Title: Electric Clock in a Thunderstorm
Summary: Lions and tigers and peeved!Christopher, oh my!
Disclaimer: The worlds and characters of the Chrestomanci series belong to Diana Wynne Jones. No money is being made.
Prompt: #70 – Storm
Author's Notes: I took up Chrestomanci on the fanfic100 challenge – this means I'm writing 100 Chrestomanci fics to a hundred different prompts. So if there is anything in particular you'd like to see which fits into the Chrestomanci fandom (if you want to see more of a particular character, or you want a particular ship or plot) tell me about it in a review or by email. I'm going to need the extra ideas by the time I hit 60/100 fics, so I may as well write fics which someone wants me to write.
Cat was hurt and uncomfortable. "Leave me alone!" he said, and he stood up. Everyone, even Chrestomanci, went tense. The only person who did not was Janet, and Cat could hardly count her, because she was not used to magic.
(Charmed Life, Diana Wynne Jones)
Tracing the Incident's genesis was difficult. It may have started when Christopher got a short letter from his parents, which commented more on the Tokyo weather than their own son. Or perhaps the problem was the second letter, delivered days later, which officially welcomed Christopher to a life-long contract of service to His Majesty, King Simon II (God Save The King!). Or perhaps it only began when the pentagram sparked, and Christopher fell flat on his face in front of the entire Castle.
And certainly that began when the pentagram in the marble foyer started to crackle with white energy. The magical klaxon system immediately called the Castle staff, in time to watch the lightning that was arching from point to point. Adults and children ran down the halls; they appeared on the stairs with snow still on their shoulders, and left doors to swing shut with a muffled 'bang!'
Within moments Christopher stumbled through, sprawling across the floor, his hair caught in fuzzy curls around his ears. The lightning left the pentagon, dancing in electrostatic flickers over his body. Mordecai Roberts came through next, supported by Dr Simonson; Yolande and Beryl ran forward to help them both. Then Gabriel de Witt fell through the star, the long, graceful fall of a tall man dropping without bending at the knees first.
The barriers went up: Christopher's flashy shimmering film fell into place with a twang, jostling with Gabriel's shield which appeared a moment slower; the Castle's smothering magic, squelching malevolent magics automatically. Millie, Jason and half the Staff had all reacted instinctively, adding to the conflicting magic, until each blockade attempted to stifle the others.
Gabriel may have muttered something, too tired to be loud. The magics vanished, the pentagram settling into its protective hibernation status. Gabriel picked himself up, an impressive display of personal control pulling everything inside once more; a furling of person, followed by an unfurling of tall grey suit. And then there was only Christopher, lightning flashing from his nose to his fingers to his toes.
Christopher bent over, doubled up as if he had just run a sprint. His right hand smoothed his hair, silky black locks appearing as the lightning condensed over his knuckles. The transformation had the impressive flourish which the younger generation in the Castle marvelled at, and the older generation despaired over. However, it was as easy to hold the act in awe as it was to admire Gabriel's absolute control.
"You will need to release that outside, Christopher," Gabriel murmured. "The grounds will contain it."
"Sir, what happened?" Yolande asked, as she sat Mordecai down with a cup of tea.
Christopher strode across the hall, heading towards the pink marble stairs. "Gabriel died – a nasty incident involving poisoned knives; Tacroy and Dr Simonson were captured and almost died, and then I got hit by lightning. The Dark Lord of 2E was rather inhospitable," he smirked over his shoulder at the watching staff, "I don't recommend visiting."
Gabriel's eyebrow rose, and his magic pushed Christopher away from the stairs, back towards the pentagram in the centre of the room. "Sarcasm does not befit a Chrestomanci. His Majesty's government prides--"
"Oh, bollocks, Gabriel! Utter bollocks!"
The Staff turned away, glancing at each over. The lightning over Christopher's hand suddenly sparked, and the adults instinctively ducked. Christopher grimaced, and the energy lessened, circling his palm.
"I want to be sarcastic. And what if I don't want to be Chrestomanci? That damn letter, welcoming me to service as a civil employee." Christopher didn't notice the lightning darkening from white to blue, the heat singeing his cuffs. The Castle employees all stepped back, pulling the children away, leaving the two alone in the centre of the hall.
Gabriel's eyes were hard, his mouth tightly controlled. "It is my duty, and it will be yours. You know why, so I want you to be sensible."
Christopher shook his head as though to shake a fly from his face. He fiercely pulled his emotions back behind his vaguest look, but still the lightning flared around his wrist.
Millie pushed past Jason's outstretched arm, striding towards the pentagram. "Don't be silly, Christopher. You love all this and we know you do. Now, take the lightning outside and calm--"
Her feet were frozen to the floor, her legs uncomfortably locked in place. "Christopher! Take this o--" Her face flushed as, soundless, her lips continued to move.
"Don't get involved, Millie. Gabriel knows what I… He knows." Christopher turned back to Gabriel. "You remember, don't you?"
Gabriel didn't answer immediately. The crackling of the lightning was getting louder and more pronounced. The Staff were silent, waiting. "You should be able to stop this. It is unacceptable for you to lose control."
"I can't!" The light jumped from finger to finger, from Christopher's upraised right hand, to his clenched left. Then it exploded.
Sparks sizzled through the room, across the marble stairs, flashing off the iron banisters. Uncontrolled chaos around Millie's smoking hair and the now-smouldering portrait of Benjamin Allworthy. The electricity gathered around the huge chandelier, the crystals sparkling, sending rainbows across the room.
"Christopher!" Gabriel shouted. Gabriel pulled the charge in towards a central point in the chandelier, raising his hands towards the ceiling; the gathered charge turned to grey cloud, white snow falling to white marble floors. Christopher's storm had been forced through the glass dome, and they could hear the thundering roar raging havoc on the grounds. "Stupid boy, I don't want to see you get someone killed."
"I'm not going to. A little lightning never hurt us." Christopher had already stooped to gather up a ball of icy flakes, patting it together into a compacted sphere. He flung it at Gabriel, a spin bowl Mordecai would be proud of. A millisecond before it hit Gabriel's face it burst into flame.
Gabriel batted it aside easily. "Your attack style is unsubtle. You started with something childish, and then turned it into a cliché fireball. Far too flashy, and far too slow. Any respectable dark lord wouldn't even hire you as a minion."
Christopher scowled, a series of ineffective fireballs flying towards Gabriel, to be easily pushed away from their target. But the snow behind Gabriel was also forming up, shaping itself into an icy mockery of Gabriel himself. The snowman gathered spare snow towards itself, smoothing it into a rough egg-shape.
"Chrestomanci, behind you!"
A shield sprung into place, visible and shimmering on all sides; the latest fireball ricochet off, skimming Beryl's ear before spiralling around when Christopher called it. The egg flew through the shield as if it didn't exist, cracking upon Gabriel's grey suit, yellow yolk clinging to the wool.
At the same moment Christopher pushed forward a wall of crackling flame, at least twice his own height, which stretched up towards the dome. Both Gabriel's hands flew up in order to deal with it. They both pressed upon the flame wall from metres away, forcing it back and forth until it stabilised as a wavering line between them.
Then the wall disappeared, artificial darkness descending with it. The dome blackened, even though it was still early afternoon. The windows showed the same, and the electric lights in the hall flickered off. Thick, coagulated dark pressed upon them all, so Christopher's smug grin was lit only by the single returning fireball which rested upon his outstretched palm.
In the darkness he heard the whispers: "Jason, let's get Millie out of the way,"
"Sir, she's still stuck,"
"Henrietta, hold onto Dr Dash's hand, come on,"
"Yolande, Mordecai, quickly now."
as they pulled away from the two Enchanters.
Christopher ignored them. He let the fireball fly forward to spin around and around Gabriel in an elaborate weaving which Gabriel took no notice of; he was staring into the blackness where Christopher had been. The scuttling of a thousand legs echoed in the hallway. Gabriel barely flinched as the spiders and insects began to crawl up his pantleg, undeterred by the spells he attempted to enact.
"You're expending more energy than necessary, child. Your elaborate creations are far more taxing than a transformation would be. Then shielding your creatures, when it would be far more logical to let the sheer numbers overwhelm my defences instead."
"I'm not a child, Gabriel," Christopher's voice echoed from somewhere in the darkness. "You can hardly send me back to my parents, now; you read their letter."
Gabriel blocked something which whistled towards him; whatever it was scraped like metal as it smashed into his reinforced shielding. "Did you leave it in my study on purpose? I didn't read it, Christopher. I you have my trust, and I thought I had yours. Now, are you going to raise this darkness; the Staff are stumbling in the snow."
Around their feet the cold became thickly sticky, and their shoes made sucking noises when they pulled them from the floor. "No more snow, no more stumbling. Easily fixed, dear Chrestomanci."
Gabriel ducked the screeching of bats which weren't there, crunching insects beneath his feet. He straightened and clicked his fingers. The treacle vanished instantly, but the smothering darkness remained. He conjured his own fireball, but it remained stubbornly small, illuminating only his striped tie.
"Oh, Chrestomanci, surely the floor needs a wash after being covered in treacle." The familiar smell of hard, camomile soap covered the floor, and those who tried to move slipped, falling onto the marble.
Gabriel clicked once more, the soap disappearing. "You're putting a lot of magic into this darkness of yours."
"I took your advice. I summoned it from the Castle undercroft, rather than conjuring it."
Gabriel muttered something, but still the darkness remained.
"My apologies, I must have lied."
"Raise the darkness, Christopher, or I won't let you out of the Castle for a month."
The disembodied sounds of imaginative horrors circled around them, closer and faster and more gruesome than before. Christopher summoned his own fireball, throwing it from hand to hand; it grew and morphed with each landing. "I'll catch up on my reading while the others catch colds, then."
"Raise the darkness, or you shan't play cricket this summer."
The remaining insects turned to chirping crickets, and for a second or two, illuminated by his own fireball, Gabriel was forced into the shape of an insect as well; it was grey, with wispy white hair sprouting from its head, but unmistakably Gabriel, and unmistakably a cricket.
"Shan't I play cricket?"
"Stop this, Christopher!" It was Millie – in the confusion of battle Christopher hadn't maintained the spells on her. Gabriel popped back into his human form, but if this was Christopher's doing or Gabriel's own the watchers didn't know.
Millie and the others were pressed backwards as they tried to step forward. Forced behind an invisible barrier, they were pushed to the walls in the darkness.
"Forgive this abuse of the cutlery, Mrs Umble."
The sound of silverware flying through the air towards Christopher was bizarre, and then it was joined by the strong movement of giant wings. For a single moment the darkness failed, and they blinked against the light as they saw a hawk curving between two serving spoons; then the dark was back in place, accented by the clatter of cutlery on marble.
Then the darkness flickered once again, light slipping into the hall through the opening pentagon. Christopher flew around the pentagon three times, before flying at Gabriel and dropping to human feet.
"Be more imaginative, Gabriel. We both know that every enchanter has a weakness." The darkness fell away completely, grey sunlight once again shining through the high windows. The gold, afternoon sunlight from the pentagram outshone the grey winter sun, even though the air which came through was slightly misted.
The Staff were familiar with seeing Christopher almost-imperceptibly slump at the dinner table, and so they recognised when the bright magic switched off behind Gabriel's eyes. He backed away from the open pentagram only a few steps, the golden light still striking his tie, then recovered, erecting a semi-transparent shield around himself.
"So much defence, so little attack." Christopher swirled his hand through the open pentagon, and back out the other side, circulating the foreign air.
"The role of Chrestomanci is one of defence, not antagonism, although attack and antagonism are both sometimes necessary. Doing the minimum necessary saves your strength for other battles." Gabriel waved his hand, and Christopher was again a bird. A hedge sparrow, small and brown. Gabriel transformed himself into a large bird of prey; unrecognisable, its sharp talons and pointed beak were from another world.
Christopher's form struggled, beating his wings as he flew around the room. But he remained a bird, trapped in the form Gabriel had chosen. Gabriel's form flew at him, talons outstretched, but Christopher spun up and away from them, younger and more agile. The hedge sparrow flew up towards the glass dome, flying through the contaminated air above the open pentagram. In the centre of the inlaid star he danced, until with the flick of a huge wing the silver cutlery once again sped towards him. A fork slid across his wing - he spun, crying out as he spiralled towards the pentagram.
The bird Gabriel screeched, diving towards the falling sparrow. As soon as Gabriel hit the exposed air he became a long-limbed man, and Christopher's body twisted itself out of the feathers of the sparrow. And still they fell, towards the open pentagram. Christopher twisted the hawk from within himself, pushing Gabriel into a shape – bird/reptile/rodent – and then knocked him out of the air. Beating his huge wings Christopher spiralled around the pentagram three times until the opening shrunk, closed, and the air was still once more.
He fell to the floor, human. Two Enchanters, limbs entangled, sweat dripping from their brows; their suits were scorched and crumpled, feathered around the cuffs.
Gabriel pulled himself up on steady feet, then leaned down and offered a hand towards his ward. "Very quick work, Christopher."
"Thank you, Gabriel." Christopher waved away the offered hand, pushing himself up from the cool marble floor. One hand lingered a little longer, and as soon as he stood twisted vines of ivy and brightly poisonous jungle flowers sprouted, spreading across the marble, climbing up the stairs, lodging upon the walls.
"Pretty." A snap of long fingers; the poisonous barbs wilted, and the plants dissolved near the doors. "Excuse me, I have a report to write. I suggest you take the rest of that lightening outside." He pointed up at the energy trapped in a single crystal of the chandelier.
Gabriel's powerful strides towards the stairs caused the Castle Staff to fall back into their well-rehearsed roles; Christopher was left beside the pentagram, a vague look lodged on his face. Rosalie came up the stairs beside Gabriel, half-jogging to keep up. "Chrestomanci, what are we going to do about Christopher?" Gabriel clicked his fingers again; the flowers disappeared from the halls, leaving trails of sticky sap and loose leaves.
"He's definitely improved, hasn't he? He showed real control over those fireballs – he's never been much good with fire. And his spellwork while transformed was impressive. Fantastic initiative, of course." Gabriel opened his office door, standing in such a way so as to not allow Rosalie entry. "I say we take him to Egypt for the Canonical Conference. He'll like that. Millie and Conrad too, while the others are at home for Christmas." Rosalie opened her mouth, probably to suggest a million reasons why Christopher was too immature to be trusted at such an important international conference.
"Egypt. Then two weeks touring Kenya, on the game reserves. Yes, that should be good," Gabriel nodded, closing the door on Rosalie's face.
A single poisonous bloom was tied into the woodgrain on the back of the door. Gabriel clicked his fingers, but it stubbornly remained. He smiled, pouring himself a scotch.
Millie was down in the village when the storm clouds gathered over Chrestomanci's garden. She didn't hurry back to the Castle, continuing her shopping and small-town gossip. From the corner of her eye she saw the flashes of lightning across the grounds, followed by rolling thunder which was almost musical. The vicar's wife asked in surprise about the weather within the Castle boundaries – the lightning, and the slashing driving rain; her voice was almost drowned out by the following thunder.
Millie mumbled something innocuous about excess magical tension, then politely took her shopping back up to the gates, where the thundering had already stopped, and the rain was dying down to a depressed drizzle.
She found Christopher sitting at the base of his garden, his wet hair springing into soft, uncontrolled curls. She gathered her wet skirts beneath her, sitting ungracefully beside him.
"I always get nervous when my husband pretends to be Zeus; has he been appearing to any local virgins as a golden bull lately?"
Christopher held his hand above her head, and a sparkling shower of golden stars rained down. Stars, suspended in raindrops, dripped from her nose. Their clothes were clingy, the wool starting to smell of musky winter. She smiled, pulling him forward for a kiss.
Thick and heavy, the scent of a storm still clung to the air.