"What do you think is inside the box, Cassandra?" Ruslan asked while Cassandra was washing the dishes after they both had a lunch break.
"The Hope Diamond, I suppose," she said. The long hours of trails and errors had dulled her sense of wonder and made Cassandra a bit disheartened by the fruitless result so far.
It'd better be something worthy to merit that kind of protection, she thought to herself.
"What if it contains Kryptonite?" said Ruslan with an amused smile. They both burst out laughing. She had to give it to the young boy for his tireless enthusiasm. He'd been working on the obstacle more patiently than most adults, and he seemed to take it as a fun challenge. Not once had Ruslan been discouraged by the unsolved mystery in front of him.
But the Siberian sun had begun to descend over the peaks of the mountains. Cassandra shivered at a strange rush of icy cold that had nothing to do with the temperature outside. For some unknown reason, she felt the need to find out what inside the chest and find it fast.
After she finished with the chore, Cassandra went back to the table where her cousin was sitting. He had used every possible tool to open the stubborn relic but to no avail. There were screwdrivers, pliers, wrench, chisel, and other tools spreading all over the table. Ruslan had gone downstairs to borrow just a screwdriver from the landlord, but he came back with an entire toolbox. However, Cassandra had forbidden him from using any heavy drill or hammer for fear of him hurting himself. Besides she felt that the chest was too precious to be forced open.
Despite their many unsuccessful attempts, Ruslan and Cassandra still forged on with whatever solution they could think of.
"Do you think these letters mean anything?" Cassandra said as she eyed the surface of the chest carefully.
"They are letters?" Ruslan said.
"Oh yes," she said. "Don't you see?"
Ruslan suddenly got up and ran to the bedroom. A moment later, he emerged with a magnifying glass, which Cassandra bought for him on his fifth birthday. They then hunched over the chest while Ruslan magnifying the writing on the surface.
"Well, yeah," said the boy after a while, "but I tell you it is not Russian."
"I guess you're right. They do look like Russian at first glance though," Cassandra said.
"Wow, now we have a secret language to decipher!" Ruslan gasped in excitement.
"Yes, possibly," Cassandra added with a nod.
"Or it could be Greek or Runic alphabets?"
"It's a writing system from the Viking Age," Ruslan told her. "I remember reading about it. Back in medieval times, some of the Vikings settled in Russia. They called themselves the Rus. That's how we became known as Russians."
"I thought our letters were derived from the Greek alphabets," Cassandra said.
"You're also right about that," the boy said and put his hand under his chin like he always did, rubbing his imaginary beard the way some old history professor would do. "When the Rus Viking prince married a Byzantine princess, they created an alphabet for Slavic languages based on a modified Greek script. So it's possible that this writing is both Runes and Greek."
Cassandra was impressed by her cousin's vast knowledge, but not very surprised. He was always better than most of her teachers at school, and she liked listening to him talking about all sorts of amazing discoveries.
Now imagine this inscription was actually some code commands for the hidden mechanism of the box!
They began to try a different way to translate the letters. They had copied the letters one by one onto a piece of paper. Ruslan had run once again to retrieve a book that contained the whole Greek and Runic alphabets. They matched each letter and compared them to the Greek-Russian ones.
"This puts me in mind of a cryptograph," Ruslan said, "unless, the letters had been written without any real meaning and are all rubbish."
"And yet why take so much trouble?" Cassandra mused to herself, thinking about the proud owl again.
All this time Ruslan was busying comparing the letters with the chest's inscription.
"This is harder than I thought," he said. "It was like a code inside a code."
Cassandra was, in fact, fighting against unexpected curiosity and unknown anxiety. Her brain was almost on fire, her eyes were strained with staring at the writing, the whole absurd collection of letters appeared to dance before her vision in a number of black little groups. Her mind was possessed with temporary hallucination, she was stifling.
She needed air.
Cassandra decided to get up and walked to the window. In her mind, the owl's words still echoed like it was from a deep well: "And if you want to know the truth about your mother, you'd better be quick."
The view of the snow-peaked mountains was breathtaking. She inhaled the crisp winter air and let out a loud sigh.
Suddenly she heard her cousin exclaim.
"Cassandra! Cassandra!" he cried. "I think I got it now."
"What did you get?"
"Here is a line of words translated as north, west, west, east, north, and south."
Cassandra, though rejoiced at some success, was also utterly confused.
"They are directions!" Ruslan said, looking at her as if to make her read his mind and see what it had discovered. "What do directions do?"
"Oh..." she said slowly, "They direct?"
Ruslan tried not to roll his eyes at her.
"Look carefully here," he said and pointed to a wood piece inlaid on the chest at the center. "Once we slide it according to the six given directions...then?"
"Oh!" Cassandra gasped in realization. "Oh yes! It's like an instruction to unlock the chest!"
Without further delay, the two of them proceeded to try their newfound theory.
"Oh wait, where is the north?" she said.
"Here, slide the wood piece this way." Ruslan pointed to the right. Cassandra wouldn't know what she would do without this genius boy.
Sure enough, when Cassandra slid the wood piece northward then westward and so on, they could feel the lock clicked inside the chest. Her heart pounded against her ribs. It was a triumphant feeling indeed.
After she finished the route, the lid suddenly burst open, knocking itself over the table, startling the two cousins half to death.
Inside was a scroll of old parchment. For a long moment, none of them moved. Then they looked at each other. Seeing that she was the oldest, Cassandra decided to take it upon herself to inspect the mystery.
They looked keenly at the scroll for some moments and then unrolled it. To their surprise and disappointment, the scroll was blank.
"What?" Cassandra said in dismay. "What's the meaning of this?"
Now she had a slight conviction that the Runic and Greek alphabets were simply an invention from some crazy owl to mock a poor human fool like her. She put the scroll down and walked off to compose herself.
Looking through the window again, she saw the last ray of sunlight starting to ebb slowly.
"Oh! Oh!" Ruslan cried a while later.
Cassandra looked back and she gasped.
"Oh Ruslan, watch out!"
This was said because her cousin had positioned the glass so that the sun's rays pass through the lens, forming a small point of light on the thin parchment. A tiny twirl of smoke let up, but Cassandra quickly blew off the first spark before it spread.
"Sorry," Ruslan said guiltily.
But before she could respond, her eyes caught sight of it. A line or rather a beginning of a sentence was now visible on the paper.
"Oh, Ruslan, it is an invisible letter!" she cried. "Now give me your magnifying glass. Quick! Quick!"
The boy handed it to her and looked on with eager eyes. Cassandra held the scroll up before the window where the sunbeam was still coming through.
"Come on," she muttered to herself as she projected the heat from the magnifying glass onto the paper, scorching it slowly without actually burning it.
Then it happened. Word after word began to appear like crawling insects.
"Oh, sweet Tesla's coil!" Ruslan cried in joy. "It worked!"
"So you should know what it means?" she asked him after she finished.
But for the first time, she saw a sight of hopelessness on her cousin's face.
"I guess I can try to decipher it, but it will take a very long time...that if this writing could be deciphered at all," admitted Ruslan. "I'm afraid we might not make it before midnight."
Cassandra felt her heart sink lower in disappointment. It wasn't that she was afraid the talking owl would kill her for breaking her promise or anything, but she started to get a feeling that something horrible was bound to happen if they couldn't succeed.
"Let's not lose hope yet, Ruslan," she said. "We still have a few more hours left. I believe we can do it."
For two hours straight, they worked together to crack the old language again.
"This Runic letter 'I' here could be read as 'Isa', which means 'ice'," her cousin said as he worked out the writing. "There's also a Greek word 'Selini' or 'Selene', which means 'moon'. The rest are just jumbled words between Greek and Runic. It is enough to drive one crazy."
So far he had put together some meaning to a few words that didn't make any sense. What connection could there be between ice, sacred wood, maiden, and moon? The first and the last might in a sentence connected with the landscape, like 'lake of ice' and 'sacred wood'. But what of the rest of the monstrous cryptograph?
After a short break, Ruslan had collected enough words to form a whole sentence.
"Let me read," Cassandra said after drawing a long breath.
She spread it before them on the table, she passed her finger over each letter, she spelled it through. Then a rippling warmth stilled her heart. It seemed to come from the page itself. A great excitement overtook her. Was it possible that she could really read the terribly ancient scroll of some kind?
It came to her like a flash of lightning. She had got the clue. All you had to do to understand the writing was to read it backward.
It wasn't long before she found out that she could read everything despite very slowly.
It was a poem, which read as follows:
'It was the Coming of the Midnight Sun,
A daughter of the Sacred Wood,
Lay in a chamber of the House of the Moon,
And thus shall wither like a dying star
Til the touch of a virgin at dawn.'