“But Miss—” Enoch began.
The children scurried off to their rooms. “As for you, Mr. Portman, I’m not terribly comfortable with you traveling alone. I think perhaps you should stay, at least until things calm a bit.”
“I can’t just disappear. My dad will flip out.”
She frowned. “In that case, you must at least spend the night. I insist upon it.”
“I will, but only if you’ll tell me everything you know about the creatures that killed my grandfather.”
She tilted her head, studying me with something like amusement. “Very well, Mr. Portman, I won’t argue with your need to know. Install yourself on the divan for the evening and we’ll discuss it first thing.”
“It has to be now.” I’d waited ten years to hear the truth, and I couldn’t wait another minute. “Please.”
“At times, young man, you tread a precariously thin line between being charmingly headstrong and insufferably pigheaded.” She turned to Emma. “Miss Bloom, would you fetch my flask of coca-wine? It seems I won’t be sleeping tonight, and I shall have to indulge if I am to keep awake.”
* * *
The study was too close to the children’s bedrooms for a late-night talk, so the headmistress and I adjourned to a little greenhouse that edged the woods. We sat on overturned planters among climbing roses, a kerosene lantern on the grass between us, dawn not yet broken beyond the glass walls. Miss Peregrine drew a pipe from her pocket, and bent to light it in the lamp flame. She drew a few thoughtful puffs, sending up wreaths of blue smoke, then began.
“In ancient times people mistook us for gods,” she said, “but we peculiars are no less mortal than common folk. Time loops merely delay the inevitable, and the price we pay for using them is hefty—an irrevocable divorce from the ongoing present. As you know, long-term loop dwellers can but dip their toes into the present lest they wither and die. This has been the arrangement since time immemorial.”
She took another puff, then continued.
“Some years ago, around the turn of the last century, a splinter faction emerged among our people—a coterie of disaffected peculiars with dangerous ideas. They believed they had discovered a method by which the function of time loops could be perverted to confer upon the user a kind of immortality; not merely the suspension of aging, but the reversal of it. They spoke of eternal youth enjoyed outside the confines of loops, of jumping back and forth from future to past with impunity, suffering none of the ill effects that have always prevented such recklessness—in other words, of mastering time without being mastered by death. The whole notion was mad—absolute bunkum—a refutation of the empirical laws that govern everything!”
She exhaled sharply, then paused for a moment to collect herself.
“In any case. My two brothers, technically brilliant but rather lacking in sense, were taken with the idea. They even had the audacity to request my assistance in making it a reality. You’re talking about making yourselves into gods, I said. It can’t be done. And even if it can, it shouldn’t. But they would not be deterred. Having grown up among Miss Avocet’s ymbrynes-in-training, they knew more about our unique art than most peculiar males—just enough, I’m afraid, to be dangerous. Despite warnings, even threats, from the Council, in the summer of 1908 my brothers and several hundred members of this renegade faction—a number of powerful ymbrynes among them, traitors every one—ventured into the Siberian tundra to conduct their hateful experiment. For the site they chose a nameless old loop unused for centuries. We expected them to return within a week, tails between their legs, humbled by the immutable nature of nature. Instead, their comeuppance was far more dramatic: a catastrophic explosion that rattled windows as far as the Azores. Anyone within five hundred kilometers surely thought it was the end of the world. We assumed they’d all been killed, that obscene world-cracking bang their last collective utterance.”
“But they survived,” I guessed.
“In a manner of speaking. Others might call the state of being they subsequently assumed a kind of living damnation. Weeks later there began a series of attacks upon peculiars by awful creatures who, apart from their shadows, could not be seen except by peculiars like yourself—our very first clashes with the hollowgast. It was some time before we realized that these tentacle-mawed abominations were in fact our wayward brothers, crawled from the smoking crater left behind by their experiment. Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.”
“What went wrong?”
“That is still a matter of debate. One theory is that they reverse-aged themselves to a time before even their souls had been conceived, which is why we call them hollowgast—because their hearts, their souls, are empty. In a cruel twist of irony, they achieved the immortality they’d been seeking. It’s believed that the hollows can live thousands of years, but it is a life of constant physical torment, of humiliating debasement—feeding on stray animals, living in isolation—and of insatiable hunger for the flesh of their former kin, because our blood is their only hope for salvation. If a hollow gorges itself on enough peculiars, it becomes a wight.”
“That word again,” I said. “When we first met, Emma accused me of being one.”
“I might have thought the same thing, if I hadn’t observed you beforehand.”
“What are they?”
“If being a hollow is a living hell—and it most certainly is—then being a wight is akin to purgatory. Wights are almost common. They have no peculiar abilities. But because they can pass for human, they live in servitude to their hollow brethren, acting as scouts and spies and procurers of flesh. It’s a hierarchy of the damned that aims someday to turn all hollows into wights and all peculiars into corpses.”
“But what’s stopping them?” I said. “If they used to be peculiar, don’t they know all your hiding places?”
“Fortunately, they don’t appear to retain any memory of their former lives. And though wights aren’t as strong or as frightening as hollows, they’re often just as dangerous. Unlike hollows, they’re ruled by more than instinct, and are often able to blend into the general population. It can be difficult to distinguish them from common folk, though there are certain indicators. Their eyes, for instance. Curiously, wights lack pupils.”