A Tale of Two Wizards

 

In which Howl is shoved through a bathroom door, and ends up somewhere else entirely, in the company of an impeccably dressed nine-lived enchanter. Much danger ensures, and even more bickering.

___

 

Part one

 

In which Howl is shoved through a bathroom door and ends up somewhere else entirely.

___

 

"You're drunk." Sophie rammed her hands against her hips.

 

Howl concentrated on walking. "I only had a… drop." Words were slippery things, that kept wanting to run away and hide from his tongue. Singing was easier. At least those words stayed in the proper place. He started to sing. Songs always charmed a lady. You couldn't nag when you were charmed.

 

"That song is filthy," Sophie told him.

 

He jabbed a finger more or less at her face. "That, my dear, is the short of stuff we all  stang at rugby club."

 

"But not here." Her eyes blazed.

 

She looked a bit like Calcifer when she was angry. He thought it would be a wonderful idea to tell her so. "You look just like Calcifer…"

 

"And you stink of beer and smoke." She thrust her arm out, pointing at the bathroom. "Get in there. Go on." She clapped her hands, hurrying him on. It really wasn't fair of her. He just wanted a hug, and… "Go!" she commanded.

 

He flailed for the bathroom door, muttering under his breath. Wives were supposed to be gentle and loving, and he'd only had a drop, and he'd come home early - before three in the morning, at least - and hadn't he saved the world just a few weeks ago, or some of it at least, maybe, perhaps, and did she care? Would she care if he died a tragic death in the service of the king? No, she wouldn't. She was a…

 

"Go!"

 

"'snot my fault." He tried to use beseeching puppy-dog eyes. "Door handle's gone slippery. It… It…" He gaped with the horrified realisation. "It's doing it deliberately! It wants to get me into trouble!"

 

"Get. In. There." She spat out every word.

 

He conquered the handle at last, and opened the door. He stumbled in, but a towel leapt up and tangled itself around his ankles, and he fell forward. His head sagged, and everything span sickeningly.

 

When he opened his eyes again, he was not in the bathroom at all.

 

At least, he didn't think so. He didn't think that grass grew on his bathroom floor, or that trees grew up on either side. He didn't think that the wind blew, or clouds scudded above him in a slate grey sky. I'm back in Wales, he thought. "A good trick, lads," he shouted, but no-one emerged from behind the trees, laughing. No-one leapt out with a camera and said, "You should have seen your face."

 

Not again, he thought, then his head snapped up. Not again! He pawed at his body in sudden panic, and groped to find his hair. He let out a sigh of profound relief when he found them all in place. At least this time he was not a genie. Hair, he thought. Clothes. He smiled fondly at his gold and fuchsia suit, only slightly ruffled and stained with beer. All was in place. He thought he would just go to sleep on the grass for a moment, and…

 

"I really must get that seen to," a voice said.

 

Howl opened one eye. He saw smooth black shoes first, shiny enough to work as a mirror and… Is that what his hair looked like? He tried to smooth it, but his hand kept missing.

 

"It can be most inconvenient, you know."

 

With a resentful grunt, Howl opened his other eye. Above the shoes were fawn-coloured trousers, immaculately pressed. A Square, Howl thought. How we would have laughed…

 

"They just have to say my name three times, and I have no choice but to go. Used to be a secret - 'only use it in time of greatest need'. That sort of thing. But now simply everyone knows it. I was called out three times yesterday before breakfast. Children, mostly, and they just giggle. The older ones are worse. They swoon."

 

Howl flopped over onto his back. A tall man stood above him, and he was upside-down. No, Howl corrected himself, he was upside-down. The man had impeccable hair, and an exquisitely embroidered waistcoat. He had a haughty look, and he appeared not to have noticed Howl at all.

 

"And now this. I was quite busy, as it happens."

 

Running a bank, Howl thought, or maybe valet to the queen. He mumbled something to that effect out loud.

 

"No, it was my daughter's birthday party, if you must know." The man's clothes had clearly never been near sticky fingers and flying ice-cream, but Howl did not point that out. The man's superior look turned vague, and he still was not looking at Howl. "So shall we get it over with? Why did you call me here, and what do you want?"

 

"I didn't," Howl protested. He dragged himself into a sitting position, but there was nothing to lean on, and he fell over again. Perhaps Sophie was right, he thought. Perhaps he really was drunk after all. "I went through my bathroom door and then I was here."

 

"Ah. So we have a problem, then. How inconvenient." The tall man frowned. "It seems as if someone has brought us both here for purposes as yet unknown."

 

Howl sighed. Enough of the words penetrated. It seemed that he was going to have to use magic to make himself sober again. It really isn't fair, he thought petulantly. I never get to have any fun.

 

He rolled over onto his stomach, whispering the words of the spell into the grass. This elegant figure was far too buttoned-up and Establishment to know about magic or drink. He probably hadn't even noticed that Howl had been drunk.

 

"Why are you drunk?" the man asked.

 

Howl decided that he did not like this man. "Because I'm a slitherer-outer," he muttered.

 

"A slitherer-outer?" Howl did not need to look at him to know that one elegant eyebrow was arched. "Pardon me, but I cannot see that a slitherer-outer is something that one can just be. A wizard or an enchanter… Those are things that you can be. Slithering out is merely how you act, and that is something you have total control over."

 

"Well, then you're wrong," Howl told him triumphantly. "I happen to be a wizard and a slitherer-outer, and I… I'm still drunk," he exclaimed. The magic had not worked. Maybe beer caused magic to get confused. He hoped the spell hadn't turned his hair green, or something awful like that.

 

"No, really, I am interested," the man said. He looked anything but. "What were you slithering out of? It could be relevant to our current situation."

 

"Oh… um… the king was going on at me to save the world," Howl lied. He waved his hand airily. "You know, the usual stuff. Happens all the time."

 

"And drinking helps?" This time Howl saw the eyebrow rise. It was worse than he had imagined it.

 

Howl decided not to answer. He thought he was being mocked.

 

"I really am interested." The man crouched down beside Howl, but he was careful to tug up his trousers first. He was that sort of man. "Does drinking help you cope with… er… unwelcome demands from the government?" His eyes shone with something that looked like real emotion.

 

"No," Howl said miserably. "And I don't make a habit of it."

 

The magic came easily this time. He was sober and tired, and he mourned the loss of the dru… the slight tipsiness, that had been soft and fuzzy and warm like the sun.

 

"Well, it can't be helped." The man stood up, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Shall we go and find out… Oh, I do apologise. I seem to have forgotten your name."

 

Howl climbed stiffly to his feet. "Howl." He deliberately said his name the Ingary way, not the Welsh.

 

The tall man proffered his hand. Howl pretended not to see it. "I should have introduced myself, of course, but at first I was labouring under the misapprehension that you were the one who summoned me here. Are you sure you did not?" He looked almost hopeful. "Never mind. I am Chrestomanci."

 

"What sort of a name is Chrestomanci?" Howl muttered.

 

"What sort of a name is Howl?" the tall man retorted. "But you are right. Chrestomanci is not my name, as it happens. It's my title. I regulate magic for the government, and the title goes with the job."

 

It sounded like a very boring, killjoy sort of job, Howl thought, but this time he refrained from speaking his thoughts out loud.

 

"So, Howl, where do you come from?" Chrestomanci sounded far too bright. It made Howl's head hurt. It was stupid sort of spell, he thought, that removed the fun parts of drunkenness but left the headache. Maybe magic was like one of those disapproving old ladies, who pressed their lips together and made tut-tutting sounds about wild young men who were no better than they should be.

 

He decided to tell only part of the truth. "I come from Wales."

 

"I know that." Chrestomanci looked at him as if he was stupid child. "I can tell from the accent. The thing is, which Wales? There are many, you know. Clearly you don't come from the Wales where they speak French with a frightful Welsh accent. Are you from the one with miners and male voice choirs? Or the rather energetic one with bards and war lords wandering all over the place? Or the Wales that got fed up with being glued to England and floated over to join Ireland?"

 

Howl realised that his mouth was open, and he shut it with an audible snap.

 

"I am sorry to be so insistent," Chrestomanci said, not looking sorry at all, "but you are hard to place. I have never seen anyone dressed like you in any version of Wales that I have visited. But perhaps you have been to a fancy-dress party. Perhaps that explains the drink and the home-made pink… er… suit."

 

"It's fuchsia," Howl said, his voice as cold as ice. "And you're a fine one to talk. You look as if you've come out of a costume drama. And, anyway, it's the bohemian look." He gestured at his flowing hair, combed and styled for hours to look properly tousled. "I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand, of course, but it's incredibly stylish. Ladies swoon."

 

"Oh, you have that problem, too?" Chrestomanci looked spectacularly unoffended by Howl's insults.

 

Howl remembered that he was married now, and no-one but Sophie was allowed to swoon before him, even just a little bit, and it really wasn't fair, because he wasn't going to stray, or anything, but a bit of flattery every now and then was good for a poor, hard-working wizard, who was far more powerful than this over-dressed, over-moneyed, supercilious upstart here.

 

"But we digress," Chrestomanci said, producing a gleaming top hat from nowhere that Howl could see, and putting it on as if it was a crown. "Someone brought me here, and, by the looks of it, brought you here, too. So the questions is, where is here, and who brought us here?"

 

"I don't care," Howl muttered. "I'm a slitherer-outer, remember. I'm going home to bed."

 

"But you can't, my dear Howl." The eyebrow went up again. "Perhaps the beer has clouded your perceptions – because I can tell, of course, that you are a tolerably powerful wizard, of a type I have seldom seen. As another wizard famously said, 'We cannot get out.' We are trapped."

 

Howl concentrated, and realised that it was true. He bit back a curse, then swore out loud, with a defiant look at Chrestomanci. No-one could do creative swearing better than a rugby player.

 

"Never fear," Chrestomanci said. "I'm sure there's a way home, if we search for it. I'm sure there is a solution to this little mystery."

 

Then I will find it, Howl swore. I'll find it before you do, you over-dressed killjoy. I will not rest until…

 

He cursed again. So apparently the best way to goad him into action was to belittle him and make him feel stupid. He sincerely hoped that the king never discovered this. He clapped his hand to his mouth. Even more than that, he hoped that Sophie never discovered this.

 

"Well, then, Howl, shall we go?" Chrestomanci set off like a gentleman taking an afternoon stroll in the park.

 

Howl fought the entirely childish urge to stick out a foot and trip him over, but followed behind, glaring at Chrestomanci's immaculate back.

 

__

 

Part two

 

In which Howl and Chrestomanci have a boundary dispute in a den of villainy.

__

 

 

"Interesting terrain," Chrestomanci observed, when they had been walking for a few minutes.

 

Howl blinked, wincing from his headache. "I noticed that," he said, and of course he had.

 

He blinked again. Of course he had noticed the small volcano that lurked beyond the field of daffodils, smoking contentedly like an old man in a pub. Of course he had noticed the claw-like roots that waved excitedly on the edge of the path. Of course had noticed the skeletal trees, and the blossom that fell from the sky, like splashes of blood.

 

Howl rubbed his eyes. It really was unfair. He could ease someone else's aches and pains, but his own magic stubbornly refused to do anything about a headache.

 

"Well," said Chrestomanci, "I think we can be confident of one thing, at least. We aren't in Wales."

 

Howl decided to ignore his headache. This infuriating man thought he was a fool, and he refused to stand for it. After all, he almost had a doctorate from Swansea University. Yes, so he had disappeared into Ingary before actually writing his thesis, but he was sure he would have dazzled. His supervisor was a woman, after all, and there was no woman alive that he could not charm. No woman worth charming, that is.

 

They walked a bit further. Howl jostled for the lead, taking a savage delight in brushing against Chrestomanci as he passed. He smiled to himself as he heard Chrestomanci suck in a breath, and imagining him brushing the stain from his impeccable cuff.

 

The sky above them did interesting things with colour, and swifts flew overhead on leathery wings.

 

"Do you have a destination in mind, my dear Howl?" Chrestomanci asked.

 

"Yes," Howl grunted. "Those…" Woods, he was going to say, pointing to a snug cluster of pale green trees ahead of them, but suddenly movement caught his eye. There were dark things among the trees. They looked like… He frowned, remembering films he had sneaked into as a child. Yes, they were definitely ninja, lying in wait for them in a way that lacked in stealth, but made up for it in quantity of sharp swords.

 

"I saw smoke over there," he said instead, diverting his next step a little bit to the right. "It could be a house. We should investigate."

 

"I see no smoke."

 

"Well, it's there. I am a wizard, you know. We know these things." Howl strode on, muttering under his breath. Apparently people like Chrestomanci made him act like a sulky child. He hated Chrestomanci for that. Look what you  made me do, he wanted to say. Instead he contented himself with imagining Chrestomanci falling flat on his face in a puddle.

 

"Well, I do declare that there is smoke after all," Chrestomanci exclaimed. "And a chimney beneath it. And beneath that, I sincerely hope, will be people."

 

"Of course there's smoke." Howl covered his surprise like a professional.

 

"Then I must beg your pardon for doubting you," Chrestomanci said. "I can see that you are a mighty wizard indeed, while I am merely a nine-lived enchanter."

 

Howl replayed the words in his mind. "Nine lives?"

 

"Oh yes." Chrestomanci looked a little sheepish. "Although actually I only have two left now. I lost them at an alarming rate when I was a boy."

 

"Even two would be useful," Howl said. "It's always good to have a spare of anything." Of course, that usually applied to clothes, and bottles of hair dye, but it could be even better with lives.

 

He let himself drift into a daydream. One Howl, courting a lady. The other Howl striding around in the town, letting himself be seen. 'Oh no, it wasn't me,' he could tell the irate aunts and outraged guardians. 'I was somewhere else entirely. You don't believe me? Oh, really? Are you saying that the king is a liar, then, for I exchanged several words with him at just the time you mention…'

 

The daydream ended, as abruptly as if Sophie was standing in front of him, holding a bucket that had until very recently contained cold water. Oh yes. He was married now. There were no ladies, not even the smallest, tiniest, most innocent little flirt.

 

"It doesn't work quite the way you are doubtless imagining," Chrestomanci said. "Still, it has its uses. Stopped me shuffling off this mortal coil before my time, anyway."

 

Howl realised that his daydream had brought him close enough to the smoke to see the house beneath it. It was a strange, crooked affair, dark and crumbling and squat. It reminded him of something, but he could not place it.

 

"Quite a den of villainy, don't you think?" Chrestomanci observed.

 

"Definitely," Howl agreed. Suddenly going forward didn't seem like such a good idea after all, but Chrestomanci was on the point of overtaking him, and Howl refused to let him take the lead.

 

"Not quite a stronghold," Chrestomanci said, as they drew closer. "A lair, perhaps?"

 

"Hideout," Howl said.

 

They walked into the yard. Dirty hens wandered around in a depressed fashion, and a dog glowered at them in a half-hearted attempt to look threatening. Someone had tried to plant a flowerbed near the door, by scattering random seeds and hoping for the best, but the results were wilting and dying in a random profusion of tired colour. Howl could not see any people.

 

The dog growled again. "Oh, you will, will you?" Chrestomanci said. "Why?"

 

Howl frowned in irritation. "I didn't say anything." He said it in a whisper, for the door into the hideout was slightly open, and anybody could be inside.

 

The dog stood its ground for a moment, then backed away, as if it had suddenly remembered something urgent it needed to do elsewhere.

 

"You were speaking to the dog," Howl realised. "You understand dogs?"

 

"Oh no." Chrestomanci looked smug and serene. "Cats, sometimes, if they're special ones. Cats are so much more satisfying than dogs, don't you think? They take far better care of their appearance."

 

"Cats put fur all over your clothes," Howl pointed out.

 

"True." Chrestomanci winced. "But dogs jump up and put mud all over you, and they slobber all over your shoes."

 

Howl shuddered. He thought Chrestomanci was doing the same.

 

"It is just a matter of bluff, my dear Howl." Chrestomanci recovered himself first. "Always act as if you understand everything. It confuses them. The results can be… gratifying, as you saw. Well…" He picked some dust from the back of his glove. "Shall we enter this hideout of yours? I expect it is positively bristling with villains."

 

Howl suspected it was, too. He knew he was a coward. He had proclaimed it often and loudly, usually as a way to stop thinking about something nasty. He had once arranged for Sophie to blacken his name to this king. He knew that the only sensible thing to do was to turn and run away. Let Chrestomanci get butchered by villains if he wanted to, but Howl would be running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

 

Chrestomanci looked at him, and raised one eyebrow.

 

Howl glowered. He was going to have to go in. How he hated Chrestomanci! He goaded so. And it turned out that Howl had some pride after all. He refused to be beaten by a man like this.

 

"Fine," he said. He prepared some useful magics in his mind, just in case knives and guns featured strongly in the near-future. It wouldn't seem like cowardice if he snatched them both out of harm's way, would it? He could say he was doing it for Chrestomanci's sake. He would have stayed and fought, of course, had be been by himself, but he had to get Chrestomanci to a place of safety. After all, he couldn't stand by and watch him get his clothes dirty, could he?

 

He pushed open the door. Five pairs of eyes turned towards him. Five villainous mouths smiled, showing blackened teeth.

 

"Come in!" the most terrifying villain exclaimed. "Look what we have here, lads. Two travelling players to join in our game. A jester, by the looks of him, and a lord."

 

Howl spluttered. Chrestomanci pressed a brief warning touch on his arm.

 

The villains were sitting around a table playing cards. By the mess in the small room, it looked as if they had been playing cards for a very long time. Every one of them looked like a child's worse nightmare of villainy, though Howl could not see any weapons. They were probably hidden under the table.

 

"Forgive us for intruding, gentlemen," Chrestomanci said, "but we appear to have strayed into your… fair land by mistake. We were wondering…"

 

"By mistake? Hear that, lads?" The leader laughed, and the others copied him. "There was no mistake. There are no mistakes here."

 

Howl saw it out of the corner of his eye. A knife, a hand, and Chrestomanci oblivious…  Howl snapped out a word of power, as loud as thunder. The man clattered to the ground, as the man holding it turned into a tree. Another word, quieter, brought the knife into Howl's hand.

 

"My most sincere thanks," Chrestomanci said. He looked quite shocked. "I think you just prevented me from losing another life."

 

The men around the table were scrambling to their feet, bringing out weapons from unexpected places, bristling with menace.

 

"You take the left, and I take the right?" Chrestomanci suggested. "Maybe not a tree this time, though. I don't think there's room for that many branches."

 

Howl uttered more thunderous words of power, and made his three men as heavy stone. Bet you can't do that, he thought, for Chrestomanci was standing completely still, making no visible signs of magic at all. Howl felt it, though, whatever it was he did. With a stern look and a quiet word, Chrestomanci turned his men into spirits, turned their bodies to air.

 

Howl did not like it. It reminded him of his time as a genie. It had been a curious and unpleasant thing to ooze, and to feel you were going to fall apart in a breeze.

 

"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "You favour the thunder effect, I see. Do you find that works well for you?"

 

"Makes me a bit queasy," Howl admitted. It was not good for the stomach to have the power of a thunderstorm echoing in your voice. It was a bit like being on a rollercoaster, plunging into a freefall that never stopped.

 

"I imagine it would," Chrestomanci said consideringly. "Some forces were not meant to be contained by the human body. But it was quite hair-raising. I take my hat off to you." He suited the action to the words. "Personally, I gain the best effects from a chilly voice and a steely gaze. Softness works well, too. But maybe I will try the thunder one day. After all, it did look very impressive." He looked at the tree with a wrinkle of distaste, swatting away a branch that was exploring his hair. "Effective, too."

 

Howl wrestled his stomach back under control. He was still holding the knife, he realised. He was about to destroy it, before deciding that it would be more comforting to be holding something sharp and pointy than to be without it.

 

"Ah," Chrestomanci said. "We appear to have had a slight… boundary dispute, as it were."

 

How looked where Chrestomanci was indicating. Both of them, it seemed, had included the leader in their share. He was floating a few feet off the ground, pulled downwards by the parts of him that were stone, and pulled upwards by the bits that were air. Howl watched with interest, gratified to see that the stone was holding its own.

 

"We seem quite a match for each other," Chrestomanci mused. "It could be interesting to leave him like this and see how things turn out. Tempting… But no. He can't answer questions like this, and answers are what we need. You release him from your part and I'll release him from mine."

 

Howl did so. The leader fell heavily to the floor, just barely managing to stay on his feet, and his hand was instantly at his belt. "Take his weapons away, would you, Howl?" Chrestomanci hissed urgently, and Howl did so. These ones he destroyed. It seemed safer.

 

"Silver weapons," Chrestomanci explained. "Which, really, is cheating, don't you think? I can't do a thing against silver, you see. I'm as helpless against it as the next man. Still," he added, after a pause, "you could perhaps have turned them into something useful like a slice of cake or a cream bun. Dinner had not yet been served at my daughter's party, and I've eaten nothing since breakfast."

 

Or water, Howl thought. Clear, cold water, soothing to the head… Bacon, sizzling in the pan, and nice, fat sausages. He eyed the cauldron over the fire, and wondered what it contained.

 

"So, answers, then." Chrestomanci's voice turned as cold as ice. "My good man, I would like to know why you tried to kill us."

 

"We're villains," the leader said sulkily. "It's what we do."

 

"Not good enough." Chrestomanci glided forward a step. "Tell me more."

 

"It's true," the leader protested. "We had a nice thing going on, me and the lads. Jewel robberies, hold-ups, and the like. A bit of smuggling on the side. Threatening and menacing. Kidnapping heiresses and kittens. It was a nice little earner. Rolling in money, we were, and none of us were getting any younger. So we decided to retire. Bert here was going to open a pub. Jim was going to marry someone and go and farm rabbits. I was going to…"

 

"Settle down somewhere on the proceeds of your life of crime," Chrestomanci interrupted.

 

The leader shot a look of pure malice at Chrestomanci. "Settle down, yes, and why not? It's a hard job, being a villain. There's no security in it, and the people hate us…"

 

"I cannot think why." Chrestomanci arched his eyebrow. "But enough of that. Please carry on."

 

For a moment, it looked as if the leader was going to refuse to talk any more, but Chrestomanci made his eyes turn into gleaming stones. "You'll let the lads go?" the leader squeaked. "It does look awful uncomfortable."

 

Chrestomanci nodded. "If you tell us what we need to know."

 

The leader subsided. "Well, me and the lads decided to go on one last job, like a going-away present. A stash of loot, it was, in an unguarded warehouse. Lovely, it was, all shiny and golden. But we never got to lay our hands on it. As soon as we got near it, everything went all swirly, like a night with too much grog, and here we were, all of us. Years ago, that was. Years." He dabbed at his eyes, as if he was crying, but Howl knew it was a sham. He had feigned despair too many times himself, moping at the feet of heartless ladies.

 

"Where's here?" Howl demanded.

 

"A dreadful place," the leader moaned. Then he looked at Howl and sighed, as if he recognised that Howl was the sort of man who could see through lies, even if Chrestomanci could be tricked. "No, it's not so terrible. Awful tedious, though, for most of the year. Nothing to do but play cards and wait until the summer holidays start."

 

"Why do you have to wait until then?" Howl asked.

 

"Because that's when the nippers are around, of course." The leader looked at him as if he was stupid. "We do something dastardly at the start of their holidays. They spend the summer solving the mystery, and our sinister plans are thwarted just in time for school to start again in the autumn."

 

"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "I'd have thought that this was a reason to avoid the summer holidays. Why not commit all your dastardly acts when there's no children around to thwart you?"

 

"We tried that." The leader sighed tragically. "It turns out that we like the attention. It's awful boring to steal a pile of loot without anyone noticing. You can't menace a room full of nobody. At least in the summer people notice. A bit like the good old days, it is, even if we always get thwarted in the end. Better to be thwarted than ignored."

 

"An interesting point of view." Chrestomanci turned to Howl. "Actually, I think I can sympathise."

 

Howl did not like to be ignored, but being thwarted tended to end unpleasantly, such as inside a genie's bottle. Instead of responding, he demanded, "Did you ever try to go home again?"

 

"Of course we did." The leader glowered. "What do you take us for? We tried everything, but there's no way out. You're trapped here, mate. Best get used to it, because you're never going home."

 

___

 

Part three

 

In which both Chrestomanci and Howl are boring.

 

 

"Well," Chrestomanci exclaimed, as they walked away from the villains' hideout, each step making the leader's outraged cries a little less ear-splitting. "That was an interesting tale."

 

Howl listened to a stream of swear words that even the rugby players did not know. "Perhaps he was lying."

 

"Oh no." Chrestomanci shook his head. "It was true."

 

"You used a truth spell?" Howl clenched and unclenched his hands nervously. He had never tried a truth spell. There was too much of a risk that it would spill over onto him, and it would be so unfair if he had to tell the truth all the time.

 

"No magic," Chrestomanci said smugly. "I made him tell the truth by sheer force of personality. At least," he added, with only a token expression of modesty, "that's what people often tell me."

 

Howl grunted.

 

"You should try it," Chrestomanci said. "I can see that you have an incredibly strong personality yourself, although for some reason you keep trying to pretend that you haven’t. I cannot think why. Unless that's what you mean when you say you're a slitherer-outer?"

 

Howl did not dignify it with a reply. Instead he muttered the words that released the villains from his part of the spell. So what if it was earlier than they had planned. It would serve Chrestomanci right if they came charging up and stabbed him in the back with pointy silver knives. Howl would be safe. Howl didn't have a stupid inability to do magic with silver.

 

He was, however, rather relieved when no-one emerged from the hideout.

 

They walked on. "Because, really," Chrestomanci observed, "there seems to be nothing better to do." The landscape continued to vary alarmingly around them, veering from rocky chasms to rolling meadows in the space of a few hundred yards. They saw no further signs of habitation, but Howl thought he glimpsed a giant, strolling aimlessly on a hillside far away. Another hillside was topped with a dark ruin, that looked deserted, but you never could tell.

 

"It looks like a film set," Howl said out loud. "Moving pictures," he explained, in case Chrestomanci came from a place without films. He hoped he did.

 

"So you come from that Wales," Chrestomanci exclaimed. "And I do know what films are, as it happens. I have a ward who comes from your England. She has taken it upon herself to educate me in the ways of her world. She calls it broadening my horizons." He said it a way that made Howl quite glad that he did not have to meet this ward.

 

"Well, it does," Howl persisted. "Everywhere's dramatic, as if it's a stage for big events."

 

Chrestomanci stopped walking. "You could be on to something there. But maybe not a film. A dream, perhaps." He pressed his fingers together. "Yes, a dream… I once met a girl with a whose dreams tended to the dramatic like this. Yes, I could imagine those villains appearing in her cast of thousands… Though I doubt we are in a dream. I suspect we would know about it if we were."

 

Howl thought it could be interesting to be in a dream. But, then, he supposed he already was. Lots of lovely young ladies doubtless dreamed about him already. He imagined himself as they would see him - teeth gleaming, hair shining in the sun, on a pedestal like a god, bathed in the pink light of love. Puppy dogs and chocolate… Ribbons and hearts… 'Oh, Howl, you are my hero…'

 

"… worth pursuing, anyway."

 

Howl blinked. Probably nothing worth hearing, anyway. He strode on, before suddenly realising that he was still clutching the first silver knife. How far did it go, this curious inability of Chrestomanci to work magic on silver? He wondered what would happen if he subtly dropped it in Chrestomanci's pocket. Ten years of stealing tokens from ladies had made him excellent at sleight of hand, even without bringing magic into the mix.

 

He transferred the knife into the other hand. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the blade. Not good.  He winced, and brought the blade up, using it as a mirror as he tried to arrange his hair into some semblance of artful abandon…

 

His hand fell to his side, his hair remaining tragically unstyled. The knife… The hand that wielded it… The face that snarled above the hand…

 

"I've seen them before," he gasped. "I didn't recognise them at first because they look different in real life. They was those  sort of illustrations."

 

"What?"

 

"Those black-and-white line drawings that look like a few scribbles, but everyone says how wonderful they are, so full of life and atmosphere, and they keep winning prizes, even though they don't really look like people at all."

 

Chrestomanci looked quite at a loss. Howl knew he would replay his look lovingly in his mind for ever more.

 

"It was in a book I read as a child," he explained. "One of my favourites." He knew he was being petty, but he decided to eke the explanation out by launching into a short nostalgic reflection. Books, he thought, to kick it off. He used to read novels all the time, before he discovered girls. In Ingary, no-one read novels. What any other world would call the stuff of fiction, was plain old non-fiction in Ingary…

 

"Are you saying that these villains were in your book?" Chrestomanci asked patiently.

 

Howl reluctantly nodded. "They did something dastardly at the start of the holidays, but luckily the Tremendous Two were on hand to solve the mystery and thwart them before it was time to go back to school."

 

"Ah." Chrestomanci brought his finger to his lips. "Ah."

 

"There was a ruined castle in it, too," Howl remembered. "A bit like that one."

 

"So it seems that you were right after all, my dear Howl." Chrestomanci clapped him on the back. "Not a film set, perhaps, but something very similar. But we're in worse trouble than I feared. This has clearly been going on for years."

 

Howl felt his triumph disappear like water out of a bath. A scented bath, with bubbles and lotions and a lovely lady to…

 

"I may be wrong, of course," Chrestomanci said, "but here is my theory. It makes sense. It answers a few other questions that have been pestering me lately."

 

Howl refused to ask what the theory was. He tried to return to his bath, but the wind changed direction, bringing with it a nasty smell, like brimstone, or unemptied rubbish bins on a hot summer's day.

 

"I believe we have been spied on for years," Chrestomanci declared. "You, me, and our villainous friends back there. Someone has been watching us, and taking little notes. Everything we've done has been recorded… and then published in another world as children's books."

 

"Impossible!" Howl was outraged.

 

"Not so impossible," Chrestomanci told him. "In some worlds, there's quite a thriving literature  trade. One world's tedious government briefing is another world's thrilling adventure. I know a world where our prime minister's dullest speeches are watched by millions, who gasp at every 'but' as if it's a sword fight, and tremble at every 'er' as if it's a duel with lions."

 

"Impossible," Howl repeated. He felt violated and cheapened. "A children's book. My life is not the subject of a children's book. The women! The drink! The debauchery and drugs and rock and roll! I am not suitable for children."

 

"I share your pain." Chrestomanci straightened his cravat and smoothed his cuffs. "I am quite wasted on children. Ragged little things, always getting their clothes dirty. Irony goes right over their head. But perhaps it comes from the whole fairy tale thing. In your world, I believe, the people are foolish enough to think that fairy tales are for children, and that anything magical is childish."

 

Howl wanted to defend his world, but could not. His friends had laughed at him mercilessly when he first expressed an interest in magic. 'Grow up,' they told him, so he did, and then they started telling him off for chasing their sisters.

 

"Well," Chrestomanci said, "leaving aside the questionable choice of audience, I think I could well be right. These last few years, I've been summoned away all the time, and almost always by giggling children. As I observed to you earlier, I have often wondered how they got hold of my name. This could be my answer. They've read about me in a book."

 

But at least if they read about me when they're children, Howl thought, they might have a soft spot for me when they're older. You never forget your first love, after all.

 

"But how does this all relate to our current situation?" Chrestomanci raised a triumphant finger. "On this, too, I have a theory. Cast your mind back to our friends in the hideout. They were about to retire from their life of crime. In other words, they were about to become boring. You can't write a good children's book about a former villain who is now retired and tending rabbits. So how do you ensure that your villains keep doing interesting things? You kidnap them and trap them in a world full of volcanoes and piles of gold and obliging children eager to solve crime. You force them to live interesting lives, and then you sit back, takes notes, and write your books."

 

Howl tracked down the important point at the heart of this verbiage. "I have not become boring!" he protested.

 

"Well, I have." Chrestomanci sighed. "Once, I had adventures that would make your hair curl. Summoned hither and thither, saving worlds left, right and centre. But the last year has been one endless round of meetings. The bureaucracy gets worse every year. I have been chairing this, and chairing that… Horrible, tedious stuff."

 

"Nappies," Howl lamented. "Crying in the middle of the night. Clearing up piles of baby food. Unimaginable things smeared over your clothes." He wasn't sure why he was admitting it, but it was too late to stop now. "I used to life the glamorous life. There were women. There were tales told about me. I defeated a witch, and even the djinn of heaven. I had a moving castle…"

 

"Really?" Chrestomanci asked. "I wish mine moved. The villagers have a pleasing rural kind of charm, but sometimes one longs for a change of scenery."

 

"It doesn't move any more." It was the sort of situation when only a pout would do. "Sophie said it was no place to raise a child. She wanted to settle down, to put down roots. Only until the children have finished school, she said, but that will be years. I might even be grey by then!"

 

"My profoundest sympathies." Chrestomanci sighed. "It was the job with me. I wasn't even fourteen. Tied down to work for the government whether I liked it or not. I wanted to be a professional cricketer, you know."

 

"I used to play rugby." Howl sighed even louder. "I could have been a pro."

 

"And then I married young. Childhood sweetheart, and such like. Then children." Chrestomanci's sigh was longer still. "They take so long to grow up. One wishes one could just accelerate time until they're properly interesting, or squirt all the knowledge that they need into their brains, to avoid the tiresome business of teaching them."

 

"Morgan's only three." His sigh went on and on. He recognised that it was a competition and he was determined to win. "Bethan's eight months old. And if it's not them, it's Lettie's two climbing all over me. Teaching them will be fun," he admitted. He had already started to teach Morgan how to lie to Sophie, and it would be fun to have a son following in his footsteps. "But I could do without the dirty nappies."

 

"I can't argue with that." The sighing game seemed to be over. Howl was fairly sure he had won. "And the boring life has its good points, of course. You don't tend to lose lives in tedious policy meetings."

 

"Or when playing peek-a-boo with a baby." Howl said it with feeling. He sometimes still caught himself smiling soppily at the thought of his baby girl, and he and Morgan were partners in crime. You got smiles and laughter and love back from a child. From the king, you got only danger, and your only reward was the 'privilege' of further, even more dangerous duties.

 

He wanted to go back home. He wanted it suddenly with an intensity that surprised him. After all, only the night before he had been so desperate for a night away from domestic duties that he had lied to his wife about the rugby club dinner, sneaked out to the pub and…

 

He clapped his hand to his mouth, as if Chrestomanci could hear his thoughts. He remembered telling Chrestomanci that he had got drunk in order to escape the king's demands. It sounded better to say that the king had wanted him to save the world, than the admit that his wife wanted him to do the washing-up.

 

"Not so boring, then," Chrestomanci said, "or so regrettable. But you can see why our interfering little spy might have considered our exploits boring. You can see why he or she wanted to intervene and put us somewhere more conducive to adventure."

 

"She," Howl declared with confidence. If he was going to be stalked, then it was going to be by a woman.

 

Chrestomanci peered critically at Howl's face, then preened himself a little. "I see what you mean," he said. "Fancy that. She's only interested in us because of our irresistible looks."

 

"And sense of style." Howl meant it of himself, of course, though he had to grudgingly admit that Chrestomanci wore his clothes well, if you liked that sort of thing.

 

"Not to mention dazzling magical powers." Chrestomanci clapped his hands together. "So we've settled on the why. I wonder when the first exciting adventure will begin."

 

Howl sniffed. The bad smell had grown steadily stronger during their conversation, he realised. A mist had rolled up on the far side of the path. As he stared into it, it suddenly cleared, revealing a large force of squat soldiers, led by a black-clad figure on a floating horse. Its eyes were red.

 

His throat went dry. "Now," he croaked.

 

Chrestomanci glanced over his shoulder, and grimaced. "Oh dear. Well, I suppose we can refuse to play? Be as boring as possible so she sends us back?" He shook his head, with a rueful sigh. "No, I thought not. You are no more capable of deliberately being boring than I am."

 

Howl swallowed. "I'd be boring if it helped me stay alive."

 

"True." Chrestomanci drew himself up, as the army marched ever closer through the mist. "Boring it is, then…" He frowned. "Oh, come now, this really isn't fair. Silver weapons? What sort of a fell host uses silver weapons?" He did not look anything like as dismayed as Howl felt. "This could be… interesting, my colourful friend."

 

Howl wanted to run, but by then the army was upon them, and a hundred spears were levelled at his throat.

 

__

 

Part four

 

In which Howl and Chrestomanci meet some minions, Howl sulks, and Chrestomanci has a plan.

__

 

 

They were going to hurt him. They were going to kill him. "Get away!" Howl cried. "Go away!" He cowered away, swatting blindly with his hands, like someone menaced by a swarm of disagreeable bees. Panic always brought the magic freely, and he snapped out the required words.

 

Nothing happened. He tried again, even more desperately, and once again nothing changed. The army had them surrounded, and Howl and Chrestomanci were the centre of a wheel in which all the spokes were made of spears.

 

"I can't," he gasped. "They're immune to magic."

 

"Yes." Chrestomanci looked shaken, as if this was the first time he had ever been thwarted. Howl was too afraid to be able to gloat as much as he would have liked. He saved it up for later.

 

"We have you now," their leader hissed. "We will take you back to our fastness for torments unimaginable, after which you will do my bidding."

 

"I hope you do not think us impolite," Chrestomanci said, "but we would rather not accept your invitation, temptingly-phrased as it is."

 

"Don't provoke him!" Howl hissed. He jostled forward, careful not to get too close to the spears. This involved standing on Chrestomanci's toe. "We are mighty princes," he told the black-robed man. "Our army is just over that hill. There. Look! I can see them coming! Behind you!"

 

"Mighty princes!" Chrestomanci echoed. "I thought you said not to provoke them."

 

The spears jabbed forward. Howl howled in pain as the tip of a speak penetrated his sleeve, tearing the fabric. "Are you hurt, by dear fellow?" Chrestomanci asked in concern, but Howl just shook his head, too angry and hurt to frame words. His favourite suit! Torn! Irreplaceable!

 

"Come," hissed the commander of the fell host, tall on the horse that was not quite a horse. "Come, or we kill you where you stand."

 

Howl had his hand clapped to the tear in his sleeve. He could feel his stylishness seeping away through the jagged tear like blood. He refused to stand here and let them treat him like this. He tried his magic one more time, giving it everything he had.

 

This time, the fell host flickered just for a moment, as if they had almost disappeared, and then thought better of it.

 

"Ah!" Chrestomanci proclaimed. "I see how it is. Where exactly are you trying to transport them, my dear fellow?"

 

"A hundred miles away," Howl said through gritted teeth. "In that direction, if you need to know." He gestured with his chin. One hand was nursing his poor wounded sleeve, and the other was ready to guard against five hundred spears, should they choose to go for his throat, or maybe, he thought, just to push Chrestomanci onto their points.

 

"I went for the other direction," Chrestomanci said. "It seems as if our magic cancelled each other's out, the poor thing. I sometimes like the think of magic as being alive, don't you? It's surely rushing around in a terrible flap now, not sure who to listen to."

 

The spears edged closer. The eyes of the leader turned a darker red, and smoke issued from his fell steed's nostrils. It smelled foul.

 

"I thought you couldn't do anything," Howl hissed. "Silver weapons, and all."

 

"I can work magic on the people holding them," Chrestomanci said, "just not on the weapons themselves. When you suddenly find yourself whisked a hundred miles away, you tend not to have the presence of mind to drop your sword, so it goes with you, too. It's the same as clothes. You work the magic on the man. The clothes tend to get caught up in it, too, because they're riding piggy-back on the man."

 

Howl's mouth was very dry. He had never seen so many blank and merciless eyes before. He felt the tear in his sleeve, and imagined the same tear in his own flesh. "Then don't," he said. "I'll do it this time."

 

"A big job," Chrestomanci said. He took of his hat and brushed some dust of it, though his movements were greatly impeded by the fact that twenty spears were almost impaling him on all sides. "Why don't you take the weapons, and I'll take the men."

 

"Why should I have the easy job?" Howl protested. "You think you're so powerful and high-and-mighty, but I'm just as…"

 

"Because I can't do the weapons," Chrestomanci said emphatically, his eyes glittering like stones. "I believe we are running out of time for bickering."

 

"Debate," Howl corrected him haughtily, but the fear was that gibbering inside him was jumping up and down and shouting that Chrestomanci was right. He had to get rid of these people, and now, or he would die, and that was bound to hurt.

 

With a defiant glare at Chrestomanci, and a shameful squawk as a spear jabbed at his throat, Howl plucked the spears from the soldiers' hands and thrust them somewhere vaguely west. An instant later, before they had started their cries of horror and outrage, the men themselves disappeared.

 

Chrestomanci lowered his hands. "I suppose I ought to have asked you which direction you were going. After all, it would never do if we had transported fell host and weapons to the same place, and that place was full of innocents." He flapped his hand in a casual fashion. "I left you one, by the way."

 

The leader remained, glowering on his horse. As he brought his hand up, streaming blackness like a rift in reality, Howl felt the assault of cold magic on his brain. It hurt almost as much as the hangover. "He's a wizard," he gasped through the pain, supporting one hand with the other as he grappled for a while, conquered him, and sent him a hundred miles to the south.

 

He quite deliberately left the clothes behind, just to prove that he could.

 

"Interesting choice." Chrestomanci raised his eyebrow. "I should have thought of that. After all, you can hardly have a children's book in which armies go around naked. I doubt it would have ruined her plans, but it might at least have caused her an interesting challenge."

 

Howl slowly lowered his trembling hand. The issue with the clothes had been an extra exertion, and painful exertion was in general to be avoided, but he was glad he had done it.

 

"Still," Chrestomanci said, "you could perhaps have chosen the cream bun approach. Presumably there is now a large heap of silver weapons lying unattended somewhere in the middle of nowhere, just waiting for someone unscrupulous to come along."

 

Howl wished fiercely that he had turned the spears to cream buns. It would serve Chrestomanci right if eating magically transformed silver made him violently sick.

 

Chrestomanci picked up the discarded black robe, and dropped it with a grimace of disgust. "I simply cannot understand," he said, "why these dark lords insist on living in such dismal and uncomfortable surroundings. If you were a dark lord, my dear Howl, wouldn't you choose to live in luxury, with good clothes and good food and beautiful servants, rather than in a looming ruin draped in black, waited on by twisted monstrosities?"

 

"Maybe they do," Howl said, remembering his own moving castle, so dark and terrible outside, and so different within. He pointed at the ruin on the hill. "Maybe it looks completely different inside. You have to keep up appearances, after all, when you are trying to make everyone afraid of you."

 

"An interesting idea." Chrestomanci was nodding slowly. "I am particularly eager to get home now. I am eager to confirm or deny your hypothesis, by sneaking into one or two mountain fastnesses of my acquaintance. I do sincerely hope that I will find the dark lord within, wearing an apron, and playing with kittens on the couch."

 

"I want to get home, too," Howl found himself saying, his voice more disconsolate than he would have liked.

 

Chrestomanci sighed. "So would I. I missed my daughter's birthday party last year. State visit, and all that. And what do we have to look forward to here? Many more encounters like that one, I expect, each one more 'exciting' than the last."

 

Howl sat down cross-legged on the floor. "Then I'm not playing."

 

Chrestomanci raised his eyebrow.

 

"I am not playing!" Howl bellowed, augmenting his voice with magic so the very fabric of the earth trembled. "Do whatever you like, because I'm not playing."

 

Chrestomanci grimaced. "Maybe not wise, my dear Howl. She may take it as a challenge."

 

"I don't care." Howl folded his arms. "I'll get rid of them like I got rid of the last one. I will make a terrible story. The wizard snaps his fingers, and - oh, look! - there goes another army."

 

"I can see there will be quite a motley assortment of people gathering a hundred miles away, as the day goes on," Chrestomanci said. "Are you planning on leaving them clothed this time?"

 

Howl shook his head. He tried to look defiant, but had a nasty feeling it looked a little sulky.

 

"It's a promising idea," Chrestomanci said, in the humouring tone of someone who thought it anything but, "but I would recommend a slightly more long-term approach."

 

Howl refused to ask what it was, though he could tell Chrestomanci wanted him to.

 

It did not puncture Chrestomanci's confidence one little bit. "Cast your mind back to the story our friend in the hideout told us," he said, as if he was lecturing to adoring crowds. "He and his 'lads' were snatched from their old life, dumped down here, and pretty much left to fend for themselves. I would take my life on the fact that it was the same with our dark lord friend. I expect he was busy conquering some hapless land somewhere, and started to think that perhaps he had conquered enough, and would settle down. Maybe he started to grow tired of the fire and brimstone, and thought it would be more rewarding to rule through love, not fear."

 

"He grew boring," Howl said, "just like us. I understand." He glared at Chrestomanci. "I'm not stupid, you know."

 

"I know you aren't." The mocking tone vanished completely from Chrestomanci's voice, and he sounded completely serious.

 

"Then why…?"

 

"Because I do my best thinking when I'm being obnoxious and arrogant," Chrestomanci admittedly cheerfully. "It's just how it is."

 

Howl grunted, not at all convinced.

 

"As I was saying," Chrestomanci continued, not cowed at all, "after our dark lord and his host were brought here in order to be more interesting, they must have taken up residence in that ruin. They saw us coming, and sallied forth. It is nothing more than that."

 

"Nothing more?" Howl laughed as harshly as he could. "It was quite enough."

 

"But what I mean is this," Chrestomanci declared, his eyes shining with excitement. "She brings people here; she doesn't control them. She is not throwing armies and foes at us like darts at a board. She's made her… set? Is that what you call it? She has filled it with her actors, but there is no script. After all, that would defeat the purpose. She has no stories of her own. She wants us to wander around, bumping into our fellow victims, and have adventures together. Then she will write them down."

 

Howl still had no idea what point Chrestomanci was trying to make. His arms were beginning to ache from being held tightly folded for too long, and he had pins and needles in his crossed legs. His head was pounding, and he was horribly thirsty. He was stuck here in a stupid place with a stupid, horrible, arrogant man. "I wish I could slither out of this," he muttered.

 

"But you can." Chrestomanci smiled benignly.

 

Howl struggled to his feet. "Why didn't you say so?" If there was a way out, he would take it in a shot. Back to Sophie - he'd even take his scolding without argument, and apologise for as long as it took - back to his children, back home. He would never have to see Chrestomanci again, or…

 

"Not yet," Chrestomanci said, "and not like that." His expression turned vague, but his eyes were cold and gleaming. "After all, surely neither of us would dream of running home and leaving this world intact. Neither of us would dream of walking away, leaving all the other prisoners trapped here, and this woman at liberty to do this again to others?"

 

Yes, Howl wanted to say. Of course I would. If there's a way back, then I'm through it. Why should I care about the others, as long as I'm safe?

 

He could not say it. He could not even believe it. He had never hated Chrestomanci so much.

 

"She is not in control," Chrestomanci said quietly. "She brings us here, but we can write our own script."

 

"What about the silver weapons?" Howl asked. "That felt like her script."

 

"Presumably one of her cast is a silversmith." Chrestomanci flapped his hand, dismissing Howl's objection. "I am not denying that she chooses people who have the potential for good adventures. All I am saying is that she cannot control the adventures. And that is the heart of my plan."

 

"Your plan." Howl sat down again. "Do your plan, then. Let me know when it fails."

 

"But I need you." Chrestomanci crouched down in front of Howl, and this time he did not even tug his trousers up. "I need your skills. I cannot do this myself."

 

"Skills?" Howl was flattered despite himself. "Magic?"

 

"No." Chrestomanci lowered his voice to a whisper, and Howl belated remembered that the foul spying woman could hear every word they said. "Your skills as a slitherer-outer, if that does indeed mean what I hope it means."

 

Howl grunted. He thought he ought to be offended, but a foolish part of him wanted to swell with pride. Take that, Chrestomanci. I can do something that you can't do!

 

"Yes." Chrestomanci clapped Howl on the shoulder. "Fancy saving a world again, Howl?"

 

Howl refused to nod. He refused to. But he stood up, as dignified as a king, and led the way to he knew not what.

 

__

 

Part five

 

In which Howl slithers out in every possible direction

__

 

"Slithering out," or so Chrestomanci appeared to believe, meant that ability to charm your way out of any situation.

 

Howl was almost offended, then decided that this was, in fact, true.

 

"It's something I'm poor at myself," Chrestomanci admitted. "I can charm grandmothers and great-aunts and, regrettably, teenage girls, but I cannot charm anyone who sets themselves up as a foe. If I come across anyone who is bristling with challenge, I challenge them right back. It makes my wife exceedingly exasperated. She says I go round being overbearing and arrogant, and it takes her months of gentleness and charm to undo the damage done by two minutes with me."

 

He said it quite cheerfully, but Howl could well believe that it was true. He thought of the king of Ingary, and his constant demands. Some had been impossible even for Howl to wriggle out of, but most had been evaded with a smile and a diversion and a hasty retreat. He could not imagine Chrestomanci doing such a thing. Chrestomanci would haughtily draw himself up, and turn it into a challenge of wills. No king could ever let himself lose such a challenge, and so Chrestomanci would end up roped into doing all manner of tiresome magics for the crown.

 

Howl smiled happily. Chrestomanci might act as if he ruled the world, but Howl had the better life.

 

It made him feel almost charitable towards Chrestomanci as the other man outlined his plan. It even made him agree to what Chrestomanci was suggesting. He didn't even grunt, or sit down with his arms folded.

 

"It all depends on you," Chrestomanci said, and Howl grinned, because it did. "I am helpless in your hands."

 

The grin faded. "Don't overdo it," Howl said, suddenly sure that he was being patronised.

 

"I'm not," Chrestomanci said brightly, as they started on their way. "I really am most hopeless at winning people over."

 

Howl decided that he was not going to be outdone. "I'm lazy," he admitted. "I'd do anything to avoid work."

 

"I think far too much of myself," Chrestomanci retorted.

 

"I'm vain."

 

"I am, too." Chrestomanci darted in and robbed Howl of a point. "At least, I spend far too much time making sure that my clothes are just right."

 

"My hair is dyed." Howl tugged at a lock.

 

"Mine is straightened." Chrestomanci pointed at his head, as sleek and black as obsidian. "It's naturally quite curly."

 

"I'm a coward." Howl thrust it like a sword in a duel. "I tremble at the thought of danger."

 

Chrestomanci flapped his hand. "Only a fool does not. I, on the other hand…" He drew himself up haughtily. "I never bother to remember people's names."

 

Howl snorted. "That's nothing. I once sold my heart to a demon."

 

"Really?" Chrestomanci looked impressed for a moment, then cried triumphantly, "I once betrayed my friends to my wicked uncle and nearly brought about the ruination of the world." He let out a breath. "It was an accident," he admitted. "I was tricked, and I did help to put things right afterwards."

 

Howl pressed his hand to his chest, where his heart beat in a reassuring steady rhythm. "I got my heart back, and the demon was hardly an evil one. It bends its head to let me cook bacon. You don't find evil demons doing that."

 

They walked in silence for a while. Chrestomanci had left it to Howl to choose the direction, on the grounds that he had located the villains' hideout first, so clearly had a nose for these things. Howl was not convinced, but he didn't argue. He led them across country, sometimes walking, and sometimes using magic to speed their way across the boring bits.

 

It was not long before they started to meet people.

 

Two boys came first, trudging heavily along the road with expressions of tedium on their pale faces. When questioned, they freely told their story. They had solved a few mysteries, they said, in past school holidays, but had started to grow out of it. One of them had wanted to devote more time to studying, and the other had begun to discover girls.

 

"And that's when it happened," the taller boy said. "We found ourselves here, trapped in an awful school, where nothing ever really happens. But the holidays are worse. We can't get home, you see. We've tried and tried, but we can't find the way. So we have to stay at school all through the holidays. And that's when the… things start to happen."

 

"Things?" Chrestomanci asked.

 

They nodded. "Footprints under the window. Secret messages. A light in the ruin on the hills. The school trophies going missing. We kept trying to ignore them, but they kept on happening, more and more… and, well…"

 

"It's more interesting solving yet another stupid mystery," sighed the other boy, "than sitting around school right all day with nothing to do."

 

"And I suppose we are catching dastardly villains and thwarting their wicked schemes," said the taller boy miserably. "That can only be good, surely?"

 

The boys were easily won over to Chrestomanci's plan, once Howl explained it to them. The second group was more of a challenge. It was a small group of pirates, festooned with knives, and entirely villainous in appearance. When Howl and Chrestomanci approached them, they were gathered around a tattered treasure map, busy bickering over directions, but the sudden appearance of the two wizards distracted them utterly from treasure.

 

Their distraction involved knives, ropes and many alarming threats, featuring planks and keels and sharks. Howl panicked, and was about to utter a spell to bring about his escape, when Chrestomanci said pointedly, "My good fellows, my friend here has a proposition for you."

 

Howl remembered. The plan. Yes, the plan. There was to be no escaping, and no vanquishing. He had to slither out of this with words, because Chrestomanci could not do it. His arrogant manner would only make the pirates more blood-thirsty.

 

He stilled his magic, forced himself to smile, to speak to them with the honeyed tongue that he used to use on young ladies, charming them to do what he wanted.

 

It worked. "That wasn't pleasant," Howl commented, as they walked away. He was ruefully rubbing the rope marks on his wrists, mourning the marring of his perfect skin.

 

"Oh, I imagine we will encounter worse," Chrestomanci said cheerfully.

 

The next group, however, was confusing. It consisted of a band of small mammals armed with miniature spears and swords, tramping grimly across the hills. Howl fought the urge to laugh. "Do they speak English, do you think?" he wondered out loud.

 

"All civilised people speak English," Chrestomanci declared. "Although, if a weasel puts on a sword, can that be seen as a sign of civilisation, or precisely the opposite? That, however, is a question for the philosophers to debate, and not us."

 

It was no help at all. Howl decided to act as if they could speak English, and trotted along beside them for a while, giving his explanation. They did not respond, though a hedgehog in passing gave him a jab in the ankles with a spear.

 

"Never mind." Chrestomanci shrugged, when Howl finally gave us. "Perhaps they understood, and perhaps they did not. On to the next?"

 

The next group was when it started escalating into something unexpected. It was a band of outlaws, clad in Lincoln green, but not at all merry. They listened to Howl's proposition politely enough, but then flat-out refused.

 

"No," their leader said, leaning on his bow. "It will be the death of us."

 

"You haven't been listening," Howl cried, then remembered that he was supposed to be charming. He gave them a dazzling smile instead. "Everyone's going to be doing it," he said. "We're making sure of that. We're going to track down everyone who's ever been brought here and trapped here. It won't just be you."

 

Chrestomanci's plan was that everyone in the world should fold their arms and refuse to play. Howl was the one who had to convince them - all the villains and pirates and terrifying bandits - that it was not in their interests to kill the two tempting wizards who had blundered into the path, but instead they should let them go, and give up their villainy and piracy and banditting for good. "Or at least until you get back home," he usually added.

 

"The sheriff will never agree," said the green-clad outlaw. "You say we should lay down our arms and refuse to set our sneaky traps for his men, but what about him? We'll be lambs to his slaughter."

 

"We'll talk to this sheriff," Howl tried to assure him. "Once he hears about the children's books and the author, he'll agree to stop playing her game. Everyone else has."

 

The outlaws still refused. "It has to be all of us," Howl said, growing more desperate. This, too, was part of Chrestomanci's plan. If Howl alone sat down and refused to play, the author was likely to ignore it, but if everyone did it all at once, then she would have no stories left to observe. It had to involve a prodigious amount of magic, Chrestomanci said, to keep the world maintained and its population imprisoned. Surely she would stop doing it if she was no longer getting what she wanted from it.

 

Either that, Howl thought darkly, or kill us, and get some wizards who are more tractable. He did not say that, though. He did not even think it very often, if he could help it.

 

"I have an idea," Howl declared suddenly. He thought back to his childhood in Wales, when his father used to come home talking about foremen and shop stewards and picket lines. "We'll form a Union," he declared. "Make banners. Write an anthem. Wear badges. A secret salute. If you come across any of your usual enemies, you can check to see if they're wearing the Union badges, then you'll know…"

 

They took a  bit more persuading. Some of the words needed explaining, but Howl and Chrestomanci left them eagerly making badges, and calling each other "comrade."

 

"I fear you have started something here, my friend," Chrestomanci said with a grimace. "Here, it only serves our purposes, but when they go home…" He clapped Howl on the back. "I believe you have just introduced trade unions to the Middle Ages in a whole host of worlds. History will never be the same again." He did not seem at all perturbed by it. "I await the developments with interest."

 

Howl said nothing. They continued their journey until it was dark, and half way through the night. Howl's voice grew hoarse with too much telling, and his stomach hurt from too many close brushes with death. A dozen groups were won over, and then two dozen…

 

"I'm tired," he admitted at last. "And hungry."

 

"A world like this is bound to have an inn," Chrestomanci declared. "Many adventures start in inns, and inn-keepers always have all the gossip."

 

When they found one, the beer was bad, maybe because it was in a children's story. Howl wrinkled his nose over one pint, then limited himself to water. The food was good, and the barmaid was pretty. Unfortunately, the inn-keeper was quickly convinced by Howl's story, and was positively enthusiastic in his commitment not to play the author's game any longer.

 

This involved refusing to serve any more food, and casting Howl and Chrestomanci out into the night. "Closed," read the hastily-scrawled notice on the door. "Forever."

 

"Should have waited until morning," Howl berated himself.

 

Chrestomanci shook the dust from his clothes. "Onwards then, my friend?"

 

The sun rose in time. Howl and Chrestomanci traversed the land by magic, and talked to everyone they met. Once they passed close by a wagon overloaded with silver weapons, led by an incredulous peasant. Many leagues away from that, they spotted a naked and disconsolate dark lord, dragged off by a pair of old-fashioned policemen.

 

By the second sunset, there were union banners everywhere, and picket lines, made up of assorted outlaws, pirates, children and occasional animals. Anyone who tried to cross them was jeered at and called "scab." A cat burglar had set up a soup kitchen, dispensing steaming bowls to the strikers, and new songs of unity were being invented every minute.

 

"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "A most impressive achievement."

 

And it was then that their enemy appeared.

 

__

 

Part six

 

In which villainy is unmasked, with much shouting.

__

 

"Stop!" a voice shrieked. "Stop doing this!"

 

"Ah, our captor comes at last."  Chrestomanci turned round slowly.  "No," he said, quiet mildly. "You know we will not."

 

It was indeed a woman. She was a few years older than Howl, and might once have been pretty, had her face not been soured by ill-temper. Her clothes showed a distressing lack of style, and her hair looked as if it had not been cut for whole days.

 

"Stop!" She stamped her foot. "I command you!"

 

Chrestomanci looked at her as if she was nothing. "You have no right to command us, my good woman."

 

"Yes I do," she spluttered. "You're fictional characters. You're my fictional characters. I can command you as much as I like. Without me, you wouldn't even exist."

 

"A lie." Chrestomanci studied the back of his hand, and politely covered an elegant yawn. "You may have written about us, but you did not create us. We are free to do whatever we like."

 

"But… But…" She reined in her fury with visible effort, and resorted to pleading and petulance. "Why would you want to? Why do you want to ruin everything for me?"

 

It was an amateur effort. Howl could do better in his sleep. He snorted in derision, while Chrestomanci shook his head with a sigh. "If you even have to ask that, my good woman, then you are even more despicable than I thought you were."

 

"But… But…" She thrust her hand out at the world around her. "I don't understand," she cried. "I've given you everything. I gave you a stage where you could carry on doing just what you've always done. What's wrong with that?"

 

"Perhaps," Chrestomanci said quietly, "because people like to choose their own stage, and sometimes like to step off it and let others take the bow."

 

She folded her arms. "Well, then, I don't care. I want you to everything to go back to how it was before you started all this nonsense. I have books to write, you idiot. I have publishers with deadlines, and that Angela Whitcomb yapping at my heels on the bestseller list. I need my stories and I need them now." She clapped her hands. "So get back to it."

 

"No." Chrestomanci said it quietly, but it left no possible room for argument.

 

She spluttered.

 

"No." Howl decided it was time for him to join in. For a moment he considered trying to charm her, but he was too angry for that, and besides, he could never bring himself to flirt with a woman with such a painful taste in clothes. "We want to go back home, you see." He considered for a while. "We want everyone to go home."

 

"You never will," she declared triumphantly.

 

"Why not?" Chrestomanci asked. He seemed genuinely interested.

 

"Because I need you, of course." She stamped her foot again. "You're my job. Why do you want to put me out of a job?" She was whining again, sticking out her lower lip. Howl wanted to slap her, but he would never slap a lady, even a sour-faced banshee like this one, and not even Sophie.

 

"What I fail to understand," Chrestomanci said quietly, "is quite why you need us?"

 

"For my books, stupid," she told him. "I heard you earlier, figuring it out."

 

"So I was right." Chrestomanci looked insufferably pleased with himself. "But that's beside the point, my dear woman. The thing is, why do you need to… put us on this stage, as you put it, in order to get your stories?"

 

"Because… Because…" She threw her hands up in furious frustration.

 

"Why don't you just make your stories up, like everyone else?" Chrestomanci asked mildly. "I can only assume that you cannot, because of some deficiency of imagination and intellect."

 

"I can!" she cried.

 

"Then do so." Chrestomanci's voice as sharp and sudden as a slap. "Let these people go, and make stories up, and earn your money in a honest fashion, not as a slaver."

 

"You'll pay for that," she vowed, murder in her eyes.

 

"See what I mean," Chrestomanci hissed at Howl. "I cannot cajole. I always end up making fresh enemies. I should have left it to you." He sighed, with the exaggerated air of someone accepting a duty that was not as painful as he was trying to make out. "Best make the most of it, now it has come to war."

 

He rounded on the woman, standing taller than ever, tall as a tree, tall as the sky. "Send everyone home," he commanded, "or you will suffer."

 

Folding her arms defiantly, she laughed. "No, I won't. I've watched you for years, remember. I know you. You're one of the good wizards."

 

Howl turned his voice to thunder, and his eyes to fire. "No-one has ever called me good," he boomed. "I will punish you. I will do such things…"

 

She laughed even harder. "Your heart was always soft, even when you didn't have one. That's what my readers loved about you."

 

"People can change." Howl advanced on her. "It's called character development." He glowered in as terrifying a fashion as he could imagine.

 

"But they can't change their true nature," she declared confidently. "I know you both. You wouldn't kill a defenceless woman. Besides, if you did, then you'll never get home."

 

"Yes, we will," Howl said. "If you die, then…" His voice trailed off, embarrassingly caught between thunder and normality. He swore under his breath. No magic, he realised. This woman had no magic at all. She was not the one confining them here. If she died, it would make no difference at all to the spell that had shaped their prison.

 

"My father," she crowed. "The most powerful wizard in the world, and leader of the Dark Cabal. He did this for me, and if I disappear, if any harm comes to me, if I am crossed in even the tiniest way, then you will pay. You will all pay. Do you want to see the forces of the Cabal unleashed on your little friends over there, with their pathetic banners and their badges and their songs?"

 

"Ah." Chrestomanci grimaced. "The plot thickens."

 

Howl had an idea, and acted upon it, without pausing long enough to start worrying about any dangers that went with it. He threw himself at the woman, wrestling her to the ground, and sitting on her back. "Call him here, then," he commanded. "Tell him we'll kill you unless he lets us go."

 

She twisted and bucked. "Father!" she shrieked. "Father! They're being mean to me again! Make them stop!"

 

The sky darkened. "Not good," Howl heard Chrestomanci say, as if from far away. The world lurched sickeningly in the rhythm of the woman's struggles. It was like being drunk, but less pleasant.

 

The world tore apart with a rending sound, like ripped fabric. The rent was bruised and pink, like the sky before a particularly nasty storm. A chill wind brushed Howl's cheek, and he heard a sound like a thousand gnats whispering lies about him. Some of the whispers took on words, and became cries of alarm, and cries of defiance. In ones and twos and crowds, everyone had steadily been arriving, clutching their banners and their weapons, trusting Howl and Chrestomanci to see them home.

 

"Make him do it," Howl hissed, closing her hands around her throat.

 

The tear opened up completely, filling all the world with storm and ice. Two men stepped through from the hissing nothingness, shrouded in black, and very tall.

 

"Your father sends his regrets, my lady," one said, "but he is busy with a working that cannot be interrupted…"

 

"…but he sends us in his place," the other said. The first man sounded fawning, but this one was impassive, almost bored. "Who is it that offends you this time?"

 

"This one!" the woman shrieked, through Howl's strangling hands. No. Howl looked down and realised that his hands were barely touching her neck. Apparently it was harder than he thought to bring yourself to try to kill someone, and you had to concentrate on it very hard if you wanted to do it at all. "This one, and that one there, the tall one."

 

The fawning one raised his hand, eyes glittering in his hood. The thing in his hand was squat and dark, and pointing straight at Chrestomanci. A gun! Howl gasped. Chrestomanci might not know about…

 

He scrambled off the woman, hurling himself at Chrestomanci, wrestling him to the floor. Something stung him at the top of his arm, and he cried out, rolling with Chrestomanci, then pulling himself up into a crouch.

 

Chrestomanci rose regally to his feet. "Did you just save my life?" he asked.

 

"Can't think why," Howl mumbled.

 

"Magic might have been equally effective," Chrestomanci observed, "and might have occasioned less damage to our clothes."

 

Howl cursed, pushing him away. "Last time I save your life," he grumbled. "Can't think what came over me."

 

"I think those guns should disappear," Chrestomanci commented politely. Howl was sulking, so he did not look to see what happened, but he deduced from the various cries that it had happened just as Chrestomanci said.

 

He fumed. His arm was hurting quite a bit. When he put his hand to the source of the pain, he was horrified to discover that he was bleeding. "I've been shot!" he wailed. He was mortified. Not only had he saved Chrestomanci's life, he had done so at risk to his own, and… "It hurts!" he howled. "I've been shot! It hurts!"

 

"Only a scratch, me heartie," one of the pirates told him, but a damsel in distress screamed and called him her hero. An otter with a scimitar glowered malevolently at him, but a policeman was making noises about a medal for bravery. Chrestomanci was saying something, too, but Howl could not hear it for the sudden crowd. He did not want to hear it. He refused to listen to that ungrateful, arrogant…

 

"The ladies love a man with a scar," said a particularly hideous pirate, his ears hacked away to nothing more than stumps.

 

"A scar!" Howl cried. He pawed madly at his wound, blood smearing all over his fingers. "I'm going to be scarred for life! Maimed! Hideous! Ugly! I can't be ugly! I'd rather die than be ugly!"

 

He had to shout louder and louder to be heard over the noise. An enormous crowd had gathered, but behind them all was a rumbling, louder and louder with every second. Howl resented it. It seemed to be amassing as a personal attack on him, determined to drown out his entirely justified lamentation.

 

"And my clothes!" he howled. "Ripped! Ruined! Stained! Blood stains forever. I'll never get the stain out. Never!"

 

"Howl!" He heard Chrestomanci's voice distant over the crowd and the rumbling. He could barely see, he realised. The sky had darkened until it was almost as black as night, but shot through with hectic pink sparks.

 

"As if I'm going to talk to him," Howl grumbled, pulling himself to his feet, pushing through the crowd. "Arrogant, horrible…"

 

"Howl!" Chrestomanci's voice was strained.

 

The last of the crowd parted. Chrestomanci was locked in battle with a tall figure who could only be the author's father. His face was grey and pointed, but his hair was rich and chestnut. Howl wanted to ask him if it came out of a bottle, and, if so, what shade it was.

 

"Howl!" It was the faintest squeak. "Help."

 

Howl swallowed. He looked at Chrestomanci, pale and dishevelled, and then at the dark-clad man who was the leader of a magical cabal, a man who had the power to trap them here. He wanted to run. He thought of the gun, of the wound that had ruined his looks forever. Chrestomanci's fault, and… "You started without me," he reproached him.

 

"I had no choice," Chrestomanci gasped.

 

I should run and leave him here, Howl thought, as muttered the words of a spell, and joined his magic with Chrestomanci's.

 

It was like running into a wall of slime. Dark things coated his mind like grease. "You cannot win," gloated a voice in his head. "I am the strongest wizard in the world, and you have upset my daughter."

 

"No." It was Chrestomanci who spoke - Chrestomanci who gave up the fight, who pulled away, who withdrew, leaving Howl caught in the dark wizard's clutches like a fly in a spider's web. "We can't beat you. You're right." A sigh. A flick of dust away from the gloves. "It seems like we are trapped here forever, while your darling daughter plays with us as if we were pet mice."

 

"Yes," the wizard gloated, and something closed round Howl's mind like a vice, choking him, hurting him. It felt like hands on his throat, like hands in his brain, like claws…

 

"But you, of course, will be trapped here with us," Chrestomanci said, almost casually.

 

The wizard roared. "You cannot!" The claws tightened, then very slowly loosened their grip. Howl slid heavily to the ground, gasping. "How…?"

 

"Your world," Chrestomanci said, with a grim smile. "My door."

 

The wizard turned white with rage.

 

"My door," Chrestomanci said again. "A door within a door. A prison within a prison. A world within a world. I sealed you in, while you were busy with my friend here. Perhaps we cannot beat you, but we can hold you. Howl?"

 

Howl rose to his knees, massaging his throat, that hurt as if real hands had closed around it. "You used me as bait!" Red rage clouded his vision. His fingers itched, desperate to do something terrible with green slime.

 

"Trapped here forever, along with those you have trapped," Chrestomanci continued. "Howl?"

 

Howl caught the note of urgency in Chrestomanci's voice, and he understood. "Got to do everything myself," he grumbled, as he turned to the crowd and raised his voice, as charming as he had ever been when trying to wriggle out of blame for some childhood misdeed. "There is your enemy," he told them. "There is the oppressor, my… brothers." He felt foolish saying it, but they seemed to like it. "There he is, held by a prison of his own."

 

"Get him to rant and rage and turn people into frogs," someone shouted. "We'll write it down. It'll make a good story."

 

"How funny he is when his face goes red like that," chuckled a pretty girl.

 

"You stopped me from seeing my grandchildren grow up!" screeched an old woman, hitting the dark wizard with her union banner.

 

"I don't want to be a frog," sobbed a child, but, "hush, you won't be," said the burglar who had adopted him. "These brave wizards will see that you won't."

 

It was easier than Howl could have hoped for. He stepped back. No other persuasion was necessary. They rounded on the wizard, taunting and teasing and berating him. Whenever he tried to lash out with his magic, Chrestomanci raised his hand and stopped him. Not to be outdone, Howl joined in, too. It was almost enjoyable.

 

"And this is who it will be forever," Chrestomanci said, zapping spells from his fingers like a child with a water pistol. "A world within a world. A door within a door. A cell within a prison. Of course," he added, "if a prison falls down, so does the cell."

 

The wizard screamed with rage. "Find a new hobby!" he bellowed at his daughter. "This one is…"

 

The sound abruptly ceased. A moment later, the screaming started again. "Sloping off again, leaving me alone without a word of explanation, coming home drunk…!"

 

"Sophie!" Grinning, Howl picked her up, and swung her round.

 

"And you can't get round me that way." There was only a token effort at anger in her voice.

 

"I'm sorry," he said. Morgan was racing around noisily in the next room, and upstairs the baby was beginning to sniffle. Calcifer was muttering under his breath, and the apprentices were bickering along the corridor.

 

Howl smiled. Home. He was home.

 

"Where were you." Sophie's eyes widened as she noticed the blood on his sleeve. "You're hurt!"

 

"Just a scratch," Howl said airily, before remembering how nice it felt when Sophie was fussing over him. "It hurts though," he said tragically. "I got it saving someone's life. I saved the world, too. Not this one, but another one."

 

Actually, it was more accurate to say that they had destroyed a world, since the dark wizard had clearly decided to close down his daughter's playground forever. He wondered what had happened to the others. Presumably they, too, had all returned home - the villains to their lairs, the pirates to their ships, the minions to their castles. He imagined that they would be retiring immediately, or else preaching the cause of trade unions to everyone they met.

 

"I met a wizard," he said casually, as Sophie rushed off for water and bandages. "An insufferable, arrogant lordly sort of a fellow. Hideous. Horrible. Hateful."

 

"Hold still," Sophie urged him. "Take off your jacket."

 

Howl made no move to obey. "At least I'll never have to see him again."

 

"Howl," Sophie chided him. "Honestly, you're worse than Morgan."

 

"But you wouldn't have you any other way." Howl smiled happily. "Chrestomanci, his name was. Horrible man. I never want to see him again."

 

"Be still!" Sophie slapped him gently on the nose, and kissed him on the cheek, standing on tip-toe to do so.

 

"Chrestomanci," Howl mused. "Chrestomanci…" He held his breath, let it out again. "Chrestomanci."

 

Chrestomanci appeared. "Oh, good. I hoped you'd do that. Do you fancy going up against this Dark Cabal one day? We have scotched the snake, but not killed it, as the poets say."

 

"With you?" Howl grunted. "Never."

 

Sophie cleared her throat and muttered something. Howl could not catch what it was.

 

Chrestomanci swept off his hat and made her a magnificent bow, quite belying his claim that he was incapable of being charming. "My name is Chrestomanci, Mrs… er... Howl. I assure you I am not 'bad company' and I have never seen the inside of a rugby club in my life. I prefer cricket, personally."

 

"I have no desire to see you ever again," Howl told him. "Arrogant. Insufferable… And your clothes... I can't be seen with…"

 

"Perhaps next week, then," Chrestomanci said, with a cautious glance at Sophie, and a grimace at the swelling sound of crying baby.

 

"Yes," Howl said happily. "Next week."

 

With a nod, Chrestomanci vanished. "What?" Howl demanded, when Sophie rounded on him with her hands on his hips. "Aren't I allowed to go out with my friends now?"

 

Sophie snorted, and went to tend to the baby. Howl sat down in the nearest chair, and stretched out his legs, and smiled.

___

 

END