Out in the natural light of the world, I had to cock a grin. It was like going to another country, but as another person. I was a licensed sigil artist--a courier had brought the license with a dry letter from the king, both of which were in my modest rucksack.
The sheer rush of it, of being outside and official, were enough to flood my emotions. I could obscure from myself the fact that we were already leaving the outside in favour of a dank cave where the walls dripped and the king's men had insisted we would find the Hollow Man.
At the head of our meagre party, Soterios and Demetrius walked like soldiers. Soterios, rather less so. Although he didn't look foolish with a sword bouncing against one hip as he walked, the pistol on his other side made for a funny contrast. I couldn't say why. He followed a step behind Demetrius, who had geared himself up to look exactly the way he had when I'd first met him. The only difference was the start of a beard that he had begun surreptitiously showing off a couple of days before.
Strangest of all though, was the feeling of carrying a weapon myself. More than one, really. I had never known how heavy anything was. It had all just looked sharp and deadly, or like a gun. Guns came in such shapes and sizes, even varied in colour to some degree, but they had all been part of an otherworld that I didn't need or care to know about.
Thankfully, I had only been given a dagger and a longer knife that I'd been told was not quite a sword. Noni had chosen a crossbow for herself, claiming that it was hers, kept in the Trevino armoury from such an early age that she was shocked it hadn't turned to dust. It did look a little like a child's toy, but the points of the bolts were razor sharp, serrated at several angles.
We moved through the cave in a sort of confused huddle. Dr Cordet, once again authoritative and dislikeable--though mildly less so--walked a bit at the centre, letting Soterios and Demetrius take point, without sacrificing her position as the leader. She kept me with her, and Chrysander kept himself with me.
Fluid, hopefully water, dripped down from wobbly spines in the cave ceiling. After barely five minutes, eight point seventy-nine minutes of scuffling over the slick ground, the light seemed to be swallowed up. I looked back over my shoulder. The light we had left outside was as strong as it ought to have been, but it did not penetrate far enough to be of any use.
"Hold," Dr Cordet said, her voice carrying in the tight gloom. She held up a hand and spoke a word of power that made me realise with that her attaché case had not been included along. A globe of light formed around her hand, then lifted up like a balloon. It stopped and hovered just above the maximum head height of our party, illuminating the stalactites.
She waved her hand, fingers curled impassively, and we continued. I stumbled over a stalagmite the size of a toddler, but caught myself before Chrysander could presume anything.
Noni had won out in the end. In a way. According to Dr Cordet, she had not been "cleared" to come, and was certainly not capable of divining anything, but she had kicked up such a fuss that I had done my best to end it by insisting I wanted her to be included.
Truthfully, I would have given anything to get her to stay safely anywhere else, but I had the feeling that she would have never forgiven me if I had said as much.
"Why doesn't the light reach far enough in?" I asked. It wasn't so much that I cared, I just wanted to talk for the sake of talking. Once we had entered the cave, everyone had applied themselves. It made me feel like a soldier.
Not a pleasant feeling on any day of the week.
Odd as it was, Chrysander answered before Dr Cordet could get a chance to do so. He watched my footing with me, eyeing the stalagmites and other bold rocks like a child eyeing a pack of dogs that only looked as if they might be friendly. "It's to do with the Hollow Man, you've already guessed."
"Of course," I said, quietly. Everything had to do with the Hollow Man. But not in the everyday, mundane cursing way that it once had. A student failing an exam or suddenly becoming ill was not the doings of an unholy nightmare.
Although in this dark place, I would have preferred that were his domain. A dark, angry demigod intent on terrorising my--my old classmates was not so bad in comparison. Ridiculous, but not very bad.
"That's part of what makes divining work. There's an absence, and some people can track it. You have to know some dogma that I won't go into," he winked before I could thank him for that, so I didn't say anything at all, "but it's rather simple business after that."
"Then you're here as a sort of compass?" I stepped over a sharp-looking boulder and motioned about its existence to Noni, who did not spend enough time looking where she was putting her feet.
Dr Cordet sent up a second ball of light and pushed it gently over into the direction of Chrysander and Noni, where it stopped to hover over their heads. "No, you are."
"I thought I was bait."
Her upper lip twisted in an odd, pouting frown. "Do try and be a little less dramatic. Bait is such a crude term, nor is it a suitable one. Stop fussing over your immortal soul for a moment--remembering that it stays as immortal as a soul ever is no matter if you have come across Hollow Man in your life or not--and pay attention to how you feel right now."
That speech snapped through me, although the largest effect was indignity. My soul was not on my mind. It was my neck that I was worried about. Not to mention all of my internal organs, which I grew rather fond of when anything threatened to remove or rearrange them. "What am I supposed to be feeling, then?"
"You are meant to tell me that."
Sighing, I reached back and grabbed Chrysander reluctantly by the arm. He gave a start, then worse, a grin. His hand covered mine, but I didn't give him a chance to tease. "I'm going to close my eyes and do what Dr Mum there wants," I said, being quite intentionally childish. "All I want from you is for you to divine where all the rocks are and keep me from falling over my own feet."
He agreed, in his florid, silly way. Noni didn't look happy about it, but I wasn't about to hang onto a person carrying a crossbow, even if it was the right size for her smaller arms.
I closed my eyes. There wasn't an automatic transformation or resurgence of anything. The already cold temperature of the cave had been dropping, the way it had when we had been descending through the tunnels, and there was an extra dampness. I sniffed, already reacting to the latter.
That brought the smell of mushrooms to me. I had never known they had a smell before cooking, and this didn't seem quite right. Without opening my eyes, I said, "Are mushrooms supposed to smell a little like rubber beginning to burn and then being extinguished right away?"
"I do not believe so."
Dr Cordet did seem the type to know, so I left it at that. The smell grew stronger. I tilted my head up, nostrils quivering, and focused on the scent like a hound dog. Or whatever kind of dog it was. My mind was getting a bit muddled. There was a distinct something else in the air as well, but I couldn't place it. Raspberries?
Why would there be fruit underground? Potatoes, I could see, but raspberries simply made no sense at all. Perhaps that was what the Hollow Man did to me, he mixed up my senses as some kind of prelude to mixing up anything else. To disorientate me before taking me. Perhaps it hadn't been just fear when I had been in the closet under the stair.
I asked myself if I was afraid now. It was difficult to get a direct answer from myself. For one thing, no one liked to answer that question, and for another, it was hard to be afraid when one was carrying a weapon. I suspected that people used to carrying weapons were less beneficiently affected by this, but all the same.
Then the world went dark and I couldn't move at all. Tears welled up in me, choking my breathing. It was like being suffocated with a mammoth piece of furniture.
The feeling did not dissipate even when I opened my eyes. I knew they were open, but I couldn't see anything. "Below," I gasped. My own voice sounded alien and incomplete.
The world snapped into view, as mucky as it could be when there was only two globes of overhead light to illuminate anything. I looked down at my hands, intent on reciting the measurements of my fingers to calm myself down. But it was as if everything had suddenly become algebraic. There were too many variables to find any precision anywhere.
Noni grabbed my elbow, and of all things, I found myself checking that she had let the crossbow drop to point at the ground. It nearly made me laugh. "What happened?" Before I could answer, she glared up at Chrysander. "What did you do? Let go of her!"
"No, no, it's not..." I gasped for air. Now that I could find it, I flexed my fingers and just told myself the measurements even though I still couldn't find them. The entire body was a ruler. Even if I couldn't see what things were with my eyes alone, I could use my fingers to cheat through it. My dimensions teacher would have given me a demerit for needing them, but he had been the one who taught me to be a ruler, so I could certainly hold it against him. "It's Hollow Man."
It was still there. The darkness. It wasn't inside me, but just outside. Like standing in shadow while holding a candle.
"What did it feel like?"
As much as I wanted to hate her for the question and its coldness, I knew that Dr Cordet wouldn't change no matter how much I hated her. It was almost nice to have that kind of anything to depend on. I almost said that it felt like dying, but the few times I had come close to dying had been much livelier feelings than that. This was more like going to sleep and giving up.
When I had said as much, the response was not a terribly encouraging one. "Then he must be close."
"How do you figure?" I wanted to argue. But the truth was that I couldn't. I knew she was right, or almost right. For the simple reason that I knew exactly where the Hollow Man was, as clearly and absolutely as if I was standing next to him.
The thought made me shudder. I wanted to run for the mouth of the cave, but that wouldn't have changed anything. Whether pausing to think, to look, had been a kind of initiation, or if I had merely taken the time to let something wake up with the catalyst of nearness, I couldn't have said. It didn't seem as though the details really mattered.
No matter where I went, I knew I would know where he was. I'd been turned into a compass. I wished I knew who to blame. If it was someone other than me, they deserved a kick.
I started walking again, marching along as if there were no obstacles, which was a bad plan in a cave with plenty of them. Around a very sharp turn, I could see a black area that could have been a dead end. It wasn't.
Fortunately, Soterios and Demetrius had turned back to see why I'd been having a fit. I grinned weakly at Soterios, wondering if I ought to mention how his luck had just saved their lives. He probably wouldn't have understood it. I knew I didn't.
"There's something in the dark just there," I said. "It ought to make you happy, Dr Cordet." And it would, in her own twisted fashion. Or perhaps I really was just being quite unkind.
Demetrius drew one of his bladed weapons, apparently doing enough thinking to surmise that a shot from anything would deafen all of us. Or worse, cause a cave-in. "Stay here, we'll take care of it."
That was what I had intended to do. Following orders issued by Demetrius Trevino wasn't exactly something I would have listed as a favourite hobby of mine, but it was sensible.
I pushed past him and headed into the dark, dagger drawn. My mind was emptying itself out on the floor. I thought I was saying something, telling him that I would do my part. But that didn't sound like me. I knew my part. My part was all the weird bits, being a compass to find the Hollow Man for the king.
King and country. That was how it was for the thing in the dark, wasn't it?
Footsteps crashed behind me, slapping into puddles of accumulated mucky water, mud that had slid in from old rain. As the smallest, it was not surprising that Noni reached me first, but I was already well into the dark.
"What do you think you're doing?" she squeaked, huddling around my arm.
"Careful with that thing," I heard myself say. Distracted. I was looking around. "Aim up there." I pointed.
She squeezed my arm, trying to draw me back. "Up where? I can't see a thing."
Apparently the globes could not travel as fast as the rest of us. Or perhaps they couldn't penetrate this dark. Squinting, I realised that I had been pointing quite accurately, but it wasn't due to anything like seeing. The Hollow Man had minions. "It's the discovery of a lifetime, isn't it?"
"Athena Idony, you are scaring me. Quit talking funny and come back with me." Noni was trembling, I could feel it. "I can't just fire shots into the dark, and you can't just swing around like a maniac. Besides, this is Demetrius's job."
"And Soterios," I reminded both of us. I hadn't forgotten.
What had I done?
Giving myself an extra shake, I turned with Noni and gave her a shove, running back. My brain felt split, literally of two minds. Someone was manipulating me. Or something. The dark made it worse, but I could still feel it if I concentrated.
We ran back around the corner, colliding with the boys. I nearly knocked Demetrius over, and he repaid me by lifting me off the ground by my shoulders and giving me a real shake. "This isn't a game!" His voice reverberated off the walls. "I don't know what's going on, but I'm not going to let this go any further. Let the king say or do what he wants, she isn't ready for this."
"She can talk," I said, snippy and wonderfully, refreshingly myself again. Out of the impenetrable dark, with Dr Cordet's two globes of light clustering together, it was like I had stepped out into the bright sunlight of full day. On a plaza, even. "And you can stop shouting, please. I'm fine."
"You aren't," Dr Cordet said, reaching out to pull me away from Demetrius. "He is right, you must not be ready. I expected a connection to the Hollow Man, not a magnetic pull."
A nasty remark made its way up my throat, from somewhere I could not identify, but it stuck in my teeth. The thing in the dark had followed us out.
Somehow it had got ahead. Its appearance was simultaneously foreign and exactly what I had expected to see. I knelt to be on its eye level, but even with my height, it was not a long journey down. The size of a child. It actually looked like a child.
No one else turned round to see it, but it was there all the same. It had arms like rope, in more way than one. They were thin and appeared almost boneless, swaying in the windy non-breeze of the cave's coolness. Knobby elbows and wrists, like knots. Bony, skeletal fingers that matched its nearly white face. The grey of bones that wanted to be bleached in sun, but would never see it.
It could have been a girl or a boy, the face was genderless and sallow. No, not sallow. Hollow.
I staggered back without standing, landing hard on my rear end. A Hollow Child. The other person inside who was not me laughed, as if something were terribly funny about all of this.
Demetrius and Chrysander each took hold of one of my elbows and helped me to my feet. "What's wrong?" Demetrius asked me, bewilderment etched on his face like the connecting lines of mortar on a brick wall. "You keep acting odd."
"At least she isn't dashing about anymore," Chrysander mused, using both hands where Demetrius had opted for one. He was about to pull on me, I could tell. He probably didn't even know he was going to do it.
"Stop talking like she can't hear you."
"I don't think she can, Dem." Turning to face the direction which I could not turn away from, Chrysander nodded at the Hollow Child. "Look, she's staring off at nothing, but it's like she sees something."
I gasped. The Hollow Child held a crooked bone finger to its mouth. There were lips there, when my eyes were open. If I shut my eyes, even to blink, I could still see it standing there, but with only bone to outline its shape. Bone draped in ragged clothes. "You don't see it?" My voice was so high in pitch it was a wonder I hadn't reached a dog's hearing range. "How can you not see it? It's right bloody there!"
We were moving towards it, Dr Cordet leading at the old rear, new vanguard. She nearly marched right into the thing, and I screamed, pulling my arms away from Demetrius and Chrysander to cover my face.
Then I understood what was going on. And the fear, so thick and bubbling and surreal, turned to hot, searing anger. Fortunately, the boys had kept a good hold on me, allowing me the flexibility to hide without letting go. If they had let go, I would have leapt on the Hollow Child and torn it apart with my bare hands.
It giggled again, and I drew the dagger, the back half of my mind trying to remember when I had sheathed it. Seeking order even then. "There is someone mucking about with me," I growled.
"The Hollow Man has never been known to toy with his victims," Dr Cordet said, mere millimetres from the Hollow Child's grinning face. With my eyes open, I could see it had no teeth. I blinked, still no teeth.
"This isn't from Hollow Man," I said. My voice had dropped back down the register to something deep and primal. "It's... using him."