“It doesn’t matter what’s down there,” Millard said grimly.
“We’ll have to face it, and that’s that.”
“Fine,” said Enoch. “But Miss Wren had better be down there, too, because rat bites don’t heal quickly.”
“Hollowgast bites even less so,” said Emma, and then she swung her foot onto the ladder.
“Be careful,” I said. “I’ll be right above you.”
She saluted me with her flaming hand. “Once more into the breach,” she said, and began to climb down.
Then it was my turn.
“Do you ever find yourself climbing into an open grave during a bombing raid,” I said, “and just wish you’d stayed in bed?”
Enoch kicked my shoe. “Quit stalling.”
I grabbed the lip of the tomb and put my foot on the ladder.
Thought briefly of all the pleasant, boring things I might’ve been doing with my summer, had my life gone differently. Tennis camp. Sailing lessons. Stocking shelves. And then, through some Herculean effort of will, I made myself climb.
The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.
As Emma and I waited for everyone to climb down, the cold crept into me, degree by degree. The others felt it, too. When Bronwyn reached the bottom, she opened her trunk and handed out the peculiar sheep’s wool sweaters we’d been given in the menagerie. I slipped one over my head. It fit me like a sack, the sleeves falling past my fingers and the bottom sagging halfway to my knees, but at least it was warm.
Bronwyn’s trunk was empty now and she left it behind. Miss Peregrine rode inside her coat, where she’d practically made a nest for herself. Millard insisted on carrying the Tales in his arms, heavy and bulky as it was, because he might need to refer to it at any moment, he said. I think it had become his security blanket, though, and he thought of it as a book of spells which only he knew how to read.
We were an odd bunch.
I shuffled forward to feel for hollows in the dark. This time, I got a new kind of twinge in my gut, ever so faint, as if a hollow had been here and gone, and I was sensing its residue. I didn’t mention it, though; there was no reason to alarm everyone unnecessarily.
We walked. The sound of our feet slapping the wet bricks echoed endlessly up and down the passage. There’d be no sneaking up on whatever was waiting for us.
Every so often, from up ahead, we’d hear a flap of wings or a pigeon’s warble, and we’d pick up our pace a little. I got the uneasy feeling we were being led toward some nasty surprise. Embedded in the walls were stone slabs like the ones we’d seen in the crypt, but older, the writing mostly worn away. Then we passed a coffin, grave-less, on the floor—then a whole stack of them, leaned against a wall like discarded moving boxes.
“What is this place?” Hugh whispered.
“Graveyard overflow,” said Enoch. “When they need to make room for new customers, they dig up the old ones and stick them down here.”
“What a terrible loop entrance,” I said. “Imagine walking through here every time you needed in or out!”
“It’s not so different from our cairn tunnel,” Millard said.
“Unpleasant loop entrances serve a purpose—normals tend to avoid them, so we peculiars have them all to ourselves.”
So rational. So wise. All I could think was, There are dead people everywhere and they’re all rotted and bony and dead and, oh God …
“Uh-oh,” Emma said, and she stopped suddenly, causing me to run into her and everyone else to pile up behind me.
She held her flame to one side, revealing a curved door in the wall. It hung open slightly, but only darkness showed through the crack.
We listened. For a long moment there was no sound but our breath and the distant drip of water. Then we heard a noise, but not the kind we were expecting—not a wing-flap or the scratch of a bird’s feet—but something human.
Very softly, someone was crying.
“Hello?” called Emma. “Who’s in there?”
“Please don’t hurt me,” came an echoing voice.
Or was it a pair of voices?
Emma brightened her flame. Bronwyn crept forward and nudged the door with her foot. It swung open to expose a small chamber filled with bones. Femurs, shinbones, skulls—the dismembered fossils of many hundreds of people, heaped up in no apparent order.
I stumbled backward, dizzy with shock.
“Hello?” Emma said. “Who said that? Show yourself!”
At first I couldn’t see anything in there but bones, but then I heard a sniffle and followed the sound to the top of the pile, where two pairs of eyes blinked at us from the murky shadows at the rear of the chamber.
“There’s no one here,” said a small voice.
“Go away,” came a second voice. “We’re dead.”
“No you’re not,” said Enoch, “and I would know!”
“Come out of there,” Emma said gently. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
Both voices said at once: “Promise?”
“We promise,” said Emma.
The bones began to shift. A skull dislodged from the pile and clattered to the floor, where it rolled to a stop at my feet and stared up at me.
Hello, future, I thought.
Then two young boys crawled into the light, on hands and knees atop the bone pile. Their skin was deathly pale and they peeped at us with black-circled eyes that wheeled dizzyingly in their sockets.
“I’m Emma, this is Jacob, and these are our friends,” Emma said. “We’re peculiar and we’re not going to hurt you.”
The boys crouched like frightened animals, saying nothing, eyes spinning, seeming to look everywhere and nowhere.
“What’s wrong with them?” Olive whispered.
Bronwyn hushed her. “Don’t be rude.”
“Can you tell me your names?” Emma said, her voice coaxing and gentle.
“I am Joel and Peter,” the larger boy said.
“Which are you?” Emma said. “Joel or Peter?”
“I am Peter and Joel,” said the smaller boy.
“We don’t have time for games,” said Enoch. “Are there any birds in there with you? Have you seen any fly past?”
“The pigeons like to hide,” said the larger.