“Then let’s help them,” I said, and stepping to the end of Melina’s bed I drew the needle carefully from her foot. A tiny drop of black liquid leaked from the wound. After a moment her face relaxed.
“Hello,” said a voice from elsewhere in the room.
We spun around. In the corner sat a man in leg shackles. He was curled in a ball and rocking, and he laughed without smiling, his eyes like shards of black ice.
It was his cold laugh we’d heard echoing through the rooms.
“Where are the others being held?” Emma said, dropping to her knees in front of him.
“Why, they’re all right here!” the man said.
“No, the others,” I said. “There have to be more.”
He laughed again, his breath coming out in a little puff of frost—which was strange, because it wasn’t cold in the room. “You’re standing on top of them,” the man said.
“Make sense!” I shouted, losing my temper. “We don’t have time for this!”
“Please,” Emma begged. “We’re peculiars. We’re here to help you, but first we have to find our ymbrynes. Which building are they in?”
He repeated himself very slowly. “You’re. Standing. On top of them.” His words blew a steady stream of icy air in our faces.
Just as I was about to grab him and shake him, the man raised an arm and pointed to something behind us. I turned around and noticed, camouflaged in the tile floor, a handle—and the square outline of a hatch door.
On top of them. Literally.
We ran to the handle, turned it, and pulled up a door in the floor. A set of metal stairs spiraled into darkness.
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” Emma asked.
“You don’t,” the man said, which was true enough.
“Let’s give it a try,” I said. There was, after all, nowhere else to go but back the way we’d come.
Emma looked torn, her gaze traveling from the stairs below to the beds around us. I knew what she was thinking, but she didn’t even ask—there was no time to go bed to bed, unhooking everyone. We’d have to come back for them. I just hoped that when we did, there would be something to come back to.
* * *
Emma lowered herself onto the metal stairs and descended into the dark hole in the floor. Before I followed, I locked eyes with the madman and raised a finger to my lips. He grinned and copied my gesture. I hoped he meant it. Guards would be there soon, and if he kept his mouth shut, maybe they wouldn’t follow us into the hatch. I started down the stairs and pulled the door shut after me.
Emma and I huddled near the top of a narrow cylinder of spiraling stairs and peered down. It took a moment for our eyes to transition from the bright room above to this mostly lightless dungeon walled in rough rock.
She gripped my arm and whispered in my ear.
She pointed. Dimly it came into view: the bars of a prison cell.
We crept down the stairs. The space began to reveal itself: we were at the end of a long, subterranean hallway lined with cells, and though we couldn’t see yet who was in them, I had a soaring moment of hope. This was it. This was the place we’d hoped to find.
Then came a sudden slap of boots in the hall. Adrenaline surged through me. A guard was patrolling, rifle over his shoulder, pistol at his hip. He hadn’t seen us yet, but he would, any moment now. We were too far from the hatch to escape the way we’d come, and too far from the ground to easily leap down and fight him, so we hunkered and shrank back, hoping the stairs’ spindly railing would be enough to hide us.
But it couldn’t be. We were nearly at his eye level. He was twenty steps away, then fifteen. We had to do something.
So I did.
I stood up and walked down the stairs. He noticed me right away, of course, but before he could get a good look I started talking. Loud and bossy, I said: “Didn’t you hear the alarm? Why aren’t you outside defending the walls?”
By the time he realized that I was not someone he took orders from I had reached the floor, and by the time he’d started to grab for his gun I had already closed half the distance between us, barreling toward him like a quarterback. I hit him with my shoulder just as he pulled the trigger. The gun roared, the shot ricocheting behind me. We sprawled to the ground. I made the mistake of trying to stop him from squeezing off another shot while trying to give him the finger—I had it now—which was stuffed deep in my right pocket. I didn’t have enough limbs to do both, and he threw me off him and stood up. I’m sure that would’ve been the end of me if he hadn’t seen Emma running toward him, hands aflame, and turned to shoot her instead.
He squeezed off a round but it was wild, too high, and that gave me just the opportunity I needed to scramble to my feet and charge him again. I tackled him and we fell across the hallway, his back slamming into the bars of one of the cells. He hit me—hard, in the face, with his elbow—and I spun and fell. And then he was raising the gun to shoot me, and neither Emma nor I were close enough to stop him.
Suddenly, a pair of meaty hands reached out of the darkness, through the bars, and grabbed the guard by his hair. His head snapped back hard and rung the bars like a bell.
The guard went limp and slid to the ground. And then Bronwyn came forward inside the cell, pressed her face to the bars, and smiled.
“Mr. Jacob! Miss Emma!”
I had never been so glad to see anyone. Her large, kind eyes, her strong chin, her lank brown hair—it was Bronwyn! We stuck our arms through the bars and hugged her as best we could, so excited and relieved that we started babbling—“Bronwyn, Bronwyn,” Emma gasped, “is it really you?”