In which there are many threats of smiting
He woke up on a marble floor. Sophie was clinging to him and crying. A cat was sniffing around his ankles, rasping at some exposed skin with its tongue, and Calcifer was darting around the ceiling, looking as if he was engaged in an unofficial brightness competition with the gas lights.
"We almost lost you this time," Chrestomanci said.
Howl sat up, dragging Sophie with him. He felt fine, though he was sure that he remembered dying. "I saved you!" he cried triumphantly. "I remember now. I saved your life. I gave my life for another." He grinned at Sophie, overjoyed with this revelation. "And you keep on calling me a coward and a spineless slitherer-outer."
"You call yourself a coward," Sophie said calmly. "I always thought there was more to you than met the eye." She paused, as if considering him. "I am still searching, though."
"Did you really save his life?" Calcifer asked from the ceiling.
"He gave me a much-needed prompt," Chrestomanci said. "Unfortunately, I had no time to properly prepare the journey back home."
Howl read the unstated meaning. "You lost me." He pouted in Sophie's direction. "He lost me."
Chrestomanci looked uncomfortable. "You got… mislaid. It seems that you swapped with one of your doubles who had already died. This… confused things. You just… slotted in. Took the nearest available… vacancy. But enough of that. We have more important things to talk about."
"Who did I turn into?" Howl appealed to Calcifer, on the grounds that Calcifer was the only one who would never be remotely tempted to protect him from an uncomfortable truth. "What did I turn into?"
"I don't know," Calcifer said mournfully. "No-one will tell me. It isn't fair at all. I want the opportunity to tease you mercilessly. It is my right. I do have rights, you know."
"Rights?" Howl echoed. "When have you ever been concerned with rights?"
"Since I read an interesting book that someone had left out in the library," Calcifer replied. "All living things have rights, it seems. So where are my rights? I demand the right to vote. I demand the right to hold property."
"That's ridiculous," Howl snorted. "A fire demon can't vote. We don't even have elections in Ingary, so…"
"I would imagine that he would burn the ballot paper." Chrestomanci was peering at Calcifer in his usual vague fashion. "I also expect it would cause havoc at the land registry if he tried to buy a property." He turned to Millie. "Can you imagine the outrage there would be in county society if they discovered that their new neighbour was a fire demon?"
"I expect they would rather have a fire demon than have you, my dear," Millie said gently.
"I like her," Calcifer told Howl. "I might stay here after you go home, or die, or get turned into a newt, or whatever other nasty fate awaits you."
"There is no time for idle chatter." Chrestomanci's voice was commanding and uncomfortable, and demanded to be listened to. "A powerful enchanter has been released from prison, and he is still there, unchecked. We released him, so we must be the ones to confine him again."
"Actually, I released him," Howl pointed out. As soon as he thought things through, he decided that he should not have said anything. "I mean… That is to say… He didn't seem evil, as such, did he? He was just… annoyed to be woken up unexpectedly."
"Howl's the same," Sophie remarked to Millie. "Like a bear with a sore head in the morning."
"Christopher is, too." Millie's whisper was loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. "I think that's why he has such a thing about dressing-gowns. They stop him being such a cross-patch."
Chrestomanci cleared his throat. It was even louder than Howl's outraged splutter. "A powerful enchanter is loose. He took us by surprise, and we ran. We will run no longer."
"No," Howl chimed in, still vexed by Sophie, and determined to show her that he, too, could be firm and heroic and dramatic. Then he remembered precisely where they had been when the enchanter had been released. "He's loose in Wales," he gasped. "No-one's got magic there. They won't know what to do. We have to stop him."
"Precisely." Chrestomanci nodded.
"Don't expect me to come," Calcifer said. "I'm not your slave. I kept your castle going. I wait on you hand and foot, doing all those feats of magic that are too difficult for you, and…"
"No, you don't, Calcifer," Sophie told him. "I want to come, though. My magic is different – you keep telling me that, Howl. I know it isn't strong, but he won't be expecting it. Besides…" He slipped her arm through Howl's. "I don't want to lose you again," she whispered.
"Should I come, do you think?" Millie asked, and Chrestomanci nodded. "The servants will look after the children," she assured Sophie. "And Gwendolen. We should bring Cat, though, with his powers…"
"He is powerful, but he is still a boy," Chrestomanci said. "He will stay behind, unless we need him, in which case I will call for him. So that's settled." Chrestomanci clapped his hands together. "We will go as we are. Much as it pains me to approach a fellow enchanter without changing first, we must remember the rain, and his fondness for throwing fire. Ready?"
"Don't leave me behind," Calcifer beseeched plaintively, as Chrestomanci swept them through into another world. "No! The rain!" he shrieked, when they emerged on the sodden slopes of the grey mountain. "Do you want to kill me?"
Howl put out a hand. "It's hardly raining any more, and you chose to come, anyway."
"Well, you need someone with strong magic around to keep you out of trouble." Calcifer drew himself up as proudly as a flame could manage, when cowering from stray spits of rain.
Chrestomanci cleared his throat. "I don't like this place," said Gwendolen. They all whirled around to see her standing there with a cat squirming in her arms. She was still three years old. "I don't like you, either. How dare you try and leave me behind?"
Chrestomanci raised his hand. "Oh, don't," Millie cried, rushing to Gwendolen's side. "She's only a little girl. Maybe she's reformed."
"That one would never reform," Chrestomanci said darkly.
"She's the only one with sense," Calcifer sniffed. "I don't like Wales. It's just the sort of homeland someone like you would have."
Sophie tugged at Howl's arm. "Is that your enchanter over there?"
Howl turned around to look. A tall man in a dark robe was stamping across the mountain, an immensely tall and gnarled staff clutched in his right hand. His hair was long and tangled. Magic sparked from him like flames from a bonfire. He looked very annoyed, very vengeful, and incredibly powerful.
"So you are there," a voice said from behind. Howl turned around. He felt that he had turned this way and that far too often, and would soon fall over from dizziness. He thought he knew the voice, but surely not… "Idris Davies thought he saw you gallivanting on the hill with your no-good friend," his sister shrilled. "You can't avoid me, Howell Jenkins. You owe me money. You've corrupted my children with your disgusting computer games. Oh no, Howell Jenkins, you're not running away this time."
She was wearing a bright orange water-proof, but her shoes were red and high-heeled, only suitable for town. Her hair had gone limp and her make-up was running. "What a nasty lady," Gwendolen observed.
"Perhaps the only sensible thing that girl has ever said," Howl heard Chrestomanci whisper to Millie. "I wonder who she is."
"That flame's got eyes!" exclaimed Neil, who came trudging up in his mother's outraged wake.
"That's not all I've got," smirked Calcifer.
"Enough!" Chrestomanci stood tall, filling the mountain with his presence. "We have an enchanter to defeat. There is no time for this bickering." He swept Megan and Gwendolen with his too-dark eyes. "If you will not be quiet, ladies, I will turn you into something unpleasant."
"We're trying to save Wales, you see," Howl could not resist remarking to his sister. "A powerful enchanter is set on destroying it, and we and only we stand between…" His inspiration ran out. "Whatever," he finished weakly.
"You?" his sister scoffed. "You couldn't save a…" She seemed equally lacking in inspiration, because she dissolved into a shrieking laugh. Howl tried to look haughty and withering at her, but she just laughed louder. Then Chrestomanci looked once at her, and she subsided into awed silence.
I wish I knew how to do that, Howl thought.
"The enchanter," Chrestomanci reminded them. "Saving Wales? Finding out the cause for the inconvenient jumps between worlds? I seem to remember that these were the tasks that were before us when we chose to come here, not listening to the shrieking of a lady with ridiculous footwear."
"That's my sister," Howl told him. Then Chrestomanci gave him a look that said, Ah, so that explains it, then. It made Howl pout and glower, and then it made him angry. Without waiting for the others, he stormed down the hill to chase the black-clad enchanter.
The enemy was moving fast. Howl discovered this when he had stormed for five minutes and had barely begun to gain on him. Storming was tiring; he discovered that, too. It was easy to keep your dignity when storming only lasted a few steps, and culminated in a slammed door, but it began to feel silly when the storming was still happening five minutes later.
He stormed a bit faster. He used magic to help him forward. "Sir," he began, when he had almost caught his enemy up. That sounded weak and pathetic, and was marred with breathlessness. He cleared his throat. "Stand, I bid thee." No, that was too dramatic. It was not him. "Stop."
"Why?" the enchanter snarled.
"Because…" Howl thought for a moment, but could not think of any good reason why a furious enchanter should stop running away from the place he had been confined.
"I am Merlin," boomed the enchanter. "I answer to no man."
"Merlin." Howl felt his mouth fall open in a stupid-looking gape. He closed it with a snap. "The Merlin?"
"There are no others," Merlin said. No, he uttered it. This was not a man who would ever merely say something when a more impressive form of speaking was available.
"Merlin…" Howl was well versed in legend and folklore. It was what had sparked his interest in magic, after all. Merlin had become besotted with Nimue, who had tricked him and confined him in a cave for all eternity. So that cave was… So the presence he had felt when dissolving the barrier was…
He decided it would not be very tactful to say anything about this. However, he could not think of anything else to say that would be any better.
"A blight has fallen on this land," Merlin declared. "The air is foul with smoke. From yonder mountaintop, I saw dark settlements spewing fire and ash, and godless carriages speed across the land."
Oh, not this, Howl thought. It was such a cliché. In books, people who travelled in time or came in from another world always said something about horseless carriages and polluted air. Besides, this was a mountainside in Wales, God's own country. There was no smoke here. Merlin was just making it up.
"Does my lord Arthur still hold against the minions of darkness?" Merlin demanded. "From the foulness in the land, I fear he has fallen."
"Er…" Howl cleared his throat. "I think you've been asleep for a little bit longer than you think."
"Long?" Merlin stopped striding and turned on Howl. It was even more terrifying than Chrestomanci in full Mighty Enchanter mode. "A life-time of man?"
"Quite a lot of lifetimes," Howl mumbled. "Um… A thousand years, and a little bit more. Um… five hundred years more, actually, or thereabouts, because scholars never agreed quite when Arthur lived, if indeed he did… which, of course, I now know he did, and that you were real, and…" He stopped. Merlin's gaze made him want to fade into the earth and never come out again.
"You were a Chrestomanci," Chrestomanci said from behind Howl. He sounded more awed than Howl had ever heard him. "A Chrestomanci born in the wrong world. An enchanter in a world without magic."
"Nonsense," Merlin snorted. "What a foolish young man you are. Chrestomanci is a title those shamans and savages use over across the divide. I, however, am a wizard, once the strongest of many, and now the only one in the world. And you, I think, are an enemy. You are trying to deceive me with illusions and lies, to trick me into abandoning my lord to his foes. You are a wizard, I can see that clearly. You should not exist."
"I assure you I do exist," Chrestomanci said.
"There are no other wizards but me," Merlin intoned. "There were many – nasty, pushy little upstarts. There were enemies all around, toying with magic, seeking to do me harm. But I took care of them. I drew their teeth and clipped their claws and unmanned them."
"How?" Chrestomanci asked.
"I sent them into another world, of course," Merlin snapped. "A land of dreams. I lay down in a cave and dreamed a world – a world where all the dark dreams of mankind would abide; a world where magic would be as common as the air. I banished my enemies there, and their children, and their children's children. As long as I had dreams, the world would endure, and all the magic that would have been born in this world, to do my lord harm, would be born in that world instead."
"Ingary," Howl breathed. Ingary… Created by Merlin as land of magic and dreams. Ingary was the reason why Howl's world had no magic.
"This was the only world entirely without magic," Chrestomanci said. "The only one. It never seemed right. I always wondered."
"Ingary took all the magic that should have existed here," Howl said. It sounded ridiculous; it felt terrible. "And later… It came in through dreams, that's what he said. Dreams… and stories. Fairy-tales and songs. Myths and folk tales. All of them, seeping in through dreams." And Sophie… She was a dream. And if the dreamer woke up… If Merlin woke up…
"Sophie!" he cried, and Sophie was there, arriving breathlessly at his side. Mille was there, too, and Calcifer and Gwendolen, and all the others. "Who's the smelly man?" Gwendolen asked, and Calcifer cried, "I heard all that! I always thought you weren't real." Millie said, "Are you quite well, sir?" and Howl's sister grunted, and said something about Howl's no-good friends, and, "typical!", and "see what I have to put up with?" but Sophie said quite coolly that she didn't have to put up with anything, actually, because Howl lived with her now, and if anyone had to put up with anything, it was her.
"Silence!" Chrestomanci commanded.
"I can do better," Merlin declared. His, "Silence!" made the universe tremble.
"I could do that," Howl muttered, and, "So could I!" said Calcifer.
Millie took Sophie's arm. "Why are men always like this?"
"I can scream loud enough to make the stars fall out of the sky," Gwendolen boasted.
"Not just men," Sophie said ruefully. "Anyone but us wives and mothers, it seems." She turned to Merlin. "Now, what were you saying to my husband. I can see you upset him, and I'm the only one allowed to do that."
"Leave it," Howl urged. He had a sudden vision of Merlin getting fed up with the lot of them, and collapsing Ingary like a tower of cards. Sophie would disappear, and his home, and his children, and the only place he had ever been truly happy.
"All I want to do," Merlin stated emphatically, "is to take my place behind all the thrones of earth, and guide mankind, and smite the enemies of good. And you. Will. Keep. Quarrelling."
Chrestomanci exchanged a quick look with Howl. "Then I think we might have to stop you."
"I don't like you!" Gwendolen hurled herself at Merlin and bit his ankle. A moment later, she shrank and darkened, until she had turned into a beetle. Merlin looked innocently at the others, as if to say, "Who next?"
Howl had grown up with the stories of King Arthur. Merlin had been his hero when he was seven. Perhaps he still was. He could think of no other reason to explain the aching emptiness inside him, as if someone had let him down very badly. "You were always one of the goodies," he said sadly.
"I think he still is," Chrestomanci said, "but the world has changed around him. Thrones are getting along quite happily, you see," he told Merlin. "Civilised worlds don't take well to smiting. We no longer stand on mountaintops and hurl fireballs at enemy hordes. Instead, we work for the government and help pass laws to stop others doing things like that." He looked a little regretful. It had always seemed to Howl as if Chrestomanci's job was very boring. Being evil and unprincipled sounded so much more fun.
"Besides," Howl added, "you did take all the magic away from this world. It wouldn't be fair, if you descended on it. No-one would have the slightest change of standing up to you. It wouldn't be a fair fight."
"Since when did you care about a fair fight?" Calcifer muttered.
"When he's on the receiving end of the unfairness," Sophie said.
"I do not care about fair," Merlin boomed. "I am on the side of right, and my enemies are foul. I will triumph at all costs."
We're going to have to fight him, Howl thought heavily. We can't let him run rampaging through Wales. He tugged at Chrestomanci's sleeve, pulling him a few steps away. "He created Ingary. If we kill him, what will happen to it?"
"It might just continue just the same as it always has," Chrestomanci said doubtfully. "I've heard of created worlds doing that sometimes. They take on a life of their own, and outlive their creator. I was told of one world that was created by a group of children as an exercise at school, but you really wouldn't know it now, when you look at it. Only the strangely-coloured talking horses and the cake trees give clues to its origin. Mind you, the man who told me about it was drunk, and he tried to pick my pocket afterwards. He failed, of course. I wonder how he's getting on as a frog."
It was not reassuring. "I don't want Ingary to stop existing."
"It's how things should be, of course." Chrestomanci sounded irritatingly superior. "Ingary has been built from the dreams and the stories that should have flourished here, in your world."
"It's not my world," Howl cried. "Ingary's my world." It took him by surprise. He had never thought about it too much. Wales was where he had been born, and where he had spent most of his years, but Ingary was where he had chosen to live. Ingary was where Sophie was, and his children, and the home he had built – or, rather, the home the had made Calcifer build.
"Ah." Chrestomanci looked at Howl with sympathy. "This world should have magic, you know. Ingary stole that, in a way. Look at this place…" He spread his arm. "Weak little humans, scurrying around without magic, reduced to burning and polluting the land in order to get their power. Think how clear the air would be if they had magic instead of noxious gases; if they rode in carriages, not cars."
Howl did not want to think. He did not want to consider all the things wrong with the land of his birth, and how they could be eased if the people possessed the magic that should have been theirs. He thought of bombs diffused with the wave of an enchanter's hand, and death averted. He thought of oil slicks and acid raid and all those other things that teachers had tried to tell him about at school, when he had been staring out of the window, dreaming of girls and magic.
"But Ingary's real," he protested. "We can't kill everyone there."
"It won't be killing," Chrestomanci declared. "It will be as if they have never existed."
"But they did exist!" Howl cried. Everyone turned round. He slapped a ward of silence of them, encasing himself and Chrestomanci in a bubble. "They do exist. If… If you're going to try to kill Ingary, then you are my enemy. You will do it only over my dead body."
"So be it." Chrestomanci's eyes gleamed as black as night.