The following week dragged on, each day harder than the one before. As Danny had predicted, Keira’s body felt like it had been run over by a truck, and her mood wasn’t much better. Nazor had zero pity on her and had them running through strenuous drills for hours on end. Yet finally the day of the midwinter festival arrived.
The morning was crisp, and the horses’ breath guided them as they turned their heads toward the road to town. Keira quickly urged Cerise into a trot, barely able to contain the grin that split across her face. She was free. As they rode into town, the noise of it struck her. After months on an isolated farm with only the occasional visitor, the sound of the market was overwhelming. The produce vendors of summer had been replaced by fur trappers hawking their wares and musicians playing to delighted crowds. Only the fishermen remained, their packed fish preserved even better in the subfreezing temperatures. Keira’s excitement was tangible, and she felt more than saw Danny watching her with bemusement. She didn’t care. She was off the farm, and there were people, real live, audible, touchable, smellable—and oh did they smell—people.
Keira set off, Elliott’s herb list in hand and Danny at her heels, trying to absorb the experience into her very pores. She marveled at the variety of sights, smells, and sounds that assaulted her senses. After an hour or so of browsing stalls and circulating among the crowds, Keira’s nose was frozen, and her toes were going numb. So, shopping items collected and her brain bordering on overload, she and Danny headed for the local tavern, called the Wailing Mudder.
Upon entering, she realized with a start that it was the same tavern she’d wandered into in search of a telephone on her first day in Loren. Looking about now, she decided it was largely unchanged, air thick with Pandry smoke and a smorgasbord of tables filled almost to capacity. Danny led her to a table at the far end of the tavern bordering a large, open space that occupied the center of the room. As they took their seats and Danny ordered for them, she decided that this space was indeed new and eagerly looked about for clues as to its purpose. Their drinks arrived, and she readily wrapped her chilled hands around the steaming mug but curled her nose as the astringent smell of alcohol reached her nares. Danny chuckled at her look of distaste before nodding to the open space she’d been observing with interest. But as he opened his mouth, presumably to explain its purpose, the lights suddenly dimmed, and the assembled crowd fell to a hush.
As Keira’s eyes adjusted to the lighting, she watched in astonishment as a beautiful woman, clothed all in white, entered what Keira realized with a start was center stage. As the lights dimmed, the circular edge of the space sputtered to life, the candles hurriedly lit by tavern attendants. The candlelight flickered off the woman’s silver-white robes, and the strands of her alabaster hair seemed to ripple with its reflection. Keira hastily shut her mouth, as she realized it was hanging open, and watched in awe as the woman began spinning, weaving her torso around the edges of the circle as her dance filled the room with light. Danny gave Keira a sidelong look, clearly amused by her rapt attention to the performance.
Turning back, he murmured, almost to himself, “They say she was the first of our kind, the first to seek order out of chaos, to control the pneuma.”
Glancing at her questioning look, he clarified, “Pneumos,” and nodded to the spinning blur of white and silver in front of them. From the corners of the room, other dancers took to the stage dressed in flowing fabric of greens and blues. Keira stared in amazement as they moved to form mountains and flowing blue streamers made rivers that cut across the stage.
“Some say she existed before the universe itself, others that she was the first sentient being.” He shrugged and grinned at her. “I don’t wade too deep into such questions myself.” Keira stared, enchanted by the way the dancer wove her arms, bending her body first one direction, then the other, her compatriots mimicking her motions as if shaped and moved by her very will. She could see the mountains forming and reaching toward the sky as rivers cut through the earth, separating land from water.
“But she was not alone. Another, called Séiro, sought to preserve the chaos, seeking power through the breaking rather than the building.” At this, Danny gestured at another figure Keira hadn’t noticed before, hooded in black and slinking along the ground at the edges of the light from Pneumos’s lanterns. “It is said that they cannot exist apart, order and chaos, that things must be broken before they can be rebuilt into their truest form. But Séiro grew greedy, not wanting to share his power with Pneumos, and so began to undermine her efforts, breaking that which was good and corrupting its nature, until all was in a state of decay.”
On the stage, Keira could see the dancer in black following in the footsteps of the spinning white blur, tapping the mountains and rivers so they crumpled to the ground, curling in on themselves.
“Seeing this danger, Pneumos created the spirit-binders, a people that could harness her gift of pneuma and use it to shape matter from the void, creating order out of chaos.”
Here Keira saw a man and woman, each richly ornamented in red-gold brocade, twined together in a twirling embrace.
Following in the wake of Séiro, the woman spun away from her partner, her leg coming up and over her head as she reached down to lightly brush the crumpled mountains and rivers with a long, outstretched hand. Her other hand remained firmly grasped by the male dancer. He kept her rooted tightly, his face fierce as he shielded against some unseen foe.
“But Séiro refused to be thwarted so easily. He fought back against Pneumos, corrupting the hearts of her servants, who in their desperation to destroy him fed Séiro the very chaos he thrived on.”
The hooded black figure had turned back to the golden couple by this point, and the three were locked in a fierce battle of precisely timed martial arts that somehow looked more beautiful than lethal. While their battle continued, Pneumos came to kneel before the watching crowd, rocking side to side as her arms stretched out by her sides, and her face turned upward in a silent plea.
Keira was startled to see that the dancer herself was weeping openly, and she was not alone. Looking around the room, many of the audience had tears in their own eyes. She suddenly remembered her own pains, the silent hurts she carried around with her, the many tiny acts of destruction that had left the scars she felt now. She knew intuitively that everyone else in that room felt the same, that they reflected on the many wounds of their own lives. Keira wondered at the silence of the universe in the face of such pain.
The lanterns suddenly went out, and the room was cast into darkness. Expecting this, the crowd suddenly broke into applause as the lanterns were relit. Keira saw the dancers join hands and bow to the lauding crowd.
Startled, she turned to Danny, asking, “But how does it end?” He gave her a steady look, watching her reaction, and replied, “It doesn’t. The fight goes on, order versus chaos, forever.” She could tell he wasn’t talking about the story anymore as he gazed into her face.
“We fight on, even though we know there will be no end. We fight for the world that might be. One in which order wins out over chaos and the building balances the breaking. All we can do is continue to fight and try to avoid taking the easier road, the one where we delude ourselves into thinking that pure destruction will lead to anything other than more destruction. We fight for what is right and along the way try to build more than we break, to heal more than we destroy.”
Keira stared at him, wondering at the path set before her and, not for the first time, doubtful whether she was truly up to the task.
“I don’t know, Danny. I get that the Legion has this grand plan to bring order to the universe, but I still don’t see how I could be any help in that.”
Danny’s brow furrowed as he stared at her, before turning to gesture at the two red-gold dancers. “Keira,” he began slowly, “we are the spirit-binders, the Legion. You and me, we’re linked, just like them. Binding, it’s what we were meant to do, Keira. It’s why you’re here.”
Keira bit her lip as she looked between Danny and the dancers. She remembered the boiling water that Elliott had created, remembered the intense curiosity that had gripped her when she’d seen this seemingly impossible act. She knew she wanted to be a part of that, to learn how to do that. She finally nodded.
“All right, Danny, but I want to learn spirit-binding. Not someday—now.”
Danny exhaled through pursed lips, searching her face for something before finally nodding.
“Okay, we’ll talk to Elliott and Nazor. I think it’s time.”