‘Only a fool would make a deal with you,’ Bradamant snapped. She’d taken cover behind a large free-standing cabinet.
‘Accurate but impertinent.’ The holes in Alberich’s forehead were bloodless, and unnaturally dark, with neither flesh nor bone visible. He raised his hand, palm towards Bradamant. ‘The greater lords of the Fae don’t manifest in their true form in the physical worlds. Do you know why?’
‘Their chaos is too great,’ Bradamant answered, her tone as sharp as if she was being questioned in class. ‘They would unmake a world.’
‘Exactly,’ Alberich purred. ‘And you wouldn’t want that.’ The very air began to shudder around his hand. It smoked as if his flesh was liquid nitrogen, cold enough to burn a hole in reality. ‘And to prevent that manifestation, I only need one of you with your skin intact . . .’
Irene breathed. He hadn’t forbidden her to do that. And she was not going to accept the binding he had set on her. She was a Librarian, and while that made her the Library’s servant, it was also a protection. The Language was her freedom. Bradamant had told her to move freely. She could not allow . . .
and her brand was a weight across her back, a heavy burden, trying to force her to her knees
. . . she would not . . .
white hot iron, searing into her
. . . permit him to do this. She refused to submit. Even if he was a monster, something that had killed greater Librarians than herself, she was not going to accept his binding.
Irene opened her mouth. The tiny movement of parting her lips seemed to take years as she watched dark fire blossom around Alberich’s hand. She sought for something to distract him, to give her time to invoke the Library. And it came to her in a burst of inspiration. ‘Jennifer Mooney’s skin! Get off that body now!’
And it did. In rags and tatters, like a piece of clothing being ripped apart along the seams. The flame around Alberich’s hand died, and he opened his mouth wide in a howl of pain. The dress disintegrated, falling apart like the pale fragments of skin. What lay behind it was so painful to Irene’s eyes that she had to turn and shield them with her hand. Behind the stolen skin, Alberich was a living hole into some place or universe that should not exist on any human plane. In that brief moment she had seen living muscle, tendon and blood – but also colours and masses that left burning spaces on her retinas. She’d seen things moving which bent the light around them and shifting structures which made no sense. All her reality suddenly seemed as fragile as a curtain which someone was about to rip through at any moment. Irene was aware that she was screaming, and she could hear Bradamant crying out as well. Yet behind it all was Alberich, his voice higher than any human’s normal pitch, screaming in pure rage and pain.
So that’s why he has to wear a skin, her thoughts rattled, as though the words could form a chain to sanity, link by link. So that’s why he has to wear a skin . . .
Alberich turned and pointed at her, and reality warped in the wake of his gesture. The wooden floor rotted under her feet, and mouths opened in it to gulp at dead silverfish and bite at her ankles. Thick knots of webbing dropped from the ceiling, full of spiders and drifting ash.
‘They’ll come for you,’ Alberich whispered. His voice had changed again; no longer female, or the voice of Aubrey, but something else. Something that hummed like the keys of an out-of-tune piano, just missing normal human harmonies to strike out a more painful music. ‘You’ve hurt me and I’ll hurt you in turn, I’ll give you to the White Singers and the Fallen Towers . . .’
A fold of spiderweb fell across Irene’s face, and the sheer horror of having to drag it away, feeling the spiders begin to crawl into her hair, somehow yanked her back into sanity. Her horror turned from something alien and bone deep, into more mundane human disgust. She needed a moment to speak the Library’s name and so invoke it. That had been the plan. Minimal and pitiful as it was, that had been the plan. But Alberich would know it the moment she began, and she had his full attention. She’d never get the word out.
Bradamant was screaming. No help from that quarter. And Vale was unconscious. She hoped. Better unconscious than dead.
Glass cracked and splinters from another display case ripped into her dress, distorting into glass singing birds with bright claws and edged beaks. She flung her arm up to shield her face, and a glass bird lashed at her hand, thrashing wings leaving deep scratches. Blood ran like ink down her arm.
Of course. A Language was far more than the spoken word, after all.
She clamped her hands shut around the squirming bird, and fell to her knees. She could hear herself screaming in agony as the thing sliced into her palm and fingers, but it seemed somehow distant. The impossibilities around her were far more real and visceral than the pain. She dimly wondered if she was destroying her hand. Again. But set against her life, or her sanity, then the choice was clear.
Through her tangled, cobwebbed hair she saw Alberich raise his hand, perhaps to call up more horrors or deliver the death-blow.
Alberich could have stopped her if she’d tried to speak. He ignored it when she drove the squirming bird into the soupy wood of the floor, as she scraped it along to create a long, blood-filled cut. He merely laughed as more debris came raining down on her shoulders from the now-unstable ceiling. But she needed an excuse to explain her actions. Something he would expect her to try.
Irene raised both hands, pointing the bloody glass bird at him. ‘Floor!’ she screamed in the Language. ‘Swallow Alberich!’