He’d been such a shameless braggart that the crowd couldn’t help cheering.
A team of men with torches and electric-tipped taser poles ran into the cage and kept the hollow at bay while the unconscious fighter was dragged out.
“Who’s next?” the referee woman shouted.
The remaining fighters traded looks of apprehension, then resumed arguing. Now no one wanted to enter the cage.
The man’s ridiculous performance and the hollow’s trick had given me an idea. It wasn’t a sure-fire plan, or even a good one, but it was something, and that was better than nothing. We—meaning the hollow and I—were going to fake its death.
* * *
I screwed up my courage and, as tends to happen while I’m doing something either slightly brave or very foolish, my brain disengaged from my body. I seemed to watch myself from afar as I waved an arm at the referee and shouted, “I’ll go next!”
Before then I’d been invisible; now the crowd and the fighters all turned to stare.
“What’s your plan?” Emma whispered to me.
I had one but had been so caught up with working it out that I’d failed to share it with Emma or Sharon, and now I had no time to lay it out for them. Which was probably for the best. If spoken aloud, I feared it might sound ridiculous or, worse yet, impossible, and then I’d lose my nerve.
“I think it’s better if I just show you,” I said. “But it definitely won’t work unless we get those keys.”
“Don’t worry, Xavier’s on the job,” said Sharon. We heard a squeak and looked down to see the rat in question with a piece of cheese in its mouth. Sharon picked him up and scolded him. “Keys, I said, not cheese!”
“I’ll get them,” Emma assured me. “Just promise you’ll come back in one piece.”
I promised. She wished me luck and kissed me on the lips. Then I looked at Sharon, who tilted his head at me as if to say, I hope you’re not expecting a kiss from me, too, and I just laughed and walked toward the fighters.
They were looking me up and down. I was sure they thought I was crazy, and yet none of them tried to stop me. After all, if this ill-prepared kid, who wasn’t even going to take a vial of ambro before his fight, wanted to throw himself at the beast and wear it down a little, that was a gift they were willing to accept. And if I died trying, I was just a slave anyway. Which made me hate them and put me in mind of the poor kidnapped peculiars whose extracted souls were swimming around in the vials they all clutched—which made me even angrier. I did my best to channel all that rage into unwavering determination and focus, but it was mostly just distracting.
And yet. While the man with the keys was working to open the cage, I looked inward and found, to my surprise and delight, that I was not racked with doubt, nor haunted by visions of my impending death, nor battling waves of terror. I had met and exerted control over this hollow twice before; this would be the third time. Despite my anger, I was calm and quiet, and within this quiet I found that the words I needed were waiting for me, ready to be spoken.
The man opened the door and I stepped into the cage. He’d only just closed it when the hollow started toward me, rattling its chain like an angry ghost.
Tongue, don’t fail me now.
I raised a hand to hide my mouth and said, in guttural Hollow:
The hollow stopped.
Sit, I said.
A wave of relief washed over me. I’d had nothing to worry about; reestablishing the connection was as easy as picking up the reins of an old compliant mare. Controlling the monster was a bit like wrestling someone much smaller than I: it was pinned and wriggling to get free, but so outmatched by my strength that it posed little danger. But then the ease with which I controlled the hollow was its own sort of problem. There was no simple way to get it out of the cage unless everyone believed it was dead and no longer a threat, and there was no way anyone would believe it was dead if my victory came too easily. I was a scrawny, un-ambro-enhanced kid; I couldn’t just slap it and have it keel over. For this ruse to be properly convincing, I needed to put on a show.
How was I going to “kill” it? Definitely not with my bare hands. Searching the cage for inspiration, my eyes fell upon the previous fighter’s knife, which he’d dropped by the metal post. The hollow was sitting next to the post, which was a problem—so I picked up a handful of gravel, ran toward it suddenly, and threw it.
Corner, I said, again covering my mouth. The hollow turned and darted into the corner, which made it seem as though the handful of rocks had startled it. Then I dashed to the post, snatched the knife from the ground, and retreated, a bit of bravery that earned me a whistle from someone in the crowd.
Angry, I said, and the hollow roared and waved its tongues as if infuriated by my bold move. I glanced behind me to find Emma in the crowd, and I saw her moving furtively toward the man with the keys.
I needed to make things tough for myself. Come at me, I ordered, and once the hollow had lurched a few paces in my direction, I told it to lash out a tongue and grab me by the leg.
It did, the tongue connecting with a sting and wrapping twice around my calf. Then I made the hollow pull me off my feet and drag me toward it through the dirt while I pretended to grasp for a handhold.
As I passed the metal post, I threw my arms around it.
Pull up, I said—not hard.
Though my words weren’t very descriptive, the hollow seemed to understand exactly what I meant, as if just by picturing an action in my head and speaking a word or two aloud I could convey a paragraph’s worth of information. So when the hollow pulled upward as I clung to the post, raising my body into the air, it was precisely as I’d imagined it.