The Black Priest of Rastrowel
Ferry Tales #1
The HJT Gazette
The HJT Gazette is one of the most influential publishing houses of the Corsic Ocean, printing the same-named news paper and a popular magazine. ~ 393 Words
A chilly morning wind was blowing over the hilly pastures, and as Lyn went her way from the lighthouse towards the town of Manastrat she spotted heavy, grey clouds making their way towards the island of Rastrowel.
The sun, however, shone gently on the grassy slopes of Lake Tarrenvel. Its rays barely reached over the hill which Lyn began descending, stretching just past her and drawing golden specks onto the houses of Manastrat. The church glowed in gentle amber light, and the lake, famous for its pearlhood jellyfish, glittered like stars.
Lyn sped through the swaying grass along rocky sheers and fenced off pastures, never for a second fearing she might slip in the morning dew and hurt herself. While Uncle Nimrod often complained about her carelessness, and her regular adventures into the nearby woods, she herself never really saw the point in worrying when there was so much to see.
Coming up on the town, she saw several farmers draw carts full of vegetables, fruit, and gunny sacks filled to the brim. They were flowing in from the smaller trails that crisscrossed the differently-hued fields around Manastrat, joining and sometimes passing her as they headed towards the market. Herdsmen were leading their flocks of sheep or bulls out onto the pastures of Rastrowel when Shepherd Martin, a young boy no more than three or four years older than Lyn, came right past her. His flock washed around her, some of the sheep letting her pat them on the head as they passed.
“Morning, Martin!” she said, energetically waving with one hand while petting a sheep with the other.
“Souls be guided, Lyn!” he replied, waving his hand as well.
“You too!” She had never picked up on the religious custom that was so prevalent in Manastrat and the four other communities of Rastrowel. Since Uncle Nimrod wasn’t a believer in the Church of Pure Souls, Lyn’s upbringing hadn’t been colored by their teachings, though they were quite unavoidable once she set foot into any of the towns. Lyn didn’t mind them. The Church people were nice and everyone in town liked her, though sometimes she heard them say bad things about Uncle Nimrod and Makani because they did magic for work, and locals generally avoided the small HJT front desk; only seafarers from other islands sought business with the Ferries.
Stepping into the morning bustle, Lyn hopped along the cobblestone streets and headed down to the bakery.
The building was squeezed into a corner between a cobbler shop and a small house with pretty flowers below its window sills. It had a little bit of space for the customers to stand and a broad counter behind which all sorts of bread and buns were presented in wicker baskets.
“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. His kind, green eyes twinkled at her from behind his bushy, grey eyebrows.
“Yes, sir! And 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 moment, before triumphantly lifting up a little sweet bread roll that had two raisins for eyes and hairlike extensions.
“Aw, no purple hair again…” she pouted, crossing her arms.
“I told you, Lynlyn, frosting is for birthdays! Now, what are you supposed to bring up?”
“One loaf please!” Her face lit up at the thought of breakfast. Though she would eat her Lyn-bun right away; no one up at the lighthouse had to know about them.
Tom rolled his eyes. “Lynlyn, there are four kinds of bread 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 long white loaf, wrapping it up in paper.
“Sourpuss!” Lyn giggled.
“Now, don’t tell him I said that…” Tom muttered into his mustache, handing her the package and her Lyn-bun in a wrapper. “You take care now. Souls be guided.”
“You too!” she replied with a wide smile, which earned her an irritated look, and gathered the loaf and her bun before moving back onto the streets of Manastrat. Skipping merrily to the big fountain, she noticed that the Janoshes hadn’t set up their stand on the lower market yet, so she would have to wait before getting the eggs. She sat down on the fountain wall, nibbling on her bun and watching. The townsfolk walked about the paving, gathering around the stands that farmers were setting up. People also crowded next to the statue of the mustache man by the fountain. 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 nibbling her bun, her curiosity took over and she walked around the crowd to see what was so interesting.
On the other side stood the church’s preacher, Father Stanislaus, passionately quoting gospel:
“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 ye pick up that bottle or eat until ye burst, ye will find that the more ye 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!” he started pointing at random individuals in the crowd as he spoke now, “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 ye shall receive. Gamble once and twice ye 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 knew about the blight: It was the sickness Lady Wisp was suffering from. Lyn also overate sometimes, so that point made sense to her, though as for the bottle… She would have to ask Father Stanislaus what that meant. Just when she was about to ask him, she noticed a strange man standing behind the preacher as he continued his passionate readings, stock still. 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, heavy air about him. It felt as if he came from a faraway place, somewhere people didn’t know how to smile. It unnerved her. And when he tilted his head up slightly, the shadow lifted from his eyes: They were hard and blue and stared directly at her.
She shivered as the scene around her began to blot out. The din of the crowd and of Father Stanislaus grew distant and muffled as those eyes captivated her. Then, she heard someone call her name: Mother Janosh had set her stand up and called Lyn over. Immediately, the strange illusion broke, and she scurried away from the crowd, only reluctantly snapping her head away from the stranger.
All the way back up the hill, Lyn couldn’t help but think about the black-clad man, wondering if he had wanted to tell her something. But the idea of going back and talking to him scared her. She hugged her paper bag of groceries 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. The stiff breeze rattled the leaves of the ladden apple tree by the hut by the foot of the tower and on the porch sat Uncle Nimrod in his rocking chair, waiting for her, breaking waves of pipe-smoke on his broad gray-streaked beard. It didn’t take long for her to reach the run-down hut with the weather-worn sign saying ‘HJT Rastrowel Ferry Office’ in large letters and ‘Ship Mages for Hire’ in smaller letters below that.
“I’m back, uncle!”
He patted her head with a calloused hand, welcoming her with his rough but fond voice, “Took 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 with dishes, milk, and sliced apples from the tree outside. He now gave Lyn a wide grin as she entered, and she pondered about how his brown hair always looked like he had just weathered a storm, and how he only wore short pants, exposing his lean bronze upper body. Lyn wondered if he wasn’t cold with the sun growing dimmer as the clouds moved in from afar.
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 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, after opening the stove top, he covered it with an iron pan. Whistling a merry tune, he cut up some leeks and onions for the omelet before cracking the eggs over the skillet with a neat little flourish.
“You’re up, Lady Wisp! Do you feel a bit better?” Lyn asked with a big smile on her face.
Lady Wisp’s voice came out husky, as it usually did, but her mood seemed pleasant. “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 said, absentmindedly tracing an unrecognizable pattern with her finger on the wooden table.
“That’s great!” Lyn replied. “We should go for a walk sometime. There’s a creek in the woods I want to show you!”
“Yes, that sounds nice.”
Uncle Nimrod had stopped whistling. For a while, it was very quiet except for the sizzling pan and the spatula’s scraping. Then, he put the gold and green omelet on a large plate and served it on the tabletop. Finally, he cut some slices off the loaf and sat down with the three of them. “Well. Let’s dig in. Lynlyn, pass me the salt, will ya?” he said as he portioned out the omlet.
She handed it over to him after he had put down the pan, and he thankfully placed it by his plate, holding 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 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. 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!” Though saying it suddenly made her feel a twinge of guilt, perhaps because her gaze passed over Uncle Nimrods stump. He had taken his metal leg off for breakfast. So 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.
Uncle Nimrod chimed in, giving Makani a meaningful look. “A story for another time. Lynlyn. Will you help Makani bring up wood for the lighthouse after breakfast?”
“Yeah, ok,” Lyn replied, staring out of the window as she moved her last appleslice around with her fork absentmindedly. The storm clouds were much closer now. The phrase ‘the bad man’ had reminded her of the black-clad 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’s.”
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 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.”
Lyn didn’t reply right away, but kept shifting the apple slice around her plate. In her mind it was a tiny boat and her plate was Lake Tarrenvel by Manastrat. The flickering lamp light reflected off the tin plate in strange patterns, just as the sunlight that fell on the pearlhoods’ nacre. If she steered the apple slice just right, she could move it around the tiny bread-crumbs that remained on the plate.
“Do you think magic is bad?” She did not look up, intently focusing on her self-appointed task. Well, it was just a game really.
“Do you think fire is bad? Or water, or wind? 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.” 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 she didn’t mind the slight chill of autumn, and stepped outside together with Makani.
Makani, who was still young and strong, was the best one suited for bringing up and chopping the firewood. He had learned water magic at Ka Hale Akamai on Ainan, which made it easier to bring up the logs from the foot of the hill where Dirk left them for the office. Most people from the town and surrounding land didn’t come up to the lighthouse for the same reason they avoided the front desk by the harbor: because they didn’t want to be associated with the Ferries.
On the way down Lyn danced impatiently around Makani, who kept a leisurely pace, stretching his bare arms unimpressed by the cool wind.
“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?”
Makani paused briefly, giving Lyn a strange look she hadn’t seen before. “The Black Priests are different. They wander around a lot and look for people they think are bad. They hurt people like Lady Wisp if they find them, so don’t mention her if he talks to you.”
“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, matching with his thick black hair. He had the figure of a picture-book hero - though his shoulders weren’t as ridiculously broad - and while he looked bored most of the time, there was a clever glint in his jade-green eyes. “I keep telling you it’s not that simple. It takes a lot of training and mental attunement to 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’m back from my trip, I’ll teach you what I can. How does that sound?”
“Yay! Yes please!”
“I’ll have Uncle Nimrod check that you don’t cheat.”
“I won’t cheat, promise!”
It didn’t take them much longer to reach the usual place that Dirk left the wood at, right next to the well. The lumber mill was to the east, further inland, and not far from the forest, and when he drove his oxcart to Manastrat, he dropped the share for the lighthouse here where the hill rose up towards the cliff.
“Alright then. Now, give me a moment to focus; I have to get the water going.”
Makani breathed deeply with closed eyes, finding his rhythm. When he had it he took gently swaying steps and opened his eyes, making graceful, flowing motions with his hands and arms. 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. The water then washed them into a pit which connected to a trench leading up to the lighthouse. Makani made the water flow uphill with precise and dancer-like movements, transporting the logs in a long line.
“Good. Walk up and down the trench and make sure nothing gets wedged, Lynnie.”
Lyn obliged, jogging alongside the trench and keeping an eye on the logs.
Everything went smoothly, requiring only a tap here and there. 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 command the water.”
“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 looking up at them. Had the Black Priest followed her here?
“No—where did you hear words like that? Oh wait, don’t tell me, Stanislaus has been yelling gospel all over the marketplace again,” Makani said shaking 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. But 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 reveal that she had actually gotten occasional candy outside of festivals, not only from Father Stanislaus but also from other townspeople. 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 who use it for good things; like your uncle and me. And, once they dislike us, it’s only a matter of time until they start 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. His somber mood evaporated as he burst out in laughter. “Hold on—” he keeled over, shaking violently as he kept laughing, “—Oh gates and gears, ha-ha! Please, never change Lynnie, you’re the best!” It took a moment for him to recover, and they made their way back up to the lighthouse. He kept chuckling, though, as Lyn made funny faces and noises at him. 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, laying them on their cut sides so they could dry off a little. “We don’t want to get wet carrying these over. Here, I’ve stacked the smaller ones together. If you want, you can help me later by carrying some of them over with me.”
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, 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, or I’ll be the one that will have to go and get you.”
“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 expected, she saw the black priest 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. And as he stood before her now, he looked her over from head to toe.
“Hello!” she replied, giving him a once-over as well. He still wore all black, even his socks, showing at his ankles. The only difference was that there was now a novel, well-crafted pocket on his belt, holding an elegant metal object with a beautifully finished black handle that curved over. It looked too clunky for a dagger or knife and was too strangely shaped to be a carpenter’s hammer. “You’re a lot less scary when you speak!” she added with a smile as her gaze moved back up to meet his.
“We are often afraid of things we do not know,” he agreed, nodding 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’s 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 lighthouse 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’re 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 priest could be believed, sharing hair colors was a thing.
“Is that so?” He paused for a bit and straightened up to look up towards the lighthouse. “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. The Black Priest waited as she thought 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 Priest adjusted his hat. “That is 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 are not careful your soul gets hurt from the magic, and it will not know where to go when you die.”
“Oh.” She glanced back at the hut, suddenly finding the now looming clouds to be strangely oppressive.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked, pulling the object from his belt. It really was beautifully crafted, and looked arcane in its purpose.
“It looks a little bit like a club.”
“It’s a gun. When I press this trigger it will strike a bullet, and the bullet will fly out of this nozzle 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.
"Sometimes I do. I hunt monsters with it, you see. That is my work. Sometimes, people that use too much magic turn into monsters. Some do bad things to other people with their magic. Some damage their souls, and their hair goes white and their eyes glow blue.”
Lyn’s eyes widened to the size of plates, the rosiness fading from her cheeks. Had Lady Wisp’s soul been damaged? What did that mean?
“A man made the bullets in this gun,” the black priest continued. “He made them from metal and gunpowder.” He lifted his arm, pointed the muzzle towards the ocean, and pulled the trigger. Lyn fell backwards before looking up at the man in shock. Her ears rang from the loud bang. It was 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.
“Yes, I thought you might say that. You do not look like you wish to harm people. You know, when someone uses magic, it is like they are making a bullet. But they are not 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 it. “You are a good girl. So I am sure you will not pick up that gun either. I am sorry I scared you at the market. I couldn’t help but notice that you have an unusually strong soul. You could make very big bullets. If you make bullets too big, you might become a monster too. And I do not want to use this gun.” He turned away from her.
From behind them, the bone-shaking scream of Uncle Nimrod blew past her: “GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU DAMNED FIEND!”
With the scream, a powerful gale flowed around her and struck the black priest in the back. The wind knocked his hat off his head. He bent over to pick it up before dusting it off briefly, then lifting it up to his head. As the Black Priest walked downhill he uttered the words: “Souls be guided.”