Deep in the green-glowing bowels of a Chinatown seafood market, down a dead-end hallway lined with crab tanks, we crouched in a puddle of dark the light-eater had made, watched over by a thousand alien eyes. Leo’s men were close, and they were angry. We heard shouts and crashes as they tore apart the market, looking for us. “Please,” I heard an old woman crying, “I didn’t see anybody . . .”
We had realized too late that the hallway had no exit, and now we were trapped here, squatting by a drain in a narrow gap between stacks of doomed crustaceans, their tanks piled ten high in leaning towers that scraped the ceiling. Between the bangs and shouts, beneath our sharp, panicked breathing, was the unceasing rhythm of crab claws tapping glass, an orchestra of broken typewriters burrowing into my skull.
At least it would mask the sound of our breathing. Maybe that would be enough, if Noor’s unnatural dark held and if the men whose heavy steps were growing louder didn’t look too closely at the wriggling void with unsteady edges; an omission in the air, a wrongness unmissable if your eyes came to rest on it. Noor had shaped it by dragging her hand through the air around us, dark spreading in its wake as light collected on her fingertips like luminous cake frosting. She popped it into her mouth, and it glowed through her cheeks and her throat as she swallowed, and disappeared.
It was Noor they wanted, but they would’ve happily taken me, too, if only to shoot me. By now they had surely found H dead in his apartment, his eyes torn from their sockets by his own hollowgast. Earlier in the day, H and his hollow had broken Noor out of Leo’s loop. They hurt some of Leo’s guys. That, perhaps, would be forgivable. What was not: Leo Burnham, peculiar leader of the Five Boroughs clan, had been humiliated. A feral peculiar he laid claim to had been taken from him in his own house, the power center at the heart of a peculiar empire that spanned much of the eastern United States. If I were discovered helping Noor escape, that, more than anything, would write my death sentence.
Leo’s men were getting closer, and their shouts were growing louder. Noor tended to her dark, straightening its edges between her finger and thumb when it began to spread out, filling the center when it thinned.
I wished I could see Noor’s face. Read her expression. I wanted to know what she was thinking, how she was holding up. It was hard to imagine someone so new to this world enduring all this without cracking. In the past few days, she had been chased by normals with tranquilizer darts and helicopters, kidnapped by a peculiar hypnotist to be sold at auction, and broken free only to be captured by Leo Burnham’s gang. She’d spent days in a cell in Leo’s headquarters, then been sleep-dusted in the course of her great escape with H, only to awake in his apartment to find him dead on the floor—the gruesome shock of which had sent a warhead of concentrated light erupting from her like a fireball (one that nearly took off my head).
Once she recovered from that shock, I shared with her some of what H told me in his last breaths: that there was one last living hollow-slayer, a woman named V, and I was to deliver Noor to her for protection. The only clues to her whereabouts were a torn piece of map from H’s wall safe and garbled instructions delivered by H’s ghastly ex-hollowgast, Horatio.
But I hadn’t yet told Noor why H fought so hard to help her, enlisted me and my friends to the cause, and ultimately died in order to free her from Leo. I hadn’t told her about the prophecy. There had hardly been time—we’d been running for our lives ever since I heard Leo’s guys in the hallway outside H’s apartment. But more than that, I wondered whether, on top of everything else, it would be too much, too soon.
One of the seven whose coming was foretold . . . the emancipators of peculiardom . . . the dawning of a dangerous age . . . It would sound like the ravings of a lunatic cult member. After all the other demands the peculiar world had made on Noor’s credulity—not to mention her sanity—I worried it would send her running for the hills. Any normal person would’ve run off long ago.
Of course, Noor Pradesh was anything but normal. She was peculiar. And more than that, she had some serious iron in her spine.
Just then she leaned her head toward mine and whispered, “So, when we get out of here . . . what’s the plan? Where do we go?”
“Out of New York,” I said.
A slight pause, then: “How?”
“I don’t know. A train? A bus?” I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“Oh,” she said with a hint of disappointment. “You can’t, like, magic us out of here somehow? With one of your time-portal things?”
“They don’t really work like that. Well, I guess some of them do”—I was thinking of connections to the Panloopticon—“but we’d have to find one.”
“What about your friends? Don’t you have . . . people?”
Her question made my heart sink. “They don’t even know I’m here.”
Then I thought, And even if they did . . .
I felt her shoulders sag.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.”
Any other time, my plan would’ve been simple: Go find my friends. I wished desperately that I could. They would know what to do. They had been my rock ever since I entered this world, and without them I felt unmoored. But H had specifically warned me not to take Noor back to the ymbrynes, and anyway, I wasn’t sure I had friends anymore—at least, not the way I had before. What H had done, and what I was doing right now, was probably destroying any chance of the ymbrynes making peace between the clans. And it had almost certainly done irreparable damage to my friends’ trust in me.
So we were on our own. That made the plan simple, but dumb: Run very fast. Think very hard. Get very lucky.
And if we didn’t run fast enough? Or get lucky enough? Then I might never get a chance to tell Noor about the prophecy—and she would go the rest of her life, however long or short that was, without knowing why she was being hunted.
I heard a resounding crash not far away, and then Leo’s guys were shouting again. It wouldn’t be long now before they reached us.
“There’s something I need to tell you about,” I whispered.
“Can it wait?”
It was the worst time. It was also maybe the only time.
“You need to know. In case we get separated, or . . . something else happens.”
“Okay.” She sighed. “I’m listening.”
“This is probably going to sound ridiculous, so before I tell you, just know that I know that. Before he died, H told me about a prophecy.”
Somewhere close by, a man was trading shouts with Leo’s guys—he in Cantonese, they in English. We heard a loud slap, a cry, a muffled threat. Noor and I both stiffened.
“In the back!” Leo’s man shouted.
“It has to do with you,” I continued, my lips almost touching her ear.
Now she was trembling. The edges of the dark shivered around us, too.
“Tell me,” she breathed.
Leo’s men rounded the corner into the hallway. And we were out of time.