I was fevered with anxiety, my thoughts tripping over one another. What happened next would be up to me. The wights needed me, after all. What if I refused to handle the souls for them? What if I found a way to trick them?
I knew what would happen. Caul would kill Miss Peregrine. Then he’d start killing the other ymbrynes, one after another until I gave him what he wanted. And if I didn’t, he’d kill Emma.
I wasn’t strong enough. I knew I’d do anything to stop them from hurting her—even hand Caul the keys to untold power.
Then I had a thought that scared the bejesus out of me: what if I couldn’t do it? What if Caul was wrong and I couldn’t see the soul jars, or I could see them but not handle them? He wouldn’t believe me. He’d think I was lying. He’d start murdering my friends. And even if I somehow convinced him it was true—that I couldn’t—he might get so livid that he’d kill everyone anyway.
I said a silent prayer to my grandfather—can you pray to dead people? Well, I did—and I asked, if he was watching me, to see me through this, and to make me as strong and as powerful as he once was. Grandpa Portman, I prayed, I know this sounds crazy, but Emma and my friends mean the world to me, the whole damned world, and I would gladly give every bit of it to Caul in exchange for their lives. Does that make me evil? I don’t know, but I thought you might understand. So please.
Looking up, I was surprised to see Miss Peregrine watching me from over the bear’s shoulder. As soon as she met my eyes she looked away, and I could see tears tracking through the grime on her pale cheeks. As if somehow she’d heard me.
Our route wound through an ancient maze of twisting paths and stairways cut into the hills, their steps worn into crescent moons. In some places the path all but disappeared, swallowed by weeds. I heard Perplexus complain that it had taken him years to puzzle out the way to the Library of Souls, and to have this ungrateful thief tromping along it now with no regard—a terrible insult!
And then I heard Olive say, “Why did no one ever tell us the library was real?”
“Because, my dear,” replied an ymbryne, “it wasn’t allowed. It was safer to say …”
The ymbryne paused to catch her breath.
“… that it was just a story.”
Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, no matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there would always be stories that refused to stay bound inside books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.
We’d been walking for several minutes along a plain-looking wall, the wind’s eerie moan rising and falling, when Caul raised a hand and shouted for everyone to stop.
“Have we gone too far?” he said. “I could’ve sworn the grotto was along here somewhere. Where’s the cartographer?”
Perplexus was hauled forth from the crowd.
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t shoot him?” Bentham muttered.
Caul ignored him. “Where’s the grotto?” he demanded, getting in Perplexus’s face.
“Ahh, perhaps it’s hidden itself from you,” Perplexus teased.
“Don’t test me,” Caul replied. “I’ll burn every copy of your Map of Days. Your name will be forgotten by next year.”
Perplexus knotted his fingers together and sighed. “There,” he said, pointing behind us.
We had passed it.
Caul stomped down to a vine-choked patch of wall—an opening so humble and well-hidden that anyone might’ve missed it; not so much a door as a hole. He pushed aside the vines and poked his head through. “Yes!” I heard him say, and then he pulled out his head again and began giving orders.
“Essential persons only are allowed past this point. Brother, sister.” He pointed at Bentham and Miss Peregrine. “Boy.” He pointed at me. “Two guards. And …” He searched the crowd. “It’s dark in there, we’ll need a flashlight. You, girl.” He pointed at Emma.
As my stomach turned knots, Emma was pulled out of the group.
“If the others give you trouble,” Caul said to the guards, “you know what to do.” Caul raised his pistol at the crowd. They all screamed and ducked their heads. Caul howled with laughter.
Emma’s guard pushed her through the hole. Bentham’s bear would never fit through, so Miss Peregrine was set down and my wight given double duty guarding both her and me.
The youngest children began to weep. Who knew if they would ever see her again? “Be brave, children!” Miss Peregrine called to them. “I’ll be back!”
“That’s right, children!” Caul sang mockingly. “Listen to your headmistress! Ymbryne knows best!”
Miss Peregrine and I were pushed through the opening together, and there was a moment, tangled in the vines, when I was able to whisper to her unnoticed.
“What should I do when we get inside?”
“Anything he asks,” she whispered back. “If we don’t anger him, we may yet survive.”
Survive, yes—but at what cost?
And then we were parting the vines and stumbling into a strange new space: a stone room open to the sky. For an instant my breath abandoned me, so shocked was I by the giant, misshapen face staring back at us from opposite wall. A wall—that’s all it was—but one with a gaping mouth for a door, two warped eyes for windows, a pair of holes for nostrils, and grown over with long grass that resembled hair and an unruly beard. The moaning wind was louder than ever here, as if the mouth-shaped door were trying to warn us away in some ancient language made of vowels a week long.