Trenner thought she might be losing it.
“I have made base camp,” she wrote, “in the lobby of the Pendington building. From the signs here, I am not the first to make camp here. I can see the remains of a fire pit in what had once been the grand Fountain to Athena, and over there in the former wishing well, people, ah, wished in another way.
My native guide tells me that he avoided the Exploration Club quite handily, and, seeing the way he blends into the terrain, I am not surprised. He is, after all, not a plant nor a building, nor is he a giant chicken (or a mutant killer ferret nor a feral housecat, although he bears the most resemblance to the last), and thus, even if he did not smell slightly like Wrong and did not look slightly like a pile of detritus, he was not on their agenda.
“What are you writing?” He sat across the fire from her, roasting something on a pan he must have taken from one of the dining halls – Goldblum, that was the one in the Lost Buildings.
“It’s my exploration log. I’m tracking everything I do.”
“Oh, I remember that. They taught us how to do that in first-year Exploration. Are you still thinking of going back, then? You haven’t tried the eggs yet.”
The egg in question was huge, and he had darted in and out of a nest with surprising dexterity, returning with something it took him both arms to hold. “I certainly want to try the eggs,” she reassured him. “And I’ll be here for at least a few days. If I come back too quickly, Professor Lokeg-Fridelabout is going to accuse me of cheating. And it’ll be points on the chart, sure, but it will be more points if I actually manage to prove the professor wrong and he has to eat his words and the egg.”
“Oh, are you still doing that? I was almost winning, the year I left, but I kept getting points through being sent on deadly assignments, and I decided I wanted to live. There’s a few of us here,” he added. “Five that I know of, all up in the top of Drummond Hall. It’s safest there. The chickens don’t like to roost on that roof, because it’s too steep, and we blew out the first-floor stairways, which keeps out the ferrets pretty well.” He noted the way she was looking around. “This time of year, this will be safe, too,” he assured her. “It’s just when they get broody that there’s a problem.”
Trenner considered broody as it related to a beast the size of a wagon. “How – how are they still here? How hasn’t someone eradicated them? Did the university really just let them take over a portion of the school? What about funding?”
She started writing down all those questions almost before she was done asking them, not really expecting answers from him.
“Well, they’re very hard to kill, surprisingly. The eggs are easy, but you have to survive getting the eggs. And they have no natural predators, which means there’s quite a few of them. That’s problem one. Problem two is, the university has always been known for taking the path of least resistance. In this case, the chickens resisted more than the trustees, so they put up a fence. I’d heard rumors – are you really writing all of this down?”
“Of course I am. I want to come up with a solution, which means understanding the problem.”
“You really are one of them, aren’t you?”
It was said with such admiration that Trenner could hardly take offence. “I’m sorry? What’s a ‘one of them?’”
“Oh, ah. My favorite professor, Professor Sojide, used to say there were Golden Students. Um. ‘If they can survive their time here, they will change the world, one way or another.’ I wasn’t one. Ah. Matilde was, but she didn’t survive the ferrets.” He looked down at his feet. “I just want to live. That’s pretty much it. My family all believe me dead, probably.”
“Hunh.” She had never heard Professor Sojide say that. She made a note of it in her book. “Can you take me close enough to see them, without risking yourself?”
“Tomorrow. At noon. I can take you to the right path. That’s it.” He shook his head. “I won’t go further than that. But if you want eggs… eggs I can get you.” He spooned out a large portion of his concoction onto her plate, more onto his, and then put the pan on a stone in the shadows.
She was not surprised to see movement there, movement that could have been human. She did not look too closely. They weren’t a danger to her, she didn’t think; she didn’t want them to think she was a danger to them.
The egg was better than anything she’d ever eaten. She said so, three times. In the end, her native guide – who still would not give her a name – colored and looked away. “There’s some tricks to cooking them. But the biggest tricks are in just finding them.”
“I look forward to seeing that, then.” She had never been more sincere. “And the eggs. Are they fertile, do you think?”
She had just had a glimmer of an idea, and it looked like her being able to walk out of here alive.