Quite early on, Christopher thought he would try to count the Almost Anywheres. He had not, then, begun his education, for the Governesses were still far in his future, an unknown quantity, but he was an intelligent boy and had taught himself his numbers and his letters. His Mama, had she paid him any mind, might have professed admiration at his love of learning, but she would have been in error. It was not a love of learning but a dislike of ignorance, and that is not at all the same thing.
Be that as may, the Almost Anywheres too were destined to remain an unknown quantity. As soon as Christopher began to count them they slithered; where one had been marked by a stream now there was a cave, where a cave now a thorny hillock, and so on. This was annoying, as it made it hard to keep track of where he had been and where he had not, and he was forced to begin all over again. From time to time thereafter he tried sneaking up on them, counting with his eyes half-closed and his face turned away, but it was no use. Somehow, the Almost Anywheres knew.
Later, much later, Tacroy would tell him that that there were twelve Related Worlds and, later yet, Christopher would learn from Flavian Temple that for each of these twelve worlds – but for Eleven, isolated and alone – there was a further series of nine. What Christopher chose to share neither with Tacroy, nor with Flavian Temple, nor, indeed, with Gabriel de Witt, was that their reckoning fell far short. Twelve times nine equals one hundred and eight, less the eight that Eleven lacked equals a round hundred, which is a tidy and practical number to be sure, but nonetheless Christopher knew he had visited easily three times that many, with still more left unexplored. And because Christopher was, as we have already established, an exceptionally gifted and intelligent boy, he remembered each and every place he'd been: what path led to them, the climate and the geography, the flora and fauna, the people he met and the adventures he had, even what he had there to eat or drink.
There were Anywheres he chose to visit over and again – colourful Anywheres, full of light and life and excitement. There were other Anywheres where Christopher felt very strongly that once was more than enough. (There was that one most elusive and unreachable Anywhere where even once appeared to be too often.) And there were Anywheres that were ditchwater-dull, but which yet proved to have unexpected compensation.
Such, though Christopher didn't yet know it, was the Anywhere he stood in tonight. It seemed, on the face of it, not dissimilar to Christopher's own world: the sky was the same colour, the weather the sullen fog he knew from London, smelling of soot, boiled cabbage, and – unlike London – fish. But the street was paved with hard, black stuff, marked with mysterious yellow or white lines as if for a giant's game of hopscotch, and the houses seemed new and yet, in spite of the newness, shabby-looking, as though they had been built in a tremendous hurry by people who cared only to get the job done and were indifferent to the end result, clustered close together and all so alike that Christopher wondered how the people who lived there ever found their way home of an evening. They did not, he considered, look particularly comfortable or pleasant places to live.
There was a dullness in the muggy air too, stifled and – not dead, exactly, but missing something, something vital, something Christopher had known for the whole of his life, something no other Anywhere had lacked. He knew he should know what it was – it was like the game the nursery maids used to play with him sometimes, the one where they showed him a tray full of objects to memorise and then, while he closed his eyes, took some away so that he had to remember what was missing – but, although he was good at that game, here Christopher tried to put a name to the wrongness and failed.
The biggest difference of all was the horseless carriages. Christopher had seen their like before in his own world: long, black, shiny things, luxuriously appointed and belonging only to the very rich or the very, very modern. Yet here, it seemed, horseless carriages were so commonplace that they almost outnumbered the houses; they were parked, nose to tail, in a never-ending line all along the edge of the street and, like the houses, here they were shoddy, ugly, workaday, cheap.
Perhaps, Christopher mused, that was why he saw no-one but his own reflection in windows as he dawdled along the pavement between the houses and the line of motor vehicles. Perhaps in this Anywhere walking had become outmoded or possibly even forbidden. He was reluctant to give up and go back, for Anywheres seldom let him down by having nothing at all to recommend them but, more and more, he was beginning to think that this one was a dead loss. He had just made an agreement with himself that he would go as far as the end of the street, where he could see a clump of bushes ahead of him – the only green that he had seen here at all so far – when he heard the sound of someone whistling. Instinctively, Christopher began to hurry toward the sound.
The bushes proved to conceal the entrance to a path as steep and slippery as any in the Place Between and mostly, Christopher discovered as he skidded down the first part of the incline and then completed his descent on his backside, consisting of mud. He climbed to his feet rather crossly, twisted to examine the seat of his breeches which, luckily, were old and outworn and well overdue for replacement, and found himself looking over his shoulder into a pair of bright green eyes. Christopher un-corkscrewed himself and looked properly. The bright green eyes were set in a pale, narrow, pointed, ever-so-slightly sly face hung around with lank brown hair that seemed to have been trimmed around the edges of a pudding basin, and set on skinny shoulders that belonged to a boy of about Christopher's own age. A very poor boy, Christopher guessed, for he was dressed in what seemed to be rags: a pair of dark blue trousers worn at the knee and rear to white threads, and a shabby cotton tunic, none too clean and far too tight. Nonetheless, Christopher put out his hand politely and said, "How do you do?"
The other boy just looked at Christopher's hand and grinned. Then he said something, but it wasn't anything that Christopher understood; it was in a twisty sort of language that seemed to have too many letters all jumbled up together.
Fortunately, Christopher had met this problem before and so knew how to deal with it. The silly ladies, for example, spoke in a language that went swish, swish, swish, echoing the pounding of the sea, while the people in one very hot Almost Anywhere spoke in rapid trills that ran up and down the scale like a strange kind of music. Christopher had learned that all he needed to do was to parrot the words back – or even something that just sounded a bit like them – and he would immediately begin to understand. So that's what he did, and then he stood and looked blank, because what the other boy had said to him, and what he had said in return, was "Little Lord Fauntleroy, is it?" which meant nothing to Christopher, nothing at all.
The other boy was scowling. "You trying to be funny?" he demanded.
Christopher shrugged. "Not really. What's a Fauntleroy?"
The other boy's scowl faded into a look of kindly understanding. "Ah!" he said. "English, are you?" He said it rather pityingly, and so Christopher only nodded meekly and tried to look embarrassed. "Oh, well, can't be helped. At least you tried to learn the language, that's more than most of them do. You new here? Or just visiting?"
"Visiting," Christopher said, which was true. He'd been sneaking glances at their surroundings in between taking stock of the other boy, and now he asked, "What is this place?" It was a long, narrow valley that might have been pretty once – the slopes were bright with flowers, and small, colourful butterflies winged through the air – but the space between the slopes was piled high with stuff that clearly had no place there: rubble, sheets of metal, rusting bedsteads, broken machinery of all kinds, some familiar enough to be recognisable but most not, and, everywhere, bulging shiny black sacks. And the place reeked. Christopher tried his best to keep his disgust from showing on his face. People in the Almost Anywheres didn't like it when you criticised their homes. He wouldn't much have liked it himself.
"Fly tip," the other boy said. That made sense, Christopher thought. There certainly did seem to be an awful lot of flies about. "You got an old fridge or cooker, see, Council charges a fortune to come and collect it, don't they? So, mostly, what happens is everything just gets dumped down here." He wrinkled his nose. "Stinks, I know, but I call it home. Home away from home, anyhow. Stig of the Dump, that's me."
"Really?" Christopher asked. He put out his hand again. "I'm Christopher. Pleased to meet you, Stig."
For no reason that Christopher could see, the other boy burst out laughing. "No, no!" he said. "You've got it all wrong. I'm Howell. Howell Jenkins, at your service." He gave a slightly mocking bow, but when he straightened he put out his own hand and took Christopher's in a firm, friendly grasp.
Christopher almost jumped. There it was: the thing that was missing in this Anywhere. It was a buzz, and it sparked from Howell's hand to Christopher's with such force that he felt with his free hand to check if his hair was now standing on end. (It wasn't.)
"What's 'Stig', then?" he asked. Howell let his hand drop, and turned back to what he'd been doing.
"Don't read much, do you?" he said indifferently. "Handyman, are you, by any chance? Want to help me with this?"
'This' was a metal framework laid flat on the ground. Howell had picked up a piece of piping and was using it to hammer out the kinks. Christopher knelt down on the other side and helpfully held the frame steady.
"What's this supposed to be?" he asked. It didn't look like much of anything in its current state.
Howell gave him a curious look. "You don't have bikes in England – poor, backward, savage place that it is?"
"It isn't!" Christopher automatically protested.
"No?" Howell said. "So how come all your rich folk come here buying up all our lovely houses for their holiday homes? Anyway," he went on, still hammering, "Since you ask – " Hammer! "This is going to be – " Hammer! "My birthday present. Six months overdue, but better late than never." HAMMER – and the piping snapped off in two. Howell said a word so bad that Christopher's brain couldn't translate it and stalked off in search of a replacement. Christopher sat back on his heels and watched him, curious. He'd never met anyone quite as poor as Howell before. He wondered where he slept, and how he managed for food, and thought it a shame that he couldn't bring money through the Place Between. He didn't have much himself, but he knew that if he were to be a missionary, as his Mama desired, then he would have to learn Christian charity and how to practise it without complaint.
Howell was coming back, laden with what he probably thought of as treasure. He'd found an old canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder, where it sagged under the weight of its contents, along with two wheels, only slightly wobbly and almost the same size as one another, which he was bowling along like hoops using another length of pipe. He grinned as he came level with Christopher. "All set!" he announced, and tipped out his bag to reveal a large and heavy rock – "Let's see that snap off in half!" said Howell – a child's bicycle saddle, and an assortment of mismatched nuts, bolts and screws. Christopher nodded, impressed at Howell's resourcefulness, and the two of them got back to their hammering. Soon the frame was lying almost flat, and Howell started trying to jiggle the wheels into place to fix them on. "See," he said, between his teeth, "There was going to be a Chopper bike this year. Promised me, they did – my Mam and Dad. But it turns out that what they're getting is a divorce instead. So, there's no money for bikes, what with the lawyers and all. New pair of shoes I got from her, and a chemistry set from him. Special, eh?" Then he glanced up and his sudden grin flashed out again. "Still – a chemistry set's a start, isn't it?"
"To what?" Christopher asked, lending a hand to wrestle the second tyre into place. He pretended he hadn't heard the 'd' word. 'Divorce', he knew, was something very dreadful and grown-up and shocking, never to be mentioned in polite society.
Howell's hands came up in a sudden complex flutter. "To being a magician!" he said. "Got a tradition to keep up we have, here in the Valleys. Going to be the second Merlin, me. And I'm starting," he finished smugly, scrambling to his feet and dragging the completed bike up after him, "by doing the impossible. Something out of nothing, see? Abracadabra!" He flourished his hands again, back and forth, winding them around one another in a pattern that seemed to linger for a moment in the air before it winked into nothingness. And, just for that moment, Christopher saw before him not the buckled frame and warped handlebars and mismatched, sagging wheels that he knew were there, but something new and sleek and shiny, a bike a boy could be proud of.
Just for a moment. Then the illusion vanished, and all that remained was the pile of junk. But Howell's confident smile didn't diminish.
"Fancy a ride?" he asked, settling himself astride the framework and patting the space between the handlebars.
Christopher didn't, very much. It looked dirty, and uncomfortable, and dangerous. But he wasn't sure how he could say 'no' without being rude. Then he looked at Howell's laughing face, and saw the light in his eyes, and realised that he didn't want to say 'no' after all.
Getting the decrepit bike up the slope to the road was a job better suited to two full-grown men than to two quite small boys, and they were breathless and panting long before they were halfway, but finally they made it. Then Howell grabbed the handlebars, ran alongside the bike for a few yards, swung himself into the saddle and circled back, swooping up Christopher as he passed, and together they pedalled on down the long, straight, hard, black road, sweeping down the deep, curving dip at the end of it and soaring up the other side so effortlessly that Christopher thought they might keep on flying upward until they touched the sky. Then it was back to the slog, with Howell standing on the pedals to give them an extra kick until they'd built up enough speed that he could settle back into the saddle, splay his feet out on either side, and let the bike coast for what seemed like miles and miles and miles, the flat, grey, ugly buildings flashing by them so fast that they blurred into a single dingy streak.
It had to end, of course, and it did, in a jumble of buckled wheels, mangled framework, bashed knuckles and skinned knees. But it had been worth it. It had been wonderfully, gloriously worth it, and Christopher and Howell clasped hands in triumph and slung scraped and bruised arms around one another's necks for the long, slow, weary walk home.
Longer for Howell than for Christopher, it turned out, because as soon as Howell's wristwatch touched Christopher's skin, Christopher felt the familiar lurch in his stomach that meant he was falling, falling …
… and sat up, blinking, in his own bed, knowing it had only been another dream.
Chrestomanci leaned against a wall and looked inconspicuous. This should have been difficult: an astonishingly tall man in a dove-grey frock coat over a waistcoat of rich and luscious pattern would, in the ordinary way, be a matter of some discussion on the Llanedeyrn estate, where Burberry checks were the norm. But, being Chrestomanci, he had, when he wished, the knack of blending in. Those who noticed him at all merely assumed he was a member of a very posh wedding party, and never gave him a second thought.
Chrestomanci was waiting. From time to time he would pull a magnificent gold timepiece from his coat pocket, consult it, frown, then replace it and stand, rocking slightly on his heels, until another twenty minutes or half an hour had passed and he repeated the process.
He had waited like this many times before and each time had left feeling like a fool. What he believed he knew was impossible. After all, this was Twelve B, the world of no magic. And yet – there had been that time once, long ago, when he had thought he'd seen a spark of that supposedly non-existent magic here, in this very town, in a street not so very far away from where he was standing. There were legends, too, legends all over these islands, all over this world, clustered especially thickly in this small, perpetually drizzly corner of it: Merlin, Gwydion, Taliesin. And what are legends but history long forgotten?
They're resonances from the other worlds in the series, he told himself. And you, Chant, are a fool. And yet – he waited.
For there was also the fact that Howell Jenkins, a man with no duplicate self in all of Series Twelve who was nevertheless not, thanks to the place of his birth, a nine-lifed enchanter, had disappeared one day, over five years ago now, and remained unaccounted for anywhere in the Related Worlds.
People do not, contrary to popular belief, just vanish. They leave traces, echoes, reminders of their presence. Howell Jenkins had not. And yet his family seemed unconcerned. There was no police report, no private detective hired, no heart-wrenching headlines in local newspapers or desperate pleas on the television news.
Chrestomanci disliked mysteries. It was seldom that they boded well. And also he had had from childhood a strong distaste for not knowing everything he chose to. So he had come to this place, asked questions, chatted with the locals, and had discovered that, in fact, although Howell Jenkins had disappeared – "Just after he finished that ridiculous degree," the lady in the Post Office had said, "And what a waste of time and money that was! His poor sister, after all the sacrifices she made for him – fair broke her heart, it did. Was it a stamp you were wanting, now?" – and had been gone for over a year, he had, more recently, become prone to reappearing, from nowhere and without warning, and then vanishing again, often for months at a time. A number of theories had sprung up in the community to explain this, each of them more outlandish than the last, but, to date, nobody had struck upon what Chrestomanci believed – hoped – was the real reason.
Hoped because, much as he hated to admit it, Chrestomanci needed help – help that no sorcerer in his own world could lend him, not even those few powerful enough to achieve the crossing into Twelve B.
He took out his watch once again, checked the hands, sighed, and tucked it back into his coat pocket. Another ten minutes, no more, or he would be late for Afternoon Tea, and Millie would cast reproachful eyes at him as he made his belated entrance. Really, he thought, a nine-lifed enchanter should surely be able to call himself Master of his own castle; but he was very fond of Millie (as well he might have been, it being the opinion of most of their enemies and all of their friends that Millie was far too good for him), and disliked seeing her frown.
He was about to give up the fruitless waiting and cross back into his own world when a door opened in one of the yellow brick houses across the street and a man came out: a very tall man, almost as tall as Chrestomanci himself, a man with a narrow, bony face, flowing blond hair and piercingly bright green eyes; a man whose trailing scarlet-and-grey sleeves blurred as he passed through the door and transformed themselves into a baggy jacket, grey piped with scarlet, worn over the denim trousers so ubiquitous to all but a few of the Related Worlds.
The green eyes flicked from side to side along the street, missing very little. When they came to rest on Chrestomanci a wide, brilliant smile split the other man's face, and he crossed the road with a stride so exaggeratedly casual that it was almost comical.
He came to a halt a foot or so away from Chrestomanci and beamed up at him. "Hello, Christopher," said Howell Jenkins. "It's been a long time."
Christopher let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. Howell remembered him. That was one hurdle surmounted. And, more importantly, he'd been right. Impossible though it should have been, Howell's magical ability flowed from him in waves, strong as Chrestomanci's own. In any other world, he would have been a powerful enchanter in his own right. Here? Christopher wasn't sure what Howell was here.
So caught up in his own thoughts was he that he didn't realise he hadn't responded until Howell quirked an eyebrow. "You come all this way to see me, all Chrestomanci'd up and everything, and not a word? Stunned into silence, are you? Or am I in trouble?" The idea didn't seem to worry him; his smile didn't fade by so much as a fraction. He turned and started walking. "You can tell me about it as we go, if you like. I'm sorry I can't hang around waiting for you, much as I enjoy loitering on street corners, but I have urgent business here that will wait for no man." He glanced over his shoulder. "Or, indeed, wizard," he added.
"Enchanter, if you don't mind." Chrestomanci caught him up in a few short strides. He would have to apologise to Millie later. "Since you're evidently meddling with magic, against all the laws of possibility, you may as well have the decency to respect the vernacular."
"'Wizard' a bit vulgar, is it?" Howell asked. Again, he didn't seem too concerned. "Ah, well, it's good enough for me. I never was one to rise above my station. And 'Enchanter Howl' doesn't have the same ring to it – does it?"
Howl? Christopher almost laughed. He wondered how long it had taken Howell to come up with that. "Wizard Howl," he said formally. "I've come to ask for your help."
Howell stopped walking and turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised. "Well, I'm a helpful fellow, so you're in luck, but it'll have to be quick. Like I said, I have urgent business here of my own."
"This – if it's what I believe it is – could have repercussions through all the Related Worlds," Christopher told him. He slid a touch of Performative Speech into the words, just enough to let Howell know it was serious, not so much as to risk affronting the other enchanter.
"So could mine," Howell insisted, and started walking again.
"There's a magical anomaly somewhere in this city," Christopher said. "And it's growing. If it's left unchecked there's a good chance it could suck this entire world of yours out of existence and leave nothing to show it was ever here at all."
Howell paused, one foot still in mid-air. "Oh," he said, and came back to Christopher's side. "Good enough. You win. So, what do we do about it?"
"First we find it," Chrestomanci told him. "We've been monitoring it since it first began to register, trying to track it and measure it, but it's not easy – communications are bad between this world and the rest in the series …" He paused. "You know about the Related Worlds, and their series …?"
Howell waved a hand, flapping the question away. "Shall we skip the elementary stuff? Of course I know – what I didn't guess from you I figured out from C S Lewis, or learned from the Travellers. In this city, is it?" He stood still for a moment, head tilted to one side: listening, feeling. When he looked up again, he was frowning. "Yes," he said. "There's something in the air that shouldn't be there. Can you narrow things down at all? Cardiff may not look like much to a great man like you, but it's a big enough place for those of us who live here, especially on a Saturday night when you can't remember where you've parked your car."
It was unreasonable to expect a group of sorcerers a world away, no matter how powerful, to be able to pinpoint one single location. All in all, Howell could think himself and his world lucky that they'd spotted it at all. Christopher said so. "All we know is that it's near water," he said. "Quite a large body of water, to judge by the way our diviners reacted." Poor Madame Amélie, the worst affected, had come very close to dry-drowning, and it had taken a concerted effort from all the magicians then present to save her.
"Water?" Howell said. "My first guess would be the docks, then. They've been messing around down there these past few years, renovating, rebuilding – regenerating," he added, grimacing. "God alone knows what they might have dredged up. We'll take my car."
Simple enough words, Christopher reflected, as he clung grimly to whatever surface came to hand, but had he known then that what Howell called a 'car' was, in fact, a rattling deathtrap that none but the desperate, very foolish or suicidal would willingly enter, he would have taken his chances and called up a broomstick, a flying carpet – anything, in fact, but this. He had intended to find out more, as they travelled, about Howell's life in the years since they had last met, how he had come into his magic, in what world he practised his wizardry, but all those questions were driven from his head by the pure, animal instinct of survival at any cost. He said as much. To his complete lack of surprise, Howell only laughed.
"A poor, ill-favoured thing it may be, but mine own," was all he said, and carried on driving at a reckless pace. Reckless and uncalled-for, Christopher thought, as he cautiously squeezed open one eye and saw the streets they passed through standing still and silent.
"Stasis spell?" he croaked. Howell shook his head, his golden hair flying.
"I've put us outside time," he said. "I told you, I have urgent business of my own."
"Oh?" Christopher managed. From the corner of his eye, he caught the flash of Howell's grin.
"Life or death. I was off down the Arms Park to see our boys crush the Kiwis. Or," he added, with more honesty than Christopher suspected was his habit, "more likely the other way round. Either way, it'll be a hell of a game." He glanced over at Christopher, shaking back his hair impatiently as it blew across his eyes. "You interested? If we survive, that is, since I don't suppose your vortex-thing is going to take kindly to our meddling."
"I don't even know what you're talking about," Christopher admitted, which made Howell laugh out loud.
"Rugby, man! Wales versus the All Blacks!" When Christopher still looked blank, Howell sighed, shaking his head pityingly. "Don't tell me there's no rugby in your world. I don't think my soul could stand it."
"I'm more of a cricket man myself," Christopher admitted. Howell looked at him in horror. "Howell, would you mind very much keeping your eyes on the road?"
"Cricket!" Howell ignored the second remark. "And you call that a man's game?!" He reached over and patted Christopher's arm. "That settles it. You'll have to come with me, if only in the interest of education." Then he looked thoughtful for a moment. "If you can get yourself past the ticket gate, that is. I've only the one. But then – you being an enchanter and all, there'll be no problem, eh?"
Chrestomanci didn't quite like to say 'no' outright. "One thing at a time," he temporised, and then, "Ooof!" as the car came to a sudden jerking, squealing, shuddering halt. "What – ?"
"It's here," Howell said briefly, swinging himself out of the car. "Can't you feel it? It can feel us. And it's not happy." He started off along the quayside, not waiting for Chrestomanci who followed, boots slipping on wet cobblestones, uncomfortably aware that the local seagulls, frozen in time as they were, were nonetheless watching him with cold-eyed malevolence. He suspected that these were no ordinary birds. Perhaps some of the vortex's spell had made its way into their blood.
There was a cold, grey mist roiling in over the waves, obscuring the horizon and any signs of life that the sea might hold. Natural life, that was; using his enchanter's sight, Chrestomanci could see the anomaly, a rip in the fabric of the world, red and oozing at the sides like a gaping wound, pulsing in waves of unnatural colour that owed nothing to the Sun's spectrum, centring on a blackness that drew the eye and the mind down, down, ever down into nothing: into emptiness, silence, despair.
And it was hungry. It felt them there, the two enchanters, and called to them in a sweet, false voice, inviting them to come, touch, see, feel, share …
To be devoured.
Chrestomanci felt the grip of a hand around his elbow, and started. "It wants us," Howell said grimly in his ear. "It's leaking magic, and it wants ours – our power, our energy – "
"No," Christopher said. "It wants our souls." He turned his head, caught Howell's eyes with his own, very earnest. "It won't get them. Are you with me on this, Howell? Do you understand what it means?"
Howell nodded once, quickly, his mouth a tight line. "This is where the magic came from," he said. "It must've always been here, leaking a little bit at a time, till the new development came along and woke it up good and proper. Bloody yuppification," he added cryptically. "Everyone said no good would come of it, and now see what they've done. So, like as not, when it goes, the magic will go too. I'll have to choose between Wales and Ingary. I know." He nodded again and threw back his shoulders, looking determined. "Right. Let's do it."
As if the anomaly heard them the waters began to swirl, sending a wave slopping up to soak the two magicians to the knees. Chrestomanci cursed; he could feel the magic in its touch, colder than the icy water, more bitter than the salt of the sea. Before it could spread further he flung out his hands, one reaching forward, toward the vortex, the other stretching sideways to clasp Howell's hand in his own, joining and sharing their strength.
Go back, he thought, and felt Howell in his mind, thoughts matching his own. You don't belong here. Go back wherever you came from!
A sullen whisper slid through his mind: Shan't! it told him, for all the world like a sulky child, and Won't! and You can't make me!
"Oh, can't we just!" Chrestomanci heard Howell say aloud, and felt the slight squeeze of his fingers: Now!
And together the two enchanters pushed.
There was a high, thin wail, and the sound of tearing. It came from the sea in long, ragged strips, the blackness fading, growing dead and dull, swirling upward like ash in the wind, the red casting itself across the sky in a mockery of lightning. Then the rain began, slicing the still air into jagged ribbons, and, in a moment, the thing was gone.
But the magic remained. Christopher saw Howell touch his free hand to his own chest, close his eyes, and breathe deeply. "Will it stay?" he asked. The hopeful note in his voice would have broken a hard man's heart.
"I don't know," Christopher said honestly. "Perhaps we were wrong. Or this may just be residue. It may fade." It was fading; if he focused hard he could feel it dying away, a change so gradual as to be almost imperceptible. He realised he was still holding Howell's other hand and hastily let it drop. "You'd better choose."
"It's not a choice," Howell said. He could feel it too, Christopher realised. "Ingary it is. I have a wife there, and a child." His eyes met Christopher's. "I wish you could have met them. But you could never have come to Ingary in any case. It's not one of your worlds." He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a long, thin envelope. "Here."
"Our boys are going to have to play the game without me," Howell said. "You go cheer them on for me, would you?" Somehow, without Christopher realising it, they'd arrived back at the car. Howell paused as he opened the door. "Can I give you a lift back?"
Of all the things Christopher hated in life, goodbyes – and visits to the dentist – were among the worst. He would add Howell's driving skills to that short list. "I'll walk," he said. "Goodbye, Howell."
He watched as the car lumbered and jerked out of sight, then turned to look out over the waters of the dock, now clear and peaceful. Around him time took a deep breath and slipped back into its groove; there was noise, suddenly, and bustle, voices, footsteps, the sounds of ships and cars, the slap of water against the dockside, a far-off dog yapping, the shrill, ill-humoured cries of the seagulls.
Life, dull, routine and ordinary. Exactly as it should be.
There was no reason, no reason at all, to feel sorrow for what had gone out of this world.
The envelope fluttered to the ground for the next passing stranger to find. Christopher turned, then turned again, and stepped into his own front hall.
For the first time in many long years, Chrestomanci found himself standing in the Place Between. It was much as he remembered it: misty, murky and unformed, and vast as ever, stretching out endlessly in every direction.
Ingary, Howell Jenkins had said, and not one of your worlds. You couldn't come there, he'd said. But Chrestomanci was not so easily defeated. He knew there were other worlds, entire other universes besides the Related Worlds, and he knew, moreover, how to get to them.
How to find the right one, though – which path to choose out of so many? Ah: there Chrestomanci had a secret weapon. He was not alone here in the Place Between.
He squeezed the small, slightly sticky hand tucked so trustingly into his own. "Mari? Can you tell which way we go to find your Uncle Howell?"
His secret weapon, Miss Mari Parry, looked up at him – and up, and up, and up, for, even lacking his customary stovepipe hat, Chrestomanci towered over her by a good five feet – and wrinkled her nose in scorn. "'Course, stupid," she said, and pointed off into the distance, toward a spindly bare-branched tree that might once have been a mountain ash. "Down that path," she told him, pulled her hand free, and scurried ahead. When she reached the steeply-canted slope she simply spread her arms wide and pitched headlong down it, sure-footed as the proverbial mountain goat and fearless as only a very small child can be.
Chrestomanci wiped his hand on his plus-fours and followed at a more cautious rate. This path was not only scaled so sharply it was more like a staircase than a slope, except without the benefit of stairs, but it was also thickly overgrown with a particularly vicious and grasping breed of bramble. Mari seemed simply to have disregarded these, and they had evidently decided to double their attentions to Chrestomanci by way of revenge.
He arrived on level ground, much relieved, extremely muddy, and somewhat shredded, to find Mari waiting for him, hopping impatiently from foot to foot. "Do you need to – ?" he asked, rather wearily. Their progress so far had been liberally punctuated with lavatory breaks. Mari shook her head.
"Noooo," she said scornfully. "You're so slow! Come on!" With that she was off again, running full-pelt ahead. Chrestomanci took a second to catch his breath and cast a repairing spell over his apparel, then set off once more in pursuit.
He barely had time to take in his surroundings. What he could see of Ingary was all stone-built terraces, red slate roofs, tiny, colourful cottage gardens, cobbled streets as steep, almost, as the path that had led them here: picture-postcard picturesque. A late sun was setting behind the church steeple, turning its greening brass weathervane to rose-tinted gold. Distantly he heard the sounds of music and voices, dogs barking, a flurry of small birds twittering their way toward their nests. An abundance of very fine roses in nearly every garden intimated that this was a world still very much reliant on horsepower of the four-legged variety.
He wondered briefly whether it had always been this way or whether the great Wizard Howl had made his own improvements, but Mari was almost out of sight around the next corner by then and he had to break into an undignified jog-trot to catch her up. He rounded the bend in time to see her skid to a momentary halt in the middle of a much wider, paved road, glance from side to side consideringly, and then scramble up the front steps of a very ordinary-looking red-brick building; the iron angle over the door suggested that it might have been a shop at one time, but no sign swung there now. The doorknocker was in the shape of a gryphon's head. Mari, who could barely reach that high, was more or less swinging on it as she hammered mercilessly on the bright green painted door.
The door swung open sharply, fortunately just as Mari let go, and an exceedingly pretty young woman with red-gold hair appeared at the entrance, glaring. "Who on earth – ?" she began, then glanced downward at the sharp tug on her skirt. "Mari!" she exclaimed. "Mari, cariad – how in the world did you get here?!"
"Mr Chrestomanci brunged me," Mari stated, ungrammatically and not entirely accurately – Chrestomanci knew it would have taken him years to find his way without her – then barged her way into the house yelling, "Ewythr Howell!"
Howl was there at once, his hair tousled as though he had snatched himself from elsewhere and raced a raging wind, which, quite possibly, he had. "Mari!" he almost bellowed, his arms open. Mari leapt up at him, Howl expertly caught her, and she twined her arms and legs around him, squealing with joy and chattering away nineteen to the dozen in Welsh, while Howl clutched her tightly, looking dazed and barely remembering to answer. The woman glanced at them, shook her head fondly, and held open the door.
"Won't you come in?" she asked politely. "Mr – ?"
"Chant," Chrestomanci told her. There was no point in trying to embark on long-winded explanations now.
"Ahh!" she said, and nodded wisely. "Christopher Chant. I know." She put out her hand to him. "I'm Sophie – and that," she added, referring to the sudden burst of indignant squalling that had broken out upstairs, "is Morgan. Excuse me, please." She swept toward the stairs, pausing only to touch Howl's arm. "Howl – manners. Whatever you and Mari have to say to one another, my Welsh isn't up to it, and I'm sure neither is Mr Chant's."
Howl looked up then, and his entire face broke into a smile. "Christopher!" he said and, rather to Chrestomanci's discomfiture, freed an arm to sling it about his shoulders. "How did you manage this?" he demanded, shifting Mari's weight to let her rest comfortably on his hip. "I knew you were a powerful enchanter, but this? You're a bloody miracle-worker, man!" Mari giggled, and Howl squeezed her tight, sharing a conspiratorial wink with her. "Your Mam doesn't need to know you heard that word, right, cariad?"
Christopher was taking stock of the room: small, untidy, but frighteningly clean; enchanted, of course, full of hidden corners and extra rooms tacked on all anyhow, as the need arose. His attention was drawn to the fire in the hearth; he suddenly became aware that the flames were watching him. As the realisation struck him, the blue heart of the fire gathered itself together, shot upwards, and zipped across the room toward them. There was a small, faintly evil face at its heart.
"Just what we needed," it said bitterly. "More wizards." It flickered toward Chrestomanci, observed him with a singular lack of interest, then flew over to Mari, sending a ring of sparks circling around her hair like a live halo. "Ah!" it said. "That's more like it. We'll be seeing more of you around these parts, Princess, I hope."
"Calcifer!" Howl said sternly. Mari had a sudden and atypical burst of shyness and hid her face in his velvet collar as the flame creature flashed away as quickly as it had appeared. "Fallen star," he explained to Christopher. "It's a long story. But you never said – how did you ever find me here?"
Honesty forced Christopher to confess. "I didn't do anything," he admitted, settling himself into the bentwood chair that Howl nudged toward him and accepting the mug of beer that had appeared by his hand. "It was all Mari here. Howl, did you never realise what she is?"
Howl hooked out another chair with his foot and sat down, resting Mari on his lap, looking curiously into her face. She crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him, and he flipped her nose. "I knew she was special, of course, but …"
"Special!" Christopher almost laughed. "It was a while before I could get back to Wales – there's been a wave of magical misuse of late, and it all had to be tracked down and sorted out before I could even think of anything else – but I felt duty-bound to look in on your sister. I don't know whether you had time to say goodbye to her – "
"No," Howl interrupted. "I could feel the magic slipping away as I was driving. I practically flogged that old car into the ground trying to make it back before it was all gone and, as it was, I had a hard time fighting my way through to here. Fair broke my heart, it did, but …" He shrugged expressively, glancing toward the stairs. "This is where my life is." He hugged Mari again, as if in apology.
"I thought that might be the case," Christopher nodded. "I thought she deserved an explanation, so I paid her a visit – and, when I got there, there Mari was, sitting on the hearthrug, playing with her toy ponies, all the time charged so full of magical energy she was almost sending out sparks. It wasn't easy convincing your sister of any of it, of course."
Howl grimaced, and nodded. "Tell me about it!" he said feelingly.
"It seemed worth the chance," Chrestomanci said. He sat back and regarded Mari thoughtfully. "I can't tell if it's something inborn, or if it's the last traces of the anomaly finding somewhere to settle. Whatever the case, I suspect that Mari here has it in her to be the last of the truly great Welsh wizards. In a few years I'd like her to join me at Chrestomanci Castle, where we can make sure she's properly trained. In the meanwhile, it seemed to me that if anyone could find their way to you, Mari was the one. And," he added, "it further occurred to me to wonder – possibly she could also find her way back …?"
Howl's eyes lit on the doorknob with its four streaks of paint, the yellow streak downmost. He half-laughed, as if he hardly dared hope. "Why not?" he said, almost to himself and, to Mari, "Sweetheart, will you try something for me?"
Mari, who had been sucking her thumb as she listened intently to the conversation, nodded.
"Good girl!" Howl said, lifted her off his lap, and walked her across the room on his feet, Mari giggling all the way. He turned the doorknob until the black streak pointed down, then pushed open the door. Beyond there loomed a layer of what might have been but was not fog, grey, opaque and motionless. Howl reached out and pressed against it. It was solid, and he shook his head, trying to smile. "No," he said quietly. "No good."
"Not like that, silly!" Mari told him crossly. She stepped fearlessly forward over the threshold, the not-fog parting around her and leaving a clear path in her wake. A few steps away she stopped and looked back over her shoulder. "Aren't you coming?" she demanded.
"I – er – well, yes," Howl said, visibly flustered. "Yes, Mari, I am." And he followed her.
Christopher, rather disconcerted, jumped out of his chair and hastened after them before they both disappeared and left him stranded or, possibly worse, having to face the long, hard climb all the way back up to the Place Between.
Sophie came downstairs a few minutes later, Morgan in her arms. She cast a glance around the deserted room, noted the empty beer mugs and the doorknob turned to black, and shook her head. "Oh, Howl!" she murmured. Wales, she knew, might have been Howl's second choice, but it had been a very close second, and, if he had it back now, she didn't begrudge him.
But it would, she had to admit, being a truthful woman, have been nice to have been done with her in-laws for good and all.
Christopher waited discreetly outside as Howell returned Mari to her anxious mother and suffered through yet another of Megan's trademark tirades. "I take it she was glad to see you back?" he asked dryly as Howell appeared at the door, a little tattered around the edges.
"Any gladder, she'd've set the dogs on me," Howell murmured, then sent Christopher one of his flashing smiles. "Still, it's good to have the old place back again. It was hard, thinking I'd lost it forever." He spread out his hands as he spoke, embracing it all: the grey, drizzly sky, the ugly, shabby buildings, the nose-to-bumper traffic, the gang of kids in tracksuits and baseball caps swaggering their way down the street. "There's more than one kind of magic in the world." He took a step forward and tripped; there was a child's bicycle lying on its side in the grass. Thoughtfully he bent to pick it up, setting it upright on the path, then cast a considering glance at Christopher. "What do you think?" he asked. "You fancy a ride?"
Christopher laughed. "You must be joking!"
"Oh, no," Howell said reasonably. He stroked the framework once, and there beneath his hands was a brand-new bicycle, the Chopper bike of his childhood dream, looping handlebars, backrest, outsized back wheel, gearstick and all, all in bright, bright scarlet chrome. He swung himself into the saddle, circled the garden once, twice, then looped back to Christopher who went to jump aside then, at the last moment, found himself thinking Well, why not? and letting Howell scoop him up without a protest.
"Two magicians, both alike in dignity," Howell observed cheerfully.
"Not entirely," Christopher grumbled, trying in vain to sort out somewhere to put his legs. Howell only laughed. Then they were out of the gate, freewheeling down the hill, flying up the other side and soaring, soaring, the two of them together, soaring away into a night of memory and enchantment, and a friendship that they both knew now would survive distance and separation and all the challenges that a thousand new and strange and different worlds might bring.
Very, very late that night, or perhaps early the next morning, Chrestomanci stepped cautiously into his study, somehow achieving barely a stumble. Millie, sitting comfortably reading by the fireside, looked up at the sound of his footfall and smiled.
"Hello, my love," she said, rising to meet him. He wrapped his arms around her as she came to him, resting his cheek against her hair. "Did you find your friend?"
Chrestomanci nodded. "I'm a lucky man, you know, Millie," he murmured. His voice hardly slurred at all. There were benefits to being an enchanter.
Millie only smiled a little more, setting her hand against his chest. The gold of her wedding ring sparkled in the lamplight.
"Of course you are, my love," she agreed, and stood on tiptoe to kiss the edge of his chin. "After all – you live a charmed life, do you not?"
Howl tripped over the doorstep as he came in, narrowly missed two dining chairs and the settle, and sat down heavily on the bottom stair.
"I am that merry wanderer of the night," he informed Sophie, who had sat up to wait for him with Morgan on her lap, and Calcifer, who hadn't, but was there anyway. Sophie simply sighed, and watched as Howl attempted the rest of the stairs and, more or less, succeeded. Eventually. There were magics that Chrestomanci knew that Howl had yet to master.
Morgan laughed. "Funny Daddy!" he announced. Sophie cuddled him close, smiling to herself. Michael, studying late as was his habit nowadays, poked his head cautiously out of the workroom.
"There's extract of willowbark in the blue jar," he told her. Sophie smiled again, quite differently this time.
"Is there?" she said sweetly, and stared at the blue jar in a very meaning way. "Actually," she murmured, very gently, "I think you'll find it's empty, Michael. Good night." And, slow and stately, she swayed upstairs, pausing only to persuade all the bedcovers to come to her before settling down on the nursery sofa for the night.
There are worlds within worlds, and worlds beyond the worlds we know. But of these worlds, of Ingary and the places that exist in angles and corners where no enchanter before him had ever thought to look, Christopher said nothing.
Even Chrestomanci must have his secrets.