Aura’s study, like the rest of her manor, was filled to the rafters with books. Unlike in the other rooms, though, the scroll-bins were in ordered stacks and the shelves were tidy, with only a few small trinkets scattered among the books. Aside from the shelves, the walls otherwise bare, but so little of them showed I couldn’t even tell their color. A massive desk, topped with a few spare sheets of parchment and an inkwell, dominated the space beneath the lone window. A padded stool sat in front of it, and a thick woven rug covered the rest of the floor, with a few pillows scattered about the room.
The sage shut the door behind me as I entered, then walked to one of the racks of books. “Take a seat, Stannis.” She lifted what looked like a heavy glass witchlight under a thin black sheet off of a shelf, then set it down on the rug in front of me. “I have to tell you, this is probably the last bit of kindness you’ll see for some time.” She climbed up onto the desk and reached for the heavy curtains. “The next few weeks will be difficult, even with your complete trust, and beyond that….” She stopped and lowered her head, her paws gripping the drapery. “No-one can know the future, but even I can see rough winds ahead for you.”
I sat cross-legged on the rug and rested my elbows on my knees. It felt good, if oddly embarrassing, not to kneel. It felt as though I were merely playing at being normal. “I know,” I murmured. “I didn’t choose this because I thought it would be easy.”
Aura looked back over her shoulder at me, her paws clutching the drapery. “Why did you choose it then?”
I shrugged and related the story of my father’s death and family’s hunger, faintly startled at my own calm. I remembered barely being able to tell the slaver that bought me. Looking back at it now, though, it seemed… sad, but not crushing. Had I made a mistake? Had other horrors made it seem less traumatic? Was this merely the passage of time? As I marched myself into the back room of the guildhall and put myself into the cage, I shrugged again. “It seemed the sensible thing to do, at the time.”
The sage was silent for a time, then bowed her head. “You’re a brave soul. I won’t say I’ve had it as hard as some, but I’ve seen my share of trouble, and I don’t know if I’d have faced your situation with the same grace. Hold onto that courage; you’re going to need it.”
I sighed, looking down at the wrapped witchlight. “Was it courage, or cowardice? When life became a burden, I ran from it. My family doesn’t even know I’m alive.”
Aura smiled gently. “When your life became something you didn’t want, you sought a better option. That decision isn’t easy.” Her voice softened and her shoulders stooped. “Some people never manage it.” Her words trailed there, but she leaned heavily on the desk as though under a burden. When she straightened again after a few moments, the tension from earlier had snapped back into place. “Right. You’ve had your rest, and now there’s work to be done.” She closed the drapery, and the room fell into near-darkness. A flame flickered briefly to life, and then the scent of incense filled the room before the coal disappeared again. “Time for trust, Stannis. Lift the cover, and look into the light.”
I nodded, then pulled aside the black drape shrouding the witchlight. Unlike most I had seen, this one was irregular, a cluster of soft silver motes that glowed within the glass, instead of a solid light. They weren’t enough to illuminate the room, but I could just see my paws when I glanced down at them. I scooted back on the rug, then leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees to gaze into the sphere.
“Good.” Aura’s voice spoke out of the shadows behind me, but I couldn’t exactly tell where. “Deep breaths, in and out, focusing on the lights, deep within the sphere. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. You needn’t be still, but try not to move too much. Just focus your attentions on the sphere, on the lights deep within. Feel the air moving in your lungs, and try to slow it down, nice and slow. Deep breaths, in and out.”
As Aura spoke, my breathing slowed, but my focus was on the sphere, on the lights within. I could still hear her, but her voice seemed to be moving, or else in several places at once. “You’re already trained,” she continued, her voice rising and falling in a gentle lilt. “You know how to do as you’re told, and you do it well. Now you’re doing as you’re told, and doing it well. Continue your breathing, focusing on the lights. You could move, if you needed, but there’s no need; you’re nice and comfortable now. Yes, you’re comfortable and relaxed, tension fading rapidly. Deep breaths, in and out.”
I noticed, as I stared into the glass sphere, that my fingers and toes were beginning to tingle, as if cold, but the room was still warm. I wanted to ask what she was doing, but I knew better than to interrupt; for a moment, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to speak even if I tried. My eyes were fixed on the glowing silver lights before me, and I felt, strangely, as though I were falling towards them, even though I knew I was sitting perfectly still.
“Good, very good,” Aura’s voice continued in the distance. “You’ve already been trained to do as you’re told, and you’re doing very well.” Was she repeating herself, or was it just a trick of my memory? How long had I been listening to her? “You might see, if you focus, the lights begin to move, within the sphere. See them dancing for you, flickering slowly within the glass as you focus on them. The lights must be moving, because you’re quite still. You could move, but you aren’t, because you’re comfortable where you are, breathing deeply, focusing on the lights. So comfortable, so relaxed, no tension anywhere within you. Deep breaths, in and out.”
My fingers and hinds were quite numb now, and my pawpads and a small patch on my scalp had started to tingle. I felt curiously heavy, as if I were falling asleep, but my attentions were all on the sphere. I was dimly aware of the voice behind me, but listening was an afterthought. If I focused, I thought I could see the lights moving as Aura said. Was it my imagination? Had they been doing so all along, and I had only just noticed? Was this alchemy? The questions rose, but then drifted away as I tried to catch one silvery mote or another shifting within the sphere without pulling my attention away from the others.
“Very good,” came the voice, rising and falling behind me. “You’re doing very well, Stannis. Count the lights, as they move. Starting at one, count them slowly, in time with your breath. Deep breaths, in and out. Breathe in, and one. Out, and two.”
At the edges of my vision, the world had gone black; all I could see now were the lights, dancing slowly within the glass sphere. “Three… four… five… six…” The words fell from my lips, faintly slurred, as if from exhaustion, each in time with the rise and fall of my chest. I felt leaden, and briefly the rhythm of my breathing faltered as panic hit me; what if couldn’t move? After my brief start. though, I felt myself sinking back into the steady rhythm. “Seven… eight…” How many lights were there? My eyes flickered around the glass, briefly, and suddenly a flush hit my cheeks as I realized I couldn’t remember with which one I had started. “One… two….”
Did Aura chuckle behind me, or did I just think she did? “You’re doing very well,” she said softly. “How are you feeling?”
“Heavy.” The word was out of me without thinking about it. “Cold. A little scared.”
“You’ve no need to be scared,” Aura corrected softly. “You’re doing what you’re told, and you’re doing it well. You’ve already been trained. How many lights are there?”
“I… I don’t know.” My eyes were focused on the glass, but the number escaped me. I tried again to count them, but by the time I had reached five, I had forgotten which was one or two, and I stopped. “I don’t know.”
This time, the chuckle was definite. “There are twelve lights within the sphere, Stannis. Twelve lights. Let’s count them together, one to twelve. Deep breaths, in and out. One. Two.”
“Three,” I echoed. It took several tries to count them all; I would miss a number, or forget to breathe, or stir, and Aura would interrupt with some correction. Each time, we would start together again at one. By the time the word “twelve” was out of my muzzle, I had forgotten how many times I had tried to reach it. When it left my lips, I fell silent, chest rising and falling slowly. The urge to continue, to say thirteen, fourteen, rose but then it too faded. It felt as if my thoughts had simply drifted into the darkness around me, leaving only the lights in the glass. Twelve lights.
“Good,” said Aura. “Very good. Close your eyes, Stannis. Can you still see the lights? Can you see them, in your mind?”
“I—” I tried to picture what I had just been seeing, but at best it felt like faint impressions. I knew that I wanted to see them, but I didn’t think I truly could, not with my eyes closed. “Perhaps, but… I don’t know.”
“That’s fine.” The sage’s voice was soothing, comforting. “In time, you will. Let’s count down, twelve to one. Feel the heaviness lift as you count, feeling lighter and lighter, until you’re free of the weight and feeling refreshed. Twelve. Eleven.”
“Ten. Nine.” My breathing eased as I counted, the tingling fading from my paws, until we spoke “one” in unison and I opened my eyes. The points where my elbows had rested against my knees hurt from the weight I had put on them, and my back ached from the position in which I had been sitting. I let out a whimper and shifted up onto my knees, rubbing at my calves.
Light flooded back into the room as Aura opened the drapery, then snuffed the incense she had lit. “How do you feel?”
“Sore,” I replied. “And… scared. I actually thought for a bit that I had forgotten how to move, that I’d been frozen in place. What… what did you do to me?”
The raccoon shrugged and hopped down from the desk. “I told you, for what I’ve been tasked to do to you, I need you to respond to instruction without hesitation, without even knowing you’ve done so. By the time I’m done with you, not only will you see those lights in your mind, but you’ll see anything you’re told to see. Once you can do that, the real alchemy will follow.”