“See?” Emma said, grinning. “We’re somewhen else!”
And just like that, we’d entered a loop—abandoned a mild morning in 1940 for a hot afternoon in some other, older year, though it was difficult to tell just how much older, here in the forest, away from the easily datable cues of civilization.
One by one, the other children surfaced around us, and seeing how much things had changed, had their own realizations.
“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breath with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”
“Not so useless now, are they?” said Olive.
“Oh, I can’t wait to analyze and annotate them,” said Millard, rubbing his hands together.
“Don’t you dare write in my book, Millard Nullings!” said Bronwyn.
“But what is this loop?” asked Hugh. “Who do you think lives here?”
Olive said, “Cuthbert’s animal friends, of course!”
Enoch rolled his eyes but stopped short of saying what he was probably thinking—It’s just a story!—maybe because his mind was starting to change, too.
“Every loop has an ymbryne,” said Emma, “even mystery loops from storybook tales. So let’s go and find her.”
“All right,” said Millard. “Where?”
“The only place the story made mention of aside from this lake was that mountain,” Emma said, indicating the bluff beyond the trees. “Who’s ready to do some climbing?”
We were tired and hungry, every one of us, but finding the loop had given us a burst of new energy. We left the stone giant behind and set off through the woods toward the foot of the bluff, our clothes drip-drying quickly in the heat. As we neared the bluff, the ground began to slope upward, and then a well-worn path appeared and we followed it up and up through clusters of brushy firs and winding rocky passages, until the path became so vertical in places that we had to go on all fours, clawing at the angled ground to pull ourselves forward.
“There’d better be something wonderful at the end of this trail,” said Horace, dabbing sweat from his forehead. “A gentleman doesn’t perspire!”
The path narrowed to a ribbon, the ground rising sharply on our right side and dropping away on the left, a carpet of green treetops spreading beyond it. “Hug the wall!” Emma warned. “It’s a long way down.”
Just glancing at the drop-off made me dizzy. Suddenly, it seemed, I had developed a new and stomach-clenching fear of heights, and it took all my concentration simply to put one foot in front of the other.
Emma touched my arm. “Are you all right?” she whispered. “You look pale.”
I lied and said I was, and succeeded in faking allrightness for exactly three more twists in the path, at which point my heart was racing and my legs shaking so badly that I had to sit down, right there in the middle of the narrow path, blocking everyone behind me.
“Oh, dear,” Hugh muttered. “Jacob’s cracking up.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I muttered. I’d never been afraid of heights before, but now I couldn’t so much as look off the edge of the path without my stomach doing flips.
Then something terrible occurred to me: what if this wasn’t a fear of heights I was feeling—but of hollows?
It couldn’t be, though: we were inside a loop, where hollows couldn’t go. And yet the more I studied the feeling churning in my gut, the more convinced I became that it wasn’t the drop itself that bothered me, but something beyond it.
I had to see for myself.
Everyone chattered anxiously in my ear, asking what was the matter, was I okay. I shut out their voices, tipped forward onto my hands, and crawled toward the edge of path. The closer I got, the worse my stomach felt, like it was being clawed to shreds from the inside. Inches away, I pressed my chest flat to the ground and reached out to hook my fingers over the ledge, then dragged myself forward until I could peek over it.
It took my eyes a moment to spot the hollow. At first it was just a shimmer against the craggy mountainside; a quivering spot in the air like heat waves rising from a hot car. An error, barely detectable.
This was how they looked to normals, and to other peculiars—to anyone who could not do what I did.
Then I actually experienced my peculiar ability coming to life. Very quickly, the churning in my belly contracted and focused into a single point of pain; and then, in a way I can’t fully explain, it became directional, lengthening from a point into a line, from one dimension to two. The line, like a compass needle, pointed diagonally at that faltering spot a hundred yards below and to the left on the mountainside, the waves and shimmers of which began to gather and coalesce into solid black mass, a humanoid thing made from tentacles and shadow, clinging to the rocks.
And then it saw me see it and its whole awful body drew taut. Hunkering close against the rocks, it unhinged its saw-toothed mouth and let loose an ear-splitting shriek.
My friends didn’t need me to describe what I was seeing. The sound alone was enough.
“Hollow!” someone shouted.
“Run!” shouted another, belaboring the obvious.
I scrambled back from the ledge and was pulled to my feet, and then we were all running in a pack, not down the mountain but up it, farther into the unknown rather than back toward the flat ground and loop exit that lay behind us. But it was too late to turn back; I could feel the hollow leaping from boulder to crag up the cliffside—but away from us, down the path, to cut us off in case we tried to run past it down the mountain. It was trapping us.
This was new. I’d never been able to track a hollow with anything other than my eyes before, but now I felt that little compass needle inside me pointing behind us, and I could almost picture the creature scrambling toward flat ground. It was as if, upon seeing the hollow, I’d planted a sort of homing beacon in it with my eyes.
We raced around a corner—my fleeting fear of heights now apparently gone—and were confronted by a smooth wall of rock, fifty feet high at least. The path ended here; all around us the ground fell away at crazy angles. The wall had no ladders, no handholds. We searched frantically for some other way—a secret passage in the rock, a door, a tunnel—but there was none, and no way forward but up; and no way up, apparently, other than via hot air balloon or the helping hand of a probably mythical giant.