The white rabbit wiggled his nose, making his whiskers bounce against the tip of my nose. It tickled.
I stared at the animal, not knowing what to do or say.
“You okay?” he asked in a familiar voice. “That was a rough ride.”
“Sol?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“In Leporidae form,” he drawled sarcastically.
Sitting up, I scrambled away from the bunny.
“Most chicks aren’t repulsed by me when I look like this,” he pouted. “I’m supposed to be all cute and cuddly.”
“What? Where? How?” I stammered, looking around wildly. We were in some sort of cave. The space was lit by a single candle which cast creepy shadows against the dirt walls.
“You’re safe here,” Sol assured me.
I did not feel safe. “Where’s here? How do I get out? And why are you like that?”
“We went down the rabbit hole,” he explained like that was supposed to make perfect sense.
I grabbed the owl necklace around my neck and gave it a shake. “Now would be a good time for an explanation, Conroy.”
“It was a portal,” Conroy wheezed. “A poorly constructed one. Did you use no environmental controls?”
The rabbit rose up on his hind legs, his whiskers quivering. “Hey, give a guy a break. As your maddener pointed out with such glee, I’m caponem.”
“Cut it out you two,” I groused. “You know I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“How does she not know?” Sol asked his big ears flopping.
“Can you change back?” I asked him. “It’s disconcerting to have a conversation with a rabbit.”
“Sorry, but you’re stuck with me like this for a while,” Sol replied with more than a hint of sadness.
“To hide you from the Cullers, he brought you down his rabbit hole,” Conroy began to explain.
“It’s a literal rabbit hole?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Sol interjected sarcastically. “All rabbits leave a candle burning. Where do you think Motel 6 got their “Leave the lights on” slogan? You just can’t see them because they’re all underground.”
“Does taking animal form make everyone nasty?” I asked. “Or is that just you and Garrett?”
“Don’t be ungrateful,” Conroy began to warn. “He helped you.”
I squinted at the rabbit. “Why did you help me?”
He hopped away, settling in the darkest corner of the cave before he replied, “Darkest purple I’ve ever seen. It’s my duty.”
I groaned. We were back to discussing my supposed shimmer.
Conroy gasped. “A shuhval! Do you hear that? A shuhval!”
“I didn’t say that,” Sol argued unconvincingly. “Shuhvals are the stuff of legend. A T-up. Fairy tales. There are no such things as shuhvals.”
“Unless you’re going to give me a dictionary, you have got to stop with the nonsense words!” I bellowed, my frustration echoing off the cave walls.
“Nonsense words?” Sol asked softly. “Does she know nothing?”
“She knows absolutely nothing,” Conroy confirmed.
“She,” I reminded them hotly, “is sitting right here as you once again talk about her.”
“I don’t understand,” Sol murmured.
“That makes two of us,” I snapped. “Can someone please explain what’s going on?”
“She’s not going to believe me,” Sol posited.
“What do you want to know?” Conroy asked with tired resignation.
“Everything,” I sighed with exasperation.
The ground around us began to tremble violently, clods of dirt falling from above.
I covered my head with my arms. “Is this an earthquake?”
“I don’t know.” Sol hopped over and leaned his furry side against me. “It’s never happened before. But I’ve never brought anyone here before. Maybe it’s the portal collapsing.”
“Or maybe it’s the Cullers are coming after us,” I guessed as more dirt rained down on top of us.
“It’s not,” Conroy said firmly.
“Not what? The Cullers or a portal collapse?” I asked.
“It’s not either of those things,” the owl said with conviction.
“Then what is it?” I yelped as the ground shook harder. Scooping up the bunny, I clasped him to my chest. He really was cuddly.
“Mildred is a maddener,” Conroy stated determinedly. “A witch who takes possession of an animal is called a maddener. They do it in order to drive whoever they’re haunting mad.”
I nodded my understanding. That actually made perfect sense in a weird way. “Her plan is working.”
“A rabbit hole is a magical escape hatch,” Conroy continued. “It’s a portal to a safe place.”
“It’s not so safe if you suffocate me,” Sol interjected in a pained tone.
Realizing how tightly I’d been hugging the rabbit; I released my grip on him. “Sorry.”
“I’ve been in worse spots.” I could hear the smile in Sol’s voice even though I couldn’t see it on his bunny face.
“And—” Conroy began.
“Wait!” I interrupted. “He’s not blue. His shimmer is definitely not blue. It’s lavender.”
“Mulberry,” Conroy corrected.
“Whatever. The point is he’s not magical.”
“I told you, he’s a step away.”
I closed my eyes and took a breath, trying to not let my exasperation get the best of me. I asked as calmly as I could, “What does that even mean?”
“Caponem,” Sol muttered.
“Means equally nothing to me,” I told the rabbit.
He looked away.
“His magic has been taken from him,” Conroy explained. “He’s been stripped of it.”
“As punishment?” I asked, noticing the ground had stop trembling.
Sol thumped his foot impatiently. “By Cullers.”
“But you’ve got a magical hat and portal?” I rubbed the spot between my eyebrows trying to erase the beginning of a headache.
“That isimpressive,” Conroy mused. “I assume that human form was what you sacrificed to save your hod? You use its magic and you have to spend however long as a rabbit?”
Sol did not answer.
“So the Cullers are here for you?” I asked.
“Maybe originally. Or maybe they were here for Keith. We’d both been hiding out. But—”
“Hang on,” I interrupted. “I really did run over a wizard?”
“Low level and a lowlife,” Sol said dismissively. “He probably screwed somebody over in a business deal, earning the ire of someone who offered him up to the Cullers, but that doesn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because once they got to the area, they would have been drawn to you.”
“To Mildred you mean. She was the witch,” I corrected.
“Not the maddener, you,” Sol replied.
“Because of your—”
“Silence!” Conroy bellowed.
I recoiled and the rabbit trembled at the anger in his tone.
“She doesn’t know,” the owl said firmly. “And you have done enough damage already.”
Sol’s bunny nose twitched with irritation. “Me? You’re supposed to be her redia, but as far as I can tell you’re not helping her at all.”
“You don’t understand,” Conroy said defensively. “I amhelping her. You don’t understand the situation.”
“What’s a redia?” I asked.
Conroy rattled off the explanation like he was reading a definition straight out of a dictionary. “One who helps and comforts along a journey.”
“By journey you mean taking Mildred on this road trip to undo her wrong deeds?”
“Partly,” Conroy replied mysteriously. “But we can’t do anything stuck down here hiding from Cullers.”
“We don’t have to hide down here,” Sol said. “The Cullers can’t enter. It’s cursed land.”
“Your rabbit hole is cursed?” I asked, thoroughly confused.
“Of course not, but there’s a reason why Keith and I were both hiding out here. The area surrounding the Raven’s Nest office is cursed.”