The Cantor: A Legion of Pneumos Novella

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Chapter Eight

Keira’s days of training and studying flew by in a flurry. Her exhaustion prevented her from fully comprehending the nature or shape of time as it passed, but as surely as ever, pass it did. The days grew shorter and the nights longer. Leaves fell from trees as autumn arrived in full, just as it had in the world she’d come from. She found this a comfort amid the otherwise absurd novelty. Then one day, their morning drill practice was met with a white frost dusting each blade of grass. Shocked by the obvious reminder of the passage of time, Keira wondered if she was really making any progress here.

Maybe it was just the thought of finally feeling in control of some aspect of her life, but Keira couldn’t wait to finally get her hands on a real sword. It wasn’t exactly that she was a natural fighter—far from it, in fact. The closest Keira had ever come to organized outdoor recreation had been a once-weekly mandatory gym class, and even that she’d judiciously avoided. But there was an elegance to sparring that captivated her. From the practiced footwork to the graceful overhead arc of blades whistling through the air, the sight made Keira’s stomach flutter. Meanwhile, she’d been stuck with wooden playthings for months now. She wanted to feel the heft of real steel. The only problem was, Keira was absolutely terrible.

Nazor had told her as much, laughing outright when she’d asked at the end of month one when she would be ready for the actual swords.

“Oya, slow down, little Keira,” she said, shoulders shaking so much they bounced her long crown of braids up and down as she laughed.

Yet beyond any newfound appreciation for the martial arts, the one thing that Keira valued above all else was not making a fool out of herself. And since, as previously established, the physical realm was not exactly a strongpoint of hers, this left Keira with relatively few options, the primary one being that she spent the next few weeks waking up every day before the crack of dawn. Like clockwork, she would make her way out to the training yard and run through her drills until she could have done them blindfolded and on stilts—probably.

While she knew she was no swordswoman, after two months of training, Keira could proudly confirm that she not only sported five additional blisters on each hand, but she was ready. She was ready not only to use an actual sword but also to take on an actual opponent. The way she saw it, it only did so much good to face off against an imaginary partner, running through endless lines of drill. A real partner, she knew, would be far less cooperative.

Unfortunately, Nazor didn’t seem to agree. No matter how many times Keira asked for a definitive timetable as to when she’d be able to progress with her training, Nazor merely stated point-blank that she was nowhere near ready.

Doesn’t she realize how far I’ve come? Keira wondered. How hard I’m working? Why can’t she give me a chance?

This went on for months, until one morning, even Nazor grew tired of her complaining.

“Fine!” she snapped, already in a foul mood from the local fox’s previous night’s raid on the hen coop. At her tone, Danny’s head jerked up from the bootlaces he’d been securing, and he rose to his feet, brow furrowed. For her part, Keira was so shocked by Nazor’s sudden acquiescence that she barely had time to react when Nazor threw her a metal shortsword. Keira caught it but staggered under its sudden weight. She swallowed hard and quickly tried to suppress the rising panic that already had her stomach churning. Now that she could see it clearly, she realized that the blade was actually a hand-and-a-half sword, or “bastard” sword, as it was sometimes called. It was known for its lighter weight and would be more controllable, given the two-handed swing it allowed her. Pursing her lips, she raised her arms to the “guard” positioned and watched as Nazor lazily advanced.

You can do this, she told herself. Just like you practiced.

This was nothing like she’d practiced.

Nazor was on her in an instant, blade flashing as she called out commands.

“Right!”

“Left!”

“High!”

“Thrust!”

Keira staggered back, barely moving her arm quick enough to counter each bone-shattering blow. She could feel her footwork beginning to falter, even as she tried to maintain the stances she’d spent so long perfecting. Nazor pressed on, her flashing blade merciless in its onslaught. Keira fell back, feet tripping over themselves as her body instinctively shied away from the glinting blade that flashed mere inches from her face as she desperately tried to parry.

Keira suddenly noticed the silence that had crept in on her consciousness, and she realized with a start that Nazor had stopped calling out attacks. Yet still her blade flashed, coming ever closer to Keira as her own arm moved slower and slower. A billowing wave of panic pulsed upward in Keira’s stomach, and for a split second, she wanted to bolt. Convinced beyond reason that Nazor was truly about to skewer her, she wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.

And she might have, too, were it not for the rock that caught the edge of her foot. Her ankle rolled out from under her, and she fell backward, the wind knocked from her lungs in a rushing oomph. All she saw as she looked up was Nazor’s figure silhouetted against the early morning sun. As the blade came arching down, Keira could only close her eyes, waiting for the sharp bite of steel she knew would follow.

It never did.

She lay there for a moment before opening one eye and then the other. The tip of Nazor’s blade was mere millimeters from her face. Keira sucked in a whistling gulp of air and stared up in helplessness at Nazor’s stern face.

“Yield,” came the low, flat reply.

Hand trembling slightly, Keira raised her two fingers in the traditional gesture of surrender.

Nazor slowly withdrew, and Keira took Danny’s proffered hand as she climbed ungainly to her feet, ears burning as she refused to meet his eye.

“Is that what you had in mind? I’m not sure what I’d call that, certainly not sparring.” Nazor’s voice was flat, and Keira glanced up to meet her narrowed gaze, shame quickly giving way to righteous indignation. She felt her nails bite into her palm as her hands curled into fists.

“Well, you didn’t have to throw me off the deep end. We could have, you know, worked up to it.”

“You think the ruffians you meet on the road will be any more generous?” Nazor’s words came out in a low hiss, her eyes narrowing even further. Keira shook her head, refusing to be intimidated.

“Of course not, but I’m here to learn, right? Well, how can I do that when it’s all or nothing? Either I’m running through stick drills by myself or having my ass handed to me. Is there no sort of progression?”

Keira looked from Nazor to Danny, hoping for some validation. She found none. Danny avoided her gaze, and Nazor’s look was cold and deadly.

After a moment’s pause that seemed to stretch indefinitely, Nazor responded, voice low and flat. “I do not know what the world was like where you came from. But here we train how we fight. The enemy will give you no quarter, and neither will I. You will fail and fail often. That is the way of things. But one thing you will never, ever do, so long as you train with me, is close your eyes.”

Nazor took a step closer to her, and Keira barely resisted the urge to step away.

“You will look death in the face when it comes for you. You will miss no opportunity to evade it should it arise, and if you cannot, you will face it bravely and unblinking. Or else you will never be fit to call yourself a Legionnaire.”

Keira’s indignation faded as quickly as it had come, and a hot shard of shame pierced her gut. She gritted her teeth, cheeks burning, but shook her head, refusing to yield even then.

“I never asked to become a stupid Legionnaire. All I ever wanted was to live my life in my own world. Your friggin’ Legion brought me here, not me, Nazor.”

And with that, Keira turned on her heel and stalked away, feeling the tears she’d just managed to hold back slide down her cheeks.

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