"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."
"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.
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.