Panic took hold. Miss Peregrine began to screech and Claire to cry as Horace stood and wailed, “This is the end, we’re all going to die!” The rest looked for last-ditch ways to save ourselves. Fiona dragged her hands along the wall, searching for crevices that might contain soil from which she could grow a vine or something else we could climb. Hugh ran to the edge of the path and peered over the drop-off. “We could jump, if only we had a parachute!”
“I can be a parachute!” said Olive. “Take hold of my legs!”
But it was a long way down, and at the bottom was dark and dangerous forest. It was better, Bronwyn decided, to send Olive up the rock face than down the mountain, and with limp, feverish Claire in one arm, Bronwyn led Olive by the hand to the wall. “Give me your shoes!” she said to Olive. “Take Claire and Miss P and get to the top as quick as you can!”
Olive looked terrified. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough!” she cried.
“You’ve got to try, little magpie! You’re the only one who can keep them safe!” And she knelt and set Claire down on her feet, and the sick girl tottered into Olive’s arms. Olive squeezed her tight, slipped off her leaden shoes, and then, just as they began to rise, Bronwyn transferred Miss Peregrine from her shoulder to the top of Olive’s head. Weighed down, Olive rose very slowly—it was only when Miss Peregrine began to flap her good wing and pull Olive up by the hair, Olive yelping and kicking her feet, that the three of them really took off.
The hollow had nearly reached level ground. I knew it as surely as if I could see it with my eyes. Meanwhile, we scoured the ground for anything that might be used as a weapon—but all we could find were pebbles. “I can be a weapon,” said Emma, and she clapped her hands and drew them apart again, an impressive fireball roaring to life between them.
“And don’t forget about my bees!” said Hugh, opening his mouth to let them out. “They can be fierce when provoked!”
Enoch, who always found a way to laugh at the most inappropriate times, let out a big guffaw. “What’re you going to do,” he said, “pollinate it to death?”
Hugh ignored him, turning to me instead. “You’ll be our eyes, Jacob. Just tell us where the beast is and we’ll sting his brains out!”
My compass needle of pain told me it was on the path now, and the way its venom was expanding to fill me meant it was closing in fast. “Any minute now,” I said, pointing to the bend in the path we’d come around. “Get ready.” If not for the adrenaline flooding my system, the pain would’ve been totally debilitating.
We assumed fight-or-flight positions, some of us crouching with fists raised like boxers, others like sprinters before the starting gun, though no one knew which way to run.
“What a depressing and inauspicious end to our adventures,” said Horace. “Devoured by a hollow in some Welsh backwater!”
“I thought they couldn’t enter loops,” said Enoch. “How the hell did it get in here?”
“It would seem they have evolved,” said Millard.
“Who gives a chuck how it happened!” Emma snapped. “It’s here and it’s hungry!”
Then from above us a small voice cried, “Look out below!” and I craned my neck to see Olive’s face pull back and disappear over the top of the rock wall. A moment later something like a long rope came sailing over the ledge. It unreeled and snapped taut, and then a net unfurled at the end of it and smacked against the ground. “Hurry!” came Olive’s voice again. “There’s a lever up here—everyone grab hold of the net and I’ll pull it!”
We ran to the net, but it was tiny, hardly large enough for two. Pinned to the rope at eye level was a photograph of a man inside the net—this very net—with his legs folded in front of him and hanging just above the ground before a sheer rock face—this very rock face. On the back of the photo a message was printed:
ONLY ACCESS TO MENAGERIE: CLIMB INSIDE!
WEIGHT LIMIT: ONE RIDER
This contraption was some sort of primitive elevator—meant for one rider at a time, not eight. But there was no time to use it as intended, so we all dog-piled onto it, sticking our arms and legs through its holes, clinging to the rope above it, attaching ourselves any way we could.
“Take us up!” I shouted. The hollow very close now; the pain extraordinary.
For a few endless seconds, nothing happened. The hollow bolted around the bend, using its muscular tongues like legs, its atrophied human limbs hanging useless. Then a metallic squeal rang out, the rope pulled taut, and we lurched into the air.
The hollow had nearly closed the distance between us. It galloped with jaws wide open, as if to collect us between its teeth the way a whale feeds on plankton. We weren’t quite halfway up the wall when it reached the ground below us, looked up, and squatted like a spring about to uncoil.
“It’s going to jump!” I shouted. “Pull your legs into the net!”
The hollow drove its tongues into the ground and sprang upward. We were rising fast and it seemed like the hollow would miss us, but just as it reached the apex of its jump, one of its tongues shot out and lassoed Emma around the ankle.
Emma screamed and kicked at it with her other foot as the net came to a jolting stop, the pulley above too weak to raise all of us and the hollow, too.
“Get it off me!” Emma shouted. “Get it off get it off get it off!”
I tried kicking at it, too, but the hollow’s tongue was as strong as woven steel and the tip was covered in hundreds of wriggling sucker-cups, so that anyone who tried to pry the tongue off would only get stuck to it themselves. And then the hollow was reeling itself up, its jaws inching closer until we could smell its stinking grave-breath.
Emma shouted for someone to hold her and with one hand I grabbed the back of her dress. Bronwyn let go of the net entirely, clinging to it with just her legs, then threw her arms around Emma’s waist. Then Emma let go, too—Bronwyn and I being all that kept her from falling—and with her hands now free she reached down and clapped them around the tongue.
The hollow shrieked. The sucker-cups along its tongue, withered and reeking black smoke, hissed from its flesh. Emma squeezed harder and closed her eyes and howled, not a cry of pain, I thought, but a kind of war cry, until the hollow was forced to release, its injured tentacle unslithering from around her ankle. There was a surreal moment where it was no longer the hollow who was holding Emma but Emma who was holding the hollow, the thing writhing and shrieking below us, the acrid smoke of its burned flesh filling our noses, until finally we had to shout at her to let go, and Emma’s eyes flew open again and she seemed to remember where she was and pulled her hands apart.