The Cantor: A Legion of Pneumos Novella

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Chapter Five

Combing out her damp curls with her fingers, Keira came into the kitchen to find Elliott still at work on his mysterious paste concoction. Looking up, he gestured to an open chair, and Keira complied, uneasily shifting about in the belted tunic and drawstring pants Elliott had laid out, both a rusty shade that reminded Keira unsettlingly of blood. Keira shivered, remembering the events of the day before, or whenever it was. To distract herself, she launched into her pre-rehearsed line of inquiry.

“So, that, uh, water thing. That’s what you were talking about yesterday, your pneuma, pneuma-whatever, you called it.”

It wasn’t really a question, but Elliott replied as if it were.

“Yes, pneumonancy. That’s part of it, yes.”

Elliott paused then to rinse his hands in the washbasin to his left before joining Keira at the table. Toweling his hands dry, he fixed Keira with a direct amber stare.

“The word comes from the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘air,’ or in this case more accurately translated as ‘spirit.’”

“My Greeks or your Greeks?” Keira joked weakly, shifting uncomfortably as she imagined what else Elliott might be able to boil with this strange air gift of his.

Elliott just smiled and continued, “We’re called pneumonancers, or ‘spirit-binders’ according to local legend. We’re known for our ability to use pneuma to manipulate things around us, objects, animals, even people.” Elliott paused, peering at Keira inquisitively. “What is it you did in your world? Did you work, study?”

“I’m a college student. I want to be a doctor someday.” Keira stopped and rubbed her nose to fight the stinging that usually signaled imminent tears. “I mean ‘was.’ I was a college student,” she amended, staring at the flower arrangement on the table to avoid meeting Elliott’s sympathetic gaze.

He was smiling and nodding, as if something had confirmed his suspicions. “Then you’ve studied how the universe works, what you call ‘science’ but has gone by many names through the ages. Now, I told you that things work differently here, which is true. But there are some things that hold steady across worlds, and pneuma is one of those things. You’ve learned about sound waves, yes?” Elliott glanced at Keira, searching for comprehension. Keira nodded slowly, not seeing how sound was applicable to some magical Jedi spirit-force. “I’m sure you learned how sound waves are patterns of disturbance caused by the movement of energy through a medium such as air.”

Keira continued to nod, wondering where on earth all this was going.

“That is similar to how pneuma moves. It is, in some ways, like an energy, unique to every person and that every individual has some control over. It is a powerful force with the ability to disrupt the natural arrangement of what you would call molecules and atoms. Although, in reality, ‘natural’ is such an inaccurate term to use, as who’s to say what the progenitor of true order really is . . .” Elliott trailed off and laughed, seeing the look of confusion and mounting discomfort on Keira’s face.

“But I digress. Apologies, I can get a little carried away on this subject. My point is that pneumonancers like me have learned the ability to manipulate our pneuma, altering the size and shape of the waves it makes as it travels through various mediums. These waves can then add to or subtract from the pneuma that exists in our mark, the target of our pneumonancy, until we can alter its form, causing things like water to boil.”

“So can you see this pneuma stuff?” Keira asked, imagining the sparking wands and wizarding duels she’d seen in movies growing up.

Elliott shook his head. “Pneuma itself cannot be seen, only its effects. It can, however, with the proper training, be heard,” he explained. “Just as we can detect sound waves using the specialized organs we call ears, pneumonancers can learn to not only detect pneuma but distinguish it by type and origin, a powerful skill.” Elliott nodded gravely, then gave Keira a considering look. “And one I hope you’ll let me teach you one day.”

Keira’s face shot up from its seat in her hands, where she’d been meticulously kneading her temples as she tried to process all of this. The scientist in her relished this new and fascinating discovery and the idea of learning more about pneuma and the strange Legion of pneumonancers that Elliott had mentioned the night before. There was another part of her, though, that still felt raw. So much had changed and so suddenly that it was beginning to overwhelm her.

“I still don’t understand what the purpose is in all of this,” Keira moaned, lashing out rather than accept feeling so tiny in the face of these things she just couldn’t understand. “I die, and you’re somehow able to yank me out of my world and into this one. You still haven’t explained that one yet, by the way. And for what? To learn some magic tricks? You claim to work for some mysterious Legion and feed me all this crap about pneuma and multi-worlds, and I’m just supposed to accept that I’m tied up in all of this? I mean, what’s the point?”

Keira’s blurring eyes had overflowed by now, and her nose continued to burn with her efforts to control her growing feeling of desperation. “I’m dead. My mom’s dead. Everything and everyone I’ve ever cared about is over, done, never to be seen or experienced by me again, and I’m supposed to . . . what? Be comforted that I’ll get to learn how to play with magic? That’s my life now? I need some friggin’ answers, because right now this all feels like the worst cosmic joke imaginable.”

Elliott didn’t answer right away, his gaze merely holding hers, as if he was weighing how best to respond. Long moments later, he finally continued. “I don’t blame you for being confused. I was far older than you when I first made the journey, and that was many lifetimes ago. I was a professor at Oxford back in your world, did I tell you that?”

Keira shook her head.

“I loved that life, as I’m sure you loved yours. I studied and taught physics, and I loved my work. It gave me meaning and purpose, helped me understand the world around me. But sometimes things happen to us that we can never fully understand. The long and short of it is that I have a new reality now . . . Oh, how to explain it? Well, it’s one tha—” A thought seemed suddenly to occur to him then, and he turned back to her, eyes gleaming. “Do you know what entropy is?”

Keira stared at him, trying to suppress the growing frustration at this seeming evasion of her question. She succeeded enough to spit out a response. “The measure of disorder in a system.”

“Exactly. You see, everything in the universe trends toward greater and greater disorder. Because of entropy, we have an explanation for why the universe is always expanding, leaving a void that must be filled. Yet even as more and more worlds are created to fill this void, the creation of this order out of chaos releases energy that further fuels the universe’s expansion and disorder. My point,” he emphasized, seeing Keira about to interrupt angrily, “in saying all this is that things naturally fall apart, energy and matter delocalize, and order breaks down.”

He paused, catching Keira’s glare.

“Our purpose, that is, the Legion’s purpose, is to fight against entropy itself, to create order out of the chaos and prevent, or at the very least slow down, the gradual march of the universe toward chaos. In broad strokes, that is what we do: we restore order when things fall apart. As for what our purpose is in this world at this particular time—the hinge point that has called you and Danny to this particular time and place—well, that remains to be seen.”

Keira honestly didn’t know what to make of all of this, and so she focused on the smallest piece she could think of to puzzle out.

“So when you made the water boil . . . you were creating disorder, right? Changing it from a liquid to a gas.”

Elliott beamed at her. “Very good! It’s one of the easier things to do, as matter only needs a little nudge to proceed in the direction it’s inclined to go toward anyway.”

Elliott’s smile twisted a bit at this, and Keira had the distinct impression that they weren’t just discussing water anymore. “Anyone can break things apart,” he explained ruefully. “The true test is whether you can put them back together again. Destroying is sometimes necessary. It is, after all, required for eating, defending oneself, and breaking down the materials needed to one day build up. The Legion’s founding mandate is that its members create more order than they do disorder, build more than they break.”

“That seems rather bleak,” Keira muttered, and Elliott smiled at her ruefully.

“Yes, yes it does, I suppose.”

Keira shook her head, still not quite believing that this was truly happening. Could all this really be true? She had to admit she had no better explanation for how she’d ended up in this place, surrounded by people dressed like medieval reenactors who boiled water with their bare hands. It was enough to make even the most hardened scientist, as Keira used to think of herself, take pause and consider the possibility that the universe was far larger and more complex than the simple models and laws in her textbooks could articulate.

“And it’s your Greeks.”

Startled, Keira quit her imaginings of sound waves and atomic particles and returned to the present moment. “What?”

“Your earlier question. The word pneuma comes from your Greeks, the only Greeks. Remember, it’s not that you went back in time; you’ve come to a wholly different world, one that functions very differently than the one you’re used to. We call this world we’re in now Carnos, and the particular country we’re in is called Loren. Carnos has its own history, varied cultures, and unique problems that did not exist where you come from. I know it’s a lot,” he said, seeing Keira’s panicked expression. “But it will come to feel normal. I promise.”

Not sure exactly what to say, Keira asked the first question that came to mind. “What’s my world called?”

“Primos,” Elliott replied, a doleful look on his face. “It is the first world, the one that started it all. A little cosmos-centric, I’ll grant you, but it’s the world all Legionnaires came from at one point or another.” Keira thought about this, not fully convinced. But then again, what could convincingly explain all that she’d seen and experienced? She shook her head ruefully but then stopped as a thought suddenly occurred to her.

“When did you, umm—leave, then? Our world, I mean.”

Elliott looked wistful, as if remembering a far-off place or a life half-forgotten. “1877.”

Keira stared at him, waiting for a punchline that never came. Then, shaking his head slightly, Elliott turned back to her. “That’s enough for now. Come, let’s go find Danny, and we’ll show you around.”

Not sure what else to do, Keira stood up and followed him outside, where a clear summer day promised some reprieve from thoughts of chaos, magical orders, and mysterious pneumonancers.

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