The Hero's Shadow
Starting from the second morning of classes, Manfred began noticing oddities concerning his roommate. First, he saw that Roland’s ergaleion was propped up against the wall near his bed even though he had awoken before his roommate. It was very rare to be able to keep one manifested even while asleep. This also made it stand out to him that Roland kept the sword with him at all times. He had brought it to their history class, and he brought it with them when they went to the enchanting atelier later that morning.
The first year enchanting course was hosted in the dingiest backroom of the basement complex underlying the campus. Of course, dingy was a rather relative description for a room in a prestigious academy; it was cleaner and better equipped than the public enchanting lab Manfred had used in Chicago.
Heading the class was Master Thule, who stood even taller than the giant Roland. He glared at the students with a single eye, half of his face being wrapped with a dark cloth. Rumors circulated among the students that the master’s other eye socket was occupied by a rune inscribed stone which allowed him to sense all sorts of ridiculous things like lies or approaching misfortune.
As soon as the class began, he growled, “Bronson, what is the basis for enchanting?”
The sudden question froze the atmosphere in the room and the student who was called upon hesitated a few moments before answering.
“The ability to infuse virya into objects?”
“Don’t answer me with a question, child.”
Bronson stood straighter and barked back, “The basis for enchanting is the ability to embed virya into objects!”
Thule nodded, then asked, “Charles, what are the three traditional divisions of enchanting?”
“Washing, infusing, and forging!”
“Emery, what is the most effective form of enchanting?”
Thule slammed the countertop beside him with a closed fist.
“The most effective form depends on what your intended use for the object is.”
“Good. Now, just what is it that is the ultimate expression of the enchanter’s art?” the teacher asked while indicating with his hand which student was to answer.
“The creation of a philosopher’s stone.”
Thule shook his head and pointed elsewhere, “Too specific, what is the origin of the stone?”
The next student shouted, “Capturing the essence of an ergaleion in a formula that can be replicated by others.”
Master Thule nodded, then stepped up to the students at the closest laboratory workstation and pulled an iron ingot from his artisan’s smock.
The two students raced to lay hands on the ingot, the winner picking the object up with both hands and releasing waves of virya upon it. After a few moments, the teacher took back the metal to check its temperature. He nodded once, then moved to the next group.
He applied a burst of his own virya to the ingot with great precision to heat it further, saying after he did, “Cool it.”
One of the students grabbed the ingot and once again started to channel energy through the material. This time there seemed to be a bit of a struggle in completing the task. This was to be expected since the act of lowering an object’s temperature was more difficult than raising it by a factor of ten. Eventually, Master Thule took back the iron and was apparently satisfied with the effort as he walked on to another workstation.
“Now, let’s see if you can magnetize it,” he said gruffly.
The first man to take up the ingot tried for a minute to weave virya across the metal, but his efforts failed. He passed it off to his partner, but after his attempt the droplet of iron slag Thule used to test for magnetism still did not adhere to the ingot. The teacher snatched the bar away and continued on to the next station, which happened to be where Roland and Manfred stood.
Master Thule foisted the ingot on Roland and demanded that he try to magnetize it. The young man looked worried as he set the iron on the counter, bending over it and placing his hands atop the metal. At first, nothing seemed to be happening. Manfred could sense nothing from his roommate for a little while, then a trickle of virya came from him without focus. A few moments of this appeared to exhaust Roland completely.
It made no sense to Manfred, how the young man could be so weak and inept at virya control. While it was clear that even a person with a low reserve would be uplifted by the power of his ergaleion, it seemed as if he lacked what would be necessary to manifest the sword in the first place. Unless he needed to use a great deal of energy to bring the blade forth and maintain its form. Still, his control appeared too unfocused for someone who could maintain his ergaleion even while asleep. This was usually considered a feat demonstrating great mastery of virya manipulation. Manfred, whose training for the sake of ensuring he could copy many of the ergaleia he encountered meant that his control was above average, could not accomplish this.
Manfred grabbed the ingot from the counter and channeled virya through the metal. He excited the iron with waves of energy, infusing it with a charge as though it had been rubbed with a powerful magnet. This was something Manfred had practiced before, basic enchanting exercises being a good way to develop skill in controlling one’s virya.
“Okay, the rest of you are off the hook, for now at least,” their teacher said after sticking the lump of iron to the ingot. “You will need to demonstrate the ability to do at least that much to pass this year. Some of you are probably thinking that these courses are pointless: you want to stand on the front line with a quartermaster supplying all your equipment. But your battles might not be so orderly. During the Great War, a lot of knights had to learn real quick how to infuse their own bandages when the stocks ran low and they were cut off from resupply.”
Master Thule stalked around the room, fixing his single eyed glare on the students as he passed.
“If you want to become the greatest warriors, there is no doubt that you will encounter opponents using all manner of enchanted weapons and armor. Some of these will be more dangerous than the ergaleia they wield. You will want to know the potential of these items, and their weaknesses. A basic understanding of enchantment is vital to a life spent on the battlefield.”
The craftsman-knight returned to the front of the room, beginning their first class with an overview of the history of the art from the earliest forays of shamans imbuing carved idols with the echoes of the strange sentiments they brought back from their journeys to the otherworld to the recent exploits of scientists using enchanted instruments to carry out the most precise experiments. Manfred needed no convincing about the importance of enchanting; he alone of his peers already intended to avoid the battles that would be fought in the future, instead supplying them the tools they would use in destroying each other for his own profit. Roland listened intently, but held himself in a deflated manner. It was not clear that he could clear the requirements of the class.
That afternoon, Manfred ventured over to the arena to watch the duels. He intended to watch every other student fight at least once so he could take notes on their ergaleia in case he was matched against them. While most duels were fought between students in the same year, there were occasions when they would face upperclassmen. Perhaps he would even choose a few fellows to approach to ask to borrow their ergaleia once his secret was revealed in battle. He had been lucky that his first duel had not required him to show either of the ways in which his Heldengeist could copy other weapons.
Roland joined him in the stands, still a little sullen after the experience in class. However, he quickly returned to his usual animation once the matches began. The students who fought that afternoon were not the most impressive. While Manfred felt that he would struggle to defeat some of them, none were either so impressive as swordsmen or the bearer of an ergaleion so terrifying that he was forced to rule out the possibility of winning altogether. One of the matches was even at a lower intensity than some of the childish skirmishes he’d fought against the sons and daughters of nobles while growing up in Chicago.
He reflected on what had transpired at the cafe the day before. Volta Avarra. The poise with which he held himself made it plainly apparent that his skill was the real deal. And his ergaleion, Manfred knew nothing about its power, but it had allowed him to slip into the center of the melee in an instant. He had been unable to detect the burst of virya accompanying the movement until Volta had already appeared. That was someone he doubted he could beat.
Having seen enough for the day, Manfred rose to leave with Roland following behind. When he reached the passage that led from the seating into the interior of the building, another student blocked his way. The young man looked strikingly similar to Manfred, except that his visage was warped by ugly hatred.
“It was quite unbelievable when we got the news that you were to attend the academy,” he said, voice dripping with affected disdain.
Guessing at the identity of the other and entirely disinterested in the interaction, Manfred replied, “What does it matter to your lot anyway? Your father and mine severed their ties, after my father severed his arm.”
The man snarled and advanced a pace. Virya streamed from his hand, expanding into a mass that resolved into the form of a mace. At this, Roland stepped up from behind Manfred to impose his presence on the two. The broad shouldered boy stood tall between them.
“I’m afraid we haven’t been introduced, my name is Roland Ward.”
“I don’t care who you are, mongrel. This is a matter for the two of us to decide,” the other student spat.
Manfred interjected, “Unless I’m mistaken, this would be Siegfried Fehl, my cousin.”
Roland turned to look at him with shock, then turned once again toward his cousin. The young man sneered at them. He seemed determined to make the most of every opportunity to act antagonistically. Manfred could only imagine how much vitriol had been fed to the lad by his father. Still, he cared little for the grievances of the last generation.
If he took up those old causes, he would not stop until the Fehl clan had been erased and those aristocrats who stood atop the mounds of dead soldiers from the Great War were cast into Hades.
“How impetuous, that you would show your cursed face here, or perhaps you’ve come to follow in your father’s footsteps by eventually fleeing in shame.”
Pooling virya within himself in preparation to spring forward, Manfred growled, “And perhaps you’re here to retrace your father’s path leading away lamed and disgraced.”
A crowd gathered around them, attracted by the raised voices and unable to pass by to exit. This is what Siegfried had hoped for so that he could provoke Manfred into striking first with others watching. Even if dire bloodshed followed for all parties involved, he would remain blameless as the victim of the assault. Without really knowing the reason for the confrontation, the other students simply cheered on what they thought might turn into an amusing brawl.
Manfred took a deep breath, flooding his body with energy as he exhaled. In response, his cousin pumped himself up as well. Roland tried to tell him to wait, but before the word could be spoken, Manfred took a measured step forward to bring himself face to face with that hateful relative. They stared at each other with unwavering intensity, brimming with energy to the point that the onlookers stepped back for fear that they would be caught up in an explosive clash between the two. The merest movement either made was at risk of provoking a swift counter attack.
“You appear to be blocking the exit, stand aside if you have no business with me,” Manfred said with the evenness of a mirror-still lake at midnight.
After a long pause, Siegfried took a step past him, grinding his shoulder roughly into Manfred’s while hissing in his ear, “Run all you want, but the time for justice is coming.”
He needed no restraint to keep himself from laughing nor from striking his cousin as the conflicting impulses left him torn between the two actions. The notion that the grudge the Fehl family kept kindled against him and his father could be just was as vile as it was absurd. The crowd dispersed in disappointment as Manfred continued on his way with Roland at his heels.
“I was worried you were really going to fight him there for a moment.”
“If I catch him alone in an alley in the city, I might just gut him,” he said with his voice frozen at the edges.
Roland said worriedly, “Are you serious?”
“Only somewhat, but I certainly won’t do anything with an audience around. I won’t put my future on the line for that scum.”
He could already imagine Roland preparing to ensure that he never went out alone so that he’d never encounter his cousin that way. However, going out to wander the streets by himself until he came across an appropriate speakeasy was exactly what he felt like doing that night. Still, he stayed at the school, not wanting to get drunk when they would be training at the gymnasium in the morning. This left him in a bad mood which did not abate until his thoughts were turned to yet another mystery surrounding Roland.
The gymnasium was not one building, but rather an entire complex of outdoor courtyards, sports fields of varying types, indoor halls, and storage rooms filled with weights, equipment, and all manner of gear for practicing everything from fencing to joustball. There were even standard classrooms for when they were to study treatises on war and martial arts. Masters Herrington and Von Dunkelhelm, along with a number of trainers and support staff, oversaw the students’ efforts to perfect their bodies and fighting skills.
As was quickly becoming normal, Manfred and Roland were paired together that morning. After warming up, Manfred retrieved some wooden swords for the two to use in practice. He was somewhat curious as to how skilled his roommate was with a sword, but this curiosity quickly turned to frustration. Roland had clearly never received instruction with a blade. Before they could even begin to spar, Manfred had to teach him a proper grip and attempt to correct his stance. He was imitating what he had seen from watching tournaments and duels, but had almost no experience of his own. Despite his attempts to straighten out Roland’s footwork, some strange quirk remained which seemed almost familiar to Manfred, though he could not understand its source.
Things did not improve once they went into motion. Roland was quick and monstrously strong, but he handled his sword so poorly that Manfred had no trouble deflecting his strikes then knocking it from his hand over and over again. At the least, the larger man was graceful and could avoid many of the strikes aimed at him.
“Aren’t you just too good?” he joked while picking his sword up from the ground once more.
Manfred answered seriously, “I did receive lessons when I was growing up, although a larger factor is that I constantly picked fights with the children of knights. Still, I’m far from the best swordsman at this school.”
“Why did you do that?”
He regarded Roland for a moment, trying to decide if he felt like giving up the answer.
“Knock this sword from my hand and I’ll tell you.”
His roommate wasted no time in taking up the challenge, charging forward as though with reckless abandon. He swung wildly at Manfred, who parried the blow and was just about to twist his sword around to slap the one from Roland’s hand when something unexpected happened. Roland released his grip on the sword so that his hand was free to grab the other when it came near. He tugged on the weapon to pull Manfred off balance while raising his left fist. The punch soared out through empty air as the raven haired youth leapt back, releasing his own sword to escape. Roland smiled smugly.
Manfred walked over to where their canteens were and sat with his back against the gym wall. He wasn’t annoyed by the turn of events, but he was mystified by the boy who was so inept with a sword and yet so dangerous in a fight. He had seen it the other day as well, there was none of the amateur’s hesitation in his movements. Even the sloppy strokes of his sword were made with absolute surety. He wondered more and more how his roommate had been accepted into the academy, and how he would fare in his first duel.
When he had refreshed himself from his canteen, Manfred began in a low voice, “My parents were wealthy enough to get a home near the neighborhoods of the nobility, but that only meant that they were close enough to become the subject of gossip. That disparaging talk was picked up by the nobles’ children; I was not so restrained in the face of provocation as my mother and father were. Of course, it was illegal for me to go after them, but it’s not like the lawmen care about squabbles among children so long as none of the brats get seriously hurt.”
Roland had come over to sit beside him and waited silently as he took another drink.
Manfred continued, his voice becoming warped by bitterness and amusement, “They wanted to bully me like any other commoner, so they were quite annoyed that I could fight them on even footing. At least, as long as they wanted to maintain the pretense of dignity by fighting one on one rather than mobbing up on me. We developed a mutual hatred, and beyond that, I’ve come to despite everything they represented.”
His roommate mulled this over for some time while sipping from his canteen. Finally, he stood again and picked up their wooden swords.
“I reckon that I have a lot of catching up to do, seeing as how I got along with the other boys back home,” he said with a friendly grin.
Manfred pushed himself to his feet and accepted one of the swords from Roland. Their sparring didn’t do him much good, but just the single moment when Roland had surprised him was worth the time investment. That sort of move more befitting a street fight than a knight’s duel was still something he would have to be wary of going forward; even the most civilized of the other students could become desperate in the face of defeat. Besides that, keeping up with the powerful youth was a good workout for the body. Several times, Manfred had to tap into his virya reserve just to brace himself against the other’s normal blows.
“Let’s finish by going all out for a few minutes. I want you to come at me using your virya,” Manfred said, quickly adding, “Without using your actual sword’s power.”
“You know about this sword?” Roland asked somewhat startled.
He had forgotten that they’d never discussed his roommate’s ergaleion; he knew of it from his Heldengeist. Roland brought the weapon with him to the gymnasium and even wore it on his belt as they sparred.
“No, I just mean to use only your natural energy, nothing to do with your ergaleion. We’ll skip training with those for today.”
Roland looked at him skeptically, but quickly composed himself and took up a fighting stance with wooden sword in hand. When he shouted, then charged, Manfred was only slightly surprised by the low magnitude of the virya he released. It was higher than average for a normal person, but so much lower than what could be expected from a candidate for knighthood at the nation’s top academy.
Manfred used a fraction of his own power and repelled the first attack with ease. The follow up strike was even weaker, seemingly exhausting Roland’s stock entirely. He retaliated, using only enough energy to send the large man tumbling away without doing any lasting harm.
He did not know whether or not he should ask about the odd discrepancies in his roommate’s abilities, so instead he asked, “Do you know anything about your opponent for tomorrow’s match?”
Roland smiled sheepishly.
“I’ll be facing Augustus Hallerstein...yes, the grandson of the Grandmaster.”
“Is he strong? Did you see him at any of those junior tournaments?”
He nodded, “Oh yes, he won several. You’d probably be able to tell better than I can because I’m not so good at sensing virya, but he’s close to the level of a royal, I think.”
Roland didn’t appear apprehensive about the duel, but Manfred dared not press the matter further for fear of putting additional pressure on the lad. He let the matter drop and later took him out to lunch in the city again. It was the least he could do since the match seemed hopeless.