The remaining guards ran to extinguish him. A loud alarm began to sound. Within seconds, wights were flying out of the buildings around the courtyard and rushing toward the wall. Sharon’s assault had begun, bless him, and not a moment too soon. With any luck, it would give us enough cover to search unimpeded—at least for a few minutes. I couldn’t imagine it would take longer than that for the wights to repel a few ambro addicts armed with catapults.
We scanned the courtyard. It was surrounded on three sides by low-slung buildings, each more or less identical to the next. There were no flashing arrows or neon signs advertising the presence of ymbrynes. We would have to search, as fast as we could, and hope we got lucky.
Three of the wights had run off to the wall, leaving two behind to extinguish the one covered in flaming excrement. They were rolling him in the dirt, their backs to us.
We chose a building at random—the one on the left—and ran to its door. Inside was a large room suffocatingly packed with what looked and smelled like secondhand clothes. We ran down an aisle lined with racks of clothes of every description, from all different time periods and cultures, all labeled and organized. A wardrobe, perhaps, for every loop the wights had infiltrated. I wondered if the cardigan Dr. Golan always wore to our meetings had hung in this room.
But our friends weren’t here and the ymbrynes weren’t either, so we tore through the aisles looking for a way into the next building that didn’t lead back through the exposed courtyard.
There were none. We’d have to risk another dash outside.
We went to the door and watched through the crack, waiting as a straggler ran through the courtyard, pulling on his guard’s uniform as he went. Once the coast was clear, we ran out into the open.
Catapulted objects landed all around us. Having run out of excrement, Sharon’s improvised army had begun to launch other things—bricks, garbage, small dead animals. I heard one such projectile utter a string of profanities as it smacked into the ground and recognized the shriveled form of a bridge head spinning across the ground. If my heart hadn’t been thrumming so tremendously I might’ve laughed out loud.
We made it across the courtyard to the building opposite. Its door seemed promising: heavy and metal, it would surely have been guarded had the guard not abandoned his post to go to the wall. Surely there was something important inside.
We opened it and slipped into a small white-tiled laboratory that smelled strongly of chemicals. My eyes were drawn to a cabinet filled with terrifying surgical tools, all steely and shining. There was a deep hum coming through the walls, the dissonant heartbeat of machines, and something else, too—
“Do you hear that?” Emma said, tense, listening.
I did. It was sustained and chattering, but distinctly human. Someone was laughing.
We traded a baffled look. Emma gave Mother Dust’s finger to me and lit a flame in her hand, and we each put on our masks. Ready for anything, we thought, though in retrospect we were not at all prepared for the house of horrors that lay waiting for us.
We moved through rooms I struggle to describe now because I’ve tried to erase them from my memory. Each was more nightmarish than the last. The first was a small operating theater, the table armed with straps and restraints. Porcelain tubs along the walls stood ready to collect drained fluids. Next was a research area where tiny skulls and other bones were connected to electrical equipment and gauges. The walls were papered in Polaroids documenting experiments conducted on animals. By then we were shuddering, shielding our eyes.
The worst was yet to come.
In the next room was an actual, ongoing experiment. We surprised two nurses and a doctor as they were performing some ghastly procedure on a child. They had a young boy stretched between two tables, newspapers spread below him to catch drips. A nurse held his feet while a doctor gripped his head and peered coldly into his eyes.
They turned and saw us with our dust masks and flaming hands and shouted for help, but no one was there to hear them. The doctor dashed for a table full of cutting tools but Emma beat him to it, and after a brief scramble he gave up and raised his hands. We pinned the adults in the corner and demanded they tell us where the prisoners were kept. They refused to say a word, so I blew dust in their faces until they slumped into a pile on the floor.
The child was dazed but unhurt. He couldn’t seem to generate more than a whimper in response to our hurried questions—Are you okay? Are there more like you? Where?—so we thought it best to hide him for now. Wrapping him in a sheet for warmth, we stowed him in a small closet, with promises to return that I hoped we could keep.
The next room was wide and open like a hospital ward. Twenty or more beds were chained to the walls, and peculiars, adults and children alike, were strapped into the beds. None appeared conscious. Needles and tubes snaked from the soles of their feet to bags that were filling slowly with black liquid.
“They’re being drained,” Emma said, her voice shaking. “Their souls drawn out.”
I didn’t want to look at their faces, but we had to. “Who’s here, who’s here, who are you,” I muttered as we raced from bed to bed.
I hoped, shamefully, that none of these poor wretches were our friends. There were several we recognized: the telekinetic girl, Melina. The pale brothers, Joel-and-Peter, separated so there was no chance of another destructive blast. Their faces were twisted, their muscles tense and fists clenched even in sleep, as if both were in the grip of terrible dreams.
“My God,” Emma said. “They’re trying to fight it.”