The Cantor: A Legion of Pneumos Novella

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Chapter One

Pulling on his boots, Danny O’Leary quietly padded out of his room, down the tightly spiraling wood staircase, and outside to the stables. His horse, Boyd, nickered softly to him as he lit the lantern, nuzzling his arm with his long snout.

“Ay, boy-o,” Danny cooed softly at his palomino gelding, stroking a knuckle between the horse’s wide eyes. His mind’s eye flickered back to the dream, the one that had woken him, but he quickly pushed the thought away. He shivered lightly in the predawn chill as he set about his usual morning chores, grateful for the distraction. He moved with practiced skill, his hands and feet setting to work seemingly without direction. It wasn’t until he was halfway done mucking out the stalls that he realized that in his distracted state he’d sped through them in record time.

“Not bad for an Irish city boy,” he chuckled to himself, pushing the sandy locks off his sweating brow. “If Mam could only see me now.”

A stab of pain cut through him, and he realized with a start that he hadn’t thought of his mother in months, nor his three little sisters and the shabby flat they’d shared in South Boston.

Danny found he could barely remember his father, the textile mill worker who’d died of tuberculosis when Danny was nine, not long after the Depression was in full swing. Luckily for them, Danny’s family had an aunt and uncle who’d let the family move in. He’d been able to remain in school (largely at his mother’s insistence), but it wasn’t long before he started working long hours in his uncle’s grocery whenever he could to help take care of his mother and sisters. As Danny got older, his uncle had seen he had a talent for figures and so had put him to work managing stock and shipments. Eventually, his uncle let him take an even larger role in managing the business, grooming him to one day take over the grocery itself.

That was all put on hold one day in December, when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor and America decided that maybe Germany and its cronies weren’t just somebody else’s problem. Danny had just turned eighteen, so he, along with most every other boy he knew, had enlisted straight off.

His mother was beside herself and begged him not to go. Danny could still remember the tears streaming down her cheeks as she pleaded with him. But if there was one thing Danny understood, it was the importance of duty and fulfilling one’s responsibilities. He was doing this for his family, as surely as he had worked every day since the age of nine to care for them.

Sure, maybe there was a small part of him that relished the adventure, that thrilled at the thought of getting out of Boston and seeing what else there was in the world, but he was no fool. He didn’t believe for one moment that the old war stories of glory and heroism were anything more than the long-embellished memories of Great War veterans who sought meaning in why they had to come home far more broken than when they’d left. Danny may not have known exactly what awaited him in Europe, but he also knew that he was needed, and that settled the matter. It had been years since he’d seen his family, since he’d joined the army and left home to fight a war on a far-off continent he knew little about. It was just under a year ago now, he’d woken up after a lucky sniper round and found himself suddenly in Loren, a world far stranger than he ever could have imagined. Nazor and Elliott had tried to make their farm feel like home to him, and in a way it did. But every once in a while, thoughts of his old life and the world he’d left behind crept in.

With the chores seen to, Danny went back inside the old stone house to find Elliott and Nazor already seated at the table, enjoying their breakfast.

“You’re up early,” Elliott commented. “Trouble sleeping?”

Danny shrugged and took the seat next to Nazor. Never one for much chitchat before noon, she said nothing and merely passed him the bread and cheese board.

“I had another one of those dreams,” he told Elliott, who glanced up in surprise. “I still can’t make it all out,” Danny said hurriedly, “but I’m fairly sure it involves some sort of car accident.”

“Oh?” Elliott asked, leaning forward slightly. Danny shook his head. Having died in the late 1880s, Elliott found any reference to futuristic technology, such as cars and telephones, inexplicably thrilling.

“Yeah, and the thing is, well, there was this girl, and there’s just something about her . . .” Danny looked up from the small loaf he was turning over in his hands to see them both gazing curiously at him. “Well, for starters, she died.”

Elliott choked on his juice. Nazor said nothing, but Danny saw her eyes widen, and she put down the apple she’d been about to take a bite out of.

“What happened?” she asked quietly, seeing that Elliott was still clearing his throat.

Danny eyed the older woman cautiously. It was times like these when he depended on her steadiness. Sure she could be intimidating, but she was always the first person he’d go to for advice or help. Elliott always meant well, but there was no telling what he’d do or say if Danny tried to explain the strange connection he’d felt to this girl and the sense of devastation when he’d realized she was gone.

So, resolving to give the full story to Nazor later, he shrugged and said only, “There was a car accident. They went off the road on the side of a mountain. There’s no way anyone survived that.” Danny swallowed, feeling Nazor’s dark eyes on him searching his face with her oddly knowing gaze.

“How terrible,” Elliott breathed.

Danny could feel his intent gaze and glanced away, making his own face an unreadable mask before it betrayed him.

“But you know,” Elliott continued, considering, “this could be what we’ve been waiting for.”

Danny shot him a look and said, perhaps a little too sharply, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Elliott seemed not to notice Danny’s change in tone, for he merely continued, “Danny, we talked before about how these were very unlikely to be normal dreams. This girl most likely exists somewhere. Furthermore, it’s been nearly a year since you arrived here in Loren, and we’ve yet to hear of your counterpart turning up anywhere in this region. Perhaps that’s why you keep having this dream. She may very well be your cantor.”

Danny shifted uncomfortably at this. The relationship between grounder and cantor, though ideally demonstrated by Elliott and Nazor, was still something of a mystery to him. He knew that high-level pneumonancy required this relationship. To be properly wielded, pneuma must be both cast out and grounded to a single spot. Yet the relationship he saw between Elliott and Nazor seemed to be something far more ethereal that he just didn’t truly understand. That said, it would explain the strange connection he’d felt with the curly-haired girl that kept appearing in his dreams. He would readily admit that the idea of her not being truly dead, but only in transition, was certainly comforting.

“Do you think we should postpone your trip to Port Galaén just in case?” Elliott was looking worriedly at Nazor.

Nazor cocked her head, considering, her dark eyes soft and umber lips pursed. “Why don’t we just wait and see what happens. We’ll know if she’s the cantor soon enough,” she said slowly. “The Tramors only come to market twice a year, and I’m desperate to get my hands on some Tramorian steel. Besides, I’ll only be gone a few weeks.”

The slight smile on Nazor’s face told Danny that she’d seen all too clearly his discomfort and was purposely steering the conversation toward other topics. He shot her a grateful look, agreed, and returned to his breakfast, his mind full of far more questions than answers. Elliott seemed not to notice, though, and nodded, clearly persuaded by her reasoning.

Nazor turned to Danny. “As for you, I expect you’ll stay fresh on your sword work while I’m gone and take the horses out as often as possible. I don’t need either you or them going soft in my absence.” Nazor gave Danny a severe look, which he returned with an impish grin.

“Now when’ve I eva’ let you down like that, Nazor?” Danny slipped into his thickest Boston Irish accent, knowing it annoyed her to no end. “I should rightly be offended, on account of I neva’ did do nothing to deserve such distrust.”

Nazor rolled her eyes and threw her balled up napkin at him. He dodged it, laughing.

“Fair enough,” she conceded, trying and failing to hide the small smile that tugged at the corner of her lips. “Care for some quick drill before I go?”

Danny agreed, and they headed outside to the practice field, leaving Elliott smiling and shaking his head as he tidied up the breakfast dishes.

#

Over the next few days, Danny tried desperately to put thoughts of the dream and the girl out of his mind. He kept up with his chores and training as Nazor had asked, but even the busy days and aching muscles failed to distract him fully from thoughts of her. He’d obviously never met this girl but felt, in a way, that he knew her. Elliott seemed to sense his distraction and offered to extend their lessons in Nazor’s absence. Danny appreciated this. The mental exhaustion of studying history and languages, not to mention wielding that pulsing energy called pneuma, left him little time for other thoughts.

One afternoon, about a week after Nazor left for Port Galaén, Elliott sent Danny upriver to hunt for a particular herb he was experimenting with as a sleep aid. Danny readily agreed, relieved to have an excuse to get out of the house. He and Elliott had been working on binds, a form of pneumonancy in which the wielder had to use his pneuma to worm his way into other objects and manipulate their structure. Danny was a grounder, so his pneuma was uniquely tied to his person, and he could most adeptly use it to root himself to his surroundings. Canting, or casting your pneuma out, was the opposite of this. It tended to result in a distinct feeling of dissociating from one’s body that Danny found disconcerting at best, nauseating at worst. He therefore couldn’t be happier to stretch his legs outside for a bit.

Walking along the water’s edge, he felt immediately at ease. Marveling at the fresh smell of grass in the late spring day, he smiled as he turned his face up to absorb the sun’s warmth, the sound of flowing water soothing his mind.

He was ripped suddenly back to reality by the snapping of branches and a loud crash as something stumbled out of the forest to his left. His eyes snapped open as his hands grasped automatically for the knife at his belt. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he spun to face the threat.

It was her.

Dark blue eyes blinked at him in confusion, their sapphire depths betraying fear and mistrust above the high cheekbones of her long, oval face. Her thick, unruly curls were dark as espresso beans, and many had escaped the confines of the hair tie meant to fasten them. They spiraled around her face, and Danny was struck with the absurd urge to brush them back behind her ears. Embarrassed by his own foolishness, he sheathed his knife and slowly stepped toward her. He saw her eyes widen, and she swayed dangerously to the side. He put up his hands in what he hoped was a calming gesture as he murmured in a low voice, “It’s all right. You’re all right. Everything will be fine.”

He saw incomprehension in her eyes and stepped toward her reflexively as her knees buckled and she crumpled into a heap. His stomach clenched, and he ran toward her, before kneeling down in the grass. Her eyes were closed, but he was relieved to see her breathing steadily, if somewhat shallowly. Placing an arm on her shoulder, he gave her a gentle shake, but he couldn’t rouse her.

“Think, Danny, think,” he murmured, feeling a rising sense of panic as he stared at her pale skin. Was that normal? He shook his head.

Elliott, he finally decided. I’ll take her to Elliott. He’ll know what to do. Gently, Danny scooped her up and strode swiftly along the river, back toward the house.

#

Elliott was shocked to see them, and swiftly ushered him in. He helped Danny lay her on a cot in the kitchen as Danny explained how he’d found her. Her eyelids fluttered briefly but remained closed as Elliott bustled back and forth, gathering and chopping herbs that he brewed into a tea and assembled as a poultice to place near her head on the cot.

It was only now, with the girl inside and safely under Elliott’s watchful care, that Danny let himself feel the rising excitement he’d been too nervous to acknowledge before.

She was alive!

Even after that terrible car accident, here she was, breathing and seemingly unhurt, aside from a few scrapes and bruises. It was incredible. Danny struggled to get a grip on his excitement.

Hold it together, boy-o, he told himself sternly. You feel like you know her, but she’s got no clue who you are, where she is, or even half the absurdity that’s headed her way.

Danny knew, logically, that the surest way to send her running for the hills was to let on that he’d been having creepy stalker dreams about her. He paused his mental castigation at the sight of her stirring, seemingly due to the poultice at work. Stepping forward reflexively, he then paused awkwardly, wondering if he should go up to her or hang back. The question was solved for him when Elliott swooped down to kneel beside her, his amber eyes kind.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her gently.

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