"I'm sorry, Harmony," said her aunt, "but I don't think your father is coming back."
"What?" Harmony said, looking up at her in confusion. "Why not? What happened to Daddy, Aunt Cellie?"
Auntie patted her head gently. "Don't you worry your little head about it too much, girl. Your family will take good care of you. Such a sad thing to be bereft of both parents at such a young age."
"I'm thirteen years old," Harmony said. "I'm not a child. Tell me what happened to Daddy."
Aunt Cellie sighed. "Still so young, but I suppose you're right. You're old enough to know. Very well, then. Trinity was working in the employ of the kingdom of Jaston, and traveling through the Mountains of Sorrow to Sheenvale."
"But aren't there wild men in the mountains?" Harmony said.
Auntie nodded grimly. "He never arrived in Sheenvale. He went missing somewhere in the mountains. We assumed that the wild men had caught him, but couldn't confirm it until one of them was spotted with a sword much too finely made for wild men. I can only hope that he cut down many of the savage beasts before they overwhelmed him."
"Oh," Harmony said quietly, looking away. "So... he's dead, then."
"We assume that he must be," Cellie said, shaking her head slowly. "I'm sorry, child." She paused for a moment, then added, "The man who brought us the news wanted to speak with you himself, if you will see him."
"There's a stranger in Shadowflame Village?" Harmony said, raising an eyebrow and looking over to her aunt with interest. "Of course I'll speak with him. Where is he now?"
"He is... out in the entry hall," Aunt Cellie said. "This one is stranger than most, but I do not believe he intends to deceive. Go see him, then. I must make preparations for my brother's funeral."
Harmony nodded, and turned to head out down the hall, bare brown feet padding against the smooth stone floors of her home. Her aunt's warning didn't really prepare her for the sight of this stranger in her home, however. He was very tall, extremely tall; he must have had to duck through the doorway to get in. He wore a dark green hooded cloak that concealed much of his features, but his skin was pasty white, pale as a loaf of bread, and not even the crust! Was he an albino, like her cousin Swamp?
"Hello," Harmony said uneasily, staring at him curiously.
"Ah," said the stranger. "You would be the young Harmony Kimchild, I assume?" When he spoke, the words he said sounded a little odd, as though each letter was pronounced in a manner that was quite right. She had met people from Sheenvale and Hledola, and they spoke with a bit of an accent, so she assumed that he must be from somewhere far away.
"That's me," Harmony said. "And who might you be?"
"My name is Vistri Lenoreth Antaves," the man replied. She couldn't really see his eyes from under his hood, and it bothered her. "I imagine that this name must sound very strange to your ears."
Harmony nodded. "Where are you from, if I might ask?"
"Oh, a long, long way from here, from someplace that hasn't even existed for a very long time," Vistri said. "You won't have heard of it, and that's not important right now. I offer my regrets for the loss of your father."
"How did you find out what happened to him? Were you traveling through the Mountains of Sorrow yourself?"
"I was," Vistri said.
"How did you avoid the wild men?"
His lips quirked faintly. "They did not seek to bother me, if they even saw me. I am perfectly capable of passing unseen when I wish not to be seen, although I was not attempting to do so at that time." He cocked his head at her. "You do not seem especially saddened by the loss of your father."
"No, I'm not, really," Harmony admitted. "Why should I be? I barely knew him. He was never home. He was always wandering around all of Albrynnia, doing one thing or another."
"I see," Vistri said. "Perhaps then you should be saddened all the more, for now you will never be able to know him. But such as it is." He made a helpless gesture.
"You are... what are you?" Harmony wondered. "Let me see your face. Please."
"I am not certain that that is wise," Vistri said.
"Come on," Harmony said. "I'm not going to laugh at you or anything. I just want to see."
"Mere curiosity, is it?" Vistri said, chuckling softly. "You should be aware that curiosity may often lead you into places you do not wish to go, and to see things that you do not wish to see."
"Why wouldn't I want to see something?"
"The innocence of children..." He shook his head a little. "But I will indulge your curiosity, just this once. You are not likely to see another like me ever again."
Vistri pulled back his hood to reveal his face. His eyes were a hazy gray-blue, like a cloudy sky, but more striking than that was the fact that there was a third one in the middle of his forehead above the normal two. His hair, yellow as new straw, tumbled down to his shoulders around a pair of long, pointed ears.
"What... exactly are you?" Harmony said, looking him over intently.
"It's not important," Vistri said, pulling his hood up again. "My kind are long gone, and will never be seen again. My cousins, those perhaps you will see one day, if all goes well."
"Do they look like you, too? So pale, and with those big ears and three eyes?"
"So far as I know, I am the only one of my kind that ever had three eyes. But aside from that, yes, for the most part."
Harmony frowned thoughtfully. "What did you mean that I might see them? Who are your cousins?"
"I came here with more purpose than merely to bring sad news." Vistri pulled out an object from his cloak and handed it over to her. Harmony took it and looked it over curiously. It was a key, as large as her hand, covered in strange markings and made of what appeared to be some sort of reddish wood. When she realized that, she almost dropped it.
"This is wood," Harmony said.
"I assure you that no trees were harmed in order to create this key," Vistri said. "The sensibilities of your people need not be offended by it. Even your people are not averse to the use of wood when it is dead or separated from the living tree of its own accord, am I correct?"
"Yeah," Harmony said quietly. "I was just surprised, is all. I didn't think you were a wild man, or anything, but you're so strange, I wasn't sure." She ran her fingers over the object, feeling the carvings in it. They almost struck her as letters, but not in the alphabet she was familiar with. "What is this for?"
"To remember," Vistri said. "A gift, or a souvenir, you might call it. One small hope that my people may not be entirely forgotten to the mists of time."
Harmony held up the key before her face, examining it closely. "What happened to your people?"
"Gone," he said. "A disaster struck, and a remnant survived. A shadow of great civilization emerged from the ashes, but then another disaster struck, and a remnant survived. And from those ashes, a memory of a great civilization emerged, scattered and broken, but another disaster struck and this time, there was not much that survived."
"I'm sorry," Harmony said, looking to the floor. "Thank you for this gift. I will cherish it. But I must ask, why did you decide to give this to me of all people?"
"You, young Harmony... You have a long and winding path ahead of you, one that has the potential to shape the destiny of a thousand worlds."
"That sounds like something my mother would have said," Harmony said, making a face. "Always vague talk about destiny and not really saying much of anything. Well, I don't believe there's anymore destiny than that we make for ourselves."
Vistri chuckled softly. "There is truth in that, as well. I cannot say precisely where the path of your life will take you or Albrynnia, whether to greatness or to ruin, or both. But I know that wherever you go, there will be change." He stood slowly and carefully to avoid bumping his head on anything, and gave a bow. "I must go now, Harmony Kimchild. May the sun always shine upon you."
Harmony found herself shaken awake one morning a few weeks after that. "Ugh, what is it? It's a feast-day, why can't I sleep in?" She didn't like being woken up early. She enjoyed her dreams of a people long gone, even if she still wasn't sure what to call them.
"Sorry, Harmony," said a voice. As her eyes focused, she saw it was her cousin, Amanda. "I wanted to warn you that Swamp is home."
"Ugh," Harmony repeated. "Why couldn't he have just stayed in Jaston? What does he want?"
"Testing all his relatives for magic, apparently," Amanda said. "That's what I heard. I don't know why."
"Magic?" Harmony said. "He's expecting to be able to predict the unpredictable? Is he a shaman, now?"
"I don't know, but he seemed to think he had some reliable method. I don't really care to find out, myself. I intend to give him the slip and get out of town before he calls for me."
Harmony stared at her. "What, leave Shadowflame? Where are you planning on going?"
"I don't know. Somewhere away from here. Anywhere. I don't really care, either, so long as I don't have to deal with Swamp."
"You may have a point there, but I'm not going," Harmony said. "I want to find out what he's up to and just what it is he thinks he's discovered."
"Your curiosity will lead you nowhere good," Amanda said. "If we've got magic, we can find out on our own. But if you're sure about this, I'm gone. Good luck, cousin."
Amanda slipped out of the room without another word. Harmony sat up and rubbed her eyes. Three years older than her, and far more paranoid, Harmony thought. Swamp might be scum, but what did she seriously think he was going to do, sell them all into slavery or something? Nonsense. Quickly, she put on her outdoor clothes, and headed outside to find him and figure out just what was going on here.
A number of her family members were gathered around, preparing for the feast today and setting up the decorations. It was a minor holiday, but Albrynnians enjoyed any excuse to celebrate. Her younger cousins were stringing up fallen autumn leaves, bright yellow, orange, and red, to make streamers.
"Ah, there you are, Harmony," Aunt Cellie said, putting a hand on her arm. "I was hoping to catch you. Swamp was asking for you."
"So I heard," Harmony said. "What's this about testing people for magic?"
"Oh, maybe you'll have better luck," Cellie said. "He said I have some minor talent, but nothing really worthwhile. Disappointing, perhaps, but what can you do? The gods did not see fit to endow me with great assets, clearly."
"Uh, clearly," Harmony repeated. "Where is he now?"
"He's set up a testing area out of the way from the feast grounds," Cellie said, pointing off down the street. "You'll find him in the schoolhouse. Good luck. I hope you get something good! This is so exciting! Make Trinity proud of you, dear girl."
"Right," Harmony said, and turned to head off down the street. She hadn't been to the school in some while, since she had completed her primary education and was not intending on becoming a teacher. Absently she fingered the wooden key that was hanging under her shirt like a good luck charm.
Inside the large stone building, she saw Swamp at the front of the room with one of her more distant cousins. A few other relatives were seated on the stone benches around the room, quietly talking amongst themselves and speculating on what was to come.
Harmony approached quietly to watch what Swamp was doing. He had a pile of differently colored rocks, and one by one, pressed them into the cousin's hands. After each one, he shook his head and grabbed another one. She didn't know just what he was looking for, but he didn't seem to be finding it.
When he got to the end of the stones, he said brusquely, "No powers. Go on now." He glanced up over toward her and said, "Good. You're here. Come over here."
"Good to see you again too, cousin," Harmony said. "When did you lose your hair?" His freakishly pale albino skin was strange enough without his head covered in a smooth dome of it.
Swamp didn't bother to reply. He held a dull red rock out to her and said, "Hold this."
"Alright, alright," Harmony said, taking it and glancing at it, although she didn't have much chance before he snatched it out of her hands again. "Was something supposed to happen there?"
"You do not have Fire Magic," Swamp said, grabbing a green one instead and thrusting it at her. "Try this one."
"Okay..." Harmony said, taking it. Again, nothing. "So you're testing for different kinds of magic here, or what?"
"Yes," he said bluntly, taking back the green stone and handing her a blue one instead. "No Earth Magic. No Water Magic."
"How many kinds of magic are there?"
"Seventeen, that I have identified," Swamp said. "You've no Wind Magic either. This is a crude method of testing, but sufficient for the moment."
"I see," Harmony said, staring at the pile of stones as he continued to hand them off to her and declare a negative for each one. No Lightning. No Frost. No Life. No Death.
When he got to the deep blue stone that he claimed was time magic, this time there came a faint flicker from the rock as it settled into her palms. "Hmm. Very minor, for Time Magic," Swamp said. "Probably inherited from your mother."
They went through several more stones, until finally he handed a rather ordinary looking brown one to her. The moment it touched her skin, there was a brilliant, almost blinding flash of light, filling the room and forcing her to close her eyes and drop the stone reflexively. "What--?" Harmony said, blinking slowly.
Swamp hissed softly as he picked up the stone where it had fallen. "So, cousin. You are a Changer."
"What does that mean?" Harmony said.
"Go pack," he said. "You're coming with me back to Jaston after the feast. I'll explain on the way."
Harmony noticed that he had picked that stone to test her for last, almost as if he had suspected that this would be the result. Frowning faintly, she decided not to press it for the moment, and headed off out of the school building again.
She wasn't entirely certain that she wanted to go to Jaston, in Swamp's company or otherwise, but she was more than a little curious about just what this might mean. And likewise thinking back on her recent encounter with Vistri, and the cryptic words that he had left her with.
The day following the feast, she met Swamp at the edge of Shadowflame Village, pack hung over her back. She had packed light, and most of what she was carrying was food and a change of clothing. There wasn't much else besides Vistri's key that she really cared to bother taking. She frowned a little as she glanced about and realized Swamp was alone.
"We will be traveling alone?" Harmony said.
Swamp gave a nod. "Yes. Let's go." He wore a black cloak with a hood much like Vistri's, protecting his scalp from the warm autumn sunlight.
"So," Harmony said, setting off alongside him. "Are you going to tell me now what being a Changer means?" The road from Shadowflame Village to the city of Jaston was rough and unpaved, just a dirt track down the slopes of Mount Shadowflame and toward the sea.
"It means you can change things," Swamp said.
"Thank you for stating the completely obvious."
"I cannot tell you much in the way of specifics until further testing is done to determine where your particular talents lay," Swamp said. "However, this much is certain that you are capable of altering the physical form of people or possibly things."
"I see," Harmony said, glancing aside at him. "So what sort of magic do you have? I notice that none of those colored stones were glowing when you picked them up."
"I am an Enchanter," Swamp said.
"And what does that mean, cousin?"
"You ask too many questions, girl."
"You can't just spout off something and then not explain it. And if you weren't testing for it, how do you know you're not going to run across another Enchanter, whatever that is?"
Swamp shook his head. "I will not. For one thing, I would be able to tell if for some reason I encountered another, without having to go through that testing ritual. But I do not believe that it is particularly likely that the circumstances of my powers will be duplicated, ever. Perhaps there will be another Enchanter someday, but never again one of my caliber."
"Oh, awfully confident of that, are you?" Harmony said, snorting. "You're the greatest there ever was and ever will be, huh?"
"So what can an Enchanter do, exactly, then?"
"I can enchant things," Swamp said.
"Thank you, again, for stating the completely obvious."
"I can make things do things that they normally would not be able to," Swamp said. "Such as make colored rocks glow when someone with an aptitude for a particular sort of magic touches them."
"Ah," Harmony said. "I see. And what makes you think that no one else will ever have this ability?"
"I don't," Swamp said. "There will be other Enchanters. None of them will have the same capacity or degree that I have."
"If you say so," Harmony said lightly. "So what are we going to Jaston for, anyway?"
"King Megrez desires the service of mages," Swamp explained. "I am certain that you will not be averse to serving your king as he has called, no?"
"If I must," Harmony said.