We were nearly past when one called out: “You’ll die!”
Emma stopped and turned, defiant. “What was that?”
The man who spoke lounged on a sheet of cardboard, his yellow eyes peeping through a burrow of black hair. “No one crosses their bridge without permission.”
“We mean to cross it anyway. So if you know something we should beware of, speak now!”
The lounger stifled a laugh. The rest were silent.
Emma looked them over. “None of you will help us?”
One man started to say, “Be careful to—” but as soon as he’d begun, another man hushed him.
“Let them go, and in a few days we’ll have their drippings!”
A moan of agonized desire went up among the shantytowners.
“Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a vial of that,” said a woman by my feet.
“For just a drop, a drop!” sang a man, bouncing on his haunches. “A drop o’ their drippings!”
“Stop, it’s torture!” another whimpered. “Don’t even mention it!”
“To hell with all of you!” Emma shouted. “Let’s get you across, Addison the Intrepid.”
And we turned away in disgust.
* * *
The bridge was narrow, arched in the middle, and built from marble so clean that even ash from the street seemed wary of trespassing on it. Addison stopped us just shy of the edge. “Wait, there’s something here,” he said, and we stood by nervously while he closed his eyes and sniffed the air like a clairvoyant reading a crystal ball.
“We need to cross now—we’re exposed out here,” Emma muttered, but Addison was elsewhere; besides, it really didn’t seem like we were in much danger. No one was on the bridge, nor was anyone guarding the barred gate on the other side. The top of the long white wall, where you might expect to see men posted with rifles and binoculars, was similarly empty. Other than its walls, the fortress’s sole defense seemed to be the chasm that curved around it like a moat, at the bottom of which churned a boiling river that released the sulfurous green steam which hung all around us. The bridge was the only way across that I could see.
“Still disappointed?” I asked Emma.
“Downright insulted,” she replied. “It’s like they’re not even trying to keep us out.”
“Yeah, that’s what worries me.”
Addison gasped and his eyes sprang open. They shone, electric.
“What is it?” Emma said, breathless.
“It’s only the faintest of traces, but I’d know Balenciaga Wren’s scent anywhere.”
“And the others?”
Addison sniffed again. “There were more of our kind with her. I can’t say who, precisely, or how many. The trail goes quite muddy. Many peculiars have come this way recently—and I don’t mean them,” he said, looking banefully at the squatters behind us. “Their peculiar essence is weak, almost nonexistent.”
“Then that woman we interrogated was telling the truth,” I said. “This is where the wights bring their captives. Our friends were here.”
Ever since they’d been taken, an awful suffocating hopelessness had been tightening around my heart, but its grip loosened now, slightly. For the first time in hours, we were running on more than just hope and guesswork. We had tracked our friends across hostile territory all the way to the wights’ doorstep. That in itself was a small victory, and it made me feel, if only for a moment, like anything was possible.
“Then it’s even stranger that no one’s guarding this place,” Emma said darkly. “I don’t like this at all.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “But I don’t see any other way across.”
“I might as well get it over with,” said Addison.
“We’ll come with you as far as we can,” said Emma.
“I appreciate that,” Addison replied, sounding somewhat less than extremely intrepid.
The bridge could be sprinted across in under a minute, I guessed, but why run? Because, I thought, a line from Tolkien materializing in my head, one does not simply walk into Mordor.
We started across at a brisk pace, murmurs and muted laughs following us. I glanced back at the squatters. Certain we were about to meet some grisly end, they were shifting around, angling for good views. All they needed was popcorn. I wanted to go back and pitch every last one into the boiling river.
In a few days we’ll have their drippings. I didn’t know what that meant and hoped I never would.
The bridge steepened. An encroaching paranoia was making my heart beat double time. I felt sure something was about to swoop down and we’d have nowhere to run. I felt like a mouse scurrying toward a trap.
In whispers we reviewed our plan: get Addison through the gate, then fall back to the shantytown and find somewhere unobtrusive to wait. If he hadn’t returned within three hours, Emma and I would find a way in.
We were coming to the crest of the bridge, beyond which I’d be able to see a small section of the downslope that till now had been hidden. And then the lampposts shouted:
“Who goes there!”
“None shall pass!”
We stopped and gaped at them, stunned to realize they weren’t lampposts at all but desiccated heads impaled on long pikes. They were horrible, skin drawn and gray, tongues lolling—and yet, despite not being attached to throats, three of the heads had spoken to us. There were eight altogether, mounted in pairs on either side of the bridge.