CLARE’S KNUCKLES WERE WHITE where she clutched the map. She didn’t need it— wouldn’t need it for more than an hour, until the road deposited them back into the fields on the other side of the mountain— but she held on to it like a lifeline.
Glass light casings glittered across the ceiling, but the tunnel’s power was gone and the arched passageway was desperately black. The sunlight flowing through the entrance faded within seconds, until their only illumination came from the headlights forming two shimmering circles ahead of them.
Clare didn’t like it. The high beams didn’t reach as far as she thought they should have. They revealed patches of the road, perfectly straight and seemingly endless. Its diffusion brushed across the ceiling, enough to flash off anything reflective and tease the shadows in between. But at the speed Dorran was driving, the lights weren’t reaching far enough to show any obstacles and still leave enough time to brake.
Please, please, let the tunnel be empty.
Clare knew hope was thin. The tunnel’s perfect darkness and moist chill would make it an ideal home for the hollows— even more so than the forest. But the lights skimmed across foot after foot of ground, and still, they were undisturbed.
The bus began to slow. Clare finally tore her eyes off the road to glance at Dorran. His brows were low, casting heavy shadows across his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Clare whispered, even though there was no risk her voice would attract attention when the engine would accomplish the job first.
“They are not following us any longer.”
Clare twisted to see the side mirror. When Dorran tapped the breaks, red light flowed across the tunnel behind them. It was empty.
Clare’s stomach turned. She faced the path ahead again, trying to ignore the prickles growing across her arms. “You weren’t driving fast enough to lose them, were you?”
“No. They could keep up.” He flexed his fingers on the wheel. “They followed us into the tunnel for a while. Then they stopped, almost as though they had been spooked and turned away.” What could spook a hollow?
She could see the same anxiety reflected in Dorran’s face. The car continued to coast forward at less than half its previous speed, and he kept his attention fastened on the road. “What do you think? Drive cautiously or as quickly as we can?”
Not knowing what might be in the tunnel made the question
impossible. Driving slowly would allow them to be followed, to be anticipated, or to be ambushed. But driving quickly could come to a sudden and unpleasant end if they encountered a blockage.
“Faster than this,” Clare finally decided. “But…not too fast.”
Dorran gave a short nod and the bus sped up. Their headlights flashed over rock walls, the old, unmaintained white lines painted across the road, and the dead lights set into the ceiling. Clare craned her neck as they passed an unusual shape. It looked as though one of the lights had been torn out of its socket and was allowed to dangle from two cables. The shape passed them so quickly that she couldn’t get a good look at it.
Something had left score marks on the walls, she thought. The stone was rough to begin with, which disguised the marring. But the tunnel was old—at least for ty years based on the style of the lights—and v ery rarely maintained. The old rock on the walls had been blackened by the soot left from thousands of vehicles. Long gashes cut through the decades of grime, leaving marks of lighter gray decorating the walls.
Then something small appeared on the ground ahead. At first glance, Clare thought it was a stray rock. It was only when it crunched under their wheels that Clare realized she’d been looking at half of a skull.
“Slow down,” she whispered.
The vehicle’s speed reduced, and Clare saw they were surrounded by bone fragments.
The off- white shapes littered the floor, sometimes gathering
at the tunnel’s edges like leaves. None of the bones were intact. They had all been broken into fragments, the marrow inside sucked out. She didn’t think the bones belonged to humans. Or, at least, they hadn’t been human when they died.
Inside, the bus was so quiet that Clare could hear her own heartbeat. Dorran leaned across the wheel, his breathing shallow as he tried to protect them against a threat they didn’t yet understand.
Then a pole-like shape loomed in the shado ws ahead. Impossibly tall and thin, it stretched from the ground toward the ceiling. Clare looked for any semblance of life—ey es, a mouth, limbs, anything—but couldn ’t find it. The shape was gray and curved gradually, segmented in two places. It looked more like a streetlamp than a hollow.
Dorran hit the brakes, pulling the bus to a shuddering halt.
The shape’s base lifted off the floor, seeming to hover as it drifted toward them, then stabbed back down to land on the road. Its base was pointed and looked sharp.
It’s a leg. Clare’s heart skipped. She followed the shape up to where its top nearly vanished among the shadows of the ceiling—to wher e it merged with a body.
Five more legs descended from the malformed creature. Two of them glided forward, stabbing into the road, bringing the whole being into terrible relief. Legs bent as the body descended. Two heads gaped at them out of the distorted torso: one near where the shoulder should be, the other in the center of its chest.
The eyes were witless, but the jaws stretched as it moved more
of its impossibly long, sticklike legs to pace toward them. It was immense. The tunnel was wide enough for two lanes and high enough to carry trucks, and the hollow filled the entire space.
Dorran barked an involuntary noise, something between revulsion and fear. Color had drained from his face as his wide eyes stared up at the creature.
It raised one of its six legs. The tip looked horribly sharp. Clare had a sudden image of it piercing through the roof of their bus, stabbing into them, impaling them. The metal structure was sturdy enough that the regular hollows couldn’t break inside, but something told her the enormous creature could cut through the metal like a can opener. She screamed, “Drive!”
Clare only wanted to be away from the many-legged behe moth, and as far as her brain was concerned, driving faster would get them away from it. She had no time to reconsider the instruction or think about the fact that the creature blocked the road because Dorran obeyed as soon as the word left her. The engine roared and the bus surged forward, plowing them toward the legs with reckless abandon.
He really shouldn’t trust me so much.
The inane thought came out of nowhere, and through the haze of panic, Clare had the impulse to laugh. Instead, she reached her arms forward and planted them into the dash in an effort to brace herself.
The legs blocked the road, as thick as young trees. Clare knew they had to be made of bone, though. And bone could be fragile if you hit it hard enough.
The raised leg aimed toward them and began to descend. The bus lurched as Dorran threw the wheel. Rubber screeched as they spun, and the limb stabbed into the place they would have been. A small crater appeared in the concrete as the sharpened tip impacted it.
Dorran swiveled the wheel back in the other direction, checking the bus before it could tip over. They were heading straight for one of the legs. There was no time to correct. Clare put her head down and squeezed her eyes closed. The seat belt snapped hard into her chest as the impact threw her forward. A horrible cracking sound rattled around them. She saw the leg bend across the bus’s front, the bones splintering like a snapped branch, their shards poking through a thin layer of gray skin.
Then the leg lifted away, and they were charging forward, past the monster. Clare twisted to see behind them. In the faint, red glow of their brake lights, she watched the creature topple. It seemed to move in slow motion, each of the six legs scraping off the floor as its center of gravity dragged it down. Screams, wrenched out of two inhuman mouths, echoed through the tunnel as the body hit the ground. Clare’s last glimpse was of the sharpened leg tips twitching as they tried to right the body again.
Dorran didn’t make any sound. He sat back in his seat, eyes wide and unblinking, perspiration shining on his face as the speedometer rose dangerously high. The bus rattled around them. Part of Clare wanted him to slow down. Another part wanted him to go even faster. Neither thought could be expressed. She
had no breath left for anything except feeding oxygen into her racing heart.
Then light appeared ahead of them. The arch-like glow was one of the sweetest things Clare had ever seen.
“Slow,” Clare choked out, grabbing Dorran’s arm. He tapped the brake, and the dangerous trajectory eased off as they neared the tunnel’s end. They were just in time. The road outside the tunnel curved sharply to the right, and Dorran had to slow to a crawl to handle the bend.
Then they were descending the mountain, once again surrounded by trees and light. The tunnel felt like a feverish nightmare, as though Clare had lost consciousness for twenty minutes before opening her eyes again. As though it couldn’t possibly have been real.
But the bus’s front held a new, deep dent. Their memento from the creature’s spiderlike leg.
Dorran and Clare didn’t speak as they descended the mountain. Dorran’s pulse jumped in his throat, and Clare let him focus on navigating the twisting roads. There was no chance to stop. Hollows had heard them coming and appeared through the trees. Soon, they had a new collection of monsters darting through the shadows behind them, trying to catch up to the bus. Dorran kept the pace aggressive. Within another fifteen minutes, the paths eased out into the foothills and the trees cleared. Most of the hollows gave up as they lost their cover. The few persistent ones were soon lost as the open road allowed more speed. Dorran drove until they reached a gentle hill with
views of the land around them, then he pulled onto the side of the road and parked the bus.
He turned to her and ran a hand over her neck. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” Her voice shook despite her best efforts.
Dorran exhaled, his shoulders dropping. “Stay here and keep warm. I’ll check there isn’t any damage to the engine.”
He brushed past her, opening the door, and a gust of cold air coiled over Clare. She shivered, then watched through the cracked front window as Dorran wrenched the hood up. He wasn’t dressed for the cold; he only wore a shirt and light coat.
Clare retreated deeper into the bus, looking through the clothing stored in the baskets above the seats. She found two jackets and two scarves and swaddled one set around herself before opening the door and leaping out.
Dorran lifted his head as Clare approached, and smiled at the sight of the jacket. “Ah. Thank you.”
She helped him pull the coat on, then tugged on the collar until he bent and let her wrap the scarf around his neck. “How’s it looking?”
“Not too bad, considering. It’s a hardy beast.”
Clare hung to his side as she watched him feel around the engine. The minibus had hit trees, been through water, and now, survived impact with the creature in the tunnel. The metal front had been twisted so badly that the hood didn’t shut properly. She silently thanked the bus for holding on for so long.
Dorran’s long fingers felt across the metal, searching for leaks or damage. He was moving slowly and his eyes seemed distant.
“Are you all right?” Clare asked.
“Yes. Of course.” He shot her a quick smile.
Clare knew him too well to think it was genuine. “You listened to me when I told you to drive,” she said.
His glance seemed surprised. “Of course I did. I trust you.”
“You shouldn’t have. It was terrible advice. We got lucky, and that’s the only reason we’re still alive.” The laughter that had threatened her in the tunnel suddenly poured out, gasping and thin. Clare clamped her lips shut to cut it off early.
Dorran bent forward as he searched her face. “I will always trust your advice. It has saved us more often than I can remember. You have good instincts.”
“Next time my instincts tell us to drive toward a living nightmare, feel free to ignore me.”
He laughed, and after a second, Clare joined in. The ache in her chest lessened. Icy wind whistled across them, pulling on their coats and tangling Clare’s hair, as Dorran continued working on the engine.
Then Dorran voiced the question they were both thinking. “What was that?”
“It was a hollow,” Clare said. “It had to be. But…the others all looked at least vaguely human. You could see traces of what they used to be. But that…”
She pictured the malformed torso growing two heads, the six enormous legs that held it suspended in the air.
“The others were afraid of it,” Dorran said. “That was why they wouldn’t follow us into the tunnel.”
“There were bones everywhere. Mostly hollow bones, I think. It was eating them. That’s something other hollows don’t do either.” Clare shook her head. “I mean, they will, sometimes, if they’re trapped in an enclosed place like a room or a car. In the wild, though, they mostly just ignore each other. But that thing…”
“It almost seemed to be waiting for prey.”
Clare nodded. She could picture it, lurking in the dark, suspended on those impossibly long legs as it waited for hollows to enter its domain. The bones had all been picked over dozens of times before the fragments were finally discarded.
In a world that felt miles from rational, Clare hadn’t realized how much she relied on rationality to cope. She knew the hollows’ rules. She knew what they looked like and what they were capable of. Now, they had encountered something that ignored all established principles, and Clare was back to feeling as helpless and vulnerable as she had been on the day she had discovered the world had ended.
“This is okay,” Dorran said, shutting the hood as securely as the twisted metal would allow. He took Clare’s hand, infusing some confidence into his voice. “We’ll be fine.”