Oscar & The Magi

A London Adventure

By Tobias Sturt

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/uk/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. An electronic copy of this book can be downloaded free at

www.ruritania.co.uk/magi where you can also find information about buying the book from www.lulu.com

PROLOGUE

It was a cold and misty December night and Big Ben was chiming thirteen. A man standing on Westminster Bridge was trying to set his watch to the right time and at the thirteenth strike he looked up angrily at the bell tower. At this the hands of the clock face curled up like a pair of sinister moustaches and the two and the ten narrowed meanly, and the whole tower bent down to glare at the man on the bridge. The man stood for a moment, paralysed with fear, as the tower loomed down over him, menacingly. Finally he dropped his head and saw that all the numbers on his watch had budged round and a new 13 had appeared at the top. The man set his watch to thirteen o’clock and, head still bent, hurried away across the bridge. The clock straightened up and then, just for laughs, struck half past thirteen. And all across London, above the dark and glistening roofs, all the other clock towers and belfries replied, each one striking a completely different time.

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1
The First Mistake This story happened because two people made mistakes and did things that they shouldn’t have. One of the people made more mistakes than the other, but neither of them made them very often. One of them did the wrong thing deliberately; the other one was just absent minded. He should have been paying attention, but then he was very busy. But without these mistakes being made, the story wouldn’t have happened, so perhaps they weren’t mistakes after all.

The first mistake happened around the start of October, around Oscar’s birthday. Like a lot of children, Oscar usually made a long list of presents that he wanted for his birthday and I’m afraid to say that he quite often got what he wanted, too. But one person who almost always managed to surprise him was his godfather, his Uncle Rufus. Uncle Rufus wasn’t around very much, he was often travelling or busy on what he claimed was important business, but at least his presents were usually something odd or interesting. One year it had been a large round stone that he had claimed was a dragon’s egg, and another time it had been a bottle of dark green glass with what looked like a wisp of smoke in it. The bottle had had a yellowing label on it reading ‘One Genuine Ghost’ which everyone had agreed was nonsense, although no one had had a good explanation for what the smoke might be instead. Uncle Rufus’ presents were also always a surprise because you never knew when to expect them. Certainly not around your birthday. Once one of them had been early, but often they were late. Some actually arrived in the wrong year, some were so late as to be actually almost early again and sometimes he didn’t even send a present at all, which was, perhaps, just a little too surprising. So Oscar found himself torn between looking forward to his surprise and then not wanting to look forward too much in case it was really late, or never actually

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came at all. Unfortunately all the feverish anticipation only made the present even more of a disappointment when it finally did show up. It was only a week late this time and was there waiting for Oscar when he came down for breakfast. A solid rectangular package wrapped up in brown paper. Oscar could tell it was from Uncle Rufus because it had his address on the back. They were already running late and Oscar knew that the sensible thing to do would be to save the parcel until he got home from school, when he could really savour the delight of unwrapping and concentrate on his present properly. It is hard, however, to be sensible in the presence of a surprise and Oscar opened it immediately. It was a book. It was a hardback book with a rather unpleasant pattern of greens and purples all over it. And drawings. Spidery little drawings of scientific equipment and mathematical symbols. What was it? He turned it over. “Kennedy’s Alchemical and Thaumaturgical Primer, 9th Edition”. What did it mean? It didn’t sound very exciting. It sounded, in fact, like schoolwork. Oscar’s mother shouted from the front door. He opened the book and looked at the front page. “Kennedy’s Alchemical and Thaumaturgical Primer, 9th Edition, by A. J. L. Kennedy, BA (Oxon), FROM, A textbook and educational guide containing exercises, experiments and resources...” “Textbook”? “Textbook”!? It was schoolwork! Why on Earth had Uncle Rufus sent him a textbook? Had he been talking to his mother? He flicked through the book. There were long, dull looking paragraphs... lists that looked like they might be tests... diagrams of some kind of experiment... this was ridiculous! It really was a textbook. His mother called again and this time, apparently, she really meant it. Oscar threw the book down in disgust. A textbook! If he was going to have to write a thank you note, it wasn’t going to be a nice one. Oscar liked to think that the house was full of friendly ghosts that moved things around when no one was looking, but he suspected that it was actually his mother. He was used to things tidying themselves up and didn’t notice the

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textbook arriving on the shelves in his bedroom. But somehow it made it because it was definitely there one rainy morning two months later when he was bored and had nothing to do. He ought not to be bored, of course, someone was bound to be able to think of something for him to do, but he was being very careful not to ask anyone. He was enjoying being bored, in fact: his birthday had long gone and it still wasn’t Christmas. He was tired of all his toys, it was a Sunday morning and it was raining. It was a good time to be upstairs on your own with nothing to do. He wandered listlessly around his room, picking things up, finding they weren’t fun at all and putting them back down again. He picked up a book and started leafing through it, barely noticing what it actually contained. It didn’t look very interesting apart from that picture of a dragon. That was a good dragon. And that wizard. The wizard was standing in the middle of a circle he had drawn on the floor while smoke swirled around him, and in the smoke, horrible, leering faces appeared. Oscar started looking at the book more closely. “A spell for the conjuration of spirits” started one page. A spell? “An experiment for the creation of a golem” said another. “The Foundation of the Royal Order of the Magi”, “On the sorcelation and entrapment of spirits”, “Appropriate robes and vestments”. What was this book? He turned to the front page. “Kennedy’s Alchemical and Thaumaturgical Primer.” It was the book from Uncle Rufus! It was a textbook, but it was a textbook about magic! Oscar felt at once excited and a little guilty. This was the most amazing book he had ever seen and he had almost missed it because it was a textbook and he hadn’t bothered to look at it closely enough. Well, he was looking at it now. He closed the book and carefully arranged the cushions on his bed into his favourite reading position. Then he squirmed down into them until he was perfectly comfortable. Finally he picked up the book, opened the first page, and... “Oscar, come on, we’re going!” It was his mother shouting from downstairs. Going? Going where? He couldn’t go anywhere: he had to read this book. He went to the door, still clutching the book.

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“Mum, I’ve got stuff to do.” “Yes, you have: you’ve got to come downstairs, put on your coat and get into the car.” “But Mum, I’m busy... it’s... its schoolwork...” “You can do it later...” “But...” “Oscar, I told you this morning, when you weren’t listening, we’re going to Hammages to see Father Christmas: you’ve been going on about this for weeks so get down here, now.” Of course: she had told him, he had just forgotten it in his excitement. There was no way he could get out of this: everyone was going and they’d never leave him on his own. Anyway, he didn’t want to get out of this – he really had been looking forward to it. The visit to Hammages department store was their Christmas tradition. They all went every year and Oscar and his brother went to see Father Christmas and his parents would buy them each one small toy as a treat. In fact, now that he stopped to think, he was still looking forward to it. Also Oscar had the sneaking suspicion that his mother might not wholly approve of a book that had real spells and genuine experiments in it. She might insist on reading it first, or doing them with him - or worse, take the book away altogether. He had to be careful about letting on how excited he was. “I’ve got to put my shoes on.” “Then hurry up, please.” He turned to find his shoes. There on the bed was a slip of yellow paper. It must have fallen out of the book when he sat down to read. It was blank on one side, but on the other side it said, in heavy, black letters: “20% student discount on all alchemical and thaumaturgic supplies with this voucher. Hammage’s Magical Supplies Dept, 7th Floor.” “Hang on,” shouted Oscar, “I’m coming as fast as I can.”

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2
The Back Stairs Hammages Department Store started preparing for Christmas on the previous Boxing Day, and it showed. The ground floor was split between perfumes and makeup, jewellery and the food halls, which made it a great, glittering place, full of glass and coloured liquids and sparkling gems, pungent with a seasonal spicy sweetness. Everywhere there were trees and baubles, mechanical angels and piped carols and in between them strange foods and stuffed animals, cases of ticking watches and great, sheer cliffs of pink perfume bottles. And people. Hundreds of people, all pushing and shoving, barely paying any attention to the great chiming, musical Christmas that had been erected for them, all concentrating on only one thing: getting their presents in time. “Right, you two, hold on to my coat and don’t wander off. Books first, I think.” And Oscar’s mother strode off towards the lifts, with them all following after. They caught the lift doors just as they were closing and all squeezed inside. The lift was packed full of shoppers and Oscar was jammed up against the lift attendant, who pressed the buttons and announced the floors. “Floor Two, Ladies’ wear and shoes.” Oscar squinted up at the buttons the attendant was pushing. There were two columns of them - the ones at the top were numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... And then... nothing - the rest were strange colours - things the attendant pressed to stop the lift and open the doors. “Floor Three: Men’s wear, Children’s wear, Sports wear and equipment.” There was no Floor Seven! Oscar daren’t take the piece of yellow paper out of his pocket but he was sure it had said Floor Seven. But there wasn’t a Floor Seven; at least there wasn’t one that the lift went to. What did it mean? “Floor Four: Books, Toys, Christmas Department, Pets, Antiques and Father Christmas.” “Quickly, boys, out, out! Oscar, please pay attention, we’re getting out here.” And with his mother’s hand placed firmly between his shoulder blades, Oscar found himself propelled out into the Books department. “Right, you two, I have to look for some things, so stay in the department where I can see you. The children’s books are here - I’ll be over there.”

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But Oscar was too confused - there was only one book he was interested in right now and he already had that one tucked safely away in his backpack. He stood in the aisles of the children’s books, watching his brother cheerfully dismantling an elaborate display of picture books, wondering what to do. And that was when he saw it: a nondescript door tucked away by a bookshelf, marked: ‘Stairs to all Floors’. All floors? Surely that had to mean Floor Seven as well as all the others. He looked around - his brother was absorbed, his parents were futilely searching for books for people impossible to buy for: this was his chance. With only a moment’s hesitation Oscar then did the second wrong thing of our story and without saying a word, left his family and set out to explore the ‘stairs to all floors’. His brother, who was busy methodically breaking all the pop up books in the shop, didn’t even notice he had gone. The stairs were plain and lonely and smelt of disinfectant. Oscar started up straight away. One, two flights and there it was: Floor Five: Antiques, Home Furnishings, Gardening and Haberdashery. Two more flights and he was as high as the lifts went - Floor Six: Audio Visual, Gadgets, Musical Instruments, Gifts. And there it was: another flight of stairs, dimly lit, leading upwards into darkness, up towards... “Staff Only” That’s what it said: “Staff Only”, a sign hanging on a chain that stretched across the stairs, cutting them off from the rest of the store. Oscar stared at the notice, forlornly, not sure what to do, when he realised that he could hear voices approaching from above. He crossed over to the door leading to Floor Six and half stepped through it, ready to look as if he was going somewhere instead of just loitering. He knew that adults tended not to like to see children just hanging around with nothing to do - it reminded them that they never got to hang around aimlessly themselves any more and that made them angry. The voices came closer. It was two shop assistants coming down the stairs from above. One of them unclipped the chain and then secured it again after they had passed through.

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“Have you ever peeked through the door?” one of them said. “Oh no, well, I wouldn’t want to - the people you see on the stairs. I dread to think what goes on in there.” “Oh, I know what you mean... still; it makes you wonder, don’t it?” “Well, you wonder about that and I’ll wonder about Darren from white goods...” And they passed out of earshot down the stairs. Oscar came out of his hiding place and crossed to the stairs. He unhooked the chain as he had seen the shop assistant do and looked up the stairs to where they turned out of sight, into darkness. They must have been talking about Floor Seven, those shop assistants, surely... the odd people, the secret place: they must have been. It had to exist... it had to... And, if it did: what an extraordinary adventure! He stepped up onto the first step. Nothing happened. The stairs were silent and empty. He hooked the chain back up behind him and climbed on up, into shadow. One flight and the stairs turned, just like the floors below. There was no light ahead and the steps were getting darker and darker. One more flight, each step taking him deeper and deeper into shadow. Surely he was there now... surely this must be Floor Seven... Somewhere up, up further flights of stairs, there was a window, and light, but here all was dim and obscure. Were there doors there, to the left? Was that a number ‘7’ on the wall? He couldn’t quite make it out. He pushed against what might be a door and it opened into a deeper, solid darkness. Oscar hesitated. He didn’t particularly like the dark. He particularly didn’t like being on his own in the dark. He very definitely didn’t like being on his own in the dark when he wasn’t entirely positive that he was on his own. And he was becoming pretty sure that he didn’t like being on his own in the dark on a secret floor of a mysterious store where there were odd people on the stairs and somewhere, possibly, magic. It was that thought that did it. What if it really was there - the Magical Supplies Department, just beyond this darkness? What if it were there but because of this little twinge of fear, he missed out on it altogether? What was worse? The darkness or missing the adventure? Oscar decided that he knew the answer to that and stepped forward, letting

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the door shut behind him.

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3
Floor Seven Oscar regretted going through the doors immediately. Because, as he tried to feel about him in the terrible blackness, half hoping to find another door, half petrified that he might put his hand on something far less pleasant, a low voice spoke in his ear. “Can I help you, sir?” Oscar froze, helpless with fright - barely able to breathe, suddenly aware of his own heartbeat rushing away in his ears. That was his heartbeat, wasn’t it? “Can I help you, sir?” came the voice once more. Oscar couldn’t place, in the darkness, where it was coming from. It seemed to be wholly in his head. “I...” he struggled to speak, “There was... I’ve got... discount... Kennedy’s...” “Ah, yes, I see that now, sir.” ‘See it’? ‘See’ what? In this darkness? In his backpack? “Please continue, sir, and I hope you have a pleasant day’s shopping.” And as the voice spoke, Oscar suddenly became aware that he could see a dim light ahead of him - a light that became brighter - a line that grew into a rectangle that became the outline of a door. And Oscar reached out and pushed and it opened - it opened and Oscar stepped through into... ...into a shop floor exactly like the ones he had passed through on his way here. In fact it looked remarkably like the book department he had just left. He looked back to if there were any clues as to what was going on and discovered that the dark place that he had just been in was nothing more than a tiny hallway between two sets of double doors. There was no one else in it. Oscar let the door shut behind him and decided that if possible, he would find another way back down. He looked around to see where he was. It looked like an ordinary, brightly lit book department, with a few adults browsing in the distance. No one seemed to have noticed him coming in. Above his head was a sign saying ‘Reference’. He looked at the bookshelves beside him: “Audubon’s Book of North American Spirits’, ‘From Ayayascha to Wendigo - Wood Spirits of the Americas’, ‘A Supernatural History of Canada’, ‘In

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the Tracks of the Sasquatch’ (a big book, that one). On the other side: ‘Gypsy Magic of the Carpathians’, ‘The Bath time Book of Elizabeth Bathory’, ‘Lycanthropy for Beginners’, ‘Vampires: The Dummies Guide for Suckers’. This was starting to look like the right floor. Oscar went to the end of the aisle. Off to the left the book department evidently continued, but the books there looked a lot more interesting: huge, leather bound books encrusted with precious metals and gems, where the shelves had an odd shimmer to them, like a heat haze. Ahead was a different department entirely - shelves filled with bottles and flasks, bubbling, smoky liquids of every colour and hue. A shop assistant on a wheeled ladder scooted back and forth across the face of a wall covered in tiny drawers. Every so often he would stop, open a drawer and scoop out some brightly coloured powder into a twist of paper that he would then calmly toss over his shoulder. Below, at a counter, another assistant caught the packages, tying them with black ribbon and stacking them in front of a customer. To his right... an old woman was standing in the aisle, staring at him. Oscar turned and picked up a copy of the Abridged Necronomicon (‘Guaranteed No Threat to the Reader’s Sanity’) and pretended to be absorbed in it. He peeked up. The old woman was still staring at him. There was something ever so slightly strange about her fixed stare and he buried his face back in the book, trying to look interested. He was vaguely aware of some movement and he peeked again: she was gone. He suddenly realised he had been holding his breath and gasped with relief, when the old woman’s head suddenly loomed in right next to his and said: “Very good idea, that, reading it upside down. A sovereign remedy against... what is it?... oh, yes: insanity.” Oscar jumped, dropping the book. “I was just looking...” he said, bending to pick it up. The old woman reached for it too, meeting him at floor level. “You have to be careful what you just look at in here,” she fixed Oscar with a wide grin and then snatched the book up while he was distracted, straightening up and jamming it back on the shelves. “Where’s your, um,” she fumbled for a word, “Magister? Off shopping?” Oscar didn’t have a clue what she was talking about but he got the feeling

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that this was an important question – if he got it wrong he would give himself away: this old woman who realise that he didn’t belong here. He’d get thrown out! He had to think of an answer fast! “You’re here on your own aren’t you?” the woman jabbed a finger at him while he was still hesitating; “You snuck away from your, your... magister and crept in here on your own.” “Please,” Oscar grabbed her hand, “Please, I don’t know what a ‘Magister’ is – I don’t know what any of this is: I just wanted to have a look – I won’t tell anyone, I promise...” “Don’t know what a, a... what one of those is? How did you get in here?” “My uncle sent me this book, you see,” Oscar yanked his backpack round and started rummaging in it, “And it had this piece of paper in it and it said this was here and...” he pulled out the book and the old woman snatched it from him gleefully. “Kennedy’s Primer,” she said, wistfully, stroking the cover. She started riffling through the pages. “Please,” said Oscar, “You won’t throw me out, will you? I just wanted to see…” “Throw you out?” She looked up from the book, grinning from ear to ear, “Throw you out? My dear boy, you are in the middle of the most extra... extera... amazing experience of your life: why would I stop that? Besides,” and she leant in close again, “I’m not supposed to be here, either.” Her grin was now so manic that Oscar couldn’t help wondering whether he had accidentally made friends with a mad person. “Maggs,” said the woman, still grinning. Oscar just stared at her, not quite sure what she meant but afraid of being impolite. “Maggs,” she said it again and nodded with emphasis. Oscar tried to think of something noncommittal to say but then she thrust a free hand at him and said: “And you are?” Oh! ‘Maggs’ must be her name! “Oscar, I’m Oscar… pleased to meet you…” she grabbed his proffered hand and jerked it up and down vigorously. “Ah, this is so... what’s the word?... Thrilling! It’s thrilling! Where shall we begin?” “Begin?” Oscar couldn’t help wondering what he had got himself into now.

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“Learning, you’ve got to learn – it is the duty of all young Magi.” “A what? What’s a majy? Is it like a magician?” “Don’t let any of this lot hear you say that! Oh, he knows nothing! This is so... what was the word? I just said it, just now, what was it? Thrilling! It’s truly thrilling!” Maggs clasped Kennedy’s Primer to her and sighed, then she beamed down at him and handed the book back. “Well,” she said, “since we’re here, we might as well start here: these books here, all around us are all... what are they? Help me out here...” Oscar couldn’t tell whether this was a test or just her forgetting a word again. He looked at the books she was gesturing at. They must all be part of the same series – shiny white covers with bold black text on the spines: “The Observer Book of Goblins”, “The Observer Book of Sylphs”, “...of Dwerger”, “...of Naiads”... he took a guess... “Guides?” “Guides! That’s it, they’re all guides... the question being: what are they guides to?” “Well, that one says something about Swamp Monsters.” “No, dear, that question was ret... rehetoreh... I’ll answer that one myself: they’re guides to what we call Spirits. “You see, all around us, everywhere we go, there are spirits. It’s difficult to explain just what they are: they’re not really creatures like you’d think of them, more like... like... a force, or a sensation, or a potent... potentate... something that could exist. “Perhaps you know a place that has a strange feeling to it – a lonely standing stone on a lost moor somewhere, or a room that’s always cold... a shivel up the spine, goosebumps, a nervous wind...” “Like a haunted house?” Oscar had read about haunted houses. He liked the idea of ghosts, as long as they were happening to other people. “Exactly – in fact a haunted house is always a tell tale sign of an active spirit. But most spirits aren’t active at all – they’re dormice... no... sleeping... inactive, you see – so we have all these guides telling you how to find them and recognise them when you do...” “Wow,” Oscar tried to sound appropriately amazed, but he couldn’t help feeling that all this sounded rather like a slightly more exotic form of bird

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watching, “And what do you do when you’ve found them? Write them down?” “Ah, well, that’s the fun bit,” Maggs grinned again, “This way...” She beckoned to him and he followed her down the aisle of books and round a corner into an entirely new section.

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4
Magic and Terror After the dim calm of the shelves of books, this department was bright and colourful. They walked between tall shelves filled with glittering glassware and shining, mysterious contraptions. At the end of the shelves was a table on which was set up some kind of scientific experiment: retort stands and flasks, beakers and pipes. A bright blue rock in the bottom of a bottle steamed out yellow smoke that condensed in a long coil of pipe into a thick scarlet liquid that oozed down through a column of glass beads. Beyond, at the end of a further set of shelves, something was buzzing and throwing out sparks. Beyond that Oscar could see the great wall of drawers that he had glimpsed earlier, where a shop assistant was weighing out garish powders on a set of scales. “Alchemy!” Maggs was gesturing at the experiment, “Oldest of all the sciences... First find your spirit, then libby... libiberal... set it free. This is how you conjure a spirit out of its hiding place, you see.” “It looks like chemistry,” Oscar was doubtful: this reminded him a little too much of school. “It is chemistry!” Maggs seemed inappropriately enthusiastic, “Without the alchemy of the Magi, there wouldn’t be any chemistry – there wouldn’t be any of the modern sciences. Of course, people these days don’t think anyone does alchemy anymore: but they’re wrong!” Maggs was shouting and waving her arms about and she was attracting the attention of a distant shop assistant, who was watching her prancing around the display with a snooty expression. Oscar decided he ought to try and distract her. “So magic is all experiments and chemicals?” He could see that all the bubbling and explosions looked like fun, but in his bitter experience such excitement always seem to need too much hard work to get it going. And too much tidying up afterwards. “Ah, no,” Maggs was off again, beetling away between the shelves, “Alchemy is not just a science: it is an art: the art of magic!” They had come through into a more open section of the department, where stands and racks dotted the floor, displaying sequined cloaks, long straggly

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scarves and oddly shaped hats. The floor itself was covered in strange patterns, circles and stars and five sided shapes, and stuffed animals stared down on them from niches in the wall. It was quieter here and the lights were dim. Maggs was standing in the middle of one of the circles drawn on the floor, surrounded by cryptic symbols. “A magic circle,” she was just as enthusiastic about this chalk drawing as she had been about the experiment, “You see, once you’ve liberalated your spirit you have to bind it again, but this time to your own command. The Magi must ensorcel the spirit to obey the words of power...” “Like spells?” Words of power sounded more like the sort of magic Oscar had had in mind when he snuck his way up here. “They are spells! Magical lore handed down through the millennia: the secrets of the ancients,” Maggs spread her arms wide and Oscar became aware that the snooty shop assistant and once again appeared in the distance. “Although, to be honest, they don’t use the ancient lore so much these days,” Maggs was leaning forward conspiratorially, “The Great Work simplified a lot of the rites, made everything a lot easier.” “I see,” said Oscar, he didn’t, of course, but magic made easy sounded perfectly fine to him. “You shall do, you shall do,” Maggs moved away again, dodging around a stand of gnarled old staves, “This way, and I shall show you.” Maggs opened a door in a wall and led them through into the back of a display made up to look like a real room, complete with wood panelling and bookshelves, only with one wall missing so that customers could look in. At one end of the room was tripod with a bronze dish on top that was spewing out purple smoke. As Oscar watched a suit of armour emerged, clanking, from beyond the smoke and dropped a creaking handful of powder into the dish. The smoke turned dark red. At the other end of the room a book on a lectern turned its own pages as a strange billowing, glowing fire jumped in a magic circle on the floor before it. The fire danced and writhed, taking on different shapes: a dragon, a cat, a strange beast like a horse with horns, a small, goblin like creature... Maggs pushed past a skeleton on a stand and ducked under a crocodile hanging from the fake ceiling, stepping down out of the display back onto the shop floor. The suit of armour watched them pass and then heaved itself back to

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its bronze dish. They passed down an aisle of what looked to Oscar like empty fish tanks, turned into one of pet food and supplies and then came out into a small open space. All around them were high walls of cages, stacked one above the other and in each cage were animals: alternately small white dogs and black cats. Normally you might have expected to have heard so many animals before you saw them. Oscar knew well (after many failed attempts to persuade his parents that a pet dog would be good idea) that the normal pet department downstairs in Hammages was a cacophony of barking, yowling, chirping, scraping, banging and rattling. But this one was quite different. The animals sat perfectly still in the centre of their cages, none of them so much as twitching or scratching, all of them staring forwards, breathing gently. The effect was deeply eerie. As they approached, a small black cat came wandering out from behind the cages and, seeing them, sat down in their way, curling its tail around its front paws. It strange air of self-possession seemed to affect even Maggs’ boundless enthusiasm. “Here,” she whispered, “I’ll show you. What’s the time?” Oscar instinctively went to look at his watch and so almost missed what happened next as the black cat quite clearly and unmistakably said: “Four forty eight.” Oscar stared at it, open mouthed, but it didn’t do anything else: it just sat there staring over his shoulder, off into the distance. “What?” was all he could say. “Oh, it’s a simple grandeur...no... glamour! They put it on all the familiars to show that they've been properly enscorce... orlorce... orlated.... spellbound, you see,” Maggs waved her hand at the cages, “You can ask any of them. Any one at all.” “But you’re not going to,” said a voice, “Because you’re leaving, now.” They both turned to find the shop assistant Oscar had noticed earlier standing between the cages, glaring at them. He was thin, balding man, with the kind of wispy moustache that makes you think the owner must have grown it simply to put himself in a bad mood whenever he looks in a mirror. “I’ve been watching you – especially you,” he jabbed a finger at Maggs,

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“Prancing like a twit. And now you’ve really done it - letting animals out of the cages: I’ll have you banned for life – and you:” he turned on Oscar, “We don’t allow unaccompanied children in here.” “He is accompanied,” interjected Maggs. “I’ve told you before,” repeated the shop assistant, “You don’t count.” “But I’ve got my voucher,” Oscar held out the piece of yellow paper with the special offer on it. The man snatched it out of his hand. “Give me that. You won’t be needing that, because you’re leaving – now: out!” “You can’t!” Oscar was too horrified to be able to argue coherently: he was overwhelmed by the thought of all this being snatched away before he had even started exploring, let alone understanding, let alone even learning some real, genuine magic. It was too much to bear. “I can, and I am; I am deputy sub-manager, Alchemy, and given the current security situation....” “I have friends in high places,” Maggs was trying to draw herself up to look imposing but it wasn’t working very well: she wasn’t very tall, even drawn all the way up. “No you don’t,” snapped the shop assistant, “You say that every time and none of them has ever materialised. So this time, out you...” he stopped suddenly, peering over their heads, into the distance, “What have you done now?” Oscar and Maggs turned. Oscar suddenly realised that they had almost come full circle and were back at the books department. Away in the distance, beyond the books, there was what looked like camping things and surveyor’s equipment. Someone was running about down there and shouting. “Tsk, customers,” said the shop assistant, who obviously saw the ‘assisting’ part of his job description as an unnecessary waste of his time, “Stay here.” “I thought you wanted us to leave,” said Maggs. “I’ll be back with security,” shot the assistant over his shoulder as he marched away through the books. “Come on, Maggs,” Oscar tugged at her sleeve, anxious to get away before everything could be spoiled, “While he’s gone.” “Wait a moment, Oscar,” Maggs was staring after the assistant, “There’s something...” Maggs’ voice trailed off, her attention fixed on the distance. What was it now?

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He felt a sudden cold chill - as if a door had been opened somewhere and a wind had blown in from outside. He suddenly realised that all the animals had also turned their heads to look back over his shoulder at the books. He turned that way slowly. The reference section was empty, but away in the distance, among the tents, he could see that the lights had gone out. As he watched more lights went out, plunging more of the department into shadow. Someone was shouting somewhere again. The cold chill was intensifying: there were goose bumps on his arm now. The lights in the further books section went out. Oscar felt panic rising in his throat, as a thick silence rolled in with the dimming light, a silence in which the tiniest noises became at once magnified and distant. Someone screamed and then an old man with a knotted beard ran into the reference section from the darkness beyond. He tripped and fell, bringing a stack of books down with him. Oscar could hear that he was crying. Then the light went out in the reference section. “There’s something...” Maggs’ hand suddenly gripped Oscar’s shoulder. It was as if she was trying to pull him away, but neither of them could move. Oscar shivered: it was really cold now – the cold of deep cellars, of high, lonely places, of stone and ice and dark malice. Something shook the bookshelves like a storm wind passing, lacing Oscar’s face with ice and whipping his breath out behind him. Books fell to the floor, their pages rattling in the wind. And as they watched, something came ratcheting up from the pages, the black, scratchy lines of diagrams and drawings crosshatching together, sketching out a thin, angular, scarecrow figure that stepped up out of the books. A half-completed drawing of something unimaginable, the work of an insane and impossible artist, the shape, the angle, the style constantly shifting and changing as it stalked out of the darkness and lifted a terrible clutch of talons and claws out towards them both. A sudden thump against his back, a scrabble of paws and warm fur against his face and the little black cat that had been sitting on the floor beside them leapt up onto Oscar’s shoulder and launched itself, hissing, at the shape in the darkness. It folded itself away as the cat jumped straight through it, lines and

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stalks snapping as the wind sucked it away, back among the books, bouncing between the shelves like tumbleweed.

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5
A Headlong Escape There was a pause, as if everyone there was holding their breath, then the cat, who was still sitting on the carpet in front of Oscar, stretched extravagantly and there was a heavy sound behind as Maggs fell to the floor. Lights started flickering on in the distance, and in the snapping flashes Oscar could see movement everywhere, more of the strange, shadowy, shifting figures like the one the cat had chased away, jolting down between the aisles, rattling like sticks, jumbling up and over shelves and raking down books and jars in their wake. Somewhere in the distance there was shouting, at first incoherent and scared, but there, further off, the frightened shouts became determined, voices of command and action taking over and taking charge. “Spirits Alive! You’re surrounded by some of the best magic money can buy! Use it!” “To the lifts! You and you, fetch those books, follow me!” One of the creatures came clicking out from between the shelves into the reference section and stopped, its head turning, loose on its neck. The old man who had fallen over whimpered into his beard and the thing unbent towards him, its brittle fingers uncurling. But before it could reach out for him someone came running into book section from the department beyond. “Harker! Brabant!” The man was dressed in a stiff, blue coat with silver stars on the cuffs and the collar. At the sound of his voice the creature’s body suddenly switched, realigning, thin, branching spikes of hands reaching out towards the new arrival. “Oh no, you don’t!” The man snatched a book from the shelves and, letting it fall open in his hand, tore out a page with one swift movement and threw the paper at the monster. The sheet of paper seemed to hang in the air and then began to twist in some unfelt breeze, and as it twisted and flapped, its shape changed, it seemed to grow, extending out great, papery wings. The rattling creature slashed at it, tearing the paper with its claws, but the man was already tearing out another sheet. And another uniformed man came running, and another, and soon the whole

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books department was full of flapping, blundering pages, all batting against the creature like moths against a lightbulb as it swatted at them ineffectually, forced back a step at a time. Then, one after the other, the pages began to wrap round the thing – the creature tore at them but they stuck fast. Its legs were bound together and it stumbled, desperately trying to put out more legs, which were, in turn, bound before they could reach the floor. Then its hands were wrapped up, then its arms, then, like an Egyptian mummy, it fell to the floor, bundled up entirely in sheets of paper. “Right, Brabant, you come with me, Harker, you start rounding up the customers: I want fobs and seals for everyone…” “Come on,” said a voice suddenly startlingly close to Oscar, “Help me get her up, we need to get her out of here.” Oscar turned to find a young woman with a frizzy mop of blonde hair bending over Maggs, trying to wake her up. “What are you doing?” He tried to pull her away, but the woman just shrugged him off. “Don’t be daft and give me a hand: we’ve all got to get out of here – I can’t be found here, I know for a fact that Maggs’ fobs are ten years out of date and I’m betting that you don’t have either,” and she shot him a quick grin over her shoulder, “Now, come on, please Maggs, just wake up.” The black cat wandered up to Maggs and sniffed at her ear. “Darklings!” Maggs suddenly sat upright with a cry that sent the cat scampering back behind Oscar’s legs. “Its alright, Maggs,” said the young woman, “They’ve gone, but unfortunately only because the Knights Watchmen have arrived – so we’ve got to get out of here, pronto.” “Alright, alright, let me just get my legs working again…” Maggs suffered herself to be helped to her feet, “And how were you…” she suddenly stopped and peered at the young woman suspiciously. “Ridley,” said the woman, helpfully, “You’ve met me before, at the Temple… with Thursby?” “Thursby!” Maggs obviously recognized the name and was glad to hear it. “Come on,” the young woman tugged at her elbow, “If we can get out of here, I can take you to him.”

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“And Oscar,” said Maggs, suddenly grabbing hold of Oscar’s arm, “We can’t leave Oscar behind.” “I wouldn’t dream of it,” said the young woman and smiled at him again. There was something infectious about the smile that appealed to Oscar immediately, the way it flashed across her otherwise concerned and anxious face, “Now, if we have everyone, let’s go, now!” She planted a hand in Oscar’s back and pushed him ahead of her, crouching down to keep her head out of sight below the tops of the shelves. They soon found themselves in a gloomy corner, facing a huge pair of concertinaed metal doors. “The goods lift,” huffed Ridley as she hauled on one of the doors, “It’s how I get in here without being seen: give us a hand, will you, Oscar.” The doors gave a horrible grinding squeal as they yanked back on them and in reply shouts went up all over the department. “Over here! In the corner! To me, to me!” Ridley gave up on the doors and started pushing Maggs through the slight gap they had opened. “Come on, Maggs, breathe in… quickly now, Oscar, we don’t have much time – quick! The doors!” Now inside the lift, Oscar threw all his weight behind Ridley, as the doors grinded agonizingly closed. Through the opening he could see one of the uniformed men running towards them, a black rod clutched menacingly in his hand and something else, too: the black cat, the one had saved them from the terrifying creature, who came scooting through the closing gap as the door finally gave way and clanged shut, and the lift dropped away beneath them. “Goodness,” Maggs slumped against the wall of the lift, “That was a close shave.” “We’re still being shaved,” said Ridley with a grim smile, “It’s not over yet – they’ll be on the look out for us now.” “Who will?” Oscar was bewildered, “Who were those people? Why are they chasing us? What were those things? What were they doing? How…?” “If I’d wanted to be ruthlessly interrogated,” Ridley laughed, “I could have just stayed behind.” “Be serious, young lady,” Maggs bent down to be on a level with Oscar, which,

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for her, wasn’t far, “Those were the Knights Watchmen, Oscar, they’re a sort of police force.” “Magic police?” “You really don’t know who the Knights Watchmen are?” Ridley was astonished, and became serious herself, “You’ve got yourself into a very dangerous fix, Oscar, and you’ve just made some very dangerous enemies…” “But not the most dangerous,” Maggs gave Ridley a meaningful glance. “Yes, I saw that…” They both looked at Oscar with such serious expressions that he felt quite uncomfortable. Maggs was about to speak when the lift suddenly juddered and started squealing to a stop. “Quick, Oscar, help me with this door again!” Ridley started pulling at the handle, “Stick close together, everyone, this is going to be tricky!” They turned straight out of the lift and out through a pair of battered doors into a gloomy side street. It was dark already, even though it was still quite early, and the trees in the small park opposite were spindly, leafless shadows against the sky. With Ridley pulling at their hands, they stumbled out into the Christmas crowds. They were somewhere behind Hammages, in dim back streets away from the seasonal lights and dazzled throngs, but even here there were plenty of shoppers, jostling to and fro, forcing them to dodge and duck, forcing their way upstream. “Ridley, where are you taking us?” “There’s a… It’s a…” Ridley was looking up, nervously scanning the roofs of the buildings around them, “I better not say, but it’s a safe place.” Oscar couldn’t quite tell what she was afraid of, but after what he had seen this afternoon, he didn’t like to imagine what it might be. He couldn’t stop glancing up at the roofs whenever he dared, trying to spot what Ridley might have been looking for, but he couldn’t see anything in the wintry darkness, just the outlines of cranes and air-conditioning units and gargoyles and… one of the gargoyles suddenly shifted and moved: a black figure against the night, which then leapt out over the canyon of a street and disappeared among the towers and balustrades of the building opposite. He froze, trying to catch it again, any glimpse of movement in the shadows, and then he realized that Ridley and Maggs had gone, slaloming between

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terminally snarled traffic at a junction. He sprinted after them, breathlessly, “Maggs, Maggs… there was something… on the roof…” “They’re after us,” Ridley nodded, grimly, “Come on, we don’t have much time…” and she was off again, pulling them down another side street. Gradually they were now running beyond the shopping crowds into empty streets of darkened shop fronts, places already closed for the evening. A lot of them seemed to be clothes shops, with windows full of dummies and racks of clothes disappearing away into the shadows. As they were passing one, Oscar glanced in. And at that moment one of the mannequins, draped about in a lacy wedding dress, turned its head and met his gaze. He froze, stunned, as the mannequin raised an arm and pointed at him. Then it lurched forward, its outstretched finger banging against the glass. He could hear it shouting, wordlessly, muffled. Maggs grabbed him. “Spirits!” she pulled him after her, across a road, “Quickly, they’ve set spirits to look for us!” “This way!” shouted Ridley, “We’ve got to keep moving.” Ridley raced up another street and then turned suddenly down under a dim arch that Oscar had almost missed, leading them through into a dingy little alley way tucked in between gloomy buildings. The alley was cobbled and slick with rain, and clattering down through it was like suddenly turning back in time. “Come on, you two...” Ridley called over her shoulder, “They have spirits set all over London, a network of spies and informants, but as far as I know they’re mostly on the main roads. If we stick to the back streets and alleyways, we might be able to slip the net.” “Or we might not,” said Maggs, grabbing her by the arm, “Listen...” They all stopped, barely daring to breathe, and there it was, above the sounds of cars and shoppers and the million accidents and rackets of London, a deep, lonely, ringing bark: a dog, a large dog, baying at the winter sky, and somewhere another bayed in answer, and another, belling out across the city. “Wish Hounds...” whispered Ridley, “They’ve set Wish Hounds on our trail... come on! There’s no time to lose!” They plunged down a narrow passageway, past a sudden burst of light and life in an open pub door, and out into another street. “Too late!” shouted Maggs, “We’re doomed! Look: there!”

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She was pointing at a small, white Yorkshire terrier in a little tartan coat on the other side of the road, which was quite happily minding its own business, sniffing a lamppost. But as Oscar watched it suddenly stiffened and brought its head up. And it started to swell, no, grow - getting bigger and stronger. The belt of its coat snapped and it fell away. The dog, now the size of a Labrador, turned towards them. Its hair was still white, but it’s ears hand gone a deep, bloody red. So had its eyes and it was looking straight at them. Then it threw back its head and started baying at the skies. At that the black cat suddenly leapt into the road and ran straight in front of the Hound. The dog’s head snapped round and then it turned and raced after the cat, baying at full cry. “Quick!” Ridley grabbed Oscar and pulled him after her, in the opposite direction, “Once again that cat has saved our bacon,” she said, hurrying along, “Remind me to buy it a fish... if we see it again.” There was barking coming from all around them now - it was difficult in the maze of streets to tell exactly where the dogs were. “Wait,” Oscar grabbed Ridley’s coat, “We haven’t lost them all: they’re not all following the cat.” Ridley stopped and listened. “I think you’re right...” “I’ve got an idea – Maggs, give your coat to that homeless man.” “Charity is all very commendable, Oscar...” “Hang on,” said Ridley, smiling, “I think I know what he’s up to... give me a hand,” and she started struggling out of her own coat. “What on earth?” “Dogs hunt using smell, even Wish Hounds,” said Ridley, “Our clothes will have our scent on, if we can just confuse that trail a bit...” “Of course, of course: brilliant!” Maggs started unbuttoning her own coat. “Excuse me,” Oscar ran up to a boy about his age who was gazing at a pile of computer games in a shop window, “Swap you for your coat - mine’s practically new.” The boy looked at him with an appraising eye. “I’ll take your coat and your trainers.” Oscar looked down at his trainers - the birthday present he had asked for so desperately. The trainers that everyone at school had wanted: the trainers that

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the Wish Hounds were hot on the trail of. “Ok, it’s a deal.” “Hurry up, then, my mum’s ‘sposed to be meeting me...” “I’m hurrying, don’t worry.” Maggs came running up as Oscar was tying the laces on his new - well, second hand and not so nice - shoes. “Ah, shoes - good thinking!” “Come on, you two,” shouted Ridley from across the street, “The running will keep us warm, even without coats,” and she was off down another side street, with Maggs and Oscar following close behind. They came out into a bustling main street, with crowds of shoppers pushing to and fro, in and out of shops, getting in each others’ ways and becoming more and more unseasonal with each shop. Ridley made to cross the road when Maggs caught hold of her arm and pointed. Oscar followed her finger to a tall building on the opposite side of the road, something that appeared to be a pub that was trying, very hard, to be a medieval castle and an Arabic palace all at the same time, climbing upwards in a forest of turrets and spires. At the very top of these was an ornamental knight, holding a golden banner, who, as Oscar watched, gave an extravagant stretch and then bent down to examine the people passing by so far beneath him. “Spirits,” whispered Maggs, “They’re still watching...” “And not just them,” hissed Ridley, “Look out...” and without warning she grabbed both of them, turning them away from the road, to stand up against the glass of a TV showroom, gazing at their own reflections in the glass. “Look!” There must have been a video camera set up somewhere in the window, because one of the TVs on display was showing the pavement behind them and on it Oscar could now clearly see two Knights Watchmen strolling apparently casually down the street, a Wish Hound at their heels, for all the world just another pair of Christmas shoppers. “We’ve just got to get across the road,” hissed Ridley, “Bloomsbury is pretty clear, usually.” “It’s no good, Ridley,” squeaked Maggs, “They’re everywhere.” “They’re not the only ones,” said Oscar, who had caught sight of something

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else on the TV, “Follow me, I’ve got an idea.” He turned away from the shop window before either of the other two could react and then, they too, turning to stop him, found themselves caught up in a great bustle of American tourists, the crowd Oscar had spotted on the TV screen. The three of them quickly found themselves surrounded by chattering tourists, swept along, right past the Knights Watchman, and across the road. Ridley shouldered them out of the crowd and the three of them escaped up a side street and out of danger.

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6
Questions Answered The tower caught Oscar completely by surprise – in the drizzle and the dark he hadn’t been looking about him and he had no idea that anything that large could possibly be there until he was standing there with it looming over him, out of the orange streetlight, up into the cloudy night. It was a white, square tower, solid and stern, and it seemed so huge that Oscar couldn’t quite believe that he had never seen it before, but no one else was particularly surprised by it – all Maggs said was: “What are we doing here?” “Oh,” Ridley looked crestfallen, “You don’t...?” She chewed at her lip for a moment and then obviously made a decision, “Well, let’s see – follow me...” and she led them through the gates and into the building. Despite its forbidding appearance and, Oscar had to admit, impressive entrance hall, the tower itself was actually disappointingly homely inside. It seemed, in fact, like nothing so much as a big and important school, with hardwearing linoleum floors and bland official paintwork. Ridley ushered them all into an ancient looking lift and they creaked up several floors until she led them out into a deserted corridor and then through an unmarked door into what, to Oscar’s eyes, looked unfortunately like a schoolroom. One end of the room was taken up with a large table, crowded with complicated looking bits of apparatus, all strange glass containers suspended from various metal frames and retorts, some of which Oscar cheerfully recognised from Hammages, which he presumed meant they were magic, in some way. Elsewhere there were a number of chairs, of all different kinds, with small tables spread between them; the walls were lined with bookcases and, in the few gaps where there weren’t bookcases, prints and posters: a night sky with the constellations drawn in, some of them quite new to Oscar, maps of countries he didn’t recognise, strange diagrams and charts and a couple that looked worryingly medical. Ridley stood expectantly in the middle of the room and looked at them:

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“Well?” “Um...” Maggs was evidently as little impressed as Oscar, “It’s very nice, I’m sure...” “You don’t remember it?” Ridley’s smile slipped. “Should I, dear?” “Well, I’m afraid so, yes...” Ridley shrugged and turned to sit on the edge of the large table, “I was rather hoping I might jog some memory or something, but... it’s your study, Maggs – where you taught your apprentices – don’t you remember it at all?” “Mine? This is my room?” Maggs stumbled backwards into one of the chairs and gazed around her in amazement, “I... I... no... I’m sorry, Ridley, I don’t, I don’t recognise it at all...” “No, I’m sorry, Maggs, I shouldn’t have just sprung it on you like that...” “Hang on a minute,” Oscar was confused, “I don’t understand – how can you not remember your own room, Maggs?” Maggs looked up at him and then at Ridley, who gave her a sad smile. She turned back to Oscar. “Oscar, I have a confetti... confession to make... I’m not a Magi. I was once; I was, everyone tells me, a great one, a powerful one, but then... the Darklings came....” “Darklings? You said that before – those things in Hammages, that attacked us...” “Dark spirits,” said Ridley, grimly, “Spirits beyond the control of the Magi – there are many of those, of course, but these ones are different – they are rebels, determined to attack the Magi, to defeat them... ‘The Wild Ride’ they call themselves, they first appeared about twenty years ago – before my time, really...” “I... I don’t remember it myself....” Maggs shook her head, “To me now the time before the Wild Ride is like a story someone told me once. All I remember is waking up knowing that I knew something once but that I now couldn’t remember what it was - there was a hole in my mind: they had taken my magic away from me. I still have trouble, with words, with some things, memories – they are slippersly, you see? “Anyway I wasn’t the only one. The Wild Ride were everywhere and we were all afraid. And their magic is dark and, what’s the word? Wrong... different... the

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Knights Watchmen can’t track them any better than anyone else could: they can’t find them, they can’t stop them. So they decided to do the next best thing: to hide us instead. They covered places like Hammages and the Temple with glamours and wards, they sealed up our houses and colleges, they watched our every movement and moment, keeping us secret and safe. We call it The Veil and it keeps us hidden from the world.” “Well, it did,” said Ridley, “Now the Wild Ride are back, walking through the Veil like its not there and no one is safe.” “And the Knights Watchmen are worse than ever,” continued Maggs, “You saw that for yourself - before they might have been strict and over-protectortive, now they persecute us and punish us for our own vulna... vulneral... weakness, they’re no longer interested in keeping us safe - they want to keep us subbujuggered, too. Now we don’t just hide from the Darklings, we hide from the Watchmen, too...” “Which is why we need places like this,” said Ridley, “It was a really lucky find – the private rooms of Magi are always secured and hidden by magic, you see, Oscar, but after what happened to Maggs, this room was left open to anyone to enter, but still secret, if you follow me – the perfect refuge from the Watchmen, really.” “Do you really not recognise any of it, Maggs?” asked Oscar. “No, dear me, no – I’m not sure I even recognisise the person who used it, if you see what I mean...” “That’s something else,” Oscar was still trying to puzzle it all out, “If you’re not that same person any more, how come the Darklings are still trying to get you? Why you?” “They’re spirits,” interjected Ridley, “We can’t expect them to behave like rational humans.” Maggs shook her head, “And part of the problem is that I don’t really know why they attacked me in the first place – I can’t remember, after all...” “But if this is your room, maybe there’s something in it, something that can give us a clue...” Oscar ran to the table at the top of the room, pulling out a drawer underneath it. All that was inside was some blotting paper and a small metal box that rattled as the drawer opened. “I’m afraid I’d already tried that – there’s nothing,” said an unexpected voice.

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7
Knights Errant They had all been so intent on Maggs’ story that they hadn’t heard the door open and they all jumped at the interruption. The figure who had spoken from the doorway was an extraordinary scarecrow of a man, with wild curly black hair and a too small suit that he stuck out of at strange angles. His glasses were held together with sticking plaster, but the eyes behind them were bright and amused. “Thursby!” Maggs was evidently delighted with the newcomer. Ridley nodded to him and he smiled back at her. “Marion,” he said, which Oscar could only assume to be Ridley’s first name, “This was lurking outside – is it anything to do with you, or is it a Darkling spy?” Thursby held out his hand and presented them with the little black cat, who stared at them solemnly. “Hardly a Darkling,” said Maggs, “In fact, quite the reverse. This little cat not only saved us from the Wish Hounds but from the Darklings that attacked Hammages.” “Then the rumours are true?” said another voice, “There really were Darklings in Hammages?” The person standing behind Thursby in the doorway couldn’t have been more different. This was a neat and tidy little person, with a carefully parted lick of fair hair and a precisely pressed suit, with clever dark eyes and a polite half smile directed at everyone and no-one. “And yet you’re the ones the Watchmen are scouring London for, I take it?” Thursby was smiling but there was a seriously tone to his voice, “What have you and your little friend been up to, Maggs?” “Ah, this is Oscar, Clive,” Maggs waved Oscar forward, “Oscar, this is Clive Thursby: Oscar saved my life.” “Cuddy, Murray,” Thursby gestured at the neat person and at the third bringing up the rear, a large, raw individual with a shock of bright red hair and eyebrows to match, “Pleased to meet you, especially if you saved Maggs’ life.” “Oh, he did,” interrupted Ridley, “I saw it all, the spirit – the cat, you know – came to his aid voluntarily, saw off the Darklings.” “Voluntarily?” Cuddy was very surprised – although it did little to disturb his

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neatness – and Thursby and Maggs exchanged significant glances. “The terrible work the King hath wrought shall by the King’s own hand be brought to naught,” muttered Maggs. “And your reward for this heroism? Persecution from the Watchmen,” Thursby seemed extraordinarily satisfied by this. “But I didn’t do anything wrong,” protested Oscar, “At least, I don’t think I did...” “You didn’t!” roared Thursby, “That’s precisely the point! Isn’t this just typical of what the Knights Watchmen have become? These aren’t our guardians, these are our jailers!” Thursby had suddenly leapt into action, jerking round the room and waving his lanky arms wildly, but no one seemed surprised by this: this was evidently an impassioned speech that he gave often and they were quite used to it. “They can’t protect us any more, that’s evident from today, and so what do they do? They persecute those least able to stand up to them. Well, perhaps someone else ought to.” “Oh, and what are you going to do, Clive?” Cuddy was scornful, “Write a stiff letter to the Lord Protector?” “Skelton’s gone away,” said Ridley, “He left yesterday – on the trail of the Wild Ride, apparently.” “Who’s Skelton?” whispered Oscar to Maggs. “The Lord Protector,” she replied, which explained absolutely nothing, “The commander of the Knights Watchmen, the most powerful of the Three Wise Lords of the Magi.” Oscar only understood a little of what she was saying, but the way she said it explained more – he could hear the fear and awe in her voice and it told him all he wanted to know bout this Lord Skelton. “How do you know that?” Murray glowered at Ridley from under his eyebrows, “Skelton keeps his movements secret.” “Oh yes,” Thursby was grinning at him, “Only the Watchmen know – you haven’t met Marion yet, have you, Murray?” Thursby swept out a hand in introduction, “Marion Ridley, Knight Watchman.” “In training,” Ridley interjected but Murray still leapt backwards, a knobbly finger jabbing out at her. “Thursby! Are you insane? Letting one of them in here? She knows too much, she’ll have to be dealt with!” he put considerable relish into this last phrase and

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Oscar could see that he rather liked the idea of ‘dealing with’ someone. “I think that would be rather unfair,” continued Thursby, calmly, “Considering that it was me who suggested that she take Skelton up on his offer.” “You?” Maggs was gazing at Ridley in confusion, “But why?” “Surely you should know that,” said Ridley, who didn’t seem in the least bit worried about Murray, “Who but a Watchman could have helped you escape from the Watchmen? Who could be more useful to a rebellion than a member of the secret police? I think it was an inspired idea of Clive’s.” “So do I,” said Thursby, smugly, “With someone inside the Knights Watchmen, we will know everything they know, everything they’re planning, we will have the upper hand.” “Then this is our chance,” Murray was excited, his eyebrows dancing up and down. “Oh yes, because without Skelton, there’s only a hundred Knights Watchmen left in London,” Cuddy scoffed, his precise voice clipped and sour, “This is ridiculous – all we ever do is skulk around in here, muttering useless threats to each other...” “If we all stand together...” continued Murray. “We can all go to the White Tower together,” finished Cuddy. “Ah, the White Tower again,” Thursby smiled, “Cuddy’s duties take him there sometimes,” he explained to Oscar, “and its all he can think about – its exactly what they want, of course, they want us to be thinking of it all time: we’re already prisoners of it, dammit!” “But it’s horrible, Clive, it really is: you haven’t seen it: so many of them, just sitting there, marooned in themselves...” Cuddy’s voice grew faint, “Everyone who’s ever tried to stand up to the Watchmen, all with the life stamped out of them... so many of them...” his voice tailed away. “So the White Tower is some kind of prison?” Oscar had figured that much out, “Full of enemies of the Watchmen?” Thursby suddenly turned his bright stare fully at Oscar, a manic expression springing to life in his eyes. “Oh, I like this boy, Maggs, I like him very much,” Thursby placed a hand on Oscar’s shoulder, “Yes, Oscar, all the enemies of the Knights Watchmen... a whole army of them, all in one place, all begging to be freed.” There was a brief silence and then Murray, the light dawning in his face, gave

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a wordless shout and started capering around the room. Cuddy was aghast. “Clive, what are you suggesting?” “What do you think he’s suggesting?” crowed Murray, “Tearing down the White Tower, destroying everything it stands for!” “But you can’t...” Cuddy seemed speechless with fear. “Of course I can! What could be better: a whole army of Magi just sitting there, just yearning for their revenge against the Knights Watchmen – its perfect – and we could do it, too – you’ve told me yourself a hundred times that they don’t bother with guards...” “We’d have to get in there, first – I have to be accompanied by a Watchman when I go.” “And you will be,” Ridley stepped forward, “I’ve been there myself, with Skelton – they’ll know me.” “It’s madness,” insisted Cuddy. “It’s brilliant,” Maggs pulled herself up from her chair and clapped Thursby on the back. “It’s Oscar we have to thank,” said Thursby, “Oscar, could you go to that drawer your were rifling through earlier and fetch me the little tin box inside – Maggs, this concerns you, too – I’m afraid we’ve rather been keeping you in the dark about this, for the same reason that we haven’t told you about his place before: I didn’t want to make any more trouble for you...” Thursby took the box, which had apparently once contained something called Gold Flake, from Oscar and opened it. Inside, Oscar could see, were lots of tiny metal shapes, like six sided coins, all with designs stamped on them and a hole punched in one tip. “...but if we’re going to do what we’re going to do...” Thursby lifted one of the metal shapes out and held it up to Oscar, “This, Oscar, is what we call a fob – all the Magi have one, usually several – here on my key chain, there on Maggs’ bracelet, there on Ridley’s watch chain...” Oscar looked round and suddenly realised that everyone had some of these bits of metal hanging from a chain or a band somewhere on them – many of them were different shapes and types of metal – some of them even seemed to be little figures or models – some of the Magi, like Maggs, had many of them (although hers all looked quite old), some of them, like Murray, only had a few. The fob in Thursby’s hand had stamped on it the figure of a knight, holding aloft

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a lance with a banner floating from it. “Your fobs tell other Magi about you, who you trained under, what your specialities are, what organisations you belong to... This, this is the fob of a secret society, a banned organisation – if you wear it, it will be an open admission that you defy the Knights Watchmen, that you are a rebel, but it will also make you one of us, one of the Knights Errant...” “But...” Oscar had just noticed something that he didn’t understand, “Maggs has already got one of those.” “What?” Maggs started and grabbed at her bracelet, rattling through the shapes that hung off of it. “There,” Oscar singled one out, “That’s the same shape, isn’t it? It’s the same one.” “Good God,” Maggs stared at it, astonished, “I’d never – I barely look at them any more, I don’t remember what any of them mean, I... How could I...? How could this have got there?” “Because you, Maggs,” said Thursby, “Are a Knight Errant, already – you have been for years, you were one of the founder members, back before the Darklings, before you lost your magic.” “But how? Why? Why did no one tell me?” “Because of what happened to you – because the Knights Errant were banned and everyone wanted to forget about them – well, the Knights Watchmen did, at least. You see, Oscar,“ Thursby turned back to him, holding out the metal shape, “The Magi have always kept themselves secret, but the Knights Errant believed that the whole world should have magic, that the Magi should use their power for the good of everyone, so that’s what they set out to do...” “It’s a sort of play on words, you see,” interrupted Ridley, “In legend a Knight Errant is a Knight who goes about, doing good, rescuing princesses and killing dragons, all that sort of thing, but to be ‘errant’ also means to be wrong – which is what we are, according to the laws of the Magi – all wrong.” “And proud of it,” said Murray. “And that’s we’re setting out to do, you see,” continued Thursby, “We’re going to break all the rules, and break all the rulers, and make magic free again: will you join us, Oscar: are you one of us?” Oscar stared at the shape in Thursby’s hand, and then at all the faces in the room, all staring at him, waiting for his decision. And there, at his feet, was the

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little black cat, who slowly closed her eyes and dipped her head in something like a nod. Oscar reached out and took the fob. “Count me in,” he said.

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8
The White Tower Oscar could feel the unfamiliar shape of the Knight Errant fob digging into his leg as he ran. Ridley had given up her keychain so that it could be clipped on and now it hung down from his belt loop into his trouser pocket. They were running through dark, rainy streets in the orange glow of streetlamps and with each step Oscar could feel the fob twisting and turning. Three more Magi had joined them as they were leaving Maggs’ old study, and Oscar could see that all of them were carrying the Errant fob on them, too – this then, was the company he had joined, desperate, passionate and embarked on a mission of impossible danger, but all of them, all of them including him, Magi, casters of spells and masters of spirits. It was all so extraordinary, so exciting that Oscar could barely the resist the temptation to shout it out at every Christmas shopper they passed. But there was no time, no chance. He was picked up and swept along by the Magi, galvanised by their excitement as they weaved through the crowds and dodged the traffic. Excitement and something else, excitement and fear... “What is the White Tower?” He panted at Maggs, “Is it like a castle? A dungeon? Cuddy said it was terrible.” “Oh it is, but not how you’re thinking - the terrible thing about the White Tower is that no matter how afraid you are to go there, once you’re there you’ll never want to leave.” “I’m not sure I understand.” “It’s hard to explain - but I’m afraid you’re probably going to find out for yourself tonight, one way or another.” They came out of an alleyway round the back of a theatre and stopped. There, ahead of them on the other side of a busy junction, was not a grim castle or an ancient, crumbling prison, but a huge, pale tower block, stretching up into the rain. There were lights on here or there but towards the top the windows were black and endless, divided into dark squares of night by a network of grey concrete. Shoppers and traffic milled here and there around its feet, but there was something immense and distant and lonely about the tower itself that seemed to isolate it completely from the life all about. Maggs’ hand found Oscar’s.

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“The White Tower,” she said, and her voice trembled as she spoke. The security guard in the lobby looked like any other security guard in any building in London, except that, Oscar noticed, he had the same silver emblems on his shoulder flashes as the men in Hammages had worn on their uniforms. He was no ordinary night watchman, then. “Inspection delegation,” said Cuddy and Ridley flashed her Watchmen fob as they passed and trouped into the lifts. The guard barely stirred. “Floor thirteen,” said Cuddy. Oscar looked at the panel of buttons for the floors. There was no button thirteen; it went straight from floor twelve to floor fourteen. “Press buttons one and three at the same time,” said Cuddy, “Normal people think that floor thirteen was just left out for superstitious reasons. They don’t know it’s really there.” Thursby pressed the buttons and the lift started up. “Be warned,” said Cuddy in a low voice, “And be ready, its not... nice...” The doors opened to a dead silence. Beyond was a completely empty corridor. It was neutral, bland, the sort of corridor that you might find in any large office building. Gray carpet and off white walls and above, the glare of fluorescent strip lighting. The corridor stretched away into the distance ahead of them. At intervals, Oscar could see, there were junctions where other corridors ran off to the left and right. All the way down the corridor there were doorways. There were no actual doors, just an opening with a chain slung across and a notice reading ‘Keep Out’. As they all filed quietly out of the lifts, no one daring to speak, Oscar could see that each doorway opened into a tiny, undecorated, windowless office. Each office was completely bare but for a single red plastic chair and on each chair sat a person. The people were all different - young, old, well dressed, shabby, men and women, but each had the same look on their faces. Sitting there, hands folded in their laps, staring straight ahead, glassy eyed, as if not actually seeing anything. And there, at the back of their eyes, was just the glimmering of an expression, just a hint of an awful quiet desperation and terror. “Stars and Night...” whispered Thursby. “I told you,” said Cuddy. “Its awful,” whispered Maggs.

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“Then it’s a good thing we’re here, isn’t it?” Thursby ushered everyone out of the lift, “It’ll take two people for each prisoner, you’ll have to carry them out, right?” “And you’ll have to be quick,” added Cuddy, “You mustn’t let the Tower capture you, too...” The group split quietly up into pairs. The whole place had a chilling, dead feel. Sound was dulled, no one wanted to speak too much or too loudly, everything was too quiet. “I don’t understand,” Oscar sidled up next to Maggs, “Are those the prisoners? Why don’t they just walk out of the rooms?” “Because they can’t,” said Maggs, quietly, “That’s the thing about the White Tower - it makes you your own jailer: you imprison yourself. Once you’re put into one of the rooms, you fall under the influence of the spirits of the Tower and they show you, well, things, visions - they seem real to the prisoners, though - it might be anything, your heart’s desire or your most terrible nightmare, but it will be the one thing you can’t tear yourself away from. Anyone of them could stand up and walk out of those rooms right now, but they can’t quite bring themselves to do it. And you know what the truly awful thing is? They know it. Every one of them knows that all it would take is the tiniest bit of will power and they would be free, but they can’t quite do it and so there they stay, locked up for the rest of their lives by themselves.” Cuddy appeared at one of the doors and beckoned to them. Maggs put her hand on Oscar’s shoulder to hold him back, but Cuddy beckoned again. “It's alright, it’s not an awful one,” he said in a low voice, “It’s not frightening not in that way anyway, but I think everyone should see at least one. You have to know.” Oscar stepped away from Maggs towards the door and, after a moment, she followed him. Inside the room Cuddy and Murray were standing next to a pale man sitting on the chair in the centre. “His name is Harrison,” whispered Cuddy, “He wrote a book the Lord Protector disapproved of...” As Cuddy was speaking Oscar became aware that his voice was fluttering, like a radio with poor reception. In fact the whole room was flickering and juddering it was like there were two rooms superimposed over the top of each other, one

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the little white office, the other a boy’s bedroom in an ordinary house, covered with posters, with toys scattered under foot. First one room would be there, then another, jumping in and out and then the rooms blurred and, all of a sudden, they were standing in the bedroom. The pale man was sitting on the edge of the bed, reading a comic on his lap. A voice came from somewhere downstairs: “Jonathan! Tea!” The man looked up and saw them. “It’s always tea,” he said, “Sunday afternoon tea. It’s my favourite. I can’t stand it any more. I always loved my mother’s Sunday afternoon tea, but I hate it now. Tell the Lord Protector that I’m sorry, that I didn’t mean it.” The man was crying now, “I just want to go, but I can’t. It’s teatime. My mother died years ago. I think it was years ago. It’s always Sunday in here. It’s always teatime. I want to leave, but I’m afraid I’ll miss tea time.” “Jonathan! Your tea’s ready!” “I’ve got to go, its time for tea,” Jonathan stood up. “Grab him!” shouted Cuddy and he and Murray leapt on the man, each grabbing an arm, and started pulling him away from the door, towards the wardrobe. “No! Let me go, I have to go down to tea! My tea’s ready!” Jonathan was shouting, drumming his heels on the carpet. They were trying to drag him towards the wardrobe but he dug his heels him, pulling them to a stop. “Come on, man!” Cuddy was desperate. Maggs grabbed hold of Oscar. “Come on,” she said, “If we stay here any longer we’ll get caught up in it too.” “Wait,” Oscar wriggled free and ran to Harrison, “Listen;” he said urgently, “I’ve got a game.” Harrison stopped shouting and turned to him, “Are you my friend?” he asked, eagerly. “Yes,” said Oscar, “Listen, lets hide in the wardrobe, and then, when your mother comes to get us, we’ll jump out at her - that’s a good game, isn’t it?” “It’s a great game - it’ll be great!” Harrison was suddenly enthusiastic. He shrugged off the startled Cuddy and Murray and hustled Oscar to the wardrobe. The others crowded in behind him and he wrenched it open and hurried in, right through to the corridor beyond.

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For a moment Oscar was bewildered, not quite sure where he was, then Harrison collapsed on the carpet beside him, sobbing. “I’m out, I’m out!” he was laughing and crying at the same time, great tears rolling down his cheeks. He grabbed hold of Oscar’s legs, which made it difficult to stand up, “Oh, thank you, thank you, I can’t believe I’m finally free!”

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9
The Castle of Mr Hopkins All down the corridor people were coming out of the offices, freeing prisoners out of their captivity. Some walked out, some had to be dragged, some were carried and some were pushed but the moment they stepped free of the doorways all of them were elated, free of the terrible curse of the White Tower. “What in Hel’s name do you think you’re doing?” The voice was clear and strong in the otherwise deadening silence of the Tower and everyone stopped in their tracks and turned. A middle-aged man in Knight’s watchman uniform was standing by the lifts, staring astounded at the scene before him. “We’re ending decades of cruel and unnecessary punishment, what are you doing?” Thursby was defiant. “I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” The Knight Watchman lifted his black staff. “And how do propose to do that?” Thursby started walking towards him, slowly, and everyone fell into step behind him, the freed prisoners included, so that they now made quite a crowd, filling up the corridor. The Knight Watchman looked at them all, advancing towards him, and wavered. Then he noticed Ridley amongst them. “Ridley?” he said, astonished. “Stand down, Sir Edward,” she said, in a calm voice, “I’m warning you.” “This is treachery, Mistress Ridley, you’ll pay for this.” “No, she won’t,” said Thursby, “But you might.” “He’s the one who arrested me,” said a voice, “He put me in here.” “He has to be punished...” said another. “Lock him up...” “No!” Ridley rounded on them, “We can’t. Stop, all of you, and think. That’s how they act – that’s what they do: lock people up. I’m a Watchman, aren’t I? Are you going to lock me up? If we’re going to do this, then we have to be better than them, we have to show we’re right.” “Alright, Ridley’s right,” Thursby was grudging, “But we need to keep an eye on him anyway. Everyone else, let’s get a move on, we need to get as many people out as possible.” Two of the prisoners stayed to watch the new Knight Watchman, who turned

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out to be called Edward Harker. The rest hurried off to rescue more people from their cells. Harker was persuaded to show Maggs were there was a coffee machine and she and Oscar were just fetching coffee for the freed prisoners when Murray came running up to them. “Maggs,” he was breathless, although Oscar couldn’t tell whether it was with fear, excitement or simple exercise, “Can you come with me, he’s asking for you?” “Asking for me? Who’s asking for me?” “One of the prisoners,” Murray seemed reluctant to say who. “One of the... who is it?” “It’s...” Murray hesitated and leaned in closer, “It’s Hopkins...” Murray’s voice tended to carry, even when he was trying to be quiet and Cuddy, who was passing nearby, stopped dead at the name. “Hopkins?” Harker turned, astonished “Hopkins! You’re trying to let that madman out? I knew you were fools, but this is beyond foolishness.” “Hopkins?” Harrison looked up from his cup of coffee, “But wasn’t he... he was a... a necromancer... I mean, they said...” “Who said, precisely?” interrupted Murray, “Lord Skelton, perhaps? Did he say he was a traitor, that he practised dark magic, that he was dangerous? Skelton said that you were dangerous, Harrison, and we can all see how right he was about that.” “Murray,” Cuddy seemed nervous, “The last thing we need now is someone with a reputation like Hopkins...” “But he’s asking for me,” interrupted Maggs, “He must know... have known me – he might know anything – I can’t not see him, Cuddy, I have to know...” “Then this way, Maggs,” Murray waved her on after him, “Follow me.” “Oscar, wait here for me,” Maggs shot over her shoulder as she trotted after Murray. Maggs didn’t even stop to see whether Oscar was obeying her, so he followed her anyway, and, he noticed, Cuddy followed him. They trotted down several identical corridors until they came to a corner where the corridors stopped. The walls here were covered with slats of a dun coloured material that Oscar could only assume were some kind of blind or curtain. At the corner, yet another identical office. Inside sat a tall, thin man,

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whose yellowing skin was drawn tightly over his skull and whose long, bony fingers were white where they gripped his knees. His face, however, was tipped forward and thrown into shadow so that Oscar could barely make out his features. Murray and Maggs didn’t pause but walked straight in and Oscar and Cuddy followed them. And found himself in the courtyard of a castle. All around them was activity, servants scurrying here and there, cavalry detachments jingling out through an archway, soldiers patrolling the battlements. In front of them was a stone stairway leading up to a pair of huge, ornately carved double doors. Murray started up the stairs and Oscar followed without thinking, bumping into Maggs as he did so. She didn’t even look surprised to see him, but instead just snorted a little in disgust and then smiled, as if she was glad he was there after all. No one seemed to be bothered that Cuddy was bringing up the rear. When they got to the top of the stairs, Oscar noticed that each door had in its centre a carving of Hopkins’ face. They were met at the door by a herald in a bottle green velvet coat and extraordinary facial hair, carrying a long black staff with a complicated silver tip to it. “I have returned to speak with His Majesty,” said Murray, raising an eyebrow at Maggs as he spoke. “His immensity is expecting you,” said the herald and ushered them through the door. Beyond the doors was an enormous hallway whose walls disappeared into shadow above them and whose tiled floor rang under their feet. Halfway down they turned and climbed a carpeted staircase, this one lined with portraits of Hopkins. At the top was another hallway, this one made lumpy and treacherous by the vast number of fine rugs all laid one on top of the other under foot. As the herald led them up a succession of staircases, long and short, spiral and straight, and down a never ending series of hallways, luxurious and thick with decoration, austere and bare, Murray talked to them in a whisper, filling them with Hopkins’ story. “He’s got a whole castle in here, a whole country - for all I know, it could be a whole world,” Murray was breathless. “And he rules it all?” Maggs had guessed what was coming next. “Oh yes, the whole thing,” Murray sounded amazed, “The absolute and

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undisputed ruler. It’s quite incredible - when I came before they were having a ceremony in the courtyard, all pomp and circumstance, you know. According to one of the servants they have it everyday: it’s a coronation - he gets crowned King every morning. A megalomaniac,” Murray barked a short laugh, “Still we shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose,” he went on, “If you believe half the stories about him: conjuring with Darklings, challenging The Three Wise Lords, he was probably half way crazy before they even put him in here.” “Some might have called him crazy,” said Cuddy, “Others might have called it greatness.” “Greatness?” Maggs sounded unconvinced. “At least he stood up to them,” insisted Cuddy, “He didn’t just do as he was told, like everyone else.” “Until Skelton got him, that is,” interrupted Murray. “Then lets hope Skelton doesn’t get any of us, either,” said Maggs. They had come to another, smaller, pair of double doors, again with Hopkins’ face carved into them. The herald threw them open and ushered them in. On the other side was a huge library, with shelves that stretched up to the distant ceiling, filled with books of all shapes and sizes. Only the opposite wall didn’t have any books on it and that was because it was, instead, nothing but windows. Standing silhouetted against the windows, so that Oscar could see nothing but a black shape in the glare of the sunlight, was a figure who could only have been Hopkins. “Maggs, Maggs, is that you...? Have you come?” “Hopkins... um... I’m not sure...” Maggs began. “Maggs, I have something...” Hopkins stopped suddenly, his dry, thin voice floating away into nothing, “...I had something... something I had... The King, Maggs, I had to...” Murray was looking about him at the books on the shelves. “The Uses of Alchemy...” he whispered, half to himself, half to Oscar, “My Family and Other Monsters... How to Win Fiends and Influence People...Blimey,” Murray sounded amazed, “There are books here I’ve never even heard of...” “Master Hopkins,” said Cuddy, “Do you have something to say to us?” “I... No!” Hopkins’ voice suddenly changed, becoming harsher, “What would I have to do with you?”

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“You asked for me,” Maggs was bewildered, “I thought you...” “Listen,” interrupted Murray, “This is our moment, Hopkins, we’re finally doing it, we’re rising up against Skelton and the Wise Lords, we’re freeing the prisoners, we’re taking over...” “Congratulations,” Hopkins sounded unimpressed, “I offer you best wishes on your venture, but I have a revolution of my own to see to...” “A revolution of your own?” “Oh yes,” Hopkins was trying to sound light-hearted but there was an edge of hysteria to his voice, “I have to go and organise a revolution. Against myself. Isn’t it marvellous? Every morning a coronation, every evening a revolution. You must go now - leave me to my kingdom...” His voice suddenly became serious, “...to my library. Go!” Hopkins turned on his heel and stalked away into the bright glare of the sun. “Hopkins...” Maggs called out to him, but the herald had reappeared and was now ushering them back across the room - not towards the door but towards a set of shelves. “Good luck, and good evening...” Hopkins’ voice came floating back across the library as the herald opened the bookshelves and pushed them through, back out into the strip light hum of the White Tower. Cuddy was shaking his head. “I don’t understand it, I just don’t.” “I do,” Maggs was grim, “It’s sent him mad and that’s all there is to it.” “Just what I said,” agreed Murray. “Ah, there you are...” it was Thursby, “You better see this: They’ve arrived.” Thursby led them over to the windows and lifted the curtain to one side. Oscar peered past. They were looking down on a junction where two wide roads met, only you couldn’t see the junction any more: all the roads now just disappeared into a thick fog that completely obscured the crossroads. Through it Oscar could vaguely make out the glow of streetlamps and car headlights and the muffled sound of horns being furiously blown. The fog was spreading, too, creeping up the roads and up the side of the buildings, even up the side of the White Tower itself. Greeny grey tendrils of smoke coiled up from it, reaching to them. There was a black movement on the roof of a theatre opposite but when Oscar looked at it he realised that what he had thought was a raven was nothing of the kind. It was shiny and black and had wings, but that was where the similarity ended. This thing was some kind of reptile, whose scales had a green

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iridescence, like a beetle. It had a long, strong tail with a barb at the end, which it had wound round a gargoyle. It gripped the edge of the building with two wicked claws and flapped its leathery wings. Then it turned at looked at them, its head narrow and pointed, like a dog’s, but covered in curling barbels and curving horns, its teeth sharp and yellow, its eyes like fire. “Wyverns...” breathed Cuddy. A figure climbed up onto the roof by the Wyvern and laid a hand on its head. The figure was wearing the uniform of a Knight Watchman. Something moved on a roof opposite. Another Knight Watchman, another Wyvern. “Oh yes, they’re here, all right,” said Thursby - he sounded pleased about the whole thing. “Come on, we better get ready.” Thursby turned and started walking back towards the lifts. The rest of them followed. “Why’s it so foggy down there?” Oscar asked Maggs. “The fog will hide what happens from the people below - the Knights Watchmen still think they can keep us all a secret - from each other, from the Wild Ride, from the world...” As they approached the lifts Harrison came running up towards them. “One of the lifts is coming up!” He was shouting, “Someone’s coming!” “Stay calm,” Thursby was firm, “We’re an army now - there’s nothing we can’t deal with, together.”

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10
The Battle of the White Tower At that moment the lift bell rang and the doors slid open. At first Oscar thought that the lift was empty but then he realised that the passenger was, in fact, very small. It was a tiny figure, no larger than six inches tall, muddy brown except for a bright blue waistcoat. It had strange little stumpy limbs and indistinct features, apart from its beady bright eyes, like two black buttons. In fact, now he looked closer, not just like: they were black buttons, and it was more than just muddy, it appeared in fact to be made entirely of mud - Oscar could see things stuck in it - bits of old clay pipe, some roots, an old coin. “A homunculus,” confided Maggs, “From the Watchmen.” The homunculus stumped forward out of the lift, leaving behind it a trail of little muddy paw prints. It gestured as expansively as its limited arms would allow. “I bring word from the Knights Watchmen to the rebels and prisoners in the White Tower. If you return to your cells no harm will come to you but should you attempt to resist the rightful representatives of the law of the Council of the Magi then the full force of that law will be pressed against you.” It paused and then said, in a very different tone of voice: “In other words: you’re stuffed, chums.” The homunculus looked very pleased with itself and tried to put its hands in its waistcoat pockets, only it hadn’t any pockets and its arms weren’t long enough, so it only succeeded in wiping mud down its front. Then it spotted the black cat. “Ah! A cat? Get it away from me!” The homunculus jumped in panic and turned, only to slip on its own footprints. “Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Thursby bent down and grabbed it by the waistcoat and, in one swift movement threw it into a flip-top bin that stood between the lifts. The lid rattled and slowly swung to a stop. “That didn’t hurt me,” said a muffled voice, “I’m made of mud. You’re not:, though… made out of mud, you see… so you could be… hurt, I mean… are you following this?... that cat can’t get in here, can it?” Thursby turned to the others. “Listen,” he said, “We’re going to need your help, we’re going to try and get through to the Temple, rouse the Magi...” “But the Watchmen are outside,” Harrison interrupted, “How are you going to

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get past them?” “That,” said Murray, “Is where you come in.” “Me?” Harrison’s voice quavered a little. But many of the other prisoners were smiling and nodding. “All these years locked in here, enduring the White Tower,” Thursby gestured at the empty rooms around them, “This is your chance, your chance to take the fight to the Knights Watchmen, to show them what defeat feels like!” The prisoners all cheered and some of them darted forward to clap Thursby on the back or shake his hand enthusiastically. Murray started gathering some of them round him. “Right, you, you and you, come with me,” he crossed to the cell nearest to him and picked up the ‘Keep Out’ notice that was lying on the floor. He took in both hands and broke it in two and, at the sound, the chair in front of him suddenly shook itself and started ambling forwards on its four metal legs. “Come on, come on,” Murray was impatient, “Get a move on... Right, follow me...” He started off down the corridor towards the windows. The chair followed him and as it went its plastic back began to warp and change, separating out into two orange wings that flapped experimentally. After them followed many of the prisoners, other chairs clattering from the empty offices to join them, all stretching new wings. Meanwhile the prisoners who had been gathered round Thursby were already cramming themselves into lifts. Maggs grabbed hold of Oscar and hurried him into a lift with Thursby, Cuddy and Ridley, but Oscar couldn’t tear his eyes away from the strange, skittering column of flapping chairs. “Oscar, please pull your head in before the doors knock it off,” Maggs pulled him back, but before she did so, he caught one last glimpse of Murray as he reached the window and flung it wide. Then, in the same movement, he jumped up onto the seat of the chair following him, like a surfer on his board, as the chair sprang through the window, spread its plastic wings, and dropped into the night. Down in the lobby the fog pressed so thickly against the glass they couldn’t see further than a step beyond the front doors. Somewhere in the gloom dark shapes moved and massed, but it was hard to tell whether they were buses or monsters. If there was a difference between them out there. The prisoners were all waiting by the doors when Oscar, Maggs, the black cat

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and the others stepped out of the lift. They were accompanied by various large pieces of lobby furniture, which all milled around, pawing at the ground, their overstuffed leather hides shining in the fluorescent light. Oscar could see that outside a couple of thin steel bollards had already taken up guard outside the front door, whipping long tentacles of chain over their heads to protect anyone who stepped outside. The security guard had disappeared from behind his desk. “Are you ready?” Thursby’s voice was loud in the echoing hall. “We’re ready!” came the answering cry. “Remember - we need a clear path down through St Giles, if you can do it...” Thursby strode across the tiles and in one clear move leapt up onto the reception desk, “To the Temple!” “The Temple!” shouted the prisoners, and at that the huge lobby sofas launched themselves forward, straight through the plate glass windows and out into the fog, with the Magi spilling out after them cheering and whooping. Thursby jumped down from the reception desk and started for the front door when Cuddy put a hand on his shoulder. “Clive, they’ll all be at the front - we should go out by the side - it’ll be quicker... and safer...” Thursby paused for a moment, as if torn between the heroism of fighting his way through the fog and the need to get to the Temple. “Alright, by the side, but hurry up,” Thursby turned and gestured and a small metal ashtray that had been left behind when the furniture escaped suddenly flipped onto its side and went rolling across the tiles, gathering speed until, at the last minute, it suddenly hurled itself into the air and flung itself through a window at the back of the lobby, shattering it into pieces. “Come on, then!” They all ran after Thursby across the lobby towards the broken window. And out they ran, out through the hole in the window and into the fog beyond.

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11
Through the Streets of London The fog was a thick, enveloping pea-souper the like of which London hadn’t seen for over fifty years. They used to be a feature of the city, impenetrable fogs that would fill up the streets, creeping through cracks and under doors, blanketing the everything in a suffocating smog. But running through this fog wasn’t just like running back through time; it was like running between two different worlds. You couldn’t see more than a few feet so that people and objects would suddenly loom out of nowhere, quite unexpected, and then vanish again, almost before you’d had time to realise what they were. And in this fog you never knew what you were going to see next. Here were a couple of Japanese tourists, torn between bewilderment and wonder, lighting up the fog with their flash as they tried to take pictures of it. And then they were gone and here instead was a Wyvern, encircled by a group of rubbish bins that jumped and flipped and snapped their stinking mouths at it, driving it backwards against a shop window. Everywhere, appearing and disappearing in the mists, sudden glimpses of everyday London - a bus, two taxi drivers swearing at each other, a group of pedestrians stranded on a traffic island like castaways, unable to make out the green man through the fog - and then of this extraordinary new London that Oscar had suddenly found himself swallowed up in. Here were a couple of Wish Hounds, snapping at the heels of a galloping park bench, here was a figure from an advertising hoarding, a beautiful woman no thicker than a sheet of cardboard, flapping along after a fleeing Knight Watchman, a post-box with shiny white teeth showing in its letter slot, a Wyvern darting overhead, a leather foot stool jumping past. And, suddenly, the fog thinned and, in a matter of a few steps, disappeared, and they were back in the normal world again, standing on the rain slicked pavement under the church they had passed by earlier. “Come on!” Thursby was insistent and enthusiastic, “There’s no time to stand around gawping!” And then he was off down the street again, with the others following along as fast as they could. As strange as their escape through the fog had been, somehow this run was even stranger. Here there was only normality, ordinary shoppers scurrying

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through the rain to try and snatch up the last few Christmas bargains, and that made their little procession - the rebel wizards, the old woman who wasn’t a wizard anymore, the mysterious black cat and the boy who was there completely by mistake - all the stranger and inexplicable. There was a shop with its windows full of film stars and famous monsters, superheroes and action figures - what would the customers think if they knew that the real thing was battling it out with genuine magic only just down the street? Here were, everywhere, people in fashionable outfits, shops with bizarre fittings and confusing windows, but nothing half so strange as what was lumbering through the fog behind them. They had passed through a little square with a column in the centre of it that Maggs had, breathlessly, told Oscar was ‘Seven Dials’ and were now racing up one of the streets that radiated off it, passing through an area thick with shoppers. Oscar noticed that wherever they went traffic lights seemed to change in their favour and cars just stopped to let them past. “How come no one notices?” He shouted across at Maggs as they dodged between groups of heavily laden shoppers. “Notices what?” She gasped back. Ridley suddenly appeared at Oscar’s shoulder, jogging along easily, barely showing the effort of running. “People don’t see what they don’t want to see,” she said, “Ask me, they don’t even need to hide the battle in the fog... most of these people would simply refuse to believe what was going on in front of them and just ignore it.” It suddenly struck Oscar how all of this must have been going on already, all his life, the Magi, the Knights Watchmen, the Wild Ride, the Knights Errant, all of this must have been happening, just out of sight and round the corner, and he never noticed, no one had ever noticed – except, of course, his godfather, Uncle Rufus, who had sent him the textbook... he hadn’t thought about it properly before, but that could only mean one thing: his uncle must be a Magi! Surely he must be at the Temple, surely Oscar would find him soon, and then how astonished he was going to be, how proud! Oscar couldn’t wait. Which was when he ran into Cuddy’s back. The group had stopped dead at a junction. Ahead, on the other side of a road junction was a huge building. An enormous door, too large for normal people was dwarfed by an even bigger portico on two great columns with flaring lamps on each. Above that the building

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massed up into great steps leading up to a square tower topped by a single arched window. Above that was a large red star that glittered dimly in the streetlights. At the base of the tower was a single square window. It was dark but Oscar couldn’t help feeling that there was something large and important behind it, something pressed up against the glass, anxious to burst out in a blaze of light. “The Temple,” whispered Maggs. The main doors were open, spilling out a warm light onto the wet streets, and they all pushed their way through after Thursby into a brightly lit hallway. The hall was six sided, lit by flaming torches on each of the six columns that held up the distant ceiling. Each column was of a differently coloured marble and all the walls were covered in rich decorations of red and green and gold. Far above them, on a painted dome, a group of men in long white wigs and Roman togas were gathered around a building that looked very much like the Temple. Oscar couldn’t be sure whether it was the flickering torches or something else, but the painting seemed almost to be moving. Two Knights Watchmen stood, irresolutely, by a pair of large double doors opposite the main entrance, apparently more interested in what was going on in the room beyond than in anyone entering the hallway. Ridley saluted them and Thursby and his friends walked in.

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12
The Temple They marched through the double doors into an enormous hall that if anything was even more sumptuous and magnificent than the preceding hallway. The hall was semi-circular in shape, with tiers of seats rising to create an amphitheatre around a central, semi-circular stage. They entered through the middle one of three long entrance passages that carved out long valleys in the slope of the rows of seats, and Oscar could see that all the seats on either side of them were packed with people, all talking and shouting between themselves, apparently ignoring whatever was going on on the stage in front of them. The stage was bare except for a lectern in the shape of a great white stone dragon, with its outstretched wings forming the top of the stand. Behind that were three great golden thrones, two smaller ones - one upholstered in blue velvet and bronze stars, the other in green with silver moons - stood either side of an enormous central throne, covered in coiling wooden dragons, with a cushion of blood red leather dotted with golden flames. Behind the thrones were choir stalls and then a high panelled wall into which had been carved row after row of names. Above them, disappearing into shadow was a set of stained glass windows, dark and indistinct in the night. There was a man standing at the lectern on the stage - a large, bald man, with a white beard, wearing what looked like a shapeless blue dressing gown, which parted in the middle to reveal an untucked white shirt flapping over a sizable stomach. He had evidently got dressed in a hurry because his hair was still standing on end and he only had one slipper on. He was shouting, trying to make himself heard over the commotion all around him. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please, you must all calm down - this is no time for panic. I realise that we all want to get to the bottom of what happened at Hammages this afternoon, but there are far more pressing matters for us to attend to...” The only person who seemed to be listening to the man in the dressing gown was a small lady who was perched behind him on the green throne, her legs swinging several inches off the ground, chewing her lip and drumming her fingers nervously on the arm of her throne. “Please, Ladies and Gentlemen - you must listen - I have just been informed of

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an emergency occurring even now...” “Ladies and Gentlemen!” A new voice, louder than all the others, cut through the hubbub and this new interruption brought a sudden pause in the surrounding noise. It was Thursby - he had jumped up onto the stage next to the man in the dressing gown and was trying himself to get the attention of the crowd. “Ladies and Gentlemen! You should be listening to what the Lord Chancellor has to say...” The man in the blue dressing gown looked pleased at this and opened his mouth to say ‘Thanky...” when Thursby cut him off again. “Because right now we face the most important emergency the Order has ever faced!” “That’s right, thank you, and now if you’d just listen...” “The White Tower has been emptied! The prisoners are free!” For a moment the room sat in stunned silence at Thursby’s outburst and then everyone began shouting again, even louder than before, calling out furious denials, arguing about what he meant, demanding answers to vital questions. “Ladies and Gentlemen!” Once again Thursby’s voice rang out over the clamour, “Do you want to know what happened this afternoon in Hammages? Do you want to know what is happening right now at The White Tower?” It seemed that they did. “Then listen to me! “This afternoon the Wild Ride attacked Hammages! Yes, it’s true!” The revelation had caused another round of shouting, but Thursby just carried on regardless, “And what did the Knights Watchmen do to protect this most secret and safe of places? Did they protect the Magi there and face down the Darklings? No! No, they did not! But someone did! Yes, someone faced down the Rebel Spirits and drove them off! It’s true! And what’s more - it was a child! Come up here, Oscar...” Oscar climbed up the steps onto the stage, aware that all the eyes in the hall were on him, “This boy, this child, faced down the Wild Ride where no other Magi dared, saving many, including dear old Maggs here, and what did the Knights Watchmen do, when they had crawled out of their hiding place? Did they reward him? Did they congratulate him? No! They tried to arrest him! Yes, arrest him!” The room was in true uproar now, a mixture of outrage and disbelief. Maggs had joined Oscar on stage, along with Cuddy, and he moved as close to them as possible, trying to feel a little less exposed.

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“This is the truth of what the Knights Watchmen are!” Thursby was still shouting, “They are not our guardians! They are not our preservers! They are our persecutors! They are our jailers! Hammages Department Store - one of the few places any of us ever felt safe - is attacked by the Wild Ride, our most grievous threat, and what do they do? They hunt down a small boy and a defenceless old lady!” Oscar felt Maggs stiffen at being called defenceless and old, and he wasn’t that keen on being referred to as a ‘small boy’, but there was no stopping Thursby now. “We stand up for them and they turn on us! We go to the White Tower and what do we find? Do we find murderers and madmen and terrorists? No! We find more defenceless, ordinary Magi - people like you and I - all locked away, all persecuted and driven mad with fear just because they stepped out of line, because they annoyed the Knights Watchmen, because they crossed Lord Skelton. That isn’t justice! I’ll tell you what is justice - even now those prisoners are struggling in the streets against the Knights Watchmen and their servants they are fighting for freedom - not just for their own freedom, but for yours, too! All of ours! We are prisoners too - prisoners of fear, prisoners of Lord Skelton: Are we going to be prisoners forever?” “You will be, Thursby!” The crowd were just about to cheer when a new voice cut through. It was a Knight Watchman and Oscar recognised him from Hammages, earlier that afternoon. He now had a cut on one cheek and his clothes were streaked with mud and rain. He strode up the main passageway towards the stage followed by the two Watchmen who had been standing guard outside. “Arrest these men,” he said, gesturing at Thursby and Cuddy as he strode towards the stage. But before the other two Knights Watchmen could follow him a group of young Magi jumped up from their seats and surrounded them, pulling them back, away from the stage. The leading Watchman rushed towards the steps up to the stage, and he sprang towards the Lord Chancellor, who was still standing at his lectern, dumbstruck. “Lord Chancellor, you must end this, now!” The Lord Chancellor tried to pull his dressing gown around him along with his last shreds of dignity. “You should not be giving orders to the Lord Chancellor...” “Now!”

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The Lord Chancellor coughed and looked at his feet. “Ladies and Gentlemen...” he mumbled but whatever he had to say was drowned out by the shouts of the crowd. Cuddy elbowed him away from the lectern. Oscar noticed that Ridley edged forward slightly, straining anxiously to see what the Knight Watchman was up to. “I propose that we remove the Three Wise Lords from office immediately...” began Cuddy, as loudly as he could. The crowd became even louder. Some were arguing, but plenty seem to think Cuddy had the right idea. The Watchman pushed past the Lord Chancellor and grabbed Cuddy by the lapels. “Traitor! I’m arresting you...” he got no further before Thursby had pulled him away and yanked him towards the edge of the platform. “Arrest this man!” Thursby crowed and many of the young Magi surged towards the edge of the stage, reaching out for the Watchman. But as he turned, Oscar had seen the thunderous look in his eye and the blood red anger in his face and he shrank back against Maggs as the man reached into his jacket and pulled out something that glinted in the gas lamps. “No!” shouted Ridley, “Stop him!” Her shout distracted many around the stage so that many of them missed what happened, including Oscar. They all turned to look at her and then turned back in time to see Thursby suddenly sag away and the Watchman turn, a bloody dagger in his hand as he slipped and fell into the waiting arms of the Magi below. The whole room froze as Thursby staggered backwards clutching his side, then he raised one bloodied hand towards Cuddy and collapsed backwards in a heap. The audience gave a groan, one deep, all encompassing noise, as Cuddy leapt across, just catching Thursby before he hit the stage. Maggs thrust Oscar back and scurried across to join them. Ridley took hold of Oscar, pulling him protectively back. “The most sacred law of the Magi,” she whispered to Oscar, “We can call spirits against each other, we can curse and cast spells, but no Magi shall ever raise a hand against another. This has gone too far now.” Cuddy and Maggs and got Thursby to his feet. He was pale, but he raised a bloody hand in defiance as they led him back towards the lectern. The crowd cheered him. “I propose,” shouted Cuddy over the tumult, “I propose that we name Clive Thursby as Lord Chancellor of a new high council of the Magi!”

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The crowd roared in agreement. “Hands!” shouted Maggs, “We need to see hands, please, everyone, raise your hands! We need a vote!” Hands shot up all over the hall - many people put up two, Oscar could see, while plenty of others were trying to pull down other people’s raised arms. It was near enough impossible to take a count as everyone jostled and shouted, but it certainly looked like an overwhelming number of people were supporting Thursby. “This is a new era,” Thursby began, gripping the edge of the lectern, “An era of freedom... freedom from fear... freedom from oppression...” His voice was growing fainter and he was losing his grip, slipping backwards into Maggs’ arms, “Freedom from...” He lost his hold on the dragon’s wings and dropped backwards. Maggs staggered under the sudden weight as Cuddy helped her lower him to the floor. A number of the young Magi rushed up onto the stage to help lift him up. Cuddy returned to the lectern. “We need any Magi with powerful healing spirits or medical training - please anyone who can help - take him to the Lord Chancellor’s chambers....” The group of young Magi started to carry Thursby from the stage as various Magi, a couple even waving stethoscopes as signals of their abilities, starting elbowing their way down through the crowd to the stage. “The Lord Chancellor wanted to propose me as Lord Lector,” Cuddy was saying, “I must have your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen - this is a vital moment - we must vote in a new council, we have to...” Cuddy suddenly realised that he was no longer shouting over the great crowd of Magi and that instead the whole hall had gone deathly silent and that all eyes were turned, not on him, but on a figure standing in the shadows by the main entrance to the hall. A whisper started spreading round the room, a noise like a distant sea or the wind in the treetops. Finally it reached the stage and Oscar could make out the fatal words: “Skelton... Lord Skelton... he’s returned... Skelton’s back...” “You have to what, Mr Cuddy?” The voice was weary but heavy with disdain as Lord Skelton stepped forward into the light. He was dressed in a Knight Watchman’s coat, wearing high riding boots and white trousers all spattered over with mud and stained by the weather. In one hand he carried not the usual black staff of the Knights Watchmen but instead a tightly furled black umbrella with a

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plain curved wooden handle tipped in silver. In his other hand he held a broad brimmed hat that dripped rain. But it was his face that gripped Oscar - not because it especially evil or wonderful, handsome or ugly, but because there, unmistakable with its wild white hair, heavy brows and grizzled moustache and beard, was Oscar’s Uncle Rufus. Lord Skelton was... ...Oscar’s godfather!

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13
The Lord Protector Lord Skelton walked slowly down the passageway and out into the centre of the hall, lazily swinging his umbrella with every step. As he moved forward, Oscar moved back, anxious not to be seen by his godfather just yet, especially now that he knew that his godfather was the dreaded Lord Protector. “What do you have to do, Mr Cuddy?” Skelton’s voice was quiet but carried to every corner of the hall in the silence. “Lo... Lord Cuddy... I’m Lord Cuddy now” “What was that Mr Cuddy?” Skelton had reached the steps and was now climbing slowly onto the stage. The whole hall was watching him, frozen to the spot - even Cuddy seemed unable to take his hands off the lectern. There was something so quietly dangerous about his casual advance into the room, like some awful creature stalking through the crowd, “Do you have to endanger every Magi in this room? Do you have to undo the safety of two decades? Do you have to destroy the Temple?” He didn’t bluster and threaten like the captured Knight Watchman or shout and jeer like Thursby, he just spoke clearly and simply and let every word sink in, like a bell tolling somewhere, warning of danger, danger, danger... “I bring news my lords,” he was talking to the assembled crowd, but he didn’t raise his voice to do so, relying instead on their hush for his voice to carry, “I have pursued the Wild Ride across three continents and two oceans and I have discovered their schemes. Their lord and master, the one who calls himself the Erl King, plots against the Temple itself – this very building, the heart of the Royal Order, against all of you... “Do you trust Mr Cuddy and his young friends to protect you? Can your promise them that, Mr Cuddy? When the Erl King comes looking for you, when the Darklings stalk the corridors and the Wild Ride scours the Temple, will you be ready for them? Or should you stop this charade before someone else gets hurt, before everyone else gets hurt?” A more menacing note had entered his voice as he crossed the stage and with each swing the silver tip of his umbrella pointed directly at Cuddy, flashing a glinting threat in time to his steps. Cuddy took his hands from the lectern and fell back a single step.

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“What should you do, Mr Cuddy? What should you do?” Skelton stepped forward again, swinging up his umbrella. Cuddy stepped back once more and then... “Stop it!” Oscar hadn’t meant to say anything, but he simply couldn’t stand the silence anymore. Skelton turned at the sound of a new voice and then his jaw dropped: “Oscar?” he gasped and the change in his voice suddenly changed everything in the room. He stared at Oscar, astonished. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” “I’ll tell you what’s going on,” Ridley stepped forward and laid a protective hand on Oscar’s shoulder, “You have no power here, anymore, Mr Skelton. The Magi have spoken - we have a new Lord Chancellor now, a new Lord Lector, we will have a new Lord Protector.” “Ridley?” Skelton’s voice was still surprised. “Oscar is right,” said Ridley, carefully, “This has to stop, now.” “You are a Knight Watchman, Mistress Ridley.” His voice was flat, “This is treachery.” “This is loyalty, Mr Skelton, loyalty to the Three Wise Lords and the High Council, loyalty to our traditions and laws, loyalty to the Royal Fraternal Order of the Magi. These are my masters, Mr Skelton,” and she gestured with her hand at the assembled Magi, “Not you.” Skelton stared at the two of them in silence for a moment and then, somewhere at the back of the hall, someone began to clap, slowly and hesitantly at first and then gaining in confidence as first one person joined in and then another and then another until the whole hall was applauding. And then they were on their feet, clapping and shouting and cheering, not just for Ridley but also for themselves, as they realised what had just happened: the rule of Lord Skelton and his Knights Watchmen was over - the Magi were free once more! Skelton looked round at the cheering hall. He no longer looked surprised or angry; he just looked tired and sad. He looked back at Oscar and Ridley and he suddenly smiled, a strange confused, amused little smile and he shook his head as if to clear it. Cuddy stepped back up to the lectern and motioned for silence, but had little luck getting any - everyone was enjoying cheering themselves a little too much. He shouted over the noise.

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“Please can some of you help Mistress Ridley and accompany Master Skelton to his chambers, where we will hold him in custody until the council has time to deal with this case.” Those that heard him cheered even louder and then those that hadn’t cheered louder anyway, so that the noise became quite deafening. The Magi were all now out of their seats and pushing down towards the stage. Ridley singled a few of them out, including the two Watchmen who had been guarding the door, and they climbed on stage to surround Skelton and shepherd him away. “Wait!” The Magi fell back from around him, many of them raising their arms in defence, “If I’m going,” he turned and pointed directly at Oscar, “He goes too.” Oscar’s toes curled up in his shoes - he knew what was coming - but Cuddy just laughed. “This is the fearsome Lord Skelton, is it? Taking petty revenge on the little boy who has helped destroy his evil regime.” “What are you talking about?” Skelton looked confused, “No, I’m just worried he shouldn’t be here - it’s too dangerous - he should be at home with his parents...” Skelton suddenly realised that everyone was staring at him, taken aback by his strange concern for Oscar’s welfare, “Well, shouldn’t I be worried? I am his godfather after all...” The whole audience froze and, as one, turned and stared at Oscar. This, this little boy who had faced down the Wild Ride, who had stopped the Lord Protector in his tracks, who had helped free the Magi from their own self-imposed exile, this was the godson of the dreadful Lord Skelton? Maggs stepped closer and knelt down beside him. “Oscar? Is this true?” “Ye... yes it is.” Oscar suddenly felt something brush against his legs. It was the little black cat, and the warmth of it settling down on his feet suddenly made him feel a little less alone up there on the stage. “He’s my Uncle Rufus - the one who gave me the book - but I didn’t know - not until just now - honest I didn’t.” “That terrible work the King hath wrought, by the King’s own hand shall be brought to naught,” Maggs spoke softly, with a far away look in her eyes. “But you can’t send me home!” Oscar blurted out, “I don’t want to... he... he’s not Lord Protector anymore - you don’t have to do what he says!” The moment he had spoken he was sorry, because he saw the shocked and

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disappointed look on Uncle Rufus’ face. But then he remembered that this wasn’t just Uncle Rufus, this was the terrible Lord Skelton, who had ruled and oppressed the Magi with an iron hand for so many years. And Cuddy seemed to agree with him: “Ha ha! No he isn’t! And even his own family stands up to him! Well said, Oscar, well said - take him away...” And the Magi assembled round him took hold of Rufus Skelton and bundled him off the stage. But all the while he was staring at Oscar, looking sorry and confused and, Oscar thought, just a little bit cross.

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14
Arguments and Toasted Cheese They had come up to a room that Maggs called The Charter Chamber, although Oscar couldn’t see quite why they had come up there at all. There seemed to be just as many Magi here as there had been in the Great Hall, only now packed into a space ten times smaller. There were three rows of benches along three walls of the room and each row was packed with Magi, with some of them even climbing higher up the walls to perch precariously on the wood panelling. Oscar and Maggs were sat at a large round table that took up the centre of the room. Cuddy was at the head, with the old Lord Chancellor and the small woman who had been on stage earlier seated on his right. The rest of the table was crammed full of a variety of Magi, some of whom Oscar recognised from the raid on the White Tower, including Murray, who waved at him, cheerfully flapping a piece of blood-soaked bandage where his hand had been hastily bound up. There were also some older men and women who all shared a look of confusion and surprise. Oscar suspected that they had, up till Thursby and Cuddy had taken over, been important Magi, who were now somewhat taken aback to find themselves not so important as before. Cuddy was trying to control the meeting, but everyone else seemed to determined to have their say and not let anyone else stop them. Ridley was crammed into a corner behind Cuddy and she smiled at him and then turned her attention to the debate around her. The fourth wall of the Chamber was almost entirely glass: it was, in fact, the back of the stained glass windows that looked down over the stage of the Great Hall. Seen from behind the images were oddly flat and confusing, but you could see a lot more of the detail. Oscar could now clearly see the huge, wingless, white dragon that coiled up the centre of the windows, its yellow eyes staring down at them all, blindly. Next to it was a man in what Oscar took to be some sort of toga, holding an apple in one hand and a black staff in the other, like the one the Knights Watchmen carried. There was a scrolling piece of paper by his head with something that looked like a name written on it, only it was meant to be read from the other side and was all the wrong way round.

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‘NOTWEN’ Oscar tilted his head on one side trying to figure out what it said. “Maggs!” he jabbed her with his elbow and whispered under the talk around them, “Why is that man labelled ‘Newton’?” “Because that’s his name,” she hissed back, “Isaac Newton, he foundered the Royal Order.” “Newton? The man who invented gravity?” “He didn’t invent it, dear, he discovered it,” Maggs was trying to follow all the arguments going on around them and wasn’t giving him her full attention, “Just like he discovered the Magi.” “So he didn’t invent the Magi? They were already there?” “Goodness, no, there have always been Magi, he just helped get them organasised... he helped get us our Charter - that’s it there - in that case on the table,” Maggs was pointing at a wooden box in the middle of the table. It had a glass lid and Oscar could see inside something that looked like a piece of paper. “It’s the Charter that makes us a Royal Order, you see,” added Maggs, but she was distracted by Cuddy leaning over the Charter and jabbing at the glass himself. “The Wise Lords have been deposed, we have Darklings rampaging around, the Knights Watchmen are not to be trusted, the whole Order is in an uproar, what else would you call this but an emergency?” “Cuddy,” Maggs’ voice cut through the hubbub, “You can’t just declare emerginancy powers like that. You can’t just throw out everything.” “Clive and I were elected to our positions completely legally according to the Charter,” Cuddy banged on the glass again, “And also according to that Charter, I am enabled to declare a state...” “That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Maggs was standing up now and leaning over the table, not that it made much difference to her height compared to when she was sitting down, “It’s exactly what Skelton did when he became Lord Protector and institutitoo... started The Veil: you’re turning into Skelton, Cuddy.” The noise dropped at this and all eyes turned on Cuddy, “I thought that that was what you were replacing...” “She’s right, Cuddy,” Murray spoke up, “We do things differently.” The assembled Magi murmured their agreement. Cuddy held out his hands, pleading, “But we need change, you all know,

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you’ve all shown your readiness, you all took the vote in the Great Hall, a vote for change...” “Yes, Cuddy, for change, not for destruction,” protested Maggs. “Maggs is right,” said the man who had been Lord Chancellor when the evening began, “If the Magi want change, it’s reform, not revolution.” “We all know what you want,” interrupted Murray, “And that’s no change at all.” The old Lord Chancellor blanched and drew back in his seat. “You said it yourself, Cuddy,” Ridley leaned into the table, “The whole Order is in uproar, we can’t go around making things worse – we need calm and stability, not more chaos.” “Ridley is right,” agreed Maggs, “You and Clive have been elected, that’s two out of the Three Lords, we need that leadership.” “Maybe we do,” Cuddy was reluctant, “But what do you propose to do about the third Lord, the Lord Protector? We can’t trust the Watchmen, not now, and we certainly don’t want to create another Skelton.” “The Knights Errant,” said Murray, and there was a gasp round the table, “Lift the ban and you’ve got a replacement for the Watchmen right there.” “That’s ridiculous,” cried the old Lord Chancellor. “That’s reform,” retorted Cuddy and there was a ripple of applause that spread out from the back of the room, “Andrew’s right, it’s a perfect solution...” “But what about the Lord Protector?” Ridley leant forward again, “It’s not just the title, you know, it’s concentrating all that power in one person’s hands...” “I have an idea,” said Maggs, and Oscar noticed that she was smiling to herself, “I think what we need is a Lord Protector as a figurehat, someone who can representatate the new Wise Lords and the Council, who can samba... simba... be young and new and trustworthy...” “Ha!” Ridley laughed with delight and clapped her hands. Everyone turned to look at her, “Sorry,” she was still laughing, “I just figured out where Maggs was heading... you’re going to love this...” and she grinned at Oscar again, a wide, delighted grin. “Who better,” continued Maggs, “Than someone who has played a key role in today’s events, who has faced down Darklings, Watchmen, even the old Lord Protector...” “Someone,” said Ridley, “We can all trust...” “I give you the new Lord Protector, Defender of the Magi and Commander of

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the Temple,” said Maggs, grandly and suddenly put her arm round Oscar’s shoulders, “Lord Oscar.” All Oscar really got from the rest of the meeting was a sore back, since everyone in the room seemed determined to clap him on the shoulders in congratulations at least twice. It was soon evident that everyone else thought Maggs’ idea was the solution they all needed – even if Oscar had his doubts, not least because then all started trying to explain his new job to him all at once, which was loud, confusing and, frankly, irritating. Maggs, however, soon realised that what the new Lord Protector chiefly needed was not a discussion of the transfer of power to the Knights Errant, or a guided tour of his new offices in the Temple, or even another a round of hearty cheers, but actually something more like supper and bed, before he dropped where he stood. So, eventually, Oscar found himself sitting at a large, rough table in a vast, echoey kitchen somewhere deep under the Temple. They were surrounded by all kinds of mysterious looking pieces of equipment, but couldn’t find anyone who knew how to use any of it, so Maggs was making do with toasting cheese under a grill. The black cat had reappeared and was sitting as close as it could to the heat, watching the cheese bubbling underneath. “But that’s not real, is it, Maggs?” Oscar could quite take it all in, “I’m not really Lord Protector, am I? I mean, that’s an adult’s job, isn’t it?” “And yet not everyone who has been one has been very adult about it,” Mags chuckled to herself, “Does that look done to you?” She poked a bit of cheese suspiciously, “Perhaps not...” She slid it back under the grill, “But you really are Lord Protectoror, Oscar, I’m afraid that bit’s true, yes – I thought it was a good idea to have someone that everyone could trust, but now I’m worriting about what I might have got you into...” “But how can I be?” Oscar protested, “I mean, I don’t know any magic, I know anything about Darklings or anything – it should be someone like Ridley or Murray, they’d be much better at it...” “That, I’m afraid, is rather the point – we’ve had someone who was good at the job and look where that got us – I rather think we want someone who’s just good, for the moment...” “Which would be fine, if everyone else were good,” said a voice, and Oscar

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turned to find Ridley standing in the doorway, “ but sadly Oscar’s quite right, these are dangerous times and... oh, is that cheese on toast?” and she jumped up to sit on the table and stole a slice from Oscar’s plate, “Case in point,” she continued through a mouthful of hot cheese, “The wards have been breached in the Museum – the spirits are moving: there are Darklings abroad tonight.” “Oh no,” Maggs turned from slicing bread, “No, you don’t...” “Don’t what?” Oscar was confused. “This is it,” Ridley was gleeful, “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, our chance to confront the Wild Ride, to stop hiding and skulking behind the Veil and start taking charge, to take the fight to them...” “You’re going to fight the Darklings?” Oscar was finding Ridley’s excitement infectious. “And we can’t do that without our Lord Protector, can we?” “Ridley!” Maggs waved the breadknife at her, “He’s a child!” “And he’s faced Darklings before and seen them off...” “Maggs...” Oscar started to protest. “I said, no,” Maggs was firm, “I’m not letting you out of my sight.” “Then you’re coming too? Excellent,” Ridley grabbed hold of Oscar hand and whirled him out of his seat, “Come on, then, there’s no time to lose...” and she hurried out of the door with Maggs scurrying to catch up.

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15
The British Museum after dark Oscar had never been up this late before. London didn’t seem to have a bedtime, but the Museum was quiet and dark. The sounds of the nighttime city grew gradually more distant as they passed through the great gates and crossed the courtyard to the pale, dreaming columns of the Museum. Ridley had assembled quite a force, a squad of Knights Errant, trusted Knights Watchmen and Wish Hounds, and Oscar and Maggs, of course, but they made little noise as they climbed the steps to the doors. Ridley gestured and the doors creaked open slowly, echoing in the hall beyond. They filed in, the claws of the Wish Hounds clicking on the tiled floor. Ridley held up her hand and they all stopped, straining for a sound in the silence of the empty museum. Oscar could hear a whimpering coming from somewhere close by. Ridley muttered something and the silver tip of her staff started to glow dimly. She swung it and it cast out a beam of blue light, like a torch, shining into a corner of the entrance hall. There was a man there in an ill-fitting blue security guard’s uniform. He was curled up into a little ball in the corner and when the light hit him he flinched away and moaned under his breath. “He’s here alright,” Ridley’s voice was low and confidential, “We split into three groups, but we stay in sight of each other, understood? Harker, take the left, Murray, the right, the rest of you with me.” Murray and Harker, the Knight Watchman from the White Tower, each took three Watchmen and moved away into the shadows. Ridley motioned to Maggs and Oscar to stay close to her as they crossed out of the entrance into the Great Court beyond. Oscar had been in the museum in daylight but nothing could have prepared him for this scene. The Great Court is an enormous open space in the middle of the museum with a huge round library in the centre of it. It has a curving roof of many panes of glass over it and in the moonlight this cast a net of shadow over the space below. Ridley moved forward cautiously, going round to the left of the rotunda in front of them. Out of the corner of his eye Oscar could see Murray’s group moving to the right.

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Ridley stopped suddenly and pointed. Ahead of them was a doorway in the wall of the Great Court leading into the museum galleries beyond. There was a dim light glowing from the entrance, flickering and changing as if something was moving about in the space beyond. Ridley made a signal to Harker, who was behind them, and then went forward, towards the door. Oscar had a terrible feeling that he remembered vaguely from nightmares: the sense that there was something horrible ahead that he really didn’t want to see, but knowing that he was going to look anyway. And they were through the doorway and into the gallery. The shadows were thicker here and it was hard to make out details. Shapes loomed out of the darkness, massive and indistinct. The glow flickered again and brightened and Oscar found himself gazing into the impassive stare of an Egyptian Pharaoh, a granite stare thousands of years away from caring about a small boy in the dark. And then a shadow fell over them and Oscar looked up to find himself looking at... for a moment he could make no sense of it, a great knot of thicker shadow, a beak, a hand, and then it turned and it almost had a shape, a giant with the head of a bird, stooping through the gloom towards them. There was a rustle of feathers and cloth and a smell of dust and dry bones and then it was past and Oscar could see it pass on in the moonlight, only half there, the dream of something great and endless. “Mighty Thoth,” Maggs’ voice trembled in his ear, “The ibis-headed, father of magic...” Then something else came gliding down between them and Oscar felt something brush his cheek. The scale of it confused him for a moment until he realised that it was a giant hand, reaching down through the darkness. Then a flesh and blood hand grabbed by the shoulder, pulling him out of the way, and he found himself pulled up against Ridley, her other hand extended, pointing away in the darkness. “Look! There!” Even before he looked, Oscar felt the first cold nausea of fear in his stomach and knew that there were Darklings nearby. Ahead of them, in the gloom, was the monumental torso and head of an Egyptian pharaoh, but it wasn’t his wrinkled sneer that rooted Oscar to the spot, it was the tall, thin dark figure perched on the top of his head.

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The figure unfolded itself – long and dark in a shapeless black cloak like a swirl of night – and then it turned and leapt away, and, as it went, it split into two, three – shadows that flapped down towards them between the statues, bumping into the stones, fumbling their way towards them, bat-things that seemed not quite to remember their own shapes. Then there was a flash of silver in the darkness and sharp clang as Ridley swung her sword out sweeping first one, then the other flying thing back into the darkness and the great, dark form of hawk-headed Horus passed over them and hid them from sight. “Come on! After them! Move!” She still had hold of Oscar and she dragged him after her as she sprang forward after the Darklings, rebounding off statues and stones as they went, dodging between the ghosts of the ancient gods and the remains of their monuments, the rest of the Magi staggering in their wake. And they were out of the gallery and bouncing up a flight of stairs into the darkness above. Ridley stopped at the top of the stairs and finally let go of Oscar. Maggs came panting up behind them, but Ridley gestured to her to be quiet and crept forward. Ahead of her was a dark opening and she stopped on the threshold, listening. Oscar stood still for a moment, listening himself – there was a sound, somewhere in the gallery beyond, a kind of muffled thudding and thumping. Ridley gestured and the other Magi moved forward silently to join her, as they padded through the doorway and into the thicker darkness beyond. The Magi moved so quietly that Oscar soon lost track of where they were around him, concentrating as he was on making as little noise as possible and stopping his borrowed sneakers from squeaking on the tiled floor. He could hear, however, that the thumping was getting louder and more insistent as they approached. He could hear it clearly now: it was the sound of someone banging against glass. Banging with something soft and padded, he thought. And then he thought: ‘someone’ or... ‘something’. And then he wished he hadn’t thought that at all, because the noise was now right there: right in front of them: thump, thump. Thump. And then Ridley’s staff blazed into bright light again and with a thump it was

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right there: a bundle of dirty brown rags and wrinkled black leather. Thump: No! A face! Ancient, cured skin pulled tight across crumbling grey bones, a hand wrapped in tattered cloths banging against the glass of a display case, sightless dark eye sockets looming forward out of the shadows. Thump! And Oscar suddenly realised what he was looking at: an Ancient Egyptian mummy, hurling itself out of the shadows at the glass of the case it found itself shut up in! Thump! A creaking and a crash and the glass splintered, there was a cloud of choking grey dust and that terrible face came smashing through the case, it’s jaw falling loose in a horrible silent shout, its stiff arms flailing out at them as it lurched forward. There was a ringing, bright flash and Ridley’s sword arced forwards in the bright light. The mummy’s head suddenly leapt upwards and backwards, cut off from the body, bouncing off the display case and landing at Oscar’s feet. He jumped back instinctively, straight into Maggs, who pulled him away from it as the mummy’s body came fumbling forward, trying to find its missing part. And then all around them came the scraping and creaking of sarcophagi lids and a louder and louder thumping and cracking of glass as the Mummies of the British Museum came shambling back to life. “Fall back! All of you, fall back!” Ridley held her staff high above her head, walking carefully backwards back towards the door. Shuffling backwards before her, Oscar could see that the whole room was alive with shadows in the wan light. Mouldering, leathery faces, ghostly grey, came lurching between the display cases, reaching blindly for the Magi and at their feet, tottering along, came the Canopic jars, containing the inner organs of the mummies, their animal heads snapping as they bounced. Then something musty and suffocating was clasped over Oscar’s mouth and he was pulled sideways almost off his feet, and, all of a sudden, the room twisted and changed. The light became redder, flickering, hieroglyphics scattered up the walls like insects and a murmuring of some whispered incantation filled his ears. Then there was a shout and hiss of steel and he was back in the museum, a mummy’s arm lying at his feet and Sir Edward Harker hacking its owner into pieces at his side. Then Maggs hustled him back through the door onto the landing into the safety of the waiting Magi.

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Ridley came through after them, now frantically slashing at the ancient bones reaching out for her from the darkness beyond. “Harker – you and your men try and hold them off: we can’t let ourselves be distracted. Lattimer, take that door, this way, you lot.” Oscar had been aware of someone chanting in the darkness and now there came the clank of armour and the sound of sandals on stone. He turned to look in time to see the crested helmet of a Greek hoplite come bobbing though the doorway. Below it, somewhere, a bronze breastplate glinted and a short sword swung. Behind it another followed, and another, marching to the call of the Magi. In the dim light Oscar could almost see a shadowy form under the armour, the vague outline of a face, of a body, the memory of some fallen Greek warrior, thousands of years gone, striding back from the past into battle against the shambling hordes of dead kings. But Oscar didn’t have a chance to see this mighty clash: Ridley grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him after her into a different gallery. “Come on, after me!” Ridley was walking as quickly as she could, trying to give Oscar a chance to keep up with her, “They’re trying to distract us, slow us down, throw us off the scent, we can’t let them get away from us this time...” Someone was panting in Oscar’s ear and he looked round to find Maggs jogging up behind them, trying to keep pace, “Don’t worry about them getting away from us, worry about us getting away from that sphinx...” Ridley turned on her, “What sphinx?” Something roared in answer and then there was a deafening crash as a huge, bearded stone head swung in through the door lintel in a cloud of dust and flying splinters and roared at them again. “Murray!” Ridley shouted over her shoulders, “Hold this gallery!” The was the sound of something breaking and Murray yelled something out in reply that Oscar couldn’t understand and was in turn replied by a shout and a clash of arms. Oscar turned to see him standing, grinning, as a crowd of Roman legionaries sprang from the display cases around him, rattling their short swords on their shields. In the darkness Oscar could almost see their faces, but where the moonlight fell on them, they were just ghosts and he could see straight through them to the display cases on the far side of the room. Murray shouted orders in Latin and the legionaries replied, their voices distant and tinny like the echoes from the bottom of a well. The sphinx roared again,

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shaking itself, trying to fit its ponderous stone bulk through the doorway as the Romans closed in and Ridley dragged Oscar out of the gallery to the sound of sword on granite. The sounds of fighting faded behind them as they ran on through the dark and solemn galleries, until they came to a corner room where the quiet shadows were thick and Oscar could hear water somewhere, splashing gently. Ridley made for the far door but was stopped by a Magi who came staggering through it, waving her back. “Vikings,” he wheezed and stopped, leaning against the doorjamb to get his breath back, “Vikings, Saxons, Knights, Romano-Celtic Cavalry: it’s chaos down there – we’re holding the head of the stairs but it’s pretty hairy. Literally hairy, actually, with those Vikings.” Ridley went to push past him. “They’re trying to hold us back: we have to push through...” “No!” Maggs had grabbed hold of her sleeve and was holding her back, “You can’t take the boy down there, it’s too parlour... pearly... dangerous!” “Look, Maggs, they’re obviously trying to delay us...” “Well, it’s working. I’m not taking Oscar down there. Not until its safe.” “Alright – you stay here with the boy: we’ll try and find a way...” “You can’t leave us on our own here, what if they come back?” “Wait a minute, that’s it!” Oscar grabbed hold of Ridley’s other sleeve, “If we can’t get to the Darklings, why not get them to come to us?” “Oscar!” Maggs was shocked, “Even if we could do such a thing, why would we want to?” “Because it’s an excellent idea,” said Ridley, firmly, “What’s the plan, Oscar?”

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16
The Best laid Plans... Which was how Oscar found himself sitting in the dark, listening to the distant sounds of fighting and the plashing of the fountain beside them, straining to make out shapes in the dark and secretly glad that Maggs was holding his hand. The plan was simple and he was secretly afraid that it stood a good chance of working: if the Wild Ride had come for Oscar and Maggs before, then why wouldn’t they again? Especially if they thought the two of them were all on their own in the dark. Ridley had jumped at the idea, and at the time Oscar had been pleased to have thought of it, but now they were actually sitting there, in the terrible shadowy silence, it didn’t seem like such great plan at all. In the dim light, however, Oscar became gradually aware that they might not be completely alone: he could see shapes moving, something that looked like the shadows of people criss-crossing the room. This gallery was dedicated to everyday objects from ancient times and gradually Oscar realised that what he was seeing was ordinary people – the people who had once owned the objects on display – going about their ordinary business just as they had thousands of years before. Greeks bargaining in the agora, Romans gossiping in their villas, women in the kitchens, men at the plough, merchants weighing out spices and actors practicing with their masks. The shades were, at first, muddled and confused, walking though each other, getting lost in each other’s history, but Oscar soon discovered that by squinting and sort of focusing on different parts of the room, you could make the little scenes stand out clearly. Close to him were the more recent events: a dark-skinned legionary sitting on the edge of his camp bed in the bleak Northumbrian winter, lacing up his sandals and shivering into his cloak. But at the far end of the room he could just glimpse some exotically braided and painted Greek bowing before the small statue, asking some unknown favour of his god. Oscar was about to nudge Maggs to see if she had noticed this strange display when he realised that something was changing in the scenes: now the legionary was leaping from bed, alarmed, grabbing up his gladius and his helmet, ready for

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battle. The merchant in the forum was packing away his spices as quickly as he could, the cook, panicked, doused her fire with water, the worshipper imploring the gods frantically. Some terrible doom was descending on all the ghosts: Scythians, Persians, Huns, Picts, Barbarians and Monsters: rampaging warriors at the walls of the town - revolution and battle, chaos and confusion... Oscar could feel their panic rising in him and he looked desperately around the room, trying to see what they were afraid of... ...A natural disaster! – Walls were shaking, cracks opening at their feet: an earthquake! Mighty Poseidon, god of the sea, whose hand was on the roots of the mountains, was displeased with men! The earth shook and roared and the sea rose up in a great tidal wave... And Oscar found himself frozen with terror as the surface of the fountain beside him bunched itself up and reached out towards them. Then all the water began to move, faces and shapes passing across it – ancient ocean gods, monstrous fish of the deep, the long forgotten, pallid faces of the drowned – and a hundred tiny water spouts reaching out for them, searching and feeling their way, shining in the dim light, like the grasping arms of a sea anemone. Oscar tried to cry out, to warn Ridley and Maggs, to trip their trap, but he was terrified that the sound of his voice would attract those blindly waving arms and then something touched him, the slimy touch of something long dead and deep submerged, that passed over his face and, just as suddenly, was gone. The warmth of the museum and the noises of the night rushed in on him as the shadow receded, shouts and the clattering of boots and the rattling of swords and under it all, the fountain still playing beside him. “Move, all of you! Oscar, are you alright? Can you speak?” It was Ridley, running down the steps behind him, from the gallery where she had been hiding. Oscar tried, shakily, to get to his feet, but before he could she had picked him up and carried him to the doorway, away from the fountain where the faint, sour smell of the deeps still lingered. Magi were everywhere now with lights, running through the galleries, trying to track the Darklings. Oscar had the impression that there was something very wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it – he was still stunned by his close encounter.

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“I’m sorry Ridley...” he stammered, thinking she was cross that his plan hadn’t worked, “I just couldn’t...” “Oh, Oscar,” Ridley grabbed his arms, rubbing them as if to try and drive out the cold, “No one could – I couldn’t – I just wasn’t ready... so stupid... poor Maggs... I should have waited for more men...” But Oscar wasn’t listening. He had stopped listening at: ‘Poor Maggs’. That was what was wrong. He looked around, wildly, trying to spot the old woman in the rushing lights and running figures around them. Poor Maggs. Where was she? “Where’s Maggs?” Ridley stopped talking and stared at him, then she seized him and hugged him hard and that’s when he knew that something really was terribly wrong. “He took her, Oscar: the Darklings took her,” Ridley squeezed him hard, “They took her and escaped with her and it was my fault – not your fault, you understand? Mine. But you’ll see, we’ll get her back, I promise, we’ll find him and we’ll get her back, if it’s the last thing I do.” Ridley seemed determined to make good on her promise as soon as she could. She sent scouts out to try and pick up the trail of the Wild Ride beyond the museum and then set about trying to discover what they had been up to inside. They followed a Wish Hound called Diamond, his head now down to the tiled floor, now lifted up, snuffing the air, down through an endless gallery, across the head of a monumental flight of stairs, down a long corridor, through more galleries and finally to a tall wooden door, left half open in the shadows. “Of course,” said Ridley, “The Magical Gallery – well, that makes sense – but what were they doing here?” She pulled the door open further and Oscar followed her inside. Illuminated by the glow from Ridley’s staff, Oscar could see that the room was small and cramped. It seemed little more than a circular corridor, with glass display cases set into every wall. “Are these all magical things?” he asked Ridley. “Spot on – a lot of the people who helped set up the British Museum were Magi – and they had a large collection of magical objects for a while – these days the more powerful objects are kept in the Temple, but we leave a small exhibition here.”

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They moved round the room, following Diamond. Oscar now saw that, rather than being a corridor, there was actually another room within the room, a central, circular space with large display cases in the middle of it. Diamond was sat in front of one of these cases, looking back over his shoulder at Ridley, expectantly. She came up behind him and ruffled his ears. “What is, eh, Diamond, old chap, what have you found?” Oscar joined her and discovered that they were looking a white, life-sized sculpture of a man’s face. It was an extraordinarily detailed sculpture: Oscar could even see sparse hairs on the man’s upper lip and a mole under one eye. “Hm... Adam Cowper, eh?” Oscar looked at the label: ‘Death mask of Adam Cowper’. “What’s a death mask?” “Oh, when someone dies they take a plaster cast of their face.” So it wasn’t a sculpture at all! It was an actual cast of a dead man’s face! There was something about that that made Oscar shiver a little, standing here in the dark, staring down at a dead face. Ridley was still speaking. “In this case we have Adam Cowper, who, I think I’ve got this right, was a rebel who tried to destroy the Temple. You, what did the demons want with you?” For a moment Oscar thought Ridley was talking to him, and was shocked at her being so rude, but before he could speak, the death mask suddenly jerked and twisted, the eyebrows knotting up and the mouth writhing to one side with a gritty sound that Oscar could hear though the glass of the display. The mouth opened and Oscar discovered that he could see through it to the objects behind it in the case. The voice was little more than a grainy whisper. “I will not speak to such as you...” “In the name of the Order I compel you to speak!” “I cannot speak to such as you...” “You cannot do otherwise!” “I cannot speak: I am forbidden!” The face was contorted now into a grimace as it were being tortured. “Its been enchanted,” said Ridley, “Forbidding him to answer us: I command you...” The mouth opened in a silent cry and the expression was so desperate that Oscar grabbed Ridley’s arm: “Stop it! Please, Ridley, stop him, you’re hurting him!”

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“It’s just a spirit ensorcelled to the mask, Oscar, it’s not a person, I promise you.” “Please stop it, listen, I have an idea...” he lent in closer to the mask, “If you can’t tell us anything directly, can you at least give us a clue?” The mask’s features gave one last spasm and then relaxed. For a moment nothing happened and then it opened its mouth again. “Held captive long in fear and pain, beyond mere human punishments and chains.” Then the face relaxed again into its cast expression. “Well,” said Ridley, “That’s helpful.” She turned and walked away from the case, “None of this makes any sense – they’ve broken in here, spent all this time fighting us, delaying us, but they get here and nothing’s gone, nothing’s... Oh, my stars...” “Ridley? What is it?” “What if that’s precisely what they were doing, Oscar? What they were just trying to distract us? We thought we were trapping them here, but what if this was the trap – a trap to draw us all away from... the Temple!”

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17
An Intruder in the Temple “No, Ridley, absolutely not.” They were standing in a long gallery in the Temple with high arched windows all down one side, and Ridley and Cuddy were arguing. “Cuddy, he said it, you heard him. He knew something was going to happen to the Temple – he said the Erl King was planning something – anything he knows could help us.” “Do we believe him?” Cuddy arched an eyebrow, “Skelton has said all kinds of things in the past, would say anything now, to get his way – which is precisely why no one talks to him, not now.” “But I think that now he’s telling the truth,” Ridley protested, “I think that attack on the Museum was a feint, a distraction.” “Felt real enough to me,” growled Murray, who was now nursing an injured leg from his fight with the sphinx. “This is a precarious situation, Mistress Ridley,” Cuddy was obviously not going to be swayed, “The last thing we need is Skelton getting involved, threatening everything we’ve worked for...” Oscar couldn’t quite muster the energy to join in with their argument – he was tired and was only now starting to realise that Maggs had really, truly gone, just at the moment when he was realising just how much he could do with her help right about now. And the worst of it was that it was all his fault – if he hadn’t suggested the plan in the Museum, hadn’t given Thursby the idea about attacking the White Tower, hadn’t gone to Hammages in the first place, none of this would have happened and Maggs would have been perfectly alright. He slumped against a window sill, staring out at the night, feeling sorry for himself and even sorrier for Maggs. The windows looked out onto a dark quadrangle, surrounded on all sides by tall walls. There was a lighted window in a wall opposite and he realised that he could see his Uncle Rufus was sitting there, under the window, apparently reading a book. Those must be the rooms where they had locked him away. For a moment Oscar looked around for some way to open the window and shout to him, but he supposed that would only give Cuddy and Ridley something else to argue about. He continued staring out, hoping to get his Uncle’s attention

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just by the force of his stare. There was another window next to Uncle Rufus’. The room inside was only dimly lit, partly by the light from Uncle Rufus’ room and partly by the moonlight. What had caught Oscar’s attention was something moving in there, a patch of solid dark in the indistinct twilight. He had seen it out of the corner of his eye and now he watched more carefully, trying to see it again. There it was... something black, twisting, turning... it was hard to make anything out - it was like a piece of the night itself - darker than the orange glow of the London sky, darker even than the shadows of the courtyard - a piece of night twisting and turning, as if it were searching for something, sniffing for a scent. Something about its odd straining made Oscar uncomfortable - it moved wrongly somehow... and then it made another twist and something ghostly white glimmered into view in the moonlight. A long, smooth, bone-white, skull, gleaming in the moonlight as it turned towards the window, its featureless face uplifted to the night, scanning for some trace. And then it seemed to sense Oscar on the other side of the courtyard, and it turned its emptiness full at him and a single elongated, taloned hand came up to the glass and tapped once, twice – it could only mean one thing – his godfather had been right: The Erl King, Master of the Wild Ride, was in the Temple! Oscar was rooted to the spot. He tried to shout out to the others but all he could do was make a sort of faint peeping noise in his throat. Even from across the courtyard he could feel those thin, cold claws leaving a thin scratch of ice down his arms. He wrenched himself away from the window, stumbling into Ridley, who grabbed him and stopped him falling. “Oscar! Please – I need to talk to Lord Cuddy...” “...Uncle Rufus...” was all Oscar could manage. “I know, we’re going to sort it out, I promise...” “No! He’s here...” “He better be,” said Cuddy, “I put a guard on the door.” “...not Uncle... he’s here...” “Oscar?” Ridley had caught the tone of fear in his voice, “What is it?” “...Erl King... he’s here...”

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“What?” “...Uncle Rufus’ room...” Ridley lunged at the window, dragging Oscar after her. “Where is he?” “He was in the room next to Uncle Rufus... he’s gone now...” “No! There, look – a floor up...” Ridley was right, Oscar caught the briefest glimpse of that ghostly white face, but he knew what it was, without doubt. “Cuddy! We’ve got to get Skelton out of there!” Ridley turned back to Cuddy to find him standing in the middle of the gallery, mouth hanging open in shock. Oscar could see that his hands were trembling. At the sound of Ridley’s voice, he jerked round, blinking. “No!” his voice was almost a shriek, “No time! We’ve got to get out!” “Pull yourself together!” Ridley grabbed hold of him, shaking him vigorously, “Look at Oscar: is he panicking?” “Actually...” said Oscar. “No,” Ridley cut him off, “This is our chance, man: he doesn’t know we’ve seen him – for once we have the element of surprise...” “She’s right, my lord,” said Murray, “We could catch him!” “Catch him?” squeaked Cuddy. “We’ll need teams,” Murray was evidently thinking furiously, “We’ll need to sweep the whole Temple thoroughly...” “Oh, don’t worry about that,” Ridley grinned at Oscar, “We already have a plan, don’t we Oscar?”

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18
On the stage of the Great Hall Oscar had gone off the whole “let’s set a trap for the Wild Ride using someone as bait” plan when Maggs had been snatched away. He was no keener on it now that he was standing on the stage of the Great Hall with Cuddy and Murray, being the bait once again. He might have felt better about it if Ridley had been with them, but she was out there in the Temple with a group of volunteers, trying to drive the Erl King towards them and into their trap. He knew that there Magi hiding all around them, outside the hall, ready to come storming in at the first sign of danger, but it was the thought of what might happen in those few brief moments before the storming started that gave him pause. It was then that Oscar realised that it wasn’t just him, Cuddy and Murray in the hall. There, coming down one of the aisles through the shadows, was the little black cat. Oscar suddenly realised that the cat hadn’t been with them all through their adventures in the British Museum and he wondered what it had been up to. It jumped up onto the stage and sauntered over to him and wrapped itself round his legs, purring. Once again he immediately felt a little braver. After all it had been the black cat that had helped him face the Wild Ride last time, perhaps he could do it again, if it stayed with him this time, too. The silence in the Great Hall was astonishing; especially given the uproar it had been filled with last time he had been in here. Now he could even hear the faint sounds of traffic from outside of the Temple and Murray’s uneven footsteps as he limped back and forth across the stage. He had wanted to go with Ridley but she had worried that his injured leg would slow him down and he had been flattered by her suggestion that they needed someone trained to wait with Cuddy and Oscar. Now he was evidently anxious for the action to start, which made him, Oscar reflected, the only one who was. Cuddy looked as bad as Oscar felt, almost green around the edges, staring blankly around him with a slack-jawed terror. Cuddy seemed to come to himself suddenly and opened his mouth to speak, when Murray held his hand up. “Hear that?”

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They all listened. Was that someone shouting, somewhere away in the distance? Then a dog barked, two loud, deep, belling barks that echoed down through the empty corridors of the Temple. “A Wish Hound,” said Murray. There was, somewhere, the sound of running feet and incoherent shouting and then someone screamed, a wild, terrified scream that was cut off suddenly in the middle. Cuddy jumped like a fish on a line and turned around wildly, as if trying to decide which route to take to escape. “My Lord...” Murray took hold of Cuddy’s arm in a manner that was anything but deferential, “I’m listening...” “Let go... let go of me...” Cuddy’s voice was faint and he plucked ineffectually at Murray’s hand. There was more running, more barking, a shout away in the distance, then close by, but on the other side of the building – then somewhere low down, away to the right, echoing in a stairwell, and then clearly, through one of the high windows, as if coming down to them from the roofs, they heard Ridley’s voice, clear and commanding: “To the north – the kitchens! We have to stop him getting to the Great Hall – at all costs! He mustn’t get in there!” “No,” whispered Cuddy, “Yes, keep him away... don’t let him in here...” “Clever,” hissed Murray, he was talking to Oscar, completely ignoring Cuddy “A bluff, you see: She’s hoping the Erl King will do the opposite...” There was a sound of feet on tiles and then Ridley’s voice came again, further away now and somewhere lower. Oscar strained to hear what she was saying and glanced across at Murray to see if he could hear, but Murray didn’t seem to be listening. He was looking up at the ceiling and his mouth was hanging open. Oscar didn’t want to look up but he couldn’t help himself. It was dark and shadowy there, above the hanging lights and dusty chandeliers, but there seemed to be something moving in the darkness, a knot of blacker shadow that tensed to and fro across the ceiling like a great spider. And then that terrible feeling came stealing over him again, the feeling he recognised from earlier, the panic and the fear rising in his throat. He felt suddenly cold and as much as he didn’t want to watch, he couldn’t stop, as the dark shape on the ceiling suddenly turned its blank, white face towards them and

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then dropped, straight down out of the darkness, into the pit of the Great Hall. It dropped horribly, agonisingly, slowly, its long coat flapping about it, its arms outspread, and the shadows seemed to drop with it, gathering about it like a cloak as the Hall became dimmer and dimmer. Oscar’s brain was suddenly full once more of frightening thoughts – he thought of his godfather all alone in his study, of his parents and brother at home, of Maggs, defenceless in the museum, of fire and of ice, and stone walls and dark dungeons. He tried to shout out to Murray but somehow he couldn’t make any noise, he tried to move but he couldn’t. He realised that he was completely frozen to the spot, half by fear and half by magic, as the room grew dimmer around him and the Erl King dropped out of sight into the orchestra pit below the stage. This was far worse than before, worse than any of the attacks by the Wild Ride – then he had been scared, but this was more like being caught up in something, being picked up by a great wave of fear and darkness and carried along, no longer able to control where you went or what was happening to you as you were swept along, swept along to some terrible end. The darkness seemed to well out of the orchestra pit, up over the lip of the stage as the Erl King rose up to their level, his awful white face luminous in the dim light. Oscar could see that Murray was trying to shout for the others, dragging a collapsed Cuddy after him as he tried to spring the trap, but a suffocating, muffled hush had wrapped itself around them, as if the shadows were soaking up all the sound. Everything seemed to be happening with an agonising, glacial silence. The Erl King stepped onto the stage, advancing evenly, inexorably, towards Cuddy, when something bumped against Oscar’s leg. Before he knew what had happened, the shock of the touch made him jump in fright and stumble forwards, tripping over the black cat – for that’s what had brushed against him – pitching him directly towards the Erl King. The tall, thin figure turned with a surprising speed and, equally quickly, suddenly reared back away from him, stumbling backwards itself now, back towards the edge of the stage. The shadows seemed to recoil too, rushing in around him like the gathering up of cloth. Suddenly there was a feeling as his ears had popped and all the outside

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sounds came rushing in at him and he fell backwards, staggering up against the wooden panelling at the back of the stage. He turned and hammered on it desperately, unable to think of anything else to do. “Quick! Quick!” he shouted, “He’s here! He’s here! Quick! Quick!” The Erl King started towards him, as a secret door in the panelling banged open and a gang of Magi came tumbling through, all on top of each other, spilling out onto the stage. The Erl King recoiled again, caught off guard once more and turned away, back towards the front of the stage, the shadows rushing in to cover him. And then all the doors were open and Magi were rushing through, all shouting, and every chair in the Hall, in one movement, suddenly reared up on its back legs and came galloping down the aisles towards the stage. The shadows around the Erl King seemed to bunch together into a column and through them Oscar could see the thin red figure start to climb upwards, stepping up through the air towards the ceiling. At this the chandeliers above stretched out their great, glowing arms and reached down through the shadows towards him on great tentacles of chain. At their touch, the shadows boiled away into nothing and, wrapped about in light and fire, the figure fell back onto the stage. Murray was suddenly beside Oscar, grabbing him out of the way as the Erl King hauled himself to his feet, clawing at the fierce chains around him, thick ends of shadow trying to extinguish the glaring lights. And Murray dragged Oscar from the stage as the first wave of chairs, conjured into life by the Magi, leapt up past them and were instantly flung back again as the Erl King screamed a terrible, unearthly scream of rage. But the next row of chairs were on him before the first had even landed, and then the third and fourth. Magi scrambled for cover as chairs flew to and fro, and the Erl King struggled to throw them off, crashing back and forth across the stage from end to end. Then Oscar suddenly realised that Ridley had arrived and was standing next to them, speaking in a high, clear, incomprehensible voice, with other Knights Watchmen joining her in her incantation. And, as Oscar followed their gestures upwards, he saw the great, glittering figures of the stained glass above the back of the stage detach themselves from their leading and leap down onto the stage.

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Now four, now five of them – gentlemen in ceremonial robes and long white wigs, knights in armour with thin swords of glass and the dragon, completely white but for its shining golden eyes. All of them became lit with the spreading glow of the chandeliers as they closed upon the Erl King, burning with their bright, translucent colours, catching hold of him and bearing him down to the floor in a great blaze of light. A great silence fell over the hall and Oscar could hear the assembled Magi breathing hard around him, exhausted by the excitement and the effort of the magic. The glowing, stained glass figures bent and lifted up the Erl King, now tightly bound by the fiery chains of the chandeliers and held him, suspended, over the middle of the stage. The crowd gasped, Oscar included, for they could suddenly see that, with the shadows burnt away and his magic gone, the Erl King was not the huge, distorted figure of their nightmares, not a Goblin King or fearsome demon, but a man, a man in a long, dark scarlet coat and gloves, with a mask of white bone over his face. Ridley moved forward past Oscar to stand next to Cuddy, who was staring, like the rest of them, at this extraordinary revelation. “Take the helmet off,” she whispered. Cuddy turned to look at her, repeating, dully: “Take the helmet off...” Ridley spoke more loudly, addressing the stained glass giants: “Take the helmet off. Show us his face.” The dragon reached forward with its long, slim, glass claws and hooked the helmet back and off. For a moment the head dropped backwards, out of sight as the helmet came off, but then he lifted it and stared back at them all, sweaty and bloody but still defiant in defeat. And once again Oscar was surprised by the face of his godfather, Uncle Rufus.

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19
In the Lord Protector’s Chambers Oscar did finally get to bed that night, although it wasn’t much of a bed, just a saggy old sofa in the corner of a common room that smelled of smoke and cold tea. He had insisted that he wasn’t tired but Ridley had suggested that he sit down while she made some tea and before she’d even turned round to ask if he’d prefer some orange squash, he was fast asleep with the black cat curled up on his chest, worn out by what was certainly the most extraordinary day he had ever experienced. But in those last few seconds before he fell completely asleep what had danced through his brain was not the unexpected sight of his uncle’s face under the Erl King’s helmet, or the dreadful way his head had lolled, finally unconscious, as the Knights Watchmen had led him away, nor the terrifying white anger in Ridley’s cold glare as she oversaw the process - no, it had been of laughter, of shrieking hysterical laughter as Cuddy had thrown his head back and howled with relief and glee at the sight of his great enemy carried away in chains. What woke Oscar was not laughter but shouting. He slowly became aware that a voice somewhere was getting nearer, louder. Then the door to the room banged open and he sat up, blinking in the bright sunlight. “...up! Quick!” It was Murray, thumping on the floor with his crutch, “Oscar, come on! He’s escaped!” “What? What did you say?” Oscar was on his feet already, “Who’s escaped?” “Skelton! The Erl King has escaped!” Murray was already back out of the door, banging down the corridor, “He killed a guard, too... Everybody up! Wake up!” He banged on a locked door, “Emergency! Fire! Everyone up! He’s escaped!” Oscar bolted out after him, suddenly wide awake and very confused. “When did it happen?” “No one knows - sometime in the last couple of hours - Get up in there! Emergency! - they’ve been changing guard on him every two hours, you see new lot went on duty, found one man paralysed stuff with fear, the other one dead... Everyone up! Everyone up!... and Skelton gone...” People were starting to join them out in the corridor now as Murray thumped along, banging on all the doors. Most of them still looked sleepy and befuddled;

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nearly all of them looked frightened. “This is how it’ll be...” said someone, “We’ll keep catching him and he’ll keep escaping and killing people...” “We should have killed him when we had the chance...” said someone else. Oscar span round to try and make out who had spoken. Whatever he had done, he still didn’t like the idea of someone killing his Uncle Rufus. “Down to the Great Hall! All of you, come on! Everyone to the Great Hall!” Murray was disappearing round a distant corner, still shouting. Oscar tried to follow him, threading his way through the milling crowds “Not that way,” it was Ridley, pushing her way through the crowd towards them, “Come on, Oscar, I need your help...” He followed Ridley through a maze of corridors, including the long arched gallery from which Oscar had first seen the Erl King the previous night, eventually arriving at a large white wooden door. It had a metal plate set into it at head height and when Ridley knocked on it with her Watchman’s black rod it rang dully. Oscar could see that the plate was dented and worn - a lot of Watchmen had knocked at this door before. The door opened and a Knight Watchman ushered them in. Oscar found himself in a cramped, low ceiling room full of bookshelves. Both the floor and the ceiling sloped, unfortunately in different directions, so that one end of the room, filled by a large window, was a lot more cramped than the other. There was a heavy oak table under the window and a saggy old leather armchair next to it. Both articles of furniture were slightly too large for the space and Oscar particularly couldn’t quite see how they had got the table in the room in the first place. The room was made even more cramped by the presence of three Knights Watchmen, Cuddy and, sitting in the leather armchair, absorbed in a newspaper, Oscar’s Uncle Rufus. “Uncle Rufus!” He couldn’t help bursting out, “You’re alright! You didn’t kill that man!” The moment he had spoken, Oscar knew there was something wrong. Everyone in the room stopped to turn and stare at him, apart from Uncle Rufus, who didn’t stir one inch. “Oh Oscar, I’m sorry, I didn’t think,” Ridley looked guilty, “I should have told you. It isn’t him - it’s an illusion – it’s what you saw last night when you saw the Erl King in the other room... I’m sorry, I really am...”

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“That’s alright,” said Oscar, trying to sound unconcerned, “I can see now.” And he really could, too - he could see the armchair right through Uncle Rufus’s unmoving head. “Yes,” said Ridley, approaching the illusion and looking at it carefully, “It’s starting to fade now - I suppose he thought he wouldn’t need it for long... one way or another...” “I ’spose not...” Oscar went over to join her, but he didn’t go too close to the illusion. However brave he had tried to sound, he had felt an enormous wave of relief for that moment when he thought that his Uncle was still in the Temple and that Murray had been wrong about what he was saying. For one wonderful second he had thought that it was all going to turn out to be a misunderstanding or part of some clever plan Uncle Rufus and Cuddy had worked out together or something and that everything was going to turn out to be alright. He had, for a moment, allowed himself to hope that his Uncle wasn’t the overbearing Lord Protector and, worse, the monstrous Erl King, but was, in fact, as he had always thought, his strange but harmless old Uncle. But no, that Uncle, like this one, had been an illusion. That one hadn’t even been a Magi, let alone head of the Knights Watchmen and their worst enemy rolled into one. Oscar looked at the figure sitting in the chair. It looked so like his Uncle Rufus, but he knew it wasn’t him, not the Uncle Rufus he knew - this was Rufus Skelton, ex-Lord Protector and Erl King, terrorist and murderer, and there was no way round it. “Right,” Cuddy was standing in the middle of the room, looking around eagerly, “We have to turn this room upside down,” he turned to Oscar , “We’re looking for any clues that might help up track him down... I thought that you, Oscar, might like to help...” he bent slightly, coming down to look Oscar in the eyes, “You could be invaluable to us in the hunt, Oscar - you will help, won’t you?” “Of course I will,” said Oscar. “Excellent, excellent, I know we can rely on you...” Cuddy seemed remarkably cheerful given the circumstances, “Now, Mistress Ridley, if you and Williams here would like to have a look in the bedroom...” Everybody went back to examining the room - taking down books, emptying out drawers, lifting up carpets - but Oscar couldn’t take his eyes off the illusion of his Uncle Rufus. He could see now that it wasn’t in the least bit lifelike - for one

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thing it didn’t move - it didn’t breathe, it didn’t blink or twitch, the hair stayed exactly where it was despite the breeze in the room. And yet Oscar couldn’t help wanting to talk to it, to try and find out why his Uncle had done such terrible things... he felt someone looking at him. He turned round to just catch Cuddy in the act of looking away. He ought to get on with helping examine the room... Uncle Rufus’ newspaper flapped gently. Wait a minute. Nothing else was moving, why was the newspaper? He reached out gingerly, careful not to touch the illusion - the thought of putting his hand through his Uncle gave him the creeps. The newspaper was real. He bent forward to look at it. He read the headline. “Ridley,” he said quietly, “Look at this...” Ridley, who was standing in the door way, methodically going through a bookshelf, looked round. “What is it, Oscar?” “Look...” she crossed over and looked over his shoulder. She grew very still all of a sudden. “Cuddy,” she said, “I think you should see this...” “What’s all this...” Cuddy’s voice trailed away as he started reading, then he shouted to the next room: “Everyone, get in here, quickly!” The Magi all huddled round in a tight knot, reading the newspaper over Skelton’s shoulder. ‘SPECIAL GUESTS TO NUMBER 10’, read the headline, “The Prime Minister will be welcoming some very special guests to Downing Street tomorrow when the winners of a children’s television competition...” “Oh stars and spirits,” Ridley’s voice was hushed, “He wouldn’t...” “I’m very much afraid,” Cuddy’s voice was determined, “That he almost certainly would.”

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20
Danger in Downing Street “Well, John, it’s a lovely day for this group of children, as they assemble here in Downing Street, and it’ll be a lovely day for the Prime Minister, too. It’s been a difficult week in Westminster, this week, and I’m sure he’ll be glad to be dealing with schoolchildren rather than his cabinet for at least one afternoon. And here he is, with his wife and one of his own children, coming out of Number 10 now, waving the cameras as he comes to greet these children, winners of a Blue Peter competition. And who knows, perhaps some of them might be able to help him with his current troubles - all of them won their place here by suggesting new policies for children - and that’s just the sort of headline grabbing policies that the Prime Minister needs right now to distract his political opponents from... “Hang on, wait a moment - there’s some kind of commotion in the crowd waiting and watching at the end of Downing Street - I think its some kind of demonstration - there’s some shouting - the police are moving in - there appear to be a group of people, all in some kind of uniform, pushing their through the crowd - and Special Branch are trying to get the Prime Minister back inside Number 10 - the police are trying to restrain the crowd - some of them are trying to move the children - its rapidly descending into chaos here in Downing Street... Oh my god! What’s that?...” All at once everybody stopped shoving and shouting - a shiver ran through the crowd and they all instinctively drew back, huddling together, even before most of them had seen the long dark shape dropping from the rooftops above. One of the policemen fired his gun as the thing dropped and everyone in the crowd ducked and then stayed there, crouched down, hardly daring to look at the shapeless mound of clothing now that had fallen into the road. Then, slowly, it began to rise, taller and taller, stretching up out of the pool of its blood red coat tails, its bone white head swinging this way and that, its long, thin fingers twitching, searching for a scent. The Erl King had come to Downing Street. Someone in the crowd began to scream and the policeman with the gun began to fire wildly as the Erl King swept round to face him. Galvanised by the firing the crowd began to panic, everyone suddenly blundering about, still bent double, running into each other, the walls, out into the street, driven senseless by the

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fear the Erl King brought with him. Out in the road two police horses bucked and reared, their hooves flailing over the heads of the scurrying people. The gun didn’t seem to worry the Erl King at all. He swayed for a moment and then darted forward, barely seeming to move at all, snatched up the policeman and flung him across the street into the abandoned cameras of the press. The moment the shooting stopped the crowd froze once more and a sudden silence descended. Someone somewhere was whimpering in a high, terrified voice. The Erl King paused once more and then swung round slowly to face the Prime Minister, who was standing in front of the door to Number 10, surrounded by the children visiting him, desperately trying, ineffectually, to shelter them. A single long, white talon bent out to point at him and the thin, hunched figure tensed, as if about to leap... “Stop, in the name of the Royal Order of Magi - You are under arrest!” The Erl King swung back towards the gates as Ridley soared up over them, her black staff pointing straight down at him. Behind her the gates began to buckle and stretch, the metal bending to make a doorway through which more Magi poured. The Erl King turned and crouched as Ridley sailed over his head, coming back down to earth in front of the Prime Minister and the children. He seemed to be about to leap at her but as more Watchmen gathered around him, leaping up to occupy window ledges and rooftops, trying to cut off his means of escape, he shrank back even further, indecisive. There was a grinding noise from out in the street, following by a metallic clattering and shrieks from the crowd as a bronze statue of someone on horseback leapt down from its podium and came ringing and sparking up towards the gate. Behind it came more statues - generals and prime ministers waddling on their stiff metal legs: Winston Churchill clanging like a great bell as he came, his raised arms creaking into life. The Erl King tensed and leapt and Ridley leapt too - but he was too fast. He twisted in the air and then there were two Erl Kings and then three, four - dark figures ricocheting across the narrow confines of Downing Street, bouncing from wall to wall. The Magi tried to catch them, but they were too fast, too numerous. And then one of them reached the rooftops and exploded into a flurry of black, rasping crows, and the air was full of beating wings and shining feathers and somewhere in the confusion a thin, scarlet figure fled across the rooftops and away.

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Ridley dropped back down again, landing next to Oscar. “Murray, stay here, try and get this mess in order – the rest of you, follow me – we can’t let him escape this time!” Then she turned and slipped an arm round Oscar’s waist, lifting him up, “And you, you are my good luck charm, come on!” She turned back through the gates to Downing Street, to where the police horses had been; only now they weren’t police horses at all. For one thing they were still rearing up on their hind legs and their hides had turned a deep purple colour, but something about their legs had changed, their back legs had become thicker, stronger, so that they could happily walk on just the two of them, while the hooves on their front legs had divided up into thick, simple fingers that clacked together loudly as they moved. And they had sprouted horns from their heads, great, thick, spiralling horns which twitched and turned, swivelling round as their heads turned back and forth. Ridley grabbed hold of the reins of one of them with her free hand, put a foot in a stirrup and swing them easily up into the saddle. “Yales,” she explained, simply, “The traditional mount of the Knights Watchmen – Knight Mares, they used to call them...” And with a flick of the reins, she swung the Yale about and they set off up Whitehall at a clattering lope. It was not the most comfortable journey Oscar had ever endured. The saddle had changed shape along with the horse, but it didn’t help with the Yale’s strange, off kilter run that felt like they were constantly in danger of tipping over. But, on the other hand, galloping through the centre of London on a mythical animal is just about fun enough to make up for any discomfort. Ahead of them a thick flock of squawking black birds wheeled and scrabbled over the roofs of the buildings, diving between streets and across open spaces. They jinked and turned in hot pursuit, the Yale swerving between buses and then leaping over the bonnet of a car in one heart-stopping rush. They came rattling over Trafalgar square, splashing through the fountains, scattering tourists and pigeons as the sound of police sirens grew around them, then they turned sharply after the birds up a side street. They cantered up the street, as Oscar and Ridley scanned the skies for the birds. “There!” Oscar spotted them, flocking round a church spire in the distance. Ridley urged the Yale on, up past Leicester Square, where the police cars were

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already gathering, sealing off streets, ushering people off the pavements. They flashed past Chinatown, Oscar getting a glimpse of mouths full of food in restaurant windows, hanging open in amazement as they went past, and then they were at the church they had seen ahead of them, plunging into thick maze of smaller streets. The flock of birds was getting thinner now, losing its numbers, getting harder to follow. Ridley turned into a wider road and then turned again, trying to catch their track. They came out into a leafy square that had a small park in the middle of it. People scrambled out of their way as they came trotting in, jostling each other to get out of the park, while two policemen fought against the flow, trying to get in. In the commotion two or three ravens, all that was left of the flock of birds, flapped noisily up from the grass onto the roof of an odd little black and white building in the centre of the park. “Lost him!” Ridley wheeled the Yale round, looking for something that might help them pick up the trail again. They were alone in the park with the policemen, who, now they were finally in, looked like they wanted to get back out again and who backed away nervously as Ridley trotted up towards them, staring at the Yale’s horns in fear. “Did you see him?” barked Ridley. The policemen stared back at her, open mouthed. “The Erl King,” added Oscar helpfully. The policemen now stared at him, no wiser. “The terrorist,” said Ridley. The word seemed to wake them up. “Clear the streets,” said one of them. “Fugitive on the loose,” added the other, as if glad to be saying something that sounded like it made sense, “Armed and dangerous.” “Do not approach,” added the first one with a kind of satisfied finality. “Absolutely,” said Ridley, “I think that would be a very good idea,” and she turned the Yale away from them, back across the park. “Do you think he was deliberately trying to confuse us?” asked Oscar. “Almost certainly,” said Ridley, grimly, “There’ll be Magi scattered all over London now...” “But someone’s bound to find him, then.” “Unless...” Ridley suddenly sat up straight in the saddle, alert, “Unless that’s

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his plan: like the Museum, distracting us, splitting us up, so he can attack us where we least expect!” She wheeled them round and urged the Yale forward, out through the gate to the park and down a side street towards the main road. They came cantering out from between two tall buildings and Oscar suddenly realised that they were right outside the White Tower. The police were already there in force, with cars pulled across all the roads, blocking all directions off. The Yale bucked and wrenched round, balking at the flashing lights, as policemen ducked and ran from them. Ridley pulled hard on the reins, pulling them round and the Yale leapt up, bouncing over the roof of a police car and down the other side into the empty road. Almost immediately sirens started up behind them as they went careering down the road at full tilt, and Oscar could hear the complaining of tires from somewhere behind. Ahead of them was another junction, with more cars blocking it off and this time with policemen running forward, trying to stop them. A police car came squealing out of a side street, fish-tailing to a screeching stop as they swerved round it and then they were leaping and dodging between policemen and parked cars as Ridley tried to get them through the cordon. The Yale leapt another car and then slipped on landing, it hooves scrabbling for purchase on the tarmac. Thrown this way and that, Oscar suddenly found himself pulled out of the saddle as Ridley jumped clear of the beast. The Yale scrambled upright again, whirling this way and that, scattering policemen, as Ridley ran for a side street, still carrying Oscar. “No time for all this...” she gasped, but Oscar couldn’t see how she hoped to out run all these policemen while carrying him. Then she grabbed hold of a lamp post as they ran past and they sprang outwards and upwards: she kicked off against a wall and then bounced off a window sill, a cornice, and suddenly they were up on the roofs of London and running, bounding, leaping along between the chimneys. Ridley swung Oscar round, onto her back, and he clung on for dear life as she leapt across a narrow alley and went sliding across the wide roof of a theatre, then a single, suspended, breathless moment as they arced out over a wide street in one long jump, a thump, a landing, a run and another leap, the empty air around them unnaturally silent. Then they were back among the roofs and the turrets and the chimneys,

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careening down tiles, then catching hold of a balustrade to swing out and across to a flagpole, the sudden rustle of leaves in the roof garden and gravel underfoot, then slipping across a sloping glass roof to a wide, flat area where they dodged between aerials and pipes to a higher roof beyond. The roof of London was an extraordinary place. As he bounced along, Oscar felt that he was seeing somehow behind the scenes, places that only pigeons ever visited, lonely gargoyles that no one ever noticed, deserted floors of buildings with weeds growing in them, odd little wells and courtyards with no doors to them, a view of the city that few ever got to see. Even the famous sights were unrecognisable from up here, they leapt at you, unsuspected, the unnervingly empty Trafalgar Square, the broad run of the top of Admiralty Arch, the leads of Whitehall, and then there they were, dropping once more into the chaos of Downing Street.

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Orders and Investigations Dropping right into the middle of a group of policemen, who, as one, drew guns and took aim at the pair of them. Ridley barely had time to react to this when the door to 10 Downing Street opened and Murray stumped out on his crutch, with a tight knot of more policemen and Magi behind him. “Ah, there you are,” he grunted and then added, as an afterthought, “My Lord. They’re with us,” and he waved his crutch at the policemen surrounding them. The scrum of police and Magi – many of whom, Oscar now noticed, were wearing a green uniform he didn’t recognise, which had silver emblems of the Knight Errant lance on the collars – parted as a fleet of limousines drew up and formed a defensive corridor between the cars and the front door, and it was somewhere in this confusion and flurry of barked orders that Oscar found himself shaking hands with the Prime Minister. “I understand I have you to thank for my life, my boy,” the Prime Minister pumped his hand up and down and clapped him on the shoulder, “There’ll be an official statement, of course, but I can only say thank you and, well, good work.” The effect of the honour was almost ruined a moment later when a General ruffled his hair and called him a ‘clever little fellow’, but Oscar couldn’t help grinning like an idiot as the politicians crammed past into the cars. Cuddy came bustling up, looking very pleased himself.

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“Going to the Palace,” he said, trying to make it sound as if it was something he did regularly, “Lots to do... good work you two, by the way, very nicely handled – looked very good that, Marion, springing into action like that, impressed the PM, I could tell. “And we’re going to need more of that sort of thing – we’re public now and we have to use it, understand? We have to take up our responsibilities – the Knights Errant are going to be taking charge of the defence against the Wild Ride, but we need more than that: we need results, we need the Erl King – that’s your job now Oscar, and yours, Ridley: don’t let me down.” And then he was gone, disappearing into a knot of policemen to be bundled into car with the Home Secretary and a very confused looking Admiral. The cars had pulled away in a flurry of activity, pulling, in their wake, squads of Knights Errant and policemen off on desperate errands and vital missions, until Downing Street was suddenly quiet and almost empty. Ridley and Oscar walked down towards Whitehall. Already the whole area was sealed off by policemen, but now, in the distance, Oscar could see Spirits taking up their part: statues stumping down from their plinths to take up guard positions in road junctions, Wyverns flapping blackly down to perch on streetlamps, Knight Mares clattering off to herd traffic away. And slowly the stillness of these streets was spreading out across the city as roads were closed, shops were shut, offices emptied, as the terror of the Erl King blanketed the whole of London in a quaking silence. “So,” said Ridley, “We have our orders, then, my Lord, the trouble being, where do we start?” “Well,” said Oscar, “I’ve been thinking about this, a bit. I’ve been thinking about Hopkins.” “Hopkins?” Ridley was surprised, “Who on earth is Hopkins?” “He’s man in the White Tower. I saw him in there.” “Oh,” Ridley went quiet, “That Hopkins.” “I know, but listen, when we were getting everyone out of the Tower he wanted to see Maggs, to tell her something, but then he wouldn’t say what it was and refused to leave the Tower.” “So? He was mad before he went in there, if you believe the stories, he’s probably a fair bit madder now.”

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“No, well, yes, but I was thinking about what the thing, the mask, said in the Museum, something about, being held prisoner in fear, you know, and it made think of the White Tower and made think of Hopkins and what he might know about Maggs.” “And what he might know,” the light was dawning on Ridley’s face, “About the Darklings...” They were standing the courtyard of Hopkins’ castle, but it had changed almost out of all recognition since the last time Oscar had been there. This time there were no sign of servants or soldiers, except for something in a corner that Oscar was rather afraid might be a body. There were gaping holes in the walls and miles of broken masonry all around. The courtyards was covered in piles of rubbish and discarded, broken weapons. Here and there were smouldering heaps of wood and cloth. Black and grey smoke drifted over the scene. Somewhere far away they could hear shouting and screaming and the clash of war. The ground trembled under their feet with the distant rumble of explosions. “It wasn’t like this last time we were here,” said Oscar, “They were all parading and everything and there were walls...” “I don’t know what’s going on,” said Ridley, “But I think we ought to get out of it - which way was it?” They found the library, eventually, and in it they found the servant who had shown them there the last time they had visited; only this time he was hiding under a table. Ridley hauled him out and sat him down. “What’s going on here?” “The rebels... they attacked...” “That’s it!” it was coming back to Oscar, “He said something about being crowned every morning and then starting a revolution every afternoon…” “Starting a revolution? Against himself?” Ridley was confused. “Oh, there’s always a revolution - every day,” said the servant, “Then his ineffableness puts it down and we crown him again. But this time he didn’t. It didn’t stop - they’re still fighting - so I came and hid in here. They never come in here - not ever...” “You mean Hopkins didn’t beat his own rebellion? Hopkins is winning? I mean, Hopkins the rebel,” Ridley was starting to confuse herself “Oh no, ma’am, no one is winning,” said the servant blithely, “Because his

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unbelievableness has gone, so no one’s in charge - they’re just fighting because they don’t know what else to do.” “Hopkins has gone?” “His Wondrousness has gone into shadow, my lady - they’ve been rebelling since then.” “Gone into shadow? You mean the Wild Ride?” “A darkness came and His Marvellousness went with it,” said the servant. He sounded like he wasn’t quite sure what had happened. “Sounds like Erl King beat us to it,” said Ridley. “They said before that he was in league with the Darklings, perhaps he’s helping them somehow.” “My word, if he is, I think I know how, and I think I now know why the rebels never attack the library,” Ridley was looking at the bookshelves, “Look at this: Newton’s Principia Magica, Hawksmoor’s Commonplace Book, Dashwood’s Hellfire Diaries... this has got to be one of the most complete libraries of magical books I’ve ever seen...” “I don’t understand,” Oscar was trying to extract a copy of Seven Spells of Seven Effective Magicians, which he thought sounded useful, “I mean, isn’t this prison? How could he get all these books in here?” “Circles and moons!” Ridley clapped her hands, “That’s it, that’s why he wouldn’t leave - this is what was keeping him here - this is what the White Tower gave him - a library any Magi was dream of - every spell book ever written, even the lost ones, the ancient ones, all under one roof! He beat the White Tower! Man’s a genius...” “I think he’s batty – rebelling against himself everyday.” “So he’s spent his time in here researching into magic...” “And rebelling against himself...” “And rebelling against himself... what more could the Erl King want? The question is what do they want with Maggs?” “The terrible work the King hath wrought shall by the King’s own hand be brought to naught.” Ridley whirled round: “What did you just say, Oscar?” “It’s something Maggs said – and it’s written down here,” Oscar was bending over a desk, looking at some notes that had been left lying on it. He read it out again: “‘The terrible work the King hath wrought, by the King’s own hand shall be

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brought to naught.’ What does it mean?” Ridley moved to look over his shoulder. “I’ve heard her say it myself – she always said it was the only thing she could remember from before the Wild Ride attacked her.... Stars and Spirits!” Ridley slapped her hand over her mouth, “That’s Maggs’ handwriting, I’m sure of it – these must be her notes! What else is there?” Oscar riffled through the pages on the desk: they were all covered in strange spidery symbols and diagrams – then something recognisable jumped put at him: “Look, a map!” “Let me see...” Ridley laid it flat on the table between them, “...looks like a city...” “Ork... I’ve never heard of that... is it a magical place?” “I think that’s just the end of the name... York, perhaps? Yes, I think it is – what’s that there?” “Looks like someone’s scribbled on it... I can’t read it though...” “No it’s in Enochian, a magical language, but it’s in code, too, I can’t make it out... I do know one thing, though...” “What’s that?” “I have looked into your future, my Lord, and I foresee a long journey by train...”

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The Great Northern There seemed to be more policemen at St Pancras than there were passengers. The station was almost completely empty apart from the armed officers walking carefully to and fro across the concourse and in their wake the lonely travellers clustered anxiously round their bags. People spoke in whispers and seemed lost and insignificant in great, solemn space of the station. Ridley ushered Oscar along towards the farther side of the station, past queues that were forming at the head of every platform, as people waited to have their bags searched by stern policemen. Already Oscar could see Magi, in a green uniform that he couldn’t recognise, moving down the queues, scrutinising the passengers as they passed by. Their own destination, however, was obscured by a great billowing cloud of smoke and steam. Oscar wondered if something somewhere was on fire - black

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smuts started to dot his clothes and the smell of burning stung his nose as Ridley led him down the platform. Through the thick steam he caught glimpses of colourful and ornately decorated carriages, covered all over with lots of gleaming brass fixings and delicate and mysterious patterns. All the windows were decorated too, with magical symbols cut into the glass and many of them were closed by thick green velvet curtains. Through the few that were open he could just about make out an interior full of more green velvet and gold braid. It wasn’t a long train - only three or four carriages long - and soon the steam began to thin and Oscar could see they were approaching the engine. It was completely unlike any train engine he had ever seen, outside of old films and books. It was black and gleaming and a number of Magi in overalls that would have been practical apart from the magical patterns embroidered on them, wandered back and forth polishing and tending the machinery. Only was it machinery? Peering through the wreathing smoke, the pipes began to look like tentacles or whiskers, the metal started to look like it was made up of many iridescent scales, the whole tender seemed to swell and fall as if it were... breathing... And then, as they approached closer, the whole of the front of the engine rose up and turned towards them: a great, bearded, shiny face, with a short, blunt muzzle, a hint of huge white teeth and two dimly glowing red eyes like warning lights. It wasn’t a steam engine at all: it was a dragon. Oscar stood, rooted to the spot, as the Engine Dragon shook his enormous, heavy head at them and snorted steam out through nostrils like gleaming funnels. Ridley reached up and patted the Dragon’s hissing muzzle and it nudged her back with evident affection. The black cat came sauntering down the platform and sat down next the Ridley, regarding the dragon with a curiously superior expression. One of the Magi in overalls came up to them, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth and looking very pleased with himself. “Took all six of us to conjure her back up - took five of us just to find which shed she’d been left in...” he patted the Dragon and then wiped where his hand had been. “Its good to see her again, isn’t it girl?” Ridley scratched the Engine under the chin with her staff - it sounded like someone running a stick along a piece of

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corrugated iron, “Are we ready to go?” “She’s fed and we’ve got a full head of steam up,” said the Magi Engineer, “The first full run of the Great Northern in twenty years: it’s going to be quite something.” “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go...” Ridley turned and started back towards the carriages. “Right then,” said the Engineer and, with a great grin plastered on his face, he took a whistle from his pocket and blew it: “All aboard!” Oscar sprinted after Ridley and followed her and the cat up the steps into the first carriage as all the Engineers ran up towards their special cabin just behind the Engine Dragon. Then Chief Engineer blew his whistle again and, with a great bellow and a rush of steam the Dragon sprang forward down the lines, catapulting Oscar through the door into the soft green seats of the compartment, as they leapt forward, out of the station, and away in a whirlwind of smoke and sparks and magic, away through the tunnels and between the houses, away up the lines to York. Oscar sat back in his seat, watching the countryside rush past, as they sped up the line north. Ridley sat opposite him, on the other side of a table stacked high with tea things, including, Oscar had been pleased to discover, a large number of cakes that Ridley didn’t seem to want. There had to be some kind of spell cast on the carriage, because in here it was incredibly hard to tell that they were travelling at all, but even when the carriage did occasionally shake and rattle, the tea things were all very careful to brace themselves and make sure that nothing spilt. They weren’t being helped, though, by the black cat, who was amusing herself by chasing a particularly nervous saltcellar around the table. “Told you it would be worth going by train, didn’t I?” said Ridley, grinning, “Only way to travel. I never thought I’d see any of the great Engine Dragons running again in my lifetime, let alone be able to commission one for my own business in broad daylight... amazing, quite amazing... You know,” She leant forward, “When I was your age they only ran them at night - and that was only in emergencies - the only time I ever got to ride in one before today was the night the Wild Ride attacked our college. That was pretty much the last time before they put them away for good.” “This is what I don’t understand,” said Oscar, who was now full of cake and

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able to concentrate on less important matters, “The Magi have been around for ages, right? And I know everyone was hiding from the Erl King, but Uncle Rufus isn’t that old - I mean, you just said that there were even Dragons before then - I mean, how come no one knows about you? Someone must have noticed something...” “Oh they did - lots of people have known or suspected, at different times after all, Isaac Newton set up the original Brotherhood with the permission of the King - so he must have known - but the Magi have always liked to keep things secret, even from each other. It takes a lot of research and skill and training to summon spirits, you know - and before the Brotherhood was founded it was even more difficult than it is now - back then Magi were always scared of someone else finding out their tricks and stealing their spirits, so they kept everything secret and, well, old habits die hard, I suppose...” “Maggs said something about Newton: but I still don’t really understand what he did.” “I’m afraid that’s another one of the mysteries of the Magi, really: you see, Newton and the other founders of the Brotherhood created the Great Work, the spell that created the modern Royal Order, but how they did it was kept secret and today is lost completely... “But I’m getting a little ahead of myself - I take it you know the story of Merlin?” “The wizard? With King Arthur and the knights and dragons and everything?” “Well, there weren’t really knights back then, but there were dragons, of course...” Ridley paused for a moment and looked at him, “Perhaps I’ll refresh your memory anyway... “A long time ago, after the Romans had left Britain, but long before the Normans came, and far away to the West, there was a King called Vortigern. Vortigern was trying to build a castle to protect himself from his enemies, but each time he got it halfway built, the earth would shake and the Castle would collapse back down into a huge cloud of dust and a little pile of rubble. Then Vortigern would have the architects whipped and start all over again. “After several tries, though, the architects were starting to get a little fed up at this arrangement, and Vortigern wasn’t too pleased, either, so he called together all the wise men and asked them what he should do to keep his Castle up. And they told him that he had to sacrifice a child with no father at the base of the

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tower and only then would it stay in one piece. Now, obviously, children without any kind of human father at all aren’t in plentiful supply, but fortunately for Vortigern there was one, a boy called Merlin, whose father was said to be the Devil, or perhaps a faerie, but certainly not a normal man. So Vortigern had Merlin brought to him and prepared to sacrifice him. “Merlin, however, was not overjoyed at being killed just to keep a Castle up, and told Vortigern that his wise men were wrong, and what he had to do was dig a deep pit beneath where the castle stood. Well, Vortigern dug the pit and at the bottom they discovered a Red Dragon and a White Dragon, locked in fierce combat, and it was their buffetings and crashings that was making the ground shake and destroying the Castle... “Now, obviously that’s just a story, and it has a more complicated ending and might mean all kinds of complicated things, but what Newton discovered was that it held a grain of truth - there are two dragons: the two most powerful spirits in Britain, spirits so powerful and so ancient that no Magi would dare even trying to capture them with magic. They simply wouldn’t know how. “But what Newton also discovered was that there was a way to do it. The ancients had built monuments - standing stones, barrow mounds, that sort of thing - that helped them channel and use the powers of the greater spirits, but in the thousands of years since the skills had been forgotten and the new cities and castles and houses had ruined the spell. “So Newton set about working it all out, just as he did with Mathematics and Physics, and eventually he was ready to perform ‘The Great Work’. With the help of other Magi - including a famous architect called Hawksmoor - he had constructed a system of buildings that worked as a spell, binding one of the Great Spirits: the White Dragon, placing it in the power of the Magi. “And that Great Work became the keystone of the Brotherhood of the Magi: ensorcelling the White Dragon changed Magic forever - it put great power into the hands of the Brotherhood, power that was shared with every Magi that joined. What had been a little London club became the official body of Magic in Britain. And that power made the practise of magic easier - many other spirits bowed before the White Dragon - it meant that instead of all the research and experimentation, to command a spirit you just needed to know the right words of command:” and here she said something in a language that Oscar could almost, but not quite, understand, “and they obey you...”

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As she spoke the cake stand waddled uncertainly towards Oscar and then shuffled round until the last two remaining cakes were facing him. He took one and it bowed graciously and then sidled back to its place by the teapot. “So... I... I could do magic if I wanted?” asked Oscar. “You’re already making crumbs appear from nowhere,” said Ridley, “Seriously though, yes, you could, you could and you will... I promise. Once all this is over...” “You and Maggs? You’ll teach me?” “I’d be honoured.” And Oscar sat back, visions of whole armies of cake stands at his beck and call filling his head as he gazed rapturously out of the window and, before he knew, fell fast asleep.

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A House in York As the Dragon pulled into York Station, huffing and growling, cross at being made to stop, Oscar was surprised to see that the station was almost completely empty. The only people he could see were a few nervous looking railway officials, watching them arrive from a high window, and a small knot of policemen standing by the main entrance. As they got down from the train one of the police officers moved towards them. “Glad you’re here,” he said and shook Ridley by the hand. He shot Oscar a disapproving glance but said nothing, “Don’t know how you knew, but I won’t ask what I don’t want to hear. This way...” and he waved them in the direction of the doors that other officers were now holding open for them. Ridley glanced at Oscar with a confused expression on her face, but said nothing. The two of them got into a waiting car and soon they were racing through the twisting streets with the sirens wailing. Like London, York seemed to have become a ghost city; the streets empty but for forlorn looking Christmas decorations, that swung, unlit, in the wind. The ancient buildings, sagging over the road with age, seemed abandoned, but, as they passed, Oscar saw curtains twitch and frightened faces peer out at them.

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The car made its way out of the city and into more suburban streets. Ridley scrabbled in her pocket and pulled out the map from the White Tower. She turned it round a couple of times and squinted out of the window at the passing road names. “Well, we definitely seem to be going in the right direction,” she said. “But they seemed to be expecting us,” said Oscar, “What’s going on?” “I’m not sure,” whispered Ridley, “But they seem to be impressed with us, so lets not disillusion them, eh?” and she winked conspiratorially. The sirens stopped wailing and the car pulled up in front of an ugly suburban building that was actually two houses pushed clumsily together with an archway in the middle. The archway was currently full of police cars. The driver leaned back over the seats. “Its the house on the left - there should be an officer on door, he’ll tell you what’s what...” he nodded towards Oscar and lowered his voice a little, “Are you sure you should be taking the boy?” “He’ll be fine,” said Ridley and ushered Oscar out of the car. The policeman on the door didn’t seem at all sure what was what and had to disappear inside several times to confer with his radio and the officers in the house, and sometimes both, before he would let Ridley and Oscar in. They were met in the hall by an officer in plain clothes, who took Ridley aside and spoke to her in whispers. She turned to look at Oscar and he saw that her expression had become incredibly serious. “Oscar,” she said, “I want you to have a look on this floor, see what you can see. I’m going to look on the first floor...” and she followed the plain-clothes officer up the stairs. Despite all the whispering and secrecy, Oscar already had an unpleasant sensation in his stomach that made him think that he was quite happy staying down here, where there were plenty of policemen. He had a horrible suspicion that something nasty had happened upstairs, something that he wasn’t interested in seeing right now. And given that the police didn’t seem all that surprised to see him and Ridley made him suspect that the Erl King might be on exactly the same trail as they were. He wandered through a kitchen into a sitting room, the cat following quietly at his heels. Policemen, some in uniform, and some in strange, rustling white boiler suits moved about around him. He could tell that they were looking at him but

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were either too busy working or too wary of these new inexplicable events to actually ask what a small boy was doing there. He looked around - it seemed like a perfectly ordinary sitting room - a TV in one corner, a big sofa and a couple of armchairs, a coffee table, a mantelpiece with some pictures on it... Oscar looked at the photographs more closely. He walked up towards the mantelpiece, with the odd sensation that he wanted to try and keep what he had discovered secret, even though it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else in the room. He looked around, but no one seemed to be paying at direct attention to him. He gingerly picked up one of the photographs. “Oscar!” Oscar jumped and turned and dropped the photograph. All the policemen in the room turned and stared at the sound of the breaking glass. Ridley stepped over to him from the door. “He’s been here. The Erl King.” She looked drawn. Her lips were thin as though she had decided something. For a moment she was far away but then she suddenly looked down at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “We better get you out of here...” “I know why.” Oscar bent to pick up the photo. The black cat was standing by it, watching him carefully. “Come on - leave that - you’ll cut yourself on the glass - the police will clear it up.” “No, I know why, why he came here - see?” Oscar lifted the photo frame up and glass fell out at his feet. The cat edged away from the falling shards. Ridley reached down and took it from him. “Give that to me.” “Look at it, though...” Ridley was going to put it back on the mantelpiece but then she stopped. She turned it into the light coming through the French windows. “My goodness...” The photograph was of a young couple with a baby. They were standing on a hillside with another, slightly older woman. The three adults were smiling at the camera, although the baby didn’t seem all that pleased to be outside. Behind them, at the top of the hill, was a squat, black building, like some kind of castle. The older woman, standing beside the couple, was unquestionably, younger but unmistakeable, Maggs.

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“Officer!” Ridley was carefully picking the picture out of the frame, flicking away little crumbs of glass. A policeman approached, warily. “Yes, ma’am.” “This building - in the background here - do you know what it is?” “That, ma’am? That’s just over the top of the hill here - in the University grounds... I not entirely sure what it is, some kind of water tower, I think.” “I thought it was some kind of substation - you know, for the electricity,” said a policeman behind them. “It’s one of the University departments, isn’t it?” said another. “It’s a funny thing,” said the first, “But I’ve never noticed it on any maps...” There was a small smile on Ridley’s face. She put the photograph in her inside jacket pocket. “Can someone drive us there, please?”

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Siward’s Howe “You remember what I was telling you earlier about the Magi keeping secrets from each other?” They were standing on a windy hillside looking up at the dark building from the photograph. Even though it was surrounded by suburbs and University buildings there was something indescribably lonely about the hilltop. The grass was grey and sickly and what trees there were huddled close to ground in scrubby clumps and their lefless branches were festooned with ragged plastic bags. The building squatted in the middle of all this like a large child’s toy that had been left in the garden to get mouldy and weather stained. Even in shape it was like a toy, a simplified sketch of a castle, lumpy and shapeless with four squat towers and worn down nubs of battlements. Oscar could see it wasn’t a real old castle, though – it was made of dark grey concrete and had a television aerial on the roof. “I think this place might be one of those secrets.” Ridley walked away and peered round the corner of the building. “I haven’t seen anything that looks like a door in, have you?” “No,” Oscar admitted. “I suspect the roof is probably the best bet,” she has walked back towards him and now held out her hand, “Here, take my hand.” Oscar took hold of her hand and immediately felt himself being pulled upwards. Ridley seemed to be stepping up through the air, as if she was on some kind of invisible escalator, climbing non-existant steps but rising faster than she was stepping. Oscar found himself being pulled easily up behind her, rising up towards the top of the tower. As they drew level with the top, Oscar could see that the roof was flat and largely featureless, apart from a couple of large puddles and some odd little bumps and hollows. Ridley stepped down onto the roof and neatly swung Oscar down after her. To Oscar’s surprise he heard a small thump and found the black cat winding itself around his legs again. He was sure that Ridley hadn’t carried it up with her, but had it just jumped all the way up here on its own? Ridley was already pacing about the empty expanse of roof, stopping here and there to examine any odd bulges or dips. The cat set off after her, sniffing at her

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tracks. Oscar followed. “It’s more of a tradition really, these days,” Ridley was saying, “But everyone does it. Even I’ve got a little garret no one knows about. It comes from the old days, before the Royal Order, when Magi kept their methods and knowledge secret - and key to keeping those things secret was keeping where you kept them secret, if you see what I mean - your laboratory, your house, your... tower. Every Magi has one - a secret tower - a place that no one else knows about, where they can come and work without being disturbed. And I suspect that this here ‘mysterious castle’ is, in fact, Maggs’ tower.” “You mean Maggs used to live here?” “I mean I think she probably still does, technically, it’s just that, like everything else, she’s forgotten it. But someone knows now - Hopkins must have worked out that Maggs came from York and he... they, I suppose, him and the Erl King, must have discovered that the family were...” She suddenly stopped and looked up at Oscar, “You have to know, I’m afraid, you ought to... the people in that house, they were a family, I think... I think they were Maggs’ family... you see... he killed them, Oscar, the Erl King, your... your Uncle... he killed everyone in that house. I’m sorry.” Ridley stood, looking at him, her hands hanging by her sides, her face sad and lost. Oscar didn’t know what to think. He couldn’t quite figure it out, put it together. He tried to remember his Uncle’s face in the Great Hall, when he had tried to stop Cuddy and even later when they had unmasked him. He tried to see there the face of a madman and a murderer, but somehow he couldn’t. The face of his Uncle Rufus kept getting in the way. He just couldn’t, literally couldn’t - was not able to - believe it. The black cat wound itself round his ankles in a reassuring manner. Unable to think of anything else he could do, he walked up and took Ridley’s hand. “We better stop him, then, shouldn’t we?” She looked down at him, solemnly, “Yes, yes we should. Here - I think there might be something here.” She bent down where she had been standing and tugged at a piece of pipe sticking out from the plain grey of the roof. To Oscar’s amazement a line appeared in the asphalt, then three, making three sides of a wide square. Then the side Ridley was pulling lifted up and he saw that it was a trapdoor. Ridley swung it all the way up and flung it back so that the dark entrance gaped open

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before them. They peered down into the shadows. Oscar could just about make out some stairs leading down out of sight. It was far darker in there than it ought to be. “Why wasn’t it locked?” he asked. “Magi don’t need locks,” said Ridley, grinning, “Their belongings have ways of protecting themselves. Ready?” And without waiting for an answer she stepped down into the darkness. Inside, the steps led down into shadow. The light from the trapdoor faded far quicker than seemed normal, but Oscar realised that it was not completely dark. The walls were panelled with solid, dark wood but dotted all over them and the ceiling were small points of bluish light, each one of which was far too faint to make any difference on its own, but all together they spread a sort of dim twilight, letting them at least vaguely make out where they were going. When he looked at the lights more closely Oscar discovered that they were little bugs, something like bumblebees, crawling slowly over the walls, their bodies glowing feebly. Every so often one of them would take off and float gently and aimlessly through the air around them. The corridor was full of these wandering sparks. It was a magical place, something like waking through a teeming galaxy full of tiny dim stars, as confusing as it was illuminating. The cat seemed to find them extremely entertaining. “Emberbees,” said Ridley, who didn’t seem quite as impressed with them as Oscar, “Not the most efficient lighting system. Wait.” She held up her hand and stopped, cocking her head to listen. Oscar stood quite still in the deathly silence, straining to listen. His attention was caught by a picture on the wall. It was a drawing of a view of York Minster, but he could just make out, in the background, an immensely tall man leaning against a buttress with his arms folded. Oscar got the definite impression that the man was glowering out the picture right at him. Oscar jumped. From somewhere far below came the distinct sound of something being knocked over and glass smashing. “Someone else is in here,” said Ridley, “Either that or some of the furniture isn’t too pleased to have visitors. Come on.” Ridley snatched out her hand and grabbed an Emberbee out of the air. She passed her black rod over her closed fist, muttering something under her breath. The light leaking out from between her fingers grew stronger and warmer. She opened her hand and a fierce orange glow staggered out. It shook itself and then

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started off down the corridor in front of them, much brighter than before. Ridley, Oscar and the cat followed at a jog. They trotted down the corridor to a junction. Ridley listened for a moment and then turned left. After a few moments the corridor turned right and then right again, so they were now going in exactly the opposite direction. They came to another junction. Ridley chose carefully again. The corridor seemed to go on forever - there were no doors or windows, just endless panelled corridor, lined with pictures, turning and meeting, back and forth in the shadowy, drifting dark, round and around in a bewildering maze. Ridley stopped suddenly and Oscar ran into her. This part of corridor seemed dimmer than the others - there were fewer Emberbees here. “It’s trying to lose us, confuse us...” “It’s working,” said Oscar. Then, suddenly, he jumped as a sharp knife of fear thrilled through him, drilling him to the spot. Ridley reached over and grabbed his arm. “It’s him!” she hissed, “Isn’t it? It’s the Erl King!” Oscar nodded, dumbly, suddenly feeling sick as that now familiar sense of dread that accompanied the Erl King everywhere became to seep over him. All around them the Emberbees were starting to go out and the shadows were creeping in, but Ridley ran on, heedless of the gathering darkness, and Oscar scrambled after her, suddenly panicking that she would leave him alone here in the darkness. But the little black cat came scampering up between his legs, turning to look at him as she passed, her eyes flashing in the darkness, beckoning him on. They chased helter-skelter through the endlessly dividing corridors. It was a confusing pursuit - impossible to keep track of. Blundering through the shadows with Emberbees swirling around them, unable to concentrate because of the fear that the Erl King spread in his wake, they ran down the endless wood panelled corridors after the cat, barely aware of where they were going and what they were doing. Suddenly Ridley pulled up sharply, but this time Oscar didn’t run into her. He had stopped in his tracks, too, frozen there by a sudden wave of panic - they were lost! They had come too far, run down into the heart of the tower and now they would never escape: it would wind its labyrinth around them, tightening its grip like a spider wrapping up its prey. They would wander forever in these dim,

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sparking passageways, first going mad and then fading away entirely, becoming nothing more than anxious whispers in the darkness, forever searching, never finding, eternally lost in Maggs’ castle... Of course: Maggs! She had been behind all this, right from the beginning! She had tricked Oscar into following her, she had spurred on Thursby and Cuddy, humiliated first Ridley and then Skelton... it all made sense now. She must have faked her loss of powers, she must have been planning this all for years and years, moving all her pieces into place, master minding this great coup to finally put herself in power and crush her enemies: It was Maggs! She was the evil genius, she was the mysterious power behind it all, she was the Erl King, she was... nothing of the kind! What on Earth was going on? How could he be thinking such things about Maggs? It was ridiculous! Oscar reached out and grabbed hold of Ridley as she stumbled along through the darkness ahead of him. “Ridley, wait, something’s up... I’ve been thinking... mad things... about Maggs” “It’s... it’s the Erl King... the fear...” “No, no, you don’t understand - it’s different... this is different to before – that was other things… things I was already afraid of… this is… this is made up stuff…” “You’re getting confused... it’s getting stronger... we’ve almost got him...” “What if something’s got us?” “Here!” Before Oscar could stop her, Ridley threw herself sideways against the wall. As she hit it, a section of the panels swung away in front of her and she plunged through into the darkness beyond. Her flailing arms caught Oscar and he tripped after her, falling into the shadows.

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The Magician’s Servants The moment they fell through the opening, the terrible sense of dread and fear that they had been pursuing fell away and as the door creaked shut behind them, they found themselves sitting on the floor of a small, dimly lit wood panelled room. Or was it small? It was hard to tell - it felt small but the light only seemed to illuminate the bit where they were sitting - to the right and left the room faded away, not quite in shadow more into a kind of indistinct mist so that was hard to tell just where it began and where it ended. When Oscar moved the noise of his trainers on the floorboards echoed oddly, like he was shuffling around in a huge steel drum, not in a cramped wooden room. It was a confusing sensation. The furniture in the room was just as odd, because no matter what angle Oscar looked at it from, it gave the distinct impression of not being real furniture at all, but just pictures of furniture – flat pieces of cardboard that had just been painted look like bookshelves and green flock wallpaper, a cosy looking leather armchair and a small table. The only real looking furniture that he could see was a large mirror hanging over the mantelpiece on the wall opposite and this made the whole thing even more confusing, because the reflection in the mirror looked so much more real than the furniture in the room – it looked actual and solid and friendly, even the reflections of the backs of the objects on the mantelpiece: a clock and a vase, a couple of Christmas cards. Oddly, one ornament didn’t seem to be reflected in the mirror at all and even more oddly that ornament was a garden gnome, with a green hat, red cheeks and a long white beard. “Ridley? Look at this mirror: it’s really weird...” “Oh dear.” Ridley picked herself up and started brushing off her uniform, “I’m afraid the mirror is quite normal, Oscar, it’s us who are weird: we’re on the wrong side of it. Welcome to the inside of the mirror.” “Are you sure?” Said a sneery, gravelly sort of voice, “You don’t want to leap to any conclusions. Perhaps you should take time to,” it paused dramatically; “reflect upon your situation.” the voice sniggered unpleasantly. Oscar looked around but he couldn’t see who was talking to them. “Oh dear, look at them. Just shadows of their former selves,” said the voice.

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Then a new voice chimed in. “That doesn’t work, you know, Alberecht: shadows. It doesn’t work. If we’d trapped them in a magical lamp, it might, perhaps...” Oscar saw some movement out of the corner of his eye, something on the mantelpiece on the other side of the mirror. “Shut up,” said the first voice, “I’m gloating. I’m having a lovely gloat.” “At least give me a hand,” said the second voice, “I want to gloat, too.” “What about ‘reflect’,” said a third voice, this one slower and more considered than the first two, “You could tell them to ‘reflect’ on their situation - that would work.” “He’s done that one,” said the second voice, “It was after that that he ran out and started with the shadows.” “Will you both Shut Up!” It was the sound of the petulant little foot stamping that finally allowed Oscar to place the voices, “I’ll push both of you off and then you’ll break and then you’ll be sorry.” The first voice, Oscar realised, was coming from the garden gnome who had so incongruously been standing on the mantelpiece before. He had been stroking his moustaches while he had been gloating, but now he had two thick handfuls of beard that he was wrenching at fitfully as he shouted at his friends. The second voice was now standing next to him, peering through the glass at Oscar and Ridley. He had a yellow hat and no beard, just long moustaches that hung down nearly to his belt. As Oscar watched, a third gnome hauled himself up onto the mantelpiece and then started pulling up the length of rope he must have climbed. It had a fishing rod at the other end of it. He turned round, winding the line back onto his reel. He had blue hat and eyebrows so bushy it was hard to believe that he could see where he was going. “I was having a lovely gloat,” continued the first gnome, who must have been Alberecht, “And now you’ve ruined it.” “It’s my turn anyway,” said the second gnome with the moustaches, “I want a go before,” and it was now his turn to pause, “they bounce back.” “What?” Alberecht turned to stare at him. “Before they bounce back,” he sounded less cheerful this time; less convinced that what he had just said was clever. “Bounce back,” the sneer was back in Alberecht’s voice

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“Yes, you know, I mean, that’s what mirrors do, isn’t it? They bounce light back to the eye, thus creating a reflection, isn’t it?” The second gnome shuffled and cleared his throat, “Isn’t it?” “Thus...” said Alberecht, scornfully. “It’s still better than shadows...” muttered the second gnome into his moustache. “What are they?” whispered Oscar to Ridley. “Gnomes, or Hobgoblins, possibly,” Ridley smiled ruefully, “I’m afraid these small creatures tend to get confused with each other a lot of the time.” “We don’t get confused,” interjected the second gnome, “You do. We know perfectly well what we are.” “We’re gnomes,” said Alberecht, “I mean, honestly, woman: hat, beard, fishing rod: what else would we be? Idiot.” “All I meant,” said Ridley, “Is that gnomes usually help out in the garden, it’s more usually hobgoblins in the house.” “Ah,” said the third gnome with a smug tone, “But there’s no garden here, is there?” They all nodded and seemed to think that that ended any further discussion. “It is our job to guard her ladyship’s precious castle against intruders: you have intruded and we are guarding against you. Rather well, as it happens,” When Alberecht said the word: ‘ladyship’, the other gnomes whispered something and grinned to themselves stupidly. “We made a trail,” said the second gnome, “So that you’d think it was your friend, so that you’d follow it, so that you’d get caught. So you’re idiots and we... are skill.” Alberecht scowled, “Karl?” “Yes?” “Shut up.” “But we’re not his friends,” protested Oscar, “The Erl King. We’re nothing to do with him.” “Then why were you following him?” asked Alberecht. “We were chasing him.” “So you are something to do with him, then?” “But he was here? Did you capture him like you’ve captured us?” asked Ridley, eagerly.

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The gnomes shuffled a bit and carefully didn’t catch each other’s eyes. “We had to let him go,” mumbled Alberecht into his beard. “Too strong was he?” “He was... a disruptive influence.” Alberecht was evidently pleased with having thought of the phrase. “Listen,” interrupted Oscar, “This is Maggs’ house, isn’t it? That’s who we’re friends with: Maggs. Honestly. The Erl King was her enemy, so we were chasing him: we’re her friends, you see.” “Anyone could say that,” said the third gnome. “Prove it,” said Alberecht. “If the Mistress would vouch for you, then we’d let you out,” said Karl. “But she can’t,” said Oscar, “You don’t understand...” “Listen,” said Ridley, “That man we were chasing: The Erl King – he and his Darklings attacked Maggs and she forgot her magic - she forgot all about you and this castle and everything...” “And now she’s been captured by the Darklings and we’re trying to save her,” added Oscar, “So you see, she can’t vouch for us...” “Only on the Mistress’ word,” said Alberecht, with an air of finality. “Oh, this is useless,” Oscar’s shoulders sagged, “They’re never going to believe us.” “What are you up to now?” said a voice, “What’s all this shouting? Stars and Moons! Oscar, Ridley, what are you doing in there?” Oscar’s heart leapt at the sound, and so did the gnomes, jumping to attention and all turning to bow in unison, because there, on the other side of the mirror, was… “Maggs!” shouted Oscar trying to jump up to see over the mantelpiece, “Maggs! Is that really you?” “And is that really you?” Maggs was having to stand on tiptoe to see them herself, “What are you doing here?” “We were following the Erl King,” Ridley lifted Oscar up to see properly. “And it was he who brought... oh, this is ridiculous, gnomes, let them out, I can’t talk to them like this.” Alberecht snapped to attention, “Erik, you heard the Mistress, stop just hanging about, let them out, Karl, you get the tea on, tsk: can’t you see we have guests?”

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The breaking of the mirror was a fascinating thing to see, as Erik took out a tiny hammer and swung it against the glass, which shattered under the blow with a thousand little explosions like glass bells bursting, leaving behind a thin silver mist that hovered and swayed where the glass had been. But Oscar was too excited about the prospect of seeing Maggs again to fully take it in and he scrambled up onto the mantelpiece eagerly. “Come along, then,” said Erik, sticking his face through the mist so that some of the silver frosted the tips of his luxurious eyebrows, “Before it freezes up again. I’m not breaking it all over again - once is bad luck enough for me.” The mist felt cool and slippery as Oscar put his face through it and, for a brief moment, all he could see was his own reflection staring blankly back at him out of thousands of silver droplets suspended all around. Then he was through and sitting quite happily on the mantelpiece, looking down on the room he had seen through the mirror and there on the hearth rug waiting for him was Maggs.

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Stuffed Crocodiles “Here we are, here we are, make yourselves comfortable, sit here, Oscar,” Maggs was bustling about, plainly overjoyed to find them here with her. Alberecht appeared in the doorway again and coughed to get their attention. “If I may, m’lady,” he began, “You won’t... I mean you might not... you probably don’t recall, you taught me a speech for guests and...” he pulled at his beard in embarrassment, “...I never really got to say it...” “Well, then,” Maggs was obviously delighted, “Now seems a perfect chance, doesn’t it? I’d love to hear it and I’m the others would, too, wouldn’t you?” Alberecht stalked into the centre of the room, straightened his waistcoat, and then started in quite a different, although just as self-important, voice: “Welcome, gentle folk, to our tower. Never since the Giant Siward himself laid down his heavy bones has this house had more anticipated or more honoured guests. Welcome one and all to our house, to your house, to Siward’s Howe.” He coughed again and looked down at his boots, suddenly abashed. Behind them on the mantelpiece Erik clapped enthusiastically and stamped his foot until Alberecht flapped a hand at him to shut him up. “Thank you, very much,” started Ridley, but Alberecht nodded at her curtly. “That’s alright. Just wanted to say it, that’s all. Tea’s on its way.” Then he turned his back on them and stumped out of the room. “Aren’t they delightful?” Maggs gazed after the small figure with a proud look, “He was terribly brave, you know, in the fight with the Erl King, they all were, bless them, quite heroic.” “So the Erl King brought you here?” Oscar asked. “Oh yes, although I’m not sure how,” Maggs’ brow furrowed, “He had me in some castle, I think, but I didn’t recognise it – Darklings came in the middle of the night and swept me up and the next thing I saw was this tower, although I didn’t recognise it then, of course.” “So you weren’t with him in... in the house?” Ridley was anxious and Maggs’ face fell. “No, but the gnomes told me about it – they have their spies... I... the terrible thing, Ridley, is that I don’t know those people, I’m not sure even sure if I ever knew them – I just can’t remember – they might have been my family, that must

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have been what he thought, but I just don’t know...” she stared at the fire, blankly, “Poor things...” “I’m sorry Maggs, if we’d just been more careful with him...” “With who?” “Of course, you don’t know!” Ridley glanced at Oscar and he nodded at her to go on, “Skelton, Maggs, Skelton was... is the Erl King...” “Skelton... the Lord...” Maggs was amazed. “He attacked the Temple after he snatched you and we caught him, Oscar and I, but he escaped and tried attacking the Prime Minister of all things, before... well, before all this...” “Skelton,” there was steel in Maggs’ voice, but she caught sight of Oscar watching her and she stopped. “He’s mad,” Ridley nodded to herself, “He must be quite mad.” “Just bad,” said Maggs, grimly, adding, “Sorry, Oscar, but there it is.” Oscar didn’t know quite what to say, but before he could think of anything there was the clatter of crockery and a group of gnomes entered, carrying between them a huge tray, swaying with tea things, cake stands and toast racks. One of the gnomes was Erik, who waved to them cheerfully, causing the tray to tilt alarmingly. Karl was following behind shouting orders. “Maintain your position there, Korporal; tray stability is of the utmost importance. Now, squad, advance to the coffee table,” the tray rattled over to a low table and the gnomes, standing on tiptoe, slid it onto the top. “Excellent work, men,” said Karl, turning to Oscar and Ridley, “Now, Mistress and Master, what can we get you? Crumpet? Tea cake?” “Fondant Fancy?” suggested Erik “Muffin, scone, pikelet or scotch pancake? Toast?” “Jam tart? Fairy cake? Gnome cake? Goblin cake? Rock cake? Coffee cake? Fruit cake?” “Please, please,” Maggs held up her hands in mock horror, “I think we need some tea first of all...” “Assam?” began Karl, “Darjeeling, Oolong, English Breakfast...” “Why don’t you choose?” interjected Ridley. “Nothing else?” Erik sounded dismayed. He gestured towards the tray: “I got some biscuits out.” “What biscuits?” Oscar couldn’t resist the question, but Ridley cut Erik off

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before he could get started. “But why?” She leant across to Maggs, “Why did he bring you here?” “I was wondering that – he obviously thought there was something here that he needed me to understand...” “He was trying to get into her ladyship’s study when we caught up with him,” offered Erik, pouring the tea. “Then the study it is,” said Ridley. The word ‘study’ had conjured up for Oscar the image of a room lined with bookshelves, dimly lit with desks and teetering stacks of paper, but Maggs’ study was a quite different sort of place. It was a huge, long, high room, with white painted walls and wooden floor boards stained and burned from countless experiments and spells. Both walls were lined with long benches covered with all manner of equipment and tools, scientific, occult and downright nonsensical. Distillation flasks stood next to astrolabes, Van der Graaf generators next to crystal balls. There were magic circles drawn on the floor and posters showing the atomic elements on the wall. On one side were shelves full of magical books that whispered and creaked in their sleep, on the other a cabinet full of chemicals in brown glass bottles. At the far end of the room was a large desk on a dais in front of a blackboard. Above it, hanging from the rafters, was a stuffed crocodile. Oscar wandered down the room, gazing in wonder at the extraordinary things arrayed around him: a pickled two headed lamb, crystals that had grown into a miniature city, tiny quartz towers full of strange, shifting lights, a vivarium in which, as he watched, a group of tiny people crept nervously from under some foliage, only to dart back under cover, angrily shaking spears like needles, when they saw his giant head looming down over them, a crucible on a retort stand under which a small dragon lay curled up and sleeping, smoke drifting lazily from its nose. Eventually, however, he reached the desk at the end, only to discover on it half a sandwich and an untouched cup of tea. Erik squirmed a little, “You did say not to touch anything, before you left, I mean,” he said to Maggs in a pleading manner: “We dusted it every day, though...” Maggs just stared at him, “I’ll get rid of it, then, shall I?” “Cowper,” said Ridley, thoughtfully, “The Black Chamber.” Oscar looked round to see what she was talking about. She was staring over

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his head at the blackboard. The board was cluttered with words and notes, long chemical formulae and incomprehensible diagrams, but several words in large capitals sat together down the left hand side, each outlined and joined up with arrows. “The Red Dragon,” read Ridley, “The King’s Binding.” “What does that mean?” asked Oscar. “I’m not sure,” said Maggs, shaking her head, “But it must have been the last thing I wrote up there before I left...” “Researches into the Erl King, do you think?” asked Ridley, “Well, let’s see, we start with Cowper, there at the top...” “Adam Cowper?” suggested Oscar, “The face from the museum?” “Adam Cowper, 1789 to date unknown,” it was Erik. He had climbed up on a bookcase and had a book propped up in front of him. He was laboriously following the words with his finger, “Magi, second class, Libertarian and Pantisocrat. Argued that the Royal Order should open its doors to all applicants and that everyone should be taught the practice of magic. Chiefly remembered now for his later argument that the Great Work of the Royal Order was a ‘slavery of spirits and a wound upon the breast of our nation’...” “That’s him,” interrupted Ridley, “Tried to free the spirits and to blow up the Temple.” “...was accused of a conspiracy of violence against the Royal Order and of communing with Dark Spirits...” “Dark Spirits?” Oscar was having difficulty following all this history, “Are those the same as Darklings?” “Dark Spirits,” repeated Erik, flicking through the pages of the book, “Dark Spirits, Dark Spirits... this only goes up to Cunning Fiends...” “Yes, thank you,” Ridley cut him off, “They are Darklings, Oscar, spirits that aren’t governed by the Great Work, which follow the Red Dragon instead of the White, you might say, which would explain point three on the blackboard.” “Because they’re not part of the Great Work,” interrupted Maggs, “They’re a lot more tricksery to control, you see, you have to make deals and pacts and it’s a dangerously business.” “Now, this Cowper thought that all Spirits ought to be free,” continued Ridley, “That the Great Work was a horrible torture to them and that it ought to be stopped, so he tried to do deals with Dark Spirits to try and destroy it. They

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caught him, of course, and locked him up... only...” Ridley’s voice tailed off - she was staring at the blackboard again. “Only what?” demanded Oscar. “Of course!” Ridley jumped down off the workbench and started pacing up and down, “That explains it!” “Explains what?” “If Cowper was dealing with Darklings, the White Tower wouldn’t be enough - it relies on the White Dragon for its power - it wouldn’t hold him...” “Of course,” Maggs was nodding. “The Black Chamber!” Ridley pointed at the blackboard dramatically, “I never really believed in it, myself, but it would make perfect sense.” “Don’t say that name!” There was a flurry and a thud as Erik stamped his foot in fury and the book slid off the shelf and tumbled to the ground, “It’s bad luck!” “Oh for goodness’ sake,” snapped Ridley, “It’s been written up on this blackboard for years...” “And look what happened!” shrieked Erik. Oscar suddenly realised that the little gnome was close to tears, “Look what’s happened to you, ladyship!” “Alright, alright,” Maggs made shushing movements with her hands, “Calm down, please...” “But what is... you know... it?” Oscar didn’t want to upset the little man any further. “The... it’s... look, if you thought the White Tower was a scary place, then its nothing to the... to this place. It’s supposed to be the most fearful fate that can befall a Magi - an eddy in the flow of magic that no spirits can enter or leave... it’s hard to explain to anyone who has never worked a spell, but the power of magic flows all around us, all around everything - sometimes faintly, sometimes, like in a place like this, in an almost overwhelming flood. It’s like a great wind, carrying a multitude of voices, all singing and chanting, fascinating, incredible songs... “But the... this place we’re talking about - its supposed to be a gap in the flow of magic, caused by the Great Work, a kind of whirlpool that no spirit can enter or escape from. If a Magi were caught up in it, they would be completely cut off from magic, from any kind of power or spell, completely alone... Imagine... imagine never hearing the voice of your mother again, of your friends, imagine never hearing music, or the sea, or wind in the trees... imagine there being

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nothing but silence and loneliness and fear: that’s what it would be like...” Ridley fell silent and Oscar suddenly realised that that silence wasn’t silent at all - it was full of small, inconsequential noises: their breathing, Erik snuffling slightly, a tap somewhere, dripping, a clock ticking, the snoring of the little dragon, the distant sounds of the Tower, Gnomes going about their business. He tried to imagine absolute, lonely silence, but he couldn’t. It must be awful. He began to see why Erik was so afraid. “Of course, it’s pretty much thought of as a legend,” Ridley shook her head, “If you believe the rumour only the Lord Protector knows where it is.” “No he doesn’t,” said Oscar. “I must have known something about it, though,” said Maggs, “Anything in that book, Erik?” “...condemned by the Three Wise Lords and incarcerated in the White Tower...” he read. “Then he wasn’t put in the Bl... in that other place then?” asked Oscar. “They wouldn’t dare put that in,” said Erik, “No one would buy the book.” “But what if,” said Oscar, “The other place was inside the White Tower?” “A hidden dungeon, you mean?” Ridley paused in her pacing, “Yes... No, wait, that can’t be right: Erik, when was Cowper put away?” “...um... 1817...” “But,” Oscar was confused, “The White Tower is a skyscraper - it’s not that old is it?” “No, it isn’t, that’s what I’m getting at, it can’t be in that White Tower,” Ridley started pacing again. “So there was a different White Tower in the old days?” “Of course!” Ridley stopped and snapped her fingers, “Oscar, you’re a genius. There must have been! Maggs?” “The original White Tower? The Tower of London, even I know that.” “The Tower of London?” “Yes! The White Tower is the name of the main Keep of the Tower of London - it was a jail in historical times, and not just for ordinary prisoners, either, but for magical ones, too - that’s why the White Tower is called that, after the original prison...” “Then that’s where the Chamber must be: in the Tower of London!” Ridley clapped her hands.

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“Now, gnome, we need the fastest transport you have in the house!”

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To London by Air It was exciting, but Oscar was secretly glad that when he looked down all he could see were clouds - it made the whole thing a little less real. Occasionally there was a break in the cloud cover and he caught a glimpse of glowing ribbons of roads and little specks of house lights and realised quite how high up they were and he had to look away. The problem then was catching sight of the moon, which was full, bright and altogether a lot closer than he was used to seeing it. It was still undeniably exciting, though. He had no idea how fast they were going, but the clouds appeared to be dashing past beneath them and a fierce wind was rattling the windows. That and the boom of the huge, leathery wings, beating steadily against the night. When Ridley had demanded a fast means of travel, the Gnomes had immediately ushered them up to the roof, where they had rolled back a section to reveal, in a small hanger, the strangest craft Oscar had ever seen. It looked something like a small boat with clawed feet underneath and two great, folded bat’s wings attached to it. The Gnomes had rolled it up onto the roof and the wings had parted and stretched and flapped experimentally with a creaking shake and Ridley had laughed and applauded. “An ornithopter! Moons, Maggs, you knew how to travel in style, didn’t you?” “What’s an ornithcopter?” It didn’t look entirely safe to Oscar - it appeared to be made solely of wood, leather and brass fittings and it squeaked and juddered ominously. “Ornithopter,” Ridley corrected, “It’s sort of like a plane, only it flaps its wings like a bird - it could only work with magic, of course, but it’s worth the effort, don’t you think?” She patted the wooden hull affectionately. The boat shaped bit in the middle had two eyes painted on it at the front and Oscar could have sworn that one of them winked at him. The Gnomes had opened a hatch and let down a set of folding steps. “Is it safe?” wondered Maggs. “You tell me, you built it,” grinned Ridley “Then it probably isn’t.” “Come on, all aboard,” and Ridley ushered them all into the cabin. Oscar had

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barely had time to find a seat before, with a sickening lurch; the Ornithopter had flung itself into the night sky and started flapping up, laboriously, towards the clouds. Now they were actually airborne and flying through the darkness, though, the whole thing seemed a lot more exciting rather than just dangerous. The cabin was small, but snug - liberally provided with large amounts of red velvet upholstery and dark, varnished wood. Erik and Karl were there, running up and down a control panel that was covered with brass knobs, little red lights and wavering dials, while Ridley and Maggs sat at a table in the middle of the cabin examining a map and arguing over directions. The cat had somehow managed to get a porthole open and was even now sitting right on the prow of the craft, staring out into the darkness. It didn’t look terribly safe to Oscar, but the cat seemed perfectly happy and he certainly wasn’t going to go out to fetch it back in. “I think, finally, we could be ahead of him,” said Ridley, looking up from the map, “This could be our chance to catch him out.” “How?” Oscar still wasn’t quite sure what, exactly, they were doing. “Well, we now know something that the Erl King doesn’t, that Maggs’ researches had something to do with Cowper and the Bl...” she glanced at the gnomes but they hadn’t noticed, “With the original White Tower...” “So if we find out what that is...” “...then we might just have discovered how to stop the Erl King.” “Let’s just hope I was right,” Maggs smiled grimly. And the ornithopter swooped down towards the clouds and the distant fiery glow to the south, where the lights of London burned on through the night. The ornithopter belled out its wings and swung into towards the ground with a great clattering, raising a storm of ravens around it as it landed on a small patch of grass within the Tower of London. Only a single raven remained, standing quite still on the grass, watching the ornithopter with one sceptical eye as the craft folded up its wings and opened the hatch to let to occupants out. The raven didn’t look terribly impressed with all this showing off. The cat, who was still perched up on the prow, stretched leisurely, just to let the raven know that she wasn’t terribly impressed with it. Two Yeomen of the Guard came running up to the ornithopter as Ridley, Oscar

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and Maggs climbed out. They were accompanied by an officious looking man in the bottle green coat of the Knights Errant who was shouting at the new arrivals. “Halt! Halt and identify yourselves in the name of the Royal Order of Magi!” “You identify yourself,” retorted Ridley, then she squinted at him, suspiciously, “I know you, don’t I? Didn’t you used to work in the library?” “You must identify yourselves,” the man seemed put out that Ridley had recognised him. “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Ridley stepped down from the ornithopter and started off across the grass with Oscar and Maggs after her, “You know fully well who we are.” “You must identify yourselves,” the man was getting quite cross now, “It’s after curfew - you have to identify yourself if challenged by a Knight Errant. The rules apply even to you, Ridley” The man had been trying to get in front of them, to make Ridley stop, but now she stopped of her own accord and rounded on him. “That’s Mistress Ridley to you, and what on earth are you talking about? What curfew? What’s going on?” “The Lord Chancellor, in accordance to the wishes of the Prime Minister, has instituted a curfew, Mistress Ridley, to be enforced by the Knights Errant. No one is allowed on the streets between the hours of eight and eight unless they have the appropriate papers. Do you have the appropriate papers Mistress Ridley?” “We are Knights Errant. This is the Lord Protector, you fool.” “I answer only to the Lord Lector, Mistress, and you would do well not to call his representative a fool.” “Now, you listen to me, fool, and listen carefully,” Ridley was speaking calmly and evenly but Oscar could tell that she was getting properly angry now, “For all your curfews and patrols the Erl King is still at large and, very likely, on his way here, if he’s not here already...” She paused and sniffed the air, as if searching for him. The man blanched. “The... Darklings... here?” “Yes - now why don’t you do something genuinely useful and go and contct the Temple: fetch help – when I say help, I mean someone competent.” “I’ll...” the man was backing away, “I’ll go and...” and he turned and ran back across the green towards the main gates. Ridley turned to the Yeoman, “Are there any more of them around? Guarding

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somewhere, possibly?” The elder of the Yeoman look at her for a moment and then apparently made up his mind about something. “Up in the White Tower,” he said, nodding at it with his head, “I’ll show you.”

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The Black Chamber The Knight Errant never saw it coming. Oscar barely saw it himself, it all happened so quickly. The Yeoman opened the door for them and was about to announce them to whoever was inside when Ridley pushed past him and crossed the tiny room to where the guard sat in his green coat. He barely had to try and stand up before Ridley reached down and placed her hand on his forehead. The guard slumped back down, his eyes rolling up into his head. Ridley hauled him up and tried to arrange him so he’d stay in his chair. The Yeoman stayed in the doorway, staring at her. Oscar squeezed past into the room, the little black cat padding after him. Ridley turned and winked. “I couldn’t be bothered arguing with another one...” She nodded over Oscar’s head to the Yeoman, “Don’t worry - I’ll see to it from here - you can get off.” The Yeoman looked as if he felt he ought to say something, but instead he just shook his head and closed the door behind him. “Ridley,” said Maggs in a chiding voice, “I know you’re enjoying all this running around, but I don’t think there’s...” “Maggs, Maggs,” Ridley held up a bunch of keys and jangled them softly, “Never mind that. Are you ready?” She turned to face the other door in the room. It looked no different to the door they had come in through, but even Oscar could tell there was something strange about it. Perhaps some magic was beginning to rub off on him, or perhaps the effect of the Black Chamber was so strong that anyone might have noticed it. It was an odd feeling, not of wrongness but rather, of rightness, that the door was just a door, nothing more than a few bits of wood, that there was nothing special about it at all. Now that Oscar thought about it there was, in a way, something special about all doors: doors led somewhere, or were the way out of somewhere else. They let things in or kept things out, they hid secrets and stood open in welcome, but this door did none of these things. This was just some planks covering a hole in a wall that was just a pile of stones. There was nothing interesting about it. There was no magic in it at all. “Ugh,” Ridley shivered, “It’s horrible, isn’t it? Well, now, let’s see shall we?” She squared her shoulders and walked towards the door, the keys jangling gently

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in her hand. She examined the lock and picked a key that looked about the right size. It fitted. She turned it and Oscar heard the lock clunk over. She put her hand on the door and took a deep breath. “Well, here goes nothing,” she said and pushed the door open. It was walking through the doorway that was the odd thing, because there was nothing odd about it, it was just a doorway and you walked through, except... except that it was like running out of a warm house, through a storm, into a warm car. There was a brief cold moment of solid reality, of being nothing more than a person, a walking lump of flesh and blood, and then you were through again, in the still silence of the Black Chamber. Oscar wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it wasn’t dark and dank and cold and terrible. It was a corridor just like the ones they had walked down to get here, with wooden floorboards underfoot and stone walls, nothing remarkable or particularly horrible. There was perhaps something, if he thought about it, a peculiarly dead silence, an isolation from all outside sounds and reality, just the feeling of the three of them standing alone in a corridor with no sense of any outside world. “Gives me the creeps,” said Ridley, “So what do we think?” To the left the corridor turned a corner and disappeared into the darkness, while to the right it ended in a perfectly ordinary door that didn’t look like any kind of prison that Oscar could think of. “I can’t hear anything,” said Maggs, cocking her head, “I don’t think there’s anyone else in here...” “All the same,” said Ridley, “I don’t want to spend any longer in here than I have to... Maggs and Oscar, you try down here, I’ll...”she stopped suddenly and gave a strange, strangled cough. “Stop there...” said a voice from behind them. There was something silvery sticking out of Ridley’s coat, glinting in the lamplight: a piece of jewellery? Oscar hadn’t seen that before. Then it was getting inexplicably smaller, and then it had gone and, with another bubbling cough Ridley dropped to her knees. “The robes... no interference,” said the voice, “I had to.” And something behind them, by the entrance, moved, the shadows bunching and changing shape and suddenly Oscar understood, because there was the Erl King in the Black Chamber with them, holding a sword stiffly out in front of him

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while Ridley knelt on the floor, clutching at her chest, blood on her hands. “Ridley!” Maggs rushed forward to grab hold of her. Without the Erl King’s usual terrifying aura, evidently dampened by the Chamber, there was nothing to stop Oscar running at the dark figure and beating at it with his fists. “You... you...” he couldn’t think of a word strong enough. The Erl King picked him up by his collar and threw him to the floor, then he pushed Maggs aside, pulling up Ridley roughly, so that she groaned. “Don’t!” Maggs grabbed at him, “What are you doing?” “I had to...” the voice sounded odd: hollow and distant, distorted, lost, “Follow me.” And he stalked away down the corridor, Ridley slung over one arm. Maggs helped Oscar to his feet and they stumbled after him, following him round a corner, to a small room dominated by a great, solid wooden door. The Erl King paused for a moment and then gave it a kick that shivered it against the frame. Another kick and the door sprang open and they passed through into the shadows beyond.

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The Prisoner “Forgive me for not coming to meet you, but I’m a little tied up at the moment.” The room was plain and stone walled like the others. It had a small window high in one wall that was letting in a little light, beneath which was a solid antique table, with some food and an old-fashioned oil lamp on it. And on the far wall, chained with his arms above his head, dressed only in a shirt and ragged trousers was the last person they had expected to see: one time Lord Protector of the Magi and now the country’s most wanted man, Oscar’s godfather, Rufus Skelton. Maggs and Oscar stopped in the doorway and stared, open mouthed, at precisely the last person they expected to see. What was Skelton doing locked up in the Black Chamber? And if he was here, who was this figure dressed as the Erl King who now stepped forward into the room and threw Ridley’s body onto the ground, where she lay, moving feebly? “Silence.” Skelton started forward, pulling the chains taught. “What have you done to her, you monster?” “Silence, or... the boy... the woman...” The figure gestured at Oscar and Maggs with an inept sweep of the sword. “If you’re going to kill us,” Skelton’s voice was cold, “You could at least face us... Master Cuddy.” He produced the name triumphantly, and Maggs gasped at it, but the dark figure just shook at him with what Oscar realised was silent laughter. “No,” it rasped and then an awkward hand reached up and jerked off the bone white mask that covered the face, revealing the thin, drawn face of Laurence Hopkins. His narrow mouth crawled up one side of his face in what it took Oscar a while to recognise as a smile, but there was something in his eyes that looked a lot more like panic. “Are you sure?” Skelton leant towards him, pulling on his chains, “Is that really you? Are you really here, Hopkins? Or is someone else here with you? In your head?” “I... Hel...” Hopkins suddenly swayed, the awful bleak smile dropping from his

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face, then he pulled himself back upright, “Silence!” “He’s not there now, you know, Hopkins, not in here,” Skelton was trying to look Hopkins in the eye, to fix him with his stare, “This is the Black Chamber, he can’t reach you in here...” Hopkins seemed to be struggling to speak and then he suddenly jerked upwards, flinging out a hand that caught Oscar roughly by the neck, choking him and hauling him up onto his tiptoes, while the sword flailed around dangerously. “I can’t... stop it...” Hopkins’ voice was strangled, broken. “Maggs!” shouted Skelton as she scrabbled at Hopkins’ arm, trying to get him to release Oscar. “He’s too strong,” she was almost crying with the effort and the terror of the situation, “I’m just an old woman...” “No!” Skelton was straining at his chains as Hopkins twisted Oscar back and forth, the sword glinting in the dim light, “Talk to him – you were friends, close friends...” “Hopkins,” Maggs tried to pull herself up to look into his face. “Laurence,” hissed Skelton, “His name’s Laurence.” “Laurence, listen to me, it’s Maggs, it’s... Margaret...” Hopkins’ head snapped round to look at her, “Laurence, we were friends once...” Maggs was desperately trying to stay calm and reassuring despite her panic, “I... I can’t remember, but perhaps you can... please, Laurence, for me... let the boy go...” Oscar felt Hopkins go suddenly stiff and begin shaking violently, as if he was trying to struggle against something wound tightly round his very bones. Then he gave a terrible guttural grunt and threw Oscar and Maggs away from him, the sword clattering away in the other direction, flinging himself across the room at the wall on the other side. Maggs caught Oscar up before either of them had hit the ground, it seemed, and bundled him away from Hopkins towards his godfather. “Oscar, Oscar, are you alright?” she peered down at him anxiously, but his throat throbbed too much to speak and all he could do was nod. “Maggs, the sword, quickly,” it was Skelton, leaning out across the cell to try and reach the weapon. Maggs half scurried, half fell across the room to get at it before Hopkins could recover, but she needn’t have worried, all he did was give another, lower moan, and pull himself into a tight ball in the corner. “Oscar, are you alright?” it was Skelton’s turn to worry.

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Oscar nodded, gently, so as not to disturb anything important, “I think so,” he rasped, his voice still hoarse. “Good man,” Skelton gave him a quick smile of encouragement, “Maggs, how’s Ridley?” Maggs looked up from where she was already examining Ridley’s wounds, “She’s losing a lot of blood, I think.” “Right, first things first, we deal with that,” Skelton immediately became calmer, more organised, “Try and bind her up, Maggs, put pressure on the wound – Oscar, fetch me those keys Ridley had, lets see if we can get me out of these chains.” Oscar ran across, trying not to look too closely at the dark stain spreading on Ridley’s coat, and brought the bunch of keys over to his Uncle Rufus. “Try that big black one, yes, that one – this arm, here...” “I don’t...” The words caught in his sore throat and he coughed and had to start the sentence again, a little more slowly this time, “I don’t understand...” “Alright, maybe not that one, how about that brown one, there...” “I thought you were the Erl King...” “So did I – seems I’ve got competition now, though, doesn’t it?... that’s got it, good work!” The lock at his wrist sprang open and Skelton shook his hand, rubbing the red welt the manacle had made around it, “Mind you, I only really ever got to be the Erl King once, and look where that got me...” “Once? What do you mean?” Uncle Rufus took the keys from Oscar and started undoing the other chains. “That night you caught me in the Great Hall – oh yes, don’t think I don’t blame you for all this,” he flashed Oscar a quick grin, “Passed out in the Great Hall, came round in here...” “So you didn’t kill those guards, or attack the Prime Minister, or Maggs’ family...” “Kill? Prime Minister? Maggs’ family?... Hm...” Skelton stopped and started at the figure curled up on the other side of the room, “Poor old Hopkins...” “If it was him that did those things,” Maggs looked up, “Then you can save your pity.” “But that’s just the point,” Skelton picked up the sword and walked over to Hopkins, “I’m not sure it was him, not really...” Skelton looked at the huddled man and thought for a moment, then brought the butt of the sword down hard on

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his head. The bunched form suddenly relaxed and sprawled, quite unconscious. “Oscar, give me a hand, will you, I want to try and get these robes off him, they are mine, after all, and only I know their real power” Skelton started unbuttoning the Erl King’s coat, and Oscar joined him, pulling at the gloves, “They should be able to help me deal with Ridley’s injuries,” Skelton tugged at the unresponsive body, trying to get Hopkins’ arms out of the sleeves. Close to, the robes felt strange: it was hard to keep a grip on them, as if they had a life of their own, shifting and squirming under your fingers. It was odd, too, being so close to his Uncle again, as if nothing that he had seen in the last few days had happened, which, he supposed, it hadn’t for his Uncle, locked up in here, with no knowledge of what was going on. “Cuddy,” said Maggs, suddenly, “You said it before, I’ve only just realised what you meant: you think he... he’s responsive, don’t you? You think he... he...” her voice trailed off as she stared at Hopkins’ limp shape. “Ah, yes, the most despicable crime of the Magi: Possession – letting a spirit control another Magi,” he added for Oscar’s benefit, “Darkest of all the dark magic – I’m afraid, Maggs, I rather do think that, yes – that Master Cuddy has been controlling poor old Hopkins all along – although I don’t have any evidence, mind you, except for, you know, cui bono.” “Is that a spell?” asked Oscar. “The oldest kind: Occams’ razor,” his Uncle seemed to find this funny, but Oscar had no idea what he was talking about, “It’s Latin,” he explained, “’Who benefits’, you see – ‘Follow the money’, as the Americans would say... I rather sense a controlling hand in all this – the return of the Wild Hunt, the White Tower, our little revolution – a brain working away in the background and for some reason I keep thinking about young master Cuddy. Never really liked him anyway – because, I suspect, he’s rather too like me. I recognise the way he thinks: locking me in here, for instance, that’s what I would have done – too useful to dispose of, too dangerous to...” he stopped and looked up, “Just realised: what are you three all doing here, anyway? How did you find me?”

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30
A Plan is Hatched “I’m afraid,” said Maggs, “We weren’t actually looking for you...” “It was in Maggs’ notes,” explained Oscar, “She had all the notes about the Black Chamber and Cowper. We thought she might have found out away to beat the Wild Ride and the secret might be here.” “Cowper?” Skelton was confused, “Why would he have known anything about the Wild Ride?” “But I must have been trying to discover a way to stop them,” protested Maggs, “I mean, that’s why they attacked me, isn’t it?” “Not at all,” Skelton was struggling with Hopkins’ boots, “You were researching the Great Work, trying to find a way to complete it, so the Darklings tried to stop you...” “Complete the Great Work?” “Of course, that was your plan, all those years ago – you and your Knights Errant: complete the Great Work and make the power of the Magi unassailable. Naturally the Darklings weren’t so keen on that.” “Then why was I making notes about Cowper?” “Well, Cowper tried to destroy the Great Work, didn’t he? Perhaps he discovered something about how it worked, something that would help...” he suddenly stopped and stared away into space, “Stars and spirits...” “Rufus?” Maggs prompted him. “Undo the Great Work!” Skelton dropped the boots in his excitement, “We don’t stand a chance against Cuddy and the rest of the Magi now, but if we could finish Cowper’s work...” “...if we could undo the Great Work,” continued Maggs, “It would remove their power competeley...” “...and we could stop Cuddy in his tracks!” Skelton bent down and started trying to pull on a boot while hopping ungainly round the room, “It’s perfect!” “Perfect...” Maggs shook her head, “There’s only one niggling niggler: it can’t be done. The secret of the Great Work died with Lord Newton: Cowper failed and was locked in here for the rest of his life.” “Precisely,” Skelton was struggling to push his foot into the high boot, “Those notes that you were following: you must have discovered that Cowper had left

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some clue in here.” “Of course!” Maggs was smiling again, “Oscar, check the door round the corner...” “Any thing with Cowper’s name on!” shouted Skelton after him, “Anything that looks like a notebook. In fact, just bring anything...” Oscar ran out of the cell and down the corridor, past the entrance and through the door at the other end. On the other side was a small, bare room, obviously meant simply for guards or for waiting visitors, which had nothing in it except an old table, a couple of battered looking chairs and a small bookcase hanging on the wall. He pulled the chair out from under the table and climbed up onto it so he could see the bookshelf properly. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it hadn’t been a whole row of thick books with big shiny letters and pictures of explosions and guns on the front. These were following by more thick books with spaceships and knights on them. It wasn’t quite the reading he might have expected of a Magi, but then, perhaps, they tried to keep books of magic out of the Black Chamber. But there, at the end, were a small bundle of papers and notebooks. He grabbed them all and dropped them down on the table, then jumped down and started going through them. Some of them were evidently letters, there were a couple of address books where tiny notes filled up all the space between the names, there was even an apparently rather monotonous diary. And there was a black notebook bulging with loose papers, tied up with ribbon with a scrap of paper pasted to the front: “Thos. Cowper. Commonplace Book.” He ran back to the cell to discover his Uncle Rufus standing in the middle of the room, with the Erl King’s coat, the colour of dried blood, wreathing round him, the tails twitching and swaying in a breeze that only they could feel. The coat made an odd shape in the middle, as if his godfather had suddenly put on a lot of weight, and Oscar suddenly realised that he could see Ridley’s blonde curls sticking out of the collar of the coat. The rest of her must be buttoned up inside. Skelton saw him staring. “The coat can carry her, and it should help stop the bleeding, once we get outside... what have you got there?” “It says it belonged to a Thos Cowper, is that the same person?” “Thomas,” said Maggs, “The ‘Thos’ stands for Thomas: it’s him - let’s have a

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look.” Oscar handed her the book and she undid the ribbon as she crossed to the table under the window. The sun must have been coming up outside because a dim, silvery glow was starting to filter through. Maggs emptied all the loose papers onto the desk, spreading them out. The she started leafing through the notebook. Skelton started unfolding bits of paper, laying them out flat. Oscar picked one up. The handwriting was cramped and small and... not handwriting at all. “Symbols...” he said “Cipher...” said Skelton “It’s all in code...” Maggs threw the notebook down, “We don’t have time for this: Ridley said she called reinforcements - they’re bound to check in here when they can’t find her...” The notebook had fallen open on the table, the broken spine flopping back to reveal the first page. There was something written on it in plain English. Oscar bent over to have a look: “Thos. Cowper Fecit 1811. The terrible work the King hath wrought, Shall by the King’s own hand be brought to naught.” “That must be where you got it from, Maggs,” he said, pointing to the verse. “Oh yes...” Maggs looked puzzled, “But I always thought it must be something about the Wild Ride...” “But it wasn’t,” Skelton finished her thought, “And yet it was so important that you remembered it even after what I did to you...” “So,” asked Oscar, “if it wasn’t about the Darklings, what is it about?” “That,” said Skelton, “Is a very good question... well, if Cowper wrote it then it must have been about his researches, about the Great Work...” “He certainly thought of the Great Work as a Great Terror...” said Maggs, “But why would that be the King’s fault?” “Of course!” Skelton clapped his hands, “It is the King’s work - it was done in his name: his seal is on the Charter in the Temple!” “I’ve seen that!” said Oscar. “So we need the King’s own hand to break it?” Maggs was incredulous, “What do we have to do, catnap the Prince of Wales?” “Hm... seems unlikely, doesn’t it?” Skelton stared at the rhyme, “Unless...”

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“What?” “The King’s Seal and signature are on the Charter in the Temple...” Maggs was staring at him open-mouthed. “I don’t understand,” Oscar was bewildered. “The work of the King’s own hand… his own handwriting?” Rufus was thinking out loud. “It’s something to do with the Charter... we need to get into the Charter Room” the light was beginning to dawn on Maggs, “That’s going to be interesting...” Skelton suddenly looked around him. “What happened to the cat? The one that was with you in the Temple when you caught me? What happened to him?” “He was with us when we came here,” Oscar suddenly realised that he hadn’t seen the little black cat the whole time they had been in the Black Chamber. “Of course,” said Skelton, “He wouldn’t come in here - too dangerous for him... Come on, we’ve got to find him...” he picked up the Erl King’s white mask and started strapping it on. “The cat? Why?” “Aha: you’ll see...” and he ran from the room, with Oscar and Maggs hot on his heels.

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31
A History Lesson This meant that they were right behind him when he crossed the threshold out of the Black Chamber, back into the Tower, and Oscar saw the sudden transformation as his Uncle stopped being just his Uncle in a funny outfit and became the Erl King, how he rose and stretched, becoming thinner, more angular, how the robes boiled and billowed, tendrils of smoke merging into the shadows of the room around him, until he seemed to fill the space. For a moment Oscar tasted the bitter tang of the Erl King’s shadow of fear against his back teeth, and then his Uncle remembered that they were with him and withdrew it, so that it receded away like a barely recalled nightmare. The anteroom was now empty - the guard the Ridley had knocked out had gone. Instead there were now a group of Knights Errant clustered in the doorway. It was an odd sight - it was as if there were a glass wall in the doorway that they were all pressed up against, trying to get in but stopped by some invisible power. And there, in the centre of the room, sat the little black cat, staring at them all. It turned as Skelton, Maggs and Oscar came through the door and Oscar could have sworn that it nodded at them in welcome. As the Erl King spidered out to fill the room the guards in the doorway drew back away from him in fear, but they still blocked the exit. “Emergency exit, I think,” said Skelton, his voice rasping through the mask, and he gestured with his right hand. The stones of the wall burst outward, swooping up and away, revealing an empty patch of night sky. “Come on you two,” and Skelton grabbed hold of Maggs and Oscar and Oscar felt the robes twine about him, at once silky and rough, like they were edged with tiny teeth. And then they were dropping through the gap and out into the cold darkness. They fell down through the night with a great rushing and fluttering as the Erl King’s cloak spread out around them, its coils and shreds beating against the air. It had been raining while they were inside and drops still specked at Oscar face as they feel. “Is that what you came here in?” Skelton was pointing down at the ornithopter, which was still sitting on the lawn, now with two Knights Errant standing guard over it.

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“Yes, it’s an ornithopter...” “You’re braver than I thought.” The Shadow of the Erl King preceded them and the Knights Errant fled from the craft as they dropped towards them, scampering for the safety of the Tower. Skelton hit the ground running, bundling up the steps. Erik and Karl had rushed to the door to meet them, but now they fled from the terrible figure rushing towards them, leaping up onto the red leather benches on the far side of the cabin. Oscar found himself and Maggs flung after them, onto the benches, as Skelton turned straight to the controls, the robes creeping out to explore all the knobs and dials with their thin black fingers. “It’s him, it’s him,” hissed Erik, “We’ve got him cornered now...” “Hasn’t he got us cornered?” whispered Karl. “Hold tight,” the Erl King’s voice was a shocking interruption and the gnomes cowered back as the ornithopter creaked and juddered, preparing for take off. Just at the last minute, just as the craft stretched its wings and the door was closing, the black cat leapt up through the thinning gap and into the cabin. It sauntered across to the benches and jumped up onto Oscar’s lap. “Oh,” said Skelton, “decided to join us, have you?” and the ornithopter threw itself into the sky. Sheer walls of lights and shining glass flashed past them as the ornithopter swooped up from the Tower and plunged into the canyons of the City. The streets followed a medieval maze between the shining monoliths of the skyscrapers and Oscar and Maggs had to cling on to the walls to stop themselves being thrown about the cabin as it twisted this way and that between the towers of office buildings. Skelton wrestled with the controls, trying to keep them low and out of sight from watching spies, as they raced their own reflection along the walls of glass, wheeled round church spires and darted beneath the gaze of monumental statues. Suddenly they climbed steeply and Oscar had a glimpse of floors of lights rushing down past them in the darkness. There was a sickening moment of weightlessness and then they dropped suddenly and stopped. There was the sound of claws scrabbling on stone and the creaking of the leathery wings as the

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ornithopter settled down. Oscar scrambled to the window and peered out. They were perched on the pinnacle of some great skyscraper, high above the infernal orange glow of the streets, like an eagle on a crag. There in the distance below them he could see the clear pale bulk of St Paul’s Cathedral, shining up through the rain. The cabin rocked slightly as the ornithopter shifted the grip of its claws and the cross winds, confused by the narrow streets, buffeted against them. Uncle Rufus had pulled off his mask, crossed to the benches and was now laying Ridley out flat, examining her wound with Maggs. “What’s he done to her?” asked Erik, eyeing him nervously. “I’ll deal with him,” Karl was trying to sound threatening, but was keeping his distance all the same, “We’ve dealt with him before...” “You two pipe down,” said Maggs, “We need to concentrate.” “Are we his prisoners?” whispered Erik. “Lord Skelton just rescued us all from certain death, so I think you might be a little grateful,” The gnomes stepped back, abashed. “But he’s bad,” complained Erik, “I can feel it, I can feel the dark magic...” “It was him that took you away from us,” Karl was not going to be appeased, “He has to be dealt with.” “That’s true,” Oscar hadn’t thought about that part of the story, “I still don’t understand that...” “We don’t need to understand,” Karl was determined, “He just needs to be punished.” “He could at least apologise,” Erik, however, seemed to be prepared to compromise, “If he was sorry, I mean, really...” “Oh, don’t expect a villain like that to apologise,” Karl was undeterred, “Not him.” “Little Gnomes!” Skelton whirled round angrily and they leapt back away from him, “I am sure I would be sorry if I had time to be but we are trying to save Mistress Ridley’s life so will you SHUT UP!” The gnomes said nothing, apparently frozen with fear and Skelton snorted and returned to Ridley. “Of course,” it was Karl’s voice and Skelton’s back stiffened in anticipation, “If you hadn’t wiped away the mistress’ old life, she’d still remember that she gave us all kinds of healing abilities. It was part of our training. Very important she

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said.” Maggs turned slowly to look at them but Skelton just cast his eyes upwards, “Spirits preserve us,” he muttered. “Can you help us?” Maggs asked. Erik craned past her to look at Ridley, “I think now the bleeding’s stopped we can - better than dark magic could, anyway.” “If I let you help, will you shut up?” asked Skelton. “If we help you, you’ll have time to explain and apologise, won’t you?” said Erik as he ran down the bench and climbed up onto Ridley’s unconscious form, Karl following. Skelton barked a short, sharp laugh and stepped away, back to the control panel. “Alright, alright, well, perhaps you’re right, since I still haven’t even apologised to Maggs, yet:” Skelton grimaced and looked uncomfortable, “I’m sorry for what I and the Wild Ride did to you, I really am, Maggs, you didn’t deserve that...” He looked genuinely contrite and Maggs patted his arm. “It’s not really that much to lose, if you can’t remember what you lost,” she said. “So that was you?” Oscar was still trying to work the whole thing out, “You were the one who attacked Maggs?” “I’m afraid so, yes...” “But why?” In response, his Uncle gestured at the window. “Look down there, Oscar - what can you see?” Oscar looked back out of the window. Far, far below was a narrow street, a clear valley of orange light between the dark buildings. It was empty. Then a small figure emerged from one side, stepping out tentatively on to the pavement. A moment later it retreated again. A dark, angry glow began to fill the pit below, a great, churning of fire and smoke. And a glittering something came weaving down the road, dark and gleaming: a dragon, its claws sparking on the asphalt, his head questing as it tested the pavements for life. And then it was round the corner and gone. “An early winter’s evening not long before Christmas and the streets are empty,” Uncle Rufus was looking over his shoulder, “Only the servants of the Magi are abroad, searching for the disobedient. Where is everybody? They should

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be out, celebrating, preparing for the holidays, having fun. Instead they’re hiding inside, locked up with dragons and knight mares stalking the streets.” “And quite right, too,” interrupted Karl, “With maniacs like you on the loose.” “Yes, that was my mistake,” Skelton shook his head, wearily, “You see, Oscar, this was what I was afraid of, when Maggs and Hopkins first formed the Knights Errant all those years ago – at least I was right about that, I suppose...” “But Maggs wasn’t Cuddy – they were trying to help people,” protested Oscar. “And you don’t think that’s what Cuddy believes he’s doing? Good intentions are no guarantee of good people, I’m afraid. If you think you know what’s best for people and you find you have the power to overcome any objections, then you will do what you like, how you like, no matter what anyone else says: and that is very, very wrong indeed.” “So you decided to summon the Wild Ride and make everyone do what you wanted instead,” said Erik, looking up from his work. He appeared to be binding up Ridley’s wound with what looked to Oscar like spider’s webs. “Yes,” said Skelton, ruefully, “Touché. That’s precisely what happened. I tried to warn them, both the Knights Errant and the Three Wise Lords of the time, but no one would listen to me – I was a lot younger then, and my beard wasn’t nearly as frightening. “I wanted to make them understand, to show them what it would be like for ordinary people under the rule of the Magi, to be governed and ordered by such frightening things, so I learned the Old, Secret magic, made pacts with the Darklings and conjured the Wild Ride... “Except that it worked slightly too well – I realised that I could do more that just make a point, I could actually stop them, I could drain Maggs’ power, lock up Hopkins, drive the Order underground... I got, well, I’m afraid I got carried away... I controlled the Wild Ride and, through them, I could control the Magi – I became Lord Protector, created the Knights Watchmen and the Veil and hid magic away for twenty years. “Until, that is, the whole thing turned upside down.” “Thursby and the new Knights Errant?” Oscar felt he knew where they were now. “That daft lot? Moons and Circles, no – at least not at first – no, it was the Darklings – Darklings that I knew full well weren’t any part of my Wild Ride – appearing out of nowhere, attacking Magi unsuspected, undetectable and

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completely unbelievable. I’d become too confident, I think, too sure of myself – I was caught completely off guard and I messed it up, frankly, I didn’t take your Knights Errant – and I’m including you in that, young man –I didn’t take them seriously at all, until it was too late, and then all I managed was to get this poor young lady in trouble.” “Ridley?” “Who do you think gave the promising young Knight Watchman the mission of infiltrating the Knights Errant? I should have guessed that she’d find them more exciting than being a boring old Watchman, and perhaps she was right at that, too.” “But you think that Cuddy is behind all this?” “Oh yes – I can’t quite see how, yet...” “I think I can fill in that bit,” Maggs interjected, “If Hopkins and I were really reserking Darklings before, then he must have already known a lot about the Old magic, and then all that time in the White Tower and his library...” “Library?” Skelton was taken by surprise, “What library?” “In the tower,” continued Maggs, “We saw it, didn’t we, Oscar? Amazering place, books I thought had vanished hundreds of years ago – Cuddy must have disuncovered it and realised he could use it, he could use Hopkins’ knowledge and power to create his own Wild Ride, to use that fear of the Darklings to pull his new Knights Errant together.” “That sounds about right,” Skelton shook his head, “That’ll be why he possessed Hopkins, poor chap.” “So Cuddy planned everything?” “I’m pretty certain - everyone else: Thursby, you, even Hopkins, have just been pawns in his game.” “But what’s he trying to do?” “Rule the world, I think, or something like it. Sounds rather silly when you say it out loud, doesn’t it?” Skelton laughed a little, “And I’m not sure even he would think about it like that, but I’m fairly sure that he thinks that the Magi should be in charge and that he should be in charge of the Magi and if making that happen means burning down the whole of civilisation around him, he would gladly light the fuse.” “Very well, then,” said Karl, jumping down from the bench, “What are you going to do about it?”

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“How is she?” asked Skelton, ignoring him for the moment, “Is she alright?” “I think so,” Erik was wiping his hands with cobweb, “The wound is cleaned and bound and the bleeding’s stopped. She’s strong and we’ve woven what charms we can.” “Good,” Skelton turned back to the controls of the ornithopter, “Then we can get on with answering your question, Master Gnome. I can tell you precisely what we’re going to do about it: we’re going to destroy him by destroying the Magi, and we will destroy the Magi by destroying the Great Work.” The gnomes stared at his back, open-mouthed. “But... how?” “Oh details, details,” Skelton grinned at them over his shoulder, “Hold on tight: going down!” And the ornithopter folded its wings and plunged towards the street.

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32
Secrets of the Lord Protector Once again Skelton set the ornithopter hurtling through the streets as low as he dared, rushing down towards the dome of the Cathedral and then beyond, where the skyscrapers dropped away and they were forced lower, in between the roofs of the Victorian buildings, just above the street lights below, between chimney pots and aerials, rustling the leaves of the trees as they whooshed past. “The Temple’s not far away now, are we ready?” Skelton looked back over his shoulder at them. “What’s the plan?” Maggs pulled herself forward to see where they were. “The Erl King’s power can hide us from being detected - I’ll set us down on the roof, we’ll be able to get inside from there... Now hang on...” The ornithopter banked sharply and wheeled round the outside of a round barrel of a building and then it turned and there it was: The Temple, right ahead of them. They dove straight down towards the roof, the ornithopter spreading its wings wide at the last moment to bring them to a juddering, skittering stop on the tiles. Skelton was at the door before they had stopped moving, opening it wide to reveal the roof glistening with recent rain. “You gnomes stay here and guard Ridley, no one is to get in, understand? Flee if you have to... Maggs, Oscar, hang on to me...” without waiting for a reply he reached over and scooped Oscar up into his coat and then, taking Maggs’ outstretched hand, he leapt out of the hatch into the night. They skittered down a slope of tiles to a low parapet that Skelton swung over easily, dropping through the cool air to a shallower roof. He ran up to the ridge and then along it to where it met a gable wall that rose up above them. In one fluid motion, hand over hand, they swarmed up the wall, although Oscar could see no handholds as they passed over. Then they were up on the ridge of a high gable, looking down on the roofs of London stretched out around them. Maggs craned round to look behind. “The Great Hall and the Charter Room are back that way.” Oscar turned to look - behind them he could now see the tower over the main entrance to the Temple and, below it, a round area of roof that must be the Great Hall.

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“It is,” said Skelton, “But we’re going to my chambers first...” And with that he ran down the slope of the roof and dropped off the edge... ...onto a balcony two floors below. Oscar recognised it now - they were outside the windows through which he had seen the Erl King in his uncle’s chambers - before he had even known that his uncle was the Erl King. “Damn,” Skelton had gone to open the windows but then had stopped himself. “What?” “I forgot. I’m not the Lord Protector anymore - and no one can enter here without the Lord Protector’s permission.” “Then allow me,” said Oscar, wriggling out of Uncle Rufus’ grasp and laying his hand on the window. It creaked open at his touch. “You may enter...” “How did you do that?” Uncle Rufus was evidently stunned. “They made me Lord Protector,” his Uncle’s amazement made him a little shy, “I don’t know why...” “My fault really,” said Maggs, climbing through the window, “And no offence to you, Oscar, but I now think Cuddy felt it would be a popular gesture that would make the position simply symbolic and no threat to his plans.” “Ye gods and little fishes,” said Skelton, following them into the room, “It’s age discrimination. Fired in favour of a younger man. A much, much younger man. I’d say congratulations, Oscar old chap, but what we’re about to do is either going to get you fired or render the entire concept of a Lord Protector null and void - still, good work, all the same - best man for the job, if you ask me...” “Thanks.” “Now, can anyone see my umbrella?” “Your umbrella? We’ve broken into the Lord Protector’s chambers to look for an umbrella?” Maggs was aghast. “Well,” said Skelton, with a sly little smile, “You never know when you’re going to need one, do you. Ah, there it is.” He reached down behind a chair and pulled out his tightly rolled black umbrella, brandishing it happily. It looked ridiculously incongruous in combination with the furious robes of the Erl King. “Now,” he said, “I think I ought to hand over the reins to my successor properly and introduce you, Oscar, to some of the tricks of the trade. You see that bookshelf behind you - could you fetch me that copy of ‘A Beginner’s Guide

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to Secret Passages’?” Oscar, a little confused, although rather flattered that his Uncle seemed to be taking him seriously as the Lord Protector, crossed to the bookcase and reached up to pull the book down. Only, instead of coming away from the shelf, the book simply pivoted up on the base of its spine and, with a little click, the whole bookcase began to swing away from the wall towards him. It was a door to a secret passage! “Sorry,” his Uncle was grinning from ear to ear, “I’m getting a little nervous and can’t resist being melodramatic. These passages only open for the Lord Protector, you see, they run all through the Temple - that’s why I wanted to come in here: we can get straight to the Charter Room without being seen. If we may, Lord Protector.” “Of course, be my guests,” and Oscar followed his Uncle through the door, with Maggs following. The bookcase swung shut behind them softly. It wasn’t quite what Oscar had expected of a secret passage. It was dry, warm, clean and lit by dim bare bulbs at irregular intervals. And when something brushed against his leg it was not a rat but the little black cat instead. “Hello,” he said, stopping to scratch it between the ears, “How did you get in here?” “Ah,” said Skelton, without turning round, “The proverbial bad penny. This way.” They turned a corner then climbed a short flight of stairs. On one side was bare stone work, on the other bricks and wooden walls. They came to a place where the passage divided and Skelton turned left and led them under an arch into a narrow room. Narrow, but high - far above Oscar could see a thin bridge crossing in the other direction - another part of the secret network. “But how do you keep this all secret?” He wondered aloud, “Are we inside the walls? It seems too big to fit...” “This is the Temple, Oscar, headquarters of magic in Britain. Not all of it fits and yet it’s all inside. Ah, here we are...” And Skelton opened a small door in the wall. Oscar stepped through to find himself coming out from behind one of the wooden seats that lined the walls of the Charter Room. He let it swing shut behind him. Oddly, even though the last time he had seen the room it had been

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full of people, it seemed somehow smaller now. The room was dim and shadowy the only lights on were small flickering ones set in niches high up on the walls. This meant that the stained glass that made up the whole of the opposite wall glowed with the light from the room beyond - the Great Hall itself. The Hall was evidently fully lit and Oscar could hear a great murmur filtering through the glass - it must be full of people. “No lights, I’m afraid,” whispered Skelton, “And keep your voices down they’re having some kind of meeting in there - we can’t risk being discovered.” Oscar looked round at the high wooden stalls and the blood red tiles flickering in the wavering light. Shadows kept darting across the walls, making the place seethe with suggested movement. He could hear a voice the other side of the stained glass - a cold, clear voice: Cuddy’s, it had to be. Just there, the other side of a thin pane of glass, the man who had tried to kill them all. “Can you see anything?” he whispered to his godfather - he was suddenly anxious to be out of there. “Lots of things,” Skelton grinned back at him, “But nothing useful.” His Uncle Rufus was evidently finding this a lot more exciting than he was. “By the King’s own work shall be brought to naught,” Maggs was impatient, “They key must be the Charter...” “But it might not be,” Skelton tried to sound more serious, “So Maggs, you check it, Oscar, have a look at the stained glass, look for any Royal crests or portraits - I’ll check the walls, since I’m the only one of us who can get up there...” and he stepped up into the air, rising into the shadows above them. Oscar turned and looked at the stained glass. It was odd looking at it from the other side - it all looked slightly unnerving somehow - it wasn’t just that all the writing was the wrong way round; somehow all the figures looked twisted and uncomfortable. Here, closest to him, was a man in a long wig that he now knew to be Isaac Newton. His head was turned to look over his shoulder and it made him look as if his legs were on the wrong way round. Around the figures the glass was a mass of decorations, leaves and bits of buildings - there could be anything hidden in there. Already he could see two odd looking faces peeking out at him from by Newton’s nose. Then, in the middle, was the white dragon. That was already twisted round several times into all kinds of odd shapes: it was even holding its own tail in its mouth... ...and as Oscar looked, with a small ‘chink’ sound of glass tapping, the white

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dragon winked at him. Had he really seen that? He turned to look at the others. Maggs was absorbed in the Charter and Skelton was somewhere high overhead, examining the roof. He looked back - perhaps he had been mistaken - the dragon looked exactly as he had first seen it. Then, with a grinding, cracking sound, it dropped its tail from its mouth and smiled at him. “Look...” he only had time to get the first word out before the dragon pulled itself backwards away from the lead surrounding it, and, with a great rending of metal and clattering of glass, swooped out into the centre of the Great Hall behind it, leaving Oscar standing in front of a dragon shaped hole in the window, looking down on the assembled Magi below. “We stand at a crucial moment in our history,” Cuddy was shouting at the tiers of excited Magi, “The fate of the country... the world... rests with us...” he stopped and turned at the sound of the dragon, as the rest of the Magi raised their heads to look. The light from the Great Hall filled the Charter Room, illuminating perfectly Rufus Skelton hanging calmly in the air in full view of everyone. There was a great gasp from the crowd below. “You two keep looking,” hissed Skelton, “and I’ll distract them.” “How...” began Maggs. “I’m sure I’ll think of something,” and the Erl Kings robes seethed and stretched around, gathering a skein of shadows that momentarily blotted out the light as he plunged through the gap in the stained glass and dropped down onto the stage of the Great Hall.

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33
Battle of the Great Hall Cuddy staggered back from his lectern as the terrible darkness plummeted towards him, tipping over the edge of the stage and down into the arrangement of flowers beneath. Skelton landed gently on the stage, the shadows boiling out around him. The robes coiled up and around the lectern and swept it from the stage. He stepped forward to face the Magi as Cuddy pulled himself out of a clump of ferns and started back up a set of steps into the safety of the crowd. “You stand at a crucial moment in your history,” Skelton’s voice was amused, taunting them, “The fate of the country... the world... rests with you...” “Yes! Yes, it does!” Cuddy scrambled into view up on a chair and the white dragon came clattering down to hang in the sir beside him, “And we will seize our moment.” “Not if someone stops you.” “Who? You? You’ve challenged the Magi before in this very Hall, and have been defeated before, too, by only a few Knights... and now, now, you face an army of Magi who have been preparing for this very moment: how exactly do you think you are going to stop us now?” Skelton raised an eyebrow: “How else, but with an army of my own?” and he raised his arms up and spoke into the air, “Now! You are free! Free to fight our last battle!” And with his words the Erl King’s robes suddenly exploded outwards in a great rustling wave of shadow. Tattered ends of cloth twisted free, coiling up into the air, spreading threadbare wings and opening baleful, dim eyes, tendrils of threads wove together into black bundles of spiders on thin twining legs, climbing over each other to the front of the stage. Where Skelton had stood, wreathed about in his coat of dark blood there was now a whispering army of shreds, a swirling crowd of creatures that scuttled and batted around him. The assembled Magi cowered back as the Erl King’s horde massed before them and Skelton, in the middle of it all, smiled to himself and leant on his umbrella. “Dark Spirits,” Maggs whispered to Oscar, “All the Dark Spirits that gave the Erl King his power - he has set them free: and given himself an army to fight with...”

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“Well,” Skelton looked around the hall; “Let’s get this over with, shall we?” and the army of Dark Spirits broke like a wave of shadow into the hall beyond. The Magi in the stalls disappeared momentarily under the whirling cloud of spirits, but then a bright light burst through the shadow as the White Dragon came rushing up from below, scattering the Dark Spirits like smoke in the wind. The Dragon rattled round the hall above the heads of the Magi, glittering and flaming with light, before dropping back to Cuddy. “This is our moment!” The Dragon coiled round Cuddy in a stream of rushing, shining armour, “This is where we strike! Strike now, Magi! For the Brotherhood, for the future, strike!” And all around the Magi the furniture of the hall reared up, an implacable army of iron limbs and unflinching wooden backs, forming ranks around their masters. The Dark Spirits gathered again behind Skelton, who advanced slowly to the front of the stage. “Oh, don’t worry, Master Cuddy,” said Skelton, “I’ll come to you,” and he twisted the handle of his umbrella, pulling away and casting up the black cloth, revealing, hidden inside, a long, thin rapier that gleamed in the hall lights. Skelton smiled and flourished his sword. “En garde, Master Cuddy,” and he leapt from the stage into the Magi, the cloth of his umbrella unfurling into life behind, great bat wings that drove the enemy from around him as the Dark Spirits followed his charge up the aisle towards Cuddy. “Stop him!” shrieked Cuddy, scrambling back over the Magi behind him, and the White Dragon threw itself forward at Skelton. He swiped at it with his sword but it swung its head up at the last moment, coiling back on it self, to fill the aisle between Skelton and Cuddy. It rattled its scales and bared its teeth. “Hand to hand against the greatest Spirit in Britain,” Skelton’s smile widened, “This ought to be interesting,” and he threw himself at the Dragon as the ranks of spirits closed in around him and the Hall exploded in battle. “Oscar, get down!” Maggs grabbed hold of Oscar’s collar and dragged him back as a chair came hurtling up and crashed through Sir Isaac Newton’s head. “The Dragon’s helping them,” Oscar fought against Maggs’ grip, “We’ve got to do something!” “We are!” Maggs hauled him round the back of the pedestal the Charter sat on, “You stay here, out of the way - I’m going to carry on looking for... Ah! Get

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off, you awful thing!” Oscar turned to see Maggs kicking out against a small stained glass boar who doggedly hanging on to the toe of her shoe with its little lead teeth. Before he could do anything, the little black cat leapt down from a chair straight into the boar, shattering it into pieces. Maggs staggered back into a chair while the cat batted the pieces of glass around the floor. Oscar was just about to go to Maggs when he realised something: just out of the corner of his eye he could see a word carved into the pedestal he was hiding behind, and that word was: ‘King’. He turned and looked at the carving: ‘This stone was laid by His Majesty the King, George I in the year 1717’ “Maggs!” “I’m alright, Oscar, I’m just a bit... out of breath...” “No, no! I mean, good, I’m glad you are, but... Look! The King!” “Oscar! That must be it!” Maggs scrambled over to join him on the floor under the table, “The King must have laid the stone that sealed the great work: this is it! This is what the rhyme meant!” “But what do we do now?” “Well, if I’m right and this is the key to the Great Work, then all we have to do is remove it.” “It’s been there for hundreds of years Maggs - how are we going to move it?” “We need a tool or something...” Maggs stood up, looking around, “Aha! Perfect!” She leaned over Oscar head and then stepped back hauling one of the candlesticks from the table up over her head. “Look out, Oscar!” Oscar flung himself to one side as Maggs half fell, half threw herself at the pedestal, swinging the candlestick wildly. It struck the stone under the table at an angle, striking off sparks. The sound of the candlestick seemed to ring through Oscar like the tolling of a great bell, impossibly loud and deep, making the whole room tremble and rock. The stained glass cracked and shattered, spraying the room with shards of colour. Maggs stumbled away from the table, dropping the candlestick as Oscar dived under the chairs, covering his head with his arms against the glass. As the echoes of the strike died away, Oscar became extraordinarily aware of the terrible silence that they left behind. For a moment he wondered whether the noise had made him deaf, but then he realised he could hear the tiny noises of crumbs of glass dropping to the floor. All the noise of battle from the hall beyond

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had stopped. “The Charter Room!” Cuddy’s voice cut through the silence, “They’re doing something in there! Stop them!” Oscar scrambled out from under the chairs just in time to hear the dreadful clashing and rattling of the White Dragon as it came roaring through the empty space where it had once stood, its stained glass lit from within by a pale, flickering fire. It wound through the window frames whirling up into the roof of the Charter Room and then dropping down, its mouth open wide, its teeth glinting and clattering in its head, dropping straight to towards Oscar... And then the little black cat leapt up, over his shoulder and landed a paw full of claws right on the Dragon’s nose.

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34
The Little Black Cat It swerved at the last moment, careering past Oscar with a great banging, like a fast train passing, crashing into the corner of the room in its headlong flight. The cat landed on the Charter Table itself, turning carefully to face the great shifting and slipping pile of glass panes that were the White Dragon, as it tried to unwind itself from the knots its collision had tied it in. Oscar ran to the window to look out at the Hall below. The battle had started again, but it was difficult to tell who was winning, as spirits and Magi were locked in combat all over the Hall. Just below Oscar, at the edge of the stage, something like a giant bat with a tiny silver head, was fighting back three chairs that kept leaping and snatching at it with their lion clawed feet. The bat swirled up and lunged forward, throwing its attackers back, and out of its shadow staggered Skelton, falling back against the side of the stage. He still had his sword, but his waistcoat was tattered and his shirt was stained red with blood. There was a cut on his forehead and he wiped the blood out of his eyes with his sleeve. “Uncle Rufus!” Skelton turned at the sound of Oscar’s voice and looked up, “The Dragon! It’s here!” “The black cat! Trust the cat!” “But what can a cat do?” “Nothing: if it’s just a cat,” Skelton grinned suddenly, “Have you found anything?” “We found it! The stone!” “Then do it quickly - I’ll try and buy you some time...” and with that Skelton heaved himself onto the stage and then, barely pausing, threw himself forward onto the back of one of the Magi’s chairs. Before it could react, he leapt forward again, running across the backs and heads of the fighting hordes, jumping from chair to Spirit to Magi, struggling up the Hall towards his goal: Cuddy. There was a great hissing and clanging from behind Oscar and he turned to see the White Dragon hauling itself up from the corner where it had landed. It shook its head, the glass plates clattering, as it turned to face Oscar and, between them, the little black cat. The cat seemed so small and vulnerable before that great, sharp, gleaming head, but all it did was yawn and stretch and... carry on stretching and stretching... actually getting longer and thicker, it’s

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head pulling out into a long snout, it’s fur laying down flat and shiny, it’s tail winding and curling, it’s shoulders bunching, growing. There was a tug at Oscar’s arm and Maggs pulled him away from the window into the relative shelter of a doorway. Oscar couldn’t take his eyes off what had been the little black cat - only it was no longer little, no longer a cat, no longer even black but deeply, darkly red... Maggs hugged Oscar tightly: “All this time, all this time and we never even guessed...” “Maggs, what’s happening? What’s it doing?” “There are two dragons, Oscar, remember: young Uncle did a deal with the greatest Dark Spirit of them all...” And the Great Red Dragon of Britain unfurled its wings and shook them. Now nearly as big as the White Dragon, it stamped its claws on the tabletop and stretched out its neck and hissed. At this the White Dragon hunched back on itself, as if preparing to spring. Oscar felt something tap his leg. He looked down and saw it was the pointed tip of the Red Dragon’s tail. It tapped again, several times. He stared at it, dimly aware of the dragons snarling and snapping at each other. Finally the tail flicked against him, hard, knocking his leg from under him and he lurched sideways, taking Maggs with him, both of them stumbling out of the doorway in to the wreckage of the benches round the walls. At that moment the White Dragon pounced forward and the Red Dragon met it in mid air, tumbling over backwards with the force of the attack. For a brief moment the air was full of scales and glass, teeth and claws, smoke and fire and then, with a great tearing, they crashed through the door Maggs and Oscar had been standing against and disappeared with the sound of a hundred suits of armour falling downstairs. Maggs pulled Oscar up, back towards the table. Almost half the table had come away in that first ferocious meeting between the Dragons and they could see the stone that the King had laid even more clearly now. “We need to find something heavy to hit it with,” Maggs started throwing bits of broken furniture around, “Something heavier than that candle stick, anyway...” “No, wait,” Oscar saw something and pulled it out of a pile of splintered wood, “We need something long and thin and strong... like this... Help me, Maggs...” He was pulling on a long piece of metal that had once formed the back and

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the legs of one of the benches. “What do we want this for?” Maggs put her weight behind his and they pulled it out of the ruins. “A lever,” said Oscar, who vaguely remembered something about them from science, “We stick one end in this crack under the stone, and then we put all our strength into pushing down on this end...” “Brilliant!” Maggs threw herself over the end of the piece of metal, trying to force down and lever the King’s stone from where it was cemented to the stones beneath. They both strained at the lever and... nothing happened... “We’re... not strong.... enough...” Maggs gave up pushing and leant on the lever, puffing, “We’ll never... do it...” “No, not not strong enough, just not heavy enough...” Oscar started pulling more bits of furniture from the debris, “We just need more weight on this end, help me get some of this onto the end of the lever...” Maggs grabbed hold of a section of bench and heaved it up onto the lever, forcing it down with the weight, and Oscar piled on another piece. The she grabbed hold of him and jumped up onto the pile, adding their weight on top... the metal bent under them, and for a moment Oscar was afraid it was going to break, then there was a grinding, crunching sound as the lever began to push up against the King’s stone. “We’re almo...” Maggs never got to finish her sentence as, with a great roaring and rushing, the White Dragon hurtled back through the doorway and threw itself at the lever, snatching it in it jaws and throwing Maggs and Oscar flying. It threw the metal to the ground and stamped on it, snapping it beneath its feet and grinding the parts into the floor. Then it rounded on them, with a terrible bared grin on its face... which was immediately smashed to the ground as the Red Dragon leapt on its back, tearing at its neck with its fangs. Maggs pulled Oscar away as the two Dragons rolled over each other, locked in each other’s talons, careening into the walls. “We’ve got to find another lever!” She was pulling him back to the benches. “It’s no good! There’s no time! We’re too useless!” The Red Dragon was forced back into a corner, fending of the White Dragon’s claws with its front feet, Oscar knew they couldn’t do it in time, “If only Uncle Rufus was here, or Ridley, or anyone - any Magi could do it in seconds...” Maggs suddenly turned and grabbed both his arms, “But we don’t have any

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Magi - we have one of the most powerful in the land: Oscar, you’re still Lord Protector!” “But I can’t do magic!” “But you must be able to! You’re Lord Protector! You’re defender of the Magi, commander of the Temple: so command!” She pointed at the table, the other side of which the two dragons were snapping at each other, “Command the stone: tell it what to do!” “But I don’t know any magic!” Oscar stared at the stone, unable to think of anything, “I don’t what to do!” “Rise!” “What?” he turned to look at Maggs. She was pointing at the stone with a pained expression on her face, like she needed to go to the lavatory. “Call out to the stone,” she grabbed hold of him, turning him to face it, “Rise!” Sheepishly he raised his hand towards the table “Rise...” “No, no, no,” Maggs was standing behind him now, one hand holding his arm up, the other in the small of his back, keeping him in place, “You have to speak to the stone: look at it, feel it, you have to get the idea of the stone in your mind and speak to it directly: concentrate on it, see nothing except the stone...” Oscar stared at the block of marble under the table, trying to understand what Maggs was talking about, but he just couldn’t see it: it was just a bit of stone: chipped underneath where they had tried to lever it out, a long brown vein running diagonally down one side of it, where grains of mica glinted in the light, square, solid, sitting there under the table for hundreds of years, supporting the Charter, supporting the Temple, really... the key to the whole building, tying all the other stones together, all leaning on each other, one stone on another, all leading to this single block... the weight, the solidity, all slotting into place neatly around it, the Temple, the city, the Great Work, spreading out across the world, all knotted together in this one place... And the two dragons hurtling over the top of the table towards him, locked in a vicious embrace... Maggs pulled him out of the way just in time as they clanged past: he had almost had it then, the stone - he had almost been able to feel what he imagined it felt... The dragons, wrapped up in each other, turned over and over, all claws and teeth, scraping along the wall towards them. The floor sparked under them and huge bits of wood splintered out around them.

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Maggs pulled him back into the corner as the Red Dragon shook the White Dragon off across the room, with one last desperate heave. The White Dragon clattered up against the Table, scrabbling to regain it’s footing on the stone slabs. He had almost had it... he still almost had it - the Temple was still all around him, the stone was still there, at the centre of it all. The Red Dragon hauled itself across in front of them, dragging a lame back leg behind it, trying to get between them and the White Dragon. Its head was lolling, exhausted and blood dripped from its mouth. The stone was right there, right in front of him, as the White Dragon coiled itself up above it, rearing up, about to pounce, to sweep the Red Dragon aside and come roaring down on him and Maggs... Its teeth flashed in a hideous grin and... “Rise!” And with a great howling grinding, the King’s stone tore itself up from the floor, shooting into the air. The table above it shattered into a hail of shards, the Charter itself rippling away in the rush as the stone crashed straight into the White Dragon, driving it back, clear across the room and out through the empty arch into the Great Hall beyond, trailing a fine, tinkling rainbow of stained glass in their wake. Then there was a deafening thunderclap that shook every stone in the Temple, throwing Oscar and Maggs off their feet, filling the room with the flying debris, as the Dragon and the Stone exploded into a rushing cloud of dust and powered glass. And as the cloud rattled the windows of the Hall, there came in its wake the sound of a great exhalation, like a thousand people sighing, and in that one, suspended moment, the Great Work of the Magi was dissolved. Every spell and every compact, every conjuration and subjugation, every lock, curse, binding and command was loosed and all the spirits in the Hall were suddenly set free. Oscar scrambled to his feet, tottering to the window just in time to see the Hall filled with an endless shifting cloud of golden light and writhing white smoke. Shapes and beings boiled and swam below him as the cloud rose and thinned, for one moment filling the Hall with a warm, fiery glow before just as suddenly drifting and fading, revealing below, the wreckage of the battle, smashed furniture and scattered Magi. In the centre of them stood his Uncle, his clothes torn and his feet unsteady.

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Around him the Magi began to pick themselves up, still barely aware of what had just happened to them. There was a great scrabbling and rattling from behind Oscar and then the Red Dragon rushed past him, through the window and down into the Great Hall, landing inelegantly next to Rufus Skelton with an untidy thump. The Magi around him shrank back and then, as it stretched out its head and hissed at them, turned and ran, scrambling over the remains of the chairs towards the exits. Slowly their panic turned into a general rout as all the Magi in the Hall rushed for the doors, trampled over each other in their haste. Oscar felt Maggs’ hand on his shoulder as the Dragon turned to look at Skelton and then suddenly lifted into the air, disappearing in a wisp of red smoke. The Great Work was destroyed and the Royal Brotherhood of the Magi was no more and Oscar, despite everything, couldn’t help but sorrow at its passing.

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EPILOGUE The big grey car whispered through the snowy streets, gleaming in the lamplight. Oscar sat in the back, sandwiched between Maggs and Ridley, while his Uncle Rufus sat in a small jump seat opposite them. It had started to snow again, gently, the flakes falling soundlessly against the windows. Oscar stared out at the streets, empty except for scurrying figures, black against the quiet white. “At least I got to do one spell before it all ended,” said Oscar “Ah, but it hasn’t all ended,” said Skelton, “In fact, it’s only just begun.” “It’s only the Magi that have ended,” said Maggs. “But it was the Magi who did the magic,” protested Oscar. “Only because they were the only ones who could,” Uncle Rufus gestured out of the window, “Now anyone can. This morning the weather forecaster on the news was blaming this cold snap on Spirits. We’re living in a whole new world, now, with magic everywhere.” “But I thought that you needed the Great Work to command spirits,” Oscar turned to Ridley, “I thought it was impossible without it...” “Not impossible,” she replied, “Just harder. There were Magi before the Great Work and the Royal Brotherhood, remember, and there are still some who have kept the ancient skills alive,” she smiled over at Skelton, “Your Uncle is going to be very much in demand, I think, teaching people how to do magic again.” “Will you teach me?” Oscar leant forward, eagerly. “I think we all know who’ll have the last say about that,” said his Uncle, peering out of the window, “We’re here. Stop the car, please. Ready, Oscar?” “I have to say goodbye to Maggs and Ridley, first...” “It’s not goodbye,” Maggs hugged him fiercely, “It’s just a ‘see you soon’. You have to visit a lonely old lady, it’s your duty.” “I will, I promise, and you too, Rid... Mistress Marion...” “I think you can just call me Marion, Oscar and... oh – don’t squeeze so hard, it’s still tender...” “Sorry, I forgot...” “Well, at least don’t forget to visit, will you?” “Of course I won’t... Goodbye...” “See you soon, remember? See you soon.”

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Out of the car he and his Uncle crunched over the snow, through a rattley gate and up to a blue front door. “I will see you all again soon, won’t I?” “Of course you will – we’re all going to be very busy trying to set things to rights and we’re going to need all the help we can get. Us ex-Lord Protectors will have to stick together, you know?” Uncle Rufus smiled down, “We’ll see what your mother says.” “She’s going to be really cross with me, isn’t she? I mean I did run off without telling her...” “I shouldn’t imagine she’s going to be that pleased with me, either - but I don’t know if she’s really scarier than the Erl King or the White Dragon...” “Oh, she is,” Oscar squeezed Uncle Rufus’ hand, “But don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” “Thank god for that,” said Skelton, and rang the bell. Oscar’s mother was cross with both of them, but only because she had been very, very worried and she was really very happy indeed to have Oscar home. And, after everything, he was very happy indeed to be there, too.

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