Howl waved it aside. “Bring that body with you to the castle,” he said. “I’ll sort you out there. Sophie and I have to get back before that fire demon finds a way of getting inside my defenses.” He took hold of Sophie’s skinny wrist. “Come on. Where are those seven-league boots?”
Sophie hung back. “But Miss Angorian—!”
“Don’t you understand?” Howl said, dragging at her. “Miss Angorian is the fire demon. If it gets inside the castle, then Calcifer’s had it and so have I!”
Sophie put both hands over her mouth. “I knew I’d made a mess of it!” she said. “It’s been in twice already. But she—it went out.”
“Oh, lord!” groaned Howl. “Did it touch anything?”
“The guitar,” Sophie admitted.
“Then it’s still in there,” said Howl. “Come on!”He pulled Sophie over to the smashed wall. “Follow us carefully,” he shouted back to the scarecrow. “I’m going to have to raise a wind! No time to look for those boots,” he said to Sophie as they climbed over the jagged edges into the hot sunlight. “Just run. And keep running, or I won’t be able to move you.”
Sophie helped herself along with her stick and managed to break into a hobbling run, stumbling among the stones. Howl ran beside her, pulling her. Wind leaped up, whistling, then roaring, hot and gritty, and gray sand climbed around them in a storm that pinged on the pottery fortress. By that time they were not running, but skimming forward in a sort of slow-motion lope. The stony ground sped past underneath. Dust and grit thundered around them, high overhead and streaming far away behind. It was very noisy and not at all comfortable, but the Waste rocketed past.
“It’s not Calcifer’s fault!” Sophie yelled. “I told him not to say.”
“He wouldn’t anyway,” Howl shouted back. “I knew he’d never give away a fellow fire demon. He was always my weakest flank.”
“I thought Wales was!” Sophie screamed.
“No! I left that deliberately!” Howl bellowed. “I knew I’d be angry enough to stop her if she tried anything there. I had to leave her an opening, see? The only chance I had of coming at Prince Justin was to use that curse she’d put on me to get near her.”
“So you were going to rescue the Prince!” Sophie shouted. “Why did you pretend to run away? To deceive the Witch?”
“Not likely!” Howl yelled. “I’m a coward. Only way I can do something this frightening is to tell myself I’m not doing it!”
Oh, dear! Sophie thought, looking round at the swirling grit. He’s being honest! And this is a wind. The last bit of the curse has come true!
The hot grit hit her thunderously and Howl’s grip hurt. “Keep running!” Howl bawled. “You’ll get hurt at this speed!” Sophie gasped and made her legs work again. She could see the mountains clearly now and a line of green below that was the flowering bushes. Even though yellow sand kept swirling in the way, the mountains seemed to grow and the green line rushed toward them until it was hedge high. “All my flanks were weak!” Howl shouted. “I was relying on Suliman being alive. Then when all that seemed to be left of him was Percival, I was so scared I had to go out and get drunk. And then you go and play into the Witch’s hands!”
“I’m the eldest!” Sophie shrieked. “I’m a failure!”
“Garbage!” Howl shouted. “You just never stop to think!” Howl was slowing down. Dust kicked up round them in dense clouds. Sophie only knew the bushes were quite near because she could hear the rush and rattle of the gritty wind in the leaves. They plunged in among them with a crash, still going so fast that Howl had to swerve and drag Sophie in a long, skimming run across a lake. “And you’re too nice,” he added, above the lap-lap of the water and the patter of sand on the water-lily leaves. “I was relying on you being too jealous to let that demon near the place.”
They hit the steamy shore at a slow run. The bushes on either side of the green lane thrashed and heaved as they passed, throwing birds and petals into a whirlwind behind them. The castle was drifting swiftly down the lane toward them, with its smoke streaming back in the wind. Howl slowed down enough to crash the door open, and shot Sophie and himself inside.
“Michael!” he shouted.
“It wasn’t me who let the scarecrow in!” Michael said guiltily.
seemed to be normal. Sophie was surprised to discover what a short time she had really been away. Someone had pulled her bed out from under the stairs and Percival was lying on it, still unconscious, Lettie and Martha and Michael were gathered round it. Overhead, Sophie could hear Mrs. Fairfax’s voice and Fanny’s, combined with ominous swishings and thumpings that suggested that Howl’s spiders were having a hard time.
Howl let go of Sophie and dived toward the guitar. Before he could touch it, it burst with a long, melodious boom. Strings flailed. Splinters of wood showered Howl. He was forced to back away with one tattered sleeve over his face.
And Miss Angorian was suddenly standing beside the hearth, smiling. Howl had been right. She must have been in the guitar all this time, waiting for her moment.
“Your Witch is dead,” Howl said to her.
“Isn’t that too bad!” Miss Angorian said, quite unconcerned. “Now I can make myself a new human who will be much better. The curse is fulfilled. I can lay hands on your heart now.” And she reached down into the grate and plucked Calcifer out of it. Calcifer wobbled on top of her clenched fist, looking terrified. “Nobody move,” Miss Angorian said warningly.
Nobody dared stir. Howl stood stillest of all. “Help!” Calcifer said weakly.
“Nobody can help you,” said Miss Angorian. “You are going to help me control my new human. Let me show you. I have only to tighten my grip.” Her hand that was holding Calcifer squeezed until its knuckles showed pale yellow.
Howl and Calcifer both screamed. Calcifer beat this way and that in agony. Howl’s face turned bluish and he crashed to the floor like a tree falling, where he lay as unconscious as Percival. Sophie did not think he was breathing.