“Enoch O’Connor,” Enoch said proudly, sticking his chest out a little.
“That’s a fancy name for a grimy, pudge-faced boy,” Addison said, and then he stood up on his hind legs, rising nearly to Enoch’s height. “I am a dog, yes, but a peculiar one. Why, then, should I be saddled with a common dog’s name? My former master called me ‘Boxie’ and I despised it—an assault on my dignity!—so I bit him on the face and took his name. Addison: much more befitting an animal of my intellectual prowess, I think. That was just before Miss Wren discovered me and brought me here.”
Faces brightened at the mention of an ymbryne’s name, a pulse of hope firing through us.
“Miss Wren brought you?” said Olive. “But what about Cuthbert the giant?”
“Who?” Addison said, and then he shook his head. “Ah, right, the story. It’s just that, I’m afraid—a story, inspired long ago by that curious rock down below and Miss Wren’s peculiar menagerie.”
“Told you,” muttered Enoch.
“Where’s Miss Wren now?” Emma said. “We’ve got to speak to her!”
Addison looked up at the house atop the tower and said, “That’s her residence, but she isn’t home at the moment. She winged off some days ago to help her ymbryne sisters in London. There’s a war on, you see … I assume you’ve heard all about it? Which explains why you’re traveling in the degraded style of refugees?”
“Our loop was raided,” said Emma. “And then we lost our things at sea.”
“And nearly ourselves,” Millard added.
At the sound of Millard’s voice, the dog startled. “An invisible! What a rare surprise. And an American, too,” he said, nodding at me. “What a peculiar lot you are, even for peculiars.” He fell back onto all fours and turned toward the tower. “Come, I’ll introduce you to the others. They’ll be absolutely fascinated to meet you. And you must be famished from your journey, poor creatures. Nutrifying provender shall be forthcoming!”
“We need medicine, too,” said Bronwyn, kneeling to pick up Claire. “This little one is very ill!”
“We’ll do all we can for her,” the dog said. “We owe you that and more for solving our little hollowgast problem. Most bothersome, as I was saying.”
“Nutrifying what did he say?” said Olive.
“Sustenance, comestibles, rations!” the dog replied. “You’ll eat like royalty here.”
“But I don’t like dog food,” said Olive.
Addison laughed, the timbre surprisingly human. “Neither do I, miss.”
Addison walked on all fours with his snub nose in the air while the man-thing called Grunt scampered around us like a psychotic puppy. From behind tufts of grass and the shacks scattered here and there, I could see faces peeking out at us—furry, most of them, and of all different shapes and sizes. When we came to the middle of the plateau, Addison reared up on his hind legs and called out, “Don’t be afraid, fellows! Come and meet the children who dispatched our unwelcome visitor!”
One by one, a parade of bizarre animals ventured out into the open. Addison introduced them as they came. The first creature looked like the top half of a miniature giraffe sutured onto the bottom half of a donkey. It walked awkwardly on two hind legs—its only limbs. “This is Deirdre,” said Addison. “She’s an emu-raffe, which is a bit like a donkey and a giraffe put together, only with fewer legs and a peevish temper. She’s a terrible sore loser at cards,” he added in a whisper. “Never play an emu-raffe at cards. Say hello, Deirdre!”
“Goodbye!” Deirdre said, her big horse lips pulling back into a bucktoothed grin. “Terrible day! Very displeased to meet you!” Then she laughed—a braying, high-pitched whinny—and said, “Only teasing!”
“Deirdre thinks she’s quite funny,” Addison explained.
“If you’re like a donkey and a giraffe,” said Olive, “then why aren’t you called a donkey-raffe?”
Deirdre frowned and answered, “Because what kind of an awful name is that? Emu-raffe rolls off the tongue, don’t you think?” And then she stuck out her tongue—fat, pink, and three feet long—and pushed Olive’s tiara back on her head with its tip. Olive squealed and ran behind Bronwyn, giggling.
“Do all the animals here talk?” I asked.
“Just Deirdre and I,” Addison said, “and a good thing, too. The chickens won’t shut up as it is, and they can’t say a word!” Right on cue, a flock of clucking chickens bobbled toward us from a burned and blackened coop. “Ah!” said Addison. “Here come the girls now.”
“What happened to their coop?” Emma asked.
“Every time we repair it, they burn it down again,” he said. “Such a bother.” Addison turned and nodded in the other direction. “You might want to back away a bit. When they get excited …”
BANG!—a sound like a quarter-stick of dynamite going off made us all jump, and the coop’s last few undamaged boards splintered and flew into the air.
“… their eggs go off,” he finished.
When the smoke cleared, we saw the chickens still coming toward us, unhurt and seemingly unsurprised by the blast, a little cloud of feathers wafting around them like fat snowflakes.
Enoch’s jaw fell open. “Are you telling me these chickens lay exploding eggs?!” he said.
“Only when they get excited,” said Addison. “Most of their eggs are quite safe—and delicious! But it was the exploding ones that earned them their rather unkind name: Armageddon chickens.”
“Keep away from us!” Emma shouted as the chickens closed in. “You’ll blow us all up!”
Addison laughed. “They’re sweet and harmless, I assure you, and they don’t lay anywhere but inside their coop.” The chickens clucked happily around our feet. “You see?” the dog said. “They like you!”
“This is a madhouse!” said Horace.
Deirdre laughed. “No, doveling. It’s a menagerie.”
Then Addison introduced us to a few animals whose peculiarities were subtler, including an owl who watched us from a branch, silent and intense, and a cadre of mice who seemed to fade subtly in and out of view, as if they spent half their time on some other plane of reality. There was a goat, too, with very long horns and deep black eyes; an orphan from a herd of peculiar goats who once roamed the forest below.