My foot kicked an arm. It rung dully and spun away—plaster. Here was a torso on a table. There a head in a liquid-filled jar, its eyes and mouth agape, almost certainly real but not of recent vintage. This seemed to be Caul’s lab, torture chamber, and storage closet all in one. He was a hoarder, like his brother, of strange and ghastly things—only where Bentham was organized to a tee, Caul badly needed a maid.
“Welcome to the hollows’ play space,” Caul said, his amplified voice echoing through the room. “We conduct experiments on them here, feed them, watch them disassemble their food. I wonder what part of you they’ll eat first? Some hollows start with the eyes … a little amuse-bouche …”
I tripped over a body, which yelped as my foot dug into it. Looking down, I saw the scared-to-death face of a middle-aged woman peeping back at me, wild-eyed—an ymbryne I didn’t know. Without stopping I bent down and whispered, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here,” but no, I thought, we would not; this chaos of forms and mad shadows would be the scene of our death—Old Jacob ascending, doom-saying, un-shut-uppable.
I heard something shift deeper in the room, followed by the wet draw of a hollowgast’s mouth opening. It was here among us. I aimed myself toward it and ran—tripping, catching myself, Emma running too, saying, “Jacob, hurry!”
Caul, over the PA, mocking us: “Jacob, hurry!”
He had turned up the music: driving, upbeat, deranged.
We passed three, four more ymbrynes, all tied and struggling, before I finally saw it.
I stopped, breathless, my mind reeling at its sheer size. The hollow was a giant—several heads taller than the one I’d tamed, its skull nearly scraping the ceiling despite its hunched frame. It was twenty feet away, its jaws wide and tongues raking the air. Emma stumbled a few feet ahead of me and stuck out her hand, pointing at something and lighting it at the same time.
It wasn’t the hollow she’d seen, of course, but what it was moving toward: a woman, upside down and twisting, hung up like a side of beef, her black skirts blooming about her head. Even like that, even in the dark, I knew her—it was Miss Wren.
Addison was hanging right next to her. They were struggling, gagged, and mere feet from a hollowgast whose tongues were now stretching toward them, slipping around Miss Wren’s shoulders, drawing her into its jaws.
“STOP!” I screamed, first in English, then in the rasping language the hollow could understand. I shouted again, then again, until it did stop—though not because it was under my control, but because I had suddenly become more interesting prey.
It released the ymbryne and she swung away like a pendulum. The hollow turned its tongues toward me.
“Cut down Miss Wren while I draw the hollow away,” I said.
I moved away from Miss Wren while talking to the hollow in a constant stream, hoping to draw it away from her and keep its attention on me.
Close your mouth. Sit down. Lie down.
It turned away from Miss Wren as I moved—good, good—and then as I backed away, it came forward.
Yes. Okay. Now what?
My hands went to my pockets. In one I had what remained of Mother Dust’s finger. In the other, a secret—a vial of ambro I’d swiped from the previous room while Emma wasn’t looking. I’d taken it during a momentary lapse of confidence. What if I couldn’t do this on my own? What if I needed a boost?
Sit down, I said. Stop.
The hollow whipped one of its tongues at me. I ducked behind a mannequin and the tongue lassoed that instead, lifted it up and flung it against a wall, where it shattered.
I dove away from a second tongue. Banged my shins on a tipped-over chair. The tongue slapped the empty floor where I’d just been. The hollow was toying with me now, but soon it would go in for the kill. I had to do something, and there were two somethings I could do.
The vial or the finger.
There was no way I’d be able to control this hollow without the boost in my abilities a vial of ambro could give. Mother Dust’s crushed finger, on the other hand, wasn’t something I could launch away from me, and I’d lost my mask. If I tried to use it, I’d only put myself to sleep; it was worse than useless.
As another tongue smashed into the ground beside me, I slid beneath a table and pulled the vial from my pocket. I fumbled to uncork it, my hands shaking. Would it make a hero of me, or a slave? Could one vial really addict me for life? And what would be the worse outcome, being an addict and a slave, or being dead in this hollow’s stomach?
The table was ripped away, leaving me exposed. I leapt to my feet. Stop, stop, I shouted, taking small hops backward as the hollow’s tongues lashed at me, missing by mere inches.
My back hit the wall. There was nowhere left to go.
I took a blow to the stomach, and then the tongue that had hit me uncurled and moved to wrap around my neck. I needed to run but I was stunned, doubled over, breath knocked out of me. Then I heard an angry snarl—one that hadn’t come from the hollow—and a stout, echoing bark.
Suddenly the tongue that was reaching for my neck stiffened, as if in pain, and retracted across the room. The dog, that brave little boxer, had bitten it. I heard him growling and yelping as he began to do battle with an invisible creature twenty times his size.
I slid to the floor, back against the wall, breath filling my lungs again. I held up the vial, determined now. Convinced I had no chance without it. I pulled the cork, raised the bottle above my eyes, and tilted back my head.