“Keep your mind on the Witch!” the horse beside Sophie yelled.
The Witch sprang into being, standing on the righthand cloud, in a whirl of flame-colored robe and streaming red hair, with her arms raised to invoke further magic. As Howl turned and looked at her, her arms came down. Howl’s cloud erupted into a fountain of rose-colored flame. Heat from it swept across the harbor, and the stones of the wall steamed.
“It’s all right!” gasped the horse.
Howl was on the tossing, nearly sinking ship below. He was a tiny black figure now, leaning against the bucking mainmast. He let the Witch know she had missed by waving at her cheekily. The Witch saw him the instant he waved. Cloud, Witch, and all at once became a savagely swooping red bird, diving at the ship.
The ship vanished. The mermaids sang a doleful scream. There was nothing but sulkily tossing water where the ship had been. But the diving bird was going too fast to stop. It plunged into the sea with a huge splash.
Everyone on the quayside cheered. “I knew that wasn’t a real ship really!” someone behind Sophie said.
“Yes, it must have been an illusion,” the horse said wisely. “It was too small.”
As proof that the ship had been much nearer than it looked, the waves from the splash reached the harbor wall before Michael had stopped speaking. A twenty-foot green hill of water rode smoothly sideways across it, sweeping the screaming mermaids into the harbor, rolling every moored ship violently sideways, and thudding in swirls round the harbor master’s hut. An arm came out of the side of the horse and hauled Sophie back toward the quay. Sophie gasped and stumbled in knee-high gray water. The dog-man bounded beside them, soaked to the ears.
They had just reached the quay, and the boats in the harbor had all just rolled upright, when a second mountain of water rolled over the harbor wall. Out of its smooth side burst a monster. It was a long, black, clawed thing, half cat, half sea lion, and it came racing down the wall toward the quay. Another burst out of the wave as it smashed into the harbor, long and low too, but scalier, and came racing after the first monster.
Everyone realized that the fight was not over yet and splashed backward hurriedly against the sheds and houses on the quayside. Sophie fell over a rope and then a doorstep. The arm came out of the horse and dragged her upright as the two monsters streaked past in a scatter of salt water. Another wave swirled over the harbor wall, and two more monsters burst out of that. They were identical to the first two, except the scaly one was closer to the catlike one. And the next rolling wave brought two more, closer together yet.
“What’s going on?” Sophie squawked as this third pair raced past, shaking the stones of the jetty as they ran.
“Illusions,” Michael’s voice said out of the horse, “Some of them. They’re both trying to fool one another into chasing the wrong one.”
“Which is who?” said Sophie.
“No idea,” said the horse.
Some of the onlookers found the monsters too terrifying. Many went home. Others jumped down into the rolling ships to fend them off from the quay. Sophie and Michael joined the hard core of watchers who set off through the streets of Porthaven after the monsters. First they followed a river of sea water, then huge, wet paw prints, and finally white gouges and scratches where the claws of the creatures had dug into the stones of the street. These led everyone out at the back of the town to the marshes where Sophie and Michael had chased the shooting star.
By this time all six creatures were bounding black dots, vanishing into the flat distance. The crowd spread out into a ragged line on the bank, staring, hoping for more, and afraid of what they might see. After a while no one could see anything but empty marsh. Nothing happened. Quite a few people were turning away to leave when of course everyone else shouted, “Look!” A ball of pale fire rolled lazily up in the distance. It must have been enormous. The bang that went with it only reached the watchers when the fireball had become a spreading tower of smoke. The line of people all winced at the blunt thunder of it. They watched the smoke spread until it became part of the mist on the marshes. They went on watching after that. But there was simply peace and silence. The wind rattled the marsh weeds, and birds began to dare to cry again.
“I reckon they must have done for one another,” people said. The crowd gradually split into separate figures hurrying away to jobs they had left half done.
Sophie and Michael waited until the very last, when it was clear that it was indeed all over. Then they turned slowly back into Porthaven. Neither of them felt like speaking. Only the dog-man seemed happy. He sauntered beside them so friskily that Sophie was sure he thought Howl was done for. He was so pleased wi
th life that when they turned into the street where Howl’s house was and there happened to be a stray cat crossing the road, the dog-man uttered a joyful bark and galloped after it. He chased it with a dash and a skitter straight to the castle doorstep, where it turned and glared.
“Geroff!” it mewed. “This is all I needed!”
The dog backed away, looking ashamed.
Michael clattered up to the door. “Howl!” he shouted.
The cat shrank to kitten size and looked very sorry for itself. “And you both look ridiculous!” it said. “Open the door. I’m exhausted.”
Sophie opened the door and the cat crawled inside. The cat crawled to the hearth, where Calcifer was down to the merest blue flicker, and, with an effort, got its front paws up onto the chair seat. There it grew rather slowly into Howl, bent double.
“Did you kill the Witch?” Michael asked eagerly, taking off his cloak and becoming himself too.
“No,” said Howl. He turned round and flopped into the chair, where he lay looking very tired indeed. “All that on top of a cold!” he croaked. “Sophie, for pity’s sake take off that horrible red beard and find the bottle of brandy in the closet—unless you’ve drunk it or turned it into turpentine, of course.”
Sophie took off her cloak and found the brandy and a glass. Howl drank one glass off as if it were water. Then he poured out a second glass, and instead of drinking it, he dripped it carefully on Calcifer. Calcifer flared and sizzled and seemed to revive a little. Howl poured a third glass and lay back sipping it. “Don’t stand staring at me!” he said. “I don’t know who won. The Witch is mighty hard to come at. She relies mostly on her fire demon and stays behind out of trouble. But I think we gave her something to think about, eh, Calcifer?”
“It’s old,” Calcifer said in a weak fizzle from under his logs. “I’m stronger, but it knows things I never thought of. She’s had it a hundred years. And it’s half killed me!” He fizzled a bit, then climbed further out of his logs to grumble, “You might have warned me!”
“I did, you old fraud!” Howl said wearily. “You know everything I know.”
Howl lay sipping brandy while Michael found bread and sausage for them to eat. Food revived them all, except perhaps the dog-man, who seemed subdued now Howl was back after all. Calcifer began to burn up and look his usual blue self.