Chapter 6:


The Hero's Shadow

It was a luxurious morning for Manfred. He slept well past nine o’clock, then after waking he lounged in bed for a while more. Roland had gotten up and gone out much earlier, no doubt preparing himself for his duel in whatever way he saw fit. Manfred resolved to take the poor fellow for a drink that night no matter how much he might protest.

When hunger finally forced him from bed, he dressed and walked over to the cafeteria, which was largely empty as most students had already finished with breakfast. Manfred scrounged a brunch from what remained of the morning’s spread, happy enough to eat leftovers at the school where no expense was spared for the food served to the students, which rivaled what he’d expect from high class eateries in the city. He slowly nibbled away at his omelette, bacon, toast, and potato hash, relishing the opportunity to dine in peace and quiet.

Soon, he would take his roommate’s place as the one fraught with worry. After the day’s matches concluded and the week was over, the next week’s schedule of duels would be posted. Having had a duel early in the first week, he was likely to have his next early in the second week as well. But there was little he could do to prepare until he knew the name of his opponent, so he put the matter from his mind and idly read a newspaper that had been left at the table.

Morning stretched into afternoon, a new crowd came in for lunch. He joined in with the talk of his peers and eventually steered the conversation toward the topic of the duels starting shortly thereafter. Most of the matches did not interest people, including Manfred, but the duel between Augustus and Roland was anticipated like no other involving the first years. However, Augustus was a heavy favorite. He didn’t even bother trying to find some others who might want to bet on the match because the pool would be too one-sided. Even he saw no reason to bet on Roland as an underdog. Perhaps more than anyone else, he understood how uneven the match-up was.

He heard plenty about the skill and ferocity of Augustus from the other students; how the flames from his ergaleion could incinerate a knight who failed to ward against them. No one else had seen Roland fight though. They knew nothing of his lack of skill with a sword and his seemingly abysmal reserve of virya. Manfred had not seen him wield that blade he carried everywhere, but having used its ability himself he still doubted that it could turn the tide.

After lunch, Manfred walked over to the arena to secure himself a seat. From the shape of the gossip, it seemed that the stadium would be filled for Roland’s duel. Already, the stands were crowded when he arrived and he had to wander the aisles in search of a place to sit.

“Manfred, over here lad!” a familiar voice called out over the excited chatter. Graham was sitting out in the middle of a bench with a single spot open on his right. Manfred shuffled along past those already seated to take it and thanked his mentor.

The older man said with great cheer, “It’s rare indeed for first years to draw such a crowd. Usually you only see this when a governor’s son is set to duel.”

“Augustus seems quite popular,” Manfred remarked.

“Well his matches are quite entertaining, at least if he has an opponent strong enough to survive the first minute. A lot of people are interested in that boy’s future.”

Manfred let a few moments pass before asking, “Have you turned that eye of yours on Roland?”

“I don’t need that to see that he’s out of his league,” Graham said as a lopsided smile spread across his face. “But he does have a surprise prepared for everyone. You copied that sword he carries in your first match, right? What did you make of it?”

Manfred frowned, displeased to have been seen through by the old knight, but answered feigning disinterest, “An impressive ergaleion, but not enough to make up the difference based on what I’ve seen of Roland.”

Graham hummed curiously and said no more.

Before the awaited duel, there was another scheduled. The onlookers cheered half-heartedly as two second year students took the field. He felt bad for them, having to fight in front of such a large audience that was so uninterested in them, but it would be far worse for the duelists scheduled after Augustus and Roland.

Manfred and Graham were seated a few rows behind the radio announcers’ table and could hear the commentary clearly. He had been surprised to learn that the commentators were students drawn from a broadcast club at the academy. That day, it appeared that the entire club was assembled around the microphone, eager to leap onto the airwaves once the day’s main event began.

The first duel itself wasn’t half bad to watch despite the lukewarm expectations from the audience. The second years were evenly matched and decently skilled as swordsmen. One fought with a rapier that twisted and stretched like a furious viper while the other wielded a longsword that sprouted spikes and smaller blades from its length with enough rapidity to repel the tip of the rapier as it bent around regular parries. In the end, the student with the longsword was able to trick his opponent into stepping over a shard of the blade which had fallen to the ground and skewered the other duelist from below as it erupted forth into the form of a thin needle-like growth.

The crowd felt a greater impulse to clap and cheer for the fighters after having watched them, unless it was simply the building tension over the next match that drove their energy. In the few minutes they had to wait for the combatants to appear, the mood of the audience reached a fever pitch. Even the adults who had come to watch matched the enthusiasm of the boisterous students. When Augustus walked out from one of the entranceways at last, a great roar rent the air, though he did not acknowledge the masses of spectators cheering for him.

He cut a strange figure: short almost to the point of being mistaken for a child, but with a robust frame outfitted entirely with the defined muscles of a top athlete plainly visible beneath his uniform. He wore no armor, which was odd considering the Hallerstein family could no doubt afford a set of enchanted plates of the sort that would be able to absorb blows even at the highest level of contests.

To appear totally unarmored, Augustus must have been supremely confident in his ability to dodge whatever came his way, or else he intended to bolster his body with virya until he was nearly impervious to attacks. The unaffected poise with which he walked seemed to confirm this confidence, as did the soft grin gracing his boyish face. A shock of messy red hair completed his profile by providing it the touch of wildness that revealed his true character.

Roland strode onto the field with his head held high. Like his opponent, he was wearing his uniform and nothing else except the sword sheathed at his side. It was no surprise that a commoner like his roommate had no access to the expensive armor necessary to withstand the strikes of a powerful opponent, so he must have decided to rely entirely on avoidance rather than borrowing lighter armors which would just become fodder for the flames of Augustus’ ergaleion.

The taller student was almost certainly aware of the favoritism shown toward the other duelist by the cheering audience, but he showed no sign of stress. If he also considered himself an underdog, he did not let it affect him. The two made their way to the marble platforms and the braziers behind them filled with dancing flames. Roland drew his sword to salute Augustus, then gestured deference indicating that the other should make his boast first.

The red-haired youth dropped into a wide stance and uncapped the energy he kept bottled inside. Waves of virya so thick as to seem physically tangible rolled out from the warrior, crashing over those assembled in the stadium like the heaving tide during a hurricane. His presence surpassed any knight Manfred had encountered before. The members of the broadcast club were talking over each other trying to describe the sensation, but he thought that no words could do better than to simply call the display monstrous.

Suddenly, the space on either side of Augustus burst alight into whirling wheels of flame. He reached into the fires with both hands, closing each around something solid and drawing out two short swords curved like falchions. With a quick slash of the blades, Augustus dispelled the lingering embers. He threw back his head and howled, “I swear, I will show you all legendary battles worthy of the songs of bards!”

The crowd howled back at him, even Roland bellowed his approval of the sentiment. No one doubted that the fierce Hallerstein would fulfill such an oath.

Roland waited for quiet to return to the arena, then raised his sword aloft, pointing the tip away toward the horizon. He shouted in a thundering voice, “I pledge life and loyalty to the heir of the throne of the sun, from this moment until the end of the world!”

Confusion gripped the stadium. The throne of the sun could only mean the old monarchy, but that meant there was no heir. The king had been killed at the end of the Civil War, his government dismantled. Manfred had the sinking feeling that he was now the roommate of the most despised idiot on campus.

But before he could think further on the absurd declaration, Roland surprised the audience once again by plunging his shortsword into his own chest. He folded the arm holding the blade inward, bringing the tip to his own heart. However, the sword did not pierce into his flesh, instead, the tip blossomed into a flare of black fire which swirled in front of Roland’s chest.

He pushed more of the sword toward his body; more of the blade dissolved and added to the fiery cloud. Just when it seemed that the conflagration was going to spill over and consume him, a blinding flash shone from behind the flames. The silvery light overwhelmed the black fire, obscuring Roland with a lingering glow like a lighthouse beacon. After a few moments, the aura faded, revealing a figure clad from head to toe in shining plates of armor. The only imperfection on the silver suit was a mass of inky black tendrils staining the breastplate.

Roland stood with his right fist clasped to his heart, having brought it all the way to his chest in the gesture of self-impalement. Manfred recognized the posture as an outdated salute associated with the fallen monarchy. As if the scene were not bizarre enough from the odd behavior and an armor type ergaleion being quite rare, intense currents of virya radiated from Roland just as the strong light had a moment ago. The armored figure now competed with the short monster’s presence; together, the two created a maelstrom of energy that filled the arena and made Manfred’s hair stand on end.

The shocked silence in the stands was broken by Graham laughing jollily.

“Do you know what in Cernunnos’ name is going on?” Manfred quietly asked.

“Oh yes, that lad has truly done it now. Don’t you recognize the heraldry on his breast?”

He looked more closely at the black shape, unobscured after Roland lowered his hand, and realized that it was not a random mess of dark blotches. It was the icon of the kings of the United States, a stylized black sun with wavy rays which streamed across his chest and around his left side.

“What’s with this guy and the damned monarchy?” he groaned.

Graham answered in an amused tone, “You haven’t read about the first king’s ergaleion, have you? The reason why he was capable of subjugating the colonies was that his ergaleion was quite special. It remained manifested permanently once formed, and he could make many copies of it. Each sword enhanced the strength of the one carrying it, meaning the knights who served him each fought like ten men. However, those whose loyalty was true could fuse those blades with their hearts and thereby attain awesome powers.”

“Then, that wasn’t his ergaleion, but instead…”

“Those swords didn’t disappear with the king’s death, though they became increasingly rare to the point that they are almost mythical these days. It is quite a treat to see such an artifact and a great wonder to see it activated.”

Manfred’s head spun from all that was happening, but he realized that Graham’s explanation had still done little to explain why his roommate was apparently loyal to a dead king. Half a century ago that might have been treason, but in their day it was simply unfashionable and contrarian. However, he had no time to ask for further clarification as the duelists were preparing to begin their battle. The two on the field seemed to be talking about something, so Manfred channeled energy through his ears and strained to hear what they were saying.

“Do you intend to fight without a weapon? I can lend you one of my swords, so that this battle is fair,” Augustus said sincerely, without malice or mockery.

Roland shook his helmeted head, voice echoing from within, “Do you intend to fight without armor? This is my ergaleion. That word means ‘tool,’ not ‘sword.’ I will defeat you with these very fists.”

He raised those gauntleted hands into a boxer’s guard, and Manfred remembered the oddity of his sword fighting stance. What he had almost recognized was that his roommate was mixing the swordsmanship he was emulating with boxing footwork. Augustus grinned impishly and took up a stance with his blades crossed in front of his chest, ready to sprint forward as soon as the match started.

The pistol rang out, the only sound in a sea of bated breath, then the Hallerstein beast roared as he surged across the arena. His lighting steps blasted the field apart where they fell in his straight line dash toward where Roland stood braced for the onrushing storm. Augustus closed the distance in the blink of an eye and, not even bothering to try to slow down to prevent a direct collision, launched himself at the armored tower while sweeping the twin blades like shearing scissors aimed at his opponent’s neck.

The silver-clad fighter threw his arms out to block the perilous double slash, catching the smaller man mid-leap and forcing him back to the ground. For most who would try to defend that attack in such a way, they’d have been cut through the forearms and lost their hands, but Roland’s armor held against the blades just as he held against the stampeding charge without even taking a step back.

The ferocious swordsman lost no time in planting his feet firmly and lashing out with his two weapons each in turn. The wild, but accurate, strikes strove to find gaps in the other’s armor where it covered vital areas, but the swords were repulsed by Roland’s fists one after another. Stab followed slash, the blades constantly seeking new avenues to try to bypass the parrying blows stopping them from testing the joints and seams of the armor for weakness.

After the brief exchange, Augustus spun left, stepping around to strike from Roland’s flank. He continued moving, circling his opponent while slashing at every opportunity he perceived. Despite being so much bulkier, Roland was no slower nor less nimble than his foe; he danced along with the whirling blades, deflecting each attack with his fists and preventing the other duelist from getting behind him.

Neither able to find nor create an opening, Augustus began to withdraw to reassess the battle. However, Roland did not allow him to escape. As the swordsman moved back, the boxer thrust his long arm to pursue with a powerful jab. Now it was Augustus’ turn to parry the blow by striking the incoming fist with one of his blades. Roland continued the offensive by pressing forward with a flurry of punches, each of which was met by a curved sword. Sparks filled the air as the duelists clashed.

The crowd cheered on in approval, whatever ill will Roland had created with his strange introduction was being subsumed under the thrill of the battle. At the radio table, the club members took it in turns to narrate the action, the tempo of the fight running them out of breath. Manfred himself was stunned, amazed to see Roland able to match the speed and power of the monster he faced. He was not simply hanging on with a desperate defense, but was instead confidently holding his ground and even going on the attack.

Augustus’ face was split by a wide smile, making him look at once like both a jubilant boy and a wolf on the hunt. The pace of the melee shifted with the swordsman lashing out twice for every hook or jab Roland threw at him. A torrent of blades enveloped the armored youth as his opponent abandoned all pretense of swordsmanship in favor of a rain of savage strikes. If he could not overcome the other by superior skill at arms, he would break the silver shell with raw power.

The blades and fists of the pair became an intertwined blur shedding bursts of sparks and echoing sounds like a machine gun’s rhythmic blast. Reinforcing his vision with virya, Manfred could barely keep up with their movements, but he could see that some of the sword slashes were finding their way through the blockade of warding gauntlet strikes to crash against the plates of metallic material covering Roland’s body. Where he was struck, the armor shone brilliantly for a moment and then returned to normal. No lasting dents or tears could be seen.

A whirlwind of strikes back and forth between the two set the crowd aflame with passionate cheers. The audience urged them on to faster and faster exchanges of blows. Through it all, Roland had yet to lay his fist on the other youth, but the blades grating against his armor appeared to have little effect. Manfred theorized that the ergaleion provided a final layer of defense by transmuting back into immaterial energy when damaged, resisting with pure force so that no harm would come to Roland himself before turning once more into a solid whole. This would mean that he was near untouchable as long as he still had virya to channel into the armor, and it appeared that he had gained a vast reserve when he had merged with the strange relic.

All at once, there came a dramatic break in the action. The duelists struck at each other so forcefully that both had their arms knocked away to their sides. Their chests exposed, the moment presented an opening for whoever could recover and attack first. Augustus stomped his leading foot firmly, preparing to crush his opponent in the embrace of his twin swords, but Roland drew up his leg and struck out with a vicious front kick that caught the other fighter square at the collarbone. The powerful blow sent the swordsman tumbling backward, crashing to the ground and rolling several times until managing to arrest his momentum. He came out of a roll crouched low, but on his feet nonetheless.

Manfred clicked his tongue disapprovingly even as the stands broke out in a frenzy of shouts and applause.

“Not satisfied, young Fehl?” Graham asked.

He replied gruffly, “He missed a chance at victory there. If he hadn’t restrained that kick, he could have taken his head off instead of just knocked him away.”

“I doubt he’s had much practice fighting with killing intent.”

It was something Graham had been sure to drill into Manfred during their winter together. Within the Phoenix Nest, a moment’s hesitation could be the deciding factor in a duel. It was a place where the restraint of concern for the opponent as during training was a dire weakness. Even the duels arranged during wars to decide contests over territory were often enough resolved by surrender rather than death. Fighting here meant not holding back at all, struggling desperately to the very end. He cursed the Fates for having failed to think of the need to teach his roommate about the proper mindset when they had practiced together.

“Ward delivers a terrifying kick that sends Hallerstein flying back several feet. He’s recovered his footing, but it’s hard to imagine that he shrugs off that blow!” one of the commentators shouted into the microphone.

However, Augustus appeared to be shrugging off the kick just fine. From his crouched position, he once more leapt forward to assault Roland. Rather than having been slowed or weakened by the impact, his attacks came out with even greater speed and power. More and more of his slashes landed on the silver armor, but at the same time, he had seemingly eschewed the completeness of his own defense as he now let the other fighter’s hammer-like fists strike home. Each time a gauntlet contacted his head or torso, the monstrous youth surged past Roland’s extended arm to ram a blade into him. At last, Roland was being staggered by the strikes hitting home on him, forcing him to step back when slapped with the crushing blows. The match had become brutal, almost too horrifying to watch, but the audience was totally absorbed in the brawl.

Leaving himself open to attack, it was not long before Augustus was again knocked away by a blow from Roland. An uppercut lifted the beast from the ground and tossed him a dozen feet, though he landed upright with the grace of a cat. He still showed no sign of being wounded by the strikes he was taking, but at such levels of strength his mass was simply too low to keep him from being sent flying. There was still another factor in Augustus’ fighting style which he had yet to tap into though.

When he charged back toward Roland, the Hallerstein stopped short and swung a sword from out of range. As the blade swished through the air, he released a surge of energy through the weapon which ignited and became a sheet of fire that spread over the blade. The flames raced off the sword and washed over Roland, blocking him from view for a moment. Then he burst through the curtain of fire with fist cocked and struck Augustus. The swordsman half-spun with the blow but also drove his other blade up into the armored form looming over him. The slash lifted Roland into the air where he was subjected to another gout of flame which followed the strike. The blaze was like an explosion and sent Roland spiralling away to crash to the ground in a smoking heap. This time it was his turn to pick himself and dash back into the fray. Augustus harassed him with waves of burning energy flung from his swords as he closed the distance.

Their titanic clash continued as before, but now Augustus augmented his strikes with blasts of flame that set Roland’s armor aglow. A normal suit of armor would have become an oven for the wearer, but the youth’s ergaleion dissipated the heat along with the force of blows. The two duelists took turns slugging each other frightfully, often sending the other sprawling for a moment before the battle was rejoined.

After a few minutes of the grand struggle, the duelists broke apart. Their frames shuddered, both panting in desperate exhaustion. The field around them had been churned up by their dance and scorched by Augustus’ flames. Their overwhelming presences had been greatly reduced, so much virya expended in pursuit of victory.

Augustus raised his swords so that their tips met, pointing at his foe. Once more, the stability of the world was shaken by the flood of energy he poured out and pooled at the edge of his blades. Pushing everything he had remaining into one final attack, he brought forth a gigantic inferno that rushed across the arena like an avalanche of flames.

Roland stood resolute. He raised his arms to shield his head and set himself firmly in the path of the fiery doom swiftly approaching. The air was filled with the bellow of a forge god gone mad as the red, yellow, and orange tide swept over the silver figure. A moment of instinctive panic spread in the stands as it seemed the conflagration would obliterate everything in its path, but the Phoenix Nest was an isolated domain capable of containing the flames. For a short time, which felt like an eternity, the field was turned into a rolling ocean of fire. Manfred waited for the match to end at any moment, expecting the firestorm to be fatal, but the flames eventually died out instead. All except the two braziers marking the fates of the duelists.

Amid the ash and smoke rising from the ruined field, a light shone out through the haze. Roland remained where he stood with his entire suit of armor glowing softly. This time, the glow did not condense into solid silver, but instead broke apart and flaked away like shimmering scales come loose from the wings of a moth. He appeared uninjured, but fatigue weighed his body and Manfred could no longer detect but the faintest sign of his presence.

Augustus stood at the edge of the ruin looking on with grim seriousness. His arms hung limply at his sides as the swords he carried evaporated from his hands as ash on the wind. No sense of power remained in his body either. Yet the match was not over.

“Ward has survived the immense fireball, but both duelists have used too much energy to be able to maintain their ergaleia. How can they continue on!?” shouted someone from the broadcast club.

The answer appeared quite simple, they could not. Having spent everything, physical and spiritual, the combatants marshalled their last dregs of vitality just to remain standing. Either one would fall unconscious and lose, or else catch a second wind and end the battle with a final push. The pair arrived at a momentary stalemate of exhaustion.

“Your opponent is barely able to stand, what are you waiting for, Roland!?” Manfred yelled out over the noise of the crowd.

His roommate must have heard the cry because he suddenly lurched forward like a groggy bear leaving its den after awakening from a long season of hibernation. The unsteady steps he took increased in speed, but Roland did not quite manage to break out into a sprint. Still, he closed the gap between the fighters and bore down on Augustus with a fist raised above his head. The shorter youth stumbled forward to meet the awkward charge, swinging his own arm in an attempt to strike first. However, now the difference in their heights and the lengths of their arms was on full display.

Augustus could not reach Roland before the latter’s fist came down on him like the stroke of a sledgehammer. The blow sent him reeling, but did not knock him to the ground, and he pressed forward again to punch at Roland with his ever-present ferocity. Once more, Roland’s fist sped through the distance between them and smashed into Augustus’ face before that other could reach him. Exhausted and without their ergaleia or anything else with which to fight except their bare hands, the battle finally became one-sided.

This did not mean that it ended immediately though. Pushed back and sent stumbling by the successive strikes of Roland’s large fists, Augustus still refused to succumb. When Roland tired from the effort, his bestial opponent began to find his body with counter attacks. Yet again, the melee was devolving into an exchange of blow for blow. The two were made bloody, their knuckles split and their faces cut. Still, they hammered away at each other.

At last, they pitched forward and collided. Their combined strength was necessary to prop their joined bodies upright and neither had excess left to continue striking. After a long moment of feeble grappling, Roland reared up and slammed his head into Augustus’ brow with a final gasping roar of frenzy.

Faster than a blink, the scene changed before the eyes of the onlookers. The field that had been smote to ruins was made whole and green. The two combatants stood clean, unbloodied, with crisp uniforms at the marble platforms set into the ground of the arena. The brazier behind Augustus was extinguished.

“The duel is over! Roland Ward defeats Augustus Hallerstein with a final, agonizing headbutt! Ward has won! Ward has won!” screamed one of the students at the broadcast station, perhaps the first person in the arena to recover from the shock of the sudden end to the match.

The duelists on the field themselves looked confused, scanning their surroundings as if in a stupor. When cheering and shouting began to spread through the stands, neither reacted at first. The noise became a cacophony and Roland began to wave back at the crowd. Augustus raised a fist not to acknowledge those in the stadium, but to salute his opponent while a wholly pleasant smile spread across his features. The defeated student retired from the arena to allow the victor to bask in the atmosphere of his glory.

Manfred and Graham both clapped, but they shared a more somber mood. Whatever it was that Roland had meant by his oath before the match, it was certainly not insignificant. Scanning the rest of the audience, Manfred could see a number of adults, dressed in the finery of the nobility, who were not joining in the festive mood. While the spectacle of the duel might have erased the fool’s boasting about the monarchy for other students and the common folk in attendance, there was no doubt a layer of society was taking very seriously the events which had transpired that day.

A great movement began in the stadium as a large portion of the crowd started to head for the exits. Manfred was just a moment late in coming to the same decision and could not get out ahead of the rush. By the time he was able to press through the throngs of people, moving as quickly as he could to the passage from which Roland would emerge from the building, there was already a host of students waiting to greet the victorious hero.

With the amazing display of power he had shown against the monstrous son of famous knights, he had gained for himself the respect of many of their peers and the admiration of those who could not hope to defeat such an opponent. Manfred did not wait for Roland to appear, opting instead to disappear into the stream of those leaving now that the day’s excitement was over. He realized that there was certainly no need to take his roommate for a consoling drink in a dark tavern, and that he would not be able to peel the man away from the crowd who were surely about to take him for an evening of feasting and revelry worthy of his great achievement.

Real Aire