“Is that you, miss?” said Bronwyn. “We’ve been praying and hoping and, oh, I was so worried the wights had got you—”
Bronwyn was squeezing us against the bars so hard I thought I might pop. The bars were thick as bricks and made of something stronger than iron, which I realized was the only reason Bronwyn hadn’t broken out of her cell.
“Can’t … breathe,” Emma groaned, and Bronwyn apologized and let us go.
Now that I could get a proper look at her, I noticed a bruise on Bronwyn’s cheek and a dark stain that might’ve been blood spotting one side of her blouse. “What did they do to you?” I said.
“Nothing serious,” she replied, “though there’s been threats.”
“And the others?” Emma said, panicked again. “Where are the others?”
“Here!” came a voice from down the hallway. “Over here!” came another.
And then we turned and saw, pressed against the bars of the cells lining the hall, the faces of our friends. There they were: Horace and Enoch, Hugh and Claire, Olive, gasping through the bars at us from the top of her cell, her back against the ceiling—all there, all of them breathing and alive, except poor Fiona—lost when she fell from the cliff at Miss Wren’s menagerie. But mourning her was a luxury we didn’t have right then.
“Oh, thank the birds, the miraculous bloody birds!” Emma cried, running to take Olive’s hand. “You can’t imagine how worried we’ve been!”
“Not half as worried as we’ve been!” Hugh said from down the hall.
“I told them you’d come for us!” Olive said, near tears. “I told them and told them, but Enoch kept saying I was a loony for thinking so …”
“Never mind, they’re here now!” said Enoch. “What took you so bloody long?”
“How in Perplexus’s name did you find us?” said Millard. He was the only one the wights had bothered to dress in prisoners’ garb—a striped jumpsuit that made him easy to see.
“We’ll tell you the whole story,” said Emma, “but first we need to find the ymbrynes and get you all out of here!”
“They’re down the hall!” said Hugh. “Through the big door!”
At the end of the hall was a huge metal door. It looked heavy enough to secure a bank vault—or hold back a hollowgast.
“You’ll need the key,” said Bronwyn, and she pointed out a ring on the unconscious guard’s belt. “It’s the big gold one. I’ve been watching him!”
I scrambled to the guard and tore the keys from his belt. Then I stood frozen with them in my hand, my eyes darting between the cell doors and Emma.
“Hurry up and let us out!” Enoch said.
“With which key?” I said. The ring held dozens, all identical save the big gold one.
Emma’s face fell. “Oh, no.”
More guards would be coming soon, and unlocking every cell would cost precious minutes. So we ran to the end of the hall, unlocked the door, and gave the keys to Hugh, whose cell was closest. “Free yourself and then the others!” I said.
“Then stay here until we come back to get you,” Emma added.
“No chance!” Hugh said. “We’re coming after you!”
There was no time to argue—and I was secretly relieved to hear it. After all this time struggling on our own, I was looking forward to having some backup.
Emma and I heaved open the big bunker-like door, took a last look at our friends, and slipped away.
* * *
On the other side of the door was a long rectangular room cluttered with utilitarian furniture and lit from above by greenish fluorescent bulbs. It was doing its best impression of an office, but I wasn’t fooled. The wall was spongy with foam soundproofing. The door was thick enough to withstand a nuclear blast. This was no office.
We could hear someone moving around at the far end of the room, but our view was blocked by a bulky filing cabinet. I touched Emma’s arm and nodded my head—let’s go—and we began to advance quietly, hoping to sneak up on whoever was in here with us.
I caught a glimpse of a white coat and a man’s balding head. Definitely not an ymbryne. Had they not heard the door opening? No, they hadn’t, and then I realized why: they were listening to music. A woman’s voice sang a soft, slinky rock song—an old one I’d heard before but couldn’t name. So strange, so dislocating, to hear it here, now.
We slid forward, the song just loud enough to mask our footsteps, passing desks crowded with papers and maps. A rack mounted to a wall held hundreds of glass beakers, silver-flecked black liquid spinning inside. Lingering, I saw that each was labeled, the names of the victims whose souls they contained printed in small type.
Peeking around the filing cabinet, we saw a lab-coated man seated at a desk shuffling papers, his back to us. All around him was a horror-show of random anatomy. A skinned arm with musculature exposed. A spine hung like a trophy on the wall. A few bloodless organs scattered like lost puzzle pieces on the desk. The man was writing something, nodding his head, humming along with the song—something about love, something about miracles.
We stepped into the open and moved toward him across the floor. I remembered where I’d last heard the song: at the dentist, while a metal pick stabbed at the soft, pink flesh of my gums.
“You Make Loving Fun.”
Now we were only a few yards away. Emma held out a hand, ready to light it. But just before we got within reach of the man, he spoke to us.