The main attraction could be seen pacing inside the big cage, tethered to a heavy iron post by a chain around its neck. It was in such a sorry state that I was tempted to feel bad for it. The hollowgast had been splashed with white paint and daubed here and there with mud, which made it visible to everyone but also a bit ridiculous looking, like a Dalmatian or a mime. It was limping badly and leaving trails of black blood, and its muscular tongues, which in anticipation of a fight would normally have been whipping around in the air, were dragging limply behind it. Hurt and humiliated, it was far from the nightmare vision I had become accustomed to, but the crowd, having never seen a hollow, seemed impressed nevertheless. Which was just as well: even in this much-reduced state, the hollow had managed to knock out several fighters in a row. It was still plenty dangerous, and very unpredictable. Which is why, I assumed, men armed with rifles were stationed around the courtyard. Better safe than sorry.
I huddled with Sharon and Emma to strategize. The problem, we agreed, wasn’t getting me into the cage with the hollow. It wasn’t even controlling the hollow—we were working under the assumption that I could do it. The problem would be getting the hollow out, and away from these people.
“Think you could melt through that chain around its neck?” I asked Emma.
“If I had two days to do it,” she said. “I don’t suppose we could just explain to everyone that we really need the hollow and we’ll bring it back when we’re finished?”
“You wouldn’t even get that whole sentence out,” said Sharon, eyeing the rowdy crowd. “This is more fun than these blighters have had in years. No chance.”
“Next fighter!” shouted a woman standing watch from a second-story window.
Away from the crowd, a small clutch of men argued about which of them would fight next. There was already plenty of blood soaking the ground inside the cage, and none seemed in a hurry to contribute more. They’d been drawing straws, and a well-built man who was stripped to the waist had just picked the short one.
“No mask,” Sharon said, noting the man’s bushy mustache and relatively unscarred face. “He must be just starting out.”
The man gathered his courage and strutted toward the crowd. In a loud, Spanish-accented voice, he told them he’d never been beaten in a fight, that he was going to kill the hollow and keep its head for a trophy, and that his peculiar ability—ultraquick healing—would make it impossible for the hollow to inflict a mortal wound.
“See these beauty marks?” he said, turning to show off a collection of nasty, claw-shaped scars on his back. “A grim gave them to me last week. They were an inch deep,” he claimed, “and healed the same day!” He pointed at the hollow in the cage. “That wrinkled old thing doesn’t stand a chance!”
“Now it’s definitely going to kill him,” Emma said.
The man poured a vial of ambro into his eyes. His body stiffened and light beams shot from his pupils, leaving a cataract of burn marks on the ground. A moment later they winked out. Thus fortified, he strode confidently to the cage door, where a man with a large key ring met him to unlock it.
“Keep an eye on the guy with the keys,” I said. “We might need those.”
Sharon reached into his pocket and drew out a wriggling rat by its tail. “Did you hear that, Xavier?” he said to the rat. “Go get the keys.” He dropped the rodent on the ground and it scurried away.
The boastful fighter entered the cage and began to face off with the hollow. He’d taken a small knife from his belt and assumed a bent-kneed stance, but other than that he showed little appetite for a fight. Instead, he seemed to be running out the clock by running his mouth, giving a speech with all the blowhard bluster of a professional wrestler. “Come at me, you animal! I am not afraid! I’ll slice out your tongues and make a belt to hold up my pants! I’ll pick my teeth with your toenails and mount your head on my wall!”
The hollow watched him boredly.
The fighter made a show of drawing his knife across his forearm, and as blood began to well he held up the wound. It healed and closed before a single drop could reach the ground. “I am invincible!” he cried. “I am not afraid!”
Suddenly the hollow faked toward the man and roared, which so startled him that he dropped his knife and threw his arms across his face. It seemed the hollow had grown tired of him.
The crowd burst into riotous laughter—and so did we—and the man, red-faced with embarrassment, bent to pick up his knife. Now the hollow was moving toward him, chains clinking as it went, tongues extended and curled like clenched fists.
The man realized he’d have to engage the monster if he was to salvage his dignity, so he took a few tentative steps forward while brandishing the knife. The hollow flicked one of its painted tongues at him. The man swiped at it with his knife—and connected. Cut, the hollow squealed and retracted the tongue, then hissed at the man like an angry cat.
“That’ll teach you to attack Don Fernando!” the man shouted.
“This guy never learns,” I said. “Taunting hollows is a bad idea.”
He seemed to have the hollow on the run. It backed away while the man approached, still hissing and waving his knife. When the hollow could retreat no farther, its back against the bars of the cage, the man raised his knife. “Prepare to die, demon spawn!” he shouted, and charged.
For a moment I wondered if I’d have to step in and save the hollow, but soon it became clear that it had set a trap. Snaking beneath the man was all the slack of the hollow’s chain, which the hollow grabbed and swept violently to one side, sending Don Fernando flying head-first into a metal post. Clonk—and he was out, limp on the ground. Another KO.