Except for having to think up new ways to keep peace between Spike and the lunar hippogryph, Ekaira had an uneventful trip back to the Keep. She even had time to name her three new friends, though she would have been the first to admit that the names weren’t exactly creative.
The Arkenian kitsune was Snowy, because of his white fur. Too playful for a more dignified name like Frost, he had spent the evenings underfoot and trying to get the jackalope hatchling to play. Ekaira had tried to burn off some of the extra energy by teaching Snowy to play fetch, though in the end she wasn’t quite sure who had been doing the teaching. Snowy had certainly soon had her well-trained as to what sort of sticks to throw and how far.
Ekaira had nearly named the lunar hippogryph Moon, but had finally decided on Winter. Winter’s white and pale blue plumage suggested snow and cold, while her temperament was decidedly frosty. She liked Ekaira well enough, but barely tolerated Snowy’s antics and showed even less fondness for Spike. Spike, usually easy-going, had taken a dislike to Winter after he had tried to make friends and nearly lost wing feathers.
For lack of any better distinguishing characteristic, the jackalope hatchling was Fluffy. Fluffy rode in Night’s former saddlebag during the day and spent the evenings curled up in Ekaira’s lap. She shared the lap with Snowy willingly enough, but refused to be drawn into play. Ekaira had worried about how well Winter would tolerate Fluffy, since hippogryphs were carnivorous, but Winter had barely paid the hatchling any attention at all.
Snowy settled right into life at the Keep. He followed Ekaira to class, slept curled up at the foot of her bed, and begged shamelessly for bits of Ekaira’s meals. Snowy also seemed to have made it his mission to cover everything Ekaira owned in white fur, to the point where she could probably knit another kitsune or two if she had the inclination. Her dark blue magi’s robes were now permanently piebald. Snowy’s only flaw was a slight jealous streak. Ekaira’s success with Snowy and Fluffy had inspired her to try befriending winged cats, but Snowy always chased the cats off before they got close.
Having Snowy around made all the difference. To be fair, Spike would probably have followed her around to classes if she had asked, but it would have been hard for a tevera enox to maneuver inside the Keep. Nothing else had changed, but having Snowy by her side made her finally feel like she belonged. Yes, students a fraction of her age had rocs and eldritch dragons, but she had her own kitsune.
Ekaira saw less of Winter, who was as poorly suited to life indoors as Spike was. When Ekaira was outside, though, Winter was usually never far away, often with a couple of younger hippogryphs following her around looking awestruck.
While Snowy and Winter had settled in relatively quickly, Fluffy remained worryingly slow to adjust. She’d seemed fine on the way back – a little unused to the wider world, perhaps, but she had after all been a hatchling when she had arrived at the Lost Nursery. Fluffy had been all right, if a little subdued, for the first few weeks back at the Keep, but had begun to grow increasingly listless, spending her days stretched out on a rug beside Ekaira’s bed. She did perk up momentarily whenever Ekaira came back into the room, but Ekaira was starting to suspect she wasn’t who Fluffy had been hoping to see.
Fluffy seemed otherwise healthy, so this wasn’t a matter for a healer, at least not yet. Instead, Ekaira decided to take Fluffy to Rykian. Ekaira hadn’t been certain about Rykian at first, but had gradually warmed to him, especially after returning from the Lost Nursery. Yes, Rykian could be temperamental, abrasive, and abrupt. She wasn’t surprised that Larathen had been the first (and, until Ekaira came along, only) student he had successfully mentored. However, he’d never belittled her, mocked her, or otherwise disrespected her. Rykian clearly wasn’t the sort to suffer fools gladly, but he had been willing to answer a surprising number of novice questions. He had told her that while he had no patience for willful ignorance or stupidity, lack of knowledge was another matter, especially if someone had the willingness to learn.
Before long, Ekaira was standing outside Rykian’s office door with Fluffy in her arms and Snowy practically underfoot. Tobran, Rykian’s partner, opened the door. She’d only seen Tobran on a couple of occasions, but had gotten the impression of someone quiet, vague, and soft-spoken (when he spoke at all). Before Ekaira could apologize for the interruption, Tobran wordlessly held out his arms. Ekaira handed Fluffy over and went inside, Snowy at her heels.
Mirrau, Tobran’s filigree cat, twined around her ankles as she walked. His skin swirled with the bright colors that indicated safety and calmness, outlined by the winged filigree markings he usually wore by default. Once Ekaira sat down, Mirrau immediately jumped up on her lap, purring. To her surprise, Snowy didn’t object, instead curling up contentedly at her feet. So far, Mirrau seemed to be the only cat he would tolerate, perhaps because Mirrau had an owner and wasn’t going to try to take Snowy’s place. Ekaira ran her fingers through Mirrau’s peach-fuzz fur, watching as white swirls followed her fingertips.
“Something wrong?” asked Rykian, looking up from the stack of papers he was working on. Rykian always reminded Ekaira a little bit of a sand gryphon that had decided to try out human form. It was something about his expression, posture, and overall appearance. Since Kestrel, his sand gryphon, had some human mannerisms, perhaps that meant there was some truth in the old saying that magi and their favorite creatures often grew to resemble each other.
Kestrel was also in the office, helping out by keeping Malice, the calico tienko, from knocking off papers. If Mirrau had most of the best qualities of cats, Malice had all of the worst. Even touching her was risky, at least for everyone except Rykian or Tobran.
“It’s important, but not urgent,” said Ekaira. “Not something that needs to be taken care of today, if you’re busy.”
“Believe me, this can wait,” said Rykian after a moment, glaring at the stack before pushing it aside. Malice immediately jumped on the pile, only to be snapped at by Kestrel. “What’s on your mind?”
“It’s Fluffy,” said Ekaira, pointing at the jackalope, who was now sitting on Tobran’s lap. “I’m starting to think that she only followed me back because she wanted to find her previous owner. She’s never been as outgoing as Snowy or Winter, but I thought she just needed time to adjust. Recently, though, she’s been getting increasingly listless and withdrawn. She hasn’t indicated that she wants to leave, but she doesn’t seem happy where she is.”
Rykian nodded, looking serious. “I see. Well, easy enough to find out what’s going on. Are your other two doing well?” Ekaira’s trouble with keeping creatures was no news to him.
“Yes, I asked both of them if they were happy staying with me.” She pointed down at Snowy. “He’s either showing his loyalty or trying to get me to break my neck tripping over him. As for Winter, I learned you should never ask a hippogryph that while you’re in biting range.” Winter had known just how much pressure to exert without breaking the skin, but had made it clear that if Ekaira even thought about trying to get her to leave, she’d be going through life one-handed.
Ekaira could see Rykian relax a little. “Good. Two out of three, at least, plus Spike. That’s not unreasonable for your time at the Keep. I wouldn’t worry about that, at least. Sometimes a creature just decides to go its own way, even one you’ve known for years. It happens.” He’d said much the same about Night.
Hearing that helped, as it had with Night. “So, what do we do about Fluffy?”
Rykian sighed. “If what you suspect is true, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be, I hope you realize that Fluffy could have been asleep in that cave for centuries. It’s also likely that whatever landed her there killed her magi at the same time. We’ll try, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“I understand,” Ekaira said. “I know it’s a long shot, but I need to try. I’d hope that someone would do the same for Spike or Snowy if they were searching for me.” Or Winter, but the lunar hippogryph probably wouldn’t need the help.
Rykian nodded. “The mark of a true magi. Now, Tobran, you should probably start.” Tobran looked at Rykian questioningly. Rykian waved a hand. “Yes, yes. Go on. It’ll make life easier for everyone.”
Tobran stood up and gently set Fluffy on the ground. Then, in the blink of an eye, there were two spotted holly jackalopes on the floor. Ekaira flinched despite herself. Half of the rumors about the Keep had magi changing into one magical creature or another, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find out that shapeshifting was actually possible. She just didn’t think that it ought to be that quick and effortless. Tobran likely had other forms, too, unless he coincidentally happened to be able to switch into that exact form of holly jackalope. It was small wonder that Tobran had always looked a little vague. Ekaira would be surprised if he didn’t sometimes get confused about what shape he was currently wearing.
The ensuing conversation was largely silent, meanings conveyed through posture and twitching ears, and took longer than Ekaira would have expected. Once Tobran had returned to human form and settled into a chair, Rykian handed him several sheets of paper and a pen. Tobran quickly wrote down details about not only Fluffy’s magi, but also the magi’s friends and other companions. “Not your fault,” he told Ekaira as he wrote, his voice hoarse as always. “She does like you.” Unfortunately, Fluffy had been young enough when she lived at the Keep that she couldn’t give any details that would point to a specific time frame, nor had she known her magi’s human name (as opposed to what Fluffy had called her).
“It’s less of a wild amagnae chase than I had feared, but this still isn’t going to be a weekend project,” said Rykian. He walked over to his bookcase and pulled out a thick book, which he handed to Ekaira. “I keep this to show any particularly careless or foolish young magi, so you wouldn’t be seeing it otherwise. I will point out, though, how many of the entries deal with shapeshifting. Tobran is a special case and knows the risks.”
Curious, Ekaira flipped through a few pages. The book was a list of magi who had died and how they had managed to do so. Some of the entries were illustrated. Ekaira was glad she hadn’t seen the book before she had left for the Lost Nursery. Rykian nodded. “I know. Some of those are a little more...vivid than they are in the official death records, but they’re all accurate. If I can convince one young magi that they are neither invincible nor immortal, then it’s worth all the time Tobran and I spent on the book. Anyway, besides that, I have access to both the official death records and the comprehensive Keep records. I know from sad experience that neither is quite as comprehensive as we might like to believe, but Fluffy’s magi ought to be in there somewhere. Tobran can help, if he’s willing, by asking around among the companions and allies. You’ve realized, I trust, that he’s a man of hidden talents?” Indeed, Ekaira had.
“Now,” continued Rykian, “I feel I should add that while I applaud your dedication and your willingness to take on this responsibility, I, as your mentor, say that it’s all right to turn this over to the two of us. We can search more efficiently than you can.”
“No,” said Ekaira, more loudly than she had intended. “I want and value your help, of course, but Fluffy came to me. I want to see this through. Besides, I should at least try to show as much dedication as Fluffy has.”
Rykian smiled. “Good. Then you can find ways to ask people about Fluffy’s lost magi without giving away secrets. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that that map isn’t common knowledge for a reason.” Indeed. A lost nursery filled with hatchlings would be a tempting target for the greedy, who wouldn’t care that every hatchling had been brought there to escape from some injury or other misfortune.
“Just as long as I don’t need to talk to any Keep rats,” said Ekaira. “There was a severe misunderstanding when I first got here and now they don’t want anything to do with me, not that I blame them.”
“I’m not on good terms with them myself,” said Rykian. “Malice is to blame for that.”
After hashing out a few more details, Ekaira collected Fluffy and returned to her room, where she had plenty of time to think about why she hadn’t just handed everything over to Rykian or asked Tobran to tell Fluffy that what she wanted wasn’t possible. How good could Fluffy’s previous owner have been, to leave a supposedly beloved hatchling to die? Except, no. Ekaira wasn’t being fair. Given a choice between fleeing to safety or staying behind to die by a beloved creature’s side, she’d choose the former. That was practicality, not coldness. That was, of course, assuming that the magi hadn’t died alongside her jackalope.
The next day, Ekaira got her first look at the large room where many of the Keep records were stored. The only other individuals nearby, besides the librarian helping her, were a magi and a Keep rat supervising two atramentum kittens. One of the kitten-scribes looked half-asleep, while the other seemed more interested in the Keep rat than in the page it was supposed to be copying. When grown, the atramentum cats would likely be tasked with copying over some of the older volumes, as even the best preservation spells failed eventually, but for now they weren’t being entrusted with anything more valuable than recent supply lists.
Ekaira gave the librarian the excuse that she and Rykian had come up with last night – that Rykian had assigned her an interview project to get her more familiar with the Keep, so she needed to come up with a list of interesting magi she didn’t already know. Tobran had worked as a scribe for long enough that he and Rykian could probably have walked out with anything not currently falling apart without having to give a reason, but Ekaira was still new enough to need a reason for digging through Keep records. Ekaira would be searching records from the past couple of decades, while Rykian and Tobran would take care of anything older.
The book the archivist gave her contained lists of adult magi, along with their physical appearance (sometimes with a small sketch or painting, but usually a short description), their notable creatures, and any major accomplishments. Since Fluffy’s magi had completed her training, there was no point in looking at the student records.
The individual records weren’t terribly detailed – that was for other volumes elsewhere in the library – but still fascinating. One magi had been the first to discover the gentle cheminna, a tiny deer with the power to calm the anxious, while another had devoted her time to breeding new varieties of pygmy gemdragons and crystalwings. Most of the notable creatures were nothing out of the ordinary, at least by Keep standards – winged cats, koi, pegasi, gryphons, and the like – but Ekaira had to admire the intrepid souls who had managed to train alucinaris and yuaxus or who had the patience to try to breed every single type of gemstone kirin or cervinus deer. She was also oddly heartened to see how many people had winged cats called Kitty or direwolves called Wolf. By comparison, calling a lunar hippogryph Winter was downright creative.
After completing her portion of the search through the records, Ekaira had fewer names on her list than she had expected. Part of that was that she had been thinking in terms of city census records, when the Keep was nowhere near that big. Another part of it was that she only needed to talk to living candidates, as ghost-speaking wasn’t one of her talents. Magi mortality was much lower than it had been even a few decades ago, but there were still plenty of names on both her list and on Rykian and Tobran’s list that had also appeared in Rykian’s book. Yet another part was Larathen. She’d finally enlisted his help and had been able to rule out a few names, based on what he knew about the magi on the list. He hadn’t immediately known of anyone who might be missing Fluffy, but had known that, for example, the magi who specialized in all things small and scaly did so because she was allergic to just about anything with fur.
Larathen had agreed to talk to a few people on the list that he knew in passing, but that still left Ekaira with most of the names. Figuring out an excuse to talk to them all had actually been relatively straightforward. She’d found that most magi loved to talk about their creatures. To be fair, Ekaira wasn’t exactly an exception to this, as she’d already caught herself rambling on about Snowy’s little quirks on several occasions. Thus, all she had to do was ask a few questions about how to care for a particular creature – one that she knew that candidate had – with Fluffy in her arms. No need to bring mysterious maps or mislaid nurseries into it at all. As a bonus, she got to learn something useful. No need to feign interest in the answers, as it was information she badly needed and was glad to have. Well, not that she planned to take on a crystalwing, wyvern, or meowl in the near future, but one never knew.
Fluffy hadn’t twitched an ear at a single one of the magi. As the list dwindled, Ekaira feared that she would soon be asking Tobran to break some hard news to Fluffy. Still, she wasn’t ready to give up hope yet, especially since the next name on her list was someone known for being fond of jackalopes. No spotted holly jackalope had been listed under notable creatures, but it seemed likely that Jessoa had had at least a couple, and Fluffy, being still a hatchling, might not have been old enough to be counted as notable yet. Jessoa happened to be in the area and would be at the Keep for a couple of days, which gave Ekaira an opportunity to not-so-casually cross her path.
Ekaira smiled as she approached Jessoa, hoping it didn’t look too forced. “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if-.” Before she could finish, Fluffy launched herself out of Ekaira’s arms at Jessoa, who luckily had good enough reflexes to catch an unexpected jackalope.
“Merry?” gasped Jessoa, sounding tearful. Ekaira quietly slipped away before there could be any awkward questions about how Ekaira had found Merry or why Merry was still a hatchling. She would miss Fluffy – Merry – of course, but was glad that Fluffy had finally found her magi.