I couldn’t tell right away and had to poke around the feeling for a moment before I could pin it down.
“Jacob! Ahead or behind?” Emma shouted in my ear.
Ahead. My gut-compass was certain, but it made no sense: the downward slope of the bridge was now visible all the way to the gate, and the whole length was deserted. There was nothing there.
“I don’t know!” I said.
“Then keep going!” Emma replied.
We were closer to the far side of the gap than the near; we’d be off the pikes faster if we continued forward. I shoved down my fear, bent and scooped up Addison, and started to run, slipping and wobbling on the unsteady pikes. The hollow felt close enough to touch, and I could hear it now, grunting toward us from some unseen place ahead. My eyes followed the sound to a spot in front of us but below our feet—on the cut-away face of the bridge, where several tall, narrow apertures had been carved into the stone.
There. The bridge was hollow, and a hollow was inside the bridge. Though its body would never fit through the openings in the stone, its tongues easily could.
I’d made it across the pikes and onto solid bridge when I heard Emma cry out. I dropped Addison and spun to see her behind me, one of the hollow’s tongues wrapped around her waist and whisking her into the air.
She screamed my name and I screamed hers. The tongue flipped her upside down and shook her. She screamed again. There was no worse sound.
Another of its tongues slapped the underside of the pikes and our makeshift bridge went flying, clattering apart and plunging like matchsticks into the chasm below. Then the second tongue went for Addison, and the third punched me in the chest.
I fell to the ground, the wind knocked out of me. While I struggled for a breath, the tongue slithered around my waist and scooped me into the air. The other had Addison by his hind legs. In a moment, all three of us were dangling upside down.
Blood rushed to my head, darkening my vision. I could hear Addison barking and nipping at the tongue.
“Don’t, it’ll drop you!” I shouted, but he kept on.
Emma was helpless, too; if she burned the tongue around her waist, the hollow would drop her.
“Talk to it, Jacob!” she shouted. “Make it stop!”
I twisted to see the narrow openings through which its tongues had squeezed. Its teeth gnawed at the stone slats. Its black eyes bulged hungrily. We hung like fruit on thick black vines, the chasm yawning below.
I tried to speak its language. “SET US DOWN!” I shouted—but what came out was English.
“Again!” Addison said.
I shut my eyes and imagined the hollow doing as I asked, then tried again.
“Put us down on the bridge!”
More English. This wasn’t the hollow I’d come to know, the one I’d communed with for hours while it was frozen in ice. This was a new one, a stranger, and my connection with it was thin and weak. It seemed to sense that I was fumbling for a key to its brain, and it hauled us suddenly upward, as if winding up to fling us into the chasm. I had to connect, somehow, now—
“STOP!” I screamed, my throat raw—and this time, out came the guttural scratch of hollowspeak.
We jolted to a stop in midair. For a moment we just hung there, swinging like laundry in a breeze. My words had done something but not enough. I’d merely confused it.
“Can’t breathe,” Emma croaked. The tongue around her was squeezing too hard, and her face was turning purple.
“Put us down on the bridge,” I said—in Hollow again!—the words clawing at my throat as they came. Every burst of hollowspeak felt like I was coughing up staples.
The hollow made an uncertain rattle. For an optimistic moment I thought it might actually do as I’d asked. Then it snapped me up and down as fast and hard as you’d shake out a towel.
Everything blurred and briefly went black. When I came to, my tongue was numb and I tasted blood.
“Tell it to put us down!” Addison was shouting. But now I could hardly speak at all.
“Ahm twying,” I mumbled. I coughed, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “Puhh uff dow,” I said, in broken-tongued English. “Puhh uff—”
I stopped, reoriented my brain. Took a deep breath.
“Put us down on the bridge,” I said in crisp hollowspeak.
I repeated it three more times, hoping it might slip into some furrow of the hollow’s reptilian brain. “Put us down on the bridge. Put us down on the bridge. Put us down on the—”
It gave a sudden bone-rattling roar of frustration, pulled me to the openings in the bridge where it was imprisoned, and roared again, flecks of black spittle spraying my face. Then it hauled all three of us up and hurled us back the way we’d come.
We tumbled through the air for what felt like too long—we were falling now, I was sure of it, arcing downward to our doom—and then my shoulder connected with the hard stone of the bridge, and we slid and skidded all the way down its slope to the bottom.
* * *
We were, miraculously, alive—banged up but conscious, our limbs still connected to our bodies. We’d tumbled down the smooth marble bridge, scattering the pile of heads at the bottom as we rolled to a stop. They were all around now, taunting us as we collected ourselves.
“Welcome back!” said the one nearest me. “We quite enjoyed your screams of terror. What powerful lungs you have!”
“Why didn’t you tell us a hollow was hiding in the damned bridge?” I said, rocking myself up to a sitting position. Pains flared all over my body, from scraped hands, scuffed knees, and a throbbing shoulder that was likely dislocated.