Seconds stretched into minutes with my pet’s head in my lap. At Miss Aura’s direction, I kept my attentions as much as I could on my pet, ignoring my own growing discomfort from being pinned beneath him. I stroked his muzzle and murmured softly to him to keep him calm, occasionally asking him questions to ensure he could answer. His brow creased in discomfort, his muzzle twisted in a rictus of pain, but he did his best to stay alert. His chest barely moved, but his breathing never stopped. His paws flexed and tensed and his shoulders trembled, visibly struggling against the urge to tug at his impalement.
Behind me, I could hear the sounds of the sages’ preparations, but they seemed dim and distant. Chalk scratched against the dais around me, and salts flowed in a circle around it. The air grew thick with the scent of rain and woodsmoke. I could hear, if I focused, Miss Aura and Mister Iladin discussing sigils and stars, influences and intentions. I caught my name, once or twice, or perhaps I just remembered it. Taneh. It was a pretty name, strong but yielding. What will yours be, pet? I wondered, as I stroked the young wolf’s ears.
Miss Aura’s voice came to me from miles away. “Pet, how is he? And yourself?”
“Quiet, ma’am,” I replied, letting the words fall gently out of my muzzle. “Relaxed, a little scared.”
“Just a little?” The question was gentle. “Not a lot?”
“No, ma’am,” I assured. “I’m well-trained and doing as I’m told.” I lowered my gaze, then rested a paw over my pet’s chest. “He’s frightened, mostly of the pain.”
Mister Valentin’s voice was more insistent, but no less removed. “Tell him he won’t hurt much more.” Then, more quietly, in a voice I don’t think I was meant to hear, he added, “I’m still not sure what you’re planning.”
“I’m correcting two mistakes tonight,” the sage replied just as softly. “I haven’t time to explain the rest. Trust that everyone should be happier with the outcome.”
After that, for a time, there were only the sounds of preparation and my own gentle murmurs, keeping my pet relaxed. He turned his head and gently nuzzled at my leg, whimpering softly, and I held one of his paws between both of mine. Then, finally, Miss Aura called out to me again. “Taneh, do you remember when we stepped outside the Great Work together? How the skeins supported us when the ground gave way?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, closing my eyes. As she mentioned it, I could easily imagine the glowing lines of light beneath us, feel the sway and tip of the rays bowing slightly beneath our weight. I shifted faintly to compensate, adjusting my knees, which grew a muffled grunt from my pet’s muzzle.
Far behind me, the sage chuckled. “Never mind, pet. You’re doing as you’re told, and doing very well.” Hindfalls whispered against stone. “When the circle closes, be ready to catch yourself. Do you understand?”
I drew in a deep breath, then let it out and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Somewhere far behind me, a final chalk-line scratched into place, a few grains of salt poured across them, and the witchlights faded into twilight. “From the furthest star to the tiniest speck, all things are connected in the Great Work.” Miss Aura’s voice echoed faintly, her voice all around me. “The tapestry stretches in all directions, from the heavens to the earth, binding all things together. Past and future, above and below. Here, within the unbroken circle, we separate off a small piece of the Work, that we may weave changes into it.”
The air around me hummed with potential as Miss Aura spoke. I opened my eyes, but the glowing lines remained, shining up from below. It took me only a moment to find my balance, the shining skeins more than enough to support my weight. My pet startled when the world began to fade, but I lay my paws on his shoulders and chanced a whisper. “Easy, pet.” I nuzzled between his ears, and lay still again with only a whimper. Once we both had our balance, I lifted my head. “Yes.”
“Beyond the Great Work, cause need not precede effect, and before may follow after,” the sage’s voice continued. Beyond the circle, all had become darkness; only her words breached the barrier. “In this place, we may make changes, and not fear the consequences. Water may pour up to a vessel, and fire may burn without consuming fuel. Outside the Great Work, we may pull the weapon from the wound, and no blood shall flow.”
My stomach clenched at the words, but the order was clear. Gingerly, I pressed my paws together on either side of the broken wooden shaft, then gradually pulled upwards. My pet arched his back, but then I felt something give way, and the blade slid free, slick with blood. Light shone up from the hole left in his chest, lit by the strands supporting us over the abyss. I resisted the urge to peer into the opening; I was afraid of what I might see inside.
“Good pet,” Miss Aura assured me, and my own breathing eased slightly. “You’re doing as you’re told, and doing it well. The hole below marks a point of egress, a space through which the unneeded may leave. The hole above marks a point of ingress, a space through which the needed may enter. Salts may separate, chalk may mark and guide, but it is the will that directs and commands. Let us trace a circle around this hole with the tool that created it, to bless it and keep it pure.”
Clumsily, I drew the metal spear tip through my pet’s fur, in a rough circle around the wound. It was far from precise, but I was doing as I was told. Once marked, the sage’s voice resumed as if she had never stopped. “So blessed, we may separate the unnecessary from the desirable, the wheat from the chaff. Ruby dust for Oshka. Thistle for purity, elderberry to consecrate. Clover and clove, basil and bay. Within the circle, two threads bind incompletely, brought together by arrogance and fear, wolf and rabbit conjoined in a single skein. Let us lay paws on this knot, and with this touch untie. The hole below marks a point of egress, through which Wilik’s thread may leave.”
As my paws came to rest on either side of my pet’s injury, it felt as though they were passing within, as though the flesh weren’t quite solid. As a test, I gingerly pressed down against his pelt, and I something inside gave way, as a waterskin breaking. The light rising through the wound began to sputter as something smelling of fresh-cooked stew poured out below, between the strands of light and down into the darkness. As I watched, his tail began to recede, and his ears grew longer in equal measure. His muzzle shrank to a rounded curve, and his hinds swelled like mine. Melka, I realized. He always was his mother’s son.
“With Wilik’s gift removed, the knot remains incomplete, a single thread tied to naught.” Suddenly the sage’s voice was a whisper all around, in my ear but nowhere to be seen. “Sapphire dust for Matska. Orange for marriage, peony for love. Heather and honeysuckle, mandrake and mistletoe. Within the circle, two threads bind completely, brought together by love and compassion. Let us lay paws across these threads, and with this touch unite. The hole above marks a point of ingress, through which Jedrik’s thread may enter.”
Lifting one paw from my pet’s chest, I placed it upon my own, and pain the likes of which I had never felt shot through me, as if I had been stabbed through the gut with a spear. I felt something move within me, and then an arc of lightning jumped between us. My pet spasmed once against me, then again, his motions echoed by my own. The blood rushed from my head, and my world swam around me. I swayed and stumbled, but then his paws were at my sides, holding me steady. I looked down, and he smiled back, his golden eyes alight. At his shoulder and hip, patches of white fur stood out from the black, no doubt matched by one on the back of his leg.
“With Jedrik’s gift added, the knot becomes whole, two threads brought together by love and compassion.” Miss Aura’s voice returned to normal, though still at a great distance. “What remains is to mold the second as the first, to complete the pairing. Anise to bless, cinnamon to heat and stoke. Peppermint, motherwort, and clove. Let us wipe away the inner circle and match touch for touch, gift for gift.”
I wiped my paw across the circle I’d traced, and the hole in his chest went with the rest of the marks. The other rabbit below me let out a gasp, then a full-throated moan as the heat within him swelled. Cautiously, I slid back along the strands of light to let him lay flat, then took one of his paws in mine. It took only a little effort to take each of his claws between my stubs and work them back into the ends of his fingers. A bit more, and his fingers lay folded flat as mine were. The thumb was hardest to mold away, but when that was done, his paw was the mirror of mine, a thought that stoked my own inner fire. His other paw went quickly, but there was more to do.
Working my knees to either side of his head took time, but soon his muzzle was just below my nethers. “Lick,” I whispered into the darkness. “Learn.” Then I lay across his chest, so that his groin was just beneath me. As he pressed his lips to mine in a most intimate kiss, I took his sheath in my paws. Guided by his tongue, I cautiously molded flesh to match the sensations I felt. The heat within me became a flame as ey pleasured me, fueled by eir fire and my own efforts.
Soon that ache burned too brightly, and I plunged my muzzle into eir newly-molded sex, hoping to slake my burning need in eir depths. I rubbed the opening to eir tunnel gingerly with one stubby digit, squirming back against eir paw in return. Every lick echoed against my body, every shudder mirrored in my own. I traced eir nethers with my tongue, carefully avoiding that sensitive button as long as I could, until my need drove me to caress it directly, drawing a howl from my lips. I held back as long as I could, but my tongue was too insistent, my need too demanding. My release was a lightning strike that ran from the tips of my newly-lengthened ears to the base of my shortened tail, my tunnel clenching tightly as if to try to hold the other within me until the stars ran cold. “Yes,” we whispered in unison, when voice finally returned to us.
Miss Aura’s chuckle probably wasn’t part of the ritual. “You’re doing what you’re told, and doing it well. As all things have symbols to give them meaning, so is the name the symbol of self. The self that entered the circle is not the self that leaves, and so the name must change to match. Wormwood and violet, with licorice root to seal. Outside the Great Work, we may separate a skein to make changes to it. To weave those changes back within the larger pattern, we carefully part the circle. Salts divided, chalk split.” I heard the thunk of wood against stone, and then the scrape of one of the lines being split. “Wake up, Taneh.”
I startled at the name, my name, and fell onto my side with a groan, thudding against the solid wooden dais. The first rays of sun were just streaming in through the windows, making the witchlights seem dim by comparison. Every muscle in my back and legs felt stiff, and my paws ached. “Ma’am,” I groaned.
A whimper to my right made me turn my head, and my heart jumped in my chest. Staring at the rabbit that lay beside me felt akin to gazing into a mirror. Eir fur was black where mine was white, white to my black, but the patches across shoulder and hip were an eerie match. Eir arms ended in an animal’s paws, and between eir legs was only a need to be filled. Ey lifted eir head with a groan, pressing eir paws to eir eyes. “I’m exhausted.”
“Quiet, pet,” Miss Aura corrected as she shuffled over. “Any pain, at least?”
Ey paused, biting eir lip. One paw went to eir chest in surprise, brushing against where the spear had been. Of the broken weapon itself or the wound, there was no sign. “No, ma’am… just tired.”
The grin that split the sage’s muzzle could have outshone the sun itself. “Good. Very good,” she said as she wiped at her eyes. “If anything ever hurts, ever, you get your master to come tell me, do you understand?”
The other rabbit ducked eir head sheepishly, squirming. Ey glanced to me and blushed; eir eyes were a deep and vivid gold. “It’s not pain, exactly, ma’am.”
Miss Aura laughed, her tail hooking behind her in amusement. “I think you’ll be fine. Baron? You can claim your pets.”
“Hrr?” Half-asleep on the floor just beyond the circle, Mister… Master Valentin’s eyes fluttered, then snapped open as understanding dawned. “Oh! Right.” He sat up and stretched, then pushed himself from the floor with a groan. “Taneh, heel.” Then his eyes turned to the other rabbit, and the world held its breath. “Um….”
“Yes, master.” I struggled to my hinds, then knelt with a wince slightly behind and to the left of Baron Deterikh. The other rabbit watched wordlessly as I moved, then up to the baron’s face. Eir eyes went wide with longing and confusion, but before ey could speak, I took a risk and gestured towards the space to my right, at the lynx’s other side. “Rikeh, heel.”
At the mention of eir new name, ey sagged against the ground in relief. When ey lifted eir face, the smile on eir muzzle shone brighter than the coming dawn. “Coming, master,” ey whispered, then rose and took eir place beside me.
Master Valentin looked down at the both of us, and a weary smile broke out on his muzzle. “Both of you, rise follow. I have a few announcements to make and a war to stop.”