"Stop!" a voice shrieked. "Stop doing this!"
"Ah, our captor comes at last." Chrestomanci turned round slowly. "No," he said, quiet mildly. "You know we will not."
It was indeed a woman. She was a few years older than Howl, and might once have been pretty, had her face not been soured by ill-temper. Her clothes showed a distressing lack of style, and her hair looked as if it had not been cut for whole days.
"Stop!" She stamped her foot. "I command you!"
Chrestomanci looked at her as if she was nothing. "You have no right to command us, my good woman."
"Yes I do," she spluttered. "You're fictional characters. You're my fictional characters. I can command you as much as I like. Without me, you wouldn't even exist."
"A lie." Chrestomanci studied the back of his hand, and politely covered an elegant yawn. "You may have written about us, but you did not create us. We are free to do whatever we like."
"But… But…" She reined in her fury with visible effort, and resorted to pleading and petulance. "Why would you want to? Why do you want to ruin everything for me?"
It was an amateur effort. Howl could do better in his sleep. He snorted in derision, while Chrestomanci shook his head with a sigh. "If you even have to ask that, my good woman, then you are even more despicable than I thought you were."
"But… But…" She thrust her hand out at the world around her. "I don't understand," she cried. "I've given you everything. I gave you a stage where you could carry on doing just what you've always done. What's wrong with that?"
"Perhaps," Chrestomanci said quietly, "because people like to choose their own stage, and sometimes like to step off it and let others take the bow."
She folded her arms. "Well, then, I don't care. I want you to everything to go back to how it was before you started all this nonsense. I have books to write, you idiot. I have publishers with deadlines, and that Angela Whitcomb yapping at my heels on the bestseller list. I need my stories and I need them now." She clapped her hands. "So get back to it."
"No." Chrestomanci said it quietly, but it left no possible room for argument.
"No." Howl decided it was time for him to join in. For a moment he considered trying to charm her, but he was too angry for that, and besides, he could never bring himself to flirt with a woman with such a painful taste in clothes. "We want to go back home, you see." He considered for a while. "We want everyone to go home."
"You never will," she declared triumphantly.
"Why not?" Chrestomanci asked. He seemed genuinely interested.
"Because I need you, of course." She stamped her foot again. "You're my job. Why do you want to put me out of a job?" She was whining again, sticking out her lower lip. Howl wanted to slap her, but he would never slap a lady, even a sour-faced banshee like this one, and not even Sophie.
"What I fail to understand," Chrestomanci said quietly, "is quite why you need us?"
"For my books, stupid," she told him. "I heard you earlier, figuring it out."
"So I was right." Chrestomanci looked insufferably pleased with himself. "But that's beside the point, my dear woman. The thing is, why do you need to… put us on this stage, as you put it, in order to get your stories?"
"Because… Because…" She threw her hands up in furious frustration.
"Why don't you just make your stories up, like everyone else?" Chrestomanci asked mildly. "I can only assume that you cannot, because of some deficiency of imagination and intellect."
"I can!" she cried.
"Then do so." Chrestomanci's voice as sharp and sudden as a slap. "Let these people go, and make stories up, and earn your money in a honest fashion, not as a slaver."
"You'll pay for that," she vowed, murder in her eyes.
"See what I mean," Chrestomanci hissed at Howl. "I cannot cajole. I always end up making fresh enemies. I should have left it to you." He sighed, with the exaggerated air of someone accepting a duty that was not as painful as he was trying to make out. "Best make the most of it, now it has come to war."
He rounded on the woman, standing taller than ever, tall as a tree, tall as the sky. "Send everyone home," he commanded, "or you will suffer."
Folding her arms defiantly, she laughed. "No, I won't. I've watched you for years, remember. I know you. You're one of the good wizards."
Howl turned his voice to thunder, and his eyes to fire. "No-one has ever called me good," he boomed. "I will punish you. I will do such things…"
She laughed even harder. "Your heart was always soft, even when you didn't have one. That's what my readers loved about you."
"People can change." Howl advanced on her. "It's called character development." He glowered in as terrifying a fashion as he could imagine.
"But they can't change their true nature," she declared confidently. "I know you both. You wouldn't kill a defenceless woman. Besides, if you did, then you'll never get home."
"Yes, we will," Howl said. "If you die, then…" His voice trailed off, embarrassingly caught between thunder and normality. He swore under his breath. No magic, he realised. This woman had no magic at all. She was not the one confining them here. If she died, it would make no difference at all to the spell that had shaped their prison.
"My father," she crowed. "The most powerful wizard in the world, and leader of the Dark Cabal. He did this for me, and if I disappear, if any harm comes to me, if I am crossed in even the tiniest way, then you will pay. You will all pay. Do you want to see the forces of the Cabal unleashed on your little friends over there, with their pathetic banners and their badges and their songs?"
"Ah." Chrestomanci grimaced. "The plot thickens."
Howl had an idea, and acted upon it, without pausing long enough to start worrying about any dangers that went with it. He threw himself at the woman, wrestling her to the ground, and sitting on her back. "Call him here, then," he commanded. "Tell him we'll kill you unless he lets us go."
She twisted and bucked. "Father!" she shrieked. "Father! They're being mean to me again! Make them stop!"
The sky darkened. "Not good," Howl heard Chrestomanci say, as if from far away. The world lurched sickeningly in the rhythm of the woman's struggles. It was like being drunk, but less pleasant.
The world tore apart with a rending sound, like ripped fabric. The rent was bruised and pink, like the sky before a particularly nasty storm. A chill wind brushed Howl's cheek, and he heard a sound like a thousand gnats whispering lies about him. Some of the whispers took on words, and became cries of alarm, and cries of defiance. In ones and twos and crowds, everyone had steadily been arriving, clutching their banners and their weapons, trusting Howl and Chrestomanci to see them home.
"Make him do it," Howl hissed, closing her hands around her throat.
The tear opened up completely, filling all the world with storm and ice. Two men stepped through from the hissing nothingness, shrouded in black, and very tall.
"Your father sends his regrets, my lady," one said, "but he is busy with a working that cannot be interrupted…"
"…but he sends us in his place," the other said. The first man sounded fawning, but this one was impassive, almost bored. "Who is it that offends you this time?"
"This one!" the woman shrieked, through Howl's strangling hands. No. Howl looked down and realised that his hands were barely touching her neck. Apparently it was harder than he thought to bring yourself to try to kill someone, and you had to concentrate on it very hard if you wanted to do it at all. "This one, and that one there, the tall one."
The fawning one raised his hand, eyes glittering in his hood. The thing in his hand was squat and dark, and pointing straight at Chrestomanci. A gun! Howl gasped. Chrestomanci might not know about…
He scrambled off the woman, hurling himself at Chrestomanci, wrestling him to the floor. Something stung him at the top of his arm, and he cried out, rolling with Chrestomanci, then pulling himself up into a crouch.
Chrestomanci rose regally to his feet. "Did you just save my life?" he asked.
"Can't think why," Howl mumbled.
"Magic might have been equally effective," Chrestomanci observed, "and might have occasioned less damage to our clothes."
Howl cursed, pushing him away. "Last time I save your life," he grumbled. "Can't think what came over me."
"I think those guns should disappear," Chrestomanci commented politely. Howl was sulking, so he did not look to see what happened, but he deduced from the various cries that it had happened just as Chrestomanci said.
He fumed. His arm was hurting quite a bit. When he put his hand to the source of the pain, he was horrified to discover that he was bleeding. "I've been shot!" he wailed. He was mortified. Not only had he saved Chrestomanci's life, he had done so at risk to his own, and… "It hurts!" he howled. "I've been shot! It hurts!"
"Only a scratch, me heartie," one of the pirates told him, but a damsel in distress screamed and called him her hero. An otter with a scimitar glowered malevolently at him, but a policeman was making noises about a medal for bravery. Chrestomanci was saying something, too, but Howl could not hear it for the sudden crowd. He did not want to hear it. He refused to listen to that ungrateful, arrogant…
"The ladies love a man with a scar," said a particularly hideous pirate, his ears hacked away to nothing more than stumps.
"A scar!" Howl cried. He pawed madly at his wound, blood smearing all over his fingers. "I'm going to be scarred for life! Maimed! Hideous! Ugly! I can't be ugly! I'd rather die than be ugly!"
He had to shout louder and louder to be heard over the noise. An enormous crowd had gathered, but behind them all was a rumbling, louder and louder with every second. Howl resented it. It seemed to be amassing as a personal attack on him, determined to drown out his entirely justified lamentation.
"And my clothes!" he howled. "Ripped! Ruined! Stained! Blood stains forever. I'll never get the stain out. Never!"
"Howl!" He heard Chrestomanci's voice distant over the crowd and the rumbling. He could barely see, he realised. The sky had darkened until it was almost as black as night, but shot through with hectic pink sparks.
"As if I'm going to talk to him," Howl grumbled, pulling himself to his feet, pushing through the crowd. "Arrogant, horrible…"
"Howl!" Chrestomanci's voice was strained.
The last of the crowd parted. Chrestomanci was locked in battle with a tall figure who could only be the author's father. His face was grey and pointed, but his hair was rich and chestnut. Howl wanted to ask him if it came out of a bottle, and, if so, what shade it was.
"Howl!" It was the faintest squeak. "Help."
Howl swallowed. He looked at Chrestomanci, pale and dishevelled, and then at the dark-clad man who was the leader of a magical cabal, a man who had the power to trap them here. He wanted to run. He thought of the gun, of the wound that had ruined his looks forever. Chrestomanci's fault, and… "You started without me," he reproached him.
"I had no choice," Chrestomanci gasped.
I should run and leave him here, Howl thought, as muttered the words of a spell, and joined his magic with Chrestomanci's.
It was like running into a wall of slime. Dark things coated his mind like grease. "You cannot win," gloated a voice in his head. "I am the strongest wizard in the world, and you have upset my daughter."
"No." It was Chrestomanci who spoke - Chrestomanci who gave up the fight, who pulled away, who withdrew, leaving Howl caught in the dark wizard's clutches like a fly in a spider's web. "We can't beat you. You're right." A sigh. A flick of dust away from the gloves. "It seems like we are trapped here forever, while your darling daughter plays with us as if we were pet mice."
"Yes," the wizard gloated, and something closed round Howl's mind like a vice, choking him, hurting him. It felt like hands on his throat, like hands in his brain, like claws…
"But you, of course, will be trapped here with us," Chrestomanci said, almost casually.
The wizard roared. "You cannot!" The claws tightened, then very slowly loosened their grip. Howl slid heavily to the ground, gasping. "How…?"
"Your world," Chrestomanci said, with a grim smile. "My door."
The wizard turned white with rage.
"My door," Chrestomanci said again. "A door within a door. A prison within a prison. A world within a world. I sealed you in, while you were busy with my friend here. Perhaps we cannot beat you, but we can hold you. Howl?"
Howl rose to his knees, massaging his throat, that hurt as if real hands had closed around it. "You used me as bait!" Red rage clouded his vision. His fingers itched, desperate to do something terrible with green slime.
"Trapped here forever, along with those you have trapped," Chrestomanci continued. "Howl?"
Howl caught the note of urgency in Chrestomanci's voice, and he understood. "Got to do everything myself," he grumbled, as he turned to the crowd and raised his voice, as charming as he had ever been when trying to wriggle out of blame for some childhood misdeed. "There is your enemy," he told them. "There is the oppressor, my… brothers." He felt foolish saying it, but they seemed to like it. "There he is, held by a prison of his own."
"Get him to rant and rage and turn people into frogs," someone shouted. "We'll write it down. It'll make a good story."
"How funny he is when his face goes red like that," chuckled a pretty girl.
"You stopped me from seeing my grandchildren grow up!" screeched an old woman, hitting the dark wizard with her union banner.
"I don't want to be a frog," sobbed a child, but, "hush, you won't be," said the burglar who had adopted him. "These brave wizards will see that you won't."
It was easier than Howl could have hoped for. He stepped back. No other persuasion was necessary. They rounded on the wizard, taunting and teasing and berating him. Whenever he tried to lash out with his magic, Chrestomanci raised his hand and stopped him. Not to be outdone, Howl joined in, too. It was almost enjoyable.
"And this is who it will be forever," Chrestomanci said, zapping spells from his fingers like a child with a water pistol. "A world within a world. A door within a door. A cell within a prison. Of course," he added, "if a prison falls down, so does the cell."
The wizard screamed with rage. "Find a new hobby!" he bellowed at his daughter. "This one is…"
The sound abruptly ceased. A moment later, the screaming started again. "Sloping off again, leaving me alone without a word of explanation, coming home drunk…!"
"Sophie!" Grinning, Howl picked her up, and swung her round.
"And you can't get round me that way." There was only a token effort at anger in her voice.
"I'm sorry," he said. Morgan was racing around noisily in the next room, and upstairs the baby was beginning to sniffle. Calcifer was muttering under his breath, and the apprentices were bickering along the corridor.
Howl smiled. Home. He was home.
"Where were you." Sophie's eyes widened as she noticed the blood on his sleeve. "You're hurt!"
"Just a scratch," Howl said airily, before remembering how nice it felt when Sophie was fussing over him. "It hurts though," he said tragically. "I got it saving someone's life. I saved the world, too. Not this one, but another one."
Actually, it was more accurate to say that they had destroyed a world, since the dark wizard had clearly decided to close down his daughter's playground forever. He wondered what had happened to the others. Presumably they, too, had all returned home - the villains to their lairs, the pirates to their ships, the minions to their castles. He imagined that they would be retiring immediately, or else preaching the cause of trade unions to everyone they met.
"I met a wizard," he said casually, as Sophie rushed off for water and bandages. "An insufferable, arrogant lordly sort of a fellow. Hideous. Horrible. Hateful."
"Hold still," Sophie urged him. "Take off your jacket."
Howl made no move to obey. "At least I'll never have to see him again."
"Howl," Sophie chided him. "Honestly, you're worse than Morgan."
"But you wouldn't have you any other way." Howl smiled happily. "Chrestomanci, his name was. Horrible man. I never want to see him again."
"Be still!" Sophie slapped him gently on the nose, and kissed him on the cheek, standing on tip-toe to do so.
"Chrestomanci," Howl mused. "Chrestomanci…" He held his breath, let it out again. "Chrestomanci."
Chrestomanci appeared. "Oh, good. I hoped you'd do that. Do you fancy going up against this Dark Cabal one day? We have scotched the snake, but not killed it, as the poets say."
"With you?" Howl grunted. "Never."
Sophie cleared her throat and muttered something. Howl could not catch what it was.
Chrestomanci swept off his hat and made her a magnificent bow, quite belying his claim that he was incapable of being charming. "My name is Chrestomanci, Mrs… er... Howl. I assure you I am not 'bad company' and I have never seen the inside of a rugby club in my life. I prefer cricket, personally."
"I have no desire to see you ever again," Howl told him. "Arrogant. Insufferable… And your clothes... I can't be seen with…"
"Perhaps next week, then," Chrestomanci said, with a cautious glance at Sophie, and a grimace at the swelling sound of crying baby.
"Yes," Howl said happily. "Next week."
With a nod, Chrestomanci vanished. "What?" Howl demanded, when Sophie rounded on him with her hands on his hips. "Aren't I allowed to go out with my friends now?"
Sophie snorted, and went to tend to the baby. Howl sat down in the nearest chair, and stretched out his legs, and smiled.
End of "A tale of two wizards"
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