A Tale of Too Many Worlds
by Eildon Rhymer
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.
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."
"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.
Thanks for reading! Especial thanks to anyone who's taken time to comment. It's much appreciated.
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.