We pushed through a curtain of hanging beads and entered a room that was somewhat brighter and considerably more crowded than the first. A burly man stood on a chair at the opposite wall, directing people to one of two doors. “Fighters to the left, spectators to the right!” he shouted. “Place your bets in the parlor!”
I could hear voices yelling a few rooms away, and a moment later the crowd parted to allow three men to pass, two of whom were dragging the third, who was unconscious and bleeding. Whistles and catcalls followed them.
“That’s what losers look like!” the man on the chair bellowed. “And that,” he said, pointing into a side room, “is what cowards look like!”
I peeked into the room, where two men under guard stood miserably for all to see. They were covered in tar and feathers.
“Let them be a reminder,” said the man. “All fighters must spend two minutes in the cage, minimum!”
“So which are you?” Sharon asked me. “A fighter or a spectator?”
I felt my chest tighten as I tried to imagine what was about to happen: I wasn’t just going to tame this hollow, but do it in front of a rowdy and potentially hostile audience—and then try and get out. I found myself hoping that it wasn’t too injured, because I had a feeling I’d need its strength to clear us an exit. These peculiars weren’t going to give up their new toy without a fight.
“A fighter,” I said. “To really control it, I’m going to have to get close.”
Emma met my eyes and smiled. You can do this, her smile said, and I knew, in that moment, that I could. I strode through the door meant for fighters, buoyed with new confidence, Sharon and Emma following behind me.
That confidence lasted approximately four seconds, which was the length of time it took me to walk into the room and notice the blood that was puddled and smeared all over the floors and walls. A river of it led down a light-filled hall and out an open door, through which I could see another crowd and, just beyond them, the bars of a large cage.
A shrill call came from outside. The next combatant was being summoned.
A man emerged from a darkened room to our right. He was stripped to the waist and wore a plain white mask. He stood at the top of the hall for a moment as if gathering his courage. Then he tipped back his head and raised his hand above it. In his hand he held a small glass vial.
“Don’t look,” Sharon said, backing us against a wall. But I couldn’t help myself.
Slowly the man poured black liquid from the vial into each of his mask’s eye holes. Then he dropped the empty vial, lowered his head, and began to groan. For a few seconds he seemed paralyzed, but then his body shuddered and two cones of white light shot from the eye holes of his mask. Even in the bright room they were distinct.
Emma gasped. The man, who had thought he was alone, turned toward us in surprise. His eye-beams arced over our heads and the wall above us sizzled.
“Just passing through!” Sharon said, the tone of which managed to say, Howdy, friend! and Please don’t kill us with those things! at the same time.
“Pass through, then,” the man snarled.
By then his eye beams were starting to fade, and just as he turned away they flickered and winked out. He walked down the hall and went out the door, leaving two wisps of smoke curling in his wake. When he’d gone I ventured a look at the wallpaper above our heads. A pair of caramel singe marks traced the path his eyes had made across the wall. Thank God he hadn’t looked me in the eye.
“Before we go a step farther,” I said to Sharon, “I think you’d better explain.”
“Ambrosia,” Sharon said. “Fighters take it to give themselves enhanced abilities. Trouble is, it doesn’t last long, and when it wears off you’re left weaker than before. If you make a habit of it, your ability wears down to almost nothing—until you take more ambro. Pretty soon you’re taking it not just to fight, but to function as a peculiar. You become dependent on whoever’s selling it.” He nodded to the room on our right, where murmuring voices created an odd counterpoint to the full-throated shouts outside. “It was the greatest trick the wights ever pulled, making that stuff. No one here will ever betray them, so long as they’re addicted to ambrosia.”
I peeked into the side room to see what a peculiar drug dealer looked like, and I caught a glimpse of someone in a bizarre bearded mask flanked by two men holding guns.
“What happened with that man’s eyes?” Emma asked.
“The burst of light is a side effect,” Sharon said. “Another is that, over a period of years, the ambro melts your face. That’s how you know the hard-core users—they wear masks to hide the damage.”
As Emma and I shared a look of disgust, a voice inside the room summoned us. “Hello out there,” the dealer called. “Come in here, please!”
“Sorry,” I said, “We have to go—”
Sharon poked my shoulder and hissed, “You’re a slave, remember?”
“Uh, yes sir,” I said, and went as far as the door.
The masked man was sitting in a little chair in a room with frescoed walls. He held himself with unsettling stillness, one arm resting on a side table and his legs crossed delicately at the knee. His gunmen occupied two corners of the room, and in another stood a wooden chest on wheels.
“Don’t be afraid,” the dealer said, beckoning me in. “Your friends can come, too.”