The first night
I woke up to find myself soaked in sweat.
I searched in my mind, my consciousness, for any trace of who Daria was. Yet it was void, nothing. I lifted up my hands: they were trembling, and so was my heart. Must be a dream, just a nightmare…
Nightmare, nightmare… I tried to calm myself down, but my heart kept pounding. My linen shirt was glued on to my skin and I could smell the sweat transpiring from my body, the smell of ammonia. I realized I could not remember a single detail of the nightmare, not a sound, not an image.
I stretched out my palm. A spark of flame came out of thin air. It was floating just above my hand, nearly touching my skin. I could feel the warmth burning in the bluish hue, but it did not scorch. There was no pain at all.
How did I do that?
I turned to my right and saw a white slab of stone. It was a white marble desk, on which I saw a small candle on a holder. I lit it up and noticed a robe by the chair. There was a symbol of two eagles on the hood.
No! It was a twin-headed griffon. Dizziness hammered my head. I tried to get up, but I felt so disoriented that I nearly collapsed on to the desk.
Twin-headed griffon… Where have I seen that?
I kept searching for images in my head. Many traces of memories were mingled together. The imagery faded in and out quickly. All of that sudden I recalled a faint image of the emblem carved into a bronze plate. No… Not carved into… Was it a seal?
I turned my head to the wall facing the bed. I seemed to have remembered something. I walked towards the wall with the candle holder in my right hand. My thumb pressed hard on the handle of the holder. A bronze plaque on the wall gradually revealed itself in the dim light. It was a relief.
My fingers touched the crest lightly. The claw of the griffon reflected a sense of fierceness by the orange candle flame. A splitting pain shot through my head. I rubbed my hand on my forehead. I nearly fell out of balance. Then I saw the words beneath the emblem:
“For the Arch-mage of the Oblast Magi Academy, Jon Whitman.”
Yes! I am Jon Whitman, the Arch-mage of the academy. I am the head of the most prestigious academy in the Alfr Imperium. How could I forget that! I am the headmaster of this school. I placed the candle holder back on the desk and noticed a few pieces of paper lying on the desk. The words were faint in the dangling candle flame:
10th Moonshine, 1990
The first day after the assimilation. I feel disoriented at first, but soon my body adapts to the changes. My mana has increased significantly and I am able to summon shades too. It seems some of the abilities have been transferred to me. This is so exciting. Perhaps there are even more to discover.
Are these my words? Yet I could not remember myself writing them… It had to be the fatigue. A headmaster’s job was not easy.
Job… Something in my mind troubled me again.
I recalled there would be an expedition team returning tomorrow. I would have to read and write reports, and manage all the artifacts that had been recovered.
I need sleep to deal with these administrative bullshits.
I blew off the candle and went to bed.
A woman’s voice woke me up. I found myself standing in the grand hall. People were unloading crates of artifacts from carts and wagons. Beside me was Yulia Dmitrieva, the head of the Archaeology Department.
What? I remember I was still in bed…
“Jon! Are you here?”
Her voice rang me back to the reality. Maybe I am too tired. “I am sorry.” I replied, Scratching my head, “So where were we?”
“We were talking about the rune stones recovered in the Kievan Crypt. They are ancient, perhaps older than the 2nd millennium,” she paused, looking at me. Her eyes were full of excitements. “I need more people to decode these artifacts.”
I smiled and replied in my jesting tone, “Sure, we have the money! Just hire more research associates.” I looked at her wrinkled face. Her grey long hair was also wrinkled, dry as hay. Life had not been nice to her.
“I take that as a ‘yes’.” Yulia smiled. She knew I never joked about work. “By the way, Jon, I know being a human here isn’t easy.” She was referring to my race. I am a human among them — the elves; though to me, the difference is simply “look at the ears”.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I can handle myself.”
“Ok.. It just seems that you are very stressed. It seems that you were not focused enough when we were talking. Well anyway, “She smiled and turned away from me, “Daria!”
That name swept down my spine. I saw a young lady in white robe approaching. She was holding a box of rune stones. “Daria, do you have the rune stone for Prof Whitman?” Yulia asked.
“You mean the rune stone about the soul vessels?” She tried to hold the box on one hand, while slipping her other hand into her pocket, to search for something. The box started to tilt forward. I rushed to catch it. Her dark long hair brushed on my face. Our hands touched. She withdrew her hand under the box immediately. The heavy box dragged me down. I nearly fell.
“Oh I am so sorry!” she covered her mouth with her hands. I could hear fear in her voice.
“No problem!” I smiled and put the boxes on the ground.
“Careful! Ever do that again and you will never see this academy, AGAIN!” Yulia stared at the girl. She looked like as if she wanted to kill her. Daria looked down quietly.
“Easy!” I said with a smile. “I am sure she will be more careful next time.”
“Just give Prof Whitman the rune stone and be off with your work.”
Daria walked towards me and handed me a piece of polished pebble. There were very peculiar characters carved on the surface. The characters were like symbols, not alphabets. I had not seen this kind of language before.
“Have you seen Samuel today, Prof Whitman?” Daria asked in a low voice.
“No… Who is Samuel?”
“Samuel Watson, your research assistant.” she seemed shocked. I shook my head and she pressed on, “The only other human in this academy?”
“Yeah that young boy,” Yulia barged in, “I saw you with him before the expedition and you two were quite close. You told me he was probably the best student you have ever had.”
“I am sorry I have no idea, but I will look into it. I have been forgetting things lately,” I apologized.
Daria gave me this suspicious look and walked away. When she bent and tried to lift up the box, I heard Yulia yelled again, “Leave it there! I don’t want to risk it. JUST go!” And Daria hurried away.
Yulia sighed and said, “If she wasn’t THIS good with the rune translation,” she raised her hand and gently connected her thumb and her forefinger, “I would simply fire her, immediately!” Then she grabbed the box and turned away from me.
“Wait! What’s this stone for?”
“You asked for that before I left for the expedition—“ she frowned, “Are you sure you are alright?”
“Yes! Yes!” My attention was fully on the runic inscriptions. What’s its use?
As if she could read my mind, she said, “It’s a rune stone that can trap souls. But of course without the proper ritual and the right spell, the stone cannot be activated.”
“I see…” I felt a blow to my head. My ears were inflated with echoes. My mind was overwhelmed with dizziness and disorientation; and there was this fear, a kind of fear bubbled from within, which I could not put words to it.
Yulia patted on my shoulder. “Hey! You should go to the doctor. Go to see Dr Rossolimo.”
I realized I was kneeling on the ground. “I will. I will…” I was aware that I was panting heavily. I felt I needed medical attention.
“Anyway I need to go,” she put the box on her shoulder. “I need to take care of these babies,” she breathed in gently and then pointed her finger at me, “Remember! Go to see Dr Rossolimo.”
I nodded and watched her walk away. Then I turned my gaze at the stone. My heart trembled as the runes shone under the sunlight.
Then suddenly a whisper hissed in my mind: