The heaving mass of rotten wood surged round his feet, but he remained above it as if walking on water. ‘Let’s try that the other way around, shall we?’ he laughed at her. ‘Go down and drown in it!’
She was already on her knees. She felt the wood slurp upwards around her legs like thick mud, sliding up to her thighs. It didn’t soak through the skirts of her gown like water, but pressed against her like hungry lips. She had a moment of panic – what would happen if her idea didn’t work? She let herself scream and, driven by the energy of that terror, sliced the glass bird into the remaining floor. And again and again, as she sank further into the wood, as if she were trying to save herself. Her blood spattered onto the scored lines, as the wood closed around her waist. The bird’s marks stood clear in the slowly oozing floor. Maybe because it was written in the Language, or just because it had to work or she was worse than dead.
‘Beg me and I’ll save you,’ Alberich said gleefully. ‘Beg me and I’ll make you my favoured student, my own sweet child – ’
The cobwebbing covered her eyes now. She was working blind.
But some things she knew even in the dark.
‘No,’ she said, and cut the final line into place. The symbol representing the Library itself showed clearly in the rippling wood between them.
The Library didn’t arrive like a roaring dragon or waves of chaos. But there was a light in the room that hadn’t been there before, more penetrating and clearer than the fluttering gaslamps. The spiderwebs that had clung to her face and shoulders flaked away as fine dust. The Library’s authority pulsed through the room in a steady whisper, like pages turned in slow motion, and stability followed. The floor was now firm where Irene knelt on it, and the glass in her hand was sharp, but it wasn’t a living bird. The light even muted the horror of Alberich’s form, turning it to something seen as if through dull glass, retreating further and further away . . .
He was actually slowly withdrawing. The Library’s presence was driving him back, and though its touch felt welcoming to her, like a feeling of home, it was forcing Alberich away. And if the sounds he was making were any judge, his expulsion was pure agony.
He hadn’t quite finished with her yet, though. Blackness flared in his eyes and his open mouth. ‘You call this a victory, Ray?’
And then his back touched the wall, and he started moving through it. The wall thinned to translucency around him as he struggled, partly immersed, like amber around a prehistoric insect.
Then, as they watched, Alberich’s back arched, and he screamed – but this was on a different scale than anything they’d heard so far. Irene felt her heart lurch in unwanted sympathy as she saw the punishment that he was suffering – Alberich was crucified between the reality of the Library and the barrier that Kai had created outside, a squirming thing of chaos trapped between two surfaces of reality.
Irene realized that she hadn’t the remotest idea what would happen next. She didn’t know. She didn’t care as long as it got him away from here. There was no place for that sort of unreality in this world. It was abhorrent. What had he done to himself to become this? What sort of bargains had he struck?
‘Release me . . .’ Alberich choked out. Blood drooled from his mouth. ‘You can’t trust the dragons – they’ll turn on you as well – release me and I’ll tell you.’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Bradamant spat. She was pulling herself up off the floor, her gown in shreds, leaning on the wreckage of a chair to support herself. ‘Do you really think we’d let you go now?’
Thank you for so helpfully stating the obvious, Irene thought, but managed to keep it to herself. She simply shook her head. A slow-burning flame of something that might be hope was kindling inside her. What they’d done had hurt Alberich. It had frightened him.
They might actually win.
She hadn’t realized how much she’d assumed they’d already lost.
‘You’ll regret this,’ Alberich whispered in the Language.
The light increased, and he decreased in proportion, fading back and away from them like a disappearing stain. His last scream rang through the room, shattering the remaining glass and throwing books from the shelves.
Irene caught a last glimpse of his face, a human face livid with rage, as he vanished.
‘Irene!’ Bradamant was suddenly there and she’d lost a few moments of time. She’d been watching Alberich vanish and now Bradamant had an arm round her shoulder and was making her sit down. Vale – hadn’t Vale been unconscious? – was fussing over her hands. ‘Irene, listen, I promise I won’t take it,’ Bradamant was saying. ‘I will give you my word in the Language right now, if you like, and Vale is here too as witness. If you let go of that book it will make it a lot easier for us to take care of your hands. Irene, please, listen to me, say something to me here . . .’
The door burst open. Again. ‘Irene!’ That was Kai shouting. Irene could only hope that no civilians were close enough to hear it. ‘Bradamant! What have you done to her?’
Plus ten for genuine concern for my welfare, Irene decided, minus several thousand for perception.
‘Please,’ Vale said wearily. ‘It was that Alberich person. Your plan worked perfectly, but I’m afraid that Miss Winters is in shock. If you would just help us persuade her to relax, so that we can bandage her hands – I have some brandy here.’