“Hark to the clinking of hammers …”
“Hark to the driving of nails!”
“Gahh, my legs!”
“What fun to build a gallows …”
“Let me go, let me go!”
“… the cure for all that ails!”
“Please, no more! I give up!”
And then, as the ash began to clear, Sharon and his three burly cousins appeared, each of them dragging a subdued wight. “Morning, all!” Sharon called. “Did you lose something?”
Wiping ash from their eyes, our friends saw what they’d done and began to cheer.
“Sharon, you brilliant man!” shouted Emma.
All around us the ymbrynes were landing and resuming human form. As they slipped quickly into the clothes they’d dropped, we respectfully kept our eyes on the wights.
Suddenly, one of them broke away from his captor and ran. Rather than chasing him, the rigger calmly selected a small hammer from his tool belt, planted his feet, and threw it. It tumbled end over end straight toward the wight’s head, but what would’ve been a perfect takedown was spoiled when the wight ducked. He darted toward the chaos of scrap at the road’s edge. Just as the wight was about to disappear between two shanty houses, a crack in the road erupted and the wight was engulfed in a belch of yellow flame.
Though it was a grisly sight, everyone whooped and cheered.
“You see!” said Sharon. “The Acre itself wants to be rid of them.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, “but what about Caul?”
“I agree,” said Emma. “None of these victories will matter if we can’t catch him. Right, Miss P?”
I glanced around but didn’t see her. Emma looked, too, her eyes scanning the crowd.
“Miss Peregrine?” she said, panic creeping into her voice.
I made my hollow stand tall so I could get a better view. “Does anyone see Miss Peregrine?” I shouted. Now everyone was looking, checking the sky in case she was still airborne, the ground in case she’d landed but not yet turned human.
Then from behind us, a high, gleeful shout cut through our chatter.
“Look no further, children!” For a moment I couldn’t pinpoint the voice. It came again: “Do as I say and no harm will come to her!”
Then I saw emerge, from beneath the branches of a small, ash-blackened tree just inside the wights’ gate, a familiar figure.
Caul. A twig of a man with no weapons in his hand nor guards by his side. His face pale and contorted into an unnatural grin, his eyes capped by bulging sunglasses, insectine. He was dandied up in a cloak, a cape, loops of gold jewelry, and a bouffant silk tie. He looked flamboyantly insane, like some mad doctor from gothic fiction who’d performed too many experiments on himself. And it was his evident madness, I think—and that we all knew him to be capable of true evil—that stopped us from rushing to tear him apart. A man like Caul was never as defenseless as he seemed.
“Where’s Miss Peregrine?” I shouted, inspiring a chorus of similar demands from the ymbrynes and peculiars behind me.
“Right where she belongs,” Caul said. “With her family.”
The last of the ash cloud gusted out of the compound behind him, revealing Bentham and Miss Peregrine, the latter in human form, held captive in the arms of Bentham’s bear. Though her eyes flashed with rage, she knew better than to struggle against a sharp-clawed, short-tempered grimbear.
It seemed a recurring nightmare we were doomed to dream again and again: Miss Peregrine kidnapped, this time by Bentham. He stood slightly behind the bear with eyes downcast, as if ashamed to meet our looks.
Cries of shock and anger rippled through the peculiars and ymbrynes.
“Bentham!” I shouted. “Let her go!”
“You traitorous bastard!” cried Emma.
Bentham raised his head to look at us. “As recently as ten minutes ago,” he said in a high and imperious tone, “you had my loyalty. I could have betrayed you to my brother days ago, but I didn’t.” He narrowed his eyes at Miss Peregrine. “I chose you, Alma, because I believed—naively, it seems—that if I helped you and your wards, you might see how unfairly you’d judged me, might finally rise above past differences and let bygones be bygones.”
“You’ll be sent to the Pitiless Waste for this!” Miss Peregrine shouted.
“I’m not frightened of your little council anymore!” Bentham said. “You won’t keep me down any longer!” He stamped his cane. “PT, muzzle!”
The bear clamped its paw over Miss Peregrine’s face.
Caul strode toward his brother and sister, his arms and smile spreading. “Benny’s made a choice to stand up for himself, and I, for one, congratulate him! There’s nothing like a family reunion!”
Suddenly, Bentham was pulled backward by an unseen force. A knife flashed at his throat. “Make the bear release Miss Peregrine or else!” a familiar voice shouted.
“Millard!” someone gasped, one of many that rippled through our crowd.
It was Millard, disrobed and invisible. Bentham looked terrified, but Caul seemed merely annoyed. He drew an antique pepperbox pistol from one of the deep pockets in his cloak and pointed it at Bentham’s head. “Let her go and I’ll kill you, brother.”
“We made a pact!” Bentham protested.
“And you caving to the demands of a nude boy with a dull knife would be breaking that pact.” Caul cocked the gun, walked it forward until it was pressed against Bentham’s temple, and addressed Millard. “If you make me kill my only brother, consider your ymbryne dead, too.”