The Hero's Shadow
The academy’s library took up an entire wing of the main building and branched off like a rampant tumor to connect to one of the outlying structures. So large a repository would scarcely be filled if the entire student body marched in to occupy the stacks, not that many of those who attended the school had scholarly interests in the first place. There were usually more visitors from the city’s colleges wandering the shelves than knight candidates. It was therefore the perfect place within which to hide away from his peers, although it wasn’t as if Manfred was being sought after to an unreasonable degree.
He did hate the attention he received when he was recognized though. Now he was part of the club of those who had fallen to Volta’s blade, the newest unlucky member and subject to all of the fresh pity. The number of times he’d heard a variant of the phrase “you almost had him” in the days since their duel was staggering. Fools, the lot of them. Volta’s methodical style only created the illusion that he’d ever been close to winning; that swordsman of light could have ended the match in a few moments if he’d known that Manfred was so vulnerable to those unreasonable sword techniques.
He was done with the entire situation. His despair and fury had reached their peak, then he’d murdered those silly reactions and admonished himself for being so childish. He couldn’t expect to win every duel; a loss was going to happen at some point. It was likely that every time he faced one of the top ranked students, he would fall. All that was left was a lingering trace of bitterness, the disturbed underbrush of his psyche where the beast of emotionality had trampled past in its hurry toward extinction, and the annoyance he felt now that he had any sort of reputation at all. He’d shown enough of Heldengeist’s power that everyone would be expecting its fluidity of form. In fact, they’d likely overestimate how freely he could change its shape until it became more obvious that he had to trace the features of other weapons. But his inability to access the almighty abilities of Lux de Fatales did mean that his final secret remained to be unleashed during a future duel.
For that matter, he was in the library not only to avoid his classmates, but also to try to unravel other secrets. As Graham had mentioned to him, the academy’s collection of texts wasn’t so impressive because of its volume, but rather because of the number of rare articles to be found hidden in the maze of aisles. Ancient manuscripts, single edition oddities, and all manner of unique theses and treatises. Among these it was possible to find theories on many topics which were considered erroneous or otherwise discredited and forgotten. His mentor always made a point of saying that the truth does not necessarily win the battle of popularity in order to be accepted by society.
For instance, Graham’s own research regarding a civilization in North America before the Indians was ignored by the academic establishment despite many bizarre archaeological finds, some of which Manfred had seen for himself during the winter they spent together. No one dared to rubbish the knight’s findings impolitely, the scholars being afraid to match their standing against that of such a popular figure as the war hero, but his work had gained little traction over several decades rooting in the mud.
Manfred was checking on a different sort of theory that evening. A topic which had been written about since the very invention of writing: methods for altering and improving one’s ergaleion. Accepted wisdom held that such changes did sometimes take place, by that these were rare, random, and unable to be purposefully induced. An avalanche worth of texts from all periods of time argued differently.
Everything from mood to the amputation of limbs was claimed to influence the form and function of ergaleia. He was hunting through the forest of wild words for suggestions on how to increase the durability of his Heldengeist. So far, he had learned only that he should eat iron filings, damage his skin to build up hardy calluses and scar tissue, and sleep with dense stones under his head.
As he skimmed over another quack pamphlet, a group of fellow students approached his table. Manfred need not even look up to know that they were led by his roommate. That Roland was careful to be quiet in dutiful observance of the library’s atmosphere did not matter, he was too big and drew too much attention to himself. His very presence was a parade of elephants, unmistakable and loud. It did him no favors that his virya control was so poor that he could barely suppress the tides of power which had been surging within him since his debut duel.
Roland was trailed by two others Manfred only vaguely recognized as part of the clique of worshipers and hangers-on that had sprung up around his roommate. Having won his second duel with ease through a display of the overwhelming power he now possessed, the farmer’s son had cemented his status as a rising star. A star who made no distinctions among those with whom he associated based on the prestige of familial background as some of the more arrogant students often did. He was a hero of the lower class students who aspired to climb the social ladder.
“You’re a hard man to find,” Roland joked in a whisper almost too loud to be called a whisper.
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” he replied flatly without looking up from the spread of papers before him. “What did you want to find me for?”
The tall young man took a moment to reclaim his lost purpose, having forgotten it during the search. “Ah, there was just something I wanted to chat about.” He signaled to the two followers, who took the hint and left them after mumbling their goodbyes. Amusingly, they acknowledged Manfred with polite nods as they departed. It seemed that he was some sort of superior in the Roland fan hierarchy due solely to his status as the hero’s roommate.
“Have you ever considered eating iron shavings?” Manfred asked, no hint of his own skepticism about the method betraying the seriousness of his voice.
Confusion marked the other’s face, but he gave a straight answer anyway. “Can’t say that I have.”
“Supposed to make your ergaleion tougher,” he said, tossing that particular scroll across the table to Roland as he sat down.
“That so? Might be worth a shot.” Rather than getting to the point of his visit, Roland let an uncomfortable silence develop. Eventually he said, “You know, I was never able to manifest my armor before I bonded myself to that sword.” After his match, they had spoken briefly about the royal heirloom, Roland confirming what Graham had told him.
“You’re lucky it all worked out, it would have been embarrassing to put on such a show only to end up being unable to use your ergaleion anyway.”
Roland started to laugh, but quickly caught himself and stifled his voice. “Well, I was pretty sure I’d be able to do it after the binding, but I would have died if I failed at that part of it.” Manfred cocked his head and asked what he meant. “Those swords, if you aren’t worthy of them, then you’ll just stab yourself through the heart or else be consumed by their flames.”
“But you are sure of yourself on that point.”
His roommate nodded. “No doubt about it.” The entire thing was still incomprehensible to him, but he supposed that the boy had taken all his inspiration from old heroic sagas and other such stories filled with lofty ideals. Roland spoke up again in a mysterious tone, saying, “There’s something I found that I’d like to show you. Do you have the time to accompany me to the New Yorkers’ Club?”
The New Yorkers’ Club was a venerable institution within the school community, a social club that only admitted those whose families were residents of the city or the surrounding area. When he had defeated Augustus, Roland was offered membership very quickly.
“Am I even allowed inside?” Manfred asked.
“You’ll be going as my guest, it’ll be fine. There’s just something I want you to see real quick.”
Curiosity winning out over the boredom of diving through the clutter of strange texts at the library, he decided to accompany the eager youth. The club rooms were nearby anyway. When they arrived, Manfred was surprised by how lavish the furnishings were. Expensive sofas and chairs were scattered around a drawing room with beautiful wood paneling and several large oil paintings. The area looked like it had been transplanted from a high ranking noble’s mansion.
A few other students sat around chatting, but they paid no mind to the pair as Roland led Manfred to another room. This one was filled with glass display cases and boxes of photo albums dedicated to the history of the club and its members. Framed individual and group portraits lined the walls, the earliest examples of which were sketches or paintings rather than photographs.
Roland walked over to one of the group pictures and pointed out a certain figure. “Here, look, look!” When Manfred joined him, he was stunned. There, frozen in his prime with a broad grin, was his father. He recognized him instantly as he looked almost the same as he did in the photo tucked away in the pocket watch that had been passed down to Manfred. In this picture he looked slightly younger, probably having been captured during his own first year.
He mumbled under his breath, “Well I’ll be damned, I had no idea.”
“I got curious and started looking around, I also found these.” His roommate motioned toward a stack of papers and photos that were sitting on a nearby display case. Riffling through them, he found more pictures of his father and some correspondence. The first letter he skimmed over appeared to be a sort of memorial poem written by club members expressing humor and lamentation related to his father’s elopement.
However, something in one of the photographs captured Manfred’s attention. His father had an arm slung around another student’s shoulders, both laughing into the camera’s immortal eye. He’d looked at the names scrawled on the back of the print out of idle curiosity over the man who seemed to be a friend of his father. Martin di Verona. Reading it sent a shock through his body.
“Hey, did you look at this one?” he asked Roland hastily. The young man nodded slowly. “Is this guy one of those Veronas?”
“That’s right.” The answer made Manfred’s head spin. He had always thought that the royal house had ended with the massacre at the conclusion of the Civil War.
“Then when you swore loyalty to them, is this man..?”
Roland shook his head somberly. “No, he died during the Great War.” Even if that was the case, his mind was still overflowing with thoughts. Were there other members of the royal line out there? That now seemed to be distinctly possible, and it would go toward making sense of Roland’s declaration. Moreover, how close had his father been to that now dead prince?
“I thought I smelled rats, but I guess something worse found its way in here,” called out a familiar voice dripping with pretentious venom. Manfred turned to find that Siegfried had come into the record room while they were distracted. “Why is this scum in our facility, Ward?”
Sensing that Manfred was in no mood to resist his cousin’s provocations, Roland interposed himself between the two and tried to deescalate the situation. He calmly said, “I invited him here to show him some pictures of his father that I found.”
“Then you should both be on your way, I’ll make sure the president hears about this breach,” Siegfried intoned with syllables dragged out to bear the weight of his malice. He added cruelly, “And I’ll make sure those offensive items are disposed of properly.”
Manfred let go of his restraint. The bitterness he’d felt since losing to Volta was nothing compared to the rage that grew in his heart as his cousin spoke. Their idiotic, selfish grudge was the entire reason his father had been eligible to be drafted for death. What that family, his family, deserved was eradication. No, the peace of oblivion was too great a mercy for them.
He readied his Heldengeist in a flash, hiding the dagger behind his back as he prepared to vault over Roland’s towering shoulders and fall upon Siegfried like Zeus’ wrathful bolts.
“What’s going on in here?” a voice asked from beyond the room before a few older students followed the question through the open door.
Siegfried deflated himself from his combative stance and explained while trying to appeal to the seniors. “This initiate brought a non-member into the club. He’s not eligible for entry either, his parent lives in Chicago.”
“His father was a member, I wanted to show him some photos,” retorted his roommate. As an afterthought, he added, “Besides, the Fehl family maintains a presence here anyway.”
“Our family has cut all ties with this bastard!” Siegfried shouted.
Allowing his weapon to disappear, Manfred collected himself and spoke out. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble here; I’ll be leaving now.” Silence held the room for a moment before one of the third years declared a resolution to the scene.
“Okay, I’m not sure what everyone is so worked up about. I’m sorry we can’t permit your presence here, but it’s really not this big of a deal.”
Manfred retreated from the club, sharing a hateful stare with his cousin on the way out of the room. In the hallway, he began to stalk away in a foul mood before Roland quickly caught up to him.
“I’m surprised they didn’t keep you around for some kind of lecture.”
Roland looked down at him with a pained expression. “It’s not like anyone really cares. That was all Siegfried stirring up trouble.”
He sighed, wanting badly to go out into the city for a drink. “Forget it. Thanks for showing me those.”
“I just wish you could have looked through everything more closely. I’ll talk to the leaders about it sometime. For now, let’s go grab dinner at the cafeteria before they shut down for the night.” That sort of invitation was what Manfred had been dreading, but he no longer had the energy to refuse. He was drained after what he had seen in that room and the encounter with his cousin. Once more, Roland led the way.
They sat down to eat apart from any of the other students. It was obvious that a few were interested in coming to visit Roland, but the aura the two produced made it clear that they did not wish to be disturbed. For his part, the normally vocal giant lapsed into silence while Manfred picked at the food in front of him.
After regaining some measure of calm, he eventually asked of his roommate, “If you weren’t able to draw out your ergaleion until recently, that means you never went through any of the Mithraic rites, right?”
“Right,” Roland managed to squeak out around a mouthful of roast beef.
“Have you considered having it named, or giving it a name yourself?”
His roommate took some time to swallow before replying, “I’ve given it some thought, but I haven’t quite decided yet. I was thinking of calling it ‘Noblesse Oblige.’”
Manfred pointed his fork at the other youth. “You had that picked out beforehand, didn’t you?”
“Is it that obvious?” He answered by nodding. The name didn’t really seem to fit an ergaleion, let alone a set of armor. Manfred didn’t feel up to getting into a discussion of what the term meant to Roland, so the conversation lapsed into silence again. At length, Roland began to speak quietly. He looked around the room carefully before opening his mouth. “Actually, could I trouble you to help me with something?”
“I won’t commit to something as vague as that.”
“You’re good at manipulating virya, using it for detection and stuff like that, right?” Manfred nodded again. “Well, the thing is, I think someone is stalking me. I just can’t really catch ‘em out because I’m terrible at those sorts of things. Wondering if you could do it.”
He sighed deeply only wanting the world and all its various troubles to disappear. Just for a short while. Manfred replied to the request with forced energy. “Sure, why don’t we take care of it now?”
“I guess if you’re ready. What do you have in mind for a plan?”
He thought for a moment while playing with the last of the green beans on his plate. “How about we go for a walk in the forest? That should isolate us enough that I might be able to perceive someone following us. I have to say though, my ability to detect someone is only as good as his ability to hide his presence is bad. I can’t make any promises.”
“No problem, just grateful for some help. It’s been bugging me for a few days now.”
With the plan of action decided, the two left the dining hall and headed to the back of the property where footpaths led away into the forest. Manfred found it just the slightest bit amusing that this was the place where they had first met as well. The sounds of a summer night overtook them as they meandered into the woods. The night shift of birds singing out to each other, the droning of an uncountable number of insects, and the soft voice of the leaves rustling in a light breeze.
When they had gone some distance past the end of the path, Manfred stopped so that he could close his eyes and concentrate. He carefully, stealthily detached his awareness from his body and sent it streaming out into the world on the tip of a tendril of virya. Like a blind man groping about in an unfamiliar environment, he poked around at their surroundings with precise jabs of energy. At first, he could feel nothing besides the radiating power of his roommate, but after a few minutes he struck someone several meters behind and slightly to the left of them. This person had gotten extremely close before he’d been able to feel anything at all. What’s more, he had bluntly lashed that unknown entity with his virya by accident. The stalker was no doubt aware of being discovered.
“Run, they’re right over there!” he shouted as he shoved Roland in the proper direction. His roommate took off like a spooked horse and Manfred followed at his heels. They were close enough that they could hear the other individual crashing through the underbrush as well, and when they returned to the open school grounds they could make out a dark figure ahead of them. Despite their effort, they had seemingly not made up any of the distance between them and their quarry.
“NO!” Roland howled as the stalker reached one of the buildings and began to leap gracefully up the back wall in short bursts using the small footholds of window sills and decorative stonework. “Manfred, can you do that? I can’t go up a wall like that!” He looked to Manfred with pleading eyes as they ran up to the base of the structure.
He was caught up in the moment and before he knew what he was doing, he firmly demanded, “Boost me up.” And so his roommate served as the first of his own platforms to be used to follow the figure up the wall. As he made the first leap, he released a surge of virya to enhance his movements. Manfred had some practice performing similar feats back home, having often needed difficult to follow escape routes.
He was still only getting started as the target grasped the edge of the roof and pulled himself out of sight. By the time Manfred scaled the building, the stalker was partway across the old, slanting tiles. Setting off at a careful sprint, he hoped to drive the other person into a corner, or rather, toward the edge of a cliff. None of the other buildings appeared to be close enough to be within range of a jump. A fall from this height could be mostly mitigated with virya, but using such an amount as would be necessary to land safely would make it difficult to escape from Roland once the figure returned to the ground. Although, Manfred realized that he had forgotten to order his roommate to go around to the front of the building.
Surprisingly, the stalker slowed to a stop ahead of him. The dark figure hopped up onto a raised section of the roof and waited for Manfred to catch up. He wondered if a fight might ensue, so he approached cautiously. That caution grew as he began to see the figure more clearly at close range. A thin frame wearing the school’s black uniform. Long wisps of blonde hair swirling in the wind.
Even though that person had his back turned, he easily recognized the one who had defeated him, Volta Avarra.
However, his confidence was somewhat restored as he noted that Volta did not have his saber hanging from his hip. Manfred stepped up to the edge of the lower part of the roof and called up to the second year student, “Can I assume by this little chase that you have indeed been stalking Roland?”
Volta did not speak, but seemed to be waiting for something. Manfred was content to wait as well, catching his breath after exerting himself so thoroughly. The quiet moment gave him a bit of clarity in which to start to question just why he had felt it necessary to give chase at all and what he was even going to do now that it was over.
Then the moon broke from behind a bank of dark clouds in the sky beyond where Volta stood. The lunar orb was full and bright, the pale flood causing Manfred to tense up in anticipation of an attack. Instead, the second year student finally turned around and began undoing the buttons on his shirt. Before Manfred could even react to this, his shock escalated when Volta finished and pulled the shirt wide open along with the uniform’s jacket.
There under the moonlight, he saw Volta’s bare chest. Except, a wrapping of cloth was wound tightly around the top of that chest and he could see that this was holding back something. Extra parts where a man of such small proportions shouldn’t have anything extra. Spreading out from under the cloth, seemingly originating over the heart, several wavy, black tendrils stained Volta’s white skin.
Something clicked into place in Manfred’s mind. Volta was a girl. Without the iconic black jacket biasing his interpretation and seeing this new evidence, it seemed so obvious. Now the student’s delicate features and slender form made perfect sense.
“So, do you get the idea or do you need to stare for a while yet?” she said in a voice as clear and sharp as the blade with which she fought. Gone was the restrained mimicry of a male he had heard before.
“I could stare for a few hours and still not make sense of any of this.”
She gave a wry smile, sitting down on the ledge above him with her shirt still casually hanging open. “Yeah, I figure you’re caught in the middle of all this without actually having a horse in the race.”
“Can I start with this question then: we’re not going to fight up here, are we?” he asked with lingering trepidation. She shook her head.
Softly, she asserted, “I might have roughed up that other guy if he came up after me, but I have no issues with you.”
“Why are you...no, who are...just what the Hel is going on?”
“I’m a friend of Camilla di Verona, I’m supposed to-” Volta began before he interrupted.
“-di Verona, as in, that sort of Verona?”
She giggled in a strange manner. “See, I really didn’t think you were involved. I tried to tell her. Yes, Camilla is one of the two remaining members of the House of Verona and heir to their throne, if you fancy such setups.” Manfred’s brain was reaching its limit for shocking twists experienced in one day. However, many of the puzzle pieces were starting to fall into place.
“Sorry, as you were saying.”
Volta continued, “I’ve been instructed to extend an invitation to the two of you to come meet with Camilla.”
That was a piece that didn’t fit. “The two of us? I can understand Roland, but why me?”
“She...is interested in you. She’s not big on coincidences and you happen to be bound to this situation by a number of threads.”
“Until just a little while ago, I thought there was no House of Verona anymore and that Roland was an idiot of some kind.”
“He is an idiot,” she spat fiercely, then returned to a bored drawl as she explained, “No doubt he’s gonna jump at the invitation, but you’re free to decline. I just have to extend it, though I’ve been putting that off.”
This statement brought Manfred back to their curious circumstances. He asked, “So just why have you been stalking him?”
“Should be obvious, I dislike Roland Ward. I was hoping he’d be stupid enough to give me some reason to call the whole thing off. Give him enough rope to hang himself. At least now I can have you tell that bastard, that way I don’t have to see the look on his face when he finds out he’s getting his Yule present early.”
Finally, he could refrain from asking the most pressing question no longer and blurted out, “But why are you dressed like a boy?”
“I can’t very well infiltrate this academy as a girl, right? Let’s leave it at that,” Volta said conclusively. Still, he had a bundle of questions.
“Where is lady di Verona?” In response to that, she turned to point toward the forest. Away over the treetops, he saw the roofs of another group of buildings. From one of these, a tower rose high above the rest. Camilla di Verona was at the Women’s Academy. Apparently, she had been just that close the entire time. “Who is-”
“-She’s a student there, in her first year the same as the two of you. Their family maintains a private residence on the grounds. That tower is part of it.” Volta buttoned her shirt once more while talking. “Look, I’m sure this is all pretty confusing, but at the end of the day I don’t think you really care. The less you get involved, the better it will be for you. Tell that idiot to be ready on Saturday night at eight o’clock; I’ll come calling at your dorm room. You’re welcome to come along, but I suggest you don’t.”
Manfred was troubled, or at least he thought he might be. He was certainly confused still, but he did not have any particularly visceral reactions to what he’d been told. Volta was correct, he had never cared about some historic monarchy. Just the same, he didn’t really care about the lord governors who currently ruled the states. He detested them, but going around detesting them actively wasn’t the way he lived his life. So then, was it just the surprise of all of this that left him paralyzed?
“Alright, I’ll pass the message along,” he said at last.
She stood up and addressed him with a voice sweeter than he had heard her use before. “Thanks, I’d obviously appreciate it if you don’t mention my little secret to anyone. I’m not going to threaten you or anything, but I sure would appreciate it.”
“If you want to show your appreciation, let’s go out for coffee sometime.” The words had left his mouth before he’d properly thought about them. She didn’t seem to mind though, giving him a weak smile before her face hardened once more into the stoic mask he’d always seen Volta wearing before this encounter.
A few sure steps took her to the edge of the roof, then she hopped off into the void between buildings. He could feel the large burst of energy she released in order to land safely, so he felt no compulsion to go look after her. Instead he remained still for a minute or two, images and words drifting through his mind. Above all else, he had a hard time setting aside the sight of her standing backlit by the moon with her shirt hanging open. He technically hadn’t seen her chest, but he felt an electric thrill unlike anything he had felt while necking or petting with girls back home.
He stood staring at the moon, less brilliant now that it was alone, until he heard a hoarse voice call out to him. Roland was slowly making his way across the rooftop, having finally clambered up the side of the building. Manfred cast one last glance back just in time to see the silver orb consumed by dark clouds again, then he went to escort his idiot roommate back to their lair.
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