They were going to hurt him. They were going to kill him. "Get away!" Howl cried. "Go away!" He cowered away, swatting blindly with his hands, like someone menaced by a swarm of disagreeable bees. Panic always brought the magic freely, and he snapped out the required words.
Nothing happened. He tried again, even more desperately, and once again nothing changed. The army had them surrounded, and Howl and Chrestomanci were the centre of a wheel in which all the spokes were made of spears.
"I can't," he gasped. "They're immune to magic."
"Yes." Chrestomanci looked shaken, as if this was the first time he had ever been thwarted. Howl was too afraid to be able to gloat as much as he would have liked. He saved it up for later.
"We have you now," their leader hissed. "We will take you back to our fastness for torments unimaginable, after which you will do my bidding."
"I hope you do not think us impolite," Chrestomanci said, "but we would rather not accept your invitation, temptingly-phrased as it is."
"Don't provoke him!" Howl hissed. He jostled forward, careful not to get too close to the spears. This involved standing on Chrestomanci's toe. "We are mighty princes," he told the black-robed man. "Our army is just over that hill. There. Look! I can see them coming! Behind you!"
"Mighty princes!" Chrestomanci echoed. "I thought you said not to provoke them."
The spears jabbed forward. Howl howled in pain as the tip of a speak penetrated his sleeve, tearing the fabric. "Are you hurt, by dear fellow?" Chrestomanci asked in concern, but Howl just shook his head, too angry and hurt to frame words. His favourite suit! Torn! Irreplaceable!
"Come," hissed the commander of the fell host, tall on the horse that was not quite a horse. "Come, or we kill you where you stand."
Howl had his hand clapped to the tear in his sleeve. He could feel his stylishness seeping away through the jagged tear like blood. He refused to stand here and let them treat him like this. He tried his magic one more time, giving it everything he had.
This time, the fell host flickered just for a moment, as if they had almost disappeared, and then thought better of it.
"Ah!" Chrestomanci proclaimed. "I see how it is. Where exactly are you trying to transport them, my dear fellow?"
"A hundred miles away," Howl said through gritted teeth. "In that direction, if you need to know." He gestured with his chin. One hand was nursing his poor wounded sleeve, and the other was ready to guard against five hundred spears, should they choose to go for his throat, or maybe, he thought, just to push Chrestomanci onto their points.
"I went for the other direction," Chrestomanci said. "It seems as if our magic cancelled each other's out, the poor thing. I sometimes like the think of magic as being alive, don't you? It's surely rushing around in a terrible flap now, not sure who to listen to."
The spears edged closer. The eyes of the leader turned a darker red, and smoke issued from his fell steed's nostrils. It smelled foul.
"I thought you couldn't do anything," Howl hissed. "Silver weapons, and all."
"I can work magic on the people holding them," Chrestomanci said, "just not on the weapons themselves. When you suddenly find yourself whisked a hundred miles away, you tend not to have the presence of mind to drop your sword, so it goes with you, too. It's the same as clothes. You work the magic on the man. The clothes tend to get caught up in it, too, because they're riding piggy-back on the man."
Howl's mouth was very dry. He had never seen so many blank and merciless eyes before. He felt the tear in his sleeve, and imagined the same tear in his own flesh. "Then don't," he said. "I'll do it this time."
"A big job," Chrestomanci said. He took of his hat and brushed some dust of it, though his movements were greatly impeded by the fact that twenty spears were almost impaling him on all sides. "Why don't you take the weapons, and I'll take the men."
"Why should I have the easy job?" Howl protested. "You think you're so powerful and high-and-mighty, but I'm just as…"
"Because I can't do the weapons," Chrestomanci said emphatically, his eyes glittering like stones. "I believe we are running out of time for bickering."
"Debate," Howl corrected him haughtily, but the fear was that gibbering inside him was jumping up and down and shouting that Chrestomanci was right. He had to get rid of these people, and now, or he would die, and that was bound to hurt.
With a defiant glare at Chrestomanci, and a shameful squawk as a spear jabbed at his throat, Howl plucked the spears from the soldiers' hands and thrust them somewhere vaguely west. An instant later, before they had started their cries of horror and outrage, the men themselves disappeared.
Chrestomanci lowered his hands. "I suppose I ought to have asked you which direction you were going. After all, it would never do if we had transported fell host and weapons to the same place, and that place was full of innocents." He flapped his hand in a casual fashion. "I left you one, by the way."
The leader remained, glowering on his horse. As he brought his hand up, streaming blackness like a rift in reality, Howl felt the assault of cold magic on his brain. It hurt almost as much as the hangover. "He's a wizard," he gasped through the pain, supporting one hand with the other as he grappled for a while, conquered him, and sent him a hundred miles to the south.
He quite deliberately left the clothes behind, just to prove that he could.
"Interesting choice." Chrestomanci raised his eyebrow. "I should have thought of that. After all, you can hardly have a children's book in which armies go around naked. I doubt it would have ruined her plans, but it might at least have caused her an interesting challenge."
Howl slowly lowered his trembling hand. The issue with the clothes had been an extra exertion, and painful exertion was in general to be avoided, but he was glad he had done it.
"Still," Chrestomanci said, "you could perhaps have chosen the cream bun approach. Presumably there is now a large heap of silver weapons lying unattended somewhere in the middle of nowhere, just waiting for someone unscrupulous to come along."
Howl wished fiercely that he had turned the spears to cream buns. It would serve Chrestomanci right if eating magically transformed silver made him violently sick.
Chrestomanci picked up the discarded black robe, and dropped it with a grimace of disgust. "I simply cannot understand," he said, "why these dark lords insist on living in such dismal and uncomfortable surroundings. If you were a dark lord, my dear Howl, wouldn't you choose to live in luxury, with good clothes and good food and beautiful servants, rather than in a looming ruin draped in black, waited on by twisted monstrosities?"
"Maybe they do," Howl said, remembering his own moving castle, so dark and terrible outside, and so different within. He pointed at the ruin on the hill. "Maybe it looks completely different inside. You have to keep up appearances, after all, when you are trying to make everyone afraid of you."
"An interesting idea." Chrestomanci was nodding slowly. "I am particularly eager to get home now. I am eager to confirm or deny your hypothesis, by sneaking into one or two mountain fastnesses of my acquaintance. I do sincerely hope that I will find the dark lord within, wearing an apron, and playing with kittens on the couch."
"I want to get home, too," Howl found himself saying, his voice more disconsolate than he would have liked.
Chrestomanci sighed. "So would I. I missed my daughter's birthday party last year. State visit, and all that. And what do we have to look forward to here? Many more encounters like that one, I expect, each one more 'exciting' than the last."
Howl sat down cross-legged on the floor. "Then I'm not playing."
Chrestomanci raised his eyebrow.
"I am not playing!" Howl bellowed, augmenting his voice with magic so the very fabric of the earth trembled. "Do whatever you like, because I'm not playing."
Chrestomanci grimaced. "Maybe not wise, my dear Howl. She may take it as a challenge."
"I don't care." Howl folded his arms. "I'll get rid of them like I got rid of the last one. I will make a terrible story. The wizard snaps his fingers, and - oh, look! - there goes another army."
"I can see there will be quite a motley assortment of people gathering a hundred miles away, as the day goes on," Chrestomanci said. "Are you planning on leaving them clothed this time?"
Howl shook his head. He tried to look defiant, but had a nasty feeling it looked a little sulky.
"It's a promising idea," Chrestomanci said, in the humouring tone of someone who thought it anything but, "but I would recommend a slightly more long-term approach."
Howl refused to ask what it was, though he could tell Chrestomanci wanted him to.
It did not puncture Chrestomanci's confidence one little bit. "Cast your mind back to the story our friend in the hideout told us," he said, as if he was lecturing to adoring crowds. "He and his 'lads' were snatched from their old life, dumped down here, and pretty much left to fend for themselves. I would take my life on the fact that it was the same with our dark lord friend. I expect he was busy conquering some hapless land somewhere, and started to think that perhaps he had conquered enough, and would settle down. Maybe he started to grow tired of the fire and brimstone, and thought it would be more rewarding to rule through love, not fear."
"He grew boring," Howl said, "just like us. I understand." He glared at Chrestomanci. "I'm not stupid, you know."
"I know you aren't." The mocking tone vanished completely from Chrestomanci's voice, and he sounded completely serious.
"Because I do my best thinking when I'm being obnoxious and arrogant," Chrestomanci admittedly cheerfully. "It's just how it is."
Howl grunted, not at all convinced.
"As I was saying," Chrestomanci continued, not cowed at all, "after our dark lord and his host were brought here in order to be more interesting, they must have taken up residence in that ruin. They saw us coming, and sallied forth. It is nothing more than that."
"Nothing more?" Howl laughed as harshly as he could. "It was quite enough."
"But what I mean is this," Chrestomanci declared, his eyes shining with excitement. "She brings people here; she doesn't control them. She is not throwing armies and foes at us like darts at a board. She's made her… set? Is that what you call it? She has filled it with her actors, but there is no script. After all, that would defeat the purpose. She has no stories of her own. She wants us to wander around, bumping into our fellow victims, and have adventures together. Then she will write them down."
Howl still had no idea what point Chrestomanci was trying to make. His arms were beginning to ache from being held tightly folded for too long, and he had pins and needles in his crossed legs. His head was pounding, and he was horribly thirsty. He was stuck here in a stupid place with a stupid, horrible, arrogant man. "I wish I could slither out of this," he muttered.
"But you can." Chrestomanci smiled benignly.
Howl struggled to his feet. "Why didn't you say so?" If there was a way out, he would take it in a shot. Back to Sophie - he'd even take his scolding without argument, and apologise for as long as it took - back to his children, back home. He would never have to see Chrestomanci again, or…
"Not yet," Chrestomanci said, "and not like that." His expression turned vague, but his eyes were cold and gleaming. "After all, surely neither of us would dream of running home and leaving this world intact. Neither of us would dream of walking away, leaving all the other prisoners trapped here, and this woman at liberty to do this again to others?"
Yes, Howl wanted to say. Of course I would. If there's a way back, then I'm through it. Why should I care about the others, as long as I'm safe?
He could not say it. He could not even believe it. He had never hated Chrestomanci so much.
"She is not in control," Chrestomanci said quietly. "She brings us here, but we can write our own script."
"What about the silver weapons?" Howl asked. "That felt like her script."
"Presumably one of her cast is a silversmith." Chrestomanci flapped his hand, dismissing Howl's objection. "I am not denying that she chooses people who have the potential for good adventures. All I am saying is that she cannot control the adventures. And that is the heart of my plan."
"Your plan." Howl sat down again. "Do your plan, then. Let me know when it fails."
"But I need you." Chrestomanci crouched down in front of Howl, and this time he did not even tug his trousers up. "I need your skills. I cannot do this myself."
"Skills?" Howl was flattered despite himself. "Magic?"
"No." Chrestomanci lowered his voice to a whisper, and Howl belated remembered that the foul spying woman could hear every word they said. "Your skills as a slitherer-outer, if that does indeed mean what I hope it means."
Howl grunted. He thought he ought to be offended, but a foolish part of him wanted to swell with pride. Take that, Chrestomanci. I can do something that you can't do!
"Yes." Chrestomanci clapped Howl on the shoulder. "Fancy saving a world again, Howl?"
Howl refused to nod. He refused to. But he stood up, as dignified as a king, and led the way to he knew not what.