I’m getting good at this, I thought with some satisfaction.
I struggled and groaned for a few seconds in what I hoped sounded like authentic pain, then released the post. The crowd, expecting that I was about to be killed in what was probably the shortest match yet, began to jeer and call me names.
It was time for me to get in a hit.
Leg, I said. The hollow again lashed a tongue around my leg.
It began to drag me toward it as I kicked and flailed.
It opened its mouth as if to swallow me whole. I quickly turned my body and slashed at the tongue around my ankle. I hadn’t really cut the hollow, but I told it to quickly let go and scream so that it would look like I had. The hollow complied, screeching and then reeling its tongues back into its mouth. It felt like bad pantomime to me—there’d been a second of lag between my command and the hollow’s response—but apparently the crowd bought it. The jeers turned to cheers for a match that was getting interesting, with an underdog who maybe had a fighting chance after all.
In what I hoped didn’t seem like a fight scene from a low-budget movie, the hollow and I squared off and traded a few blows. I ran at it and it knocked me down. I slashed at it and it backed off. It howled and waved its tongues in the air as we circled each other. I even had it pick me up with a tongue and (gently) shake me, until I (pretended to) stab the tongue and it (probably too gently) dropped me again.
I risked another glance at Emma. She was standing in the middle of the group of fighters near the man with the keys. She made a line-across-the-throat gesture at me.
Quit messing around.
Right. Time to end this. I took a deep breath, gathered my courage, and went for the big finish.
I ran at the hollow with my knife raised. It swung a tongue at my legs, which I jumped over, then another at my head, which I ducked.
All as planned.
What was supposed to happen next was that I would jump over another tongue at my feet, then pretend to stab the hollow in the heart—but instead the tongue hit me directly in the chest. It connected with the force of a heavyweight boxer, flinging me onto my back and knocking the wind out of me. I lay there stunned, unable to breathe as the crowd booed.
Back, I tried to say, but I didn’t have the breath.
And then it was on top of me, jaws wide and bellowing with anger. The hollow had thrown off my yoke, if only for a moment, and it was not happy. I had to regain control, and fast, but its tongues had pinned my arms and one leg, and its arsenal of gleaming teeth was closing in on my face. I was only just drawing breath—a gagging lungful of the hollow’s stink—and instead of speaking I choked.
That might’ve been the end of me but for the strange anatomy of hollows: fortunately, it couldn’t close its jaws around my head with its tongues extended. It had to release my limbs before it could bite off my head, and the moment I felt its tongue release my arm—the arm with the hand that still held the knife—I did the only thing I could think of to preserve myself. I thrust the knife upward.
The blade plunged deep into the hollow’s throat. It screeched and rolled away, tongues flipping and grasping at the knife.
The crowd went crazy with excitement.
I was finally able to draw a full, clean breath, and I sat up to see the hollow writhing on the ground a few yards away, black blood spurting from its wounded neck. I realized, with none of the satisfaction I might’ve felt under different circumstances, that I had probably just killed the thing. Really killed it, which was not even remotely the plan. From the corner of my eye I saw Sharon shaking his open hands at me, the universal sign for you just ruined everything.
I stood up, determined to salvage what I could. Reexerting my control over the hollow, I told it to relax. That it felt no pain. Gradually it quit struggling, its tongues sinking toward the ground. Then I walked over to it, pulled my bloody knife from its neck, and held it up to show the crowd. They screamed and cheered, and I did my best to look triumphant when really I felt like a giant failure. I was deathly afraid I’d just botched our friends’ rescue.
The man with the keys opened the cage door, and two men ran over to check the hollow.
Don’t move, I murmured as they examined it, one of them aiming a shotgun at its head while the other poked it with a stick and then held a hand below its nostrils.
Don’t breathe, either.
It didn’t. In fact, the hollow did such a great job pretending to be dead that I, too, would’ve been convinced if not for the ongoing connection between us.
The men bought it. The examiner tossed away his stick, held up my arm like the victor in a boxing match, and declared me the winner. The crowd cheered again, and I could see money changing hands, the disappointed people who’d bet against me grumbling as they shelled out bills.
Soon spectators were entering the cage to get a better look at the supposedly dead hollow, Emma and Sharon among them.
Emma threw her arms around me. “It’s okay,” she said. “You had no choice.”
“It’s not dead,” I whispered to her. “But it’s hurt. I don’t know how long it has. We’ve got to get it out of here.”
“Then it’s a good thing I managed to get these,” she said, slipping a ring of keys into my pocket.
“Ha,” I said, “you’re a genius!”
But when I turned to unlock the hollow’s chain, I found myself blocked by a swarm of people all clamoring to get close to it. Everyone wanted to get a good look at the thing, to touch it, to take a wisp of its hair or a clod of blood-soaked dirt as a memento. I started to shove my way through, but people kept stopping me to shake my hand and slap me on the back.