I took another few steps into the room, Sharon and Emma just behind me.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” the dealer said.
“I just bought him,” Sharon said. “He doesn’t even have a—”
“Was I speaking to you?” the dealer said sharply.
Sharon went quiet.
“No, I wasn’t,” the dealer said. He stroked his fake beard and seemed to study me through the hollowed eyes of his mask. I wondered what he looked like underneath, and just how much ambrosia you’d have to pour into your face before you melted it. Then I shuddered and wished I hadn’t.
“You’re here to fight,” he said.
I told him that I was.
“Well, you’re in luck. I just got a prime batch of ambro, so your chances of survival have shot up dramatically!”
“I don’t need any, thank you.”
He looked at his gunmen for a reaction—they remained stone-faced—and then he laughed. “That’s a hollowgast out there, you know. You’ve heard of them?”
They were all I could think about, especially the one outside. I was desperate to be on my way, but this creepy guy clearly ran the place, and making him angry was more trouble than we needed.
“I’ve heard of them,” I said.
“And how do you think you’ll do against one?”
“I think I’ll do okay.”
“Just okay?” The man crossed his arms. “What I want to know is: should I put money on you? Are you going to win?”
I told him what he wanted to hear. “Yes.”
“Well, if I’m going to put money on you, you’re going to need some help.” He stood up, went to the medicine cabinet, and opened its doors. The interior glittered with glass vials—rows of them, all brimming with dark liquid, the tops plugged with tiny corks. He plucked one out and brought it to me. “Take this,” he said, holding out the vial. “It takes all your best attributes and magnifies them times ten.”
“No thank you,” I said. “I don’t need it.”
“That’s what they all say at first. Then, after they get beaten—if they survive—everyone takes it.” He turned the vial in his hand and held it to the weak light. The ambrosia inside swam with sparkling, silvery particles. I stared, despite myself.
“What’s it made of?” I asked.
He laughed. “Snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails.” He held it toward me again. “No charge,” he said.
“He said he doesn’t want any,” Sharon said sharply.
I thought the dealer would lash out at him, but instead he cocked his head at Sharon and said, “Don’t I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” Sharon said.
“Sure I do,” the dealer said, nodding. “You were one of my best customers. What happened to you?”
“I kicked the habit.”
The dealer stepped toward him. “Looks like you waited too long,” he said, and pulled teasingly on Sharon’s hood.
Sharon snatched the dealer’s hand. The guards raised their guns.
“Careful,” the dealer said.
Sharon held him a moment longer, then let go.
“Now,” the dealer said, turning toward me. “You’re not going to refuse a free sample, are you?”
I had no intention of ever uncorking the stuff, but it seemed like the best way to end this was to take it. So I did.
“Good boy,” the dealer said, and he shooed us from the room.
“You were an addict?” Emma hissed at Sharon. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“What difference would it have made?” Sharon said. “Yes, I had some bad years. Then Bentham took me in and weaned me off the stuff.”
I turned to look at him, trying to imagine. “Bentham did?”
“Like I said, I owe the man my life.”
Emma took the vial and held it up. In the stronger light, the silvery bits inside the black liquid shone like tiny flakes of sun. It was mesmerizing, and despite the side effects, I couldn’t help but wonder how a few drops might enhance my abilities. “He wouldn’t say what was in it,” Emma said.
“We are,” Sharon said. “Little bits of our stolen souls, crushed up and fed back to us by the wights. A piece of every peculiar they kidnap winds up in a vial like that one.”
Emma thrust the vial away in horror, and Sharon took it and tucked it into his cloak. “Never know when one of these might come in handy,” he said.
“Knowing what it’s made of,” I said, “I can’t believe you’d ever take that stuff.”
“I never said I was proud of myself,” Sharon said.
The whole diabolical scheme was perfect in its evilness. The wights had turned the peculiars of Devil’s Acre into cannibals, hungry for their own souls. Addicting them to ambrosia ensured their control and kept the population in check. If we didn’t free them soon, our friends’ souls would be the next to fill those vials.
I heard the hollow roar—it sounded like a cry of victory—and the man we’d watched take ambro a minute earlier was dragged through door and past us down the hall, bleeding and unconscious.
My turn, I thought, and a thrill of adrenaline shot through me.
* * *
Out back of the ambro den was a walled courtyard, the centerpiece of which was a freestanding cage about forty feet square, its sturdy bars easily capable, it seemed to me, of containing a hollowgast. A line had been painted in the dirt approximately as far from the cage bars as a hollow’s tongues could reach, and the crowd, made up of forty or so rough-looking peculiars, had wisely planted themselves behind it. The courtyard’s walls were ringed with smaller cages, and inside a tiger, a wolf, and what looked like a full-grown grimbear—animals of lesser interest, at least compared to a hollowgast—were being held to fight another day.