Chapter 2:


The Hero's Shadow

Manfred awoke, though not with a start, in the dark of the private room aboard a train to New York. It wasn’t the sort of dream that made one bolt upright in bed with a pounding heart, but it did leave a bitter taste in his mind. That dreamscape hadn’t appeared before him in awhile. He supposed that it was caused by his nerves wavering over what would begin the next day, or else his psyche wanted to leave him with a final reminder of his convictions before he was plunged into unknown waters.

A thought struck him and he slipped his pocket watch from under the pillow. The hands showed that it was then past midnight, thus that it was already March 20th, 1932, the spring equinox and start of a new term at the Men’s National Knight Academy. Manfred was more aware than ever of the uniform his father wore in the picture tucked inside the watch. Later that day, he would don the same black outfit; it had only taken a few modifications by a tailor to make his father’s old clothes fit him.

The young man lowered himself from the top bunk and pulled on his regular clothes from earlier in the evening. He had resolved to search the train for a stiffer drink than what the pitcher of water by the sink could provide to wash away the taste of the dream. There was no need for him to try to leave quietly as no amount of shuffling about in the small cabin would overwhelm the sounds coming from the man sleeping in the lower bunk. That one slept like the dead, if the dead happened to produce rumbling growls. Manfred shivered as he recalled the time a dusty corpse had indeed rushed out of the darkness of an ancient crypt howling for his blood.

He stepped out into the hall and caught his own reflection in the window opposite their room. The dim lighting in the train car’s passageway contrasting against the dark night outside was enough to turn the glass into a mirror showing his black hair left in a state of disarray from his pillow. Otherwise, he was the very image of a handsome seventeen year old boy. Before they boarded the train he’d gotten a proper shave and haircut after spending the winter out in the wilderness and rural backwoods. Manfred admired his reflection for a moment more before setting off toward the front of the train. Months of Graham’s troublesome training and living out in the forests of Pennsylvania had given him a rugged look which persisted even when clean shaven.

Most of the lounge cars had been turned into sleepers, the quiet of a train gliding along in the night reigned as he passed through several cars on his way forward. He remembered one dining car ahead which would likely be a gathering place for others still awake at odd hours. Manfred hoped that someone was carrying liquor, either a noble flaunting his status or a commoner willing to share his contraband. Just as he was reaching out to open the door to that car, someone flung it open from the other side and charged through in a hurry.

She was young, a year or two older than him at most. The hem of her flashy red dress was cut short, as was her hair. A few years ago she’d have been a perfect model of the style of the era, but by this point the flappers had traded in their gear for a more somber wardrobe reflecting the sentiment of the nation since the boom of the 20s had busted. He was delighted to see a cute girl flying in the face of convention though, after all, he hadn’t seen anyone but the modest folk living out in the countryside since leaving Chicago last November.

Before he could appreciate her, Manfred had to avoid colliding with her. He quickly shifted his footing, catching her around the waist and shoulder so that the two whirled around each other like dancers carried by her momentum. The look of fury that she’d worn as she barreled through the doorway changed first to shock then embarrassment as he gracefully traded places with her. The girl staggered back a few steps, mumbled an apology while turning away, and then stormed off into the dark of a sleeper car.

Manfred briefly considered going after her, but the company of a dame didn’t seem as appealing as alcohol and he now had a good lead on a source. Inside the dining car from which she had come, three men sat at a table with cards spread out over it. Having watched the exchange in the doorway, they sent up a chorus of laughter tinged with a mocking edge.

“That was almost a nice catch but you let the pretty fish get away!”

The three were wearing suits with jackets, but they weren’t the crisp, well-tailored kind worn by businessmen. Manfred could spot a common thug in an instant, but he also spotted a flask sitting on the table. As part of the mob, they would have easy access to bootleg booze. He decided not to be overtaken by contempt from the first.

“I wasn’t even out here to fish this morning, that one just jumped in the boat. Say though, I am interested in a bit of sport of a different sort.”

The smiles the men wore shifted ever so slightly from amusement to eagerness.

Apparently something of a leader among the three, the one who had spoken before replied, “This table is open if you can buy in: Ten dollars.”

Manfred had no trouble reconstructing what had happened to send the girl away in such anger. At the table, four hands of cards were laid down, but only the places in front of the men had any chips. The bet he was willing to make was that the trio worked together to cheat anyone foolish enough to sit in on their game. He figured that she could tell they played dirty, but she wasn’t good enough to really catch them out. He didn’t think that he could do much better on skill alone, being an amateur at card games, but he wasn’t that interested in winning. A wad of worn bills came out from his wallet and tumbled onto the table.

The three made a show of dividing the winnings of the game in progress and starting fresh with crisp dollar bills joining his shoddy ones while an even stack of chips was placed in front of each player. The first few hands resolved normally, though Manfred was steadily losing his stack due simply to his inexperience.

“How about you pass that flask around?”

The sharks regarded him cooly for a moment before erupting into another round of laughter.

“Boy stays up a little late and now he’s gambling and drinking. Maybe those broads are right about this Prohibition thing after all.”

In lieu of a reply, Manfred waited for the flask to reach his hands. He timidly took a sip, paused as if to pull it away from his mouth, then tilted it back and drank deep of the toxic stuff. Out of the corner of his eye he saw annoyance creep over the faces of the men as they watched him drain a third of the flask. It was a bit more pleasant than the moonshine he’d been drinking for the last few months, but far weaker, and he was determined to get his money’s worth. There was no telling how long the men would indulge him or even how much longer he could hold on to his chips.

Sure enough, the mood shifted when the next hand was dealt. Suddenly Manfred was the only one losing any significant amount of money. He could sense that something odd was going on between the men, but he couldn’t see what they were actually doing to alter the flow of the game. They were each making furtive taps on the table, rubbing their noses and ears, gesturing to punctuate their banter, and otherwise making an assortment of distracting movements which probably served as both a coded form of communication as well as cover for sleight of hand used to manipulate what cards were held by which man.

In short order, Manfred had been driven against a wall and would have to bet everything on one last hand. A smirk from the leader of the trio threatened to revive the bitter taste he had just drowned; losing wasn’t much of a wound to him, but the idea that they would think they had put one over on him was sure to trouble his sleep. Manfred drew out a small portion of virya, suffusing his optic nerves with power. The movements the men were making, bewildering before, became as slow as if they were trying to put on an instructive demonstration of their tricks for him. He took in everything and saw how they swiftly traded cards with each other, even swapping some with others held in their sleeves and hidden pockets. He could make no sense of the signals they were using, but the link between them and the exchanges they made was clear.

When all was said and done and the time to show their hands had come, Manfred shared in the circle of hostile smiles that went around the table. None of the three appeared to react to his release of virya, indicating that they were all truly just low level criminals way out of their league dealing with him.

“Well I’m just about certain that I’ve lost, how about another swig from that flask before I turn these over?”

“Now now, boy, don’t be so negative. What makes you think you’ve already lost?”

Manfred dropped the last pretense of amiability and answered in the tone of a looming glacier, “You know better than I that your hand beats mine.”

The leader deployed his best impression of righteous indignation and shouted about an accusation lacking proof. The other two put on hard looks as they started to stand. They likely intended to teach him by force to let their cheating slide if he tried to push the issue.

Before the men could react, Manfred stood and raised his hand to shoulder level, then swiped down at the leader like a falling bolt of lightning. As his hand flashed past the dumbly staring thug, he channeled a burst of virya through his palm. The energy gathered, began to take shape, pulled the world around it into a spiral which quickly solidified in the shape of a dagger with its point arcing downward. He grasped his blade, slashed open one of the hidden pockets in the man’s jacket, and stuck the tip of the dagger into the table with the single motion he’d already started. The pile of cash was pierced through and pinned by the menacing fang. Several cards tumbled out of the ruined jacket.

Manfred left the dagger standing there and snatched away the flask. The trio did nothing but glare as he threw his head back and turned the bottom of the container toward the ceiling to take every last drop. Any will to fight had left them utterly. They knew that anyone who could manifest an ergaleion was sure to crush them, plus they likely assumed that he was some nobles’ brat who would be entirely within his rights to slaughter them while they could be charged for so much as ruffling his hair. He didn’t care to correct them on the point of his lack of status.

With a flourish he set the flask down and stalked away from the table. Only as he passed into the next car did he let his concentration falter, allowing the dagger to dissolve like a forgotten memory of morning mist. He would sleep soundly for another few hours.


Graham Aimar meticulously picked apart his breakfast with the same precision and zeal which he used when excavating an ancient ruin. Manfred Fehl lazily picked at his plate like a bored cat. The two made for a strange pair and had drawn stares the entire time they traveled together, even when people didn’t recognize the famous Aimar of Salisbury. While Manfred was young and handsome, his antipathy was easy enough for most people to detect thus souring their impressions of him. On the other hand, Graham was past his prime and had the looks of an elephant, but his humor and good nature were impossible to miss. The old man’s cheeky grin regularly charmed maidens in a way that annoyed Manfred to no end.

The youth and his mentor were seated in a dining car passing the time before the train arrived in New York. Already, the forests outside the windows were thinning, more often being broken up by views of human settlements. That morning, they wore similar uniforms looking like hybrids of formal wear and military battledress. Graham’s jacket bore golden epaulets as well as several other accents denoting his position as a teacher at the academy. Dressed as they were, there was an increase in the number of those whose eyes lingered on them as the breakfast crowd moved through the car.

“What news on the radio today?” Manfred asked more out of a desire to be distracted from his thoughts than genuine interest in the events unfolding in the world.

“Harumph. Trouble as usual. Partisans in California tore up a stretch of track outside San Francisco during the night. If someone hadn’t called in a tip to the police, who knows if it would have been noticed before a train derailed. Another dust storm on the plains.”

Graham trailed off to elevate another perfectly cut bite of sausage to his mouth. After swallowing, he spoke on a new topic.

“Rumor on the train is that there was a brawl last night.”

“Trouble as usual, I suppose.”

They shared a knowing look. Graham would neither condemn nor approve of such behavior so long as Manfred was discrete.

“Nervous for today, lad?”

“I’d feel better if you could tell me about my opponent.”

Setting aside his empty plate, Graham chuckled.

“I apologize young Fehl, but I do not make a habit of learning about all of the sons of minor noble families. In fact, I can’t recall what George Whitehall senior’s ergaleion is capable of despite surely having witnessed him fight several times. George junior is unlikely to be any more notable.”

The old man’s words did little to put Manfred at ease. Most people would probably make the same estimation of him if asked.

“While I can’t say anything about young Whitehall, I can say that you are an above average fighter for your age. You’re going to be facing off against a fair number of spoiled young men who have never crossed blades with someone other than their tutors.”

Graham puffed himself up, continuing in a tone that was a mixture of pride and the hush of a conspirator.

“You don’t have to worry about each and every duel. Just with my training, you should be able to whip enough of your peers to win the minimum number of matches. That you’ve been pushing yourself since before we even met is a sign that you might even excel as one of the top of your class. Your Heldengeist is certainly dangerous enough, if you rein in that contrarian attitude of yours and get yourself some friends.”

“Old man, I was starting to tear up until that last bit.”

They both laughed. No matter how much of a contrarian Manfred was, months of living together in tents while out hunting for historical treasures had brought them close. He usually detested such extroverted, charismatic people as Graham, but the archaeologist-knight was truly a man without faults whose overbearing energy was the result of the enthusiasm he poured into every pursuit. Admired by all, feared as one of the most dangerous knights during the Great War, Manfred knew that he was very fortunate to have received personal training from that man.

The son of two students who eloped before graduating as knights and subsequently been disowned by their families, there had been little hope of him being accepted into the National Academy. However, he had heard that his father had been a favorite of Graham’s and sent a letter asking for a recommendation. The school’s masters had the privilege of enrolling students of their choosing without review. The proud knight had only one condition: Manfred would spend the winter training with him while he traveled about conducting the archaeological work that was his true passion. When the time came to return to the school, if he found him to be unworthy of the reputation of a student he had personally chosen, his recommendation would be revoked.

An attendant walked by their table, Graham caught her attention with a flash of his magnetic smile. He ordered two glasses of whiskey. Wearing his elegant uniform, there was no need to identify himself to her as a noble so she set off to fill his order without question.

“A bit much at this hour, isn’t it?”

Graham said with a wink, “It isn’t all for me. We’ll have a last toast together. After this morning, I won’t be able to treat you with much favoritism.”

“If we’re cutting out the favoritism, I’ll make sure to bug you about all my troubles like any other teacher.”

Graham smiled but composed himself seriously for a moment.

“There is one thing I will specifically refuse. I don’t intend to lend you my Evil Eye.”

The declaration didn’t surprise Manfred. In all the time they had traveled together, he had never been allowed to copy his mentor’s ergaleion with his own. He had never even seen the legendary weapon, though the old knight would have little reason to draw out that dread thing during a time of peace.

They finished their drinks as the train crossed onto Manhattan Island. Though he had never been to New York before, the city was similar enough to Chicago to make Manfred feel like he was returning home. Tenement buildings rose up taller than any home he’d seen for the past few months. Skyscrapers towered in the distance like the trees of a monstrous forest.

The train pulled into Grand Central Station alongside several others on a maze of tracks. Graham and Manfred stepped out onto a busy platform, immediately assaulted by the cacophony of the scene. They fought their way through the crowd with their suitcases until a young man wearing the academy’s uniform appeared ahead of them.

“Welcome, Master Aimar.”

“Ah, Van Buren. How are you?”

Van Buren stood slightly taller than Manfred with an extra inch or two being comprised entirely of the self-importance common to the sons of nobles. His brown hair was cut to style, clearly taking a great deal of time each morning to maintain.

“The preparations at the academy are going well, of course, but I am displeased to report that any luggage you have stored on that train will be delayed in reaching your apartment. There is a strike ongoing among workers at the trainyard who refuse to allow any cargo to be unloaded.”

Graham turned and said, “It looks like your collection will be late, the school’s armoury should provide whatever you need for today’s match though.”

The other student seemed to take this aside as a slight, as if he was astounded that the teacher would disregard him to talk to someone else instead. Manfred couldn’t tell if Van Buren’s ire was too subtle for Graham to notice or if their elder simply didn’t care.

“By the way, this is William Van Buren. Van Buren, this is Manfred Fehl,” Graham said to introduce the two.

Surprisingly, his name was apparently recognized by Van Buren. The look of scrutiny he received made it clear that this recognition was not positive however. Manfred wondered just how much he knew, or perhaps his family name was all that was recognizable.

“Welcome, first year. I am William Van Buren, student legate.”

Manfred was sure now that Graham was purposefully toying with the arrogant young man. He would never forget the title of someone he truly respected.

“Master Aimar, I’ve prepared a car to take you to the school. If you’ll follow me, we’ll get you on your way and then I will see what can be done about negotiating to get your luggage released. I’m sure you’ve brought another trove of artifacts.”

The teacher had indeed brought along a small crate carefully packed with arrowheads, ceramics, and an assortment of other things pulled from beneath the soil.

“What do you say, lad? Would you care for a ride?”

William looked as if he was barely restraining an exclamation decrying that a lowly first year would receive the privilege he had arranged for their esteemed instructor. Not to placate him, Manfred declined the invitation.

“There are still a few hours before the ceremony begins and I’d like to walk out in the city for a short while. It feels like forever since I was last surrounded by actual civilization.”

They parted ways, Van Buren hurrying Graham along, and he left the station on foot. The city air was thick, dirty as he remembered it was in Chicago. The noises of crowds along the sidewalks and shops opening for the morning brought a sense of urgent vitality to the world. He didn’t know what to make of the fact that he felt more alive surrounded by all this than he had out in the verdant landscapes devoid of humanity despite his general dislike for this same society. It made him feel tainted somehow, as if grime and smoke had stained his spirit already.

Slowly, he meandered toward Central Park while using the sights of the city as a model for rearranging his heart. He’d grown softer, now he needed once more to become dispassionate in order to meet the challenges ahead. Concrete, steel, glass, stone. Those were his ideals.

Real Aire
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