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"The Lives of Christopher Chant"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Gabriel de Witt and his assistants left promptly at ten. Everyone gathered in the hall around the five-pointed star, some of them carrying leather cases, some simply in outdoor clothes. Most of the footmen and two of the stable-hands were going, too. Everyone looked sober and determined and Flavian, for one, looked outright nervous. He kept running his finger around his high starched collar. Christopher could see him sweating even from the top of the stairs.

Christopher and the Goddess watched from behind the marble balustrade near the black door of Gabriel's study. They were inside a very carefully constructed cloud of invisibility, which blotted out the two of them completely but not Throgmorten trotting at their heels. Throgmorten had refused to come near enough to be blotted out too, but nothing would stop him following them.

"Leave him," the Goddess said. "He knows what I'd do to him if he gives us away."
As the silver-voiced clock over the library struck ten, Gabriel came out of his study and stalked down the staircase, wearing a hat even taller and shinier than Papa's. Throgmorten, to Christopher's relief, ignored him. But he felt a strong wrench of worry about Mama. She was certainly going to be arrested, and all she had done was to believe the lies Uncle Ralph had told her.

Gabriel reached the hall and took a look around to see that all his troops were ready. When he saw they were, he pulled on a pair of black gloves and paced into the center of the five-pointed star, where he went on pacing, growing smaller and smaller and further away as he walked. Miss Rosalie and Dr.Simonson followed and began to diminish, too. The others went after them two by two. When there was only a tiny, distant black line of them, Christopher said, "I think we can go now."

They began to creep downstairs, still in the cloud of invisibility. The distant line of Gabriel's troops disappeared before they were three stairs down. They went faster. But they were still only halfway down when things began to go wrong.

Flames burst out all over the surface of the star. They were malignant-looking green-purple flames which filled the hall with vile-smelling green smoke. "What is it?" the Goddess coughed.

"They're using dragons' blood," Christopher said. He meant to sound soothing, but he found he was staring uneasily at those flames.

All at once, the pentacle thundered up into a tall five-pointed fire, ten feet, twenty feet high. The Goddess's invisible hair frizzled. Before they could back up the stairs out of range, the flames had parted, leaning majestically to left and right. Out of the gap Miss Rosalie stumbled, pulling Flavian by one arm. Following them came Dr. Simonson dragging a screaming sorceress - Beryl, Christopher thought her name was. By this time, he was standing stock still, staring at the utter rout of Gabriel's troops. Singed and wretched and staggering, all the people who had just set off came pouring back through the gap in the flames and backed away to the sides of the hall with their arms up in front of their faces, coughing in the green smoke.

Christopher looked and looked, but he could not see Gabriel de Witt anywhere among them.

As soon as Frederick Parkinson and the last footman had staggered out into the hall, the flames dipped and died, leaving the pink marble and the dome stained green. The pentagram shimmered into little blades of fire burning over blackness. Uncle Ralph came carefully stepping out among the flames. He had a long gun under one arm and what seemed to be a bag in his hand. Christopher was reminded of nothing so much as one of his Chant uncles going shooting over a stubble field. Probably it was Uncle Ralph's freckled tweeds which put that into his mind. Rather sadly, he wished he had known more about people when he first met Uncle Ralph. He had a foxy, shoddy look. Christopher knew he would never admire someone like Uncle Ralph now.

"Would you like me to throw a marble wash-stand at him?" whispered the Goddess.

"Wait - I think he's an enchanter too," Christopher whispered back.

"CHRISTOPHER!" shouted Uncle Ralph. The greened dome rang with it. "Christopher, where are you hiding? I can feel you near. Come out, or you'll regret it!"

Reluctantly, Christopher parted the invisibility around himself and stepped to the middle of the staircase. "What happened to Gabriel de Witt?" he said.

Uncle Ralph laughed. "This." He threw the bag he was carrying so that it spread and skidded to a stop at the foot of the stairs. Christopher stared down - rather as he had stared down at Tacroy - at a long, limp, transparent shape that was unquestionably Gabriel de Witt's. "That's his eighth life there," said Uncle Ralph. "I did that with those weapons you brought me from Series One, Christopher. This one works a treat." He patted the gun under his arm. "I spread the rest of his lives out all over the Related Worlds. He won't trouble us again. And the other weapons you brought me work even better." He gave his mustache a sly tweak and grinned up at Christopher. "I had them all set up to meet de Witt's folk and took the magic out of them in a twinkling. None of them can cast a spell to save their lives now. So there's nothing to stop us working together just like the old days. You are still working for me, aren't you, Christopher?"

"No," said Christopher, and stood there expecting to have his remaining lives blasted in all directions next second. Uncle Ralph only laughed. "Yes, you are, stupid boy. You're unmasked. All these people standing here know you were my main carrier now. You have to work with me or go to prison - and I'm moving into this Castle with you to make sure of you."

There was a long, warbling cry from behind Christopher. A ginger streak shot downstairs past him. Uncle Ralph stared, saw his danger, and made to raise his gun. But Throgmorten was almost on him by then. Uncle Ralph realized he had no time to shoot and prudently vanished instead, in a spiral of green steam. All Throgmorten got of him was a three-cornered piece of tweed with some blood on it. He stood in a frustrated arch on the blackened pentacle, spitting his rage.

Christopher raced down the stairs. "Shut all the doors!" he shouted to the stunned, staring Castle people. "Don't let Throgmorten out of the hall! I want him on guard to stop Uncle Ralph coming back."

"Don't be stupid!" the Goddess shouted, galloping after him, visible to everyone. "Throgmorten's a Temple cat - he understands speech. Just ask him."

Christopher wished he had known that before. Since it was too late to do anything much about anything else, he knelt on the greenishly charred floor and spoke to Throgmorten. "Can you guard this pentacle, please, and make sure Uncle Ralph doesn't come back? You know Uncle Ralph wanted to cut you to pieces? Well, you can cut him to pieces if he shows up again."

"Wong!" Throgmorten agreed with his tail lashing enthusiastically. He sat himself down at one point of the star and stared fixedly at it, as still as if he were watching a giant mousehole. Malice oozed out of every hair of him.

It was clear Uncle Ralph would not get past Throgmorten in a hurry. Christopher stood up to find himself and the Goddess inside a ring of Gabriel's dejected helpers. Most of them were staring at the Goddess.

"This is my friend the G...Millie," he said.

"Pleased to meet you," Flavian said wanly.

Dr.Simonson swept Flavian aside. "Well what are we going to do now?" he said. "Gabriel's gone and we're left with this brat - who turns out to be the little crook I always suspected he was - and not a spell to rub together between us! What I say..."

"We must inform the Minister," said Mr.Wilkinson the librarian.

"Now wait a moment," said Miss Rosalie. "The Minister's only a minor warlock, and Christopher said he wasn't working for the Wraith anymore."

"That child would say anything," said Dr. Simonson.
In their usual way, they were behaving as if Christopher was not there. He beckoned to the Goddess and backed out from among them, leaving them crowded around Miss Rosalie arguing.

"What are we doing?" the Goddess asked.

"Getting Tacroy out before they think of stopping us," said Christopher. "After that, I want to make sure Throgmorten catches Uncle Ralph, even if it's the last thing I do."

They found Tacroy sitting dejectedly by the table in an empty little room. From the tumbled look of the camp bed in the corner, Tacroy had not managed to get much sleep that night. The door of the room was half open and at first sight there seemed no reason why Tacroy did not simply walk out. But now the Goddess had made it clear to Christopher what witch sight was, all he had to do was look at the room the way he looked at The Place Between to understand why Tacroy stayed where he was. There were strands of spell across the doorway. The floor was knee-deep in more, criss-crossed all over. Tacroy himself was inside a perfect mass of other spells, intricately knotted over him, particularly around his head.

"You were right about it needing two of us," the Goddess said. "You do him, and I'll go and look for a broom and do the rest."

Christopher pushed through the spells over the door and waded through the others until he reached Tacroy. Tacroy did not look up. Perhaps he could not even see Christopher or hear him. Christopher began gently picking the spells undone, rather in the way you untie a mass of tight knots around a parcel, and because it was so boring and fiddly, he talked to Tacroy while he worked. He talked all the time the Goddess was gone. Naturally, most of what he told him was about that cricket match. "You missed that deliberately, didn't you?" he said. "Were you afraid I'd give you away?" Tacroy gave no sign of having heard, but as Christopher went on to tell him the way Miss Rosalie batted and how bad Flavian was, the hard tired lines of his face gradually smoothed out behind the strands of spell, and he grew more like the Tacroy Christopher knew from The Place Between.

"So, thanks to you teaching me, we won by two runs," Christopher was saying, when the Goddess reappeared with the broom Miss Rosalie used to chase Throgmorten with and started sweeping the room-spells into heaps as if they were cobwebs.

Tacroy almost smiled. Christopher told him who the Goddess was and then explained what had just happened in the hall. The smile clouded away from Tacroy's face. He said, a little thickly, "Then I rather wasted my time trying to keep you out of it, didn't I?"

"Not really," said Christopher, wrestling with a spell-knot above Tacroy's left ear.

The bitter lines came back to Tacroy's face. "Don't run away with the idea that I'm a knight in shining armor," he said. "I knew what was in most of those parcels."

"The mermaids?" Christopher asked. It was the most important question he had ever asked.

"Not till afterwards," Tacroy admitted. "But you notice I didn't stop when I knew. When I first met you, I would have reported you quite cheerfully to Gabriel de Witt if you hadn't been so small. And I knew Gabriel had some kind of a trap set up in Series Ten that time you lost a life. I just hadn't expected it would be that lethal. And..."

"Stow it, Tacroy," said Christopher.

"Tacroy?" said Tacroy. "Is that my spirit name?" When Christopher nodded, concentrating on the knot, Tacroy muttered, "Well, that's one less hold they have." Then as the Goddess, having dealt with the room-spells, came and leaned on her broom, watching his face as Christopher worked, he said, "You'll know me again, young lady."

The Goddess nodded. "You're like Christopher and me, aren't you? There's a part of you that's somewhere else."

Tacroy's face flushed a sudden red. Christopher could feel sweat on it under his fingers. Very surprised, he asked, "Where is the rest of you?"

He saw Tacroy's eyes swivel towards his, imploringly. "Series Eleven - don't ask any more! Don't ask me!" he said. "Under these spells I'd have to tell you and then we'd all catch it!"

He sounded so desperate that Christopher considerately did not ask any more - though he could not resist exchanging a look with the Goddess - and worked until he got that knot undone at last. It proved to be the key knot. The rest of the spell at once fell away in dissolving strands around Tacroy's handmade boots. Tacroy stood up stiffly and stretched.

"Thanks," he said. "What a relief! You can't imagine how vile it feels having a net bag around your spirit. What now?"

"Start running," said Christopher. "Do you want me to break the spells around the grounds for..?"

Tacroy's arms stopped in the middle of a stretch. "Now you stow it!" he said. "From what you said, there's no one apart from you two youngsters and me in this Castle with any magic worth speaking of, and your uncle could come back any minute. And you expect me just to walk out?"

"Well..." Christopher began.

But at that moment, Miss Rosalie came in with Dr. Simonson and most of the rest of Gabriel's staff crowding behind her. "Why, Mordecai!" she said brightly. "Do I actually hear you uttering a noble sentiment?"

Tacroy took his arms down and folded them. "Strictly practical," he said. "You know me, Rosalie. Have you come to lock me up again? I can't see you doing it without your magic, but you're welcome to try."

Miss Rosalie drew herself up to a majestic five feet. "I wasn't coming to see you at all," she said. "We were looking for Christopher. Christopher, we're going to have to ask you to take over as the next Chrestomanci, at least for the moment. The Government will probably appoint some other enchanter in the end, but this is such a crisis. Do you think you can do it, dear?"

They were all staring at Christopher appeal-ingly, even Dr. Simonson. Christopher wanted to laugh. "You knew I'd have to," he said, "and I will on two conditions. I want Mordecai Roberts set free and not arrested again afterwards. And I want the G - Millie as my chief helper and she's to be paid by being sent to boarding school."

"Anything you want, dear," Miss Rosalie said hastily.

"Good," said Christopher. "Then let's go back to the hall."

In the hall, people were gathering dejectedly under the green-stained dome. The butler was there and two men in cook's hats, and the housekeeper with most of the maids and footmen. "Tell them to get the gardeners and the stable people, too," Christopher said, and went to look at the five-pointed star where Throgmorten sat watching. By screwing up his eyes and forcing his witch sight to its utmost, he could see a tiny round space in the middle of the star - a sort of ghostly mousehole - which Throgmorten never took his eyes off. Throgmorten had quite impressive magic. On the other hand, Throgmorten would be only too pleased if Uncle Ralph came back. "How do we stop someone coming through?" Christopher
asked.

Tacroy ran to a cupboard under the staircase and came back with an armful of queer candles in star-shaped holders. He showed Christopher and the Goddess where to put them and what words to say. Then he had Christopher stand back and conjure all the candles to flame. Tacroy was, Christopher realized, among other things, a fully trained magician. As the candles flared up, Throg-morten's tail twitched scornfully.

"The cat's right," Tacroy said. "This would stop most people, but with the amount of dragons' blood your uncle has stored away, he could break through any time he wants."

"Then we'll catch him when he does," Christopher said. He knew what he would do himself, if he knew Throgmorten was lying in wait, and he was fairly sure Uncle Ralph would do the same. He suspected their minds worked the same way. If he was right, it would take Uncle Ralph a little time to get ready.

By this time, quite a crowd of people had come into the hall through the big front door, where they were standing clutching their caps and awkwardly brushing earth off their boots. Christopher went to stand a little way up the staircase, looking down on the long, limp remains of Gabriel de Witt and everyone's faces, anxious and depressed, lit half by greenish daylight from the stained dome and half by the flames of the strange candles. He knew just what needed saying. And he was surprised to find he was enjoying himself hugely.

He shouted, "Hands up everyone who can do magic."

Most of the gardeners' hands went up and so did a couple of the stable lads'. When he looked at the indoor people, he saw the butler's hand was up and one of the cooks'. There was the bootboy who had worked the Scoreboard and three of the maids, one of whom was Erica. Tacroy's hand was up and so was the Goddess's. Everyone else was looking at the floor, dismally.

Christopher shouted, "Now hands up anyone who can do woodwork or metalwork."

Quite a number of the dismal people put their hands up, looking surprised. Dr. Simonson was one, Flavian was another. All the stable people had their hands up, and the gardeners too. Good. Now all they needed was encouragement.

"Right," said Christopher. "We've got two things to do. We've got to keep my uncle out of here until we're ready to catch him. And we've got to get Gabriel de Witt back."

The second thing made everyone murmur with surprise, and then with hope. Christopher knew he had been right to say it, even though he was not sure it could be done - and as far as his own feelings went, Gabriel could stay in eight limp pieces for the rest of both their lives. He found he was enjoying himself more than ever.

"That's what I said," he said. "My uncle didn't kill Gabriel. He just scattered all his lives. We'll have to find them and put them together. But first - " He looked at the greened glass of the dome and the chandelier that hung from it on its long chain. "I want a birdcage-thing made, big enough to cover the pentacle, and hung from there, so that it can be triggered by a spell to come down over anything that tries to get through." He pointed to Dr. Simonson. "You're in charge of making it. Collect everyone who can do woodwork and metal-work, but make sure some of them can do magic too. I want it reinforced with spells to stop anyone breaking out of it."
Dr.Simonson's beard began to jut in a proud, responsible way. He gave a slightly mocking bow. "It shall be done."

Christopher supposed he deserved that. The way he was behaving would have had the Last Governess accusing him of having a swelled head. But then he was beginning to suspect that he worked best when he was feeling bumptious. He was annoyed with the Last Governess for stopping him realizing this before.

"But before anyone starts on the birdcage," he said, "the spells around the grounds need reinforcing, or my uncle will try to bring the Wraith organization in that way. I want everyone except Ta... Mordecai and the G... Millie to go all around the fences and walls and hedges casting every spell they can think of that will keep people out."

That made a mixed murmur. Gardeners and housemaids looked at one another doubtfully. One of the gardeners' hands went up. "Mr. McLintock, Head Gardener," he announced himself. "I'm not questioning your wisdom, lad - just wishing to explain that our specialty is growing things, green fingers, and the like, and not any too much to do with defense."

"But you can grow cactuses and bushes with long spines and ten-foot nettles and so on, can't you?" Christopher said.

Mr.McLintock nodded, with a pawky sort of grin. "Aye. Thistles, too, and poison ivy."

This emboldened the cook to put his hand up. "Je suis chefde cuisine," he said. "A cook only. My magic is with the good food."

"I bet you can reverse it," said Christopher. "Go and poison the walls. Or if you can't, hang rotten steaks and mouldy souffles on them."

"Not since my student days have I..." the cook began indignantly. But this seemed to bring back memories to him. A wistful look came over his face, which was followed by a gleeful grin. "I will try," he said.

Now Erica's hand was up. "If you please," she said, "me and Sally and Bertha can only really do little things - charms and sendings and the like."

"Well go and do them - as many as you can," Christopher said. "A wall is built brick by brick after all." That expression pleased him. He caught the Goddess's eye. "If you can't think what charms to work, consult my assistant, Millie. She's full of ideas."

The Goddess grinned. So did the bootboy. From the look on his face, he was full of appalling notions which he could hardly wait to try.

Christopher watched the bootboy troop out with the gardeners, the cook and the maids, and rather envied him.

He beckoned Flavian over. "Flavian, there's still loads of magic I don't know. Would you mind standing by to teach me things as they come up?"

"Well, I..." Flavian gave an embarrassed sideways look at Tacroy leaning on the banisters below Christopher. "Mordecai could do that just as well."

"Yes, but I'm going to need him to go into trances and look for Gabriel's lives," said Christopher.
"Are you indeed?" said Tacroy. "And Gabriel's going to burst into tears of joy when he sees me, isn't he?"

"I'll go with you," said Christopher.

"Quite like old times," said Tacroy. "Gabriel's going to burst into tears when he sees you, too. What it is to be loved!" His eyes flickered over at Miss Rosalie. "If only I had my young lady who plays the harp now..."

"Don't be absurd, Mordecai," said Miss Rosalie. "You shall have everything you need. What do you want the rest of us to do, Christopher? Mr. Wilkinson and I are no good at woodwork, and nor are Beryl and Yolande."

"You can act as advisers," said Christopher.

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