As night fell, Aura brought the unusual witchlight off of the shelf and set it back in front of me. Twice a day for two weeks, she had had me kneel in front of that hazy sphere, to count the twelve lights within and watch them move. Each time, she corrected my breathing and my rhythms, and each time my fingers and toes went numb a little faster. My body seemed to grow heavier, while my thoughts grew fainter. The darkness at the edges of my vision swallowed more each time; even the glass had started to become indistinct, leaving only the dancing motes themselves within my sight. They danced and spun as she directed, and I did my best to follow them, with my eyes, and later in my mind.
The sage knelt on the table and lit a fresh stick of incense, blowing gently on its tip until it smoldered, the coal glowing brightly. Then she drew the drapery, casting the room into utter darkness. “Lift the cover, Stannis, and look into the light.” As I drew aside the cloth, she continued, her voice slow and even. “You’ve already been trained to do as you’re told, and you do it very well. Focus your attentions on the sphere and let everything else slip away. Get nice and comfortable, and let all your tension go. Deep breaths, in and out.”
As she spoke, I felt the now-familiar weight settling into my arms and legs. The world beyond the sphere fell away quickly, and the lights swam in front of my eyes. Soon, I couldn’t even feel the points where my elbows touched my knees; my focus had sunk into the lights, dancing among them. Even Aura’s words grew distant as I felt my senses fall forward, in among the witchlights. My breathing slowed, though I could barely feel my chest moving. My paws and hinds went numb, but then even that faint tingle faded from my awareness.
“Good,” came the voice in the distance. “You’re doing very well. You’ve been well trained to do what you’re told. You can see the lights moving, can’t you? Focus on them slowly swaying and moving within the sphere. You might feel like you’re in there with them, swaying and moving with them. Feel yourself growing brighter and brighter, swaying and moving, just like a little light. Count the lights, as you breathe deeply, in and out. Breathe in for one. Out, and two.”
“Three… four….” The numbers came slowly to me, each one in steady with my breath. The tingling and numbness spread as I breathed, as I counted, as I watched the lights dance and sway around me. I dimly felt my body shifting in place, rocking faintly back and forth as the glowing motes did, but the motion seemed very far away. I knew, from hours of repetition, how many lights the globe contained, and yet that number escaped me every time I sat before it. It was as if, gazing into its depths, my mind simply forgot all the times before that I had tried to count them, and I had to find them all anew. Even though I needed less time to find them all than when I first started, I still lost track of how many tries I took to exhale slowly and then whisper the word, “twelve.” As it left me, I fell silent, my words dropping away into the darkness.
“Very good,” Aura murmured. “How are you feeling?”
“Cold,” I replied automatically. “Trained. Relaxed.” I spoke softly, slowly but without hesitation.
“Good. Very good,” the sage replied. “You’re very well trained to do as you’ve been told. Close your eyes, but stay focused on the lights. Can you still see them, in your mind?”
My eyelids dropped as soon as she suggested it, but the lights still flickered brightly behind my eyelids, spinning and dancing around me. “Yes,” I said quietly. “Twelve lights.”
“Thirteen lights,” Aura corrected. “You’re one of those lights now, aren’t you? Glowing and swaying, spinning in that globe.”
I lifted my head, eyes still closed, but the lights remained in place around me, their motions undisturbed by mine. “Yes,” I repeated, feeling myself shift as I watched the flickering of the others around me.
“Of course you are, little light,” the sage continued. “When you hear ‘little light,’ this will be your signal to go back to being a little light dancing and swaying in my globe, surrounded by all the others. You will relax and focus, breathing deeply in and out. You’ve already been trained to do as your told, and you do it very well. When you hear ‘little light,’ you will go back to this state, a little light dancing and swaying in my globe. You will say, ‘I am ready,’ and then you will relax and focus, breathing deeply in and out.”
I nodded slowly, lowering my head back towards the globe. Twelve other lights swayed around me as I looked down at myself, fur shimmering. “Yes.”
“You’re very well trained, little light,” Aura said with a faint chuckle.
A chill spread through my limbs and my head drooped on my neck. The other lights in the globe swam around me as I shifted in place. “I am ready,” I said softly.
She chuckled again. “Very good, little light.”
Another tingling wave spread through me, and exhaustion seemed to spread through me. “I am ready,” I repeated.
“Good,” the sage said softly. “Now, let’s count down from 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.”
I nodded again. “Ten. Nine.” Little by little, I felt the weight in my limbs lessen and the sensation return to my fingers. They stung from having gone so numb, but as the word “one” left my lips, the sensation had mostly passed. I opened my eyes and blinked into the lights, then groaned slightly as I reached for the witchlight cover and draped it over the sphere.
Aura drew back the drapery, though only star and moonlight entered the room. “Very good, little light,”
Seemingly from nowhere, that familiar tingle spread through me out from my chest to my fingers and toes, from my ears to the tip of my tail. I slumped forward onto my paws and knees, my head drooping on my neck. “I am ready.” The words came unbidden, as did the lights dancing in my vision, and for a moment I startled at my response, eyes snapping open to peer into the gloom. “What—”
I thought I could hear the sage’s laugh in the thickening darkness. “Is there a problem, little light?”
The numbness seeped into my limbs as my chest rose, then fell again, tension fading from my body. “I am ready. No.”
Cloth rustled behind me, and then I heard soft hindfalls on the rug. “Lift the cover and look into the globe. Deep breaths, in and out.” Aura’s voice had grown closer, but softer, a bare whisper in the room. “Focus on the lights in the globe. Twelve lights, and you, little light.”
“I am ready.” I could barely move my arm as the next chill wave spread along it, but I managed to pull aside the cover. I gazed deeply into the witchlight. Twelve lights, and I.
“Of course you are,” said a voice. “Close your eyes, but stay focused on one of the lights, on yourself within the globe. Let everything else fall away once more. You’re already trained to do as you’re told, and you do it very well. Find yourself within the globe, one of the lights, and slowly draw yourself out of the sphere. Dance and sway your way to the surface, then carefully float free.”
Escaping the leaden sense in my limbs was difficult, but I felt myself gently spin and twist within the globe, the lights around me parting to let me pass. I had started near the center, the other flickering motes around me, but soon I felt myself bumping against something. Looking down, I could see twelve lights, but I wasn’t moving. “I’m trapped,” I mumbled. “Can’t… rise.”
“Yes you can,” The voice corrected gently. “You’re doing as you’re told, and you’re trained to do that very well. Breathe deeply, in and out. Relax and let the weight fall away from you. Don’t lose your focus on the lights, but let your limbs feel lighter and lighter. Feel the weight falling away from you, as you breathe deeply, in and out.”
I nodded slowly, relaxing again, focusing once more on the lights, watching them sway. Lights. Light. Lighter and lighter. The weight that had settled in me as I relaxed fell further away, and soon I felt myself rising once more, through the surface of the glass. As I passed into the open air, the process went faster, held down by less and less, until I felt as if I were floating like a leaf on the breeze, a single mote of light swaying and dancing in midair.
Cloth shifted again, and I felt a presence directly behind me. “Hold out your paws,” the voice said, very quietly. “Cup them in front of you, around the little mote of light.” I nodded and reached out, forming a bowl in mid-air. “Good, now, count down from twelve to one, feeling more and more aware with each count. Twelve, eleven.” We counted together downwards, until she said, “Open your eyes. One. Look at your paws.”
I blinked, then stared in shock. Sitting in the bowl of my cupped paws was a small mote of silver light, like a ray of moonlight trapped in glass. “What is—” My fingers trembled. “How…?”
Aura rested a paw on my shoulder. “I told you when I started that you would learn to see anything you were told to see. For me to know that you could, I needed to see it too.” She grinned, her tail hooking behind her.
I turned to look over my shoulder, my ears flat against my head. “Is this… alchemy? And what is this ‘little—'”
She squeezed my shoulder tightly and hissed an interruption. “Say it at your own risk; you won’t want just anyone knowing that phrase.” When I nodded, she relaxed her grip, her eyes shining in the flickering witchlight. “The changes I’ll be making require a willing subject who can help with the rituals. Training you in the basics of trance and putting that in your head will help ensure that I don’t need to worry about your compliance.”
I looked back down to the glimmering light in my paws. “Does this mean I could… learn to do what you do?”
Aura barked a quick laugh. “If you took another year to master what I’ve shown you and nine besides to survive your apprenticeship, perhaps, but I doubt your owners will want you knowing anything more than what you’ve already learned. Still, there’s other things you can train someone to do, once you have them in that state.”
I blinked. “Like what?”
The raccoon laughed again, this time more darkly. “If Dion has any say, I’m sure you’ll learn soon enough. That, however, is for later.” She cupped her paw over mine for a moment, then lifted it away, and the flickering light vanished. She lifted the witchlight and carried it to the shelf. “For now, we sleep. Tomorrow at dawn, we begin your preparations.”