A tale of too many worlds

 

Awkward and Inconvenient things keep happening to Howl, involving evil doppelgangers and confusing other worlds. There is only one thing for it: visit Chrestomanci. And this time, the family is going, too.

__

 

This is a sequel of sorts of "A tale of two wizards", but you don't need to read that story first. "A tale of two wizards" showed how Howl and Chrestomanci first met, and contained much bickering. All you need to know is that Howl and Chrestomanci now know each other, but still live their canon lives in their separate worlds.

 

The pairings are those established in the books. This story is set a few years after "Castle in the air", so contains very brief references to events in both Howl books, as well as to "Charmed Life."

 

Disclaimer: Howl and Chrestomanci are not mine, though I very much wish they were. I'm playing with them for a while, but will return them unharmed to their rightful owner.

___

 

Chapter one

 

In which Howl stumbles into a garden full of terrified flowers, and cannot find his way out.

____

 

Not again, Howl sighed, as he ducked behind a fragrant pile of rotting vegetables. This really is going too far.

 

A potato peeling slithered into the top of his boot. He hoped that the thing squelching beneath his foot was just a tomato, but decided not to look. A fly tried to investigate his nose, but Howl's glare caused it to remember an urgent appointment elsewhere.

 

"No," he grumbled out loud, as he left the vegetables, and headed into a noxious alley, "this really isn't fair. What have I done to deserve this?"

 

There had been no time to work out exactly who was chasing him. They were taller than him, and broader than him, and their shouts of, "There he is!" and, "Stop!" had not sounded remotely friendly. That had been enough to set him running. Their sharp and shining weapons had been enough to make sure that his running was fast.

 

Their livery was dark blue. They were not the King's guard, then, which was a relief. Running from the King always caused all sorts of unpleasant grovelling and inconvenient hard work. Perhaps they served one of the city's noblemen or merchants, who would keep on taking offence at the things Howl said to them, or the way they imagined he was looking at their wives.

 

"Not that it's my fault," he panted, as he slithered through the arches of a bridge. "I say perfectly reasonable things. It's not my fault that they're ridiculously sensitive. They should be more reasonable, like me."

 

They were still bellowing behind him. He heard them appeal to the bystanders, and a chorus of voices respond to say that, yes, they had seen him, all covered with slime, he was, and heading that way, just there, yes, and you've only just missed him, but if you run a bit faster...

 

Treacherous and ungrateful, he grumbled. What had he ever done to the common citizens of Kingsbury, to merit this betrayal? He was going to pay all those outstanding debts in the taverns tomorrow, honest, and it had been an accident when he had caused a stinking green cloud to descend on the city for three weeks – everyone knew that. All those aunts and grandmothers were completely wrong when they said he was trying to ruin their innocent little girls, because he was a married man now, and they weren't half as innocent as their scary chaperones said, and it had only been a tiny little smile and the faintest hint of a blown kiss and nothing at all, really.

 

"Misunderstood," he sniffed. "That's what I am. Misunderstood."

 

Actually, he thought, as he splashed through the filth-stained river, it felt quite heroic being misunderstood. He could almost enjoy it, if it wasn't for the fact that it tended to ruin his clothes. The noble and wise wizard, labouring at things that were beyond mortal ken, despised, sneered at, dismissed by all who knew him. But history would judge who was truly great. In a hundred years, people would queue for hours to see one of his suits on display in a museum, and his magical workings would be studied in universities across all the worlds, and lauded as works of genius ahead of their time.

 

Something splashed into the water beside him. He told himself it was a duck. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw one of his muscled pursuers leaning over the parapet of the bridge, taking aim with a bow. Just a duck, he told himself quite firmly, when another splash sounded, closer than the last one. A whole family of ducks, having a party. He tried to laugh, but the sound came out closer to the bleating of a dying sheep.

 

He made for the bank and pulled himself up, as another invisible duck thudded into the mud just behind him. If this goes on, he told himself, I might have to use magic. It never seemed quite sporting to use magic against ordinary people, and Sophie did nag so. "If I have to open the door one more time to find some poor, traumatised citizen, complaining that you turned him into a dormouse in order to avoid paying a bill…" she threatened. "I've paid out a fortune in compensation, and I tell you this, Howl, it's not coming out of my money. Let's see how you like it, going without new clothes for a week."

 

And now his second-best suit was all slimy and ruined, and he wouldn't get any sympathy at all at home, just hands on hips, and a sigh, and a "Who have you provoked this time?" It would be worse if she thought he had provoked it by flirting with a girl. He wished he could remember if he had.

 

Another duck hit the ground beside him, sounding faintly metallic. He scrambled into an alley, and from there into a dark doorway. Footsteps sounded in the lane, multiplying and echoing until they sounded like the footsteps of the forces of Hell, beating down on him. He pressed himself backwards against the door, hands scrabbling madly behind him. They closed around the ring of a door handle, and it moved, it turned…

 

He scrambled inside, and closed the door, leaning on it, gasping. No footsteps sounded outside. They stopped as abruptly as if someone had switched off a radio. Inside the door was only silence, and the beating of his heart. He did not like it. If the footsteps had stopped, that meant that his pursuers had found him. They were sniffing around the outside of the door, preparing to enter.

 

There was nothing for it. He whispered a word, locking the door with magic, and turned to see what manner of silent place he had found.

 

He was in a garden, laid out formally with straight paths and well-ordered flower beds, set in tasteful colours. Small plants huddled at the front of each bed, while medium-sized ones crouched behind them, and tall ones stood to attention at the back. No leaves or petals were out of place, and the soil was perfect, without any stones.

 

Howl started walking. The path was gravel, and he prepared himself to wince at the sound it made, but the crunching was as quiet as a whisper. After a few steps, he passed some impeccably-cut topiary, and a fountain came into view. Even that was acting strangely. The water fell silently, the droplets hanging in the air as if they were afraid to make the final plunge.

 

Afraid, he mused. Yes, that was it. The whole garden was afraid, terrified of stepping out of line, in case some awful punishment fell upon it. As he got deeper into the garden, he could feel the magic that was causing the fear. As pervasive as a scent, a magical presence lurked in the garden, like the eyes of some ever-watchful, ever-malevolent master.

 

He knew that presence. It felt at once deeply familiar, and truly strange. He knew it, and yet he had no idea what it was.

 

Instinct told him that he should run – run back to the known, familiar danger of the men in blue, prowling outside the darkened doorway. The part of him that knew he was a coward was shouting at him to do just that. But, as well as being a coward, he was also curious. Curiosity had caused him to find the way into Ingary in the first place, and that had brought him more dangers than he could ever have imagined, but more happiness, too.

 

Howl sat down on the silent fountain. Magic flowed all around him, slithering over his skin like oil. He knew this thing was impossible. It did not feel like Suleiman's magic, and he knew it was not his own, but there was no-one else – no-one else in Ingary capable of wielding magic this strong.

 

Footsteps sounded on the whispering gravel. Howl's head snapped up, as he readied himself to hide, but the young man who was approaching had already seen him. "I beg your pardon." The young man fell to his knees. "I didn't know anyone was… I mean, I didn't know you were here, my lord. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

 

Howl moistened his lips.  He looked over his shoulder, left and right, in case the young man was actually talking to someone else. He wasn't. "I… It's all right. I wasn't here until a moment ago. I… er… just arrived."

 

It sounded like a pathetic excuse. He wondered if concealed guards would leap out of bushes and drag him away. But nothing happened. The young man stayed on his kneeling, drooping with terror. Howl glanced over his shoulder again, but there was still nothing. "Er… Get up."

 

The young man scrambled to his feet, almost falling over in his haste to obey.

 

Howl dug his nails into his palm, suddenly wondering if he had been drinking, or if this was a dream. "Carry on with what you were doing," he managed.

 

The young man hurtled back the way he had come. Howl briefly considered the door, but remembered the blue-clad thugs outside it, and decided to stay exactly where he was, and see what happened.

 

Several minutes passed before he realised that the young man had been speaking Welsh.

 

Odd, he thought. His trembling fingers told him that it was very much more than merely odd. He let his eyes rise from the terrified plants, and finally let himself notice the majestic mountains that rose above the garden wall. A snow-topped peak stood where the centre of Kingsbury should be, and it was a peak he knew. He had seen it on postcards, and on the front cover of books called things like, "A visitor's guide to Wales." He had even tried to climb it once, he and a group of university friends, but the pub at its foot had been warm and enticing, and the mountain had looked so very cold.

 

He was in Wales. No, he corrected himself, remembering what the terrified young man had been wearing, he was in a Wales in which people wore long robes and pointy head-dresses, had digital watches and trainers, and had a pair of crossed sickles emblazoned in bronze on their chests.

 

He tried very hard to limit himself to another, "odd." He tried very hard not to run.

 

The gravel whispered in its usual terrified way, heralding the approach of another visitor. "Lord Llewellyn," someone said in Welsh. "Are you… well?"

 

Howl tried one last time – one last, desperate time – the trick of looking over his shoulder, but he already knew that no-one else was there. "I am…" He thought desperately. "A slight headache," he said in the end, since that seemed like a good excuse in case they thought he was acting strangely.

 

Only when he had finished speaking did he look properly at the newcomer, and his heart sank. It was a King. He was a tall man with a luxurious beard, and a crown studded with jewels.

 

It was too late to salvage it by adding a "your majesty." Instead, Howl mumbled a bit, and pressed his fingers to his head. It was beginning to hurt for real.

 

"The English prisoners are in my audience chamber," the King said. "They are awaiting my pleasure."

 

Strange undercurrents of meaning swirled around his words. It was too much for Howl to understand. The undercurrents peaked on the word "my." An irate grandmother would be better than this, Howl decided.

 

"I will…" He stopped, moistening his lips. He had no idea at all what sort of an answer he was supposed to be making. "Actually," he said, "I think my headache is getting worse, your majesty." This, at least, he was good at. If anyone could wriggle out of royal expectations, it was Howl. At least, he was good at trying. Succeeding was something he was still working on.

 

"Perhaps I will just kill them."

 

The King's voice rose ever so slightly at the end, as if he was asking a question. Howl found that he was not lying about the headache at all. Was he supposed to grovel and plea for their lives? The strange thing was that the King's tone of voice almost made it sound as if Howl was expected to command.

 

He decided to go for humility tempered with illness. "I would rather you didn't, your majesty." He spoke it through clinging fingers, rubbing at his poor, abused head.

 

He dimly saw the King nod and retreat. Howl was surrounded by silence for a while, and he had just begun to start looking for an explanation for what was happening, when someone else strode along the frightened gravel path.

 

This one was a bard, or maybe a druid. A harp was held proudly in his long-fingered hands, but his long white hair was crowned with a wreath of mistletoe. He held his head like a king, but his eyes looked afraid. "Would you like music, my lord?" he asked. "Music to soothe away your pains?"

 

He looked like a stereotype, and a confused one at that. Howl wanted to tell him so, but thought it better not to. "No," he said limply. "Leave me." He thought it was probably safe to dismiss such a man, but then he remembered how powerful bards were in some worlds, and how druids sometimes ruled even kings. "Please," he added, but the bard had already gone.

 

Howl let out a breath. The door, he thought. I am definitely taking my chances through that door.

 

As he stood up, yet another person came along the whispering gravel, this one a young girl wearing very little indeed. In fact, she was wearing hardly anything except for a bronze torc, and a few wisps of fabric. Had he not been a married man, Howl might have enjoyed the view. As it was, he could not help saying, "Aren't you cold?"

 

"Not when I am with you, master," she purred.  She twined her arms around his neck, and it seemed to him that she must have had at least ten of them, because they got everywhere. "Let me pleasure you, my lord."

 

It was always so much more interesting when the women played hard to get. Unattainable fruit was much more temping than the fruit in your hand, even if the fruit in your hand was quite so plump and moist and so, well, in your hand. "I'm a married man," he told her, extricating several of her hands.

 

"You always have been," she pouted. "It's never made a difference before. Come on, my lord. Shall I tell you what I'm going to do to you?" She pressed her lips to his ear, and he felt her scented breath whispering all sorts of things that made him blush terribly. Although he hated anyone to know it, he was quite innocent in many things. Ladies were for courting with songs and poems and the wonder of your clothing, not for doing things like that with.

 

"No," he squawked, his voice higher than he would have liked it. "I… er… need to do. Urgent appointment. Yes, that's it. The King. Something like that."

 

He fled. Abandoning any attempt at dignity, he fled along the silent gravel, past the flowers in their terrified lines, and threw himself at the gate. The door handle slithered in his hand. A storm of fury reared up behind him, dark and boiling and ready to strike. He could almost touch the soul of the furious wizard, whose magic held the garden in terrified submission, whose spells rose up to strike down anyone who dared to run.

 

I'm leaving! Howl screamed at him. It was a mistake. I didn't touch anything, didn't steal anything.

 

It never worked with the aunts and grandmothers either. The storm of furious magic came down on him, just as the door handle turned in his desperate, pawing grip. He hauled it open, as a bolt of magic singed his coat.

 

It's me! he realised, and the realisation almost drove him to his knees. The wizard who ruled this garden was himself. It was a dark and twisted and warped version of himself – Howl as he could have been, Howl as he might have been, if he had given his heart away to a demon and got it back burned to a cold, hard stone. It was himself, and it was horrible, but he was free, scrabbling in the dirt of the alley, turning around desperately to close the door.

 

It closed. It locked. He leant on it for half a second, panting, but the awful, dreadful sense of his own magic pressing down on him was gone. Instead, dimly, he could hear the sound of two young girls quarrelling, and an older woman ordering them to behave. Birds sang and cats argued. The mountains had gone, and the sky was blue.

 

Gone, he thought. A dream. He was suddenly sure that if he opened the door again, he would see only an ordinary Ingary garden, free from magic and fear.

 

He preferred not to chance it, though. Taking a deep breath, he stood up and brushed down his clothes.

 

It was then that he saw the bodies of the men who had been chasing him, frozen in stone, faces fixed in expressions of agony.

___

 

Chapter two

 

In which Howl gets into trouble at home.

___

 

Howl started running. He wanted Sophie very badly. He wanted to be in his own house, even if Sophie was shouting at him, even if the children were screaming, even if Calcifer was sulking, even if the apprentices were burning things and filling the whole place with the acrid stink of magic gone wrong.

 

No-one chased him. No-one paid him any attention at all. He saw one woman shrug as he passed, and roll her eyes, as if she was saying, "There he goes again." He might have protested, but the need to get home was too strong, and soon he was there, at his own familiar door. He opened it with the touch of magic that served for a key, and he found himself attacked, struck violently on the side of the face, sent sprawling to the floor.

 

"I told you to go away," Sophie shouted. "Go away, and stay away."

 

He felt the compulsion of her magic pushing at his mind, trying to persuade him that there was nothing better in the world than to leave town and set up house in a damp hedgerow somewhere, far away from Sophie and her children.

 

He pushed it away. "It's me." He tried to sit up, but her glare pushed him down again. "You hit me," he whined, bringing his fingers up to his throbbing cheek. They were trembling, which was not good.

 

"And I'll hit you again if…" Sophie let out a breath, visibly relaxing. "Oh, it is you. No-one else would have the nerve to dress like that, even if they were trying to impersonate you."

 

She let him stand up. "I really don't think it's fair," he complained, brushing his clothes down, "to complain about my clothes. After all, you made them. And to hit me, after the day I've had. A proper wife…"

 

"You know full well that you wouldn't want a proper wife," Sophie blazed. "You said so once."

 

"Well, maybe I would after all."

 

It felt good to argue, as if everything was rapidly being pushed back into its normal channels. It stilled the trembling, and it drove away the last vestiges of fear. It was the same with Sophie, he realised. Her hands were trembling; her hair was disarranged. Something had disturbed her, and she was hiding it in bickering.

 

"What is it?" All anger fell away. He tried to move towards her, but she backed away almost imperceptibly. "What happened?"

 

"Someone came," she said quietly. "I thought he was you at first, but then I could tell that he wasn't. He looked like you, but… Howl, he was evil. His eyes were so cold, and his smile…"

 

"Did he hurt you?" He touched her cheek; took her hand. "Did he…?"

 

"No." She shook her head. "I used the magic you taught me. I said the words, and your spell…" She sighed. "He went, Howl. And then when the door opened, I thought it was him coming back. I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"

 

"It's nothing." He tried for bravery. He then tried to tell his story, though he did miss out certain unimportant details, such as the fact that he had been fleeing from pursuit, and the slave girl with hardly any clothes on, and the fact that he had been afraid. "It was me," he concluded, when the story had been told. "An evil version of me from another universe. We must have swapped places somehow. I found a way into his world, and he came here."

 

Sophie had gone very still. "And that's the whole story, is it?"

 

He nodded eagerly. He felt her magic lap around him, suggesting to him that a full confession would be a very good idea indeed, but he was nothing if not an expert at wriggling out of suggestions like that. "That's it," he said. "I realised the danger, and I broke free. They tried to stop me, but of course nothing can hold me against my will. I am the Wizard Howl, after all."

 

"Oh," Sophie said, very quiet and very cold. "In that case, I'm going to put the children to bed, then go to bed myself. You," she said firmly, "can work on protecting the house from any other stray evil twins of yours that feel like coming to visit."

 

She strode off, proud and dignified. Howl wondered what he had said wrong. His cheek hurt, and he rubbed it gingerly with his hand. When he brought the hand down again, he saw the lipstick on it. He wrinkled his nose, and realised that he still reeked of the half-naked girl's perfume.

 

He cursed under his breath, and headed to his work bench, for a long evening of magic, alone.

 

******

 

Sophie was still angry at breakfast.

 

"I liked him," Calcifer said unhelpfully, as he danced around the bacon, singeing bits of it black, while leaving the rest completely uncooked. "He had style."

 

"I have style." Howl drew himself up haughtily.

 

"You look as if you were dressed by a three-year old," Calcifer said. "He was wearing black all over, and his hair was like a raven's wing. He didn't dye his hair, at least."

 

Sophie strolled forward, carrying a large bowl of water oh so casually under her arm. Morgan's eyes gleamed with mingled fear and excitement.

 

"He was the sort of wizard any fire demon would be proud to serve." Calcifer flared up around the bacon, then cowered down in the ashes. "Don't let her put me out."

 

"She won't." Howl put himself between Sophie and the fire. "And you don't serve me anyway, so that's enough of this nonsense. Now, are you going to let me salvage this sorry attempt at bacon, or not?"

 

Calcifer glowered sulkily. Sophie stalked forward with the water, then stopped. "I just remembered I'm cross with him." She tossed her head. "Say what you like, Calcifer. Take him apart."

 

"He's not worth it." Calcifer glowed with self-righteousness. "I want the other one to come back. Let this one go back to the girl with the perfume."

 

"I don't want the other one to come back," Sophie said quietly. She moved to Howl's side, and grabbed the pan of bacon from him. "I think you want to let us cook our breakfast now, Calcifer."

 

It was said with quiet menace, and Calcifer obeyed. He shot pleading little sparks in Howl's direction, as if suggesting that they ally against Sophie, but Howl would have none of it. From the way Sophie was standing beside him, he guessed that he was forgiven. If Calcifer had to become their common enemy, in order to get Sophie to smile at him, then he had no complaints.

 

When it came to serving the bacon, however, he only got one charred piece, while Sophie got all the best bits. He almost commented about it, then decided not to.

 

He had not quite finished his breakfast when there was a knock at the door. Morgan answered it before either Sophie or Howl could move. "Daddy!" he shouted. "There's soldiers here to 'rest you again."

 

Again, Howl echoed. It occurred to him that this was not something that a five year old ought to be able to say to his father. He stood up slowly, the chair scraping on the floor behind him. Perhaps he could climb out of the window, or maybe turn into a fly and vanish up the chimney.

 

"Are you going to turn them into spiders, daddy?" Morgan clapped his hands with excitement. "Or cats, like last time?"

 

"Morgan!" Sophie hurried him away, but his chatter was audible for far too long, as he gleefully suggested awful things that Howl could do to the King's soldiers – some of which Howl had already done in the past, and hoped no-one would ever know about.

 

Howl tried not to blush. A King's wizard did not blush. The soldiers, he noticed, had turned a little pale, and none of them seemed keen to be on the front row. Six of them jostled to be inconspicuous at the back. The one who had evidently drawn the short straw was small and mousy-haired, with protruding ears.

 

"Ah… Wizard Howl…" He cleared his throat. "There are some… ah… statues, and it looks like that… well, they used to be men. Men who were… ah… chasing you – that's what people say, at least, and it's them who's saying it, not us. And we wouldn't… I mean, the boss said… It's just that their wives are complaining, and they look so uncomfortable-like, and they're blocking the thoroughfare and scaring the horses and…"

 

"It wasn't me," Howl said wearily. He already knew that he would not be believed. He felt stupid for not anticipating this. Of course he would get the blame for the things his double had done. "It wasn't me," he said again, standing as nobly and as tall as he could, "but I will undo the foul thing this man has done."

 

He hoped he could carry it off. He followed them as proudly as he could, trying to ignore all the whisperings and pointing fingers. He would run away if he had to, he decided. He concentrated on working out his escape plan. He would go back and get Sophie and the children, sweet-talk Calcifer into making their house a moving one again… Or Wales. Perhaps he would run away to Wales.

 

"There they are," the leading soldier declared. He spoiled it a little by trembling the final word into a near-mumble.

 

Howl felt a little trembly himself at the sight of the innocent garden gate, and the memory of what had lain beyond it, but he tried not to show it. He was a self-confessed coward, but at least he had some pride. "I will undo this foul magic," he declared.

 

It was difficult. He proclaimed the required words, but the other man's magic still clung to the frozen men, like something thick and black and noxious. It seemed to anticipate anything he did. It was like fencing with an enemy who knew your every move. It was like fighting with someone who was inside your brain.

 

It was like trying to defeat yourself, trying to conquer yourself, trying to kill yourself.

 

It made him shudder. He wanted to fall to his knees and cough up his breakfast. He wasn't me! he wanted to scream. This stranger's magic was so different from his own, yet so utterly, intimately the same. Howl had never frozen a man into an agonised statue, but he could have done so, if he had tried. He could have done so, and now he knew how to. He had the spell on his lips and at his fingertips. It was dark and familiar, and if anyone provoked him, he could…

 

"No!" he cried, tearing the magic apart with a great gesture of denial. The freed men collapsed to the ground, and one of them, the biggest and toughest of them all, started sobbing.

 

"It wasn't me." Howl crawled towards them. "It wasn't me."

 

"It looked like you." The huge man's voice was broken.

 

"No," said another. "Look at his eyes. Different."

 

"But the same now."

 

Howl walked away, sick at heart. He hated this. He did not like to feel like this. He did not normally feel like this. He could always keep things at bay with a witty word or a cutting put-down. He was a coward, but he was not weak.

 

I want to go home, he thought, and forget this…

 

The next thing he knew, he was tumbling head-first into a ditch.

 

He reacted as quickly as he could, but it was not quick enough. He landed in soft mud, and his hands sank into it up to his wrist, and his face – no, not my face! – impacted with the dark and stinking slime. Spitting with disgust, he tried to clamber up again, but thorns reached for him, tangling his clothes… and tore them! A huge rip appeared in his sleeve, at least half an inch long! Horrified, he tugged at the thorn, but, out of spite, it tore across his palm, drawing blood.

 

"This really is too much." He managed to stand up, spiteful little thorns snagging his clothes. Dark slime dripped from his eyebrows and his chin, landing on the filthy rag that was his third-best suit.

 

"Quick!" a woman's voice shouted. "Get out of there at once."

 

"It's hardly my fault." Howl planted his stinking hands on his hips. "There I was…"

 

"They're coming!" She sounded quite terrified. She was a pretty enough thing, he saw, with fair hair and pink cheeks, but all of that was marred by the fact that she was shouting at him "We have to run."

 

He tried to climb out of the ditch, but the thorns prevented him. He considered fighting them, but feared they would win. "Let them come, then," he declared airily. "I'm good at talking my way out of things."

 

"Idiot!" she screeched. "You can't talk your way out of this one, Pierre Morgan. The Emperor himself swore to have your head if you practiced magic again, and what do you do? You turn a hundred gendarmes' batons into baguettes!"

 

"It wasn't my fault," he protested.

 

"Fool!" she shrieked. It was strange hearing Welsh spoken with such a strong French accent. "You have to get to Fishguard. Take a ferry to Ireland and…" She threw her hands up in horror. "And what on earth are you wearing under that slime, Pierre Morgan?"

 

Howl fluttered his hand uselessly. "A disguise?"

 

"A disguise?" Her face melted. "Still the charming, childish, idiot man I married."

 

She came towards him as if to help him out of the ditch. That part of it was good. What was more worrying was the fact that she was wearing lipstick, and her perfume was discernible even over the stench of the mud.

 

"Fishguard," he gasped. He hauled himself out of the ditch, howling silently inside whenever he heard another rip. "No time to waste. Got to run."

 

Two steps later, and the ground was pulled away from under his feet. He tumbled forward, and hit something hard, slamming into it with his shoulder. He rolled and came up again, only to find Sophie looking down at him.

 

"At least it's only mud this time." She wrinkled her nose. "You can wash it off yourself, though."

 

"My shoulder hurts." He knew he was whining, but didn't care. "My clothes are torn."

 

Sophie acted as if she had not heard him. "Still, this one was far nicer than the last. Positively charming, actually. I liked him. Morgan liked him even more. Didn't you, Morgan?"

 

"This daddy's yucky." Morgan made a face of eloquent disgust. "He's dirty and he smells. I want the other one back. He's going to take me riding on a proper Welsh dragon," he informed Howl helpfully, as if that explained everything.

 

"That's it." Howl stood up, as dignified as anyone could be who suddenly found themselves sprawled on the ground in the middle of Kingsbury, covered in Welsh mud. "This has to stop."

 

"How are you going to stop it?" Sophie asked.

 

Her cheeks were flushed. Bet she doesn't want me to stop it at all, Howl thought darkly. Charming indeed! "I am a magician," he told her loftily. "I can do anything. Sometimes my magic is too complicated for ordinary people to understand."

 

"You're going to ask Chrestomanci," Sophie declared.

 

Howl kept his face impassive. She was right, of course. The filthy clothes and the half-naked girls had been distracting, but he was not so easily distracted as all that. He knew that he had been flitting between worlds, and Chrestomanci – much as Howl hated to admit it – was an expert at such things. It wasn't as if he was stronger wizard than Howl – of course he wasn't! – but he had had more opportunity to practice such things. It would do no harm to ask him his opinion, equal to equal.

 

"You are!" Sophie smiled triumphantly.

 

"If you want me to." Howl said it with the long-suffering resignation of a husband who would do anything for his wife's little whims. "I doubt he'll know anything, though."

 

"He was charming, too," Sophie added, as they set off back home. "I would like to see him again."

 

Howl decided that he would keep Chrestomanci and Sophie apart. He would think of a justification later. "Why were you out?" he asked her, trying to change the subject.

 

Sophie hooked her arm through his, despite the mud that promptly slimed all over her dress. "Why, I was coming to rescue you, of course."

 

And Howl suddenly had nothing left to say. He kissed her, and she smiled up at him, cheeks rosy beneath the mask of green-tinged mud.

 

******

 

Chapter three

 

In which there are many introductions, and some cats.

___

 

"You were quite right to summon me, of course." Chrestomanci flicked at some dirt on the sleeve of his ridiculously lavish dressing-gown. "The barriers between the worlds, etcetera, etcetera. It's entirely my area of expertise."

 

"But I am obviously the key to it," Howl told him. "After all, I'm the only one it's happening to."

 

He wondered if he had attracted the attention of a glamorous but powerful sorceress, or if a Dark Lord had singled him out as the only opponent worthy of his notice. Such things were inconvenient and uncomfortable, of course, but there was a certain something to be said for them. It was better than sitting back and watching Chrestomanci get all the glory.

 

"It could be," Chrestomanci said airily. "I remember one terrible incident when a bungling, meddling hedge wizard…"

 

Howl drew himself up as haughtily as his trailing sleeves would allow. "I am not bungling."

 

"I never said you were, my dear fellow." Chrestomanci flicked more insistently at the smear of dirt. Howl thought it was probably something unspeakable, left by Bethan. It did not do to look too closely at the leavings of a toddler, but he decided not to tell Chrestomanci that. Serve him right if he caught some horrible toddler illness.

 

"I'll solve it myself." Howl turned his back on the tall, insufferable enchanter. "I can, you know."

 

"Better if we solve it together." Chrestomanci's voice was far too mild. He was probably plotting something. "Why don't you come and stay with me for a while? My wife has been begging me to ask you for months."

 

Howl said nothing.

 

"You can bring your wife and children, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Millie would love to meet your Sophie. You know what women are like. They can talk about hats, or whatever it is that women talk about."

 

This Millie sounded like a very dull and brainless thing. She had to be, of course, if she had married Chrestomanci. Someone like him would want a boring wife without a scrap of magic in her, who would press her hands together and coo about how tall and handsome and brave he was, and what a clever thing he was, to do such wonderful, wonderful magic.

 

He sighed. There was more than a little longing in the sigh.

 

Then he imagined Sophie pressing her hands together, and looking adoringly at Chrestomanci, so tall, so sleek, so confident. "Sophie's busy," he told Chrestomanci. "She's… er…"

 

"I'm what?" He wondered when Sophie had entered the room. She did not look angry, so he supposed it couldn't have been long ago. She often got angry when she overheard him talking to people. Can't leave you alone for a minute, she sometimes chided him, which was monumentally unfair, and made no sense, anyway.

 

Chrestomanci bowed to her. "I was just inviting you and your family to stay for a little while," he explained. "My wife, Millie, would love to meet you, and there's plenty of space for the children to play. But if you're busy…"

 

"No." Sophie's look managed to be simultaneously all smiles for Chrestomanci, but icy and threatening to Howl, with a we'll have words later message in the eyes. He had no idea how she did it. "We would be delighted to accept your invitation."

 

Howl opened his mouth, and closed it again, realising that there was nothing he could say that would make the situation better.

 

"Of course," Sophie said, turning to Howl with a sweet and terrible smile, "I'll stay behind if you prefer. After all, one of those handsome and charming doubles might come along. I'm sure he will keep us busy."

 

Howl flailed. Chrestomanci smiled. Howl hated him.

 

"Can I come?" Calcifer surged up in the empty hearth. He must have been eavesdropping in the chimney. Howl decided that he hated him, too.

 

"Of course." Chrestomanci bowed with a ridiculous flourish. "I would be honoured to admit such an august personage to my hearths. Consider them your own, but please do not frighten the servants. You know what servants are. They do squawk so, and drop china all over the carpet."

 

"I like him," Calcifer said in a stage whisper. "He knows how to be polite."

 

"He wears stupid clothes, though," Howl muttered.

 

Sophie completed his downfall. "The dressing-gown?" she said brightly. "Isn't it just like the one you asked for for your birthday?"

 

Howl stamped out of the room, and went to dye his hair.

 

******

 

They arrived in a pentacle inscribed on a marble floor. How primitive! Howl thought. How barbaric! At least he could travel between worlds without resorting to scribbling silly little shapes, like a baby.

 

"Summoning me as if I'm a demon." Calcifer drew himself up into a pillar of cold fire.

 

"You are a demon, Calcifer," Sophie told him calmly. "None of this nonsense. I think it's quite delightful. Isn't it, Morgan?"

 

Morgan was already scurrying out of the pentacle, heading for a large cat that had appeared at the far end of the room. It was the ugliest cat Howl had ever seen, and it was glaring at Howl as if he was a personal enemy.

 

Morgan, however, seemed to think it was the most beautiful and wonderful cat in existence. "Cat!" he cried. "Did I look like this before I turned into a boy?"

 

"No," Sophie told him. "You were much smaller, and black."

 

The cat's pugnacious look faded, and it looked smaller, and very anxious. It fled, only narrowly avoiding tripping over the tall man who was entering through the door.

 

"You've worried him now," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "He's wondering if all cats turn into boys, and he doesn't want to. He doesn't like boys. Doesn't like anyone, of course, but boys are particularly nasty. He has taste there, of course." He looked at Morgan with the air of someone who liked children in principle, but preferred them to keep their sticky fingers well away from his clothes. "Begging your pardon, of course, young sir."

 

"The cat understands English?" Sophie asked.

 

"Of course." Chrestomanci pressed his hands together placidly. "His grandfather was a Temple cat, back when my wife was a goddess, and such things stay in the blood. Ah, but forgive me." He bowed, and spread his hands. "Welcome to Chrestomanci Castle. I apologise for not being here to greet you. The passage was… difficult. There was some… interference. You kept trying to fly off into other worlds, to be precise, and my attempts to fight it resulted in… interest.  Pray excuse my dishevelled appearance."

 

There were many things to think of; Howl did not know where to start. Temple… Goddess… Talking cat… Interference… Dishevelled… He focused on the last of these, darkly. Perhaps three hairs had strayed from their position of  perfect order, and there was the faintest of creases in the sleeve near Chrestomanci's elbow.

 

Sophie seemed equally incapable of framing words. Morgan was threatening to cry because the cat had run away. Bethan was licking the floor, and Calcifer was flaring up, as he did when he was angry. Of course, Howl remembered, Calcifer hated cats, and blamed the whole species for the claws that had been stuck into him when he had been a carpet. "No," Howl hissed at him.

 

"Oh, do go ahead," Chrestomanci said. "There's strong magic here," he explained, when Calcifer had surged out after the cat. "He won't be able to do any harm."

 

Howl suspected that Calcifer had heard. He knew that Calcifer would take it as a challenge.

 

"Follow me." Chrestomanci gestured imperiously. "There should be servants here to tend to your every need, and such like, but for the… difficulty. They should be back by tea-time, and, I hope, little changed by their experience. The family is here, though."

 

He led them into a drawing room, full of far too many children. The woman who was rising from the couch was a little plump, and slightly plain, but with a smile that made her more lovely than any famous beauty. Howl returned her smile, but there was nothing of flirting in it. Only afterwards did he realise how strange that was.

 

"You must be Howl," the lady said. "Christopher's told me so much about you, but you're not at all how I imagined. But how rude that sounds. Forgive me. And you, my dear, must be Sophie, and these lovely little ones…"

 

"Morgan," Sophie said, "and Bethan." Howl looked at her anxiously. She was often quite frosty with other women, but with this one she seemed perfectly friendly.

 

"I'm Millie," the lady said.

 

Goddess, Howl remembered. Chrestomanci had said something about his wife being a goddess… But, no, that had to be another wife. Or maybe he'd said something else, like… gondolier, or guard, or… or…

 

Millie was still speaking, going from one child to the next. "Roger and Julia, our children. This is Cat, who's going to be the next Chrestomanci one day…"

 

Howl thought the boy looked quite miserable at the thought, but Morgan was already pushing forward. "Are you a cat, too? I was a cat when I was born."

 

The boy called Cat seemed to be uncomfortable with a four year old pressing their face into his. "My real name's Eric," he mumbled. "Cat's a nickname."

 

"But one of his lives went into a cat," Julia offered. "It used to be a violin."

 

"And this," said Millie, firmly but brightly, "is our ward, Jan…"

 

Something flickered, as if the world was a television set that went briefly out of focus, and then came back again, but not the same as before. Howl knew that. He knew that something had changed, but he could not see what the change was. He did not know these people well enough to see the change, but Chrestomanci did.

 

"Gwendolen," Chrestomanci said, his voice as hard and heavy as a stone. "That's not Janet. It's Gwendolen."

 

The girl who stood before him was fair-haired and might have looked beautiful if she had not looked so furious. She was drawing herself up for a scream. Howl knew the signs well from Morgan.

 

He had his ears ready covered. "How dare you?" Her scream was enough to penetrate his shielding hands as if they were not there. "Send me back immediately."

 

"Believe me, nothing would give me more pleasure," Chrestomanci said mildly, "but this is not my doing."

 

"Liar!" she shrieked. "Of course it's you! Send me back at once!"

 

Chrestomanci strolled away, and sat down on the armchair, his elegant legs crossed, his hands pressed together as if in relaxed contemplation. "It seems we are stuck with you for a while. Unless Howl…?" He raised one exquisitely sculpted eyebrow.

 

"Howl?" The screaming fury that was called Gwendolen turned around, surveying everyone in the room. The children she dismissed, although Cat was squirming miserably on the couch, red-faced and uncomfortable. "Which one's Howl? The jester?"

 

Howl lowered both hands abruptly. It was not right to shout at a lady, but this… but this… "She's as bad as you in one of your tantrums," Sophie whispered, treacherous minx that she was. "Remember when you spilled dye all over your best suit. She's not equalled that yet."

 

Howl took a step forward, to stand as nobly as he could. "I am Howl," he declared, "and I am a wizard of the highest order."

 

"And a guest in this house," Chrestomanci added, "so be polite, Gwendolen, if that is within your powers." He looked amused. At that moment, Howl was not sure who in the room he hated more.

 

"Then send me back!" Gwendolen commanded Howl. "I was supposed to be there forever. No-one can come along and ruin it, not even him."

 

"Quite true," Chrestomanci agreed. "She was sealed in that world of hers, and no power that I knew was enough to break the seal. This is truly remarkable." He leant back further in the chair, and yawned. "Pray continue."

 

"You…" Howl spluttered. "You…"

 

He was stopped by a firm hand on his collar. Gwendolen had grabbed him with a small, pale hand and was dragged him down bodily to her level. "Send me back, you ridiculous popinjay. I am Queen, I tell you, and I…"

 

"Get your hands off my husband." Sophie entered the fray, small and terrible. She closed on Gwendolen, until Gwendolen released Howl. Howl tried very hard not to fall trembling to the floor. He wanted a drink. He wanted to go home. "He didn't bring you here, but he'd send you home in an instant if you could. Why, he banished the Witch of the Waste, and she ruled half a world. You are nothing compared with him, and you are unpleasant and rude, and nobody in their right minds would put up with you for a second unless they were forced to."

 

Dimly, Howl remembered when Sophie had been a mousy little thing in grey, afraid of everything. Now she sparked like Calcifer. I love her, he thought, but I wish she would…

 

"Because you, little girl," declared Sophie, thrusting her finger at Gwendolen's face, "are nothing more than a spoiled little child. Why, even Morgan has more manners than you, and he's four. A spoiled three-year old, that's what you are. An obnoxious little brat."

 

Gwendolen shrank and faded. Howl's mouth fell open. Sophie clapped her hands to her face, but Gwendolen continued to shrink, until she was as small as a three-year old, drowning in an oversized dress. "Release me!" she demanded, in her little girl's voice, stamping her foot. The trailing fabric caught around her foot, and she fell over and started to cry.

 

"I didn't mean to," Sophie gasped. "I still forget sometimes."

 

Howl put his arm around her shoulders. "You were magnificent," he whispered. "But… But…" He raised his chin. "Of course I could have dealt with her myself. I don't need my wife to fight my battles for me." His laugh sounded a little too loud.

 

"Yes he does," Calcifer said, darting in tendrils from the chimney. "These hearths are wonderful," he said to Chrestomanci. "Can I scare the little girl? I'm never allowed to scare people at home. Howl's cruel to me. I'm sure you'd be a kinder master…"

 

"Then go," Sophie said, moving out of Howl's embrace. Her shoulders were as stiff as wood. "We don't keep you. You complain all the time, so why don't you just go."

 

"I'll do that," Calcifer flounced, after a short pause. "You just see if I don't."

 

"You…" Howl moved towards him, the flame surged, and then they were somewhere else entirely.

 

"There he is!" shouted a voice that did not sound friendly. "Shoot him! He can't use his magic if he's busy trying to keep himself alive."

 

Howl blinked. An army surrounded him, all with guns. He smiled at them sheepishly, but it didn't seem to make a difference.

 

Calcifer surged up threateningly. "That must be his familiar," someone shouted. "Douse it with water."

 

"Take his woman unharmed and bring her to me," leered a tall commander. Howl felt coldness wash all over him. Sophie! Sophie was here. He turned to her, his body moving as slowly as if it was lead. Noble words wanted to spill out of his mouth – things like, "Do whatever you like with me, but don't hurt Sophie." Her eyes were blazing fire, but maybe that was just the reflection of Calcifer's fury. His words dried up on his lips, and he could not speak at all.

 

"Why don't you kill the nasty men?" said Gwendolen, her voice carrying clear across the battlefield. "I would."

 

They seemed to take that as a signal. They closed on him, and Sophie screamed, and something hit him, and then all there was fire, hot, furious, and ending in blackness, only blackness.

 

******

 

Chapter four

 

In which Howl falls into a fountain

____

 

He woke up wet. Water was intruding very strongly on his consciousness, splashing on his face and flowing around his body, nasty and slithery and cold. His head hurt. He could taste alcohol, and a dark sky full of stars was whirling madly around his head. When he tried to move his hands, he found that he couldn't.

 

I seem to be drunk, he thought. I wonder how that happened. He had no memory of sitting down with that first drink, gleaming amber and promising more. He had no memory of songs. He had no memory of staggering home with friends, and he had no idea at all why he might have chosen to go to sleep in a river. Sleeping in a river was never sensible.

 

He closed his eyes. Maybe that would make things go away.

 

His head swam. Sickness burnt the back of his throat. He opened his eyes again, and nothing had changed.

 

Someone approached him, an impassive face blanking out the sky. "We know you're awake. We are on guard."

 

They were speaking Welsh. He tried to speak, but his tongue would not co-operate. This is all a dream, he told himself. Yes, he would believe that. This was a dream. Nothing was real. If he closed his eyes for long enough, he would wake up in his own bed, with Sophie beside him.

 

Sophie… There was something… He bit his lip, trying to think, trying to push past the alcohol and the horrid, infuriating noise of trickling water, and the pain in his head, and the cold hardness at his wrists, and…

 

"You took her!" he gasped, thrashing in the water, trying to sit up. "What have you done to Sophie?"

 

"If you mean the girl you had enchanted, we have done nothing," the man said. "She had suffered enough, coerced by your foul magic to love you. She is a victim, and will be treated as such, as will the child. But of course," it said dispassionately, "you do not care. You have never cared about anyone but yourself."

 

"Idiot!" Howl shouted. "That's just how it seemed. Of course I care…" The pain in his head turned into searing coals. When he thrashed, water flowed into his mouth, almost choking him.

 

"Your reign of terror is over," the man informed him. "Your strange behaviour in the garden last week showed us that you are mortal. This, my lord, is called a coup - we have looked it up in books. You will tyrannise over us no longer."

 

The words were too hard to process. He thought of Sophie. All he thought of was Sophie, and the water in his mouth, and the ruin of his good suit.

 

"You cannot use your foul magic against us," the man told him. "You are bound with iron, and placed in running water. You are wounded, and we fed you with metheglin while you slept."

 

"Iron doesn't stop magic, you fool," Howl spluttered, but his magic slithered away from him as soon as he tried to reach for it, sliding away like an eel, or flittering away like a butterfly, and slithering away like runny syrup, or smooth, golden beer… beer… Beer was good. There was nothing like having another beer after having several more already. Such a thing was sensible.

 

"I…" He snapped his mouth shut, struggling to remember where he was. Oh yes. Prisoner in a strange other world, chained up a… He twisted around, trying to peer upwards. In a fountain, lavishly drenched with water issuing from a stone nymph with ridiculously well-formed buttocks and strangely muscular legs and… No, probably not a nymph at all, but…

 

He dragged his thoughts back to whatever it was that really mattered. Beer. No, not beer. Chains at his wrist. Chains… Ah yes! Sophie! "I…"

 

The man rudely interrupted him. In fact, he was a very poor host, forcing his guest to stay in a fountain, and…

 

I was drugged, he thought quiet clearly. Some of my thoughts might not be entirely sensible. Got to remember that. Got to get away. Got to save Sophie. And that girl. Won't bother saving that horrid girl, except… No, it's noble to save people, even nasty ones. It's petty not to, and I think I'm noble. As long as nobility doesn't involve me getting hurt or ruining my clothes and…

 

"We will hold you here," the man said, "where you cannot do us any harm. Whether by iron or water, wound or metheglin, your powers are gone. You are impotent. You are gelded."

 

Howl gasped out loud, then gurgled as water got into his mouth. He could not check the truth of the statement, because his hands were bound. "You're speaking meta… metaphor… metaphysically?" he pleaded.

 

"The king has been dominated for you by too long," the man said. "He is no longer fit to rule. But his son… Where is the missing heir, Lord Llewellyn? Tell us, and then we will kill you."

 

"I don't think that's the proper way to negotiate," Howl said, forming the words carefully. "I think you need to look at your book again."

 

The man rose up to his full height. It was not very impressive. He wore ancient robes over a modern military uniform, and wore flowers in the place of medals. "Then stay here forever, bound between life and death, kept from your powers by iron and water."

 

"And alcohol," Howl said sadly, swallowing some of the water that issued from a part of the not-nymph that he was glad he could not see. It tasted nasty, and he spat it out, spluttering.

 

"Even nature rebels against you," the man said smugly. "This garden had cowered under your yoke for too many years. It, too, longs for your overthrow."

 

Howl let his head fall back into the water. This really isn't fair. Then someone screamed from far away, and someone shouted, and everything faded away, and he was floundering in white, smothering in softness, drowning in light…

 

A long way on the other side of the whiteness, a woman's voice was speaking. "It's all right. You're back. You're safe."

 

Howl flailed with his hands – his wonderfully unbound hands – and found that he was in a large bed piled high with white eiderdowns and far too many pillows. The person talking to him was Millie, Chrestomanci's wife. "Sophie!" Howl gasped. "Where's Sophie?"

 

"She went outside to get some air," Millie said. "You've been asleep for a few hours, Howl. Someone gave you quite a thump on the head, and there was a nasty cut across your chest. The doctor says you'll be right as rain in a day or two, but…"

 

"I want Sophie." He sounded like a pathetic child, and he did not care in the slightest.

 

"I sent a maid to find her as soon as you started waking up," Millie said. "She'll be here soon."

 

An orange glow started up in a corner of the room, hurting his eyes. He turned away, but it grew brighter. "I would have rescued you," Calcifer said, darting around Howl's hands. "They called me your familiar! But it was all under control. I was biding my time, awaiting my moment…"

 

"Laughing at me."

 

Howl sparked with a bad attempt at dignified anger. "I don't see what's supposed to be funny about you lying under a incredibly well-endowed satyr, drunk on barbaric alcohol, unable to do a thing about it. And the look on your face when you thought they'd chopped off your…"

 

"Calcifer!" Howl roared. Calcifer retreated just a little bit. "You were scared," Howl accused him. Underneath the bedding, his hand snaked down, inch by inch by inch. "You were afraid of getting wet." His hand found what it was seeking. It was still there.

 

He relaxed into the pillows. Suddenly anger did not seem so necessary. "What happened…?"

 

The door burst open, and Sophie was there, all warm arms, and worry. Howl let her hug him. He let his head rest against her shoulder, and he allowed himself to be held for a while, just because it made her better, of course, and for no other reason. His face was still wet from the fountain, which was why water was trickling down his cheeks, tickling him.

 

"I was so worried," she told him, releasing him, but not going far. "No, don't look like that, all vengeful. They didn't hurt me one bit. They…"

 

But then Chrestomanci was there too, looking weary and as rumpled as a man like him could ever look. Howl tore himself away from Sophie. "I was a match for you!" he cried. "My evil twin defeated you."

 

"He almost did." Chrestomanci subsided onto the nearest chair, and wiped his brow with a perfect handkerchief. "He has strong magic. You have strong magic, but his was cold and merciless. It was a hard battle, but I had allies, and he did not. I'm afraid he was lying on the floor quite unconscious when the change happened and he went back to wherever he came from."

 

"Apparently my double makes hats." Sophie looked somewhat dejected.

 

"We got our Janet back for a while," Millie said brightly, then sighed. "Gwendolen's back now. She's still three."

 

"Who was I?" Calcifer surged forward, sparking excitedly. "Who was my evil twin?"

 

"A star." Chrestomanci winced. "A luminary, to be precise. At least it veiled itself in time, but the ceiling in the drawing room is a little singed, and several servants have gone to bed with the vapours."

 

"A star." Calcifer looked a smug as a disembodied flame could look. "I could have been a star. You really should treat me better." He flounced off, disappearing up the chimney with a triumphant cry.

 

Howl wanted to carry on questioning Chrestomanci, but Sophie was too close, and his concern for her was too present. "Are you sure you're all right?"

 

She nodded. "They treated me as if I was your victim. Said they were rescuing me. Your evil twin sounds quite horrid. Chief advisor to the King, or something like that, but soon started dominating the King and ruling as a tyrant."

 

"Ah, the standard Evil Grand Vizier." Chrestomanci flapped his hand.

 

"But I did beat you," Howl reminded him. "I mean, he beat you. He's hardly standard, then. Unless beating you is standard. Unless…"

 

"In fact," Sophie said, interrupting him firmly, "they talked as if you were the sort of person who went around and stole young girls' hearts with your foul magic. They thought you'd stolen mine." She turned to Millie, and smiled sweetly. "Howl used to do that, you know. He came to my quiet little town in a great looming castle, dark and forbidding, and he used to prowl around and steal girls' hearts. I never found out what he did with them. I used to look in all the cupboards and drawers in case they were hiding there."

 

"What?" Howl protested, but Millie was already speaking.

 

"Really?" Millie patted Sophie's hand. "My poor dear. You should have seen Christopher when I first met him. He was a little boy, but he was already working for his evil uncle, helping him smuggle unmentionable things between the worlds."

 

"What?" Chrestomanci's cry was exactly the same as Howl's had been.

 

"Wicked and vain," Sophie said, quiet happily. "He once filled the castle with green slime just because there was a mistake with his hair dye."

 

"Christopher has made dozens of servants cry," Millie chimed in. "He once set a hundred highly-paid government officers to searching for a missing neck tie."

 

"That's nothing," Sophie began, with evident glee.

 

"Now, I really don't think this is fair," Howl and Chrestomanci said in unison, but Howl caught the wink that was exchanged between the two women.

 

"That's what you get is you start bickering," Sophie whispered. "If you start playing 'I'm a better wizard than you,' we will start playing 'my husband is worse than yours.'" She tapped him on the nose. "And you don't want that to happen, do you?"

 

Howl threw himself back onto the cushions. "I think I want to go to sleep now," he said sulkily.

 

"But don't sleep for long." Chrestomanci stood up, dusting down his clothes with his hands. "The barriers between the worlds are breaking down, and it's only going to get worse, but…"

 

He paused for effect, but Howl refused to beg him to continue, to turn oh so eagerly towards him, with a, 'Oh, Chrestomanci, do tell us.' Sophie squeezed Howl's hand. Millie just sat there placidly and patiently, but Howl thought she rolled her eyes just a little bit, meaning it just for Sophie.

 

These women had become allies. He did not like it. It made him feel left out.

 

Chrestomanci pressed his hands together dramatically. "The barriers between worlds are breaking down, but I know the source of the problem. I know where we need to go next."

 

Howl refused to ask him where. Instead, he sank into the pillows, and slept.

 

******

 

Chapter five

 

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.

 

******

 

Chapter six

 

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.

___

 

Chapter seven

 

In which a door gets closed

___

 

Howl tore down the wall of silence. He was not stupid, and only a fool refused to call for help. "Sophie! Calcifer! To me!"

 

They were beside him in seconds, Calcifer wreathing around him in excited flames, and Sophie squaring up like a mother bear defending her cub.

 

"You misunderstand me." Chrestomanci blinked mildly. "I don't intend to fight you. I will abide by your decision. You belong to both worlds, while I belong to neither. If anyone is entitled to make the decision, it is you. I merely wanted to make sure you had considered all options."

 

"You said, 'so be it,'" Howl accused him. "Your eyes did that scary thing they do."

 

Chrestomanci flapped his hand. "We enchanters have a flare for the dramatic. You would too, if you spent your life with laws and regulations and government messages."

 

"What decision?" Sophie asked, still hovering protectively at Howl's side.

 

"To fight for the survival of Ingary," Chrestomanci said mildly, "rather than consign it and everyone in it to the oblivion of never having existed at all."

 

"But you had to think about it?" Sophie said quietly. Her voice rose. "You had to think about it?"

 

Howl swallowed, and floundered around for something else he could talk about, and quickly. "The thing is… The thing I don't understand… If this world has no magic, how was I able to learn it? How did I get into Ingary in the first place?"

 

"I expect his dreams were leaking." Chrestomanci concentrated on his sleeve, where a speck of dirt had settled. "Perhaps you walked past that cave at a formative age, and drank of the essence of his dreams. Magic awakened within you, and then, later, you were able to step through the door into the land he had created."

 

"But why…?"

 

"Why the unfortunate jumping between worlds?" Chrestomanci scratched his nose. "A tiny rift can spread, as I said before. You went through once, and again and again. The crack spread, and soon reached other worlds. That is why the problem centred on you."

 

"Which doesn't solve the problem of what to do about it," Sophie remarked, ever practical.

 

"Or the fact that your enchanter is no longer here," Millie pointed out helpfully from the back. "He's a good mile away now. I don't think he wanted to wait while you two decided his fate."

 

They started to hurry after him. "If we can't kill him," Howl panted, "and can't let him carry on like this…"

 

"Easy," Sophie said. "We put him back to sleep, put him back in that cave, and let everything carry on just as it's always been."

 

"Easy?" Howl scoffed. "He's Merlin!"

 

"Even so," Chrestomanci said, "I think it's our only course of action."

 

They caught him up, using a combination of magic and old-fashioned physical exertion. "You again," Merlin grumbled. "Come to kill me, have you? Good. I haven't had a good wizards' duel for far too long. It will be good practice for when I start smiting evil throughout this sorry world."

 

Howl readied his magic. He saw Chrestomanci concentrating, drawing in his power. Calcifer flared pale and blue, his eyes turning so hot that they looked like chips of ice. Millie seemed to have grown an extra pair of arms, and the cat was bristling and blazing.

 

"This really is too much," Megan shrilled. "You should be ashamed of yourself, a grown man like you, encouraging my no-good brother in these games."

 

"Games?" Merlin roared. He seemed to grow very tall, like a pillar of stone that reached into the clouds. His eyes were whirlpools that could swallow a man whole. His fingers were claws and his teeth seemed to be glowing red. It looked most uncomfortable. It also looked terrifying. "These are no games, woman."

 

"Yes they are," Sophie said unexpectedly. "You're a bully, just like a nasty boy in the playground. And I think it's your bedtime now. In fact, I think you're feeling very sleepy indeed. Why don't you just lie down and have a nap? You can carry on smiting us all when you wake up, in… oh, a hundred thousand years."

 

Merlin toppled like a tree. Howl and Chrestomanci looked at each other. Chrestomanci's mouth was hanging open, and Howl knew that his own was, too. Chrestomanci recovered first. "That was… easy."

 

It hurt, wrestling back all the power that he had been gathering, ready for the most epic battle of his entire life. It seemed to hurt Chrestomanci, too. Either that, or he was suffering from indigestion.

 

"That was boring," Calcifer complained. "Can I singe him a little? Burn his beard off in patches in an embarrassing fashion?"

 

Chrestomanci considered it for a moment. "I don't see why not. After all, he'll never know."

 

Howl managed to close his mouth at last.

 

"Back to the cave, then?" Chrestomanci grimaced. "I hope this Idris person isn't watching. It might not look good if we are observed carrying the body of an old man across the mountain. I have no desire to end up on the front of some provincial newspaper, or answering questions from the police. Perhaps a little teleport?"

 

"You killed him, Howell Jenkins!" Megan shrieked. "I always knew you'd end up in jail! It's the only place for you. I hope they throw away the key."

 

Neil's eyes were like saucers. "That was so cool, Uncle Howl. Wait until I tell my friends."

 

Howl turned to Sophie, and his mouth fell open again. It really was becoming a most embarrassing habit. He snapped it shut again, but when he spoke, his voice still trembled. "You're fading." He could see the shape of the mountains faintly through Sophie's body. He could see people moving around behind the outline of her face. He grabbed her hand, and his own hand went right through it. "Chrestomanci!" he shouted. "She's fading."

 

"Of course." Chrestomanci paused with Merlin's body half off the ground and half on it, hair and hands trailing in the mud. "He's falling into deeper sleep. The doors are closing."

 

He pawed at her hand. It was like trying to grasp hold of air. "But she won't…"

 

"She'll be fine," Chrestomanci assured him. "She's just going back home."

 

"But it's my home too!" Howl felt fear fluttering inside him like wings. "I want to go with her."

 

"Then you can never come back." Chrestomanci looked at him intently. "The door should never have been opened. You have seen the effects of travelling between this world and Ingary. If you go to Ingary, you will never return to Wales. You will live and die there, and never see your home again."

 

"Yes!" Howl shouted. "I want to go! I want to live in Ingary." He threw himself on Merlin's body, trying to sink through him into his dreams. "I want to go…" and Sophie faded entirely, like mist on a summer's morning, and Calcifer said something, and he waded through dark fog and rain… and woke to find himself lying on something green, with flowers tickling his cheek.

 

"You came with me." Sophie threw her arms around him and plastered him with kisses.

 

Howl luxuriated in her embrace. "Did you ever doubt it?"

 

The children tugged at Sophie's skirts. Morgan looked sulky and was covered in cat hairs, so Howl presumed that he had been dragged from a lovely, romping game with one of the cats of Chrestomanci Castle. Bethan's lip trembled in the way that it always did when she was baffled. She would be screaming within a minute.

 

Howl looked up at the Ingary sunset, and the rooftops and towers of home. I can never go back to Wales again, he thought. He felt surprisingly little regret. This was home now, and he had never truly realised it before. There had always been that door open to Wales. There had always been trips back, and dreams that one day, if things got too difficult in Ingary, he would be able to retire to a nice little cottage on the mountains of the land where he was born.

 

There was time for sadness later, but for now, all he felt was contentment. All he wanted to do was take his wife and family home, and have a good dinner, and perhaps choose a new suit to celebrate the occasion.

 

"Come on." He stood up, holding his hands out to his family, and they started walking.

 

"Does this mean we'll never see Chrestomanci again?" Sophie wondered.

 

Howl said nothing. That hadn't occurred to him. Ingary was not supposed to exist. Travelling to and fro from Ingary opened up rifts that had awful consequences. But Chrestomanci was a special case. He always said he was a special case. Surely…

 

"I wonder if they got Merlin safely hidden in the cave," Sophie said, "without your strength to go into making the barrier."

 

"He had Calcifer to help." Calcifer… Calcifer had not come back with them. He had threatened to stay with Chrestomanci, and it seemed that he had done so. Not that Howl minded, of course. Not that he minded at all. He would never miss that treacherous spark. He would never dream of considering life a little more empty, for being without him.

 

Sophie clapped her hands to her mouth. "And Gwendolen! My magic isn't like anyone else's – you keep saying that. No-one will be able to turn her back. She'll be a three-year-old forever." She gasped even louder. "A three-year-old beetle."

 

Howl laughed. It did a little to fill the emptiness that had crept into him now that Sophie had mentioned Chrestomanci and Calcifer. Not that he missed them, of course. Not that he would ever miss them.

 

"There he is!" someone shouted.

 

Howl turned around wearily to see a small group of black-clad guards rushing towards him in the unmistakeable manner of people who wanted to hunt him down and do uncomfortable things to him.

 

Sophie rolled her eyes. "Not again!"

 

"Home, sweet home," Howl sighed, but there was something comforting in being chased. It was, at least, familiar. But this time he had his children with him. He would not stand for the usual messy game of hunting and hiding. 

 

"Hold tight." Howl transported them back home in an instant, and put a misdirection spell outside, so anyone passing would think the house was a large kennel for a pampered dog.

 

"What kept you?" Calcifer said from the hearth.

 

"You came back!" Howl could not keep himself from grinning like an idiot.

 

"Well," Calcifer mumbled, "one gets tired of spotless hearths after a while. And you need someone to haul your sorry self out of trouble."

 

"That's my job," Sophie pointed out.

 

"Yes. Well…" Calcifer sparked with awkwardness. If a fire demon could blush, then he was blushing. "That Chrestomanci isn't as much fun to tease. He's too perfect. You, on the other hand, are a mass of faults. It's fun."

 

"I don't know why you think so." Howl folded his arms. "I certainly derive no please from your impudence."

 

"Then I won't pass on his message," Calcifer said sulkily, "not if you're going to squash me and stamp on my rights. I won't tell you that he said that for him, there is always a way into worlds. I won't tell you that Millie has promised you some cheese-cake, and that Gwendolen got sat on accidentally, and is a little rumpled but will live. Oh, but I will tell you this. I found out what you turned into that last time. It's hilarious. I'll never let you live it down."

 

Howl lunged at him. "What? What is it, you horrible demon?"

 

"Ah yes, I will most certainly tell you that." Calcifer raced away up the chimney, laughing.

 

"What?" Howl turned plaintively to Sophie. "What did I turn into?"

 

"Let's have some dinner first," Sophie said. "It's good to be home."

 

Howl surveyed his battered living room. The chimney rang to the echo of Calcifer's laughter, and Morgan and Bethan were already destroying anything they could lay their hands on. The apprentices had filled the bathroom with stink, and groups of angry guards were patrolling outside, scratching their heads and wondering why this enormous dog kennel had suddenly appeared in the richer end of town.

 

"Yes." Howl sank into his chair, only grimacing a tiny bit when he heard something unmentionable squelch beneath it. "It's good to be home."

 

And it was good, and it was home.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always great, of course. Instead of email, you can leave comments on my Livejournal post of this story, if you like. You don't need an LJ account to do this, since anonymous commenting is fine.

 

This story was surprisingly hard to write. My other DWJ stories have been incredibly easy to write, and have pretty much written themselves, but this one was slow going. The main reason for this was that "A Tale of Two Wizards" was very big on the humour. There were a lot of obvious topics that Chrestomani and Howl could talk about (i.e. bicker about), and even the actual plot was on the humorous side, with all the storybook parodies. As a result, I wanted this sequel to have the same tone, but it kept wanted to turn more serious. It felt as if I was wobbling somewhere between humour and angst, and failing to do either properly.

 

It was only when I'd struggled to the end, and went back to reread it, that I realised that I was fairly happy with it after all. There was more humour in it than I'd realised, and I think the more serious tone fits. The first story was all about first impressions, but in this story Howl and Chrestomanci have become friends (of a sort), and it's time for them to buckle down and tackle an actual plot.

 

So, anyway, I'll be quiet now. My next story will be a long one in the "The Dark is Rising" fandom, but I hope I'll return to DWJ again one day. I don't currently have an idea for another story, but one will probably pop into my mind one day.