“The sign on the rope said Access to Menagerie,” said Horace. “Do you suppose that’s what’s ahead?”
“You’re the one who dreams about the future,” said Enoch. “Suppose you tell us.”
“What’s a menagerie?” asked Olive.
“A collection of animals,” Emma explained. “Like a zoo, sort of.”
Olive squeaked and clapped her hands. “It’s Cuthbert’s friends! From the story! Oh, I can’t wait to meet them. Do you suppose that’s where the ymbryne lives, too?”
“At this juncture,” Millard said, “it’s best not to suppose anything.”
We started walking. I was still reeling from my encounter with the hollow. My ability did seem to be developing, as Millard said it would, growing like a muscle the more I worked it. Once I’d seen a hollow I could track it, and if I focused on it in just the right way, I could anticipate its next move, in some felt-more-than-known, gut-instinctual way. I felt a certain satisfaction at having learned something new about my peculiarity, and with nothing to teach me but experience. But this wasn’t a safe, controlled environment I was learning in. There were no bumper lanes to keep my ball out of the gutter. Any mistake I made would have immediate and deadly consequences, for both myself and those around me. I worried the others would start believing the hype about me—or worse yet, I would. And I knew that the minute I got cocky—the minute I stopped being pants-wettingly terrified of hollowgast—something terrible would happen.
Maybe it was lucky, then, that my terror-to-confidence ratio was at an all-time low. Ten-to-one, easy. I stuck my hands in my pockets as we walked, afraid the others would see them shaking.
“Look!” said Bronwyn, stopping in the middle of the path. “A house in the clouds!”
We were halfway up the ridge. Up ahead of us, high in the distance, was a house that almost seemed to be balanced on a cloudbank. As we walked farther and crested the hill, the clouds parted and the house came into full view. It was very small, and perched not atop a cloud but on a very large tower constructed entirely from stacked-up railroad ties, the whole thing set smack in the middle of a grassy plateau. It was one of the strangest man-made structures I’d ever seen. Around it on the plateau were scattered a few shacks, and at the far end was a small patch of woods, but we paid no attention—our eyes were on the tower.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“A lookout tower?” guessed Emma.
“A place to launch airplanes from?” said Hugh.
But there were no airplanes anywhere, nor any evidence of a landing strip.
“Perhaps it’s a place to launch zeppelins from,” said Millard.
I remembered old footage of the ill-fated Hindenburg docking to the top of what looked like a radio tower—a structure not so different from this—and felt a cold wave of dread pass through me. What if the balloons that hunted us on the beach were based here, and we’d unwittingly stumbled into a nest of wights?
“Or maybe it’s the ymbryne’s house,” said Olive. “Why does everyone always leap to the awfullest conclusions right away?”
“I’m sure Olive’s right,” said Hugh. “There’s nothing to be afraid of here.”
He was answered right away by a loud, inhuman growl, which seemed to come from the shadows beneath the tower.
“What was that?” said Emma. “Another hollow?”
“I don’t think so,” I said; the Feeling still fading in me.
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” said Horace, backing away.
But we didn’t have a choice; it wanted to meet us. The growl came again, prickling the hairs on my arms, and a moment later a furry face appeared between two of the lower railroad ties. It snarled at us like a rabid dog, reels of saliva dripping from its fang-toothed mouth.
“What in the name of the Elderfolk is that?” muttered Emma.
“Capital idea, coming into this loop,” said Enoch. “Really working out well for us so far.”
The whatever-it-was crawled out from between the ties and into the sun, where it crouched on its haunches and leered at us with an unbalanced smile, as if imagining how our brains might taste. I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal; dressed in rags, it had the body of a man but carried itself like an ape, its hunched form like some long-lost ancestor of ours whose evolution had been arrested millions of years ago. Its eyes and teeth were a dull yellow, its skin pale and blotched with dark spots, its hair a long, matted nest.
“Someone make it die!” Horace said. “Or at least make it quit looking at me!”
Bronwyn set Claire down and assumed a fighting stance, while Emma held out her hands to make a flame—but she was too stunned, apparently, to summon more than a sputter of smoke. The man-thing tensed, snarled, and then took off like an Olympic sprinter—not toward us but around us, diving behind a pile of rocks and popping up again with a fang-bearing grin. It was toying with us, like a cat toys with its prey just before the kill.
It seemed about to make another run—at us this time—when a voice from behind commanded it to “Sit down and behave!” And the thing did, relaxing onto its hindquarters, tongue lolling from its mouth in a dopey grin.
We turned to see a dog trotting calmly in our direction. I looked past it to see who had spoken, but there was no one—and then the dog itself opened its mouth and said, “Don’t mind Grunt, he’s got no manners at all! That’s just his way of saying thank you. That hollowgast was most bothersome.”
The dog seemed to be talking to me, but I was too surprised to respond. Not only was it speaking in an almost-human voice—and a refined British one at that—but it held in its jowly mouth a pipe and on its face wore a pair of round, green-tinted glasses. “Oh dear, I hope you’re not too offended,” the dog continued, misinterpreting my silence. “Grunt means well, but you’ll have to excuse him. He was, quite literally, raised in a barn. I, on the other hand, was educated on a grand estate, the seventh pup of the seventh pup in an illustrious line of hunting dogs.” He bowed as well as a dog could, dipping his nose to the ground. “Addison MacHenry, at your humble service.”
“That’s a fancy name for a dog,” said Enoch, apparently unimpressed to meet a talking animal.
Addison peered over his glasses at Enoch and said, “And by what appellation, dare I ask, are you denominated?”