In which Howl and Chrestomanci take a walk in the rain
"Are you going to stay awake this time, Howl?"
It seemed very unfair to wake up to Chrestomanci's voice, to roll over blearily and find Chrestomanci sitting in the chair by the bed. Howl hoped he hadn't been snoring. He most particularly hoped he hadn't been talking in his sleep.
"No," he mumbled, burying himself under the pillows. "I'm injured. I'm hurt. I could be dying for all you know. Go away and leave me alone. I want Sophie."
"Sophie's with the children," Chrestomanci said, "comforting them."
"Comforting them?" Howl opened one eye.
"Things have moved on." Chrestomanci crossed his legs. Howl closed his eye, and pretended not to be listening. "Instead of you hopping between worlds, the world has started hopping in and out around you."
Howl opened his eyes; he could not help it.
"Yes," Chrestomanci said. "There you lay, fast asleep, snoring like a…"
Howl sat up. "I do not snore." Nothing hurt, but he moaned anyway. "Now see what you've made me do."
"Asleep, anyway." Chrestomanci waved his hand. "Oblivious, while all around you things were moving in and out. Would you believe it, but in another world that chest of drawers over there is a king's throne. It looked most put out to suddenly find itself holding your underwear. If a throne can look put out, that is, but I think anyone who had seen this one in question would have concluded that they can."
Howl's mouth dropped open.
Chrestomanci continued as if Howl had not reacted. "Your son had managed to chase down one of our castle cats, you see…"
"The talking Temple cat?" Howl managed weakly.
"No, the one that used to be a violin." Chrestomanci winced. "In another world, apparently, it is a piano. No, no, do not fear, my dear Howl. Morgan is fine, just a little surprised. Scared, too, I think, and worried that he's going to turn into a musical instrument one day, because he used to be a cat… Which is odd, and you must tell me about that some day, but today is not that day. Suffice it to say, your son is fine, but a little upset, hence the comforting by your wife, hence her absence, hence my presence here at your bedside of pain."
Howl decided that Chrestomanci was teasing him. He also forgot that he was languishing. "I'm quite well," he declared. "I'm ready to take on the cause of all this woe, and… and…"
"Etcetera, etcetera." Chrestomanci smiled. "Quite."
Howl remembered just in time that he was wearing hardly anything beneath the blankets. Chrestomanci seemed to remember it at just the same time, for he stood up, and pulled down something brightly coloured from a hook on the wall. "You can borrow one of my dressing-gowns."
"I wouldn't want to be seen dead in…" The soft fabric poured onto the bed like syrup, running softly over Howl's hands. The golden threads gleamed like magic, and the dragon's eyes were glowing pearls. Blood-red flowers cascaded on black, and it was smooth and gentle and majestic and… "Thank you," Howl said stiffly. He wriggled into the dressing gown, and tried not to sigh with the pleasure of the silk on his arms and shoulders. He cleared his throat. "Not my usual style, but it is quite serviceable."
"Quite." Chrestomanci's eyes sparkled, and his smile was quite warm, not even the slightest bit smug or supercilious.
Howl ran his finger up and down the intricate branches embroidered on the sleeves. ""Where did you get this from? Just out of interest, of course, and not because I…"
"Hand-made by a wizard in London," Chrestomanci said. "Works exclusively for me." He grimaced. "Apparently I put in so many orders that he doesn't need to take any more clients. I cannot understand why not, because I am sure my demands are reasonable. But…" He smiled again. "I will give you his details, and advise him to treat an order from you as if it came from me. It's the least one can do for a friend."
Howl examined the embroidery closely, focusing on it as if it was the only thing in the room. When had someone last called him friend? He had had friends at university, of course, but only in a large amorphous group, who hung out together, but never really talked. No-one in Wales had understood his obsession with magic, and his family thought he was a no-good layabout. Everyone in Ingary thought he was a rogue. Admittedly, he had taken great pains to give that impression and had blackened his own name quite deliberately, but sometimes a fellow got tired of ridicule, and irate aunts chasing one down the street, and people shifting uncomfortably and looking into their drinks when you walked into the room.
He blinked. "About the changes… The flicking between worlds…" He blinked again, and frowned, for it had suddenly seemed for a moment that Chrestomanci was sitting not on a chair, but on a barrel. "I… We… We need to do something."
"Yes." Chrestomanci stood up sharply, and a cast of look of supreme disdain at the chair behind him, as if daring it to change again. "It has got as far as furniture now. I have no desire to see what happens when it comes to clothes. Though maybe… What would a woollen dress be in another world, I wonder? And a silk dressing-gown…? No. While it might be interesting to see, I have no desire to be on the receiving end, so to speak. No, we must be off."
"But where?" Howl did not like to ask, but it had to be said.
"Why, to Wales, of course." Chrestomanci spread his hands as if it was obvious. "Your Wales. Your home. Because that's where it started."
"Wales?" Howl echoed.
Chrestomanci clapped him on his back. "You were right when you said it was all about you, my dear Howl, because it is. You found a way into Ingary, but the thing is, that way should never have been found. Tiny cracks take a while to develop into fissures. Tiny cuts take a while to kill. But all this time, the cracks have been growing, and this is the result."
It sounded… It sounded… "Are you sure?" Howl gasped.
"Of course." Chrestomanci drew himself up. "I am an expert on these things." He let out a breath, and looked more human – if such a man could ever look truly human. "Actually, I didn't know, not until I'd watched a few changeovers first-hand. There's a feel to these things, you see, that you come to recognise when you deal with these things full time, as I do. This one shouted 'wrongness' and 'Howl.'"
"So it's my fault…"
"Oh no," Chrestomanci assured him. "If it's anyone's fault, it's the fault of the person who left the door open in the first place, so that any third-rate wizard could pass through. It confused things, you see. You belonged in Wales, in a world firmly anchored in the Related Worlds, but you were in Ingary, a world where you shouldn't be. Every time you crossed over, the borders got more and more confused. I feel quite sorry for them. It is a hard job holding worlds in place, especially when people keep on…"
"Third-rate wizard," Howl managed to choke out.
"Not you, of course," Chrestomanci said, flapping his hand dismissively. "But, yes, someone opened the door into Ingary, a land outside the Related Worlds. Someone created a door that could not exist, and left it poorly sealed. And you and I, Howl, are going to find him."
Howl felt his hands go all damp and sweaty. He sometimes forgot it, but he was still a coward. He knew he was a coward. "Someone…"
"Doubtless an enchanter of truly monumental powers, yes." Chrestomanci looked depressingly cheerful about it. "And possibly hostile, too. But nothing we cannot deal with, eh, Howl?"
Howl looked longingly at the soft pillows, and wondered if he should suffer a relapse.
Rain plummeted from a dark grey sky. A barren hillside stretched away on all sides, littered with dark rocks and straggly threads of dead heather. A cluster of bedraggled sheep huddled behind a boulder, bleating mournfully. A black bird wheeled above them, crying out in a harsh voice. It was probably a crow, but it would be far more appropriate if it was a vulture.
"I didn't know Wales was so big," Chrestomanci observed, when they had trudged in silence for over an hour.
Chrestomanci was the only one who was dry. Howl suspected that all his clothes were embedded with a waterproof spell, so their wearer would stay dry whatever the weather. He wished he'd thought of it first. He wished he'd thought of using magic to stay dry as soon as it started raining, but he it hadn't occurred to him, and now it was too late. It would look like copying. No, he had to pretend that he liked the rain.
Besides, he wondered suddenly, how would you wash your clothes if they had waterproof spell worked into the seams?
He shook his head, scattering raindrops from his hair. At least one trickled nastily down the back of his neck. "How could you not know that Wales was big? You're English. Even in your world, Wales is sitting there right next to you."
"Yes, but, as you point out, I am English," Chrestomanci said, as if that explained everything, and perhaps it did. "I didn't have what you could describe as a normal education. I have holes in my knowledge, and one of them is Wales. I did know that it had sheep, though."
"That," Howl declared, "is a cliché. Just because I'm Welsh, I don't love sheep. Nor do I go down a mine, or sing in a male voice choir about the land of my fathers…"
"… how fair are thy sheep?" Chrestomanci finished for him. "No, my dear Howl, I apologise. I might know about the barriers between worlds, but I know nothing about your… fair country."
There was too long a pause before the word 'fair.' "It doesn't rain all the time," Howl told him stiffly. "It's the noblest and most beautiful land in all the world, and you English can just go on home if you don't like it."
"Apologies." Chrestomanci looked far too spotless and dry. It made Howl certain that any apology was a sham. He grunted. He tried not to think of his warm bed at home. He tried to forget that all the green hills he dreamed off were in Ingary, not in the land of his birth. He tried not to think of the ruin the rain was doing to his hair. He tried not to think of a nice pint in a warm pub, and above all, of a roof above your head, and an end to this infernal rain.
"I thought you knew where to find him," he contented himself with saying. "You have a sense for magic when it involves travelling between worlds, you said. It would barely be a matter of minutes, you said."
"I know." The more Howl attacked him, the more unruffled Chrestomanci looked. It was one of the things Howl hated about him. Calcifer was a fire demon, but at least he knew how to argue. At least he knew that sometimes the best thing a man needed was to have someone screaming back at them, and throwing fire at their head.
"We've been here hours," Howl whined.
"Ah." Chrestomanci held up his hand, tilted his head, like a dog scenting something interesting ahead. "And I think we're there."
He pointed. Ahead, half-hidden by the rain, dark and unmistakeable, was the entrance to a cave.
It did not look friendly. It made Howl think of slumbering dragons, or angry bears, and nasty slimy things that dropped down the back of your neck and slithered into places that you would really rather have nothing ever slither. It made him think of dungeons in castles, reeking with the memory of past pain, and the stench of far more recent urine.
I am a coward, he thought, whining it plaintively, because Chrestomanci was already striding in, and Howl refused to be beaten by this insufferable man, because Chrestomanci would gloat so. It was most annoying.
"At least it's dry." Chrestomanci took his hat off and wrinkled his nose in distaste at the total lack of rain that had completely failed to mar its surface. "Now, here's a challenge."
Howl squeezed in beside him. Although the cave had looked deep and mythical from outside, from within it was only a tiny scraping in the rock, that smelled of rain and mud and nasty things that issued from sheep. He glowered through the rain that dripped off his hair, then shook his head, like a dog shaking water from its coat. Chrestomanci winced.
"Unless our quarry has transformed himself into a patch of moss," Chrestomanci said.
Howl wiped the rain from his eyes. It was clear what had happened. The cave mouth had been sealed just inside the entrance. If the back of the shallow cave was smashed down, a larger cave would be revealed behind it, and that was doubtless where the magic was. That was where their enemy was, he corrected himself. Running away was the only sensible thing to do.
He remaining standing still. I'll just get dry first, he told himself. Wait until the worst of the rain dies away. I'm sure that's a patch of lighter sky over there. It's only sensible to wait a few minutes before running away.
"Shall I tear it down," Chrestomanci said, "or would you prefer to do it yourself?" He raised his hands, pushed back his sleeves…
"I'll do it," Howl declared. "I can, you know."
"I never doubted it." Chrestomanci blinked mildly. "Really, my dear Howl, I respect your abilities an awful lot more than you seem to think I do."
Howl did not know what to say. Instead, he concentrated on the wall of rock, intoning the correct dramatic words, and pouring his magic into the stone.
It resisted. He felt something treacherous and sneaky curl around his magic, like the tendrils of some cloying flower. He heard the echo of a seductive laugh. His knees felt weak, and he sagged, torn between a disgusting mixture of sickness and desire. Give in, he heard. He is mine. But he pushed, and stood firm, suddenly terrified that he would get overwhelmed completely if he stopped fighting just for a moment.
"Shall I…?" Chrestomanci said, his voice coming from very far away.
"No," Howl rasped, forcing the sound through his lips. He saw Chrestomanci's tall figure through a veil. He thought of saying something noble, like save yourself. He thought of saying something plaintive, like save me. He wanted to scream at the presence, "go away and leave me alone!", but all he did was stand firm and fight. It was all he could do. Even as his eyes slid closed, he fought. Even as he sagged forward, sinking into the dark mire of unwanted pleasure, he fought…
And the world collapsed in sound. Something struck his shoulder, and he started with a cry, but it was only Chrestomanci's hand. "Beautifully done," Chrestomanci said. Howl blinked up at him and saw that his face was pale. "That was not pleasant, not pleasant at all. And devilish strong."
Howl stood trembling. It's not fair, he thought yet again. I'm a coward. I shouldn't be doing things like this.
Something stirred inside the cave. Howl swallowed. Chrestomanci, he was pleased to see, looked as afraid as Howl felt.
Behind them, the rain continued to fall. A sheep bleated mournfully, and a helicopter passed overhead, doubtless seeking some poor traveller lost on the mountain in the gloom.
The noise in the cave grew louder. Some large body was on the move, stirring and stretching, yawning and preparing to attack. The movement did not sound slimy. It sounded furry and large and covered with teeth.
"Who dares approach?" The voice was grating and inhuman, and it spoke in a language that Howl did not know, and yet knew instantly. The words tore at his chest like the very living essence of magic.
Chrestomanci looked stunned. Howl merely felt as if the world was ending around him, and the Great Destroyer knew his name, and had marked him for destruction. He felt similar when he came back drunk from the pub and found Sophie waiting for him.
"Who dares wake me from my sleep?" boomed the voice. "Who dares free me from my prison?"
Prison, Howl thought. That's promising. At least he should be grateful. He tried to say, "I freed you," but the words would not come. He wished he knew how many legs the being in the cave possessed, and how many of them ended in claws.
"Show thyself," demanded the voice, "or I swear by all my nine lives that I will blast thee. Art thou friend or foe of my lord?"
"Nine lives," Chrestomanci breathed. "A nine-lived enchanter… And magic… Magic, in this world of yours that has none." He looked as if someone had told him that the sky was down and the ground was up, or that black was white, or that green and pink were good colours to wear together at a funeral.
"Speak!" the voice thundered.
"Oh well," Howl whispered to Chrestomanci. "I can slither out of most things. I'll pretend I'm speaking to the king."
He edged forward. "I freed you." His voice came out as a squeak. He folded his hands behind him, cleared his throat, and tried again. "It was I."
The voice bellowed. A wave of fire and magic surged out of the cave. Howl dodged, but Chrestomanci was just standing there, staring. Howl shielded him with his body. Ridiculous! he thought. I'm shielding him with my body. And magic, too, to stop the attack; magic to hold Chrestomanci up; magic to shout in his ear, investing the words with all the power he could muster, "Take us home! Take us back!"
Everything turned orange. Howl was conscious of falling a very long way, but he never hit the floor. He lunged with his hands, but they closed on nothing. He tried to breathe, but there was no air. The orange faded to grey, soft and smooth, like Sophie's skirts. And then there was nothing.
Not again, he thought.