Chapter 8:


The Hero's Shadow

With Mane’s help, Manfred strapped on a steel cuirass and slipped a padded coat over top. The two did not speak as they worked on armoring him, tension weighted the air in the locker room. He secured a pair of light gauntlets over his hands while she placed a set of greaves on his legs above the steel toed boots he wore.

“Is that everything you’d like?” she asked softly.

He nodded as he tightened a bracer around his sword arm. “Yes, I just need the minimum to keep from getting turned into a pincushion when we meet at close range.”

“It sounds like you’ve thought this through, at least.”

He had indeed. Though he’d only had a few days to prepare, he had spent most of his free time researching his opponent and devising strategies for the duel. There was no shortage of witnesses who had seen that person fight before, including Roland, and several of those who had been defeated previously were eager to help anyone who might somewhat avenge them by dethroning the academy’s shadowy star.

For the second week of matches, it was customary that the first years be paired against second years as a test of mettle. Manfred had received the wholly unlucky draw of being matched against Volta Avarra.

Not that he truly thought luck was to blame. The selection process was supposed to be random beyond a few factors such as preventing repeat match ups, but he found it hard to believe that the two students who had been tutored by Graham just happened to be chosen to fight the single time it was possible for this to occur. At all times, rumors circulated that all sorts of influences were exerted on the selection committee, and Graham himself had all but confirmed that this outcome in particular had been rigged.

But there was no use in lamenting the turn of events. After all, his mentor had been correct when he stated before that Manfred need not worry over every single duel. One loss here was not a disaster. Yet still, his heart would not beat quietly. Even if it was inevitable, how was he supposed to look forward to the taste of defeat calmly? How was he supposed to stop the wild imaginings of victory?

He had been surprised to see Mane again when he turned up at the arena’s underground. She explained that she’d been sure to schedule her support duties to align with his match, hoping to cheer him on.

“But I suppose you already know everything I could tell you about Volta, right?”

He put on a weak smile. “Unless you happen to know some secret of his that none of the lads he thrashed last year do.”

Mane looked pensive for a moment and replied with a strange precision, “Well, I don’t know any secrets that’d help you out there.” She shrugged, and he mimicked the gesture. “You seem like the type that’d hate wishy-washy platitudes, so I’ll only say this: Hold your own against him for just a few moments and people will wonder who this amazing warrior is.”

“Easier said than done,” he complained.

She nodded along and said, “Oh I know, I’ve sparred with Volta before.”

Manfred did not have the time or mental wherewithal to question her connection to his opponent, the pressing issue was the imminent duel itself. The only thing he had left to do to prepare himself was to try to calm his nerves. He had his strategy memorized, with a number of branching variations based on how Volta had fought in other matches. He had prepared his Heldengeist with a pre-selected form, though he had yet to reach out to develop confederates upon whom he could rely to borrow the abilities of their ergaleia. It was crucial that the true nature of his Heldengeist not become known to this opponent, but after this match he would almost certainly have revealed it in front of the world.

When the buzzer calling the fighters to the field sounded, Manfred had still not managed to rein in his emotions. He’d felt nothing like this before the first duel. Had the power of that king’s sword given him such confidence that he could face the unknown confidently? Mane surprised him again by walking into the entrance passage with him. As they headed toward the light of day, she pulled out a stopwatch which had several lines from wax markers drawn on its face.

“You see this blue line? That’s the average time Volta’s opponents have lasted. The red line is the longest someone held out against him. I’ll be rooting for you,” she said before slapping his back hard enough to push him forward through the open gate.

He walked out onto the idyllic, green field, always appearing mowed to perfection, amidst the loud cheers of the crowd. Volta, who was also just stepping out from the opposite entrance, had drawn a number of spectators that was almost comparable to the amount who had shown up to watch Roland and Augustus. Though he had a rather mysterious background and no affiliation with the city’s noble cliques, he had become a favorite of other students as well as spectacle enthusiasts. Manfred noted a large contingent of those wearing the white uniform of their academy’s sister school gathered in the stands.

As they approached the marble starting positions, he sized up his opponent. Volta wore a leather tunic over his uniform with several protective guards around his forearms and calves. Given what he’d been told, the layer of leather was most likely covering chainmail as well. They were similarly armored, prepared to rely on parries and dodges to avoid the worst of what they would throw at each other.

Volta’s blonde mane was tied back, revealing a statuesque face of cold determination. It was odd to call him beautiful, but Manfred could think of no other way to put it. Handsome wasn’t a strong enough term to do justice to his opponent’s looks. He understood exactly why so many women had come to witness their duel.

They stepped onto the platforms, igniting the braziers behind them, and Volta held up his saber, still in its scabbard, as a form of salute. Among all those Manfred had interviewed, not one person had seen Volta manifest the weapon in battle, or at all. Arriving with it already formed before each duel and often carrying it on his belt, it was a common point of speculation that he could not bring forth the ergaleion quickly. Manfred raised his empty hands, half formally and half apologetically, to signal his readiness. Beginning a duel without manifesting a weapon was unorthodox, but not unheard of.

At the sound of the starter’s pistol, both duelists remained where they stood. Volta took hold of the hilt of his sword and drew it out from the sheath just the smallest distance, no more than an inch of the blade revealed. With the sword lifted up at eye level and held perfectly horizontal, Volta released his first technique. The fraction of crystal-like blade that was uncovered caught the light of the sun and shone brilliantly for an instant, and the dazzling aura rushed out from the ergaleion in the form of a searing vertical crescent that raced toward Manfred like a scythe to the harvest.

Lux de Fatales, the name of Volta’s ergaleion. His saber was said to rely on refracting light to release a number of dangerous attacks and create unnerving illusions. While his techniques were strongest on bright days, even the dimmest environment above pitch darkness was enough to use them. Matches held during thunderstorms had gone no better for Avarra’s opponents than those conducted under the shining sun.

Manfred finally felt his nerves settle when he saw the swordsman take up the distinctive stance that presaged the use of that ranged attack. His thoughts turned to the map he had created for navigating the duel and he moved almost automatically to sidestep the shimmering energy. Though it moved swiftly, dodging that crescent wasn’t much of a problem due to the distance between them, the narrow space it passed through, and the obvious tell preceding the technique. All he had to do was observe Volta closely and wait for his opponent to release bursts of virya through his blade.

Volta adjusted his aim and fired off another scything bolt from his flashing saber. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. Manfred weaved through the attacks only having to use a small amount of virya to augment his movements and perception. He could not advance closer, but he did not need to at this stage. He and his opponent were roughly even in terms of the reserves they possessed, neither being from a high class family like Augustus Hallerstein. Because Volta’s ergaleion was so troublesome, it served Manfred well to remain at a distance and waste as much of his opponent’s energy as he could.

That blonde swordsman was no fool, however, and shifted his own strategy when it became apparent that this attack was futile. Volta pulled the saber free from its scabbard, then swung the sword while yet to advance a pace. Now the light caught along the entire length of the blade as it slashed through the air and released a much wider crescent angled horizontally to cut down Manfred.

The second stage of his plan. As soon as Volta drew his saber fully, he sprinted forward. While the new version of the technique threatened more space and could not simply be sidestepped, the cutting light lanced through the air more slowly. With practiced ease, he tumbled over the arcing gleam and rolled onto his feet once more. He did not advance directly toward Volta, but rather moved at an angle so that he would spiral closer as he circled the swordsman.

His opponent flung followup attacks at him in an endless barrage, but the blasts could only find the field and arena walls to slice apart. Manfred put on a display of athleticism for the crowd, leaping over and diving under the waves of light while maintaining his steady advance. To keep both hands free for these gymnastic feats was one of the reasons he had entered the duel without his own weapon manifested. His senses heightened to their limit, he heard the excited chatter being cast into the radio desk’s microphone.

“Certainly not the first time we’ve seen someone do this, but Fehl is avoiding Avarra’s long range assault. He’s really moving out here!”

Another added, “This is the first hurdle anyone has to clear to take down Avarra; can Fehl compete in close combat and why has he yet to manifest his own sword?”

He willed the commentators to be quiet on that last point; he wanted Volta to think about the possibilities as little as possible. His opponent was thinking about something though, the shrinking gap between them. Volta raised the saber’s scabbard and plunged the blade within once more. He held the sword up horizontally, revealing a tiny, glittering portion of the sword. This was the critical moment, the point toward which Manfred’s strategy was driving. Unable to strike him with the expanded crescents, Volta had an opportunity to try the much faster version at close range before having to commit to retreat or melee.

However, Manfred’s moment came first. Volta’s technique required the extra time to resheathe his saber and during this interval he had free reign. As soon as he saw his opponent begin the obvious movement, he exhaled all the air from his lungs while flooding every last cell of his body with virya. Time crawled along far behind his hawk-dyed eyes. His muscles murmured their readiness in the voice of a suppressed landslide. The track and field performance he was in the middle of shifted gears in an instant. From running and tumbling at the blonde student, his steps became fixed on a pattern that transferred his momentum up through his body and into his right arm with the final lunge.

Readied, Manfred channeled virya along with that momentum down the length of the arm that he was already swinging through space. He had started the motion even before beginning to manifest Heldengeist, a trick to establish extra speed before the weapon became whole, bound by inertia. The boiling essence he released was shapeless, but it flattened and twisted as it left his hand. Halfway between them, the energy solidified into the form of a javelin. The dark needle hurtled through the air aimed squarely at Volta.

It wasn’t impossible to react to his attack, but the shape of his weapon lent itself to an even greater shock than the lightning toss. As one of the commentators had mentioned, he was expected to use a sword. Manfred relied on the diligence of his opponent to seek out that information for himself before the match. Based on the momentary freeze in Volta’s movements, he had indeed been preparing for a test of swordsmanship. If he had been ready for the javelin, he almost certainly could have dodged the strike or blown it away with a blast of light, but he was caught flatfooted.

“Fehl has thrown his’s a javelin! Not a sword, a javelin! How will…” a commentator shouted.

Still, the blonde warrior had one last line of defense, and it was already in the perfect position to save him. Volta released a surge of power of his own, focusing his gaze on the incoming missile. At the last moment before it speared through his chest, he jerked his saber from its sheath and slashed the black fang.

Manfred had started to dash forward again after throwing his weapon. This was the eventuality he had set out to create. Closing the distance just enough to provoke the attack from Volta, striking at him with Heldengeist, and having the two ergaleia collide as his opponent blocked it. This was the strategy he had come up with in order to copy Lux de Fatales without endangering himself by stepping within reach of its tip. And it had failed.

As the javelin was sent flying on contact with the saber, it shattered and dissolved. This was not the problem. Even during the brief moment that they touched, Manfred was able to reach out and analyze the crystal blade. He could grasp its form easily, but the power it possessed was entirely beyond his understanding. Manfred was unable to copy its ability. His heart froze and sent icy floes cascading into the pit of his stomach. This was a possibility he had considered, but he had chosen to believe it unlikely that he would be so far beneath Volta’s level. If he couldn’t even scratch the surface of that power, his opponent was truly a prodigy in regards to virya control.

“Avarra knocks away the projectile! What’s going on here? A shapeshifting weapon!? The duelists are moving into sword range, Avarra won’t let Fehl take another shot, but Fehl’s still got no…”

His strategy called for finishing the match in close combat, overwhelming Volta with his own ability as soon as they came to blows, but this option was no longer available to Manfred. Even though his spirit had become paralyzed, his body still moved to bring him near the impossible opponent. He gritted his teeth and let fly a curse upon the world as he summoned Heldengeist anew. This time he brought it forth in a form hybridized between Volta’s saber and the javelin he had used before, producing a long, thin-bladed sword like a rapier. At the least, he’d try to cover the fact that he could not truly change the shape of the weapon freely by not directly reproducing his opponent’s weapon.

“A sword! Fehl manifests a sword at high speed...The sword fight has begun, but neither looks eager to make a decisive move,” narrated a newcomer to the radio desk. One of the students from the Women’s Academy, where a similar club of commentators existed, had clambered over the group surrounding the microphone to add her voice to the mix.

And so it was that neither fighter risked an attempt to end the battle with one exchange. First, they sought to gauge each other’s skill through a series of feints and half-hearted strikes. This state of affairs could not last though. Manfred knew that he must be the one to go on the offensive before Volta decided it was safe to employ one of his Lux de Fatales’ close range techniques.

Manfred stepped in and thrust at his opponent’s neck. Volta parried the blow easily, keeping his composure and initiating a riposte aimed to strike at the armpit. It was a sequence Manfred expected, so he turned his wrist to bring his sword twirling back to the center to deflect the saber. He stepped back, opening the slight gap between them once more.

Volta picked up the slack in the tempo that had begun. He leaned into a careful slash that left little room for counter-attack. Manfred gave up more space to back out of the sweep of the blade, then immediately asserted himself with a strike at the full length of his Heldengeist. He had retained part of the design of the javelin so that his sword would outrange Volta’s. Unable to effectively reach him without overextending, his opponent was caught in a loop of deflecting away the hunting edge hungry for his blood only to wait for the next bite to come.

It was clear from what Manfred had learned of Volta Avarra that he’d received the sort of tutoring one could expect for a minor noble’s son. He was no novice like Roland, but there was a limit to his skill. Being completely shut out from using Lux de Fatales’ ability confirmed his thinking: Volta must be spending a great deal of time practicing his virya control and developing the special techniques of that prismatic sword. This restricted the amount of time he could devote to swordsmanship, and sure enough no one with whom he had spoken mentioned knowledge of when or with whom Volta sparred. A correction floated to the surface of his thoughts, Mane had said something of that sort.

He had several distinct advantages in a pure contest crossing blades with the second year student. Most obviously, he was slightly taller and appeared to be physically bulkier as well. However, it was becoming apparent that he could also boast of having superior skill at arms, even if the difference was not that great. Volta relied on the unreasonable power within that scintillating blade more than the blade itself.

The two danced back and forth in the middle of the field. Whenever Volta tried to close the gap and move within range to strike back without overextending, Manfred stepped back and lashed out at some vulnerable area. Whenever Volta instead tried to open up a larger distance to escape the pressure, he followed with Heldengeist poised for violence.

This was not to say that Volta could not touch him at all; they traded a number of glancing blows. In short order, they had shredded away the leather and cloth covering the incidental pieces of armor around their wrists and legs. One of Manfred’s boots now gleamed dully in the sunlight where the steel toe had been exposed.

It was a battle of attrition, and Manfred was winning. They were both channeling energy throughout their bodies to remain at the peak of alertness, striking and parrying with preternatural speed. Saber and rapier crossed, clashed, and circled with the rapidity of hummingbirds beating their wings.

From above, one of the commentators excitedly howled, “A glittering display! Avarra’s diamond sword and Fehl’s dusk blade mix and crash in a pitched fencing match.”

But this state of affairs could not last. Volta knew he was wasting his energy engaging in such a battle, and worse that he was likely to be bested. He turned his saber at a slight angle, catching the light and releasing a blinding flash. Manfred knew this technique well, but little could be done to mitigate it. He was forced to leap back in an instant in case an attack followed the moment of disorientation. However, his opponent had chosen the opposite course, also using the brief respite to back away. Several paces separated them now; Manfred needed to close in once more but could not do so too hastily.

Volta gave him no time to decide his next move. The golden youth held his crystal saber with its tip pointed toward his heart, feet locked in a stance threatening a lethal thrust. The distance between them was too great to be covered by a simple lunging strike, but this did not matter where Volta was concerned.

Manfred snapped into a defensive stance and trained his eyes on the shining blade before him. Another one of his opponent’s dread techniques was coming. Similar to a reversal of the move he had used to create the space between them, he would now follow the wake of a flash of light and strike at Manfred with the speed of a thunderbolt. Or rather, it would appear as such. Volta’s ergaleion was not an omnipotent thing. What was coming was a distracting illusion that would dull his ability to react and a very fast leaping thrust.

He couldn’t protect himself from a thunderbolt, but a sword he could parry. In the few days he had to prepare for the duel, he had trained with Roland to counter this specific technique. The flash made it difficult to react to the attack, but that flash also served as a tell signalling the imminent danger. After buying a flash powder kit meant for photography, he’d tasked Roland with setting off small explosions while he practiced a move to deflect the incoming thrust. He had trained until he reacted automatically to the flare.

“A recognizable stance; Avarra prepares to hit Fehl with his fastest attack…” the lady intruding on the broadcast club hurried to say.

It all happened in an instant. The blade pointed at him shone in the sunlight creating a brilliant flare. Manfred flicked his sword in front of his body even while unable to visually register the threat racing toward him. He felt the blade contact something and he turned his body sideways to make himself as small a target as possible. The next thing that he saw was Volta already on top of him, saber thrust out, but the parry had successfully pushed the blade over his shoulder.

“Fehl deflects! A perfect defense!”

Manfred took the opportunity to resume his offensive. While the near instantaneous thrust was a dire threat, if the attack failed then Volta was left vulnerable to counters. He couldn’t capitalize on the moment to claim victory, he had been thrown off balance by the force of the blow, but he now had his opponent on the backfoot again.

He pressured the second year even harder than before, now more confident in being able to defend whatever counter attacks the other tried. Steadily, Volta was being pushed back. All he had to do was knock Lux away so that it could not be used to block a follow up strike. After another exchange like two thunderstorms colliding, an opening appeared.

Lunging at top speed, Manfred drove his rapier through Volta’s exposed neck. But he felt only air at the end of his blade. In the next moment, his opponent was a foot to the left from where he had appeared to have been. What he had attacked was a mirage, and now the counter came like the breaking of a new dawn.

It was too late to dodge the saber when he saw its tip glimmer as a comet of ill omen. He was already locked into the motion of parrying the thrust, which he did, but even at the instant that the transparent blade flew out to the side of his torso harmlessly, something crunched inside his guts like broken glass exploding from his bile.

White hot pain washed over his body. The air was forced from his lungs as he involuntarily tensed up. Then it was over. Just for a single fragment of time, an experience too short to be real, he had felt the crystal saber plunge into his stomach. It was an illusion, or perhaps a hallucination was a better description. The pain did not last and the only thing that remained was a vague nausea.

Of course, this was yet another of Volta’s techniques. A phantom attack that cursed the target with a mesmerizing light so that as soon as one perceived the thrust to be a threat, one was doomed to feel the pain of that possibility even if Lux was deflected. The sensations were so real that they could result in shock, and an illusory stab to the heart could induce a heart attack. He had been “fortunate” to take the curse in the abdomen.

Volta seized the chance to overturn his offensive. Sucking in air and desperately fighting the chilling unease of a fatal whisper, Manfred struggled to turn aside the saber that came to make the whisper a shout. It was his turn to be pushed back, even as he raged internally about the blunder of letting his opponent set the pace. He swept his blade in front of himself with a flourish to force Volta to halt while leaping back. His regret came on more swiftly than that illusory agony.

Volta allowed him to back away, and even stepped back himself. Again, a large gap opened between them. Manfred panicked, knowing what would come next. The blonde duelist took up a stance like a coiled spring with a lightning bolt readied in hand. Again, he would have to rely on the defense that was more blind luck than anything else.

The saber flashed in the sunlight and invisibly flew out to take his heart. In the same instant, Manfred swung wildly at the unseen threat. He felt his sword brush against something that seemed like the swift current of a river, and at nearly the same time he felt the river wash over his right shoulder. The padded coat was blasted apart, offering no protection against the might of the saber that cut into his flesh.

He could see the aftermath of the thrust in the next moment; he had deflected the blade, but not enough to clear it away completely. The tip grazed his shoulder, too high to truly lodge itself in deep, and the rest of the sword followed as a furrow was gouged out like a train plowing through snow.

A shout sounded out at the microphone, “Fehl can’t avoid the strike a second time, he’s hit in the right shoulder!”

The pain was nothing compared to the horrifying illusion he’d experienced a few moments before, but it is very unpleasant. He felt hot blood streaming down his body, down his right arm. The throbbing ache was too much for him to overcome in a moment and he missed his chance to take back the initiative after the attack.

Volta coiled once more, a snake preparing for its next strike. He launched a series of regular thrusts which Manfred could no longer deflect with confidence, let alone try to return a riposte. His arm was too slow now, his footwork sloppy and loose. One of the blows from the saber reached him, shearing the steel away and biting his side. It’s an even more superficial wound than that on his shoulder, but the writing was on the wall.

Fighting on with instinct and adrenaline, he again failed to prepare for the eerie light cast from the crystal blade’s tip as it raced out for another run at him. He moved automatically to parry the thrust even as he screamed in his head. Just for the tiniest moment, the shortest interval of memory, he felt a burning rod enter his chest with a suffocating wave of pressure.

Then everything shifted. He was sucked away like the last drop of soda through a straw and found himself staring across the field at Volta. His hand jumped up to his heart unbidden, moving under the spell of the ghost of a sensation. When it found nothing amiss at his chest, it drifted to his shoulder only to find the cloth there whole and dry.

There was wild cheering in the air drowning out the words spoken by the broadcast club members. He did not need to hear them to understand what had happened. Behind Volta, the large brazier still contained a lively flame. Manfred turned to confirm that the opposite font behind him was extinguished. The sight was upsetting, and that alone upset him further. He fought back bitterness and anger, losing against the bitterness and anger that arose from disgust at having felt those dark things at all.

He hung his head and walked back to the gate to the underground section. The crowd was still cheering as he reached the shadows. Mane was waiting for him, clapping politely. She held up the stopwatch, its hands marking a time between the blue and red lines.

“‘Who is this amazing warrior?’ indeed! That was a performance of which you should be proud,” she said softly.

But he felt no such pride and could not manage even a polite smile for her as he retreated into the dim tunnel. 

Real Aire