“I’m sending one inside,” I said. “Just one, to look around.”
Slowly, the hollow turned the knob. On my silent count of three, the hollow pushed open the door.
It leaned forward and pressed its black eye to the crack.
“I’m looking inside.”
Through its eye I could see a slice of wall lined with cages. Heavy, black birdcages of various shapes and sizes.
The hollow pressed the door open farther. I saw more cages, and now birds, too, in the cages and out of them, chained to perches.
But no wights.
“What do you see?” Emma said.
There wasn’t time to explain, only to act. I made all my hollows throw open the doors at once, and they burst inside.
There were birds everywhere, startled and squawking.
“Birds!” I said. “The room’s full of ymbrynes!”
“What?” Emma said. “Where are the wights?”
“I don’t know.”
The hollows were turning, smelling the air, searching every nook and cranny.
“That can’t be!” Miss Peregrine said. “All the kidnapped ymbrynes are right here.”
“Then what are these birds?” I said.
Then, in a scratchy parrot voice, I heard one sing, “Run, rabbit, run! Run, rabbit, run!” And I realized: these were not ymbrynes. These were parrots. And they were ticking.
“HIT THE DIRT!” I shouted, and we all dove to the ground behind the courtyard wall, the hollow pitching backward and taking me with it.
I flung my hollows at the doors but the parrot-bombs went off before they could get through them, ten at once, obliterating the building and the hollows in a terrible clap of thunder. As dirt and brick and bits of building flew through the courtyard and rained down on us, I felt the hollows’ signals go dead together, all but one blacking from my mind.
A cloud of smoke and feathers blew over the wall. The peculiars and ymbrynes were streaked with dirt, coughing, checking one another for holes. I was in shock, or something like it, my eyes locked on a splattered patch of ground where a bit of pulped and quivering hollowgast had been flung. For an hour my mind had been stretching to accommodate twelve of them, and their sudden death had created a disorienting vacuum that left me feeling dizzy and strangely bereft. But crisis has a way of focusing the mind, and what happened next had my last remaining hollow and me sitting bolt upright.
From beyond the wall came the sound of many voices shouting together—a great and rising battle cry—and beneath it a thunder of stampeding boots. Everyone froze and looked at me, dread furrowing their faces.
“What is that?” said Emma.
“Let me see,” I said, and crawled away from my hollow to peer around the edge of the wall.
A horde of wights was charging toward us across the smoking ground. Twenty of them in a cluster, running with rifles and pistols raised, their white eyes and white teeth shining. They were unscathed by the explosion, having escaped, I assumed, into some underground shelter. We’d been lured into a trap, of which the parrot bombs were only the first component. Now that our best weapon had been stripped from us, the wights were making their final assault.
There was a panicked scramble as others looked around the wall to see the charging horde for themselves.
“What do we do?” cried Horace.
“We fight!” said Bronywn. “Give ’em everything we’ve got!”
“No, we must run while we can!” said Miss Avocet, whose bent back and deeply lined face made it hard to imagine her running from anything. “We can’t afford to lose another peculiar life!”
“Excuse me, but I was asking Jacob,” said Horace. “He got us this far, after all …”
Instinctively I looked to Miss Peregrine, whom I considered the final authority on matters of authority. She returned my gaze and nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think Mr. Portman should decide. Quickly, though, or the wights will make the decision for you.”
I nearly protested. My hollows were all dead but one—but I suppose this was Miss Peregrine’s way of saying she believed in me, hollows or no. Anyway, what we should do seemed obvious. In a hundred years, the peculiars had never been so close to destroying the wight menace, and if we ran away now, I knew that chance may never come again. My friends’ faces were scared but determined—ready, I thought, to risk their lives for a chance to finally eradicate the wight scourge.
“We fight,” I said. “We’ve come too far to give up now.”
If there was someone among us who would rather have fled, they stayed quiet. Even the ymbrynes, who had sworn oaths to keep us safe, didn’t argue. They knew what sort of fate awaited any of us who were recaptured.
“You give the word,” said Emma.
I craned my neck around the wall. The wights were closing fast, no more than a hundred feet away now. But I wanted them closer still—close enough that we might easily knock the guns from their hands.
Shots rang out. A piercing scream came from above.
“Olive!” Emma shouted. “They’re shooting at Olive!”
We’d left the poor girl hanging up there. The wights were taking potshots at her while she squealed and waved her limbs like a starfish. There was no time to reel her in, but we couldn’t just leave her for target practice.
“Let’s give them something better to shoot at,” I said. “Ready?”
Their answer was resounding and affirmative. I shimmied onto the back of my crouched hollow. “LET’S GO!” I shouted.