"Absolutely mental," said Ron Weasley.
"So you've said," said Hermione, who was growing cross, "but I've noticed you can't tell me the harm in it."
Their voices carried perfectly through the fabric of the tent. Harry, who sat with his back to the flap, breathed steam into the chill, bright morning. His fingers felt like rubber. He flipped Regulus' amulet between his fingers like a coin, fumbled and dropped it, scrambled nervously for it under a drift of dry leaves, then put it round his neck again. They had been four days stumped and stymied since finding the amulet. Tempers were wearing thin.
"But it was written by a muggle, it's not even a wizarding book…"
"…and since it's not, that makes it even less likely that anyone with even a modicum of magical ability has ever bothered to try it."
"But… how does that even…"
There was a flapping sound as of a softcover book closing. "Chrestomanci," said Hermione. "…Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci."
Harry turned his head to the flap, raising an eyebrow. For a moment, there was complete quiet; then two heads poked out of the flap, looking intently at the empty forest
"Well, that was pointless," said the red-haired boy. "Got any more brilliant fictional plans? I hear Gandalf the Grey might have an opening in his calendar. Maybe we should write to the Quibbler."
Hermione's face reddened. "Oh, absolutely. And by all means, Ron, if it should happen that you feel yourself inclined to actually contribute something, instead of… of heckling other people's attempts-"
"Quiet, you lot," Harry interjected. "Look!"
Because out beyond Hermione, some thirty feet away, a man was wandering the wards, tracing them with his hand. He was tall and dark-haired, a handsome forty-odd, and dressed in a grey suit, cravat, and shoes with spats. A blue pocket square sat jauntily in his vest pocket.
Hermione, Harry, and Ron exchanged a look. They silently raised their wands, and began to creep forward.
A strange thing happened then. The man looked up, smiled vaguely at them. "Ah. How… rustic," he said, in a polite tone. Then he stepped through the ward.
Harry and the others quickly circled to surround him, wands trained. The man ignored the threat, and strolled toward the tent. It only took him a few strides to reach the flap of the tent, which he opened with an exclamation of "well, now, this is more like it," and a broad smile. He turned to them. "Christopher Chant," he said. "Mind if I come in? It's a bit nippy this morning."
They spent a few minutes staring at one another. On the one side, three wide-eyed teenagers, redolent of sweat and mushrooms, leveled pointy sticks with murderous hostility. Chant, on the other hand, could have been inviting them for tea after a matinee performance of The Magic Flute (an opera whose popularly was, unusually, shared among muggle and wizarding worlds alike.) An uncomfortable sensation that they were only children whose game had gotten out of hand, now set to be sorted out with biscuits and tucked into bed, settled over the whole scene. The alternative—that the hostile world of mushrooms, death, and sticks was the real one, and Chrestomanci the fairy tale—was even more terrifying, particularly given Harry's previous experience with Tall, Powerful and Charismatic. The first lesson at Hogwarts about magical creatures was that they tended to have very sharp teeth. Harry glanced at Hermione; her face was ashen.
It was Ron who broke the silence. "Yeah, all right then," he said. "Be our guest. For what it's worth."
As Ron escorted Chant into the tent, Harry grabbed Hermione to hold her back. "'Chrestomanci?'" he asked.
Hermione was still staring at the man's back. "It's a title. Or, rather, a job description. The Chrestomanci provides oversight for the use of magic across nine local dimensions. He's like the United Nations of magical universes. But it's only a book, really, I didn't expect it to actually work!"
"Can we trust him?"
She gave him a hopeless look. "Harry, he walked through my best wards without a second glance. If this is really him, the Chrestomanci in the books was supposed to be a very powerful, nine-lifed enchanter, capable of simply overruling any ordinary wizard's spells. I don't think we have a choice."
"Nine lives," murmured Harry. His hand wandered up to the locket.
"We had better go in." She pursed her lips. "I get the sense he might not be tolerant of… youthful shenanigans."
Inside, Chrestomanci—Chant—had set himself up on the only decent chair. He glanced up when Harry and Hermione entered, and then fixed his gaze straight at Harry as if seeing him for the first time.
"There's a nasty piece of work," he said.
Before the others could intervene, Chant had lifted the hair from Harry's brow to examine his scar. "Disgraceful," he continued, muttering. "It's one thing to graft lives onto objects, but onto a living soul? And a hack job at that, if I'm not mistaken. This won't do." He sat back down, Harry pressed his hand to his forehead, heart pounding. The skin was warm.
"Young lady," said Chant, "I think you had better tell me exactly what is going on."
As Hermione related the chain of events, Chant nodded, and occasionally twitched the left corner of his mouth. He accepted a mushroom from Ron, but left it on the plate. When she finished, he flexed his hands, sat forward, and then leaned back again.
"This is an unfortunate state of affairs," he said. Ron snorted; Chant raised an eyebrow, and then continued. "My predecessor in this position, Gabriel DeWitt, had an agreement with your Dumbledore—an enchanter himself, old DeWitt rather liked him. There was a nasty business with his Grindlewald, some lover's spat-" at this, it was Hermione's turn to sputter—"and at any rate, DeWitt agreed to let this world maintain its magical sovereignty, under Dumbledore's auspices, and leave well enough alone. Left in a huff, actually, if I recall correctly. Terrible idea. Never let personal feelings get involved."
"Is Voldemort an enchanter, too?" Harry blurted out—then reddened, and clutched his wand. He had said the name.
"I rather doubt it," said Chant, who looked surprised at the interjection, as if he had forgotten Harry's presence. "That charming bit of jewelry around your neck is a Horcrux, isn't it? Uses a murder to fragment the soul. Not at all what one would do if one had extra lives to spare. This is the world where one preserves a bit of oneself in a painting when one dies, isn't it?" He shuddered. "I always found that perfectly ghoulish."
"But—I'm sorry, but, can you destroy the locket, then?" said Hermione. She leaned forward, clenching her hands. "And Harry's scar?"
Ron was more direct. "Can you take care of You-Know-Who?"
"The extraction of that… Voldewhat… from the boy that I performed earlier seems to have been successful. Beyond that, I haven't the right to go around destroying pieces of the man's soul, no matter who he is. Nor do you," he gave Hermione a stern look, then turned to include the others in it. Harry touched his scar again. It felt the same. There was no pain in his head. That was all. So that was an enchanter's power…
"Your Tom Riddle is a local affair," Chrestomanci continued. "The real trouble here is the wholesale segregation of society into muggle and magical groups. Why people who think they can constitute themselves as a secret, special, superior class unto themselves should have the gall to actually be surprised when they continually give rise to racial-purity hate politics and megalomaniacal would-be Dark Lords buggers all rational attempts at explanation."
"I think that you will find the technological advances made by the British armed forces more than sufficient to take care of your Death Eater difficulties," said Chant. "That is, once you stop wiping everyone's minds every time they try to figure out who keeps murdering them in logically impossible ways. What an absurd state of affairs. I am frankly astonished that Gabriel allowed it to continue so long."
"But you can't," said Ron. "That would… it would be chaos."
"Will be," said Chrestomanci, rising. "I've already undone the global charms, and I should be through with the local ones in about seven days—this has thoroughly shot my week. But it's your world to sort out now—truly all of yours, for the first time in centuries—so you had best get to it."
Ron was still gaping. But Hermione's mouth, now—hers was beginning to find a slightly mischievous grin.
Chant took Harry's face in his hand once more, turned it left and right, then nodded, satisfied with his work. "I'd throw away that cursed locket, if I were you," he said. "It's not going to do your personality any favors. And young man?" He suddenly fixed Harry's eyes with his own, and Harry was surprised to see a twinkle in them, as if conveying a secret message just for the two of them. "You're quite young to have lost one of your lives already. See that you take better care of the last two?"
Harry's jaw didn't have time to drop before Chrestomanci turned left into nothing and disappeared.