Chapter 11:


The Hero's Shadow

The dining hall became the site of a commotion on the morning of their duel. Manfred’s proximity to Roland led some of his gang to investigate the connection between the Fehl cousins. On the other side, Siegfried had no doubt been spreading rumors and building up his own following of supporters in anticipation of destroying Manfred’s reputation. Word spread throughout the school of the family’s bad blood and many students took sides according to whichever cousin appealed to their social class and personal ideals.The result was that two camps were set up for breakfast on opposite sides of the cafeteria.

As he sipped his coffee, picking at the second plate of food that had been brought to him, Manfred sulked in the boisterous atmosphere of the group that crowded around his and Roland’s table. In the distance, a gaggle of the sons of higher nobility and those hoping to ascend to that level concentrated their stares of cold malice at the rowdy bunch. He felt especially targeted by their disdain, but he cared little.

What he did care about was that they made the greatest show of their arrogance and displeasure now, before the match, so that the eventuality of his victory was all the more of a blow to their egos. He had his plan in place for the match and was confident of winning. His research into Siegfried’s previous duels had confirmed much of what he had suspected; his cousin had a tremendous ergaleion which he was too stupid and unimaginative to use to its full potential. Manfred would take that power for himself and show that spoiled brat just how pathetic he was.

Roland’s new friends certainly wanted this too. They stopped short of breaking out into drinking songs and soldiers’ chanting, but otherwise the tables they had pulled together for the breakfast feast had the essence of a joustball rally before a big game. It was a bit much for his tastes, but he didn’t mind that so many others were taking an interest in the match. The more public Siegfried’s humiliation the better.

At last, the time for the march to the arena arrived. The two factions decamped and jostled each other to get through the doors. The mobs mixed together into a cheering, jeering mass which threatened to devolve into a riot as the cousins passed on their way to the stadium. Roland strode ahead of Manfred, using the spear he was carrying to push through the crowd and clear the way for him. Things quieted down, for them, when they turned into the underground section of the arena and the rest of those gathered skirmished their way toward the stands.

The two of them came to Mane in her bright uniform, leaning against the doorway of the locker room reading a paperback. She greeted them with a smile. “Afternoon gents, word on the wind is that no one has really taken notice of your duel this time. Expecting the stands to be empty.”

“Not a single seat filled, even Roland here is going back to the room to take a nap,” he said, returning her smile.

“Well, what can I get you today? Chainmail, a suit of plate armor, an artillery gun, or perhaps we should beach a battleship up there?”

Manfred shook his head and said, “I’d have taken you up on a cannon if you actually had one ready, but otherwise I have everything I need already.” He gestured toward Roland who still carried the spear.

“I’m glad to see you in a better mood than last week,” she remarked as she ducked into the room ahead of them.

When they had gone inside, he took the spear from his roommate and said, “There is one more thing I’d ask of you, though. Do you think you could bring out your Noblesse Oblige here?”

“What for? I thought you couldn’t copy the shape of armor with Heldengeist.”

He looked at the two others in the room, then sat on a bench to explain his final secret. “You seem to be under the impression that shape is the only thing I can take from other weapons, but that’s not quite the end of it. My Heldengeist can steal the special abilities of ergaleia as well, so long as I have the talent to use them.”

They looked at him with wide eyes, the implications of what he had said sinking in. Mane asked, “So when your ergaleion has been changing shape, that’s because you’ve been tracing other weapons?” He nodded. “I guess that explains why you came in here with a whole arsenal of your own the first time.”

“During your first match, you took the power of my sword, that’s why you looked so different than you did against Volta.”

“That’s right, and now I’d like to see what I can do with that armor’s power. I’m guessing it is much the same as what that sword did before you merged with it,” Manfred said. Roland indicated that he had guessed correctly, and that he would be happy to lend his strength to his friend.

“Would you like to borrow my ergaleion’s power as well?” Mane asked. She explained that her weapon was a thin sword with the ability to blind those cut by it for as long as the blood remained fresh on the blade.

He politely declined. “Blinding Siegfried is of limited usefulness. His mace allows him to sense the movement of anything that touches the ground and he’s even known to hide himself under the earth. Besides, I probably won’t be able to strike him with my blade before the end.”

“How do you intend to defeat him then?” Roland inquired in confusion.

“Isn’t that obvious, he’s going to make Siegfried taste the dirt himself,” Mane happily answered in his place. Manfred gestured toward her in confirmation of what she’d said.

“Now, I’d suggest the two of you get up to the stands. There’s not much time before the start of our duel,” he said as he brought out his Heldengeist in its base form of an obsidian dagger.

Roland clad himself in his armor with a bright, silvery flash so that he could tap the blade against his impervious shell. Just as he’d thought, the armor augmented the release of virya to make its use more effective, though at a slight cost to efficiency. There was something else lurking beyond Manfred’s grasp, another function of the ergaleion he could not understand. He dismissed it as a lingering effect of the sword with which Roland had fused.

Mane, who agreed to leave only after he assured her that he was leaving nothing in the locker room for her to watch over, and Roland headed out the normal door while Manfred remained to wait for the buzzer above the other portal to ring. He stored away Roland’s power and dismissed his Heldengeist, then took up the spear he had borrowed from Camilla. Finally, he unwound the pair of aviation goggles wrapped around his wrist and fitted them to his head. All that he had to do was wait. Despite being far more invested in this match than either of the previous ones, he felt calm. He felt eager.

When the signal sounded calling him to exit onto the field, he nearly sprinted down the corridor leading to the bright gateway of sunshine. Stepping onto the grassy plain, he heard the cacophony of the crowd. Though the stands were only partly filled, with few people outside the school caring about the duel between the cousins, the students were animated wildly. For once, he was compelled to wave to those cheering him on as he walked out toward the platform. From behind, above where he had entered the arena, he heard two especially loud voices shouting for the Fates to bring him luck. He looked over his shoulder to see Roland and Mane beating the air with their fists.

Siegfried marched onto the field at the other end of the arena, similarly escorted by the voices of supporters and hecklers. He had donned an ornate leather coat which was sure to be warded with significant enchantments. A chainmail hood glittered under the afternoon sun like a foul crown for his unworthy head. There was no acknowledgement of the crowd from him, he strode with manufactured elegance onto the marble platform staring down Manfred the entire time.

He stopped short of his own platform, ensuring the duel could not begin. With a flourish he spun the spear and planted it into the ground. Siegfried called out from across the field, “Has your courage failed you, or perhaps you never had such a thing?”

“I was just making sure to inscribe the image of your vain face in my memory. I’d like a good measure of just how far you are falling into despair when I see that visage twisted by defeat.” Feral anger took the place of the determined hatred his cousin had brought to the field, but before a reply could be spat out, Manfred stepped onto the marble marker. The flames rising in their hearts leapt out into the braziers behind them.

Manfred brandished the spear and stood ready. Siegfried projected a mass of energy which snapped into the form of a flanged mace that looked like an unsightly scepter. He set the top of the weapon on the ground between his feet, resting his hands atop the haft as if posing with a gentleman’s cane. The cousins did not bother to try intimidating each other by unmasking their reserves of virya; they would let their weapons and prowess do all the talking.

The radio club were at their table, apparently as divided between the cousins’ factions as the rest of the students based on the battle that was occurring over possession of the microphone. At least three people were involved in the scrambled introduction to the match.

“Okay folks, we’ve got an interesting one for you coming up next. Both combatants have the surname Fehl, so we’ll be using their first names, Manfred and Siegfried.”

“Siegfried comes from the storied Fehl family based here in New York City. Manfred’s father was disowned after disgracing the clan some decades ago.”

“I’d like to remind the listeners out there that Manfred arrived here as the pupil of the esteemed Master Aimar and that just last week he showed us an impressive battle against the formidable-”

“-And the duel has begun, the starter’s gun has fired! Siegfried opens up with a barrage of stone arrows!”

Both cousins remained at their platforms, hardly moving in response to the start of the match. Siegfried channeled energy through his mace and into the earth where he sifted the soil, creating rod-like conglomerates of solid minerals which he launched into the air. The projectiles burst from the ground in front of Siegfried and arced toward Manfred. With a frenetic flurry of strikes from his spear, he smashed the swarm of stones. By the time the last shard of broken rock fell back to the ground, the next salvo was on its way.

Manfred started forward as he swung the spear around to defend himself from the continuous rain of earthen spines. Slowly, he walked closer toward his enemy while swatting at each offending dart. The abuse of the impacts would have splintered an ordinary spear, and probably would have broken his Heldengeist, but the spear he borrowed from the Verona armory was a relic of several wars enchanted at every step in the process of its creation. Even the tree from which the shaft was cut had been part of a grove fed ensorcelled waters and tended by priestesses of Diana.

“Manfred deflects the rocks streaming toward him, so far nothing has seemed to phase him as he marches forward!” shouted one of the students into the microphone.

As he approached closer, Siegfried modified the projectiles he dredged up from under the field. Columns of hard packed soil sailed through the air to knock him from his feet. The large missiles were followed by clusters of sharpened javelins which sought to skewer the duelist if he was felled. However, Manfred dodged around the lethal flocks and their brutal heralds, twirling his spear to strike down the bullet-stones his cousin fired in between attempts at pinning him down. The ranged onslaught was nothing compared to the scything blades of light Volta unleashed against him.

Closer still, he came under attack from his cousin’s next technique. Tendrils of energy raced out under the ground, propelling lances of stone upward when they neared him. But these threats were undermined by the technique itself. Having to channel his virya outward meant that Siegfried’s intentions would be clear to anyone who maintained an awareness of his surroundings. Even when multiple spikes sought his flesh and arrows were raining down upon him, Manfred could sweep away the danger by smashing the ground with the spear to disrupt Siegfried’s control.

A forest of rocky blades erupted around Manfred as he advanced, a storm of stone projectiles raged in the air to halt his progress, but he could not be stopped. Energy flowing through his body at the limit of his ability to control, he skipped and dashed this way and that to navigate the churning earth coughing up its fury as impediments. But still he shortened the distance between him and his prey, lashing out with the spear like the avatar of a berserk god. The commentators debated whether his performance was impressive or futile, and the crowd proclaimed their entertainment loudly.

Finally, Siegfried felt the pressure of his zig-zagging charge and sent forth a surge of power through the earth. The ground bellowed, heeding his call by raising up a wall of dirt to block Manfred’s way. It was an obvious tactic, and therefore it was so incredibly worthless. Manfred sprinted full tilt at the wall, the move his cousin was expecting least. He could already sense the streams of virya traveling out to either side of the wall, creating points of ambush where Siegfried thought he might try to pass.

He came to the base of the wall and thrust the tip of the spear into the ground. Angling the shaft and leveraging his weight, he bent the spear mightily, then jumped and let the weapon catapult him high into the air as it sprang back into shape. Manfred vaulted over the wall, leaving the enchanted spear behind him to soar away toward his unsuspecting cousin. The shocked youth could not manage an attack on Manfred before he landed beyond the obstacle. He came down hard and rolled to his feet. The charge resumed at close range.

The broadcast club cried out in unison, “Manfred goes over the top!...He’s used his spear to pole vault over the wall!...They’re almost at arm's length!”

Siegfried panicked, making the last mistake that sealed his fate. He tried to avoid Manfred’s assault by pulling himself away, gliding backward on a marble raft. If he had done this sooner, it would have been an advisable response to the onrushing avenger, but at the current distance separating them, it was a waste of precious attention and energy. It was a move driven by pure fear; a reaction to the sight of the snarling hunter dropping over the top of the wall and bounding forward to seek his throat.

Manfred howled at his enemy, “Has your courage failed you?” The taunt was all too effective, causing Siegfried to realize what drove him and freeze over the indecision of continuing his flight or mounting a heroic stand to save face. Had he simply pushed away the ground beneath Manfred’s feet instead, the unstable footing would have made his charge impossible.

But that fool faltered at the deciding moment, giving Manfred the outcome he desired. He pounded across the furrowed ground at full speed. As he reached the fleeing man, his cousin made a last attempt to stop him by opening up a pit between them. He stomped down at the edge of the abyss and sprang at the other duelist.

“A game-winning tackle! I hope our joustball team captain is watching, we’ve got your newest recruit here!”

The two collided with great force, Manfred’s momentum carrying them away and tumbling through the air before they crashed down. To his credit, Siegfried reacted immediately to jam his mace against the ground and begin loosening the soil beneath them. The earth shifted away under them, diverting the worst of the impact as they sank several feet below the surface. Manfred savaged his cousin with a headbutt aimed into the open face of the chainmail hood.

As he reared back from the blow, Manfred raised his right hand and called Heldengeist to his side with the menacing tip pointed down. He stabbed the dagger toward Siegfried’s heart, intending to pierce leather, flesh, bone, and life with one attack. The target squirmed in desperation, raising the haft of his mace to block the strike. A horrid sound filled their grave as Heldengeist scraped against the metallic rod and then shattered from the strain of the struggle.

Siegfried rammed his ergaleion against the wall of the hole once more and flooded the surrounding earth with his power, but Manfred was already on the move. He leapt up from the depression before his cousin could entrap and crush him. The ground closed over the fallen Fehl while Manfred stalked away to a safe distance. He could feel his subterranean target tunneling to create distance between them. Heldengeist appeared in his hand again, now bearing his cousin's power in addition to Roland’s.

“Manfred has returned to the surface, but Siegfried remains lurking below. We lost sight of them for a moment, but the duel continues!”

One of the other commentators noted, “He’s manifested a dagger in his hand and I can still see his spear laying over there too, are these both his ergaleion or is one an extra weapon?” He wondered what they would say soon when they saw what was about to happen.

The routed duelist traveled beneath the ground to the other side of the arena before rising once more amidst a strange reverse vortex of soil and stood with his mace resting on the field. His face made it plainly obvious that he was shaken and furious. Immediately, he picked up where he had left off with the barrage of stones; jagged bolts exploded from the ground in rapid succession. Without hesitation, Manfred set off at a sprint toward his target’s new position, weaving between the incoming missiles.

When he could not avoid them, he lashed out with his dagger to destroy the rocky shards. These ranged attacks were efficient and powerful, even against opponents who could deflect and dodge them, but they were flawed. Once fired, the earthen shapes were separated from the influence of that ergaleion. Nothing about them could be altered after that. Unless, of course, the target happened to have the same ability. Manfred no longer needed to overpower the arrows and bullets that met his blade, now he could simply turn them to dust on contact.

“Manfred takes off in pursuit of Siegfried, he seems even faster than before!”

“The rain of stone has begun again but he can’t land a hit. Manfred is slashing the deluge apart with ease.”

The rage darkening Siegfried’s face deepened. He released all restraint and poured his full power into the earth. The ground rumbled, quaked, and rose in great coils to take on the appearance of a serpent with man-sized fangs of serrated shale. With a guttural yell of exertion, his cousin set the beast loose. It slithered across the field like an unstoppable landslide and quickly met with Manfred head on. The fantastic construct lunged at him, maw opened wide, but he leaped sideways at the last second and avoided the viper’s bite.

“One of Siegfried’s signatures, Jörmungandr has arisen!”

“Its jaws snap shut…it gets nothing but air, Manfred dodges!”

However, as soon as the monstrous moving mound impacted with the ground, the energy animating it shifted and its head rebounded through its own neck to surge toward Manfred again. No matter how nimbly he avoided the serpent’s strikes, Siegfried only had to reshape his creation and try again.

So Manfred cut off the snake’s head. It was simple enough. Like all of Siegfried’s techniques, this one was wildly flawed. More thought had been put into the concept of the technique than had been used to consider its practicality. Although, his cousin could never have expected to face his own ability in a mirror.

Manfred slashed the side of the serpent as he dashed by its snapping jaws. At the moment of contact, he released a burst of virya through his dagger and overwhelmed the energy stitching the construct together. Siegfried was concentrating on controlling the entire thing, moving the huge body and supplying it with more soil from below. The surge from Heldengeist broke through that thinly spread intention and blasted a section of the earthen body away like the detonation of a bomb. Everything forward from that point lost its connection to Siegfried and crumpled into an inanimate pile.

“Just die, damn you!” Siegfried shouted in exasperation. His face was contorted with worry, suspicious of what had just happened but unwilling to consider the method by which Manfred had dispatched Jörmungandr. Stubbornly, his cousin channeled his energy through the headless serpent and turned it back to chase him. A new diamond shaped head formed at the ruined mess where it had been severed.

Again, Manfred struck the earthen flank of the beast and destroyed its front end. The jaws closing in on him from behind fell inert. Siegfried then tried to break off his creation ahead of where he ran, setting a new fanged viper in his path, but he rolled away from its path and cut down the construct for a third time. Over and over, the rock scaled snake rose up only to be torn apart by his blade as he dodged, ducked under, and dived past the fangs of the earth shaking monster like Heracles battling the hydra.

“With incredible force, Manfred is smashing apart the constructed snake as quickly as Siegfried recreates it! There’s a cloud of dust overtaking the arena, we’re having trouble seeing anything out there.”

For the second time, he drew near his cousin. This prompted Siegfried to abandon his Jörmungandr, reshaping the last of its body into a stone bulwark separating himself from Manfred. He had learned from Manfred’s earlier feat and prepared to attack as soon as he surmounted the barrier. The dagger-wielding youth used the ability of Siegfried’s ergaleion to monitor his actions by dragging his blade along the ground and expanding his sense of touch through the earth.

On the other side of the rock shelter, Siegfried pulled a massive amount of earth up with his mace as he hefted it above his head. He formed the material into a huge aggregate hammer with which to crush Manfred when he approached.

Instead, he stopped in front of the wall and plunged his Heldengeist into it. His idiot cousin had provided him with a supply of ready made stone and now stood with arms raised high to hold the giant weapon he had crafted. Manfred forced a spike of energy through the wall, sending a shard of rock rocketing out the other side. He roared as he slammed the structure with waves of power channeled through his blade that turned the entire thing into a battery of earthen artillery.

Hundreds of slivers of stone shot through the air, a burst of grapeshot aimed at Siegfried. As the barrier disintegrated, he caught a glimpse of his target in the midst of the storm. Leather, cloth, blood and flesh tore apart and became one with the shower of debris. Then the sight was gone, consigned to memory in an instant as the arena reset with a jarring lurch that made Manfred nauseous.

But on this third time, he was no longer left with any confusion as to the course of events. He need not even look at the braziers to know that he had won. The crowd erupted, cheers mixing with angry shouting as the radio commentators struggled to report the result over the noise.

On the other side of the field, Siegfried stood dumbfounded on his marble platform. Slowly, an intense disgust emerged on his face. Manfred could only guess that he had finally figured out how he had won, what it was that Heldengeist could do. His cousin’s upper lip curled into a furious snarl, then pandemonium broke loose.

Siegfried slammed his mace down and released a surge of virya through the ground, raising up Jörmungandr once more to race across the field toward Manfred. He froze, unsure of what to do. His dagger was no longer at hand, instead the spear he had brought into the arena had been returned to him by the Phoenix Nest’s magic. But more troubling was the prohibition against continuing a fight after the end of a duel.

His cousin had acted first, but there was no telling what would happen if he fought back. However, the serpent crumbled as suddenly as it had been created. When the earth settled into loose dirt and Manfred could see past it, he saw that someone else stood with Siegfried. The towering figure of Master Thule was easy to recognize.

The teacher had appeared in an instant, his movement too swift for Manfred to notice. He held Siegfried up off the ground with one hand gripping the youth’s neck from behind. Having been lifted so far, his cousin could no longer reach the earth with his ergaleion.

Manfred decided that the most harmful thing he could do was simply to turn his back to his enemy and leave. He had seen the face of despair and frustration he had hoped to witness as Siegfried struggled futilely in Thule’s grasp. The idiot was sure to receive some punishment for his transgression. There was nothing else to do but to go suffer through the wild feast which awaited him when he submitted himself to the clutches of Roland and the others who had been rooting for his victory.

He released all of his tension with a sigh, let a smile lift the corners of his mouth, and walked through the arena’s gate.

Real Aire