Ashlyn woke up later than she deemed normal. It was a calm, glistening morning. She heard the chirping of robins as they flew back to their nests to feed their hatchlings.
After getting dressed, she came out to greet Calda at the dining table. "Good morning, Mother."
"You slept in, too, I see." Calda smiled, sipping a full glass of orange juice. She waited as Ashlyn gathered her own glass of juice and sat down. "What do you have planned for the day?"
"Nothing in particular," Ashlyn said, "just research."
"Perhaps we could go for a ride, or for a swim? I'll leave it to you."
"It would be nice to go out, but I told Damien I would start digging for answers."
Calda agreed with a nod. "Do your research first, then we'll venture out for a bit. Don't think I've forgotten our favorite spot along the river."
"Sounds wonderful," Ashlyn smiled.
Damien went down to the forge dressed in his work clothes. When he spotted Kallus heating up the fire, he carefully approached him.
"Kallus, I, uh, wanted to ask if I could have the day off?"
Kallus turned to him, seeming abrasive and confused. "The day off?"
"Yes. I, uh, would like to spend as much time as I can in the library. For research."
"You want to do research?" Kallus raised a brow, seeming even more puzzled. "You?"
"That's right." Damien cleared his throat. "I need to learn as much as I can before seeing Ashlyn again."
"Are you still on that, boy?"
"It's not reckless, I promise. I just need time to find some answers, and I can't do that if I'm spending all my time here."
Kallus rubbed his forehead. "Not reckless, eh? It's unlike you to scour books."
"I know. But I...promised."
"Oh..." he sighed. "The sooner you find your answers the sooner you'll get off of this madness. Just do your chores first."
Damien beamed. "Really?"
Kallus groaned, rolling his eyes. "Go. Before I keep you here out of spite."
Upstairs, Damien jogged over to the library, passing Naelen on the way. "Hey Naelen," he waved. "Off to more training?"
Naelen stopped, sensing the situation was off. "You're in your work clothes," he observed.
"And you're...oddly chipper today."
"Kallus gave me the day off. I'll see you later."
Naelen mumbled as he walked onward. "Alright, then."
In the library, Damien sorted through the farthest shelf of books to his left. Of all the titles in the collection, he knew this shelf the least. After picking out a few relevant topics, he brought them over to his desk and began sponging up information. The Age of Silme, one title said. Dispersing Over Land, read another. These were books he figured would at least divulge some information on the rise of dark magic. After a while, however, he became disappointed that any reference to Eolnir or that of the dark elves was not to be found in these books.
Damien closed the cover a bit too forcefully, folding his arms along the desk. "Typical." His eyes drifted to the ceiling. "Why am I so bad at this?"
Unexpectedly, an answer came in the form of a ringing voice that ached inside his head. He arched forward, gripping his temples as they throbbed with a scraping pain. "Urrrrg!" he grunted, his eyes squinting shut. "Wha--what?"
Damien, a girl's voice echoed in his thoughts. Come here, I need you.
Damien opened his eyes upon hearing the words. Glancing around the space, he found no one. He was certainly going mad, right?
Don't ignore me, her voice came again. Just come as soon as you are able.
Pushing through the uncomfortable ache in his head, he spoke back. "Is that you, Ash? Are you...talking to me from far away?"
Yes, Ashlyn answered. We do this all the time at the Mages Academy. Very handy.
"I'm sort of busy right now," he said, feeling the pressure starting to ebb. "I'm looking through those books you asked me to read."
Oh, that's good but it can wait. I think I've found something over here, you must see.
"Alright, I'll...try to make my way over."
A heartbeat later, Ashlyn's voice silenced and Damien felt free of the pain. He let out a long breath, soothing his temples as they returned to a dormant state. "That was new," he spoke to himself, hoping no one was nearby to listen-- telepathically or otherwise.
After excusing himself from his research, he put on his shoes and went on his way to Ashlyn's house. Outside in the front yard, he passed by Naelen who was practicing his combat runes on a training dummy. From the corner of his eye, Damien saw the dummy's top half being hacked off with a single slash of Naelen's sword. It was almost impressive.
"I hope that's not me one day," Damien said jokingly. "How many of those have you gone through?"
"Shut up, Damien," Naelen said while lowering his sword. "Where are you off to, now?"
"I'm going over to Ashlyn's. She says she needs something."
Naelen lifted his brow, confused. "Weren't you just there last night?"
He shook his head. "Nevermind."
Once at Ashlyn's house, Damien was met by her as she came onto the front deck.
"Damien!" She took his hands. "You must help me."
"That's why I'm here," he shrugged. "But...please don't reach out to me like that anymore. It's too uncomfortable."
She paused, tilting her head. "Too uncomfortable?"
"Hearing your voice in my head is like beating myself with a rod. If you need me, just send a letter or come in person."
"I can do that," she nodded.
Leading him inside, she brought him to the healing room lined with rows of glass vials. Most of the vials were already filled, but Ashlyn picked up an empty one and held it out. "Could I trouble you for a blood sample?" she asked.
Growing nervous, Damien took a step back. "Why?"
Sitting on a table beside them was a thick book with its spine cracked open. Ashlyn's finger ran down the page until it stopped at a line that read, 'a study of elven blood.' The title made Damien gulp.
"I see you've been busy," he said quietly. "But why do you want my blood?"
"I've been thinking..." she began. "If your blood is a like weapon to the dark elves, then this study I found will hopefully prove my suspicion. I need to conduct a proper trial."
"You want to do what Baldemar has already done? Take my blood and turn it into evil power?"
"Only to see if there is any truth behind it. Please?"
"I don't think it's a good idea," he said. "Besides, I'm not even an elf."
"Well, my theory is you don't have to be an elf in order to have compatible blood. There is something extraordinary about you, Damien. This book is the closest thing I could find to explaining it."
Damien scanned the book for himself, passing over the words 'ritual' and 'dark'. These were but a few of the words that had a shiver coursing through his bones.
"No," he said. "I don't want anything bad to happen." He did not expect her to follow his comment with a laugh.
"I think you misunderstand," she said. "A tiny amount of your blood will do fine, just for the experiment." She held out the vial again. "Please?"
"Urg," he grunted, pulling back his sleeves. He turned his wrists out, allowing Ashlyn to see the open skin of his forearms. "Just make it quick."
"Wow." Ashlyn touched her fingers to his arms, noticing a change since she saw them last. "Your marks have faded so much. It's like they're not even there."
"Yes, I know. What of it?"
"I thought the damage was permanent, that's all."
Falling silent, Ashlyn took a needle and poked the pad of his right index finger. Damien squinted his eyes shut as the red began to ooze from it. He felt her placing his bleeding finger across the top of the vial, squeezing out a few drops.
"That should do it," she said, letting him reclaim his hand. Using the book for reference, she added in a powdered ingredient and watched as the blood reacted to it. Within seconds, the blood started bubbling like fizz water, shifting into a grotesque black color.
When Damien opened his eyes, he could hardly believe the reaction of the two reagents as they stirred each other within the vial. Were he to describe it, he would say his blood was growing angry, not just in behavior but in size and shape. It grew until the container itself could no longer hold it, bursting the delicate glass into shards and exploding in a puff of purple smoke.
"Eck, eck." Ashlyn coughed, brushing away the smoke as it evaporated. When the mess had cleared, she found Damien standing closely by the door. "Well, that was stronger than I expected."
For a long while, Damien was silent with his own thoughts. His eyes shifted from the book to the girl in front of him in a flickering pattern.
"Damien?" She came up to him, reaching out her arm. "Are you alright?"
His voice came slowly. "How is it possible?"
"It's like I said, you certainly have similarity with elven blood. But what other kind could force that reaction?"
He cursed. "Elven blood?"
"Elven blood is the basis of dark magic," she explained. "It was pioneered by a famous mage some hundred years ago."
Damien looked at his hands. "There is no way. I--I don't understand."
Ashlyn let out a sigh. "I'll admit, this does present more questions than answers, but I believe this is the first step. You are miraculously compatible with the bazjur, Damien. That much is clear."
"But I still don't understand why," he said, gritting his teeth.
"I know." She risked touching his shoulder. "And we probably won't understand until the barriers over your past are lifted. I sense a deep secret here, one that someone wants desperately to keep covered."
"I could have told you that," he scoffed.