to make the voice form words. "Are you…?"

 

"Chrestomanci?" the man said. "No… I mean, yes." He drew himself up, rather like the hamster-thing had done, and sounded booming and important. "I am Chrestomanci."

 

"No you're not," the hamster said.

 

The possible Chrestomanci shot him an angry look. "Yes, I am."

 

He was not really a man at all, Tom realised. The elegant and formal clothes had fooled him into thinking that he was, but this Chrestomanci looked no older than seventeen. He was tall, though – perhaps as tall as Tom's father – and very good-looking. Just looking at him made Tom feel childish and clumsy, but he reminded himself that this boy had invaded his room, so he tried to feel angry instead.

 

"Now, look here…" he began.

 

The boy ignored him. "I will have you know," he said to the hamster, "that I am Chrestomanci. I came to the summons, didn't I? Surely that proves it."

 

"Proves nothing," said the hamster. "I happen to be a close personal friend of Chrestomanci. Well, I met him once. I know for a fact that Chrestomanci is older. Not as handsome, though." Its voice went a little wistful. "Not as well-dressed."

 

"Thank you." The boy gave an elegant bow, looking very pleased with himself. "I do try. But do you think a burgundy suit would look better? I've never been summoned before, you see, and first impressions matter."

 

"Yes, they do." Tom managed to find his voice again. "And you haven't made a very good one. Who are you?"

 

"Chrestomanci." The boy turned mildly towards him. "Or, rather – for I see the suspicion furrowing your rather stupid face – I will be Chrestomanci one day. However, my guardian, who is the current Chrestomanci, is in bed with flu. He asked me to take over. He did it all properly, of course, with all the proper rites, which was why your summons reached me, rather than him." He frowned, apparently struck by a thought. "Which is just as well. Imagine what you would have thought if you'd suddenly got a grumpy old man in a nightgown appearing in your room. Dear me. Probably worse for him, though."

 

The hamster creature gave a soprano snarl, whiskers quivering. "So we've got a trumped-up apprentice, not the master. Just typical. I've endured a lifetime of foul captivity waiting for this."

 

"Is it always like this?" Chrestomanci looked genuinely interested.

 

Tom nodded. "Worse, sometimes. I only wanted a normal hamster, like in the books…"

 

"Better cover it, then." Chrestomanci flicked his fingers, and the cover landed on the cage. The creature continued to squeak, slightly muffled, but Chrestomanci waved his hand again and it fell silent.

 

"You've killed it?" Tom asked.

 

"Of course not." Chrestomanci frowned. "What sort of a person do you take me for? Come to think of it, what sort of a person are you? You don't look like anything special."

 

"Oh, but I am," Tom told him. "I'm very unusual. Weird. The thoughts that come into my head… The things I want to do…" He looked at his hands. Sometimes he thought there was power in his hands – the power to create marvels.

 

"Oh?" Chrestomanci pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands, although surely they were not dirty. "One of those magical boys, trapped in a family that doesn't understand you? That's common enough, hardly worth a summoning. At least you've got your own room. There was one last year… Lived in a broom cupboard, would you believe…"

 

"I'm not magical," Tom protested. He felt a sudden urge to hit this superior boy in his smug face. "And I hardly think my situation is common."

 

"Yes, yes." Chrestomanci had moved to the mirror, where he appeared to be studying the useless item of clothing he had tied around his neck. "Yes, I think I was right to go with the white."

 

"Are you actually going to do something useful?" Tom demanded.

 

"Apologies." Chrestomanci's smile looked genuine enough, almost charming. "I'm new to this, as you know. I want to get it right now, for when I do it full time. You see, when people summon Chrestomanci, they're normally at their wits' end. World collapsing around them, and things like that. I need a look that will inspire confidence."

 

"So you went for velvet?" Tom said incredulously.

 

The smile vanished. "No." Tom glanced round to see if he window had swung open, for the room seemed suddenly so much colder. "I like to dress well. Still…" He smiled, and the room was warm again. "A man can't wear a suit all the time. What will happen if I'm summoned at night, I wonder? It would hardly do to turn up in a crumpled nightgown."

 

"Get a good dressing-gown, I suppose." Tom was feeling grumpy.

 

"Dressing-gowns… Yes!" Chrestomanci's eyes lit up. "Excellent idea, er… What did you say your name was?"

 

"Tom," Tom said, "and I didn't. You didn't ask."

 

"Apologies," Chrestomanci said airily. He settled himself carefully on the bed. "Now, where were we? Why did you summon me?"

 

"I didn't know I was summoning you." Tom stayed near the window. Distant sounds told him that his father's guests were still arriving. "But it's my family. They keep saying I'm strange. They don't let me join in…"

 

"You mean you summoned me here because you had a childish squabble with your siblings?" Chrestomanci's voice had gone impossibly cold again. "They called you names, so you want me to use my powers to… what? To turn them into hamsters?"

 

Tom felt himself turning red. "It's not like that. It's not just names. They… Sometimes they hurt me, and Dad… Dad…"

 

"Father beats you with his slipper, I suppose." The mockery sounded only gentle this time. "As it happens, Tim, I know a little bit about unsatisfactory parents. I'll help you, though really it is a gross waste of a Chrestomanci's talents. Normally we're busy putting the world to rights, not sorting out a weedy little boy's family issues."

 

"I don't think you're very nice," Tom said sulkily. He knew he sounded like a little child, but he did not care.

 

"No." Chrestomanci smiled. "Others have said that, too. But where would we be if Chrestomanci was nice all the time? The evil-doers would have a field day."

 

"I'm not an evil-doer." Tom felt ridiculously close to crying. "That's the whole point."

 

Chrestomanci looked at him. "I'm sorry. Cockiness is my fatal flaw, I'm afraid. At least, my guardian often says so. That, and a certain… er… disregard for what other people are feeling. I assure you it's nothing personal. I'm sure your problems are very real to you, but I had hoped for something a bit more spectacular and pivotal for my first summoning. You have to understand my disappointment."

 

"Fine," Tom exploded. "Go. See if I care."

 

Chrestomanci raised his hand casually. Then he frowned, and raised it a bit higher. He swallowed hard, and suddenly his clothes did not look quite so perfect as they had done so a moment before.

 

"It seems that I can't," he admitted. "There's fearsomely strong magic around this place, stopping me from leaving. In fact…" He stretched out his long legs. "It seems that I'm a prisoner here."

 

"Oh." Tom twisted his hands in front of him. "I… I'm sorry."

 

Chrestomanci looked at him, his expression mild, almost vague. "Your name isn't really Tim, is it?"

 

"Tom," Tom corrected. He swallowed. "No. No, it isn't. I took that name from a book. It… It sounded more like who I wanted to be. Better than Talon." He swallowed again. "That's my real name. I just liked Tom. Thomas Brown. From a book called…"

 

"I think at this point I should ask who your father is?" Chrestomanci was milder than ever, but Tom felt ice creeping down his spine.

 

He twisted his fingers so tightly that they hurt. "The Nameless One. The Dark Lord. He Who Brings Fire and Destruction."

 

"Oh." Chrestomanci dabbed at his brow with his handkerchief. "This is not good, Tim. Not good at all. I rather suspect that I am doomed."

 

******

 

End of part one

 

******

 

"I… I'm sorry," Tom stammered. Chrestomanci was still sitting on the bed. He had showed no sign of panic since making his disturbing declaration. He seemed rather to be studying his cuffs, as if he was searching them for minute stains.

 

"So you should be," Chrestomanci said, without looking at him. "You could have told me right from the start, you know. It's hardly a trivial detail."

 

"It never occurred to me," Tom admitted miserably.  Most people just knew. It was rather obvious. But, then, most visitors to their Citadel were conquered enemies, dragged in chains, or chief minions with their fell hosts. Tom had never had to tap any of them on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me. Did you know you were in the Dark Lord's Citadel?"

 

"Ah well." Chrestomanci sighed. "I suppose it's obvious, to people who come in the regular way, and I doubt it would have made any difference. We would just have been panicking a little earlier, rather than having time for this pleasant chat."

 

"You don't seem to be panicking," Tom said resentfully. Sweat was prickling his palms, and he could feel his heart fluttering in his chest.

 

"Ah, if only you knew…" Chrestomanci smiled grimly. "I think I'm going to ruin a suit in this adventure, and it was a new one, too. Maybe worse than a suit. If your father is like most Dark Lords, he will know that I'm here already. If nothing else, he will have sensed me rattling the bars of this cage. He will be cackling impressively, making preparations, planning the most ingenious tortures."

 

"Yes," Tom said despairingly. He knew his father. His mother and his siblings would be joining in eagerly, vying with each other as to who could be the most cruel.

 

"And I'm willing to bet that you won't be any use." Chrestomanci held up his hand. "No, don't bristle like that. It's just that you're not a magical boy in a broom cupboard, are you? When you said that you were different, you meant…"

 

"I want to play football, like boys do in fantasy books," Tom said miserably. "To live in a nice house, not a looming and twisted Citadel. I want a hamster, not an army of minions. I want to learn papier mache and pottery, but they just want me to reshape men's souls and rearrange their bodies. I want to eat rhubarb and custard, not the liver of my enemies. I want to spend dinner talking about climbing trees, not talking about the continents I plan to subdue. Yes, I know that makes me weird. I know it's not normal."

 

"Not normal?" Chrestomanci raised his eyebrows. "My dear Tim, I think you're the only normal person in this place. Not that it helps, of course. As I said, I am probably doomed. But I have escaped from worse. Let's see…"

 

Outside the window, the sky erupted in fire and brimstone, and a dreadful shriek tore the world apart. The sun was blotted out, and the earth trembled.

 

"Goodness," Chrestomanci said. "What was that?"

 

"Father," Tom had to tell him. "A slave's probably spilled something on the tablecloth."

 

"Or he's coming to get me," Chrestomanci said. "For the slave's sake, let's hope it's the latter."

 

Tom peered out of the window, knowing what he would see, but hoping desperately that he would not see it. As usual, he was disappointed. He clung to the windowsill, as coldness flowed through his veins.

 

"What is it?" Chrestomanci asked quietly.

 

"It's father," Tom gulped. He shut the window and locked it tight. Before he turned away, he closed the curtains for good measure. "He's left the dining room. He's out in the courtyard, coming this way."

 

"Looking furious?" Chrestomanci asked. For some reason he looked hopeful.

 

Tom shook his head. "He's smiling."

 

"Oh." For the briefest moment, Chrestomanci looked crestfallen, but he recovered himself quickly. "So he's confident, then. Well, I suppose that only makes it more of a challenge. I always rise well to challenges."

 

Tom looked desperately around the room. There seemed to be very few good places for such a tall young man to hide. Under the bed... In the wardrobe... Behind the hamster cage... "But, wait!" he cried. "You're a wizard..."

 

"Oh, please," Chrestomanci chided. "Please don't insult me. I'm an enchanter. And, no, don't say it. You're going to ask what the difference is. Dear me. What do they teach children nowadays?"

 

"I suppose it got neglected somewhere in between lessons in torture and taking over the world," Tom said tightly. "And I don't see how it can matter, when father's coming to kill you."

 

"Yes, yes. I suppose you're right," Chrestomanci admitted. "So, any ideas? Any fatal weaknesses? Any item of jewellery wherein resides his power?"

 

Tom shook his head. For some reason, people were always asking that. He had lost count of the number of would-be heroes his father had captured. Under torture, they always babbled of jewellery. They died afterwards, of course.

 

"I suspect not." Chrestomanci sighed in a resigned fashion. "The trouble is, my dear Tim, I can't get out of this one in the normal way. As I said, there are fearsomely strong bars of magic that stop me from getting away. So it's hide or fight. Now, which should it be?"

 

Tom did not say anything. The answer was obvious. Chrestomanci would hide. They always did, all the weasely spies that came into the Citadel, hoping to overthrow his father. They came in with such high hopes and noble ideas, but as soon as they came face to face with the terror, all they could think of was their own safety. This Chrestomanci would be no different. He would try to save his skin, and fail. Even if he succeeded, he would get away as fast as he could, and nothing would change for Tom at all.

 

"What do you know about your father's powers, Tim?" Chrestomanci asked. "You see, it helps if I know who I'm dealing with."

 

The hamster cage started to rattle. Chrestomanci twitched as if something was tickling inside his mind.

 

"I really don't know," Tom had to admit.

 

"That's a shame," Chrestomanci said. "It does make it frightfully difficult."

 

The cage rattled so much that it almost fell off the table. Chrestomanci raised his hand as it to brush away an irritating fly that was buzzing in his ears.

 

The noise of the gathering forces of evil were loud enough to hear even through the bespelled glass of his windows. A chill wind snaked through the gap under his door, showing that his father was about to set foot on the tower stair.

 

Chrestomanci ran a hand through his impeccable smooth hair, unravelling strands of it into less-than-impeccable curls. "I suppose I will have to try invisibility, and hope that he..."

 

The cover slithered right off. "The hamster thing!" Tom cried. "Maybe it knows." Chrestomanci shot an impatient look at him. "It knew your name," Tom offered.

 

"Did it?" Chrestomanci raised an eyebrow. The floor of the room started to tremble to the beat of a Dark Lord's footsteps. "So, creature, speak."

 

"I don't see why I should." The hamster glowered sulkily from the corner of its cage. "You did put a spell of silence on me, after all. Arrogant upstart."

 

"Apologies." Chrestomanci bowed his head, in a bow that managed to look entirely regal, and not remotely humble. "I under-estimated the situation. Now, tell me what you know."

 

"Well…" The hamster made a show of debating with itself. "You were rude to me. But, then, you are very handsome… And doomed, of course. It would be such a waste if a handsome lad like you died."

 

"I do wish it wouldn't say that," Chrestomanci confessed in an undertone to Tom. "It's one thing for me to say that I'm doomed. It's quite another…"

 

Tom grabbed his shoulder. "There's no time for this! Father's almost here." For the tower was trembling. Clouds of darkness were snaking under the door, and Tom could already feel the tightening in his throat that came from father's noxious rages.

 

"You're right." Chrestomanci held up his hand. Something took hold of Tom, and suddenly he could not move. It was as if the air had thickened until it was as solid as toffee, or perhaps all of his limbs had turned to stone. Even his eyelids were as heavy as boulders. He tried to speak, but even to articulate a single syllable would have taken his lips weeks.

 

Only his mind was free. What's happened? His thoughts were skittering in panic. Is this father? In this dying? But the tower was no longer trembling. The dreadful booming steps no longer sounded, and the deadly smoke hung expectantly in the air, but still.

 

"Oh, very good." The hamster tried to clap its paws together, and nearly fell headfirst into its food bowl.

 

"No time to waste in admiration, though it would be most welcome afterwards." Chrestomanci's voice took on an urgent tone, unlike anything Tom had heard from him before. "Quickly. I can't hold it for long. Tell me what I need to know."

 

He's holding everything still! Tom realised. His mind was twitching like a fish stranded on dry land. It was a horrible feeling, even now he knew it was Chrestomanci who was doing it. His mind was racing, but his body was still. It wasn't even breathing. Don't forget to breathe, he reminded his body. When things come back to normal, he had a lot of breathing to catch up with.

 

The hamster drew itself up impressively. "The Dark Lord can be defeated by… Oh! Look over there!"

 

Chrestomanci's shoulders slumped a little, but his hand was still outstretched. It was trembling now, though, and a faint rumbling had started on the stairs, the faintest sound of a heavy foot beginning to stir. "You don't know, do you," he said, in a tone that was not a question.

 

"I don't know why you're looking at me like that," the hamster said sulkily. "It's not my job to know. I heroically sneaked into this Citadel, risking years of cruel imprisonment, just to get someone to call your name. The only way Chrestomanci could get in, you see. The wards would keep him out, unless he was summoned by someone from within, someone who belonged here. You were supposed to know. Or, rather, your master. It's just my luck to be landed with the clueless apprentice. Now we're all doomed."

 

"Yes." Sweat was breaking out on Chrestomanci's brow. "I can't hold it…" His voice was strained and broken. His clothes looked crumpled, and it was clear that he was expending an enormous effort, and failing.

 

I don't want him to die! Tom thought fiercely.

 

"I'd hoped to hold everything still until I'd come up with a plan," Chrestomanci panted, "but he's too strong. He's fighting it. Oh, he's ferociously strong. That's a shame. Nowadays, half the Dark Lords you come across barely even qualify as warlocks. I met one once who was a greengrocer who'd won the Lottery, and bought himself a Citadel out of a catalogue."

 

"Count yourself lucky, then," said the hamster thing. "At least it won't be too embarrassing to be killed by him."

 

Chrestomanci let out a shuddering breath, that quivered right through his body. His hand fell heavily to his side, and he staggered, almost falling over. Outside Tom's door, his father bellowed his triumph and rage, and steps sounded in a cacophony.

 

Tom barely heard it. He swayed in his newly-recovered body, gasping in huge lungfuls of air, trying to reassure himself that he was in control again, that this finger there moved because he willed it to, that his lips could shape words. "You…" he began. "You…"

 

"Too late!" Chrestomanci grabbed him by the shoulders. Even through the pounding of his own heart, Tom could feel how his hands were trembling. "I'll try the only thing I can do. But if it goes wrong… Whatever you do, don't tell him my name." His dark eyes gripped hold of Tom's soul and would not let go. Tom could not look away. He could not think of anything else. "Do not tell him my name."

 

Tom nodded. He could do nothing else.

 

"Good." Chrestomanci slumped with relief, then faded further, still further, almost to nothing.

 

Outside, the pounding swelled to a clamour that filled the whole world, and the door burst open with a shriek and a surge of blackness.

 

Tom took a step back. His father strode in, wearing his aspect of terror. His lean face was as white as bone, and his eyes were blazing red. He wore his cloak made of the skin of his enemies, woven with the very fabric of darkness itself, and the foulest of his minions gibbered in his wake. Pressing behind him were his sons and their followers, each one more foul than the last, each one eager and gleeful to see murder.

 

"Where is he?" Tom's father boomed. "Where is the sorcerer? Do not deny that he was here. I felt his puny attempt to escape my wards."

 

Tom shrank back until the wall struck him in the back, and he could shrink no longer. His eyes flickered desperately from side to side, but Chrestomanci was gone. The hamster was pretending to be asleep beneath a pile of shredded parchment, but everything else was still.

 

"I… I don't know," he stammered.

 

His father towered above him, taller than the sky, yet still somehow managing to fit into his rather low-ceilinged room. "Know that I can wrest the truth from your mind. The fact that you are my son does not mean that you will be spared."

 

"I really don’t know." Tom's voice was a pathetic squeak.

 

His father narrowed his eyes. "Sadly, you cannot lie. You blush when you lie. It was one of the first faults I noticed in you." His voice sank to the kind of chill that made one think of naked sword blades. "But he was here. Do you deny that, too?"

 

Tom swallowed. "There was someone here, yes. I don't know how he got here. I've never seen him before. He was a boy. And now he's gone. I don't know where."

 

"Gone?" His father tilted his head to one side. "No-one with magic escapes this place unless I choose to let them go, and I never choose to." He gave a laugh like the screams of souls in torment. "Here, little wizard. Come to daddy. Come and let me play with you."

 

Please, Tom thought, digging his fingers into his palms. Please let him have got away. Please don't let father find him.

 

His father raised a hand. Tom had no magic of his own, but he knew that this was a master, summoning his powers.

 

Do it, he willed. Whatever you were going to do, do it now. He moistened his lips. Had Chrestomanci turned himself into a mote of dust, a speck beneath the bed? Or was he invisible, creeping up behind Tom's father, readying a spell that would strike him down? Whatever it was, he would escape, escape and never come back.

 

"I cannot find him," his father said, turning to his chief minions. "It seems this one is…" He lashed out a hand, and there was Chrestomanci, fully visible, pinned against the wall like an insect in a collection. "No," Tom's father crooned. "That was a lie, my little wizard. I have you now, and your only escape will be death."

 

"Have mercy." Chrestomanci sagged in his invisible bonds. "I mean you no harm. I'm only a boy. My magic was just trifles."

 

Tom's father started to walk to him, each step slow and exuding menace. "So you lie too, little wizard. That much is good." He grabbed Chrestomanci's chin with claw-like fingers. "But surely you are not so stupid as to think that I would be fooled. I felt your magic. That was not a trifle."

 

"I'm sorry." Chrestomanci's voice was choked. He had gone very pale, but his eyes were still dark and brilliant. "Just don't hurt me. I'll join you. I'll do anything."

 

Tom swallowed hard. He was incapable of moving from the wall, and bitterly aware that this time it was his cowardice that held him, not any spell. He's lying, he thought. He's trying to trick father… But something very cold was uncoiling inside him. Maybe it wasn't a lie. Once, before his parents had given up on him, he remembered his father telling him that all heroes were shabby cowards at heart, and that their noble words meant nothing at all, when they were stripped of everything but the need to survive.

 

"Join me, will you?" His father's voice had gone very quiet.

 

"Yes, yes," Chrestomanci babbled. "I'll join you. I'll do anything. Just don't kill me."

 

"I'll have him, father," offered Tom's oldest brother. "I'll take him at his word. He can join me, oh yes. I'll make him wish he had never spoken such words."

 

"Torture him, dad," urged Tom's twin. "See how long you can keep him alive after his insides have gone."

 

"I'll love him," purred his older sister, "until he screams at the very thought of love and longs only for hatred."

 

"Let me hunt him!" cried his little sister. "I'll catch him and play with him and break him when I'm bored with him."

 

"Let him go," Tom whispered silently. "Let him go back home. He didn't even know who you were. It's nothing to do with him. I'll give up. I'll try to do the things you do, but just let him go."

 

"Oh, so many lovely ideas," his father exclaimed. "And all so tempting. You see…" He turned to Chrestomanci again, tightening his grip on his chin. "I would normally keep an intruder like you for months and months of delicious torture. But you do not fool me. I can feel the magic working beneath your coward's words. It would be a joy to break you, but I would have to expend energy to keep you, and my plans for subduing the world have reached a crucial point. Sadly, I must decline the opportunity."

 

"Oh, but please, Dad," whined Tom's siblings, almost in unison.

 

Their father turned towards them, cold and towering and terrible again. "Are you questioning me?"

 

He let Chrestomanci go. Tom almost slumped to his knees in relief. "Back to dinner, everyone," his father commanded. "The roast elf is getting cold." He strode towards the door. As he did so, almost nonchalantly, he raised his hand, fingers pointed back the way he had come. A cleft of darkness opened in the room, a chasm stretched from his finger to the place where Chrestomanci was pinned against the wall.

 

Tom screamed. He was still screaming when his father closed the door, still screaming as the footsteps sounded down the stairs, and then away into silence. He was still screaming when there was no-one left to hear it.

 

For Chrestomanci lay motionless on the floor. His chest was still; his eyes were glazed and dull.

 

Chrestomanci was dead.

 

******

 

end of part two

 

******

 

Tom fell to his knees. He was no longer screaming, but tears were welling up in his eyes, making his vision swim. He was sobbing, great gulping sobs of the kind that would normally have embarrassed him, but now such things did not seem to matter one little bit.

 

"He's dead," he sobbed. "Dead, and I called him here. It's my fault."

 

"Oh, what angst!" the hamster exclaimed.

 

Tom crawled over to where Chrestomanci's broken body was lying. "I didn't mean to. I didn't know you were going to come here when I said your name. I didn't know you'd be trapped. I didn't mean for Dad to kill you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

 

The hamster whistled. "Oh my! What a little drama queen you are. Who'd have thought it, for a mousy little lump like you?"

 

"Be quiet!" Tom clenched both fists against a surge of father-like rage. "How can you be so unsenstive. He's dead. Dead! It's your fault, too."

 

"I didn't do anything," the hamster said smugly. "I mean, weren't you there? Your father was the one who did that rather impressive finger of death thing, not me."

 

Tom wanted to argue. He wanted to argue until he was in a screaming rage, throwing the cage around, unleashing his grief and fury on this infuriating creature. Laughing! He imagined himself doing it. Just sitting there laughing when Chrestomanci lay dead! And you weren't even a proper hamster! All I wanted was a proper hamster. Was that too much to ask for?

 

"Go on," the hamster goaded him. Its silver eyes were shining with gleeful interest. "You know you want to. You are your father's son after all."

 

His father's son, yes. And if he did this, perhaps his father would notice him at all. Perhaps, for the first time ever, Tom would receive a "well done, my boy," from his own father, and a pat on the back, and a promise of further evils to be done together one Sunday afternoon, father and son together.

 

He let out a long breath, let his hands fall to his side. No, it was barely even a temptation. Chrestomanci was dead, but killing another creature would not bring him back. Tom's father had done the deed, casually, brutally. Never in all his life would Tom want to do such a thing himself.

 

"No," he whispered. "But please be quiet. Please don't laugh. He's dead."

 

"Is he?" the hamster said. Tom presumed that he was being sarcastic, and ignored him.

 

Chrestomanci was lying so still. Tom could hardly bear to look at him. He looked so small, so faded. He had been a tall boy, but he had seemed even taller because of his style and his confidence and the shining intelligence in his eyes. It seemed an abomination against nature, that such a person was dead.

 

"There's a thing about a Chrestomanci," the hamster said casually.

 

Tom ignored him. Kneeling beside Chrestomanci, he addressed the boy who would never answer again give a smug answer to any question. "Though you were very irritating," he said sadly. "I wanted to slap your smug face half the time. But I didn't want you dead."

 

"Consider, if you will, your father," the hamster said. "There he is, down there at his table, wolfing down his roast elf, enjoying it all the more because he thinks he's killed an enchanter, right before the eyes of his no-good son. It's lucky for us all that he left before he could find out that it wasn't true."

 

Tom turned round slowly. Through teary eyes, he saw that the creature was leaning upright against the side of its cage. "But, then, you don't want to hear this. You told me not to say anything." It looked around innocently, its little voice humming.

 

"What is it?" Tom rasped. "What do you know?" The hamster continued to whistle. "Tell me!" Tom demanded. "Tell me!"

 

The creature shrugged. "Probably nothing relevant, of course. Just a little thing about how Chrestomanci is always a nine-lived enchanter."

 

"Nine… lives…" Tom croaked. His heart started to flutter with wild hope. "You mean…"

 

"My, you are slow." The hamster yawned, covering its mouth with a pink paw. "Do I have to spell everything out? Nine lives, I said. That means… Or perhaps I'm wrong in presuming that you can count. Nine equals eight plus one. He's just lost one, which means he has eight spare."

 

"Eight." Tom lurched back to Chrestomanci's side. "You mean… He's dead, but… not dead?" He looked around, wondering where the new Chrestomanci would come from. The body on the floor did not stir. No new apparition materialised in the air. "You're not… You're not lying, are you?"

 

"Patience," the hamster said. Then, when they had waited for a good minute, or more, it said, a little more doubtfully, "Of course, it might not be eight. He might have lost a couple along the way. But he's not old. Surely he can't lost more than two or three." Another minute. "I mean, he'd have to have been ridiculously careless to have lost more than that. Could he…? No, not even the worst fool in existence could have lost the full eight before he was eighteen."

 

"Touché," Chrestomanci's voice said. His eyes were open. Pink life was beginning to flood back into his skin. "I was foolish, but somewhat conspired against, too. I only lost seven, and then I got one back. Of course, now I've lost that one again. Only two left now." He grimaced. "Dear me."

 

Tom watched, blinking away tears that wanted to flow even more profusely now that he had a happy ending. With every second, Chrestomanci seemed to grow. Although Chrestomanci's body did not change at all, it seemed to Tom as if it was swelling, like a limp balloon being filled with air. It went from a dead, discarded thing, to a living being, vibrant with power and energy. It was a remarkable thing to see. It made Tom quite forget that he was consumed with guilt.

 

"Well, now." Chrestomanci stood up, and smoothed down his clothes. "It's been a while since that happened. I'd forgotten how unpleasant it can be, dying." He grimaced. "Your father… Not pleasant. I've never seen such a fearsome and nasty use of death magic."

 

Tom fiercely brushed away his tears. He wanted to look controlled and not afraid, but his trembling voice gave lie to his intentions. "I thought you were dead for real."

 

"Of course you did." Chrestomanci frowned in irritation. "You had to believe it, in case your father can read your emotions. I expect he can, too. Though probably he prefers not to. I can't imagine a Dark Lord like him would like to sense your little thoughts of wishy-washy goodness. They would probably give him indigestion. Still, I could not risk it."

 

"You mean…" Tom staggered back until he could sink down on the bed.

 

"Of course, what was more important was that your father believed it," Chrestomanci said. "Perhaps he would have recognised Gabriel de Witt, and known that he had to kill him many times over, but fortunately he didn't know me. He thinks I'm truly dead. That gives me a respite."

 

"You mean…" Tom's hand rose to his mouth, muffling his words. "You mean you let him kill you deliberately?"

 

Chrestomanci frowned. "Of course not. Do I look stupid? It was just a contingency plan. A wise man always has a contingency plan. Of course, I have not often been accused of wisdom. Still, a man has to learn it some day, and today was the day."

 

"But what…?" Tom still had his hand over his mouth. "What…?"

 

"Pathetic, isn't he?" sneered the hamster creature. "A self-pitying, spineless little mouse. Look what I've had to put up with in my captivity."

 

"You be quiet." There was a true snap of command in Chrestomanci's voice. "He's not so useless, not if he's managed to stay normal in a family like this. Not many children could manage it, you know."

 

Tom found the sudden sincerity in his eyes frightening, and looked down at his lap. He was wrong, too. His family was normal, and Tom was the weird one, unable to do the destructive magic that everyone else could do, unable to take any pleasure in normal family pastimes like torture and conquest.

 

Chrestomanci settled beside Tom on the bed. "Actually," he admitted, in a confiding sort of fashion, like a friend to a friend, "I had hoped to get away with invisibility. Few enchanters in all the known worlds could have seen through a spell such as the one I cast. It was fearsomely strong. I was intending to observe him, make a few tentative stabs at his defences, take his measure… That sort of thing. I didn't intend to be captured." He flicked some dust off his cuff. "I can't say I enjoyed it. Look at this suit. Ruined!"

 

"You grovelled," Tom found himself saying resentfully. "Father says that all prisoners grovel. He says there is no such thing as selflessness, and no true heroes. He says his enemies pretend to be noble and virtuous, but only think of saving their own skins in the end."

 

"Of course I grovelled," Chrestomanci said with feeling. "Who wouldn't grovel when faced with all that? I was desperate for him to kill me nice and cleanly. I didn't fancy an eternity of torture, I can tell you!"

 

"Oh." Tom felt flat inside, and he was not sure why. When he spoke, even his voice was dull and level. "So what are you going to do now?"

 

Chrestomanci stood up, smoothing out the creases in his trousers as he did so. "Get out, of course. Go home."

 

"Oh." Tom folded his hands in his lap. It was the only answer he could have expected, of course. Why would Chrestomanci want to stay in a place that had already killed him once? He would get out as fast as he could, go home, and forget them all. Life for Tom would continue just as it always had done. It would be a lifetime of loneliness, ridiculed as an outcast, unless, one day, he finally yielded and became like his father, just to make people like him.

 

"Easier said that done, of course," Chrestomanci said. "In the normal way of things, it would be lovely and easy. My spare life is in the castle, and it draws these lives inside me a little like a magnet. It's always easier to return home than to go anywhere…" He paused, and gave a little shiver. "This life inside me, I mean. Singular. Goodness, Tim. How naked it feels to carry only one life around with you. How ever do you people manage?"

 

"We're not used to anything else, I suppose," Tom muttered.

 

"Ah well…" Chrestomanci sighed. "Got to get used to it, I suppose. No use crying over spilled lives. Gabriel will tell me off when I get back, though. Dear me. I'll never hear the end of it. He gave one of his own lives in order to get this third one back from the Temple of Asheth, and now I've gone and lost it again. He will consider it both careless and ungrateful."

 

Tom wondered who Gabriel was. He wondered where the Temple of Asheth was, and what Chrestomanci's home was like. He wondered what the world was like outside the Citadel. He knew he would never see such things, except in books, and they were made-up, anyway.

 

"Are you going now?" he asked.

 

"You know I can't." Chrestomanci sounded impatient. "You saw what happened last time I tested these wards with my magic. It set all sorts of magical alarm bells ringing, and brought your father here in a rather overdone torrent of special effects. No, I can't vanish in the ways that are normal to me. To be honest, I'm not sure if I dare do any magic at all. I'm not sure just how sensitive those alarm bells are."

 

The hamster laughed. "So you're just planning to wander out through the front door?"

 

Chrestomanci gave the creature a mild look. "Well, I had hoped for a back door, but apart from that, yes."

 

The hamster laughed. Tom walked to the window. Ashen rain was falling outside. He thought it was very apt. Chrestomanci was going to die again. Even if he didn't die, he was still going away.

 

"And how do you propose to get through the back door, of handsome young man of mine?" mocked the hamster.

 

"Easy," Chrestomanci said calmly. "I'm going to get Tom to take me through."

 

******

 

end of part three

 

******

 

"What?" Tom whirled around. "I can't just…"

 

"Of course you can." Chrestomanci spoke with that smug calm that Tom had long since decided was maddening. "Think about it. Your father has placed strong wards on this place so that no-one with magic can get in or out, but all his children have magic, all his chief minions have magic, and they go in and out."

 

"I've never left," Tom said.

 

Chrestomanci faltered just for a moment. "But your brothers and sisters have, I'd hazard."

 

Tom had to nod. The others had. He had never been trusted to. No, he realised. He had never tried to. It was one thing to be laughed at as a freak inside your own home, but quite another to be adrift in a strange world, an outcast amongst strangers. He was sad at home, but at least he was sad in a place he knew.

 

"Think about it for a moment," Chrestomanci said. "Clearly they can't all be setting off alarm bells all the time. Possibly they have to go to your father every time they want to leave, to get a special exemption, but I doubt it. It would too much of a distraction to his attempts to subjugate the world, after all."

 

"They just go," Tom said. "Without asking." He remembered a time when his older brother had gone out with his followers and wiped out a few villages when he was supposed to be at home guarding a prisoner. He had been in serious trouble for a while.

 

"As I thought." Chrestomanci smiled. "So we will have to assume that there is some permanent exemption for you all. With the minions, it will be bestowed. But I'm willing to hazard my life on the fact that, with you, it is in the blood." He gave a wry grimace. "Hazard my life? Poor choice of words, is it not, Tim?"

 

"I've never left." There was a fluttering kind of panic in Tom's breast, although the leaden dullness was still lurking in his stomach. It was an uncomfortable conflict of feelings, rather like going down with flu.

 

"You don't have to," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "Just walk me to the door. Give me a push. And there we go. I'll be away, and you can plod back to whatever it is that you do in here."

 

"What about me?" the hamster piped up. "You can't just leave me like this. I'm not really an animal. I'm a woman. I came here, risking my life, in a desperate mission to overthrow…"

 

"Yes, yes." Chrestomanci flapped his hand. "I can see very plainly that you're a woman under an enchantment. I'm not blind. But I can't take it off you. That would set the alarm bells ringing as badly as trying to break through the wards."

 

"Take me with you," the hamster pleaded. It suddenly looked almost shabby in its desperation. "Free me as soon as you're out."

 

Chrestomanci looked at it thoughfully, but when he spoke, his voice was clear and decisive. "My dear lady, I would never dream of doing anything else." He unfastened the cage, scooped up the hamster, and put it in his pocket. "Now, don't you go doing anything unpleasant in there," he warned it.

 

Tom trailed his hand along the windowsill, leaving a thin line in the dust. His room was perpetually dusty, from the smoke and brimstone from the courtyard, and the miasma of charred flesh that issued daily from the kitchen-cum-torture-chamber.

 

"Well," Chrestomanci said crisply, "lead on, Tim."

 

Tom trudged to the door and opened it, revealing the landing and the dark stair well beyond. There was no-one there, no spy planted outside on the landing to listen to their plans, and gleefully spring the trap. "Perhaps they're invisible," he faltered.

 

"No." Chrestomanci sounded confident. "There's no-one there."

 

"I thought you weren't going to use magic," Tom said accusingly.

 

Chrestomanci gave an apologetic smirk, that didn't look apologetic at all. "I'm not. Some things just come naturally to me. They can't just be switched off like a light. It's just the way I am."

 

"Arrogant and irritating," Tom muttered to himself. "That's the way you are."

 

"True, true," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "Shall we go?"

 

Tom started down the steps, felling the way with his hand on the dank stone wall. He had often asked for lights and carpets, but had always been refused. He didn't just want them because he was strange, he argued. It seemed to him that even the foulest of Dark Lords would prefer to live somewhere comfortable, rather than in a dark and malodorous ruin. Though his father's chambers were pleasant enough. "Got to toughen you up," his father had said. "Teach the right attitudes right from the cradle."

 

"Dear me," Chrestomanci said. "I don't think much of his taste in interior décor."

 

Just what I was thinking, Tom thought. It made him stride out heedlessly and fast. Chrestomanci was infuriating, but perhaps they could have been friends of a sort, if he had stayed.

 

"It's far worse in the dungeons," the hamster offered, from its place in Chrestomanci's pocket.

 

"I do not doubt it," Chrestomanci said. His tone suggested finality. Tom thought the hamster had been trying to tell its story.

 

They reached the first floor landing without being stopped. All the doors they passed were still and silent.

 

"I risked everything," the hamster whined. "I came here knowing I would be facing torture and possible death, because this world needed a hero, one brave enough to bring the great Chrestomanci here to set things right."

 

"Oh do be quiet," Chrestomanci commanded. Tom did not think he used magic, but the hamster's little mouth snapped shut audibly, and it said nothing else.

 

They went down another twist of the spiral, and another. Light filtered in from the courtyard, sick, like a bruise. Dampness and slime were cold on Tom's fingers. "Dear me," Chrestomanci said quietly. "I think I can hear the sound of a fell host gathering."

 

"Lesser minions," Tom whispered. "There's usually some of them out in the courtyard."

 

Chrestomanci stood still. "They'll stop you?"

 

Tom shook his head. "Not if I'm by myself."

 

"Ah," Chrestomanci said. "And how far to this back door of yours?"

 

"Across the courtyard, behind the kitchen." Tom considered. "Half a minute. A minute. Less if we run."

 

"I prefer not to run. Quite undignified." Chrestomanci tilted his head to one side, clearly pondering. By the faint light from the courtyard, he looked almost dead again. "It seems that I have no choice," he said at last.

 

Tom swallowed, preparing himself for anything.

 

"I will have to go invisible again," Chrestomanci said. "I think it's best to make you invisible, too."

 

Tom felt cold. "But won't father…?"

 

"Very possibly." Chrestomanci sounded far more cheerful than the words merited. "I'll just have to try to make the magic feel disreputable and evil, so it blends into the background. It probably won't work, but it's worth a try. Hmm… I wonder how one makes a spell feel nasty?"

 

"Smell?" Tom offered. "Think nasty thoughts?"

 

"Well, let's see, shall we?" Chrestomanci disappeared, and Tom found himself shuddering, sickened. A nasty smell hung in the air, and it felt as if the very air was foul and rancid, slithering across his skin. He felt sick.

 

"Any good?" Chrestomanci's voice said from the awful air.

 

Tom nodded, not daring to speak in case he was sick. He had once been sick all over his father, when he was very young, and his father had been demonstrating a particularly evil sort of spell. His father had been horrified, of course. Tom thought that had been the start of his life as an outcast.

 

"Well," said Chrestomanci. "No good dithering. Do or die, as they say. Let's make a brisk but dignified walk for it."

 

Tom looked down. He could not see his body. It was less scary that he would have expected. It was not as bad as the foulness that still clung to the air. "Perhaps," he managed to gasp, "you shouldn't make it quite so smelly."

 

The foulness receded a little, and Tom felt safe to lower his hand. "I don't know where…"

 

"Just lead on," Chrestomanci said quietly. "I can see you, even if you can't see me. And don't worry. I've put a shroud of silence on us, too."

 

Clenching his fists at his side, Tom walked out into the courtyard. Around twenty lesser minions were on guard, and not one of them looked towards him. He fought the urge to creep along on tip-toe, in case they could see the shape of his footsteps. He fought the urge to run headlong towards the door, screaming.

 

"Steadily," Chrestomanci murmured, very close. "Calm. Steady."

 

His voice was an anchor. Tom walked out into the open courtyard, between two still minions. A group of enslaved monsters were chained next to a dark carriage, and they stared dully towards him, but did not seem to see him. Tom did not recognise them, and assumed they were the slaves of one of his father's guests.

 

"Silent bunch, aren't they?" Chrestomanci whispered. "Most servants relax when they know their master isn't watching. Even your regular kind of fell host indulges in a little gloating and rampaging when left alone."

 

They were halfway across the courtyard. None of the minions spoke, and their only movement was to pace the paths of their assigned patrols. They were laden down with weapons, though, and each one possessed a token which, if activated, could call the Dark Lord to their side in an instant.

 

Tom hazarded a glance towards the Great Hall. The door was closed, the windows glowing red and smoky with fell hospitality. Inside, was his father still eating, still telling his dinnertime tales of heroes he had tortured? Or was he watching from the window, waiting, gloating, biding his time?

 

He walked a little faster. He did not know if Chrestomanci was following him, or not. Someone could have snatched Chrestomanci away and killed him, and Tom would not know. Perhaps he would stay invisible forever, pacing this courtyard, unable to escape.

 

"Calm," Chrestomanci whispered. A reassuring hand squeezed his shoulder.

 

Tom let out a shuddering breath. He thought of the boys in his books, who walked with their heads high even as they went to face the headmaster, or to play the final match of the season. He would do this thing. They were almost there. All he had to do was stay calm, and walk.

 

"Oh dear," Chrestomanci said. "I think we ought to start running after all."

 

Tom started to look round. "No," Chrestomanci commanded. "Don't look, or you might fall. It's your father. That's all you need to know. Now run."

 

He wanted to look. He needed to look. But Chrestomanci guided him forward with a firm grip on his arm, and he had no choice but to run, or he would have been dragged off his feet. "It can't be…" he gasped.

 

"He's a sneaky customer, it seems," Chrestomanci said. "No fire and brimstone this time, or booming footsteps of terror. Just the real man, who I think is far more terrifying than all of them."

 

"But what if…?"

 

"Hurry up!" Chrestomanci cried. "He'll strip the spell off me in a minute, and then he'll know you're here. You have to hurry. Run faster than you've ever run."

 

Tom felt as if his legs were struck by a hurricane. His body was propelled forward. His legs moved no faster than they normally did, but each one covered three times the usual distance. The buildings flashed by in the whir. Vaguely, he saw the minions start to move, but their limbs moved as if they were in thick jelly, and they raised their weapons as if they were mountains.

 

"We still have a chance," Chrestomanci gasped. He sounded exhausted, strained beyond belief. "But I hope, for your sake, that the door is near."

 

Five more steps, ten, fifteen… Tom crashed into the door with a force strong enough to knock his breath out of his body. Hurting all over, he slithered to the floor. "Here it is," he gasped. Every word hurt him. He fumbled for the door handle, his sweaty palms slithering off it every time he found it.

 

"Open it!" Chrestomanci urged him. "I've only got seconds."

 

Tom clawed at the door and opened it. Dimly, faintly, he saw another door that was still closed. Chrestomanci was making everyone believe that the door had not been opened, he realised.

 

"Go!" He shoved blindly at the air, trying to find Chrestomanci, to push him through.

 

"But aren't you coming?" Chrestomanci sounded stunned.

 

Tom slumped to the ground. To go with him…? To leave his home behind, and everything that he knew? He couldn't. He couldn't! But if he stayed… His father would know that he had helped Chrestomanci escape. He remembered his father once half-strangling him in cold threat. "If ever you do anything that actually hampers me, rather than being an embarrassment to me, then do not think that your blood will spare you."

 

He did not think any longer, but threw himself through the door. "Good," Chrestomanci said. Tom felt his hand grabbed, and then everything whirled around him, all rushing air and swirling light. He screwed his eyes shut.

 

When he opened them again, all he could see was green.

 

******

 

end of part four

 

******

 

Tom fell onto his face. Something moist and choking tried to get into his mouth and tickled his nose. He spat, clawing at his face. "What is it?"

 

"Just grass." Chrestomanci was standing above him, immensely tall against a sky that was an impossible shade of blue. The light that streamed around him was a yellow-tinged white.

 

Tom rolled onto his back, blinking. "What…? Where…?"

 

"Back home, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Well, almost home. I tweaked the spell a bit, so we'd come back in the grounds, not inside the castle itself. The people there can be a bit overwhelming."

 

"Grass…" Tom reached out a trembling hand. He had read references to grass, of course. The boys in the stories played football on it, or hid in it from their friends. He knew it was green, too, but he had always imagined it to be the same colour as the rancid slime on the walls of the dungeons. That was the only green he knew.

 

"I think I was right, too," Chrestomanci said. "If you're this overcome just by a bit of grass…"

 

Tom struggled to his feet. Even the air was strange. There was no undertone of smokiness in it, and he could suck in a lungful without wanting to cough. But, then, the very absense of smoke made him want to cough, because it was so different to anything normal.

 

"Is… Is the sky always so blue?" he stammered.

 

Chrestomanci nodded. "The honest answer is yes. The more accurate answer is yes, but we often can't see it. It rains a lot in this country, you see. And, before you ask, the clouds are white or grey, not the colour of blood."

 

Tom took a faltering step forward. He felt very tiny, adrift in a world where everything was different. "What are you going to do with me now?" he asked.

 

"Do with you?" Chrestomanci frowned. "Why, nothing. The question is: what do you want to do yourself?"

 

The question was too big. Tom could not answer it.

 

"Well…" Chrestomanci rubbed his hands together briskly. "First things first, I suppose. I'd rather do this out here. I do have reasons."

 

Tom brought both hands to his chest and clasped them there. "What if father…?"

 

"Oh, he won't." Chrestomanci sounded distracted. He had reached into his pocket and brought out the hamster creature. "Not here, anyway. Too well protected."

 

So I am just a prisoner here, too, Tom thought sadly. He could see a castle beyond the trees, and it was cleaner and fairer than his father's Citadel, but not too different. He could see tall walls around this impossible expanse of green. He expected that Chrestomanci had magical wards, too, so that no evil could enter the walls. Tom had left home without anything, and it looked as if he would have to stay forever in this place, an outcast here, just like at home. Only the colour of the prison had changed.

 

"Now, then," Chrestomanci said. "Let's see who you really are."

 

Placing the hamster on the ground, he raised his hand. The air seemed to shimmer, and suddenly there was a woman in front of him, hunched over on the ground. She twitched her nose a few times, then stood up. Tom was mortified to see that she was entirely naked.

 

"Oh. That won't do," Chrestomanci said. He flicked his fingers again, and she was clothed in a suit that looked rather like his own, except that it was cut low at the front, and had frills on.

 

The woman looked down, and grimaced in disgust. "What sort of an outfit is that? A vain boy's idea of what a girl ought to be wearing, I suppose. Ridiculous."

 

"You do better, then," Chrestomanci said tetchily.

 

The woman put her hands on her hips. "Don't you have women in that castle of yours? Can't you conjure out a set of their clothes?"

 

"I can," Chrestomanci said politely, "but I will not. Take what you're given. It was very kind of me, under the circumstances."

 

"I don't know what you're talking about." The woman turned pleadingly to Tom. "I don't know what he's talking about. After all I've suffered…"

 

Chrestomanci settled down on the grass, folding his long legs elegantly beneath him. "Why not tell us what you've suffered," he suggested.

 

The woman looked pleased, as if she had wanted nothing else than to be asked. She was fairly pretty, Tom thought. Not that the really knew what pretty was. She had none of the deadly beauty of his mother and sisters, but they were enchantresses whose job was to seduce men with their beauty, and then destroy them.

 

"My name is Galadriel," she said. Chrestomanci raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. "My people were cruelly oppressed beneath the Dark Lord's rule. Heroically and nobly, I took it upon myself to save them all."

 

"How?" Chrestomanci asked politely, "for you seem to be only a relatively minor witch."

 

"I was coming to that," she said tetchily. She knelt down, composing herself again into a storytelling pose. "I knew that none in our world possessed the power to defeat the Dark Lord, but I had heard tell of a great enchanter called Chrestomanci. I saw him once in a vision, and I knew that he was the one I had to summon. But the Dark Lord's citadel was well guarded. Not even Chrestomanci could enter it. But a wise man told me that there was a way. Chrestomanci, he said, could be summoned anywhere, through the strongest of magics, if one who belonged there called his name."

 

"One who belonged there?"

 

Galadriel ignored Chrestomanci. "I put myself under an enchantment, so that everyone who saw me would see what they expected to see."

 

"Clever." Chrestomanci nodded. "So you planned to walk up to the Dark Lord's door, and hope that everyone saw a postman, or a travelling torture implement salesman, or something."

 

"Yes." She sounded annoyed now, even sulky. "I do wish you would stop interrupting."

 

"I'm sorry." Chrestomanci did not look sorry at all. He was doing something casual with his hands. Preparing magic, Tom thought. There was a tickle in the back of his mind, as if something inside him was responding to the movement of those fingers.

 

"So I entered the Citadel," Galadriel said. "Unfortunately, my enchantment was flawed. People saw not what they expected to see, but what they wanted to see. Unfortunately, what they wanted to see was a captured prisoner to be tortured. So I was captured. I endured awful torments, before the Dark Lord tired of me, and gave me to his no-good son, hoping to shut up his whining for a little while."

 

"But not before he'd cursed you further," Chrestomanci said.

 

Galadriel tugged awkwardly at a lock of her golden hair. "Not before he'd cursed me further. Instead of merely appearing to be what a person wanted to see, I actually became it. I've been a hamster for years."

 

"Months," Tom corrected.

 

She shot him an ugly look. "It felt like years, brat."

 

Chrestomanci studied the back of his hand. "But surely that was part of your plan," he said mildly. "The name Chrestomanci had to be said by someone who belonged there. You said so yourself."

 

"Ah yes. True." She cleared her throat. "I… I found out the hard way. I tried to say it myself, but nothing happened. I tried to say it as a hamster, but my voice was too quiet. I had to bide my time, and wait until this boy here was ready to be trusted with the name himself."

 

"Really." Chrestomanci stretched out his legs, first one, then the other. He looked at the alarmingly blue sky, than at Galadriel again. "How annoyed you must have been to end up with me, rather than Gabriel de Witt."

 

"Furious," she spat. Then her face composed itself into smiles again, and she moved sinuously towards him. "But I cheered up when I saw how handsome you were, and how powerful."

 

Chrestomanci did not seem to move, but a gap had opened up between them. "Before you humiliate yourself," he said, "I should tell you that I am practically engaged to a lovely girl called Millie. Childhood sweethearts, and all."

 

She smiled with terrible charm. "That can change. But where is dear Gabriel? I would love to meet him."

 

Chrestomanci raised a casual hand, and Galadriel disappeared. "What have you done?" Tom cried out.

 

Chrestomanci raised one eyebrow. "You really can't tell? Come on, Tim," he urged. "See if you can find out."

 

Tom looked around. Everything was so bright, so shocking, so strange. He had no idea where… But wait! There was a worm there at Chrestomanci's feet…

 

"That's her," Tom said with certainty. It was obvious, now he came to think of it.

 

"Good boy." Chrestomanci smiled. "It seems I was right about you." Scooping up the worm, he stood up and started to walk towards the castle.

 

Tom was rooted to the spot. Too many questions were gibbering in his mind. Right about me? Why did you do that to her? How can anything be so green? How did I know? A worm? How you live here without going blind? What's going to happen to me?

 

"You said you didn't have magic." Chrestomanci's voice was getting fainter, so Tom had no choice but to run after him. Chrestomanci seemed unaware that Tom had not been following him at first. "But clearly you had to have magic, with heredity like that. It was clear that your father had taken it off you when you were little, because he couldn't trust you to do evil things with it. But now you're in a place where your father has no power, it's coming back to you."

 

"But…" Tom stammered. "How…? What…?"

 

"I expect you were trying to ask me about our guest," Chrestomanci said calmly, without turning round. "A wily creature. Any fool could see as much. It's plain that this was all part of a devious plan to lure Chrestomanci into a trap. Fortunately, she did not entrap the real Chrestomanci, but got me instead.  Of course," he added, a few steps later, "the real Chrestomanci might have got out of it without losing a life."

 

"You mean she…" Tom swallowed hard. "She's in league with…"

 

"Oh no." Chrestomanci shook his head. "I very much doubt it. I expect she wanted your father brought down as much as anyone else does, but she hated Gabriel more. I wonder why. Perhaps Gabriel can tell us. Anyway, she planned to summon Gabriel in through the Dark Lord's defences. Either Gabriel would kill the Dark Lord, or the Dark Lord would kill Gabriel. Either way, she would be halfway victorious."

 

Tom trotted behind him, trying not to look down at the unnatural green of the grass. "But how do you know all this?"

 

"It's obvious," Chrestomanci said. They had almost reached the door, and he paused on the step. "Well, if I'm wrong, we can just change her back, and no harm done."

 

He threw open the door. Inside, it was clean and shiny, and the furniture looked comfortable, in colours Tom had never seen except on the front covers of books. A woman came scurrying out of a side room. "Oh, there you are, Christopher. You missed lunch."

 

"Could I have it in my room, please?" Chrestomani asked politely. "Two plates, please. This is Tim Green, and he's staying with me for a while. Though I'm not sure what his appetite will be like at the moment."

 

The woman bobbed her head, and vanished back through the door. Was she a slave? Tom looked round, puzzled. He could not see any torture devices on the walls, and there was not even the faintest sound of screaming.

 

Chrestomanci paused in the hallway. He seemed suddenly to be faltering. "Oh well…" He raised his head, stiffened his shoulders. "Let's get this over with."

 

He began to climb the stairs. Tom, for want of orders to the contrary, climbed after him, though the staircase was barely like a staircase at all. It did not twist, and it was not made of crumbling, slime-covered stone. It even had a rail, to stop people from falling.

 

Two children raced past the top of the stairs. "Hello, Christopher!" one of them called. "You missed lunch."

 

The other child jabbed her in the side. "He's Chestomanci today, remember."

 

"Gabriel still ill?" Chrestomanci asked them, with strained indifference.

 

"Still in bed," they told him. "Won't let anyone near him."

 

Chestomanci swallowed. He led Tom along shining corridors and past lavish rooms. Light streamed in through clean windows, and still Tom could not hear any screaming anywhere. Other things whispered in his head, though. He knew that someone was doing magic behind that door, and there, behind that one, too. Magic, he thought. Can I really have magic?

 

Chrestomanci paused outside a large, plain door. "Well…" he said. "Faint heart never won… Well, whatever it is." He knocked at the door.

 

"Go away," said a faint voice inside. Even though it was faint, the command struck Tom's mind like a blow.

 

Chrestomanci flinched. "It's me, Christopher."

 

"I know it's you," the voice said. "Leave me alone. Can't I have a day's peace?"

 

"Oh well." Chrestomanci shrugged. "I tried."

 

He gestured to Tom to follow him once more. Feeling dazed, as if in a dream, Tom did. This time Chrestomanci led him to a slightly smaller door, painted white. "My room," he said. He opened the door, and went in. Tom hovered on the doorstep, and watched as Chrestomanci went to a chest of drawers, and put the worm in the top one. When Chestomanci waved his hand and muttered some magic, Tom felt an answering twinge in his own chest.

 

"Well, come in, boy." Chrestomanci snapped his fingers.

 

Tom went faltering into the room. "What did you…?"

 

"Bound her to that form and to that place, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Of course, she's stuck there with my socks. I'm not sure if that's worse for her, or for my socks."

 

"Did you…? Will you…?" Tom staggered to a chair and sat blindly down. "This is too much. Everything's so strange."

 

Chrestomanci gave him a sympathetic smile. "Chrestomanci Castle is strange, I admit, but…"

 

"Not the castle," Tom said. "The air. The sky. There's no screaming. It's like… It's like somewhere in books. It's not normal. It can't be real."

 

"Not real?" Chrestomanci gave him a searching look. "You, my boy, are confused. It's your family that's not normal. It's that place of your father's that's strange."

 

"They are normal." Tom folded his hands in his lap. "Everyone in the world is like them, even those who pretend to be heroes and tell lies about noble causes. I'm the strange one. Normal people don't want to play football, or make models, or help their friends."

 

"Normal?" Chrestomanci strode towards him. He looked taller than ever, and angry. His dark eyes blazed. "I'll show you normal."

 

He grabbed Tom by the arm, and dragged him to the middle of the room. Still holding him, he raised his other arm and waved it in circles, while muttering words under his breath. Slowly, as Tom watched and struggled, a blurry picture appeared in the air, beneath Chrestomanci's hand. "Don't," Tom pleaded. "Please…"

 

"A glimpse into other worlds." Chrestomanci's voice was implacable. "Take a look and tell me what you see."

 

Tom looked. Magic held him, and he was powerless to look away. He was a field of green, with boys in white hitting a ball with a stick. He saw smiling children eating food on a cloth on the grass, while their parents laughed and ruffled their hair. He saw friends arm in arm, and he saw someone save a dog from the sea, and almost die themselves. He saw a boy helping an old woman across a path, and he saw a group of young men singing happily, with full glasses in their hands. He saw a girl blushing as she read a little, and a man steal a kiss from a sleeping woman. He saw… He saw…

 

"Enough," Chrestomanci said quietly. Tom sank back on his heels, blinking. He became aware that Chrestomanci was no longer holding him still. Tom was kneeling in the middle of an empty room, and Chrestomanci was sitting on the edge of the bed, with two empty plates beside him. Outside, the sky was no longer blue, and a flaming sun was sinking over the horizon.

 

"Don't tell Gabriel I can do that," Chrestmanci said. He looked weary. "I'm supposed to use the proper gate."

 

"Were they…" Tom's voice would hardly work. His limbs were stiff, and he felt impossibly hungry.

 

"Real," Chrestomanci said quietly. "All real."

 

Tom nodded. He knew it was true. This new, impossible sense that was stirring inside him told him as much. He had seen into other worlds, and all were real.

 

"You were the only normal one there," Chrestomanci said. "The only one who managed to keep hold of goodness. There are bad people in all the worlds, Tom, but they are the exception, and few are as bad as your father. You were the normal one, Tom. Never forget that."

 

"You got my name right," Tom said.

 

"Well. Yes." Chrestomanci stretched, looking strangely embarrassed.

 

Tom staggered over to the bed, and sat down beside him. "I don't know what to do," he confessed.

 

Everything he had ever known had changed. He had always known that his father's way of doing things was the normal way of doing things. Because Tom wanted something different, he was strange, an outcast. He would never in all his life meet anyone who thought the same as he did. Now Chrestomanci had opened doors to him. Worlds lay ahead of him, where a person like him could fit in and be normal. He never need to be laughed at again. He never needed to eat roast elf again.

 

Chrestomanci blinked at him. "I’d have thought it was obvious," he said mildly.

 

"What?" Tom tried to see what he had missed. Had there been a home for him, hidden in all those worlds he had seen? Or did Chrestomanci mean that Tom was to stay here as his own minion. Had there been hints that he had missed?

 

"Go back to your father's Citadel," Chrestomanci said quietly.

 

Tom leapt to his feet. It was all a trick! Chrestomanci had brought him here, forcing him to leave behind the only home he had ever known. He had taunted him with false hope, and now he was abandoning him, sending him back to his father, where at best he would be an outcast, and at worse he would be killed. His father was right. All self-professed heroes were cowards. Chrestomani cared only for getting himself home, and didn't care at all what happened to Tom.

 

"Why," Chrestomanci said with icy calm, "surely you did not intend to just walk away, and let your father subjugate a whole world?"

 

"But… But…" Tom could not speak.

 

"Because I certainly intend to return," Chrestomanci said. "I never walk out on something I have started."

 

"You're going back?" Tom croaked.

 

"Oh yes," Chrestomanci said. "Why, surely you did not doubt it? Do I look like the sort of man who would think only of saving my own skin? Do I look like the sort of man who would bask here in comfort, knowing that a man like your father was out there, unpunished?"

 

Tom could not answer. He knew, though, that his blush was answer enough.

 

"Oh no," Chrestomanci said quietly, standing up. "I intend to go back and finish things. Are you with me?"

 

And Tom could do nothing but nod.

 

******

 

end of part five

 

******

 

"We'll sleep on it first," Chrestomanci had said. "There's no point going into this hungry and tired. After all, this is the most powerful enemy I have ever faced, and he's already killed me once."

 

Tom had been powerless to argue. He had spent a night in a room that Chrestomanci told him apologetically was a second-class guest room, but which was more comfortable than anything he had ever seen. There had been books everywhere, and no-one had popped their head round the door to laugh at him or cuff him round the ear.

 

Breakfast had been good, full of meats that Chrestomanci had assured him had once belonged to creatures with four legs, not two. Chrestomanci had politely deflected all questions about who Tom was, and Tom, for his part, had said nothing at all.

 

After breakfast, they retired to Chrestomanci's room. Chrestomanci was brisk and business-like, dressed in a dark suit that was impeccably tailored, without being showy.

 

"Stand still," he commanded. Tom obeyed, and felt the stirrings of magic around him, like motes of dust settling on his hair and clothes. His magic sense was getting stronger by the hour, though he had yet to perform anything magical himself.

 

"There," Chrestomanci said, lowering his hands. "I've linked your life to mine."

 

Tom felt himself blanch. It sounded sinister, dangerous.

 

"Oh, it's nothing like that," Chrestomanci declared. "Your father's really warped you, hasn't he? Most enchanters prefer not to bind slaves to them with magical chains, you know. No, all I've done is make it that if I die again, you will be safe."

 

Tom thought there was a flaw in that argument, but did not say anything. Chrestomanci would only correct him in a superior fashion.

 

"If I die," Chrestomanci said, as he busied himself with gathering up small things and putting them in his pocket, "it will be my last life, except for the one in Gabriel's safe. That means I'll come back to life here. It's the perfect safety net." He grimaced. "Well, not to perfect, since it means that Gabriel will likely never let me out of his sight again, and I'll only have one life left. But it does at least mean that your father cannot destroy me completely, even if everything goes wrong."

 

Tom wondered whether to speak up. He knew his father better than Chrestomanci did. "He won't kill you again," he confessed at last. "He'll just keep you alive forever, in torment."

 

"Sounds uncomfortable." Chrestomanci winced. "But never mind. I am perfectly capable of killing myself, if worst comes to worst. In any case, it will all come to the same thing. I will awaken here, to a scolding. And you will find yourself back here, too, because you are bound to go where I go, until the spell is lifted."

 

Tom could feel the spell, heavy on his soul. He knew that Chrestomanci had done it for his own protection, but it felt like chains. He didn't know Chrestomanci, not really. He only had to trust that he would not abuse his power. It was a hard thing to trust. He had never done it before.

 

"How…" His voice came out like a squeak. He cleared his throat. "How are you going to k…kill my father?"

 

"Kill him? Dear me!" Chrestmanci spread his hands in mock horror. "I'm not going to kill him, dear boy. It's most impolite to kill a friend's parents, even if they are evil Dark Lords bent on world domination. Besides, a gentleman never stoops to the level of his enemies."

 

"Then how…?"

 

"My, you do ask a lot of questions," Chrestomanci said, not unkindly, "but I suppose I have rather landed you in this, like a traveller lost without a map. I often forget to pause to explain things. It is one of my many failings."

 

"But…" Tom clapped his mouth shut, realising that he had been about to ask another question. He resolved not to ask one again, at least for a minute or two.

 

"Best not tell you, my boy," Chrestomanci said, "just in case your father plucks the truth from your mind. Suffice it to say that I have a plan. Your part is merely to distract your father."

 

"Distract…" Tom fell back heavily into a chair. A cold fist clasped round his heart. Distract his father..? His father must surely know that Tom had helped Chrestomanci to escape. He had never liked Tom, but now he would be furious. Tom had often hidden under the bed, rather than face his father in one of his rages.

 

"Of course." Chrestomanci clapped a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Be a hero. I'm relying on you."

 

But I'm not a hero, Tom thought, as he trailed miserably behind Chrestomanci. He didn't really know what a hero was. His father said heroes were self-deluding cowards who spouted nonsense about noble causes, but broke and blubbered in the end. Chrestomanci had grovelled, and then run away, and that had only seemed to confirm it. But now Chrestomanci was going back into danger, not because he had to, but because he thought it was right. He was risking his final spare life, not to mention the fury of this Gabriel de Witt.

 

Tom did not understand it. At home, he was miserable and an outcast, but at least he understood the rules. This strange and too-bright world was too confusing for him, and Chrestomanci the most confusing thing of all. He was infuriating, but charming, too. He was arrogant and unfeeling, but he had never actually been cruel, and he was risking a lot for a world that was not his own.

 

But I'm not like him, Tom thought. In contrast with Chrestomanci's perfect appearance, Tom's clothes were creased and hung on him like washing from a line. His hair was already tousled, and he suspected that there was some breakfast on his face. Instead of striding confidentally towards his fate, Tom slunk in Chrestomanci's wake, feeling small and scared. He had never dared stand up to his father. He had never dared anything at all.

 

"Here we are," Chrestomanci said. Tom realised that he had stopped, and stopped, too, just in time to avoid walking into him. They were standing in front of a shining pentacle on the floor. "The gate," Chrestomanci said. "Time to go."

 

He did not move at once. Tom wondered if he was supposed to be saying something, and opened his mouth, but then he closed it again, unable to think of anything that was not a question.

 

"It might be tricky," Chrestomanci said, looking intently at Tom with his brilliant eyes. "The alarm bells will be ringing right from the start. Get ready to lie, and lie well."

 

Tom nodded, biting his lip. As he watched, Chrestomanci pushed up his sleeve, revealing a barely-healed cut on his wrist. "I did it on the stairs," he explained. "A drop of blood, inside his wards… It gives me a way in. Of course," he added, after a pause, "it gives him a way to get at me, if he finds it. That's the trouble with such things. There's always a catch."

 

Smiling, he dipped his finger in the blood. Still smiling, he raised his blood-stained hand, and uttered words of magic. The space inside the pentacle flared into life, and Chrestomanci moved forward into it, dragging Tom behind him.

 

Everything flared into wild confusion. Tom felt as if he was on the top of the Citadel, in the strongest of winds, buffetted by sound and sensations. Things rushed past him, invisbile to see. He clung to Chrestomanci, who was strong and tall and always there, striding through the confusion, barely half a step ahead.

 

The whirling ended. Tom staggered, and hit something hard and damp. It was the wall, he realised. The wall in the staircase, just in from the courtyard. The place where Chrestomanci had first made them invisible.

 

"Get ready to lie," Chrestomanci whispered, and vanished.

 

Tom stood there reeling. All was silent for the space of a few breaths. He groped inside his mind, and found that all was silent there, too. The burgeoning sense of magic was gone, sealed off as if by a great muffling door. You really had no right, father, he thought sadly. He felt suddenly years older than he had been only a day before, faced with the reality of his father's betrayal. You should have loved me, even though I was different.

 

Doors clanged open above him. Across the courtyard, his father started bellowing in fury.

 

Stage effects, Chrestomanci had called them. He was right, too. Tom's father was terrible, but the fire and darkness was done deliberately to terrify prisoners and impress visitors.

 

This is no way to live, Tom thought.

 

His twin came clattering down the stairs. "You're really for it this time, Talon," he gloated, when he saw Tom.

 

Tom folded his hands calmly in front of him. "I know."

 

He saw doubt flicker over his brother's face. Always, all through his life, Tom had responded to the taunts, either by defending himself, or retreating into silent misery. His brother had no idea how to react to this, but covered his confusion with a kick.

 

Tom greeted the kick with a calm stare, modelled on Chrestomanci. He blinked once, but said nothing.

 

His twin blundered on, out into the courtyard. As he reached the doorway, Tom had a clear view of his clothes, all black and affected pointiness, and the deliberate way he hunched and dribbled.

 

Chrestomanci's right, he thought. Inside, he aged another year. They aren't the normal ones. I am.

 

And then his father was there, filling the world, towering towards the sky in exploding fury. "Talon? You dare show your face here?"

 

Tom's nails dug into his palms. He wanted to grovel, to apologise, to appease. He wanted to promise to do better next time. He wanted to try a single pathetic little show of evil, just so his father would like him. He wanted to be part of things, even if it was only a tiny part.

 

"You helped that wizard to escape!" his father boomed. "You helped him trick me. And now you dare come back here…" He gave a dreadful laugh, that scraped in Tom's brain like a scream. "No, a worm like you would never be that brave. He dragged you back, didn't he? He grew tired of your whining, and cast you back like a fisherman with a scrawny fish."

 

"Be what they expect to see," a voice whispered in his ear. Tom did not even have time to wonder who it was.

 

"Yes," he sobbed. "He threw me back. He said I was a snivelling coward."

 

His father raised a taloned hand. "But he is here. No use lying to me about that, boy. I can feel him."

 

Tom nodded eagerly. "He's here. Please don't hurt me, father. He came back. I didn't want to come with him, but he made me. He's going to kill you, and he's going to make me watch."

 

"Kill me, is he?" Tom's father grabbed hold of his throat with long and dreadful fingers. "How does he propose to do that?"

 

"I don't know," Tom choked. "Please, father, you're hurting me."

 

"Disgusting." His father threw him away so hard that he struck the opposite wall, and fell down, stunned. "To think that a son of mine…"

 

He made as if to walk away. Desperate, tears hurting his eyes, Tom pushed himself to his feet again. "Kill you with magic, yes. I was so scared. I know I'm a disappointment to you, but I don't want you to die."

 

"Don't worry," his father said coldly. "I won't be dying. It's your little wizard friend who will do that, a very long time from now. But he will long for death before that."

 

"Please," Tom sobbed, grabbing his father's feet. "Please don't. I'll do anything. I'll be evil. I'll throw away my books. I'll do anything. I've changed my mind. I've seen another world, and I hated it. This is the way I want to live. I was so wrong. This is what I want. Please, father. Please."

 

His father kicked him away. "A good show, worm, but not good enough. I know your game." Cold magic raked through Tom's mind like claws. He's taking it! Tom thought desperately. He's taking it all. He tried to forget. He tried not to think about the important things. He felt sick, violated, the lowest of the low.

 

"You don't know anything," his father sneered in disgust.

 

Tom desperately clawed back his scattered thoughts, like someone gathering up jewels that they had dropped. Mine! he thought. Mine! Dimly, he remembered Chrestomanci refusing to tell him his plans. He knew this was going to happen, he thought bitterly. He knew.

 

"Just a distraction," his father sneered. "I will deal with you later, after I capture your friend."

 

He wanted to slump and hide. It was all over. All was lost. His soul had been laid bare, and his father knew him for the coward and traitor that he was. His father was raising his hand, readying the magic that would pluck Chrestomanci to his side, that would enslave him, that would destroy him.

 

"No," Tom sobbed. He pushed himself to his feet. "No!" He threw himself at his father's back. It was like hitting a wall of magic.

 

As he did so, something broke free from his collar. It was a bee, and there were words in its buzzing. "Take that!" it cried, as it stung Tom's father. "Take that! And that! And that!"

 

His father's hand was raised high with imminent magic, but he snatched it back, and started swatting at his neck. Tom screamed in his ear, and kicked with all his strength. The bee buzzed furiously…

 

And suddenly Chrestomanci was there, calm and immacculate in the middle of a flaming glory of white light. "Forgive me for interrupting," he said, with a little bow, "but my friends and I need to be leaving now."

 

That was all Tom knew for quite a long time.

 

******

 

He woke to grass, and the curious things that Chrestomanci had told him were flowers. His felt his body experimentally, and found that it barely hurt, and, better still, that he was most definitely alive.

 

Chrestomanci was looking down on him with amused patience. "Finally awake, I see. Sorry about that final shock. I could have pulled you out of there quietly, but it was just too tempting to be dramatic."

 

"Is father…?" Tom moistened his dry lips. "Did you kill…?"

 

"I said I wouldn't kill him," Chrestomanci said, with a frown. "Isn't the word of an enchanter enough for you? No, your father is still Dark Lording merrily away. The thing is, he can't do it anywhere else."

 

Tom did not understand, but he bit his lip, and did not ask. He hated it when Chrestomanci was superior.

 

"It was easy, when you knew how." Chrestomanci looked impossibly pleased with himself. "He had fearsomely strong wards set, so strong that I realised there had to be a focus item. All I had to do was find it, and work on it when he was distracted. So I did, and I did. It was a simple of matter of tweaking it so it worked in reverse. They no longer keep anyone out. They do, however, keep your father, and everyone loyal to him, inside, and inside forever."

 

"But can't he just change it back again?" Tom asked, deciding that curiosity was more important than pride.

 

"Oh no." Chrestomanci grinned, and reached into his pocket. "The only way he can reverse it is to lay hands on the focus, and it so happens that I have it here." He pulled out a small and shining item. "Turns out it was a ring after all. What did I tell you? It always has to be a ring with these Dark Lords."

 

"Oh." Tom looked down at his hands. "I wasn't much use, I'm afraid."

 

Chrestomanci looked surprised. "My dear boy, I couldn't have done it without you. He was working against me all the time. Hardest thing I've ever done. But you kept most of his attention elsewhere."

 

"I grovelled," Tom confessed. "I was terrified."

 

"You were terrified, but you did it," Chrestomanci said. "That, my boy, is courage. And your grovelling was just a tactic in war. You will often find that the best tactic is to be what your enemies expect to see."

 

"That's what…" Tom's head snapped up. "Galadriel! She was there! She was a bee."

 

He had expected Chrestomanci to look surprised, but instead he looked almost embarrassed. "I planted her on you, yes. I took a risk, I admit. She's no friend to Gabriel, but I was bargaining that she would jump at the chance to help defeat the Dark Lord. An enemy in the hand is worth another one in the bush, or words to that effect."

 

Tom looked around him, but they seemed to be alone. "Where is she?"

 

"Slipped away," Chrestomanci admitted. "She came with us when we left your father's Citadel, but she wasn't here when we got here. Jumped off in some other world, I'd imagine. I doubt we've seen the end of her, but that's a story for another day."

 

Beyond them, Tom saw the castle. The door was opening, and people were emerging, coming towards them. He decided not to tell Chrestomanci for a while.

 

"I don't know what to do now," he admitted.

 

"Do?" Chrestomanci spread his hands. "My dear Tom, you can do anything you like. There's a strong gift inside you, waiting to be trained, and you have a formidable strength of will. No, don't deny it. You withstood the seeping evil of that place, and withstood it for many years. You refused to be bullied, and you held onto your goodness. I think you can be anything you want to be."

 

"But I don’t… I don't know how to…"

 

"Your life is your own." Chrestomanci looked wistful, almost as if he envied Tom a little. "I know you're not used to making choices, but you can go wherever you like, and do whatever you want. As long," he added, "as what you want doesn't include subjugating worlds."

 

"It doesn't," Tom said, with feeling.

 

"Your father will never catch you," Chrestomanci assured him. "You're finally free. Make the most of your life, Tom, because it's yours." He stood up, sighing. "Well, Gabriel's almost here. I suppose I'd better go and face the music." Just before turning round, he gave Tom one final look, like a prisoner about to face fearsome torture. "Think of me, Tom. This is going to be terrible."

 

"Christopher!" an old man boomed. He was wrapped in a blanket, and his eyes were red, but in his own way, he was as terrifying as Tom's father. "I turn my back for a moment, and what do you do? You've lost another life."

 

"And saved a world," Chrestomanci added hopefully, but it was not enough.

 

As he was dragged off in disgrace, he turned to Tom and mouthed, "Remember me."

 

But by then, women were fussing around Tom, asking exclaiming at how pale he looked, sympathising with him for being the unwitting victim of one of Christopher's adventures. As he let them lead him inside and sit him down at an over-flowing dinner table, he thought that he could be quite content here.

 

One day, when he was grown-up, he could make the choices Chrestomanci had talked about, and decide what he wanted to do in life. But, for now, all he wanted was somewhere that felt like home.

 

Besides, he thought, as he heard the distant sounds of Christopher's scolding, at least in this place no-one would call him abnormal, not when they had Christopher to compare him with.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Notes: I really enjoyed writing this! I've never written DWJ fanfic before, though I've loved the books for years. As to whether I'll do another…. I don't know. There is potential sequel material in this story, but it just slipped in by mistake, and wasn't intended. I have no immediate plans to write a sequel, anyway.

 

The inspiration for this was three-fold:

 

1. Suddenly realising that Christopher ended "The lives of Christopher Chant" with 3 lives (well, he was on course for having three lives shortly after the end of the novel, anyway) but was down to 2 again in "Charmed life." It made me wonder how he'd lost that life.

 

2. Musing about "Archer's Goon", and wondering what it would have been like to be a truly ordinary child in that family. Not just Venturus-style "ordinary", but really ordinary.

 

3. All the Tough Guide/Derkholm style Dark Lord stuff, which I've found fascinating and hilarious for years. I've written several short Dark Lord humour pieces, and this, in a way, is just the latest one.