The First Night
I woke up finding myself soaked in sweat.
I noticed I was in a room. Dark, but the wall gleamed of the silver hue from the moonlit. A sway of cool wind from the window brought me back to my senses.
Must be a dream. 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.
Just a nightmare, just a nightmare?
I tried to calm myself down, but my heart kept pounding. My linen shirt was glued onto my skin, and I could smell the sweat evaporating from my body — the smell of ammonia. I realized I could not remember a single detail of the nightmare I just had… not a sound, not an image.
My fingers touched my palm. I noticed there was a scar, hard and protruding from the centre. Then a spark of flame came out of thin air all of a sudden. It was floating just above my hand, nearly touching my skin. I could feel the warmth burning in the dim bluish hue, but it did not scorch. There was no pain at all. And the scar gleamed in orange under the flame, warm and resembling a few strange symbols.
How did I do that?
I turned to my right and saw a white slab of stone. It was a marble desk, on which I saw a candle on a holder. I dismissed the flame in my hand as soon as I lit up the candle.
I 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 onto 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 imageries faded in and out quickly. Suddenly 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 towards the wall facing the bed. I seemed to have remembered something. I approached the wall with the candle holder in my right hand. My thumb pressed hard on its handle. A bronze plaque on the wall gradually revealed itself in the dim light. It was a relief of the emblem.
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 nearly fell out of balance. I rubbed my forehead, trying to regain myself from the dizziness. Then I saw a line of words beneath the emblem:
“For the Arch-mage of the Oblast Magic Academy, Jon Whitman.”
Yes! I am Jon Whitman, the Arch-mage of the academy. I am the headmaster of the most prestigious academy in the Alfr Federation. Why did I forget who I am?
I am the head of this school of mage. I placed the candle holder back on the desk. Something caught my eyes.
What are these?
A few pieces of paper were lying on the desk. The words were faint in the dangling flame:
10th Moonshine, 4990
The first day after the assimilation. I felt disoriented at first, but now my body adapts to the changes. My mana has increased significantly and I am able to summon shades too. This is so exciting. Perhaps there are even more to discover.
Are these my words?
Yet I could not remember myself writing them…
I felt my memories were full of holes. I could not even remember my own name a few minutes ago. It had to be the fatigue. A headmaster’s job was not easy.
Something began to stir in my mind: 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 all these annoying 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 Archeology 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 and resources to decode these artifacts.”
I smiled, “Sure, we have the money! Just hire as many research associates as you can. We have the government’s full support.”
I looked at her smooth face. Her long silverish hair was also very smooth and silky. It was hard to tell that she was already in her late-forties. I thought she was in her early thirties, even twenties, when I first met her a year ago. It was amazing how she could still be that radiant. Maybe she had secretly discovered the Fountain of Youth.
“I will take that as a ‘yes’.” Yulia smiled. “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. Alfr means Elves in the ancient Elvish. They have always been emphasizing the differences between the Elves and the humans. To me, though, “pointy ears” is the only difference.
“I am always here for you, and I am sure other staff in the school will be happy to help. Do not stress yourself out.” She reached out and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I can handle myself.”
She smiled and turned away from me, “Daria!”
That name swept down my spine. I saw a young lady in a white uniform 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, presumably to search for the stone. The box started to tilt forward. I rushed to catch it. Her dark long hair brushed my face. Our hands touched. She withdrew her hand 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 box on the ground.
“Careful! Ever do that one more time and you will never see this academy, again.” Yulia stared at the girl. Daria looked down quietly. Her pointy ears were all red.
“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 was only one character carved on the smooth surface — a big circle. The runic language was very unusual. It differed from the Elvish or any other human language. It was believed to be an ancient language originated from the First Civilization, the Aleph — a mysterious civilization that suddenly vanished from the face of the earth two thousand years ago. What was left was a vast ocean with scattered islands, as if the whole land was engulfed. Nothing was found on the seabed either. As if any traces of the nation within the territory was erased. The Church declared it was the sin of the Aleph that the Creator had to pass on the judgment onto the whole nation. That ocean was thus named the Creator’s Engulf.
A rune stone is usually scribed with several runic alphabets. I had not seen any rune stone with only one alphabet before. Yet I was holding one in my hand now.
“Okay! Off to your work.” Yulia was pushing Daria away.
Daria frowned and glanced over me, opening her mouth. For a moment I thought she wanted to talk to me. But when our eyes met, she turned her head away. She tried to reach for the box of artifacts I placed on the ground.
“Leave it there! JUST go!” And Daria hurried away.
Yulia sighed, “If she wasn’t THIS good with the translation,” she raised her right hand and gently connected her thumb with her forefinger, “I would simply fire her, immediately!”
Then she turned back to me, “By the way, where’s your research assistant?”
“Come on. You only have one assistant.”
Do I? I was wondering.
“Yeah, the young boy,” Yulia breathed out. I could sense a faint smile from her tilted up lips. “You told me he was probably the best student you have ever had. Haven’t seen him after I am back from the expedition.”
Do I have a research assistant? Do I know him? I can’t remember! I can’t remember!
“I… believe his name is… something like Watson.” Yulia rolled her eyes at me, as if it was a huge revelation. “His surname is Watson.”
“Oh great.” I curled my lips and shrugged.
She looked at me. Her eyes were glinting with confusion and worries.
“I am sorry I have no idea, but I will look for him. I have been forgetting things lately,” I apologized.
“Oh… Okay then.” She could not hide the disappointment in her voice.
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?”
“Just refresh my memory, please?” Actually I didn’t remember anything at all.
Her tone was a bit annoyed, “It’s a rune stone with only one alphabet — eyn, which means ‘the eye’. For now we still haven’t found a way to activate these rune stones with only one runic alphabet inscription. I guess that’s why you are collecting them. Maybe you were working on these kinds of rune stones?”
“Yes…” 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 bubbling from within, which I could not put words to.
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.
“Anyway I need to go,” she put the box on her shoulder. “I need to take care of these babies,” she breathed in gently, rubbing the box, but then she stared at me with those pair of dark moist eyes. “Remember, go to see Dr Rossolimo.”
I nodded and watched her walk away. Then I turned my attention back to the stone. My heart trembled as the rune shone under the sunlight.
All of a sudden, there was this whisper hissing in my mind: