© 2011 Marvin E. Fuller
"Dangerous? How dangerous?" Baksrit gaped at the zebra mage.
"Much dangerous," Tenebra replied. "Al-mi'raj are sick, not in spirit, but in body. Sadly, they gain no quick release from their sickness. It grows worse as years pass, driving them mad with pain. They become ferocious for little cause, turn against friends, attack strangers. If one knows spells like this one, then they get worse."
Baksrit thought over Tenebra's words. She didn't fully understand, but trusted the older mage's experience.
"Killing al-mi'raj not murder but mercy," sighed Tenebra, unhappily. She shook her striped head as if sternly dismissing a bad memory.
"Then what can I do?" Baksrit asked, alarmed. She had no idea how she could counter a sickness. "How do I stop Qamar?"
"Not much you can do," Tenebra said sourly. "You good apprentice, but you are still apprentice. Until very end, al-mi'raj very nasty. You best be careful, yes?"
"Yes," Baksrit took a deep breath to calm her nerves.
"Good," Tenebra straightened up and considered the books, scrolls, and other items surrounding them in the Hall of Magic. "Now, then. Qamar. That his full name?"
"No," Baksrit tried to remember if Qamar had given his name. Had he introduced himself to the ensorcelled rabbit? She could have sworn he had.
"Manny... no, Man–, Man–," Baksrit stopped trying to force the name out, instead trying to blank her mind to give the name a chance to come up on its own. "Man–, Manzil! That's it! Manzil Qamar. No, no, Manzil al-Qamar. It was Manzil al-Qamar. I'm sure of it."
"'Waystation of the Moon'. That make sense." nodded Tenebra thoughtfully. At Baksrit's blank look, the zebra explained. "Al-Qamar's name is foreign term. 'Manzil' is resting place of desert traveler during heat of noon, hence 'Manzil al-Qamar' refers to stars marking where Moon 'rests' each day of month. Astrologers call them lunar mansions."
"So Qamar–" Baksrit said.
"Al-Qamar," Tenebra corrected.
"So, al-Qamar made up this bizarre moon-related set of spells because of his name?" Baksrit wrinkled her white snout in thought. "But why? To get a kit faster than normal?"
"Maybe because it convenient way to mark time?" guessed Tenebra. "Also, we females symbolically linked to moon."
"Yes," Baksrit chewed on her lip as a thought worried her.
"Or maybe he just insane," shrugged the elder mage.
"Er, is it possible to catch this sickness from al-Qamar?" Baksrit asked, nervously rubbing at the fur on her forehead. "I don't want to grow horns or anything."
"Oh, no, you okay," Tenebra gave a quiet nicker-like laugh devoid of humor. "It only affect rabbits and hares, maybe pikas. Rest of us pretty safe. Jazz only one out of luck but only because of what he did to her."
"Assuming she lives that long. She'll be lucky to survive a two week pregnancy," noted Baksrit, remembering how Jazz kept wasting away despite her ravenous hunger.
"True," agreed Tenebra, grimly. "And kit doomed too. If father and mother sick, he's sick."
Something bothered Baksrit about Tenebra's diagnosis, some instinct insisting the zebra was wrong, but she kept her mouth shut. Did she really want to contradict Tenebra when Baksrit, a mere apprentice, couldn't pinpoint why she thought the elder, more experienced mage wrong? Instead, Baksrit finished her report and waited as Tenebra thought it over.
"That really weird," Tenebra wrinkled her striped brow in puzzlement. "Nothing comes to mind."
Encouraged despite Tenebra's lack of further knowledge, Baksrit spent the rest of the morning reviewing books Tenebra brought her. First came several on bizarre people so she could familiarize herself with the al-mi'raj. Most read like a travelogue filled with illustrations of fantastic peoples with no heads to strange beings she couldn't tell were animal or plant, much less sentient, but Tenebra guided her through the bunk to the more trustworthy accounts. She considered asking Tenebra about the zebra's own experiences with al-mi'raj, but didn't have the courage to pry into what appeared to be painful memories. On the other hand, the zebra did put away the perturbing stuffed bunny-thing sitting on the desk. Baksrit could have sworn it kept watching her.
Around midday, just as Tenebra got ready to take a break for lunch, a red panda mage wandered into the Hall of Magic looking for a tome on magic squares, a request that puzzled Baksrit since, as far as she knew, numbers arranged in square shapes seemed to be anything but magical. Taking a seat at the desk across from Baksrit, he began flipping through a tome on some sort of mystical symbolism. Baksrit managed to sneak a few glances at the book while the red panda jotted down some notes, but wasn't surprised she couldn't understand most of it. Sometimes mysticism mixed spiritual stuff and magic to such a degree it could be impossible to figure out where one ended and the other began. On the other hand, such a mix could prove potent.
Magic relied heavily on symbols to help the mind process and place spells. Spoken words, names, various gestures, writing, trees, plants, animals, minerals, the stars, just about everything evoked a meaning in a person's mind. Magic took advantage of this association in much the same way the act of writing took advantage of turning a pattern of marks on a surface into words and more complex concepts. Just as a skilled writer could weave elaborate fantasy worlds out of a bunch of letters, so too did a mage conjure up spells using a learned repertoire of symbols.
However, actually making the spells work required more than just memorizing a bunch of symbols, just as reading needed more than looking at a bunch of letters on a page. It also required learning the meaning of the symbols, and that's where mysticism sometimes came in along those so inclined. As it accessed the spiritual side of life, mysticism brought a whole lot of meaning to the table, turning dry symbols into a rich tapestry of potential spells. Even so, serious mages tended to be highly leery of mysticism as, just like with the religious, the mystically-inclined often risked being close-minded and abusive with their beliefs.
Baksrit had a sudden attack of deja vu when she saw out of the corner of her eye the red panda scratch some symbols from the book into his notes. She knew without a doubt she had seen that motion before.
"Is there a problem?" the red panda asked irritably upon noticing her staring at his notes. Baksrit flinched and tore her eyes away from the lines and marks he had copied down.
"I'm sorry, Magister," she hurriedly apologized, hoping desperately she hadn't offended him. "I didn't mean to intrude."
The red panda made a grumphing sound in his throat and returned to his note-taking. Baksrit chewed worriedly upon a claw as she argued with herself over whether to interrupt him. She knew she had seen some of those symbols somewhere before, but she was just an apprentice! How dare she interfere with a master mage's work when she had her own piddling stuff to deal with? It was unseemly to ask, but she needed answers. An opportunity presented itself when he paused in his note-taking to sharpen his quill.
"M-magister? May I ask a question? Are those symbols related to the Moon?" Baksrit blurted out before she could stop herself. The red panda froze and turned his ruddy-furred head to give her a penetrating and not very pleased look. Baksrit's courage fled her. She desperately hoped she hadn't just landed herself in a lot of hot water.
"What do you know about these sigils?" demanded the red panda. His long, fluffy ringtail gave an annoyed shiver.
"N-not much," Baksrit shrank in her stool. Unbidden, images of al-Qamar appeared in her head. "I've seen them before. They were drawn on a rabbit's stomach."
This time, she couldn't read the red panda's expression. She heard her teeth rattle and realized her body shook like a leaf in a windstorm. The ermine clapped her paws over her muzzle in an attempt to quiet her teeth.
"A rabbit's stomach," skepticism tainted the red panda's voice. "What's your name, young one?"
"B-Baksrit of Albes," the ermine said, too nervous to lie even had she wanted to. "I'm M-Magister Solomon's apprentice."
"Is that so?" the red panda didn't sound very convinced. "Tell me about this rabbit, Baksrit. How well has Solomon been teaching you?"
Hesitantly at first, then more confidently as she warmed to her subject, Baksrit gave the red panda an account of al-Qamar and what he had done to Jazz, finishing up with what she had done so far to the ensorcelled rabbit. The red panda's irritation gave way to fascination by the time Baksrit pointed out the similarities between some of the paw motions al-Qamar had made and the movements made by the red panda's paw when he had sketched out some of the symbols from the book.
"Well, well, a most interesting enigma," the red panda rubbed his paw through his whiskers as he thought. Any anger he might have felt from being disturbed by an over-inquisitive apprentice had long since evaporated.
"I really don't understand, Magister," Baksrit felt a sense of relief flooding through her. At least the elder mage wouldn't be angry with her.
"Fynn Li. Magister Fynn to you, though," the red panda introduced himself. "I'm amazed you would take on such a service, Baksrit. I've met precious few mages in our kingdom who know about qabbalistic symbolism, much less practice it to this high of a degree."
"I didn't know at the time," Baksrit countered, trying desperately to not sound like she was whining.
"If you would like, I'll be happy to teach you the basics at the very least," offered Fynn.
"Oh, thank you, Magister!" gratitude rushed through the young ermine, before a thought occurred to her. "But will this cost anything?"
"Hah! Spoken like a merchant," snorted Fynn in amusement, no doubt having recognized Baksrit's family name. "No, not money, per say, but at the very least, I want to know more about these spells. I've never run across any spells that used these symbols in such complexity."
Eagerness and a touch of greed for new knowledge seemed to sparkle in the red panda's eyes. Fynn looked over Baksrit's notes, wrinkling his pale-furred snout in mild disapproval.
"This particular form of Near East mysticism is heavy in symbolism," Fynn said. "We mages here in Gloomhaven use bits and pieces here and there, but it's only a shadow of the real thing. As can be expected, astrology does play a role, primarily when it comes to the sun, moon, and the planets. For now, we'll stick with the moon's symbolism since you need that the most. It should be a good jumping off point for you.
"For starters, I'm going to have to ask you to redraw these. They're good enough for an ignorant apprentice, but for mages such as you and I, well, they're not enough. In the future, you'll have to be more precise. No doubt you already know this, but keep in mind a little twitch in the wrong spot can change a symbol's meaning drastically."
Taking only a short break for their own lunch, the two went through Baksrit's notes. A number of sounds Baksrit had earlier dismissed as random nonsense syllables Fynn identified as names and words essential to the workings of the spells. A goodly number of al-Qamar's pawstrokes turned out to be more qabbalistic symbols, many of which Fynn found in various books and scrolls when he didn't know them himself. They couldn't figure out everything al-Qamar had used, Fynn guessing that the al-mi'raj used symbols not recorded in the Library or not qabbalistic at all, but the shape of the spells started to become clearer to Baksrit even if the why stayed as elusive as ever.
The afternoon turned out to be a learning experience for both of them. For Baksrit, it drove home the point that every bit of a spell had a purpose, even if only as padding. She'd learned that lesson some time ago but it had not sunk in fully until now, when she finally put her lessons to use. She couldn't be sure exactly what Fynn got out of it, but figured studying the symbols to be one of his wizardly passions. She couldn't complain. She had a few of her own, after all.
"Do you think Solomon would object to my stopping by sometime in the future?" asked Fynn, as they wound down late that afternoon. "I know you're not a journeyman yet, but I think you should follow up with this."
"I don't think he'd mind, Magister," Baksrit said. "He's hosted a few fellow mages sometimes. I often try to listen in when they talk shop, but most of the time I have trouble keeping up. But I can't see you this week, I'm afraid. The Full Moon is this Astéday, and I must be with Jazz then. Before then, I have other engagements."
"Understood. Apprentices do tend to be kept busy," Fynn looked thoughtful. "Still, I wouldn't mind meeting Solomon. I've heard interesting things about him."
After helping Tenebra replace the books and scrolls they had used, the two parted ways. Baksrit hurried back to Solomon's home, the day having grown later than she expected. The human wizard met her at the door, but his annoyance at her tardiness vanished when she told him about the progress she had made. After a late dinner, she reviewed Fynn's lesson with Solomon, who turned out to be more than happy to have his colleague visit.
"I think I've got a couple books on qabbalistic symbolism in my study," Solomon informed her. "Granted, I've barely used them, but maybe Fynn can help me make some sense out of them."
Baksrit spent the next day catching up on her chores, regular studies, and spellcasting practice. She had a hard time focusing on any of her tasks, her mind churning over al-Qamar's spells. She kept trying to find that one thing that would make everything fall into place, but the reasoning behind al-Qamar's goals remained stubbornly out of reach. The mad often had insane reasoning for their goals. If the sane were lucky, they'd only get headaches when trying to follow along.
Yet spells, no matter who cast them, had to follow the laws of the world. They couldn't go insane no matter how much the people living in the world might think otherwise. No matter how mad he might be, a mage needed a foot in reality for his spells to work at all, but he could come up with some clever tricks a saner mage might never think of. As she went over al-Qamar's spells yet again in her mind, Baksrit found herself reminded of a recent play her brother had once taken her to. In the play, one of the character had likened genius and madness to twins "e'er loving, e'er joined at the hips".
The big problem was that Baksrit had no idea what the spells were supposed to do. Speed up the baby's development? Make sure Jazz could carry it to term? What else did they do? What was the baby supposed to be anyway? Questions buzzed around Baksrit's head like flies over carrion.
The day before the Full Moon, she visited her family. After sending a message via courier sparrow to Marty that she would be heading his way later that day, Baksrit joined her sisters for dance practice with their mother. Jasmine had been determined to make sure all three of her daughters knew something of their heritage from both parents, including various exotic dances performed by Jasmine's Tinery side of the family. As Baksrit had lost a lot of weight and muscle mass after the spellcasting accident in her early apprenticeship, the dances had helped her regain her strength and coordination during her recovery. Nowadays, they helped her refine her mental focus and agility. Her mother had been especially eager for Baksrit to learn dances that used spells in their more advanced forms.
After dance practice and lunch came a short bout of staff fighting practice with Jaiken. Once, long ago, she had shown great promise with staff fighting for her age, but thanks to the accident, she could barely get her staff to go where she needed it to go in time. She could visualize the maneuvers and get her arms and paws to follow them, but her movements tended to grow sluggish under stress, as if her mind and paws kept stumbling over each other. She only suffered through staff practice so she could keep the forms fresh, although her brother seemed to harbor some stubborn hope she would someday improve anyway.
Thankfully, staff practice didn't take long, and as the afternoon wore down, Jaiken saddled up his skoit and took Baksrit out towards Marty's home in Holly Acres. Along the way, he finally had a chance to relate to her what he had dug up since they had last trekked that particular road.
"Thankfully, I didn't have to see Clarisha," Jaiken scowled in distaste at the otter wife's name. "But her neighbors were happy to share their gossip, of course."
"Of course," Baksrit rolled her eyes. As Father Evan had told her, gossips could be the worst snoops, sticking their snouts in anyone's business they could sniff out.
"They basically confirmed what we'd already figured out," shrugged Jaiken. "Hewick had been cheating on his wife with someone out west, near where he was garrisoned. One neighbor speculated Hewick would have married this other person if he could have despite her reputation. It seems he and his wife weren't too happy together."
"An otter and a rabbit?" Baksrit arched a whiskery eyebrow. Although not rare, marriages between different peoples weren't especially common and were often discouraged since most pairings couldn't produce children. Not that it stopped some folk from trying and sometimes successfully bucking the odds. "Could be stranger, I suppose."
"Oh, Hewick had his heirs already," Jaiken brushed it off, unconcerned by the odd pairing. He had never seemed to care who anyone wanted to pursue a relationship with as long as they didn't break any vows. "A couple pups, the oldest not quite five."
"What happened to Hewick?" Baksrit prompted him. "Do they have any idea what happened to him?"
"Not a clue," Jaiken shook his head. "As far as anyone is concerned, he just vanished. The neighbors had seen some knights at his place not quite a fortnight ago, asking her about her husband. Which brings us to the army.
"The day before yesterday, I sent a message asking about Hewick and his disappearance on the New Moon. As you might expect, a knight stopped by very early that morning. He was very interested in what I knew."
"Like baiting a trap for game," snickered Baksrit.
"Exactly," said her brother. She could hear the smug smile twirl through his whiskers. "He was a bit grouchy I had maneuvered him so well, but we exchanged information over breakfast. They now know of al-Qamar and what he did to Hewick, so our otter friend is off the hook. The knight seemed relieved by that for some reason. I learned they had reports of Hewick meeting with some strange foreigner of indeterminate personage who apparently had been interested in one of the local females."
"Jazz, no doubt," Baksrit frowned. "What about her? Did the knight say anything about her?"
"Not much other than she was missing too," Jaiken informed her. "I couldn't get much about her. The knight didn't flat out and say it, but I got the impression he was well aware of Jazz and her reputation, perhaps even made use of her services himself."
"Ew," Baksrit wrinkled her snout in disgust.
"Don't forget not everyone is as well off as we are," Jaiken chided her. "There's a lot of people out there who can barely scrape by, so they'll take whatever money's offered. Whatever we might think of it, there's plenty of money to be had in entertaining bored soldiers."
"Still–" Baksrit huffed, knowing her brother was right but unwilling to admit it. The skoit stepped into the shade of some trees beside the road, not unlike where the children had been playing the other day.
"I don't like it any better than you do," Jaiken said. "But what choice have they got? Would you rather they starve to death?"
"All right, all right!" Baksrit gave up. "What else did—"
"Oy, you! Stop there!" a shout interrupted her, a lurch from the skoit forever banishing her question into thin air. She looked up to see a fox rapidly sidestepping out of the trees onto the road in front of them, a crossbow in his paws. It took a moment for her to recognize him as the gray fox who had been looking for Jazz several days earlier in Holly Acres.
"Offa that skoit, right now!" demanded the fox.
"Baks–" Jaiken started to say, but his sister already gestured behind his back, mumbling under her breath and flicking a little ball of fire up into the air. Seeing what looked to him like a fumbled spell, the gray fox sneered at them, lifting his crossbow a little higher as he opened his mouth to make another threat.
The little ball of fire hit the top of its arc and suddenly shot down like a shooting star, smashing into the crossbow. The fox yelped in surprise, half-dropping, half-tossing the crossbow away.
"Fire! Fox!" as the spoken part of a spell, it left much to be desired, but the gesture Baksrit made with her right arm, something lifted straight out of that morning's dance practice, more than made up for it. The skoit shied as a burst of fire sped past its head and smacked into the gray fox's chest. The gray fox screamed as his fur and clothes burst into flames. He streaked off into the trees.
Meanwhile, Baksrit held on tight as Jaiken tugged the reins, keeping control of the skoit as it settled down. For a moment, his efforts paid off. Then the skoit gave a cry of pain and abruptly bucked forward. Having been riding sidesaddle thanks to her damnable too-warm dress, Baksrit gave a very unprofessional shriek of horror as the skoit bounced her off its back. Before any spells could pop into her mind, Baksrit slammed into the dusty road. Her mind numbed by the fall, she could only watch dully as her brother swore a bluestreak as he fought to stop the skoit. She barely noted a small rock skipping off the skoit's flanks, eliciting another stream of white-hot curses from Jaiken as the skoit tried to race off.
Unfortunately, Baksrit didn't get to see if he succeeded in stopping the skoit before something smacked into the back of her bare head (damn that damn bonnet for being too damned uncomfortable to wear!), throwing sparks and darkness into her vision.