Even now, weeks later, Ekaira still found herself deeply affected by Larathen’s gift. The map, even if fake, was old and well-made. She knew that much from one of the succession of odd jobs that had brought her from Triathe to, eventually, the Keep. The idea that someone would freely entrust her with something so valuable was still foreign to her, after so many years on her own.
Ekaira had begun her studies at the Keep at an age well past when most students had completed their studies and had students of their own to mentor, thanks to a chance-met magi who had recognized Ekaira’s supposed strong talent and practically dragged her there. (To be honest, Ekaira still had her doubts about the woman’s competence.) Ekaira had arrived with low expectations, prepared for little more than a few months of solitary study (and perhaps the chance to get a few more magic lessons) before whoever was in charge of such things realized she truly didn’t belong there. As expected, she had indeed found herself set apart from the new arrivals by her age and by her general unfamiliarity with magic and magical creatures. Larathen’s friendship had been unexpected, but deeply welcome. He’d even introduced her to his mentor, and though Ekaira still wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Rykian, she had still appreciated the effort.
Ekaira suspected that the map was little more than an antique hoax (though Larathen, to his credit, certainly wouldn’t have known that). A map showing the location of a hidden nursery, supposedly filled with creatures just waiting for some adventurous magi to stumble across them, was about as plausible as one showing where some legendary pirate had hidden vast amounts of treasure. Still, the possibility (no matter how slight) of seeing what few others had seen before had been too much to resist. She had traveled further on less, and at least this time she wasn’t completely alone.
All of the students Ekaira had seen so far seemed to have dozens of creatures keeping them company. After a year at the Keep, Ekaira had two, though not for lack of trying. Spike, a tevera enox, had been how she had met Larathen in the first place. She’d stopped by Larathen’s stand one day to look at a few of the creatures he was giving away to new magi. Several had caught her eye, but only Spike had seemed interested in her. A silver bird-horse with crimson spikes wasn’t the most inconspicuous creature to take traveling, but Spike was good-tempered, loyal, and (best of all) already trained. Besides, it could have been worse. She could have wound up with the kordaetis elephant. Ekaira would never be able to take such a clearly magical animal anywhere in Alveus, even to Triathe, but it wasn’t as though she had ever planned on going back.
Spike wasn’t her first creature, but he had been the first to stay. She’d grabbed eggs from the Stream, of course, like any new magi, but none of them had been willing to stay around once hatched. Ekaira didn’t think this was entirely due to bad choices on her part. She hadn’t been trying to tame manticores or nandi bears, just meowls, minicorns, and winged cats. Given that she had never had so much as a pet rock before coming to the Keep and given that she was working against years of ingrained Alvean prejudices (not that she had ever believed most of the rumors about magi and magical creatures, but they were still what she had grown up with), Ekaira was surprised she had had even two stay with her. At least she had tried to be kind, unlike whoever had owned Night before she found him.
Night, a black tundra tylluan, had been a purchase from a small booth specializing in rescues. She had no idea who had owned Night before he came to the booth and wasn’t sure she wanted to know, as it was clear his previous owner (not the person who owned the booth) hadn’t taken good care of him. Night was more of a feathered roommate than a pet (though, to be fair, even mundane owls supposedly made poor pets), coming and going as he pleased through a window Ekaira left unlatched for him (Ekaira had warded the window against intruders, and besides, her bedroom was several floors off the ground), but showed no signs of leaving.
Now, Ekaira had the map and the promise of more creatures. Even if seeking the nursery turned out to be a wild amagnae chase, Ekaira still welcomed the chance to be on the move again. Since leaving Triathe, she had rarely stayed in one place for more than a couple of months unless forced to (though she had places she revisited) and had missed the ability to wander where she pleased. A room to herself, a roof over her head, and regular meals were well enough (especially the last), but Ekaira hadn’t realized how much she had missed solitude until she had finally fled the noise and bustle of the Keep.
The map (and the aid of Night, when he could be coaxed into doing a bit of scouting) eventually led Ekaira to a small, isolated valley near the outskirts of Arkene. The valley was so far removed from any human settlements that Ekaira had become quite concerned about her supplies by the time she finally reached it. Spike and Night could hunt for themselves. She would have a harder time of it. Still, she had come much too far to turn back now.
The valley held nothing of interest besides a few caves. The first three were ordinary enough, but the fourth had faint light spilling out of it. To be safe, Ekaira called out before she went in. The cave didn’t look like anyone lived there, but better safe than cursed by some reclusive magi. There was no answer, to Ekaira’s relief.
“Wait here,” she told Spike, not wanting to lead him into danger. He listened about as well as she had expected. Well, at least she didn’t need to worry about something rummaging through the saddlebags while she was gone.
The long tunnel at the back of the cave was wide enough for Ekaira and Spike to easily walk side-by-side and tall enough that she could have ridden Spike and still had plenty of headroom. Ekaira tried hard not to think about who – or what – might need that much room, especially since the walls and floor seemed too smooth to have become that way naturally.
Ekaira turned one last corner and stopped short. Spike, too, stopped once he realized she was no longer at his side. The cavern before them stretched farther than seemed possible and was full of hundreds, if not thousands, of sleeping creatures – all hatchlings. Direwolf pups dozed alongside white elk calves, winged kittens slept curled around savis mice, and all without any sign of conflict.
Quietly, so as not to disturb the sleepers, Ekaira began to back up. Spike started to follow, then froze as Night fought his way out the saddlebag he had been riding in and flew off. Ekaira fumbled for her wand, so that she could stop Night from causing any harm, but he seemed more interested in exploring than in having a quick snack. Still, she didn’t quite trust Night not to try for at least a mouse, so Ekaira began to carefully pick her way through the sleeping creatures.
All of the creatures seemed to be sleeping relatively soundly, though some whimpered and twitched in their sleep. Ekaira knelt down to comfort one troubled sleeper, a lunar hippogryph. The clawmarks on its side oozed blood, to the point where Ekaira was tempted to use what little healing magic she knew, but started to scab over and heal while she watched. She gave the lunar hippogryph a cautious scratch around its ear tufts and stood, troubled by what she had just seen.
Night was nowhere in sight, so Ekaira turned to leave, only to nearly trip over a gryphon hatchling that hadn’t been there before. It was panting, eyes half-closed, and badly injured. As with the hippogryph, the wounds began to heal while Ekaira watched. At last, the gryphon slipped into slumber.
With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, Ekaira scanned the cavern. Now that she knew what to look for, she could see that many of the creatures showed signs of healing injuries. Ekaira shuddered and made her way back to Spike as quietly as she could. She suspected she knew the nursery’s true purpose now – not as a source of new companions for any sufficiently adventurous magi, but as a refuge for some of those who had died before their time (or possibly, given the nature of some of the wounds, as a place of safety for those whose magi had betrayed their trust).
Ekaira had wondered why Larathen, with his knack for befriending humans and creatures alike, hadn’t made use of the map himself, but now she thought he might have. Gentle, kind, and above all very observant, Larathen would certainly have figured out the nursery’s true purpose as well and left the hatchlings where they were.
Ekaira ducked and barely stifled a shriek as something dark swooped down from above her. Night, like all owls, made no noise whatsoever as he flew. He landed on Spike’s saddle and looked at Ekaira. Night had never been particularly affectionate, but Ekaira carefully reached out a hand to him. He gently nibbled one finger. “Go,” Ekaira told him. “You’ve earned a rest.” With one last look at Ekaira, Night flew to an empty niche and settled in, adult plumage fading to hatchling down as she watched.
Ekaira placed a hand on Spike’s shoulder to keep him from following Night. “I won’t stop you if you decide to stay behind,” she told him, “but let me get the saddlebags off you first. You deserve better than this latecomer.” Spike just looked at her and turned to leave.
The tunnel seemed twice as long going back. To make matters worse, Ekaira could hear the sound of claws on stone behind them – a clicking sound that stopped whenever they did. Spike didn’t seem worried, but he had hooves, spikes, and teeth to defend himself with. Whatever nursery guard they had disturbed was no threat to him.
Deciding that she would rather die knowing what had killed her, Ekaira whirled around. A lunar hippogryph hatchling – the same one she had seen earlier, for all she knew – stood there, looking up at her. Ekaira sighed, relieved that she wasn’t about to be torn to bits, but wishing the hatchling had stayed behind. She still had no wish to encounter whatever kept the nursery safe. “I’m not the one you’re searching for,” she told it. “Go back. Dream of happier days.” The hippogryph listened about as well as Spike had earlier. Ekaira finally had to levitate a strip of jerky and send it back to the cavern to get rid of the hatchling.
By the time Ekaira and Spike emerged from the cave, the sun was starting to set, so there was no point in starting back to the Keep that day. Besides, a night’s rest would give Spike a chance to change his mind. Before crawling into her sleeping bag, Ekaira took one last look at Spike, in case he was gone when she woke up.
Spike was still there when she woke up the next morning, resting at her back with one wing draped protectively over her. “I guess you’re staying,” she said sleepily, not bothering to open her eyes. Something snorted nearby. Ekaira opened her eyes and realized that the wing draped over her was blue, not silver. Spike was grazing a short distance away. The lunar hippogryph, now an adult, was the one curled up behind her.
“You’ll regret this,” Ekaira told the hippogryph. “Still, if this is truly what you want, I can at least try not to get you killed again.” She carefully sat up and cautiously held out her hand, but although hippogryphs of all varieties were known for being temperamental, this one merely shoved its head under her hand so that its ear tufts were in a position to be scratched. Ekaira did so, smiling. She thought that Spike looked a little annoyed, though she still couldn’t read all of his expressions. “I can take care of both of you,” she said. “Our new friend here can help keep us safe on the journey back.”
Spike still didn’t look convinced, but Ekaira didn’t want to waste any more time on one-sided arguments. She stood up. “If there’s nobody else tagging along, we should get going," she said with a smile. Something back at the cave’s entrance yipped. Ekaira turned around, shaking her head at her own foolishness in saying that. She should have known she was tempting fate. Two hatchlings – an Arkenian kitsune, which was yawning as though it had just woken up, and a spotted holly jackalope – were waiting at the cave’s entrance. The kitsune took one step forward, shook itself, and was immediately full-grown. The jackalope must have arrived at the nursery as a hatchling, for it stayed the same size. Both then came trotting toward Ekaira.
Ekaira gazed down at the pair, feeling hopeful despite herself. “As I said to your friend there,” she said, gesturing toward the hippogryph, “you’re probably making a mistake, but I suppose there’s no convincing any of you of that.” She swallowed, trying to ignore the sudden lump in her throat. “If nothing else, I promise not to betray the trust you’ve shown in me.” Ekaira was suddenly eager to get back to the Keep, and not just to show off her new friends. If they could forge their own paths, perhaps she could as well.