Chapter 3:


The Hero's Shadow

As though a mirage showing the illusion of an oasis, the park seemed like untouched wilderness hidden within the ever growing city. Manfred walked the path toward the academy through a forest with a stream of taxis, limousines, and even a few horse drawn carriages coming and going beside him. There was no doubt that these were students, staff, and spectators heading for the same location. Deep in the park, he finally arrived at a vast clearing where a cluster of buildings in the old style of castles and palaces rose up behind an ornate iron fence.

The large gates, designed so that the twisting metal showed a vast scene of figures in battle, were thrown wide open to admit the arriving crowd. Inside the perimeter, sprawling lawns of trimmed grass completed the picturesque look of the academy. The roadway led up to a plaza in front of the largest building where groups of students and well dressed adults mingled.

Approaching the main structure he spotted part of a rounded building farther back on the property. The exterior wall composed of stacked layers of stone archways made it an almost identical sibling of the Colosseum in Rome. Manfred eyed the arena warily; he would be fighting a duel there in a few short hours.

A few other students came over to greet him. They had the easygoing aura of upperclassmen who had already passed through this day before.

“Hello there, are you a new student? We’re here to help anyone who needs directions.”

“Thank you, my name is Manfred Fehl. I’m pretty sure the auditorium will be easy to find, but I’d like some help finding my room at the dormitory so I can store my suitcase.”

He didn’t particularly need help, but there was something about which he was curious. Giving out his name wasn’t typical of him, despite how rude it might be considered. Now he was testing for a reaction.

“We’ll get you sorted right out. Manfred Fehl. Manfred Fehl...Ah, you’re one of the people who have matches scheduled today. You’ll need to head to the arena’s east entrance at one thirty at the latest to check in.”

Other than that, he didn’t appear to recognize Manfred’s name at all. No one else in the small group reacted either. Satisfied, he allowed himself to be led to the dormitory where an attendant gave him a key.

The room was spartan, but that suited him just fine. It was a better accommodation than he’d had for nearly four months. That there was a bathroom down the hall with indoor toilets and plumbing was reason enough to celebrate. His room contained a large table and several chairs, two plain armoires, and two beds with simple furnishings. What stuck out the most was that another suitcase was already sitting in the center of the room. Apparently his roommate had come in, but hadn’t been determined to lay claim to half of the room on his own. It was a good sign that he wasn’t going to have to suffer the presence of an inconsiderate fool.

After leaving his suitcase behind, Manfred returned to the main building and followed the crowd to the auditorium. The vast room looked like a mixture of a Greek amphitheater and an opera house. Hoping to sit alone, he searched for a seat in the back rows where fewer people had gathered. However it wasn’t long before the chamber was filled to capacity. The students were outnumbered by family members, alumni, nobles, and other observers.

With so many knights and those striving to reach that status, the space was saturated with overflowing virya. While Manfred had trained hard to be able to conceal his presence from all but the most determined detection and had no doubt that many others in attendance could do the same, it seemed as if some people were taking the opportunity to flaunt their power. Distinguishing between individuals was difficult in the ocean of energy, though there were a few areas where he could feel the presence of truly awesome figures whose reserves of virya were many times greater than his own.

After some time, the lights were brought down and the academy’s masters marched out onto the stage along with a contingent of students who were presumably centurions. They were led by the legate Van Buren. He approached the podium first and began speaking.

“I’d like to welcome all of the new and returning students, and to thank all of our guests for coming today to support the academy.”

The pompous young man launched into a sort of speech which he had obviously prepared to be as long as possible in order to increase his time in the spotlight. Manfred wondered what machinations had gone on behind the scenes to make such an unlikable fellow leader of the student body.

“Now, I have the honor of introducing the esteemed grandmaster of the Men’s National Knight Academy, Johann von Hallerstein.”

An older gentleman whose black and gold uniform was framed by a red cape took Van Buren’s place at the podium. He gave a similar speech welcoming the audience, but his delivery was far more elegant and meaningful. Even though he was a superior orator, his calls to adhere to the standards of honor and to strive for the good of the nation did not move Manfred.

“Finally, I would like to speak directly to our newest students. Many of you likely have the expectation that to be named a knight is your right. You may have even been told as much. However, this academy does not exist to idly approve the transfer of noble titles between generations. There are plenty of other schools around the nation that operate in that way. This academy was founded by the first king of the United States with the intent that only an exceptional sort should be able to receive knighthood through its program. That intent has meant that those who do pass through these halls successfully are recognized around the world as elites among the elite. To maintain that reputation, I strive to keep our standards as high as they have always been.”

The grandmaster paused, looking around the auditorium as if picking out each student in the crowd.

“This means that some of you will fail. You’ve chosen to pursue something beyond your abilities and though this might be a foolish decision, it is admirable in its own way. However, some of you will be in danger of failing not for lack of aptitude, but for lack of seriousness. These next three years will be some of the most important in your entire lives. Treat them as such.”

Manfred needed no such encouragement. The future he sought was dependent on receiving the status of a knight who had graduated from this prestigious school. Already he considered himself to be at war with the next three years.

“Not all of you will be able to complete the normal course. You will fall in a few too many duels, or else you will fail the academic tests required of you. Do not despair. Act immediately to work with your teachers and arrange opportunities to receive awards of merit. Every year, there are a few who graduate to knighthood with more such awards than actual passing marks in their classes or victories in the arena.”

Having covered the heavy topic, Grandmaster Hallerstein’s expression brightened.

“Now, let the 144th term begin as always, with a feast.”

And with that, he left the stage starting a riotous movement out of the room. Manfred waited for the area to clear before rising from his seat. He had no real desire to eat before his match. A check of his pocket watch told him that he still had some time before he needed to appear at the arena, so he decided to exit onto the grounds and find some quiet place to be alone.

He wandered toward the back of the campus, passing by another palatial school building, the apartments of the masters, the student dormitories, the arena, and a large gymnasium. Beyond these, the surrounding forest was only twenty feet away with several footpaths winding through the trees. Manfred walked out to the farthest loop of the pathways and then went out even farther into the forest. Finding a comfortable place at the base of a tree, he sat down.

The spring air was still cool and the isolation of the park made it possible to forget that he was in the largest city in the country. For a few moments he simply rested in the shade, then he started to prepare himself for the battle he would soon fight. He began by turning his focus inward and making himself still. Next he released the hold he maintained on his virya so that it flowed through and out of him naturally. Now he stood up, starting to manipulate the flow to draw energy into different parts of his body one by one starting from his toes and working toward his head. Alongside this, he stretched his limbs and made them ready for exertion. By the time he got up to his head, he had focused his attention down to even more specific parts such as his eyes and ears.

The exercise helped to hone the precision of his control, something that was vital for using his Heldengeist. Channeling virya through his body also allowed him to relieve the tension in his muscles and tune himself to peak form.

After completing the process, he gathered up some of his energy and projected it outward without releasing it entirely. He stretched the tendril out as far as he could, just barely enough to begin sensing the gathered power of those in the dining hall. He strained his consciousness to feel those distant targets, trying to discriminate between individuals and evaluate their relative strengths.

Unexpectedly, he heard someone approaching. The stranger must have had a great deal of control over his virya because Manfred hadn’t detected him at all until the sound of rattling metal reached his ears. Opening his eyes, he saw another student trudging along the path with a tall crate resting horizontally on one shoulder. He recognized it instantly as his own luggage which was supposed to have been held back on the train.

The student was much larger than Manfred, who was neither short nor smaller in frame than average. He was surely the sort of person whose stature made some historians speculate on the reality of ancient accounts of giants and their interbreeding with humans. The youth was looking about in the forest as he walked, eventually spotting Manfred and heading right up to him.

“Excuse me, are you Manfred Fehl?”

Unsure of this stranger, he nodded silently.

“Ah, you’re right where Master Aimar said you’d be. How about that?”

He set down the crate and offered his hand.

“My name’s Roland Ward. Nice to meet you.”

“I suppose Graham put you up to the task of retrieving that. So much for not showing any favoritism.”

“That’s right, I was worried when I didn’t spot you at the feast so I started asking around and next thing you know, I’m running down to the station.”

Roland let out airy laughter, but Manfred was growing ever more wary.

He tried to keep suspicion from his voice as he asked, “Why were you looking for me?”

“Oh, I guess you don’t know. I’m your roommate. I know you have a duel coming up so I reckoned you’d want to chow down before but you weren’t there so I got worried.”

Manfred had the whole picture now, though his feelings were mixed on the outcome. The energetic figure before him was the exact type with whom he couldn’t deal well. On the other hand, it was still better than having a prideful, arrogant brat as a roommate. He suspected something else as well.

“Mr. Ward, would your family happen to be commoners?”

A slightly downcast look crept onto his face.

“Yes, we are.”

His attitude had given it away. For someone used to dealing with the aristocracy and their children, Manfred could spot the difference in status just from the way people carried themselves and talked to others. There was no pretension in Roland’s behavior.

Manfred smiled without guile.

“What a coincidence, so am I.”

He wasn’t sure that it was coincidence, but this mattered little compared to the joy this admission brought to his roommate’s countenance. No doubt he had been worried about what the reaction might be from a noble’s son forced to share a room with him. It was something Manfred had been dreading as well.

They chatted idly for a little while sharing minor details about their lives. Roland came from a family of farmers who lived in the state of New York not too far from the city. Manfred told him of his home in Chicago, but did not explain what had happened with his parents or that his father had died. He noticed that Roland kept a shortsword sheathed at his side. It wasn’t uncommon for people to have sheaths made to fit their ergaleia so that they could manifest them continuously either as a show of status or because the time it took to bring forth their weapons in battle was too long.

Roland had been casting glances at the crate while they spoke and finally asked, “I don’t mean to pry, but I got mighty curious about your luggage carrying it over; what’s in there?”

Manfred hesitated a moment in deliberation. He intended to keep as much information about his ergaleion hidden as he could, but including the other in his secret keeping could be used to establish a bond of fellowship. It would certainly make his life easier to endear himself to the simple farmer’s son, and eventually his Heldengeist’s capabilities would be plain for all to see. There was no guarantee that he wouldn’t need to reveal them in full just to win his first match.

“You can go ahead and open it if you want. It’s just a collection of weapons I keep around for practice. Several different swords, a spear, axe, and a few others.”

This alone wasn’t that abnormal. Many knights supplemented their ergaleion with additional arms. Roland unlatched the crate and lifted the lid to inspect the equipment within.

Manfred continued in a neutral tone, “Here, draw your blade and I’ll show you something interesting.”

Roland tensed up at the mention of his own sword, but the reluctance was only momentary before he unsheathed it. Manfred brought forth his Heldengeist with a flick of his wrist, the speed of its manifestation clearly shocking his roommate. He had practiced his virya control so thoroughly in part to increase the speed of this action as much as he could.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone about this. In order to win some of these first duels, I’m hoping to surprise my opponents.”

With that he reached out to tap his dagger against Roland’s shortsword. When he did so, its form and function were identified by his Heldengeist. The other boy’s ergaleion was far more impressive than Manfred had suspected from its unassuming look. He could tell that it held the ability to magnify the raw physical power the wielder derived from channeling virya, which was itself a common enough sort of thing, but the extent of the magnification was incredible in comparison with other such ergaleia he had encountered.

However, there was something else about the blade which eluded him, some hidden depth he could not understand. The other reason he practiced his control so obsessively was so that he would be able to master any ergaleion with which he crossed paths, but here was another with part of its power beyond his reach.

He put the annoyance from his mind and returned to his demonstration. With another flick of his wrist he dispelled the dagger’s physical form and in an instant reforged it with another surge of energy. Now the weapon had the exact shape of Roland’s shortsword, similar in appearance to a gladius, though it retained the dull black composition of its original form.

“Ah! I get it, I get it,” his roommate exclaimed as he looked again toward the stockpile Manfred kept. “With an arsenal like that, you can choose what sort of weapon you bring into any battle.”

He made no mention of being able to copy an ergaleion’s ability as well. It was enough to entrust Roland with one secret.

Roland’s reactions to Heldengeist were interesting; he seemed not to think anything of its natural form as a dagger and was impressed by what should be considered a rather lackluster ability. Borrowing the shape of other weapons might be useful in a pure contest of arms, but if that was all it could do he would always be at a disadvantage against ergaleia even with simple abilities like slightly boosting the strength of the wielder, let alone the more dangerous ones capable of unleashing fearsome torrents of destructive force or inflicting curse-like conditions on enemies.

Still, he had to admire the exceptional nature of Roland’s blade. Just holding it in hand caused him to feel a surge of power. With barely a pinch of virya, he would be able to easily cut down the trees around them in single strikes. He had wondered how this commoner had been selected as a student, but it was clear enough now that his ergaleion made him an equal of most of the noble lineages. In Manfred’s possession, the ability might even allow him to challenge a royal bloodline on even footing.

Manfred dispelled Heldengeist once more, but he kept his focus on Roland’s ability so that it would not slip away yet. He intended to use it to win the approaching duel.

“Would you be so kind as to carry that for me over to the arena?”

“Sure thing!”

The two walked together to the east entrance where Manfred was supposed to present himself. A table was set up for checking in, after which he was directed to the staging rooms under the north side of the building. When they arrived at the designated room, a girl was waiting in the doorway. She was of African descent and wore the white uniform of the Women’s National Knight Academy similar in most other regards to their own uniforms. Their academy’s sister school was also in Central Park, on the other side of the forest behind the property.

“Hello there, Manfred Fehl, right? I’m Mane Diarra.”

It was rare to see African-Americans in many parts of the country due to the mass departures which had taken place when slavery was abolished at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. During his travels in the wilderness and rural areas of Pennsylvania, he hadn’t seen any in four months.

“Miss Diarra, is there something I can help you with?”

“Quite the opposite, I’m here to help you,” she replied with a wink.

His look of confusion amused her.

“It’s a tradition of our schools, some of us ladies are sent over to assist duelists in the locker rooms. Supposed to build rapport or something, but I think it’s mostly just to excite you boys.”

She let them through the door and joined them inside. There were a few lockers for storage, a mirror in which to check the fit of one’s gear, and a small sink.

“If you want any equipment from the armory, I’ll retrieve it for you. They’ve got all sorts of weapons and armor, obviously. Also if you need any explanations about the match itself, just let me know. You’re familiar with the Phoenix Nest, yeah?”

“Yes, I’m aware of all the procedures.”

One of the academy’s main draws was its enchanted arena. A monstrously expensive form of enchantment, only a few Nests existed around the world. The structure would allow two combatants to fight to the death and then return them to the same condition as when they entered after the duel concluded. This system meant that the school could conduct trials more intense than others in the nation which were limited by having to end duels before serious injuries or deaths occurred. The only other Phoenix Nest in the country was at the Women’s Academy.

“I brought some weapons of my own, but could you go get a few pieces of armor for me? I’d like a chain shirt and a gambeson.”

“Is that all?”

He nodded and explained, “I don’t know anything about my opponent, so I can’t rely on something heavier to stop his ergaleion. I just want a bit of protection for incidental strikes I can’t quite avoid.”

Mane agreed with his assessment, commenting on how she had used similar reasoning herself during matches. She told them that she was a second year with an above average record in the duels she’d fought during the first. While they spoke, she measured him so that she could find him armor that fit. Roland remained quiet and watched her with a strange intensity.

When she had gone, Manfred took a broadsword from his cache and quickly brought out his Heldengeist to copy its shape. Afterward, he released his blade to fade away again.

“Did you fall in love or something?”

“No, of course not! I just have a bit of an interest in that school,” he said blushing.

Manfred let the matter go as Mane returned. He took off his jacket and donned the armor she had brought. Because of the Nest’s restorative effect, he wouldn’t even need to worry about saving his uniform from destruction. He took his wallet out of his pocket, then the watch that had belonged to his father. With that, he was ready and only had to wait for a buzzer to sound above the door leading into a passage from which he would exit onto the arena floor. Mane assured him that she would remain in the room to watch over his possessions during the duel.

Roland excused himself to go join the spectators, but before he left he spoke out in a nervous voice, “Miss, do you know...never mind. Good luck Manfred, I’ll be cheering for you from the stands!”

The two who were left in the room exchanged a glance seeking an answer which neither could provide. They shrugged and began to talk while waiting for the match to begin.

“So did you volunteer to come over here?”

She smiled, answering in a sunny tone, “I signed up for this. I enjoy helping others and I’m looking toward a career as a supporter of other knights. At our school, even some of the older girls look up to me like a big sister.”

While the majority might look down on her choice, considering that role to fit only those who were too weak to excel in combat, he found it to be a more noble aspiration than the usual goal of becoming a dominant fighter.

“Myself, I want to become a knight for the status and then work as an enchanter. It’s difficult, even if you have the talent, to succeed without that recognition.”

She chuckled lightly, “Well I suppose we’ve both set high bars for ourselves coming to these academies despite shunning the front line.”

“I had another reason to come here specifically, not that it really matters,” he replied with gentle finality.

A few moments later, the buzzer rang out. He started down the long hall only to hear a shout from behind.

“Do your best out there!”

The arena was a long oval incorporating a grassy field ringed by a high stone wall at the base of the spectator seating. The stands were only partially filled with students and others who had come over after the feast. Manfred supposed that the matches held on the first day wouldn’t draw much interest unless the sons of important families were fighting.

Across the field, another student stepped out from the darkness of an opening in the wall identical to the one through which Manfred had just entered. He wore a metal cuirass, vambraces, and greaves, but was not otherwise armored. Manfred was quick to note that he carried with him a large greatsword with a wavy blade like a flamberge.

The duelists walked out a short ways onto the field, to the places where two marble platforms marked the starting positions they should take. When they had both stepped onto these, massive braziers above the entrances ignited with roaring blasts of flame to indicate that the Phoenix Nest’s protection was active.

George Whitehall raised his sword to salute those in attendance and then proceeded with the declaration of a boast that was a tradition for the first match in which the students participated each year.

“I will bring honor to my family with these battles, now, witness my prowess!”

The modest declaration elicited only a few cheers from the crowd, but that was the reasonable move for anyone from a lesser bloodline who couldn’t be sure of fulfilling a more ambitious oath. Manfred could vaguely hear a commentator in the stands narrating the scene for the radio broadcast of the match. He raised his hand and slowly brought out his Heldengeist in the form of a broadsword. Clutching it tightly, a minuscule release of virya flowing throughout his body turned into a wave of intoxicating power.

Manfred roared, hoping that the radioman’s microphone would pick up the shout, “I love you, mother! I won’t be defeated, no matter what happens.”

He felt his cheeks burning with embarrassment, but he ultimately cared less about what anyone else might think of him compared to how the person he knew was listening to the broadcast back in Chicago would feel. Still, his words brought on more cheers than his opponent had received, even if some of them were mocking jeers.

George and Manfred faced each other, raised their blades in salute, and awaited the starter’s pistol. When the report rang out, George immediately sprinted forward. Manfred took up a defensive stance in preparation to meet the charge. He had little doubt that he could overpower George in a direct test of strength thanks to the ability of Roland’s ergaleion, but he did have one concern. Heldengeist’s physical form was brittle and might be broken in a clash with the other man’s massive sword.

When George closed the distance, he hefted his blade and threw his momentum into a devastating vertical chop like the fall of a guillotine. Manfred decided to both deflect the strike and sidestep out from under it in case his own weapon failed. The decision saved him from a quick loss; the greatsword clove through his sword with ease. Destroyed, the weapon dissipated like smoke in the wind.

However, the outcome was not quite what he had been expecting. Rather than being shattered, Heldengeist had been cleanly cut. Manfred understood why in the instant their ergaleia made contact. George’s weapon had the ability to sever whatever the blade bit into.

His opponent sensed an opening now that he was disarmed, but this was a sort of feint he had prepared at the start of their duel. George twisted his body around to preserve as much momentum as he could while swinging the greatsword in a huge arc. Once again, the executioner’s blow was parried by just enough to allow Manfred to evade its edge. He had been able to manifest Heldengeist at full speed, much faster than George thought possible due to having seen him draw it out with deliberate sluggishness the first time. This was a beginner’s trick, but it appeared that the other student wasn’t prepared for it.

The broadsword was destroyed again, and again Manfred brought it back to his hand. His opponent had been left in an awkward position from his previous attack, covering for it by once again rotating into a fresh swing. This time he slashed at Manfred horizontally, but, having exhausted his inertia and swinging wildly, there was little threat in the strike beyond the danger of that ergaleion’s ability. Manfred easily parried a third time at the cost of another iteration of his blade.

Now George drew back, his instincts warning him of danger. What he had noticed was that his heavy blade was being turned aside with ease by a one handed sword. He realized that the strength behind that sword was far greater than his own, which would have been immediately apparent from the first blow had his ergaleion not masked the difference by cutting the blade.

It was his turn to take a defensive posture, stepping back a few paces and holding his greatsword in front of him with the edge out. Manfred had to commend the creativity of the technique. All attempts to strike George would be met with a shield which could destroy any weapon that touched it.

He did not let this dissuade him from lashing out.

Though his Heldengeist would be split almost in an instant, the moment of contact was enough to impart a great deal of force on his opponent’s defense. His first strike drove George back a pace. The second nearly forced him to drop his sword. A third pushed him back another step.

Only now did Manfred truly appreciate the terrifying power of Roland’s ergaleion. He focused more of his virya into Heldengeist, creating a rush of might throughout his body. There would be a split second of vulnerability as he broke his blade on the other, but George was too busy recoiling from the blow to attempt to counter. Again and again, he hammered away at his opponent. Coming from the stands, he could hear the commentator describing the assault with hurried shouting.

Finally, he moved to take his victory. He had been neglecting to copy the ability of George’s ergaleion so as to disguise this capability, but he figured that after the rain of powerful blows it wouldn’t be suspicious to see the greatsword broken. Once more he manifested Heldengeist, but now the blade was empowered with abilities taken from both Roland and George.

The next swing caused both swords to be severed, evoking a look of shock from the other duelist and a cry to erupt from the crowd. He felt George begin to pour virya out from his hands to reform his ergaleion, but the attempt was too slow. Manfred thrust his already returned blade through his opponent’s chest. For a moment, he could feel the crunch of metal and separation of flesh around the weapon, a sensation of visceral slaughter for which Graham had been careful to prepare him.

In the next instant, he found himself standing once more on the marble platform. George stood on the other platform, unharmed. He shivered from the distinct impression that he had been turned upside down, plunged into a freezing river, and slammed into a brick wall, but the impression was a ghost of a memory, something he’d half-experienced as the Phoenix Nest reset the state of the field.

Across the arena, above the other entrance, the flame in the large brazier was no more. He turned to check the entrance behind him; the flame there still leapt and danced.

He looked down at his hand, aware of another lingering feeling, that of having plunged his blade through another person. The Phoenix Nest had obviously prevented the duel from actually resulting in a death, but that in itself seemed distasteful in another way. He was not eager to draw blood from others and wondered if the Nest’s power would desensitize him to the violence of desperate battle.

George looked around the arena, searching for something to explain his loss and trying not to absorb the fact that it had happened. He swiftly withdrew back through the entranceway behind him; Manfred did the same, not caring to bask in the light of victory.

Mane sat in the locker room reading a book. They spoke briefly, her congratulations falling without effect on his stony mood. The older girl saw him off and returned the equipment he had borrowed. When he left the building, Roland was waiting for him.

“That was incredible! I was worried you would have trouble with mister Whitehall’s Separare Dira, but you managed to put him on his back foot and break his sword instead.”

Manfred regarded his roommate with an exhausted stare and said, “You knew about his ergaleion?”

“Yes, I’ve seen him participate in some of the junior tournaments. I tried to come into the city to watch as many as I could,” Roland replied.

Manfred kicked himself for failing to realize that the local boy might know about other students if they lived in the area. Letting the matter go, he set off for the dormitory with his roommate chatting his ear off about the match. When they arrived back at their room, the time had come to organize its division between them. Roland was eager to give him whatever he wanted, but Manfred cared little for choosing when the choice was so meaningless. He simply laid his crate of weapons against the wall on the western side of the room.

As they unpacked their suitcases, Roland continued to engage him with small talk to which he responded without much thought given to what they were discussing. Eventually, the tone of his voice changed to be more serious.

“You don’t seem to be excited over your victory.”

Manfred answered, “It’s just one step on the path; I’ll celebrate when I finish things by becoming a knight.”

Roland seemed troubled by the response.

“You consider that the end?”

He had carelessly revealed some of his true motivation in front of the naive young man, for that is what he considered Roland. To some degree, his roommate reminded him of Graham, but lacking the quick wit and experience that made the older man view the world for what it was rather than what his ideals would lead him to expect it to be.

“The usual reasons that people come to this academy don’t apply to me. Or perhaps I am a more honest example of what motivates most of our peers. They want glory, in name rather than from having performed great deeds. I merely want the name ‘knight’ so that I am no longer recognized as a second class citizen. I’m not going to risk my life for any arrogant lords nor for this ridiculous country,” he finished while barely containing the venom at the core of his being.

The giant sat on the edge of his bed pondering what Manfred had said. He appeared as one of the philosopher heroes of old contemplating the depths of the world. Finally, he spoke up in a small, but resolute, voice.

“You may think it foolish, but I want to pursue the heights of honor. Even if that glory in name is never mine, I want to take on those great deeds.”

Manfred did think it foolish, perhaps lethally so, but that didn’t mean that it was a worthless goal. At least, as long as he was not one of the hypocrites who used honor as a bludgeon for crushing others. He truly did admire those who held themselves to a stringent code, living as examples for others to follow, but he had no desire to set or follow such an example.

“Come on, let’s go see if any of that feast remains. I’m just about ready to eat an entire feast myself at this point,” Manfred said, offering a smile.

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