Book 4 Chapter XXII: The Mousetrap

They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths, grey members of a congregation of nightmare... - Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves

Before a terrible storm the world seemed to hold its breath. All sounds were muted and all movement stilled. Abi remembered the first storm she'd seen in Seroyawa, and the way the rain came rushing in from the sea. Somehow her memories got mixed up with unfamiliar ones, of a plain with hills in the distance, and the rain sweeping down from the hills. She knew those were Ilaran's memories. She couldn't tell whether the feeling of being utterly alone against a large and deadly enemy was his memory or what she was feeling right now. Probably both.

What's that memory about? she asked, mainly to distract herself from this awful waiting and the stinging of the wound on her arm.

The battle on the plain of Cselthamáz, Ilaran said.

What happened?

For the next few minutes her attention was absorbed by his account of the battle - a battle that hadn't actually happened because he used geography to his advantage[1].

Pity we can't trick the monsters into leaving without a fight, she thought.

Abi caught a whisper of Ilaran's reaction: Pity you created them in the first place. To her surprise he made an effort to keep that to himself, which he really didn't need to. She knew as well as he did that she was solely to blame for all of this. There was no point in trying to hide from that.

Irímé hovered far overhead, where he could see over the city and keep Shizuki out of harm's way at the same time. Abi stood in his shadow so that she was out of the increasingly-hot sun. When his shadow suddenly moved she looked up. He'd turned to the left and appeared to be staring intently at something. Then he gave a low, rumbling roar.

Abi didn't have to understand what he said to know what he meant. She looked up at Lian. He nodded grimly and stepped out of the doorway so nothing would see him until it was inside the theatre. Even though she knew he was still there Abi suddenly found it hard to see him. It was as if her brain was trying to convince her that he wasn't there any more.

I wish I could do that, she thought.

In the distance she heard a faint noise. It became louder and louder. Soon it was unmistakeably the sound of running feet. Abi turned into her phoenix form and flew up to Irímé's level. From here she saw a large swarm of the monsters rushing towards them. Another group followed a little way behind them. There were only about a hundred in all. Obviously there were more monsters that hadn't answered her call yet. Destroying all of them would take longer than she'd hoped.

Abi turned to Irímé. Shizuki was still coiled around his neck and watching events unfolding with interest, she noticed. Lian and I are going to lock of them as we can into the theatre. You can burn them, and I'll deal with the ones that come later.

She flew over to perch on the wall overlooking the road. Lian climbed up beside her, staying far enough away to be out of danger from her wings. In one hand he held a rope. The other end was tied around the door handle to keep it open.

"When they're all inside I'll close the door," he said.

The two of them watched as the monsters approached. Without looking up the first group streamed through the open door and down the aisle between the rows of seats. They clambered up onto the stage. Some of them flung themselves down and began to lick up the drops of Abi's blood. The second group reached the door as the last of the first group went through it. Both groups swarmed all over the theatre.

Lian pulled the rope. It came off the door handle and the door swung closed.

Abi took to the air. Lian jumped to the ground. It was a much longer fall than any immortal should have been able to survive without at least one broken bone. Lian landed on his feet, straightened up, and stepped away from the wall without showing the slightest hint of pain.

Irímé swooped down until he was hovering just above where the theatre's roof would be if it had one. Somewhat belatedly Abi began to worry that maybe he was the sort of dragon that couldn't breathe fire. Had she ever actually asked him? This would be the worst possible time to learn her assumption was wrong.

Her worries were quickly put to rest. A gust of flames shot from Irímé's mouth. Within minutes most of the monsters had been incinerated. Abi circled overhead and kept an eye out for any attempted escapes. When she saw some of them running for the door she swept down and burnt them. The combination of dragon-fire and phoenix-fire quickly cleared the entire theatre.

Unfortunately it also burnt the stage and many of the chairs to a crisp. Abi kept a mental tally of all the damage and how much it was likely to cost. In addition to that fine to Haliran she would have to pay for repairs to the theatre.

She had no more time to think about that now. Another group of monsters were approaching. Lian opened the door again.

Kitri watched until the last monsters vanished into the distance. She didn't venture out of the carriage yet. There might be some stragglers lagging far behind the main group.

All of the carriages had a small kitchen to provide snacks on long journeys. She left the driver's compartment and went to the kitchen at the back of the carriage. There were packets of rice and tins of fish, but those needed to be cooked. She didn't feel like going to all the trouble of lighting the stove. Instead she found a loaf of bread - fresh enough that it must have been bought the day before - and made herself a sandwich with some cheese. Then she lay down on one of the sofas and tried to sleep.

When she next opened her eyes the sun was high overhead. Kitri sat up and looked out the window. From here she could see all the roads approaching the bridge, and there were no monsters in sight anywhere. The ones ahead had by now had plenty of time to get well out of her way.

She got up and checked her weapons. Then she left the carriage and climbed down the stairs to the station. When she reached the ground she ran for the bridge as fast as her legs would carry her. She didn't stop until she was safely on the other side. Then she climbed another flight of stairs up to a carriage on the other side. This one had silver and red decorations. The choice of red struck her as being in rather bad taste, especially now of all times[2].

Kitri sat down in the driver's compartment and started on the track to Gradoné. All the way there she kept an eye out for the monsters. She didn't see any of them. It was as if they'd vanished into thin air.

That unnerved her more than if she'd seen them on the road.

The trouble with killing the monsters was that Abi had no idea how many there were to kill. Over and over again she and Irímé destroyed groups of them at a time. By her count they'd now killed approximately five hundred. Surely there couldn't be many more than that. And yet every time she thought they might have killed them all, another group would appear.

During a brief lull after destroying one group and while waiting for the next to arrive, she flew down and settled beside Lian. She didn't like to turn back into her immortal form - especially since the wall was narrow for an immortal to stand on - but she couldn't speak to him in her phoenix form. She changed back, and as she'd feared she stumbled and almost fell. Lian grabbed her arm and steadied her.

"Can you sense how many monsters there are left?" Abi asked when she recovered.

Lian's eyes briefly went unfocused and he seemed to be staring right through her. It sent a chill down her spine. Then his eyes went back to normal so quickly that she was left wondering if she'd imagined it.

"I don't think there are many left," he said. "I can't guess at exact numbers, but I'd say less than a hundred." That was reassuring. Abi began to hope they would be able to leave within an hour. Lian continued, "Can't you tell yourself? They're your creations."

Abi shrugged helplessly. When she examined her magic she could sense there was something connected to it, but that was all. She explained this to Lian.

"Try following that connection and seeing where it leads," he suggested. She gave him a dubious look. "Don't worry. I'll help you if something goes wrong."

Oh well. At least his suggestion could hardly make things worse. Abi closed her eyes. It was almost like following Ilaran through his memories and into the Land of the Dead. Only instead of walking into an invisible wall, she took a step forward and suddenly found herself seeing out of dozens of eyes.

Abi blinked. She tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Most of the eyes showed her streets and buildings rushing past too quickly to be identified. Apparently the owners were running somewhere at top speed. Those ones must be the monsters still in the city and heading for the theatre. Only one pair of eyes showed something different. It showed indistinct darkness all around.

Abi counted the number of eyes. "Seventy-six are heading this way," she told Lian. "There's another one that isn't. It must be the one of the spaceship."

"Seventy-six isn't too many," Lian said optimistically. "And the one on the ship will be easy to deal with."

As long as it doesn't bite anyone, Abi thought grimly.

She focused on those eyes. From her perspective she couldn't tell much about what was happening, but she got the impression the monster was confined in a very small space. The indistinct darkness seemed to be walls. It was almost like being in a coffin. In the distance she could hear indistinct voices. Three people, from the sounds of it. All arguing about something.

"Here comes the last group," Lian said.

Abi returned to reality abruptly. She turned back into her phoenix form and took to the air. Lian waited until all the monsters were inside then closed the door again.

When the last monsters were dealt with the four of them gathered at the theatre door. Irímé had landed on the street outside and turned back into an immortal. Shizuki stayed in his snake form and coiled himself around Irímé's chest. Abi also changed back. Lian jumped off the wall.

They looked down at the damage. All of the seats had been reduced to crumpled piles of melted metal. The stage no longer existed. The walls and floor were blackened with smoke. Ash covered everything.

Irímé broke the silence. "What a mess."

Abi nodded solemnly. "I'll find some way to pay the owners for the damage. Maybe if I get a job..." She remembered her aunt's remark about sending her to Tananerl. The idea of asking Ilaran to give her a job suddenly seemed much more sensible.

"I'll help you pay for it," Irímé said. "I mean, I did most of the damage." He suddenly looked worried. "There aren't any more monsters, are there?"

Abi followed the magical connection again. The only pair of eyes left were the ones belonging to the monster on the spaceship. It wasn't surrounded by darkness any more. Instead it was wrapped in chains and being dragged out of the ship.

"Wait a minute," she said. "Something's happening. I have to see this."

"Is it dangerous?" Irímé asked.

"Not yet. Shh!"

She watched as the monster was brought into a large room. From the glimpses Abi got of it, she suspected it was a warehouse. The people holding the chains yanked the monster into a cage. She couldn't see how they did it, but as soon as they closed the door they removed the chains.

The monster flung itself at the bars, snarling and screeching. Abi watched in horror as it tried to tear the bars apart. They were stronger than it was, and eventually it gave up. It paced around its cage like a wild animal, stopping to hiss at its captors when it spotted them.

Something out of the corner of its eye drew Abi's attention. By now the monster had moved on and she couldn't see it any more.

Stop, she ordered.

To her astonishment the monster obeyed. It froze in place and its snarls ceased. For a minute Abi was too surprised to do anything with this newfound discovery. The force of her order wore off and the monster resumed its pacing.

Stop, she repeated. Again it stopped. I could have just ordered them all to stop? Abi thought in disbelief. So much devastation, all this effort to destroy them, and I could have stopped it the whole time?

She'd never felt so furious with herself. If time travel had been possible she would have gone back in time at once and punched her past self in the face for both causing this disaster in the first place and not knowing how to stop it.

The monster continued its pacing. As it turned Abi saw the thing that had attracted her attention before. Her blood ran cold.

Two people stood on the walkway over the monster's cage. They were deep in conversation with each other. One was a woman Abi didn't recognise. In appearance she was perfectly average, unmemorable even, but there was something about her that set Abi's teeth on edge.

The other was Haliran.


Chapter Footnotes:

[1] For more information about this incident, see chapter twelve of book one. (To summarise: Ilaran tricked the enemy into believing he had magically summoned rain.)

[2] Red is the colour of death in Saoridhlém.