© 2011 Marvin E. Fuller
"And then what happened?" Jaiken asked as he guided his skoit down the dusty road.
The previous evening, Baksrit had continued pulling Changy's repressed memory back out into the ensorcelled rabbit's conscious mind, freeing her from the delusion of believing herself to be the mythical Moon Rabbit, Chang'e. Once they had accomplished that, Baksrit had broken the mental link and spent the next hour or so grounding herself once more in reality before heading to bed. The first part of her night had been troubled, haunted by an occasional memory not her own, but her sleeping mind settled down sometime early in the morning. She woke up wholly herself, if not entirely refreshed, and until her brother picked her up late that morning, her eagerness to do more research on the strange horned rabbit named Qamar made it difficult for her to keep still.
"Er, he had his way with her," Baksrit grimaced. The ermine still remembered Changy's – rather Jazz's reaction to that part of the recovered memory. She had expected the anger and helplessness, but not Jazz's bitter inner laughter and withering critique of Qamar's technique. In Jazz's opinion, the horned rabbit made a very poor lover.
"Against her will?" Jaiken said. Baksrit could hear the scowl in his voice.
"Well, yes," Baksrit winced uncomfortably. Again, she mentally thanked her instructors at the spellcasting workshops for hammering into her head the importance of keeping one's emotions to oneself when delving into someone else's mind. If the mix of emotions didn't screw things up even worse, they made it a lot harder to get the job done. Fortunately, Baksrit had placed spells to help keep her emotions out of the mental link, keeping her embarrassment and prudishness "back inside of her" instead of out adding more snarls to Jazz's mind. Unfortunately, no mental barriers could stop her from feeling those emotions now.
She felt the heat of the midday summer sun burn down on her, cooking through her dress and white-furred pelt. Thirsty, the ermine dug a cup out of her pack. She focused her attention on it for the barest of seconds and was rewarded with the splash of water inside it. She slurped down the water, then offered the cup to Jaiken. He took it with a murmur of "thanks" as she spelled some more water into it. Used to her performing this particular water elementalism spell, he swigged the water down without hesitation.
"That stinks," Jaiken shook his head as he passed the cup back. "No wonder she blocked it out,"
"That wasn't the reason, strangely," Baksrit scratched her whiskers as she thought back. "She was spitting mad all right, but the weird thing was that Qamar acted like he was getting the worst part of the deal."
"He did?" Jaiken sounded surprised. "Why did he go through all that trouble to force himself on her if he didn't want to in the first place?"
"We think it's the kit," Baksrit stuffed the cup back in the pack. "There's something about it he needs very badly if he's going to torture himself and then rush the pregnancy, but he never gave any reasons Jazz can remember."
"Torture?" Jaiken shot a glance over his shoulder at her. "What the hell was he doing to himself?"
"I don't know," Baksrit shrugged, trying to hide her discomfiture behind clinical detachment. She remembered Qamar's whimpering, the pitiful sound of a soul tormented by nearly unbearable pain, and the grim satisfaction Jazz took from his suffering, a sense of revenge for the wrongs the strange rabbit forced upon her. "Jazz could only feel him, not see him. But we could tell he was in agony at the end."
"Good," Jaiken snorted.
"Jazz got mad enough to break his spells right after," added Baksrit. "She had a good grip on his neck when he hit her on the neck."
"With a spell?" Jaiken sounded dubious. He nudged the skoit around a huge pothole in the road.
"No, with his paw," Baksrit said. "I don't know what he did besides pinch her, but she went out like a candle."
"Hm," Jaiken considered that. "Probably some martial art trick or something. I've heard tell some of those fellows can take a person out with just the poke of a finger."
"I did not know that," Baksrit mentally filed away the information for later. "Anyway, when she woke up, he had his spells back in place on her. He definitely didn't want her to move, considering what came next. It took him an hour or so to get up to it, but he finally brought out this bag of glowing stuff that he very carefully painted over her belly, right where the moon is now."
"I'd think he should have put it on the other side of her instead," mused her brother.
"Ye– what?" Baksrit gave the back of Jaiken's brown head a funny look.
"Never mind," he sighed. "Go on."
"Very well," Baksrit shook her head. Sometimes, she just didn't get other people's jokes. "This is where I really hit some resistance from Jazz, far more than at the beginning. We had to go through it several times to make sure we had it all. I won't bore you with the spells as they're over your head – hell, they're over my head! – but they made her feel like she was on fire and freezing cold at the same time. She got disoriented and sick, with a feeling like the insides of her belly were being massaged by a lot of pinching bugs, only not quite." Baksrit struggled to put the sensations she'd gleaned from Jazz's memory into words, but quickly gave up.
"That was the big block in her memory," Baksrit continued on. "Once we got through that, her insanity unsnarled. She's now quite sane, if a bit unsettled."
"That's it?" Jaiken glanced back over his shoulder at her. "What happened to her after he mooned her?"
"She blacked out again, it was so bad," Baksrit ignored the slight twist of dark humor in her brother's voice. "Which seems to have turned into sleep after a while. What happened after she woke up, I don't know. I decided against going any further because we needed a break."
"You needed a break from spellcasting? You? I'm shocked!" Jaiken's mock incredulity made Baksrit roll her eyes.
"Careful or I'll shock you but good!" she teased back, lightly bopping him on the back of the head. Jaiken ducked his head, laughing. The skoit gave a disgusted snort as their weight shifted on its back.
"Oh, snork it up your snout," Jaiken told it, his words lacking any sting to them. Baksrit giggled insanely at that, unable to help herself. It took several minutes before she could pull herself together.
"Well, she's fine now," said Baksrit, around lingering snickers. "Apparently, this Qamar fellow didn't cast any more spells on her. After all that, I don't think he could."
"Too much pain, right?" Jaiken guessed. His voice took on the tone of someone dredging something out of their memory. "I remember you telling me that active pain inhibits spellcasting. You had to focus harder in order to get the spell to work, if at all. Too much pain, and you can forget about casting spells altogether. Is that right?"
"In a nutshell, yes," Baksrit said, impressed he had remembered a discussion from a few years back. "I guess he didn't think he needed to when Jazz went around the bend and decided she was Chang'e the Moon Rabbit."
Several minutes passed as Jaiken digested that, silently turning the skoit at a rutted-out crossroads. Baksrit bounced the neckline of her dress against her neck, trying to circulate some air through the hot fur underneath. She wished she had brought a fan or knew a spell to cut the heat. Jaiken had dressed more sensibly than her, with his loose shirt, baggy trousers, and sandals on his feet. At least the heat gave her an excuse to not wear that damnable bonnet.
"So, what's his angle?" wondered Jaiken after a while. "He goes through all that effort to kill Jazz's friend, rape her, put a spell on her, but says he doesn't want to do any of it and even suffers who knows how much torment just to accomplish all that. Something smells fishy, and I don't mean anything we get from the fish monger."
"I couldn't tell you," Baksrit threw up a paw in a clueless shrug. Fortunately, Jazz had been so relieved to find herself thinking properly again that she had taken it upon herself to tell Father Evan and the curious rabbit family who had taken her in more about herself. Baksrit figured talking not only helped Jazz recover but gave Baksrit an excuse to fill in her brother without violating any confidences. "We did a little talking afterward. Heh, we couldn't shut Jazz up there for a little while. She told us that she woke up in a strange cottage and that Qamar only visited her a few times, to make sure whatever he had in mind was going as planned. The rest of the time, she was under some midwife's care. There was also this fox and a male of a people Jazz didn't recognize, but none of them seemed to know what Qamar had in mind either. They just cared about the gold he had promised them."
"Naturally," Jaiken grunted in mild disapproval. "How did she get away from them in the end? I assume they made lousy guards."
"Father Evan thinks they were lulled into a false sense of security by her insanity," said Baksrit. "Early one morning, when the midwife was still half asleep, Jazz just up and walked out the door before anyone noticed. It wasn't an escape so much as she wanted to find someone to spend some time with. I caught only a hint during our session, but she got very lonely at times, and her captivity only made it worse. Her husband was long dead, she has no idea what happened to her girls, and she was trapped in her own mind. She just couldn't stand the loneliness any longer. The boy, Donny, reminded her a little of her husband so that's why she followed him home."
"I see," Jaiken guided the skoit into the shade of some trees overhanging the road. Despite the heat, a quartet of children of various peoples played beside the road. All half-dressed almost to the point of indecency, the children paused in their scampering and scurrying about just long enough to see who trespassed upon their playground. Dismissing the brother and sister weasels on their skoit as irrelevant to their play, the children dashed back off the road as a sixth child, a naked squirrel kit, leaped out from behind a tree. His red fur lay twisted and clumped about his body, as if he had recently climbed out of some water. Considering the nearby farmland on this side of Loma, Baksrit thought an irrigation canal might be most likely.
"I am too, plushy!" the very unfluffy squirrel screeched at one of his companions, a young wolf in well-patched and too-large trousers. "PLUSHIEEEE!"
"Not plushy!" the wolf pup howled with laughter as the squirrel tackled him. The children moved their play back out of sight behind the trees as the skoit walked out of the shade.
Somehow, the sight of the children playing without a thought of horned rabbits or exotic spells made Baksrit feel better. At least they didn't have to worry about insane rabbits or bizarre foreign mages. More importantly, they got to play in some nice shade.
They continued on down the road to Loma without any further discussion about Jazz. She had not been as totally open with Jaiken as she could have been, having left out anything Jazz hadn't revealed to the other rabbits. Mostly, the ensorcelled rabbit had been very circumspect about what she had done for a living, a decision Baksrit felt inclined to respect.
Unable to keep from panting, Baksrit feared she would melt by the time they passed through Loma and finally approached Hedgewood. Entering the village itself was like riding into a whole other world, the cooling shade cast by the village's many tall trees a blessed relief from the hot sun. At Solomon's home and workshop, Jaiken relieved the skoit of its saddle and then hobbled it so it wouldn't wander off as it grazed. Meanwhile, Baksrit parted the wards protecting the house and checked the slate her magister left hanging by the door. The wizard had scribbled a chalk message on the slate indicating he would be out for the day and didn't expect to be back until evening. Although she knew Solomon wouldn't mind Jaiken's visit, her magister's absence for the day still suited Baksrit, who took the opportunity to offer her brother a chance to freshen up.
"You know, there's one thing that's been bothering me," Jaiken flicked some crumbs off his chest as he sprawled in one of the chairs in Solomon's sitting room. He chomped into one of the cookies Baksrit had offered him.
"What's that?" Baksrit sat in another chair, having swapped her dress for tunic and trousers. She waggled her toes in the air, having opted to go barefoot.
"That otter you mentioned, the one Qamar murdered," Jaiken said once he swallowed his mouthful of cookie. "You said you thought he was a soldier, right?"
"I did," Baksrit confirmed. The identity of the otter had been one of things she had glossed over, although, now that she thought about it, she might have let slip more than she intended.
"Did you catch his name?" Jaiken gave her a questioning look. Baksrit debated with herself on how to answer him.
"Hewick," she reluctantly said. She had a sinking feeling she had skirted so close to the edge of violating Jazz's confidences that she might have accidentally tripped over it. She vowed to do better next time.
"Hewick?" Jaiken looked shocked. He gestured at his nose with the claw of a little finger. "Did he have a little nick, right about here?"
"Yes," Baksrit wondered what Jaiken was getting at.
"It's a small world," the male weasel took another bite of his cookie. Baksrit opened her mouth to ask him what he meant when he spoke up again.
"Do you remember Clarisha?" he asked.
"She was that otter, right?" Baksrit recalled. "The one who tried to cheat on her husband with you?"
"That's her," nodded Jaiken. "I met her husband that last night, right after we had our fight. He was a soldier named Hewick. He was apologetic, but he felt he had to pound the living daylights out of me anyway, as a matter of course. I had to stoop to threatening him with sicking our family's influence on him in order to keep him from doing so, although I think my spirited defense, while not his match, impressed him more."
"So?" Baksrit prompted him.
"His name was Hewick," Jaiken said. "He was a soldier stationed somewhere nearby. Of all the things I remember from that night, that little nick on his nose stands out."
"Maybe that's why Clarisha was trying to cheat on him," Baksrit mulled that over. "Because she knew he was cheating on her."
"That's my thoughts," agreed Jaiken.
"I hope you're not thinking of visiting her again," Baksrit gave her brother a concerned glance. Jaiken violently shook his head, his "hell, no!" accompanied by a few choice bits of profanity.
"Pardon my language," Jaiken sounded not at all contrite. "I prefer my ladies single, thank you very much. Still, I was thinking, if this Hewick is the same one Jazz knew, I could ask a few questions here and there, see if I can pick up a few hints that might be of help. I don't know if they will, but you never know."
"Good idea," she said. "Maybe you can find out if there were any strange rabbits or foreigners somehow involved."
"I will," he nodded.
"Thanks," Baksrit told her brother. "Oh, yes, before I forget. I hate to ask, but–"
"Will you need me come the Full Moon?" Jaiken guessed. "That's when? Astéday? I think I can manage that. I'd like to see how you solve this one."
"I don't know if I can," worry struck at Baksrit. "This is a lot more than I expected. I don't know if I can handle it."
"You'll be fine," Jaiken assured her. "Don't tie your whiskers into a knot over something that hasn't happened yet."
That evening, after Jaiken had left, Solomon returned from dinner at the Albes residence in Loma and listened to Baksrit's report. He didn't speak for a few minutes as he digested her words.
"You know, Baksrit," he said carefully. Warning bells went off in Baksrit's head at the tone of his voice. Had she done something wrong? "I think this is a very good lesson for me."
"It is?" Baksrit looked nonplussed.
"It is," the bearded human nodded. "As you have yourself noted, this is advanced spellwork, much of which is over your head right now. My instincts also tell me that my best apprentice could end up in some very real danger she can't handle. Therefore, I am very tempted to pull you off this job and take it over myself. I did once with one of my previous apprentices, and I now realize it was a foolish thing for me to do. I undermined his confidence in himself and his abilities. That's not good for a wizard's apprentice. You need to be confident in what you can do, even if you end up failing. Yes, you could fail with Jazz, but you will still win more in that failure than if I did you the disrespect of removing you before then. After all, there's a good chance you'll succeed. If I take over, how will either of us know if you would or not?"
Solomon shook his head ruefully. Baksrit stared at him, not sure how to respond. For Solomon to be so candid to her, something must have bothered him recently, perhaps on his recent job.
"Please pardon an old man his rambling," a smile ghosted over Solomon's face. "But it's embarrassing how slow I can be sometimes. Fortunately for us both, I will be quite busy elsewhere the next few days."
Baksrit decided it wisest to say nothing.
The following day promised to be another scorcher, and she waffled over whether to wear her preferred tunic and trousers or a loose-fitting dress. She finally settled on the dress, reasoning that the aspects she didn't like about it, namely how breezy it made her legs feel, justified wearing it on a hot day. The ermine headed off to the Library of Puma, her magister's permission slip and her updated notes safely tucked away in her belt pouch.
At the Library, she feared she had gotten herself lost in the maze of books and shelves before she nearly walked past the rune-covered doorway to the Hall of Magic. Mentally congratulating herself in find the room without help, Baksrit walked in, hoping Tenebra, the zebra mage who served as the Hall's primary librarian, would be in. Unfortunately, a lack of visible librarians left Baksrit dithering by the cluttered front desk, unsure of what to do. As she waited, she noticed an odd-looking creature sitting on the desk, at first glance resembling a small, naked, brown-colored rabbit with an odd expression on its face. Wary thanks to her recent experiences with strange rabbits, Baksrit took another look and realized the creature was nothing more than a non-living doll made of some fabric she only vaguely recognized. Its glass button eyes seemed to twinkle mischievously. Perturbed by the rabbit doll, Baksrit forced it out of her mind and fixed her eyes on a blackboard set in an upright wooden frame behind the desk. Many of the symbols chalked on the blackboard seemed familiar, and she spent several minutes amusing herself by trying to puzzle out what they referred to. She hadn't succeeded when Tenebra scooted aside some hand slates on the desk so the zebra could set a stack of books down.
"Ah! Young Baksrit," Tenebra's striped face broke out into a grin upon seeing her. "So good to see you again. How goes Changy?"
While Tenebra sorted through her stack of books, Baksrit described what she had learned from Jazz's memories, taking care not to reveal anything that didn't relate to the subject at hand. At first, Tenebra nodded and made encouraging noises as she listened, but when Baksrit reached the point where Qamar's turban fell off and revealed his unicorn horn, Tenebra abruptly whirled upon her. Baksrit started in surprise.
"Sorry, sorry," Tenebra waved her hands apologetically at the ermine. "But he had a horn? On forehead, right here?" She set a hand against her brow, one finger pointing out like the aforementioned horn.
"Yes," Baksrit cocked her head, confused. Could Tenebra know something about Qamar?
"Look sick with yellow fur?" prodded the zebra.
"Yes," Baksrit answered.
"Ah, this is trouble, like you think," Tenebra looked grim. "This fellow is al-mi'raj. Yes, they are from foreign lands and are very, very dangerous."