Dark clouds loomed in the distance, but Lyn wasn't overly concerned: here on the grassy slopes before Lake Tarrenvel, the sun shone gently, her rays barely reaching over the hill which Lyn was just now descending. They stretched just past her, drawing golden specks onto the houses of Manastrat, making the church positively glow in gentle amber light and causing the lake to glitter like stars.
Lyn sped through the swaying grass, never even for a second fearing she might slip in the morning dew and hurt herself. Worry had never been for her; she left that to Uncle Nimrod, who had it in spades.
Coming up on the town, she saw several farmers draw carts full of vegetables, fruit, and gunny sacks that were filled to the brim, and yawning herdsmen led their flocks of sheep or bulls out onto the pastures of Rastrowel. In fact, shepherd Martin, a young boy no more than three or four years older than Lyn came right past her, causing his flock to wash around her, some of the sheep letting her pat them on the head. "Morning, Martin!" she proclaimed energetically.
"Souls be guided, Lyn!" he replied while waving his hand.
"Yeah, that thing!" She didn't really pick up on the whole religious rite that was so prevalent in Manastrat and the four other communities of Rastrowel. Uncle Nimrod wasn't a 'believer' in the Church of Pure Souls, and Lyn's upbringing hadn't been colored by the teachings of the church, though they were quite unavoidable once she set foot into any of the towns.
Lyn didn't really mind them. The church people were nice and everyone in town liked her. Stepping into the morning bustle, Lyn hopped along the cobblestone streets and headed down to baker Tom's bakery.
"Well, who do we have here? Come to fetch the boys some breakfast, have you Lynlyn?" Baker Tom was a wizened old man with a paunch and a smile.
"Yes, sir! Also I want a Lyn-bun! Lyn-bun!" she demanded playfully.
"Hm, well do I have something like that here? Let me check..." He pretended to rifle through the wicker baskets for a bit, before triumphantly lifting up a little sweet bread roll that had two raisins for eyes and extensions that could be perceived as hair, forming an effigy of sorts.
"Aw, no purple hair again..." she complained.
"I told you, Lynlyn, frosting is for birthdays! Now, what are you supposed to bring up?"
"One loaf please!"
Tom rolled his eyes. "Lynlyn, I am a real baker. There are four kinds of loafs here, what kind does your uncle want?"
"He said you know which one, and if you don't, he doesn't give two rusty keys which one you give me!" she replied with an endearing smile.
"Old sourpuss!" Tom grumbled, picking out a longish white loaf, wrapping it up in paper.
Lyn laughed brightly. "Sourpuss! That's priceless!"
"Now, don't tell him I said that..." Tom said uncomfortably, handing her over the package and her Lyn-bun in a wrapper. "You take care now. Souls be guided."
"Yeah, that thing!" she replied with a wide smile, gathering up the loaf and her bun, before she moved back out of the bakery and onto the streets of Manastrat. Skipping merrily to the big fountain, she noticed that the Janoshes hadn't put up their stand on the lower market yet, so she would have to wait a bit before getting the eggs. She sat down on the fountain wall to nibble on her bun while observing the townsfolk walking about the paving and gather around the stands the farmers were setting up here. Quite a flock had also gathered nearby, next to the statue by the fountain. Lyn kept forgetting the name of the statue and just called him mustache man.
The flock seemed to be attending some sort of event, because a man on the other side kept talking in a loud voice, though Lyn didn't pay him any mind in the beginning. Half-way through her bun, she became curious, held on to the loaf under her arm, and walked around the crowd to see what was so interesting.
On the other side stood the church's preacher, Father Stanislaus, passionately quoting from the Gospel of Nacravler: "There are in man's soul many holes, each longing to be filled. And on our path, we all see many glittering keys, each ready to fit into one of them. But whether you pick up that bottle or eat until you burst, you will find that the more you turn these keys, the clearer it becomes that there is nothing behind these holes. There is only one great gate within you, and there is no key that fits into it, for thou art the key, and the gate will open for thee, if thou can forsake the crutches of thine base desires. Seek thy redemption within thyself, not in the arms of deceivers. Enlightenment comes not from magic, for magic is the hammer of Vinclav, used to forge his lies. Enlightenment comes from knowing thyself, from kindness, and from altruism. Give once and twice you shall receive. Gamble once and twice you shall lose. And may the blight mark those that fall for Vinclav's lies, and golden gears and harmony await those who show patience and virtue!"
Lyn just wanted to ask Father Stanislaus what was inside that allusive 'bottle', because she had gotten that whole eating until you burst thing; she did that sometimes and sometimes regretted it. Sometimes. But what was that about bottles? Anyways, she was just about to ask him when she suddenly stopped. A strange man was standing behind the preacher while he continued his passionate readings, stock still. He was clad completely in black: He wore black boots and formal pants, a black jacket clasped with silvery buttons, and a black hat that cast a shadow over his eyes. He reminded Lyn of the undertaker, but the kindly Mr. Pauli didn't have that strange, emotionless look about him. Like a dead fish. The black man unnerved her somehow. And when he lifted his head slightly and the shadow lifted from his eyes, they were hard and blue and staring directly at her.
Just as the scene began to blot out around her, these eyes captivating her, the din of the crowd and of Father Stanislaus growing distant and muffled, she heard someone call her name. Mother Janosh had set her stand up and was calling Lyn over. Immediately, the strange illusion was broken, and she scurried away from the crowd, her head only reluctantly snapping away from the black man that still kept staring at her relentlessly.
All the way back up the hill, Lyn couldn't help thinking about the black man, wondering if he had wanted to tell her something. But the idea of going back and talking to him scared her for some reason. So, she hugged her paper bag of groceries with the loaf, some eggs, and fresh vegetables and walked up the trail to the lighthouse. The clouds had come closer to the shore, blowing in from the West where the town was but still a fair bit off. On the porch of the hut by the foot of the tower sat Uncle Nimrod in his rocking chair, already waiting for her. The waves were crashing against the side of the cliff behind the lighthouse, making it impossible to talk to him over a distance, but it didn't take long for her to reach the hut. "I'm back, uncle!"
He patted her head with a calloused hand, welcoming her with his rough but fond voice: "Taking your time again, hmm, Lynlyn? Come, everyone is waiting for breakfast." He ruffled her hair a little and stepped into the hut.
Inside, Makani had prepared the table, putting out dishes, milk, and some sliced apples from the big apple tree by the hut. Even Lady Wisp had gotten up today to eat with them. Her silky, white hair flowed down her shoulders as if it had been carefully woven from spider webs, and her pretty, blue eyes shone like glowing gems speckled with an eerie but intriguing green tinge.
Uncle Nimrod took the paper bag out of Lyn's hands, put it on the counter, and checked whether the wood burning stove was properly heated up. Then he got out one of the iron pans and put it over the hole after opening the flap that kept it shut. While whistling a merry tune, he cut up some leeks and onions for the omelet, cracking the eggs with a neat little flourish.
"You're up, Lady Wisp! Do you feel a bit better?" Lyn asked expectantly and with a big smile on her face.
Lady Wisp's voice came out quite husky, as it usually did, but her mood seemed much improved: "Oh yes, a petal flew in through the window and landed on my bed. It was so lovely, I just had to get up and look outside." She smiled warmly at Lyn. "And now that you are back, my day has become even nicer." She traced an unrecognizable pattern with her finger on the wooden table absentmindedly as she spoke.
"That's great!" Lyn replied enthusiastically. "We should go for a walk sometime; there is a creek in the woods I want to show you!"
"Yes, that sounds nice," she replied.
Uncle Nimrod had stopped whistling, and for a moment, it was very quiet except for the sizzling of the omelet and the scraping of his spatula. Then, he put a large plate with the golden and green dish onto the table, turning back around to cut some slices off the loaf. Finally, he sat down with the three of them. "Well. Let's dig in. Lynlyn, pass me the salt, will ya?"
She handed it over to him as he portioned out the omelet and held the bread basket up to everybody so they could grab a slice.
Then he spoke to Makani, trying to sound casual: "Looks like the Corvi boy will really be leaving the day after tomorrow. Keep a good eye on his ship, and if you meet pirates, well... try to get captured if you can. If they see your license, they'll ransom you back to HJT."
Makani laughed nervously. "I'm sure that won't happen, it's just a round-trip to Saresham and back, the waters are pretty safe around here."
"If you say so, boy," Uncle Nimrod said, shrugging his shoulders, then he turned to Lyn with a wink: "I didn't lose my leg somewhere around Porasta though."
Lyn laughed and mimed theatrically at Makani: "Oh noooo, help me, I am being kidnapped by pirates!" Then she added more seriously: "Makani, don't get kidnapped by pirates, they're mean, and I like you."
"Well isn't that uh..." he raised a brow, "nice... I promise I'll do my best not to."
"I was on a pirate ship once," Lady Wisp breathed. "Their captain was much nicer than the bad man."
"Who was the bad man?" Lyn inquired curiously, but Uncle Nimrod chimed in:
"A story for another time. Lynlyn, will you help Makani bring up wood for the lighthouse after breakfast?" He gave Makani a meaningful look.
"Yeah, ok," Lyn replied, not being very mindful of the situation. The phrase 'the bad man' had reminded her of the black man. "Say, uncle, there was a strange man in town today."
"Oh, what's that? Don't tell me a magus did something stupid down in Manastrat, I've got enough trouble with the church as it is..."
"I don't know if he was a magus – and he didn't do anything. He was just... strange, is all. He wore all black from his boots to his hat, and he kept looking at me. He had blue eyes, but not like Lady Wisp."
Uncle Nimrod looked up: "Oh? Where was that?"
"Down by the fountain. Father Stanislaus was doing preaching, and the man stood right behind him. He didn't say anything, but it was weird that he was behind Father Stanislaus because everyone else was in front of him. And he stared at me really long, and it made me feel weird."
Uncle Nimrod had stood up clutching his fork, his face unusually pale. Then he sighed and sat back down. "Don't think too much about it, dear. But, try to stay out of his way. He is probably with the church; they don't like ferries or their children."
"I already told you. They think magic is bad, and magic is how Makani and I keep ships safe when they sail over the ocean."
"Oh, yeah, right. ... do you think magic is bad?"
"Do you think fire is bad? Or water, or wind, or earth, or lightning? We need those for a lot of things, a lot of good things, but they can also hurt people. They aren't good or bad, they are just nature. When we perform magic, we just help nature do good things or bad things."
"Hmm," she replied.
Then she told Uncle Nimrod about the approaching clouds, and he got into a very long rant about the weather and his bones all the way to the end of breakfast. After they had cleaned up the table, she put on a scarf on the Lady's behest, even though it was relatively warm, and moved out together with Makani.
Makani, who was far younger than Uncle Nimrod but also a good bit older than Lyn, was the best one suited for cutting firewood, plus he had learned water magic at Ka Hale Akamai on Ainan, which made it much easier to bring up the logs from the foot of the hill where Dirk the woodcutter left them for the office. Most townsfolk and people from the land around didn't come up to the lighthouse because they didn't want to be associated with the ferries. The church had a low opinion of mages and formidable influence on Rastrowel.
On the way down, Lyn danced impatiently around Makani, who kept a leisurely pace, apparently enjoying the warm breeze that blew uphill.
"Say, Makani, who do you think the black man was?" she asked him while bouncing up and down at his side.
"Hmm. A priest I suppose."
"Isn't Father Stanislaus the priest here?"
"I don't know. I think so. Maybe the black man is also a priest and just here to visit Stanislaus?"
"Hmm." She noticed the pile of logs in the distance. "Can you show me how to do water magic? I want to be a ferry too!"
He looked her up and down. Makani was almost twice her size and always had a light tan that matched his thick black hair quite nicely. While he looked bored most of the time, there was a clever glint one could sometimes observe in his jade-green eyes. "I keep telling you it's not that simple. It takes a lot of training and getting in tune with the element you want to manipulate. Tell you what: I'll show you how meditation works this evening, and if you manage to do it one hour every day starting tomorrow until I am back from my trip, I'll teach you what I can. How does that sound?"
"Yay! I mean, yes please!"
"I'll have Uncle Nimrod check that you don't cheat."
"I won't cheat, promise!"
"Alright then. Now, give me a moment to focus; I have to get the water going." They now stood beside the pile of logs and the well next to it. This was the usual place Dirk left the wood. Makani breathed deep breaths in and out with closed eyes, trying to find his rhythm. When he had it, he opened his eyes and made beautiful, flowing motions with his hands and arms that went through his entire body, until he reached for the sky, and a gentle stream of water came out of the well, washing over the logs, quickly lifting them up from the ground. They had been placed in a pit, which connected to a trench that led up to the lighthouse. With precise and dance-like movements, Makani made the water flow uphill, carrying the logs with it one at a time. "Good, walk up and down the trench and make sure nothing gets wedged, Lynnie."
Lyn obliged, jogging alongside the trench to make sure there were no jams in the line. Everything went more or less smoothly, requiring only a tap here and there, and within an hour, they had transported all the logs up to the lighthouse. On the way back, she asked Makani: "Will I also have to learn to dance like that?"
"I suppose so, if you want. This is how I learned it at Ka Hale Akamai, but everyone does it differently. In Aquaris, they say old words to make the water do things."
"What, like 'seek thine redemption within thyself'?" she asked, her gaze wandering about. In the distance at the foot of the hill, she noticed a black figure solemnly looking up at them. Had the black man followed her here?
"No – where did you here words like that? Oh wait, don't tell me, Stanislaus has been yelling gospel all over the marketplace again." Makani shook his head. "These people are too quick to spread their hate around. On Ainan, everyone was much more in tune with each other. Mages, non-mages, foam-crowns, it didn't matter, all that mattered was that you had a good time and enjoyed life."
Lyn stopped. "Foam-crowns?" She tried to picture it, but what she was seeing in her head could not possibly be what Makani was talking about.
"Oh, that's what we called people like Lady Wisp over there. They have very dirty words for her people over here; I don't like saying them."
"Hm. And what do you mean with 'spreading their hate'? Father Stanislaus is very nice! He gave me candy during the Day of Wishing-Keys, and he's always kind when he talks to me or the people." She didn't want to risk revealing that she had actually gotten occasional candy outside of festivals not only from Father Stanislaus, but also other townspeople. She assumed it was because she was so sweet. But if word got to Uncle Nimrod, he'd probably have a fit over healthy food and some such.
"Lynnie, I am not saying that he is a bad man, just that he is misguided. Magic is natural, and saying that people who use it are bad people is a bad thing to do. If everyone believes that magic is bad, then they will start disliking even people like your uncle and me who use it for good things. And once they dislike us, it is a slippery slope to hating us and doing us harm. And if they knew Lady Wisp lived with us they... well, they would be very angry, even though she is so nice. Why do you think Dirk doesn't bring the logs up to the lighthouse?"
"Because they're heavy?"
Makani stopped and held his sides as he burst out in laughter. Even though he had been so serious and sad-looking before, all that seemed to suddenly evaporate. "Hold on..." he keeled over, shaking violently as he kept laughing. "Oh gates and gears, ha-ha! Please, never change Lynnie, you are the absolute best!" It took a moment for him to recover, and he kept chuckling and laughing all the way back up to the lighthouse.
To further encourage him, Lyn made some funny faces and noises. Back in front of the hut, they inspected the pool filled with logs from their earlier labor.
Makani skillfully picked them out of the water and put them on one of their cut sides so they could dry off a little. "We don't want to get wet carrying these over. Here, I have stacked the smaller ones together: if you want, you can help me later by carrying some of them over with me."
"Of course!" Lyn replied.
He ruffled her hair. "You're a good kid, Lynnie. We'll definitely take a crack at that whole meditation business later, promise. Though I can't promise that it won't be too boring for you."
"Bring it on!" she said challengingly and poked him in the side. "I'll meditate harder than anyone in the history of meditation has ever meditated!"
"I swear," Makani said with a laugh, "if you ever find your gate, you'll have a crowbar in your hand. Well, let's go back inside; I need to prepare some documents for the client."
"That captain Corvi you'll leave with the day after tomorrow?"
"Mhm," he confirmed.
"Hmm, go on ahead. I'll come a bit later!"
"Gonna play in the woods again? Watch your step and don't stay out too long, I'll be the one that will have to go and get you if you do."
"Nah, I won't be far away."
"Alright then, see you a bit later," he replied and made his way back into the hut.
Lyn turned around and stepped towards the slope. As she had expected, the black man was coming up the hill.
"Hello, little girl," he said. His voice was dry and scratchy with a lot less ruggedness than Uncle Nimrod's. He also seemed a little bit older, or at least his weathered face made him look so.
"Hello!" she said, giving him a once-over. He was still wearing all black, even his socks, which showed at his ankles sometimes. The only difference was that there was now a weirdly shaped holster on his belt that held an elegant metal object with a beautifully finished black handle that curved over. It looked too clunky to be even an unusually shaped dagger or knife though. "You are a lot less scary when you speak!" she added with a smile.
"Yes, we are often afraid of things we don't know," he agreed, though he did not return the smile.
"Isn't that the truth! I thought there were giant monsters in the forest until my uncle took me for a walk there. It is actually really nice."
He nodded. "That is good. Monsters can be very scary. It is important for people like us to stick together so they cannot harm us, wouldn't you agree?"
"I suppose so, being together is better than being alone. One time Uncle Nimrod and Makani were away for work and it was really quiet here. I went into town a lot so I wouldn't be alone, but at night I got scared a lot."
"You live quite a bit away from the town."
"Yeah, I guess. But it's nice, we can look down on the ocean, and at night we turn on the light house and it shines this huuuuge light into the distance. Monsters are afraid of the light, so they don't ever come near here at night. And during the day, the sun is out most of the time, so we are pretty safe up here."
"Hm. You know, you have an unusual hair color. It is very pretty. Do you put something into it to make it look like that?"
"No, silly! You don't put color into your hair; it comes out with color in it." Though the thought made her wonder about Lady Wisp. Had she taken the color out of her hair and put it somewhere for safekeeping? If so, how? Lyn liked Lady Wisp's white hair, but if she missed having color in it, maybe she should offer to share some of hers. If the black man could be believed, sharing hair colors was a thing.
"Is that so? You know the people here use magic, is that right, little girl?"
"Yeah, for work. They make ships safe on the ocean."
"And what about you?"
"Me? You mean magic? Uh, I haven't learned it yet, but maybe soon! I want to make water move around!"
"Is that so. And do you think the water wants to be moved around?"
"I never thought about that!" she said and furled her brow in concentration. She was quiet for a moment, and the black man let her think it out. "You know, Makani says that I need to get uh... uh... 'attuned' to all the water in the world or something like that. That means getting to know it really well, right? And when I know it better, I can help it move where it can't if it wants to."
The black man adjusted his hat. "That's a nice thought, little girl. But you should be careful with magic. It is very dangerous. You make magic with your soul, but your soul is very precious. It is the world's gift to you, and you must keep it safe from harm. When you aren't careful, you soul gets hurt from the magic, and it won't know where to go when you die."
"Do you know what this is?" he asked and pulled the strange thing from its holster.
"It looks a little bit like a gun," she guessed.
"That's because it is one. When I press this trigger, it will strike a bullet, and the bullet will fly out here really fast. When it hits someone they get hurt very badly."
"Then why would you have it? Do you want to hurt someone very badly?" she asked uncomfortably.
"Maybe. I hunt monsters with it. See, that's my work. Sometimes, people that use too much magic turn into monsters. Some do bad things to other people with their magic, and some damage their souls and their hair goes white and their eyes glow blue."
Lyn's eyes were as wide as plates now, and she had lost the rosy color in her cheeks. She thought about Lady Wisp. Had her soul been damaged? What did that mean?
"A man made the bullets in this gun," the black man continued. "He made them from metal and gun powder." He lifted his arm and pointed the nuzzle towards the ocean, pulling the trigger.
Lyn fell back on her bum, looking up at the man in shock. Her ears were ringing from the loud bang. It had been louder than the loudest thunder crack she had ever heard!
"Can you still hear me, little girl?" he asked calmly.
"A... you are a bit muffled..." she mumbled, carefully prodding her left ear.
"I'm sorry if I scared you. But this gun is a scary thing." He held it up in front of her. "Do you want to try for yourself?"
"N-no thank you!" she said firmly, shaking her head.
"Yeah, I thought you might say that. You don't look like you want to hurt people. You know, when someone uses magic, it is like they are making a bullet. But they aren't using metal and gunpowder. They are using their own souls to make bullets. They take a bit of their soul, and then they fire it. Magic is a lot like this gun." He stood up, holstering the gun again. "You are a good girl. So I'm sure you won't pick up that gun either. I'm sorry I scared you at the market. You have a very big soul, I noticed that. You could make very big bullets. If you make bullets too big, you might become a monster too, and I also don't want to use this gun." He turned away from her.
From behind her the bone-shaking scream of Uncle Nimrod blew past her: "GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU DAMNED FIEND!"
With the scream a powerful wind came and, completely flowing around her, struck the man in the back, knocking his hat of his head. He bent over to pick it up, dusting it off briefly; then he lifted it slightly above his head, before putting it back on and walking downhill with the words: "Souls be guided."