© 2012 Marvin E. Fuller
With a heavy sigh, Baksrit sank down onto a nearby stool. She let go of Jaiken's staff, idly watching it fall over. She caught it with a levitation spell before it could hit the floor and wafted the staff off to the side, leaning it against a wall.
"Well, I hope that kit turns out well," Baksrit remarked to no one in particular.
"I hope so too," came a familiar voice. The ermine flinched. She jerked her head up to see Solomon standing in the doorway to the cottage. The human wizard examined the broken latch of the door.
"Wha–! M-magister!" Baksrit shot to her feet. "What- what brings you here?"
"The same thing that brought you," Solomon turned his gaze upon his teenaged apprentice, his enigmatic response as inscrutable as his expression. "Did you know there's a badger knight just outside this door who has literally lost his head? Not to mention three soldiers nursing various injuries that will cost them their present jobs if they don't see a healer soon?"
Baksrit winced. She didn't need a mind reading spell to know Solomon wasn't exactly pleased with her.
"No, Magister, I did not," she said when she saw Solomon seemed to be waiting for an answer to his questions.
"And did my eyes deceive me when I saw the guilty party leave with his quarry just a few minutes ago?" a hint of disapproval flickered in the human's eyes.
"No, Magister, they did not," Baksrit felt a touch of anger spark within her. Just a few days ago, Solomon told her he needed to stay out of her way with this job. Now he questioned her judgment after the worst was said and done? "I was too busy keeping the rest of us alive."
"Is that so?" Solomon's eyebrows rose. Baksrit took that as encouragement to explain.
"If al-Qamar could so easily kill one of our knights and disarm three of our soldiers–" Baksrit forged on.
"Literally," Solomon said, a grimly wry note in his voice.
"–Then we would be dead too if we'd tried to stop him," used to her Magister's sometimes quirky humor, Baksrit ignored the interruption. "He wanted his baby so bad, he would have gone right through me without a second thought. As much as I love my brother, I have to say he would have fared no better. Nor would have Marty and his family. No, I did the right thing giving al-Qamar what he wanted. The al-mi'raj are insane. Do you think a mere apprentice like me can stop a mad horned rabbit who also happens to be a more experienced mage?"
"So you thought the kit would be better off in his paws?" Solomon raised his eyebrows at her.
"Yes!" Baksrit nodded her head fiercely. "He's insane, not stupid. The ones who abducted me prove he's got this planned out a lot farther than we thought. He knew Jazz couldn't care for the baby, so he made other arrangements for after it was born. He's even now taking it to a wet nurse, Pax preserve her with that baby."
Baksrit took a deep breath, filling her lungs until they ached before blowing the air out through her whiskers.
"If he needs to be stopped, it can't be by my paws, Magister," she continued at a more even pace. "What he did to Jazz is evil and cruel, but I'm in no position to punish him. It may be none of us are."
Baksrit suddenly found herself at a loss of words. Solomon pursed his lips as he considered her argument. Baksrit could feel the palm pads of her paws grow clammy as she waited for him to say something.
"You're right," the human said thoughtfully. "We need to discuss this further, but you're right. I need to think on this first. In the meantime, we both have things to do. Shall we continue later?"
"Yes, Magister," Baksrit tried not to sag with relief as the human gave her a wan smile and stepped out the door. Baksrit waited a moment longer, half expecting someone else to show up. When no one did, she scrubbed at her eyes with her paws. She felt very tired.
"I need some rest," Baksrit declared. "May I?"
"Go right ahead, Miss Albes," Marty gestured towards the bedroom she had used the last time she had visited.
Baksrit hoped she could meditate for a while, but her body had other plans. She lay down upon one of the beds and then woke up several hours later. She could almost swear the whole afternoon had simply ceased to exist, despite evidence to the contrary.
Dinner came late that evening. Fortunately, Jazz still had her appetite. With the baby delivered, Dilly hoped Jazz would fill back out before too long.
"Give her a fortnight, and she'll be back on her feet," Baksrit said as she finished her dinner. "She'll probably be up and at it before then, but the spells will end in two weeks. I assume her belly is still marked?"
"Yep," Dilly shook her head. "The darndest thing too. We washed her up good, and it's still there, all big and round like the Full Moon, just like you said it would be."
"One fortnight," Baksrit predicted. "Or if you like, the other half of the month, when the moon wanes to New."
That caught everyone's attention. They all looked at her expectantly.
"I had an inkling all this time, but it wasn't until something Marty said that it finally sank in," Baksrit informed them. "It's fairly obvious when you think about it. The moon is symbolic of a female's entire cycle, not half of it. There is a period of growth from New Moon to Full and a period of fading away from Full to New."
"Yep, that makes sense," Marty agreed sagely. "So this al-Qamar feller decides to plant his seed on the New Moon and harvest it on the Full, then leaves the field fallow the rest of the month so it'll recover. Just like we do with our ground crops when we want them to grow proper."
"Or our tonics and stuff when we want them to set right," added Dilly. "Darn, that does make sense!"
"Yes," the ermine gulped some water to hide her disgruntlement the rabbits had caught on before she could explain further. "Fortunately, I don't think Jazz will become an al-mi'raj. True, there's a lot I don't know about those spells. I don't think al-Qamar really knows himself, but he's mad so we can give him that much at least. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that some of his spells were meant to protect Jazz not just from her too-fast pregnancy, but also anything that might interfere with it, like his illness. She and the baby are safe."
"Will we become alley-mirages?" one of the younger rabbits piped up. His worried expression mirrored those of the other rabbits.
"That's al-mi'raj," Baksrit carefully pronounced the word. "And no, that I'm sure of. Everything I read says that casual contact isn't enough to turn a normal rabbit into one of them. You'd have to share blood; take it up the rear, as it were, as Jazz did; or something like that, in order for it to happen. None of you touched him, and Jazz and the baby were protected, so I don't see a problem."
That seemed to reassure the rabbits. Baksrit didn't tell them her guess could be wrong, however slim the possibility. The rabbits didn't need to spend the rest of their lives worrying if they would sprout horns and skinny dip off the deep end of their sanity.
At one point during the afterdinner talk, Marty looked at the gold al-Qamar had given them. One of his long ears flopped over as he shook his head.
"That's more gold than I ever did see in all my years," he chewed at his lip with his buckteeth. "I reckon I honestly don't know what to do with it."
"Actually, only half of it is yours," Baksrit reminded him. "The other half is Jazz's. Not counting my fee, of course."
"I reckon that's one worry we don't got to deal with," Marty looked at his wife. They held each other's paws, their fingers intertwining. "We've got a lot of talkin' to do."
"Quite honestly, I'm going to let you worry about that," Baksrit shrugged. "I can't solve everything, after all."
"True," laughed the rabbit elder. "I got to admit though, that sparrow was a real treat. No one ever sent us a message that way before. We were worried when you didn't show up, but your Magister assured us you would be fine."
"Magister Solomon was here earlier?" Baksrit's innards jolted. How long had the wizard been checking up on her?
"Eh, he didn't stay long," Marty waved his paw dismissively. "Actually, he said he was really curious on how you was going to handle things."
That piece of information troubled the ermine. Later that night, after she finished meditating and began working on compiling more notes about the spells al-Qamar had cast and then undone upon the baby rabbit, she kept thinking back to Solomon's words over the past week. Something didn't add up. Why would her Magister confess to her mistakes he'd made in the past? Why did he feel a need to keep an eye on her after he said he wouldn't?
These questions and others like them kept distracting her from her work, forcing Baksrit to finally snuff the candle pushing back the late night gloom and head for bed. Jaiken had long since fallen asleep in one of the other beds.
The next morning, Baksrit dozed on and off past dawn until she finally had to admit she needed to get up for the day. Swinging her white-furred legs out of bed, she gave a big yawn, then nearly jumped out of her pelt when she saw Solomon sitting on a nearby bed. The wizard merrily puffed on his pipe, amusing himself by twisting the bubbles he blew into different shapes. Baksrit had never been quite sure if he used spells, plain old pipe-blowing skill, or a little of both in sculpting his bubbles.
"Good morning, Baksrit," Solomon smiled at her, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "You did get a good night's sleep, I trust? From that yawn, I would say you did."
"Magister! What brings you here?" Baksrit batted aside a bubble that wandered too close. It popped on her nose, causing her to sneeze.
"Honestly? I was worried you would need some help with this al-Qamar character," admitted Solomon. "As you yourself pointed out, you were just an apprentice facing a potentially more powerful mage. It seems my concern was for nothing. Your brother told me about the moon image you had summoned. I'm amazed and, let's face it, a bit jealous of you.
"You don't think I could be jealous of my own apprentice?" Solomon chuckled at the shocked look on Baksrit's face. "Oh, but I am. I know many things, but I have never once managed to summon the moon or any other heavenly body for that matter. I'm not just jealous, I'm tickled pink over your accomplishment."
"I'm not sure how I did that," Baksrit rubbed the back of her head. Had that only been the previous morning? It seemed much longer ago.
Solomon listened intently as the ermine recounted what little she could remember from when she had been high on incense. After examining the sticks of incense Baksrit had confiscated, he contemplated the ceiling for a time. Bubbles continued to float out of his pipe.
"I suggest, come the next workshop, you consider volunteering having one of the elder mind mages have a look in your head to see if they can clear that up," Solomon finally said. "Should you wish to, of course. In the meantime, I have never heard of anyone getting high off of this sort of incense before. A bit woozy, yes, but not high. Then again, you are special in that regard, especially considering how booze affects you."
Baksrit grimaced but said nothing. Even in moderation, alcoholic beverages tended to give her nightmares. She didn't want to find out what else her body didn't like.
"Do you recall the three categories of energy we mages can tap into?" Solomon asked her.
"Er, yes," Baksrit blinked, puzzled by his question. "Er, broadly speaking, the energy of the self, the energy of the world, and the energy of the heavens. Did I tap into the energy of the heavens?"
"I think so," nodded Solomon. "Al-Qamar's little trinket would have blocked your ability to call upon your own energy, your link to the energy of the self. You would have been too out of it to tap into any ley lines, your link to the energy of the world."
"Then how could I have used the energy of the heavens?" Baksrit's confusion still hadn't cleared up. "It should have been blocked too."
"Ordinarily, yes," Solomon agreed. "But I think, despite his foresight in using both incense and his trinket on you, al-Qamar still underestimated you. After all, you are a wizard's apprentice, not that of a lowly hedge witch. Furthermore, being high is like a madness of its own. Logic as we understand it often doesn't apply. Some would argue that not even reality applies. Therefore, I must warn you to never pull that stunt on your own. Most likely, you'll kill yourself, but if you're not so lucky, well, it's said there are entities far less beneficent than Chang'e. I have never particularly wanted to meet one."
"Neither do I, Magister," Baksrit shuddered violently. She didn't need the threat of meeting unknown things to convince her to never again snort incense or any other mind-altering substance. The sheer unpleasantness of the experience did the job all too well.
"Now that I've given the expected warning," Solomon's face suddenly switched from dead seriousness to a pleasant smile. "Where was I? Ah, yes. In your altered state of mind, you saw connections you wouldn't have ordinarily made, thereby weaseling around al-Qamar's attempt to stymy you. Since you have been focusing on the moon so much lately, it would only be natural that you would call upon Chang'e. Personally, I didn't think she existed, but I have been known to be wrong before."
"So I tapped into the energy of the heavens," Baksrit said, wonderingly. "How many can do that?"
"Precious few," beamed Solomon. "Some seek it all their lives to no avail."
"Magister?" a memory struck Baksrit. "Marty tells me you spoke with him earlier."
"Mm, early yesterday morning, in fact. I wanted to be on hand in case you needed me for anything," Solomon's smile once more vanished. "And let's be honest. I also wanted to be in a position to take over if need be."
"You did?" Baksrit's innards tightened. Despite his earlier words about the importance of staying out of her way, Solomon still intended to pull that stunt on her?
"Yes," did Solomon just squirm under her dismayed look? The human heaved a sigh and straightened up. "Baksrit, let me make this clear for both of us. One of the things I have to do as your magister is to let you test your wings as a mage, yet I also need to be there to catch you should you fly too close to the sun. However, you are also like a daughter to me, and I have learned these past few years just how much harder that makes things. For one thing, I have to make sure I don't get too overprotective of you and snatch you out of the sky too quickly. I'm very glad you found a resolution to your problem that kept me from making a fool of myself."
The wizard thoughtfully blew a few more bubbles as Baksrit digested Solomon's words. She found they made a poor substitute for a proper breakfast, but she still needed some questions cleared up before she could go eat.
"Why tell me, Magister?" Baksrit asked. "Did something come up recently that made you think of this?"
"Oh, no," Solomon shook his head. "It's been preying on my mind for some time, actually."
"But–" Baksrit shut up as Solomon held up a finger which he then waggled towards her.
"I'm not telling you this for your benefit," the human said. "But for mine. Some lessons are taught by the apprentice to his magister instead of the other way around. When you get your own apprentice or perhaps your own children, you'll better understand. Right now, however, you are no doubt hungry. Let's put this aside and feed that belly of yours."
After breakfast, she made arrangements to visit Marty's family a week later then set off for home with her brother. Rather than accompany them, Solomon vanished on his own business, returning to Hedgewood late that afternoon, not long after Baksrit started her chores. After the excitement of the past few days, her chores felt like both a comedown and a welcome respite at the same time.
"I think you'll be relieved to know that al-Qamar is making good time out of the kingdom, as far as we can tell," Solomon told her at dinnertime. At Baksrit's questioning look, he added, "Fynn has been helping me keep tabs on him. Unfortunately, al-Qamar has been far too elusive for us to catch."
"I hope Jazz forgives us for not bringing him to justice," Baksrit twisted her muzzle in distaste. A part of her had been hoping the al-mi'raj got what was coming to him. "What of the army, Magister? I doubt they would be pleased al-Qamar escaped."
"When are they ever pleased?" Solomon chuckled. "I did pass on your reasoning that if a foreign rabbit could easily kill a knight of the realm and wound three of her soldiers, what chance did a mere apprentice mage have against him? It's a miracle you came out alive, thank the AllCreator, and so on. They accepted it, although they did get quite rude about my teaching skills, which did not encourage me to tell them about my own investigations."
"I can imagine," smirked Baksrit.
"Before I forget again," Solomon said. "Fynn is curious if you have any ideas why al-Qamar went through this lunacy in the first place. Truth be told, so am I."
"I couldn't find out," Baksrit admitted. "He never told anyone. Not Jazz, not his helpers, and certainly not me."
"I thought that would be the case," Solomon sighed. "Oh, well. One sad fact of life is that you don't always get the answers you crave. Annoying, but that's the way it goes."
On her return to Holly Acres a week later, Baksrit noticed two young rabbit girls had been added to the household. The ermine asked about them as she examined the moon shape on Jazz's stomach, now a mirror image of its appearance when Baksrit had first seen it.
"They're mah girls," Jazz told her. She had partially filled back out enough to help with simple tasks about the household and no longer looked like a skeleton with a fur coat stretched over it. "One of them foxy folk brought them over the day you left. Said it was the least he could do."
That news redeemed Ronce a little in Baksrit's eyes. It also brought to mind another question.
"What about the boy, Donny?" Baksrit asked. "Will you be marrying him now that you're back on your feet?"
"No, Ah don' think so," Jazz looked thoughtful. "Ah reckon Ah just want t' get on with mah life, horny rabbits be damned. 'Sides, Ah reckon he's got his eyes set on a different gal, someone more his age. Just as it should be, y'know?"
As Jazz's spells hadn't pulled any new surprises on Baksrit, the ermine intended to return once more at the end of the month to make sure the spells on Jazz expired as they should. Not only did she want to be thorough, but the information would be necessary for the treatise she now had to write for Tenebra to put in the Library's archives.
She kept busy during the final week, receiving another lesson from Fynn, all the while trying to keep up with her regular studies and her activities with her family. She didn't complain. Such was the life of an apprentice. Surprisingly, it made the final journey to Holly Acres an unwelcome interruption.
That evening, while she nibbled absently on the end of a quill as she tried to make sense of her own treatise, Baksrit glanced over at Jazz just as the rabbit, her body now nearly back to normal, gave a start. Baksrit didn't need Jazz's cry of "It's gone!" to tell her that the spells had ended. She could feel a faint lessening of energy from the rabbit, as of a tense muscle suddenly loosening up. It almost seemed anticlimactic, especially in light of all the trouble a fortnight previous.
The following morning, Father Evan stopped by the rabbits' home to thank her for her efforts on behalf of Jazz. Baksrit figured Marty and Jazz donating to the local church most of the gold the ermine had wrangled for them also had something to do with it.
Once Father Evan left, Baksrit wandered about Holly Acres, bored and tired of being cooped up in the rabbits' home while waiting for her brother to come pick her up. On the edge of town, she caught sight of Donny and a raccoon snogging behind a shed, screened from most onlookers by trees growing along a nearby rivulet. Recognizing the raccoon as the girl who had accompanied Donny when he had come to hire Baksrit, she watched them for a moment before it occurred to her Donny wouldn't appreciate a witness to his fondling his procyon sweetheart. Fortunately, they didn't come up for air long enough to notice her before she could sneak off.
Baksrit congratulated herself she hadn't managed to stumble into some new trouble, one her spells or wits couldn't get her out of. Then she noticed an odd stillness in the air, a nagging sense of something feeling slightly out of normal. Scanning the trees and bushes surrounding her, Baksrit realized she was completely and utterly lost, as if in a few steps, she had somehow managed to walk halfway across the world. Trying to focus her thoughts proved nearly impossible, as if they were a flirty mouse flicking her tail just out of the reach of an amorous cat. Strangely, this didn't bother her.
She wasn't alone. Glancing around, Baksrit saw a rabbit doe nearby. The rabbit's gray pelt glowed softly in the hazy sunlight, its mix of dark blotches and light patches strangely familiar. Did a jade-colored mist flow around her as it protected her modesty or did she wear gauzy clothes that somehow shifted by themselves through strange, yet hauntingly familiar fashions even as Baksrit watched? The mouse of her thoughts remained stubbornly out of reach as the rabbit drifted closer, seeming to float across the ground. The rabbit cupped Baksrit's face with chilly paws, tilting the befuddled ermine's head up until she stared into the rabbit's brilliant jade green eyes. A gentle smile crossed the rabbit's face. The rabbit leaned forward and planted a light kiss upon Baksrit's forehead.
Baksrit jerked. Blinking dizzily, she sat up. For a moment, she wondered how she had ended up lying on the ground. Rubbing her forehead, the ermine recalled something about a rabbit. Donny, perhaps? Except the rabbit had been female, hadn't she? Baksrit tried to chase down the memory, but the mouse had danced off, leaving her mental claws grasping at nothing.
She stood and brushed herself off, then retraced her steps back towards Marty's home, taking care to avoid Donny and the raccoon as they pawed immodestly at each other. Finding Jaiken waiting for her, Baksrit collected the things she had brought with her, made her goodbyes to the rabbits, and joined her brother on his skoit for the journey back home.
"You seem distracted," Jaiken noted as he guided the skoit out of Holly Acres. "Is everything all right?"
"Hm?" Baksrit shook her head, the ghost of a memory teasing at her thoughts before fading away. She dropped her paw down from where it had been rubbing at her forehead.
"Baksrit?" Jaiken glanced back at her in concern.
"It's nothing," Baksrit heaved a sigh, dismissing the last vestiges of her troubled thoughts. "It's just that I get the feeling I've had my fill of strange rabbits for now. That's all."