The hollow tumbled away from us, grasping at empty space as it fell. We rocketed up and away in the net, the tension that had been holding us down suddenly released, and soaring over the lip of the wall, we collapsed in a heap on top of it. Olive, Claire, and Miss Peregrine were waiting there for us, and as we extricated ourselves from the net and stumbled away from the cliff’s edge, Olive cheered, Miss Peregrine screeched and beat her good wing, and Claire raised her head from where she’d been lying on the ground and gave a weak smile.
We were giddy—and for the second time in as many days, stunned to be alive. “That’s twice you’ve saved our necks, little magpie,” Bronwyn said to Olive. “And Miss Emma, I already knew you were brave, but that was beyond anything!”
Emma shrugged it off. “It was him or me,” she said.
“I can’t believe you touched it,” said Horace.
Emma wiped her hands on her dress, held them to her nose, and made a face. “I just hope this smell comes off soon,” she said.
“That beast stank like a landfill!”
“How’s your ankle?” I asked her. “Does it hurt?”
She knelt and pushed down her sock to reveal a fat, red welt ringing it. “Not too bad,” she said, touching the ankle gingerly. But when she stood up again and put weight on it, I caught her wincing.
“A lot of help you were,” Enoch growled at me. “ ‘Run away!’ says the hollow-slayer’s grandson!”
“If my grandfather had run from the hollow that killed him, he might still be alive,” I said. “It’s good advice.”
I heard a thud from beyond the wall we’d just scaled, and the Feeling churned up inside me again. I went to the ledge and looked over. The hollow was alive and well at the base of the wall, and busy punching holes in the rock with its tongues.
“Bad news,” I said. “The fall didn’t kill it.”
In a moment Emma was at my side. “What’s it doing?”
I watched it twist one of its tongues into a hole it had made, then hoist itself up and begin making a second. It was creating footholds—or tongue-holds, rather.
“It’s trying to climb the wall,” I said. “Good God, it’s like the freaking Terminator.”
“The what?” said Emma.
I almost started to explain, then shook my head. It was a stupid comparison, anyway—hollowgast were scarier, and probably deadlier, than any movie monster.
“We have to stop it!” said Olive.
“Or better yet, run!” said Horace.
“No more running!” said Enoch. “Can we please just kill the damn thing?”
“Sure,” Emma said. “But how?”
“Anyone got a vat of boiling oil?” said Enoch.
“Will this do instead?” I heard Bronwyn say, and turned to see her lifting a boulder above her head.
“It might,” I said. “How’s your aim? Can you drop it where I tell you?”
“I’ll certainly try,” Bronwyn said, tottering toward the ledge with the rock balanced precariously on her hands.
We stood looking over the ledge. “Farther this way,” I said, urging her a few steps to the left. Just as I was about to give the signal for her to drop the boulder, though, the hollow leapt from one hold to the next, and now she was standing in the wrong place.
The hollow was getting faster at making the holds; now it was a moving target. To make matters worse, Bronwyn’s boulder was the only one in sight. If she missed, we wouldn’t get a second shot.
I forced myself to stare at the hollow despite a nearly unbearable urge to look away. For a few strange, head-swimmy seconds, the voices of my friends faded away and I could hear my own blood pumping in my ears and my heart thumping in the cavity of my chest, and my thoughts drifted to the creature that killed my grandfather; that stood over his torn and dying body before fleeing, cowardly, into the woods.
My vision rippled and my hands shook. I tried to steady myself.
You were born for this, I thought to myself. You were built to kill monsters like this. I repeated it under my breath like a mantra.
“Hurry up, please, Jacob,” Bronwyn said.
The creature faked left, then jumped right. I didn’t want to guess, and throw away our best chance at killing it. I wanted to know. And somehow, for some reason, I felt that I could.
I knelt, so close to the cliff’s edge now that Emma hooked two fingers through the back of my belt to keep me from falling. Focusing on the hollow, I repeated the mantra to myself—built to kill you, built to kill—and though the hollow was for the moment stationary, hacking away at one spot on the wall, I felt the compass needle in my gut prick ever so slightly to the right of it.
It was like a premonition.
Bronwyn was beginning to tremble under the boulder’s weight.
“I can’t hold this much longer!” she said.
I decided to trust my instinct. Even though the spot my compass pointed to was empty, I shouted for Bronwyn to drop the boulder there. She angled toward it and, with a groan of relief, let go of the rock.
The moment after she let go, the hollow leapt to the right—into the very place my compass had pointed. The hollow looked up to see the rock sailing toward it and poised to jump again—but there wasn’t time. The boulder slammed into the creature’s head and swept its body off the wall. With a thunderous crash, hollow and boulder hit the ground together. Tentacle tongues shot out from beneath the rock, shivered, went limp. Black blood followed, fanning around the boulder in a great, viscous puddle.
“Direct hit!” I yelled.
The kids began to jump and cheer. “It’s dead, it’s dead,” Olive cried, “the horrible hollow is dead!”
Bronwyn threw her arms around me. Emma kissed the top of my head. Horace shook my hand and Hugh slapped me on the back. Even Enoch congratulated me. “Good work,” he said a bit reluctantly. “Now don’t go getting a big head over it.”
I should’ve been overjoyed, but I hardly felt anything, just a spreading numbness as the trembling pain of the Feeling receded. Emma could see I was drained. Very sweetly, and in a way no one else could quite detect, she took my arm and half supported me as we walked away from the ledge. “That wasn’t luck,” she whispered in my ear. “I was right about you, Jacob Portman.”
* * *
The path that had dead-ended at the bottom of the wall began again here at the top, following the spine of a ridge up and over a hill.