“Excellent choice,” the old man said, tapping his wand against the wall behind him. A door appeared in the wall, a wooden door as simple as the desk in front of him. It opened slowly, silently, into a brightly lit hall.
“We keep the dragons several floors below,” the man said, motioning for Toadmila to go in first. “Do let me know if there's anything else that catches your eye along the way. We'll be going through the cat pad first, and the kittens always melt a few hearts.”
The hall was long and wide, with a red and gold carpet marking the path in the middle. On each side, old trees sprang from the stone floor and twisted themselves into whimsical shapes, reaching all the way up to the tall ceiling. Further back, there was tall grass, and the gurgle of water. And then, on the branches, there were the cats. Toadmila had imagined house cats, small and cute and common. But the kittens in The Arc, though young, were all much larger than a common kitten. There were baby tigers, covered in glossy dark stripes, and golden baby lions, chasing a large red ball of silk threat. There were black panthers lazying about, and spotted baby cheetahs stumbling as they took their first steps. Toadmila could certainly see why the kittens always stole a few hearts. She reached down to pet a fluffy white furball with leopard spots, but her hand went right through it.
“These are mere representations, of course,” the old man said. “We wouldn't take the little ones out of their own environment and away from their mothers until it is really necessary. But each image you see at The Arc is linked to a real, breathing creature, and has the same shape and personality as that creature. When you buy a familiar, the original is given to you, and the representation is removed from our collection.”
Toadmila nodded. This made more sense than to keep real creatures on display.
“I'd still like to see a dragon,” she said. Though she wondered, as they'd be selling the eggs, would they have representations of baby dragons flying about?
“Right this way,” the old man said, indicating the far end of the red carpet. “It's still a few floors below.”
Below the cats, there were what the old man called “puppies”: cubs of all sorts of breeds of wild dogs, wolves and foxes, some already fearsome, some cute, some with large fangs and some with large ears, and all very friendly, unnaturally so for such wild creatures.
One floor below that, there were the birds and all things feathered, from golden gryphons with fiery manes, to rare black phoenixes that burned with black flames.
And one floor below that, in a much less impressive setting, there were the basic familiars, simple and affordable: black house cats with yellow eyes that glowed in the dark, black dogs of all sizes, rats and spiders and common lizards and toads that a witch could easily find and domesticate on her own if she wanted to.
“We have others,” the old man said, as he walked along the dark gray carpet towards the darker end of the hall of basic familiars. “Not basic, and yet no so impressive as to keep on display. Bears, horses, crocodiles. And, of course, anything that the customer wishes, we can find, and capture, and sell. If we don't already have it.”
The floor below had no carpet to mark the path. Instead, stone columns supported the low ceiling, marking a sort of a corridor between them, where torches burned with a sickly light, casting long, trembling shadows into the depths of the cavernous hall. The air was cold and damp and smelled of earth and mildew.
“We try to keep the eggs at constant temperature,” the old man said, taking a torch and guiding the way. “Warm enough so they wouldn't die, cold enough so they wouldn't hatch. Dragons are so difficult to sell because they form a bond with the first person they see when their eggs crack open. They're so difficult to have in stock at all times, but we manage.”
Toadmila followed him silently, throwing odd looks at the darkness on each side of the path. As they passed, the old man's torch threw light on things that seemed to be meant to stay hidden, on long chains hanging from the walls, splattered with rust or blood, she couldn't tell which. And then, in an opening between pillars, she saw a cage, tall and round like a bird cage, and there, cramped inside and covered in rags, there was a man.