Keira vomited, dry heaving on an empty stomach as she fell to her knees.
She felt Danny’s warm hand on her back and let him help pull her to her feet. She accepted the cool glass of water that Elliott offered, returning his sympathetic smile with a glare.
“What the hell, Elliott? Why am I not getting this?”
Elliott sighed, arching one eyebrow. “It takes time, Keira. I warned you it wouldn’t be easy. Our pneuma is unique to each one of us, residing deep within ourselves. To cast it outside of yourself, well, it can be a very jarring experience the first few times.”
Keira gritted her teeth. There was an edge of sympathy in his voice that she found grating, even as she knew logically that it was well-intended. She did not like being coddled. She shoved the cup back to him and turned back to Danny.
“Again,” she said forcefully, squaring her shoulders and reaching out a hand toward him.
He looked hesitant. “Are you sure? We could always wait . . . try again tomorr—”
“Now, Danny. We’ll try it again.”
He sighed. “Fine.”
He reached out and grabbed her hand, squaring himself in his own grounding stance. His job was to pull her pneuma back to the ground—that is, if she could ever get it moving. Keira stared at the small pile of hay in front of her, alluringly flammable and yet so annoyingly unmoved. You can do this, she told herself sternly. You have to do this.
She closed her eyes. Reaching deep within herself, just as Elliott had taught her, she searched for the pocket of energy she was determined to wrangle. In her mind’s eye, she moved through every part of her body, nudging, feeling, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for the telltale sensation.
And there it was.
It was a small, pulsing ball of energy that lay just behind her stomach. She froze, holding her ground as she grew suddenly wary to touch it, her instinct clearly learning from prior experience. Luckily, her willpower was stronger than her instincts.
She nudged it, ever so gently, and felt it slowly uncoil. It grew larger, and she thrilled at the warmth she felt as it slithered out through her limbs, reaching the ends of her fingertips. It pulsed with a beat of its own that ran in syncopated rhythm with her own heartbeat. She tuned her mind’s ear to that pulse, letting it fill her thoughts. Then, slowly, ever so gently, she whistled.
Nothing happened. The energy remained where it was, pulsing in her limbs as if not catching on. She tuned the pitch of her whistle, just slightly, and there!
Her pneuma leaped in recognition, clinging to the sound and forcing its way out of her. She could feel the energy pulsing through her fingertips. She felt a swell of panic and firmly squashed it. She peeled open one eye and then the other, trying her best to focus that energy on that small pile of hay and twigs. She ignored the blooming sensation of nausea, focusing in the direction she wanted her pneuma to go.
And there it was. A small plume of smoke began twisting and winding its way up from the hay. Excitement bloomed within her, even more powerful than the fear and nausea she was holding at bay. I’m doing it!
Her whistle became louder, almost unconsciously, as her excitement threatened to run away with her. The energy pulsed, a massive surge that burst its way out of her. She felt numb. I’m going with it, she realized suddenly, as she felt herself being slowly peeled away from her body.
She panicked, clinging to her own body, trying to reel herself back in through her mind’s eye.
She thought she heard a voice but couldn’t make out the words. It was Danny. He was calling her name, calling her back. She struggled against the pull of the pneuma, desperately trying to untangle herself from its tentacled grip. But she was losing ground. With every second she felt its pull strengthen as it dragged her inch by inch away from her body.
And then he was there.
Danny’s pneuma was warmer than her own, its pulse faster and terrified.
She felt his pneuma latch onto her, felt it begin reeling her in.
Oh, thank God, she thought. It’s going to be ok.
And then the memories came.
She was a small child, curled up in her bed as she listened to the screams and shouts from the kitchen below. She heard the sound of a dish breaking, and she curled up tighter, trying to block out the sound of her mother’s wail and the sobs that followed.
Then she was older, sitting at the dinner table with her mom, Tammy, and her latest boyfriend. She tried to ignore the boyfriend’s leering smile, jerking her knee away from his probing fingers.
And then she was on the road, the winding road. Rain beat at the windshield as the car hit the guardrail, spinning and spinning out of control. It crashed through, and she felt the sickening sensation of her stomach dislodging as they sailed through the air.
She tried to wrench herself away from the foreign energy, the strange presence that made her relive her deepest, darkest secrets. She didn’t want this. She couldn’t bear it. She could hear Danny’s voice growing louder.
“Keira! Keira, let me ground you!”
No. The moan was her own, silent in its plea.
“Hold on, let me get you.”
“No!” she screamed. “I won’t!”
And then there was a third presence, its pneuma cool and soothing, an aloe gel on her blistering, burnt psyche. It wrapped itself around her, not daring to probe beneath the surface, merely guiding her, gently, back into herself.
Keira opened her eyes, looking straight into the warm gaze of Nazor, hands lightly cupping either side of Keira’s face.
Nazor’s eyes were soft, not with sympathy but with understanding, acceptance. Keira breathed heavily, willing her heartbeat to slow. She flexed her fingers, reveling in their solidness.
“It’s all right, child,” Nazor murmured. “You’re safe now. Nothing can hurt you.”
Keira stared gratefully into those eyes, drinking in their surety, and willed herself to accept their promise. She searched their depths and saw only love and caring, without judgment or condemnation.
She nodded, taking a deep breath before climbing to her feet.
She turned and saw Danny, shifting his weight and rubbing a hand to the back of his neck as he stared apologetically at her. “Keira . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“It’s fine,” she said, not bearing to fully meet his eye.
“I was trying to ground you, and—”
“It happens.” Elliott’s voice was soft and kind. “The relationship between cantor and grounder is a complicated one. A bind requires a level of intimacy that—”
“No.” Keira’s voice was firm, unyielding.
“I’m sorry, I—”
“I won’t do it.” Keira’s nausea had largely abated, leaving in its wake only utter exhaustion. “We’re done, Elliott, done with all of this binding . . . stuff.”
“I’ll stay,” she said. “I‘ll learn sword fighting, archery, whatever else you want. But I’m done with binding. I’m not doing that again.”
Elliott stared at her.
“Keira, pneumonancy is at the heart of what it means to be a Legionnaire. You can’t just—”
“I can,” Keira said, eyes narrowing. “I can, and I will.”
“Let her be.” Nazor’s interjection was firm, her eyes soft but hands perched rigidly on her hips. “Leave the child alone, Elliott. It is her choice, what she chooses to share of herself. Let her be.”
Keira shot Nazor a surprised look, shocked that she of all people should be on her side but grateful nonetheless. Elliott and Nazor exchanged one of their patented indiscernible looks that spoke of an entire conversation happening behind the closed shutters of their eyes. Finally, Elliott nodded. “Very well. Let’s go home.”
As Keira moved to follow him, she couldn’t help but see Danny’s ashen face. The horrified look in his eyes told her everything she needed to know. He knew; he knew. She realized then that he would never look at her the same way again, and she didn’t think she could bear it.