A Boy Less Ordinary, part two
"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