Even after several revisions, whenever I need to go back and re-write something it's like starting a new rough draft. This scene will probably need some additional polishing, but here it is for your enjoyment!
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The next day, they arrived at the professor’s office shortly after breaking their fast. Balfrith carried Branulf uncovered, slung in its baldric over his shoulder. Its weight dragged at him, irritating the area just between his shoulder blades, but he shifted the baldric around and tried to ignore it. Approaching the door, they found it slightly ajar, and pushed it further open to step in. Ducca was already there, and it appeared that he was just finishing some preparations, for he said, “Ah, good morning to you both! Please take a seat, I am almost ready.”
Balfrith and Eldamir sat in the same chairs as they had the previous day, and Ducca went about the room, picking up several books and a few other odds and ends that Balfrith didn’t recognize, putting them into a satchel that he had slung from his shoulder. Finally he turned back to them, nodded, and said, “Alright then, I’m ready—let us go.”
Leading them out of his office, Ducca turned back and closed the door, locking it, then proceeded up a branching hall and down some stairs, before finally approaching a closed door at the end of another hall. Pulling a key from his satchel, he opened the door and led them in.
Balfrith was amazed at what he saw inside. There were shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls, so many that Balfrith wondered why Ducca had brought even more with him in the satchel. In addition, there were several long ironbound wooden tables, with glass and metal apparatuses that Balfrith didn’t recognize—he assumed they were some kind of magical implements.
Setting his satchel on the nearest table, Ducca turned to Balfrith and said, “Please remove the sword from its scabbard, and lay it here.” Balfrith did as he was asked, grateful to be rid of its burden, and waited as Ducca emptied the satchel onto the working surface. The books were set in a small stack off to the side, and the other items—still unrecognizable to Balfrith—were clustered together.
The professor took two of the small objects and set them about three feet apart, lining them up lengthwise along the table. Balfrith realized that they were small stands. Immediately after that, Ducca lifted the sword and laid it on top of them, so that one stand was under the grip, and the other was out near the blade tip. The sword now rested a few inches above the surface of the table.
Taking five more of the small metallic objects, different than the previous ones, Ducca set them at evenly-spaced points surrounding the sword: one at the blade tip, two on either side of the pommel, and the other two about a third of the distance between the blade tip and the hilt, set further away than the two near the pommel, so that they were laid out in a pentagonal shape surrounding Branulf. These objects were pyramidal in form, and had small glass jewels at their peaks.
Ducca set one last object, a glass lens of some sort Balfrith thought, a few inches away from the pyramid nearest the blade tip. Finally, he set a small candle next to the lens.
Eldamir interrupted his preparations. “Professor, if I may ask—what are these implements, and what are you planning to do with them?”
Ducca said, “These, my Elefdar friend, are the foci of a spell which I’m about to cast. One which will hopefully give us some indication of whether there is any enchantment upon the sword, and if so, whether it be malignant or benign. Now, if you don’t mind, I need you to remain silent while I complete my preparations for the spell, and also during the casting of the spell itself.”
Balfrith, growing excited at the prospect of seeing real magic, said, “How will we know when the spell is cast? Will there be a flash of light, or a cloud of smoke, or something?”
Ducca smiled, “Nothing quite so crude, I’m afraid, master Balfrith. There will be a ray of light, however, and it will fade when the spell is complete. But after it fades, wait for me to speak first, for it may take me some time to come out of the trance. Now, please take a seat over there, and I will begin the spell. Remember, no interruptions.” He said the last while waggling a finger at Balfrith.
Balfrith and Eldamir sat on the chairs, which were set some distance back from the tables and other apparatuses, presumably to keep observers at a safe distance. But safe from what? thought Balfrith.
Ducca reached into his satchel and pulled out one last item, a scroll case made of bone and heavily engraved with unrecognizable symbols. Removing the stopper at one end, he gently pulled out the scroll within, setting the case aside and unrolling the parchment. Ducca scanned the text for some minutes, and Balfrith watched as his eyes flitted back and forth, from row to row. It looked like he was memorizing it, Balfrith thought.
Finally he set the parchment aside, and it sprang back to its rolled-up state, having been encased that way for so long. Raising his hands, Ducca began to recite words in a language that Balfrith had never heard. Were they words of a magical tongue, or just another tongue of Men? he wondered. There were some that sounded vaguely like Elefdar, but he couldn’t be certain. Eldamir, too, watched closely, but he showed no reaction to the words.
Ducca spoke on, gesturing with a hand-wave toward the candle, and it spontaneously burst into flame. Balfrith jumped, but the flash subsided quickly and all that was left was a small tongue of fire, burning steadily. The professor spoke again, moving his hands over the blade, and Balfrith saw a ray of light, like sunlight through a cloud, emanate from the lens and strike the nearest of the pyramids—the foci, as Ducca had called them—surrounding the sword.
And then the light changed color, from soft yellow to warm red, as it passed from pyramid to pyramid, the jewels glowing with the same crimson color: Branulf was encircled by rays of reddish light. Balfrith watched, entranced, as the professor continued chanting in the strange tongue, passing his hands over the sword and swaying where he stood. His eyes were closed, Balfrith noticed, and yet he appeared to be observing a scene play out in the air above the sword.
Then, hovering above the sword, a different light appeared: two glowing orbs of baleful yellow, like eyes, glaring at Ducca as at a hated enemy. The temperature in the room dropped suddenly with their appearance, and Balfrith felt the hackles rise on the back of his neck.
“Snaga! Dor maghlo nethelga!” exclaimed Eldamir, jumping up with a snarl and pointing at the yellow orbs. Ducca staggered backwards as if struck, falling into some wooden shelves behind him and knocking several glass implements to the floor where they shattered.
Then the heavy table shuddered, jumping and shaking, knocking the sword off its stands. A gust of wind blew through the room extinguishing the candle, and all lights in the room blinked out: the candle, the rays, and the eyes. Balfrith, bewildered, stood motionless in shock. The darkness in the room was complete.
He heard the sound of footsteps scratching through glass as they moved across the floor, then the door opened, letting in ambient light from the hall. Ducca stood there, head bowed and breathing heavily.
Balfrith caught the scent of brimstone, and exclaimed, “What in the seven hells was that?”
Ducca remained silent in the doorframe, leaning against it, eyes closed and swaying a bit. He inhaled deeply, then turned and answered, “I think, my young friend, that we have just met the very embodiment of the curse. I know not how such a thing came to be, for I have never read of anything like this.” He took another deep breath, exhaling loudly. “Forgive me, that was… a very taxing experience. Please give me a moment to clear my mind.”
He continued breathing slowly, deeply, muttering something under his breath that Balfrith couldn’t quite catch. Was it another spell, maybe something to speed his recovery?
Finally Ducca opened his eyes again, stood upright, and he smiled slightly. “Ah, that is better. Now, would you both be so kind as to help me clean up this mess? Eldamir, there is a broom and dustpan in the corner. Balfrith, you may take the sword and sheath it. I will gather what remains of my tools.” They moved quickly, picking up fallen items and sweeping up the broken glass, and soon the room was back in order.
Balfrith, carrying Branulf even more nervously than he ever had in the past, asked, “Is this thing safe to carry? To think I’ve had it with me all this time…”
Eldamir added, “And yet it has remained dormant until now. Perhaps it was Ducca’s magic that awakened the thing.”
Balfrith looked askance at his friend. “You reacted as if you recognized it. What was that you said?”
“I… it was merely an instinctive response. Those yellow orbs… I do not know what they were, but I could sense their malevolence. Could you not likewise?”
“Aye, I sensed something too.” Balfrith shrugged it off, and gingerly hung the sword in its baldric over a shoulder. Turning to Ducca, he said, “Did you sense anything, professor?”
Ducca shook his head and replied, “Nay, master Balfrith, for it came suddenly and without warning. But let us retire to my office. We will have more privacy there, and freedom to talk openly.”
Ducca led them back up the stairs and around the halls to his office once again. He laid the satchel upon a shelf, no doubt a temporary resting place until he could put everything back where it belonged, and sat behind his desk while Balfrith and Eldamir took their own seats.
After everyone was comfortable, Ducca began, “I said before that I have never read of anything like this, and it is true. But I have heard of creatures, spirits of shadow, that may be somehow related. This is not my area of expertise, so I cannot speak with authority on the topic. But those yellow orbs, like eyes, brought to memory something I once read many years ago. I do not know if you sensed it like I did, but there was an intelligence there. An ancient malice, a hatred of all living things.” He paused, thinking, then leaned back in his chair and added, “I cannot say more, for it was only a feeling, though a strong one. I am sure of its hatred, for I felt it burn towards me, before the thing shattered my spell. It clearly did not wish to be discovered and named, else why disrupt my casting in such a violent manner?”
They were all silent for a while, and then Eldamir broke the silence. “I, too, lack experience in matters of the spirit realm. But my people also have stories, legends, of demons and other beings that dwell in outer darkness. I would venture a guess that this thing was one such creature.”
Balfrith asked, “What do we do about it? What can we do? I know nothing of demons and spirits either. Can such a creature be fought, banished from the realm of the living? For my goal remains unchanged—I must find a way to cleanse the sword of this… taint.”
Ducca replied, “Let me tell you, first, something that I sensed just before the spirit-thing manifested. For though the spell was interrupted, I had already started to get a sense of something from the sword. And it was not the malevolent thing which appeared before us, but a sense of benign power linked to the blade in a way that I do not fully understand. It may be something of Elefdar magic, perhaps… I know not. But it was there, and I was on the cusp of getting a better sense of this power before the spell was broken.
“And with that in mind, it seems to me that we are actually looking at two powers connected to the sword. Perhaps they war with one another, or perhaps they are not even aware of the other. If I were to speculate, I might suggest that the reason the dark power has not caused greater harm to you thus far in your journeys, is the existence of the benevolent power. Even now, the small discernment I received from the spell is enough for me to still sense that power. The darker power is gone, but the benign remains.
“So now we come to it: what can be done? My best answer for you is that you must continue your search. But with what we have gleaned from this experience, I might offer you some advice. I have a colleague who resides at the School for Learned Studies, in Sildara. He has spent some years studying ancient texts relating to the old gods and powers of the outer realms. The last time we spoke, some years ago, he was writing a treatise on spiritual incursions. I think if anyone would have insight into the curse on your sword, and what we have seen here, it would be him.”
Ducca stood then, and Balfrith and Eldamir did as well. Balfrith said, “Professor, you have my thanks for your efforts in assisting us in this matter. Though we did not exactly get the answers I sought, your advice may save us much time in our further searching.”
Ducca replied, “Stop by my office tomorrow morning, and I will give you a letter of recommendation to my colleague in Sildara. Since you have already traveled somewhat to meet with me, I assume you are prepared for further journeys?” Balfrith nodded, and he continued, “In addition to his spiritual studies, he is almost as knowledgeable in the area of enchantments and discernment as I am. He may also have other ideas for research, perhaps something I did not think of here.”
Balfrith nodded and said, “Again, professor, you have my thanks. We shall stop by tomorrow morning after breakfast. And it just now occurs to me—does the university have means for me to send a letter? For I would send news of my journey to my father, duke Osric, before we board ship.”
Ducca nodded. “Aye, we do indeed, and I regularly have correspondence with some colleagues at Kings’ Reach in the west. I would be happy to take your letter and ensure it is sent on, along with my own communiques.”
Balfrith nodded in thanks. They departed then, saying their goodbyes to the professor as he closed the door. He shifted Branulf in its baldric, the feel of it against his back causing a prickling up his spine. A pair of baleful yellow orbs flashed in his memory for a moment, and he shook his head to clear the image.
Walking back to the inn, Balfrith said, “I suppose we should plan to depart tomorrow, after we meet with Ducca. There’s nothing holding us here, and I would be on a ship bound for Sildara sooner than late.”
Eldamir agreed, saying, “Aye, it will be good to have the road under our feet again—and soon enough, the sea. I’ve not breathed the sea air in some time, and it calls to me even now.”
Balfrith could only nod, never having seen the sea. The great Kingfisher Bay was as close as he’d ever come, and while it was quite large—too wide to see the far shore—it still wasn’t the actual sea. But that would change soon enough.
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