“Somehow I don’t believe them,” said Emma.
“Definitely not,” said Horace.
“Don’t even think about it, Mr. Portman,” said Miss Peregrine.
“I wasn’t,” I replied. “Is everyone ready?”
Murmurs of assent. I moved the hollows to either side of the door, their great jaws hinging open, tongues at the ready. I was about to launch my surprise attack when I heard Caul’s voice through a PA in the hallway: “They have control of the hollows! Fall back, men! Defensive positions!”
“Damn him!” Emma cried.
The sound of retreating boots filled the corridor. Our surprise attack had been spoiled.
“It doesn’t matter!” I said. “When you’ve got twelve hollows, you don’t need surprise.”
It was time to use my secret weapon. Rather than a welling-up of tension before the strike, I felt the opposite, a loosening of my full and present self as my awareness relaxed and split among the hollows. And then, while my friends and I hung back, the creatures began hurling themselves through the jagged, blasted door into the hall, running, snarling, jaws gaping, their invisible bodies carving tunnels in the curling bomb smoke. The wights fired at them, their gun barrels flashing, then fell back. Bullets whizzed through the open doorway and into the room where I and the others were taking cover, cracking into the wall behind us.
“Tell us when!” Emma shouted. “We’ll go at your word!”
My mind in a dozen places at once, I could muster hardly a word of English in reply. I was them, those hollows in the hall, my own flesh stinging in sympathy with every shot that tore theirs.
Our tongues reached them first: the wights who had not run fast enough and the brave-but-foolish ones who’d lingered to fight. We pummeled them, smacked their heads into the walls, and a small number of us stopped to—here I tried to disconnect my own senses—to sink our teeth into them, swallowing their guns, silencing their screams, leaving them gashed and gaping.
Bottlenecked at the stairs at the end of the corridor, the guards fired again. A second curtain of bullets passed through us, deep and painful, but we ran on, tongues flailing.
Some of the wights escaped through the hatch. Others weren’t so lucky, and when they’d stopped screaming we tossed their bodies clear of the stairs. I felt two of my hollows die, their signals blanking from my mind, the connection lost. And then the corridor was clear.
“Now!” I said to Emma, which at the moment was the most complex speech I could manage.
“Now!” Emma shouted, turning to the rest of our group. “This way!”
I drove my hollow into the corridor, clutching at its neck to keep from being thrown off its back. Emma fell in behind me with the others, using her flaming hands as signals in the smoke. Together we charged down the hall, my battalion of monsters before me, my army of peculiars behind. First among them were the strongest and the bravest: Emma, Bronwyn, and Hugh, then the ymbrynes and grumbling Perplexus, who insisted on bringing his heavy Map of Days. Last came the youngest children, the timid, the injured.
The corridor smelled of gunpowder and blood.
“Don’t look!” I heard Bronwyn say as we began to pass the bodies of dead wights.
I counted them as we ran: there were five, six, seven of them to my two fallen hollows. Those were encouraging numbers, but how many wights were there in total? Forty, fifty? I worried that there were too many of them to kill and too many of us to protect, and that aboveground we’d be easily overwhelmed, surrounded, and confused. I had to kill as many wights as I could before they broke into the open and this fight turned into something we couldn’t win.
My awareness slid to the hollows again. Bounding up the spiral steps, the first one was up through the hatch—then searing pain, blankness.
It had been ambushed as it came out.
I made the next one out of the hatch pick up the dead one’s body to use as a shield. It soaked up a volley of gunfire, pushing forward into the room as other hollows leapt from the hatch behind it. I had to push the wights out fast, to get them away from the peculiars who lay everywhere in hospital beds. With a few lashes of our tongues, the closest ones were struck down, and the rest ran.
I sent my hollows after them as we peculiars emerged from the hatch. There were so many of us now, so many hands, that unhooking our bedridden brethren from their soul-drains would be easy. We spread out and made quick work of it. As for the chained madman and the boy we’d stashed in a closet, they were safer here than with us. We’d be back.
Meanwhile, my remaining hollows chased the wights toward the building’s exit. The wights fired wildly behind them as they fled. Snatching at their heels with our tongues, we were able to trip two or three, who met a quick but gruesome end once my hollows caught up with them. One wight had hidden himself behind a counter, where he was arming a bomb. A hollow rooted him out, then bundled both the wight and his bomb into a side room. The bomb went off moments later. Another hollow winked out of my consciousness.
The wights had scattered and more than half had escaped, diving through windows and out side doors. We were losing them; the fight was shifting. We’d finished unhooking the bedridden peculiars and had nearly caught up to my hollows, which now numbered seven, plus the one I was riding. We were near the exit, in the room of horrible tools, and we had a choice. I posed the question to those closest to me—Emma, Miss Peregrine, Enoch, Bronwyn.
“Do we use the hollows as cover and run for the tower?” I said, my language coming back as the hollows I had to keep track of dwindled. “Or do we keep fighting?”