All the peculiars on our side of the chasm and the addicts on the other side came to the edge to watch them fall, howling and flailing all the way down through layers of sulfurous green mist until—ploop!—they plunged into the boiling river and disappeared.
A cheer went up on both sides, and a grating voice I recognized said, “Serves ’em right. They were lousy tippers, anyway!”
It was one of two bridge heads that were still on their pikes. “Didn’t your mum ever tell you not to swim on a full stomach?” said the other. “WAIT TWENTY MINUTES!”
The lone wight remaining on our side threw down his gun and raised his hands in surrender, while the five who’d made it across were quickly vanishing into a cloud of ash the wind had kicked up.
We stood watching them go. There was no way we’d catch them now.
“Curse our luck,” Bentham said. “Even that small number of wights could wreak havoc for years to come.”
“Agreed, brother, though honestly I didn’t realize you gave a titmouse what happened to the rest of us.” We turned to see Miss Peregrine walking toward us, returned to human form, a shawl clasped modestly around her shoulders. Her eyes were locked on Bentham, her expression sour and unwelcoming.
“Hello, Alma! Fantastic to see you!” he said with overeager cheerfulness. “And of course I give a …” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Why, I’m the reason you’re not still in a prison cell! Go on, children, tell them!”
“Mr. Bentham helped us a lot,” I admitted, though I didn’t really want to insert myself into a sibling spat.
“In that case, all due thanks,” Miss Peregrine said coldly. “I’ll ensure the Council of Ymbrynes is made aware of the role you played here. Perhaps they’ll see fit to lighten your sentence.”
“Sentence?” Emma said, looking sharply at Bentham. “What sentence?”
His lip twisted. “Banishment. You don’t think I’d live in this pit if I was welcome anywhere else, do you? I was framed, unjustly accused of—”
“Collusion.” Miss Peregrine said. “Collaboration with the enemy. Betrayal after betrayal.”
“I was acting as a double agent, Alma, mining our brother for information. I explained this to you!” He was whining, his palms out like a beggar’s. “You know I have every reason to hate Jack!”
Miss Peregrine raised her hand to stop him. She’d heard this story before and didn’t want to again. “When he betrayed your grandfather,” she said to me, “that was the last straw.”
“That was an accident,” Bentham said, drawing back in offense.
“Then what became of the suul you drew from him?” said Miss Peregrine.
“It was injected into the test subjects!”
Miss Peregrine shook her head. “We reverse-engineered your experiment. They were given suul from barnyard animals, which can only mean that you kept Abe’s for yourself.”
“What an absurd allegation!” he cried. “Is that what you told the council? That’s why I’m still rotting in here, isn’t it?” I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely surprised or just acting. “I knew you felt threatened by my intellect and superior leadership capabilities. But that you’d stoop to such lies to keep me out of your way … do you know how many years I’ve spent fighting to eradicate the scourge of ambrosia use? What on earth would I want with that poor man’s suul?”
“The same thing our brother wants with young Mr. Portman,” Miss Peregrine said.
“I won’t even honor that accusation with a denial. I only wish this haze of bias would clear so that you could see the truth: I’m on your side, Alma, and I’ve always been.”
“You’re on whatever side fits your interests at the moment.”
Bentham sighed and aimed a hangdog look at Emma and me. “Goodbye, children. It’s been a distinct pleasure knowing you. I’ll go back home now; saving all your lives has taken quite a toll on this old man’s body. But I hope one day, when your headmistress comes to her senses, we’ll meet again.”
He tipped his hat, and he and his bear began to walk away through the crowd, back through the compound toward the tower.
“What a drama queen,” I muttered, though I did feel a little bad for him.
“Ymbrynes!” Miss Peregrine called. “Watch him!”
“Did he really steal Abe’s soul?” Emma asked.
“Without proof we can’t be certain,” replied Miss Peregrine. “But the rest of his crimes taken together would earn him more than a lifetime’s banishment.” Watching him go, her hard expression gradually melted away. “My brothers taught me a hard lesson. No one can hurt you as badly as the people you love.”
* * *
The wind shifted, sending the ash cloud that had aided the wights’ escape in our direction. It came faster than we could react, the air around us howling and stinging, the daylight dimming away. There was a sharp flutter of wings as the ymbrynes changed form and flew up above the storm. My hollow sank to its knees, bowed its head, and shielded its face with its two free tongues. It was accustomed to ash storms, but our friends were not. I could hear them panicking in the dark.
“Stay where you are!” I shouted. “It’ll pass!”
“Everyone breathe through your shirts!” said Emma.
When the storm began to subside a little, I heard something from across the bridge that made the hairs on my neck stand up. It was three baritone voices united in a song, the lines of which were punctuated by thuds and groans.