The Hero's Shadow
Breakfast the next morning was somewhat awkward. The trio of bodyguards met Roisin at her hotel and escorted her to the Women’s National Knight Academy. It was the first time Manfred had entered by the front gate instead of sneaking in under cover of darkness. Today, Roisin had chosen to wear a combat specialized set of deep green pants and fatigues she had bought at Lord & Taylor. Although it was not a uniform, she now fit in with the crowds of white-clad women roaming the campus. When they first met her at the hotel, she’d winked viciously at Manfred.
Though she seemed to bear no ill will, he could not let go of the tension he felt in her presence. More than fearing a reprisal, physical or social, from her, he felt that he deserved one.
But that was the least of the tension in their group as they sat in their sister school’s cafeteria, brightly lit by sunlight streaming in from large, ornate windows. Volta still made no attempts to conceal her enmity toward Roland, but also appeared now to turn a cold face toward Manfred. He couldn’t really find fault in such a reaction.
What surprised him was the strange attitude Roland had towards Camilla. His usual excitement and attentiveness were replaced with a shrinking quality as though he was trying to avoid her notice. For her part, Camilla regarded him the same as she always had, as an interesting new friend.
Still, Manfred could tell that there was something unsaid between them. He wanted to intervene, having a pretty good idea of the problem and its solution, but with Roisin playfully leaning against his shoulder as they ate, he chose to keep quiet and keep his head down.
“It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other!” Roisin had exclaimed when they brought her to where Camilla had prepared a table for the group.
“Indeed. The telephone is quite wonderful, but the warmth of my rose is lost over the wire,” the heiress replied. Manfred looked to Volta who only shrugged and shook her head.
“It was difficult to hide my enthusiasm when papa proposed this little trip, but I had to string him along at least a little to make him feel guilty for this nonsense with the Profaci family,” she said with a smile that turned into a fierce sneer. “Can you believe that old ogre once promised me that he’d never tell the Commission about my Dark Rose? Not even a year later and I’m here wiping some geezer’s snot because he’s too ancient to kick the flu on his own.”
Manfred jabbed at her side with his elbow. He willed her to understand his message, what the Hel are you thinking mentioning those names in public. She countered with her own strike to his ribs, twice as hard.
“Perhaps I shall have to have a chat with Luciano, though I know not whether I should tell him to forget about making this a regular hassle for you or to suggest that he call on you every time his men stub their toes.”
Roisin and Camilla giggled together. The former added with glee, “If I have to come out here every weekend, it’ll bankrupt my old man.”
“How far back do the two of you go, anyway? Manfred asked, biting the bullet and trying to change the subject.
“My family were guests of the O’Donnells for a short while when I was very young. We’ve maintained contact since then by letter and by irregular phone conversations.”
“Wait, did she ever mention…”
“No, not once did she mention that she was dating someone. To think I’d select him through pure happenstance and send him to escort her. A romantic star indeed must be guiding the weaving of the Fates!”
He started in terror, “That’s not exactly-”
“Well, you know, I wouldn’t mention such a thing by letter, it’s sort of fun to have a secret for a little while, right?” Roisin said with a calm smile.
Volta finally spoke up, “Ah, I see, I’ve noticed letters from Chicago in your mail for years.”
“You know, I’ve heard about you for years, Volta. Maybe the next time these bastards come crying to me for help, you and I will spend a day together,” Roisin began with lowered volume. “I appreciate all that you’ve done for Camilla over the years.”
Volta had seemed to be neutral toward and uninterested in the woman from Chicago, until that comment. She could not stop a blossoming of affection from lighting up her blue eyes as she nodded with pacified agreeability.
Camilla puffed out her cheeks and set herself opposed with a huff. “And I’m to wait until your third visit for such treatment? I think some men from the Families are certainly going to have to endure some unfortunate accidents soon.”
“Don’t be bitter because you’re busy today!” Roisin called out sarcastically. “When are you two heading over there to get ready, anyway?”
Camilla looked to the massive, ornamented clock set into the front wall of the dining hall. With slumping shoulders, she said, “We must be off. You should proceed to the stadium now if you want to fight for seats. I entrust Roisin to the two of you.”
Roland and Camilla stood from the table, out of sync with each other, they set off toward the doors. Manfred groaned and shouted after them, “Just tell her you idiot! Do you think that she’s thinking any differently from you?”
His roommate looked pathetically at the heiress. She forced an awkward smile. Picking himself up to his full height, Roland declared, “I’m not going to hold back out there. Let’s both use everything we have and see who remains standing.”
Camilla’s smile became soft, endearing. Her enthusiasm was radiant in her words. “Yes, let us have a true match. I’m hoping that we can help each other to stand taller.”
Some of the other students in the hall whistled and teased as the princess and her champion shook hands. Both were now on the same page, overflowing with an intense spirit of competition. There was something in it which Manfred felt was pleasing to see.
When the two left, Roisin patted his head bluntly and encouraged, “And let us go make sure that we can help each other find places to sit taller.” She stood to trace the same route to the arena.
Volta and Manfred shared a look between themselves. He could tell that she was resigned to abandoning her dislike of Roland. They commiserated on their discomfort with how the events of these past few days had played out.
They had no time for the lethargy in which they desired to indulge, their charge was already on her way toward the doors. In unison, they stood and hurried after Roisin. The brash red-head needed no assistance in plowing a path through the crowds lingering around the arena and too slowly shambling toward the stands.
Manfred noted that the arena at the Women’s Academy was actually larger than the one at their school. He had not noticed before having only seen it at night and from a distance. This explained to him why it had been chosen for the exhibition match. The students from both schools formed a core of the attendance, but graduates, families, and fans from the city packed the stands for the exhibition match.
Thanks to Roisin’s insistent path finding, the trio were able to get prime seats at the top of a section with a bit of space between them and the next row. He felt somehow trapped, sitting between the two women. Roisin reclaimed her place resting her head on his shoulder while they waited for the duelists to emerge.
“Say, what is her ergaleion? She was too young to manifest it when we last saw each other.”
Volta smirked coolly and replied, “I’d hate to spoil the fun. Just watch and see.”
The stands filled as the minutes ticked away. A crowd formed in the walkways, unable to find seats. Finally, the gates in the interior of the arena swung open and a hush swept over the stadium.
Camilla strode out from the east entrance wearing a lamellar coat of painted metal plates which was cut almost like a dress with tails hanging down to shield her legs without forming a full barrier that would restrict her movements. She had an open faced burgonet on her head, also painted. Her entire ensemble was colored white, an extension of the uniform of that school.
Roland walked out of the west gate wearing only their black uniform. He looked more focused than Manfred had yet seen him as the pair moved toward their starting positions under the cheers of the audience. Just as he was used to, there were two marble platforms which sparked the braziers of the enchanted structure when the fighters stepped onto them.
His roommate made his usual salute directed with pride toward the heiress. Then the air was shaken by an explosion of silver light that erupted from his body. Energy flowed from the young man like a flood driven by unending rains. Without a doubt, he had gotten stronger still than he had been when Manfred watched him defeat Augustus.
The glowing figure shifted into a boxer’s stance and the shining aura around him solidified into a bastion of metallic plates.
Now Camilla asserted herself. If Roland’s presence had become like that of a hundred year flood, then the power she unleashed was like that of a mythic flood. Those in attendance were awed by the kataklysmos.
She raised a hand and a portion of that immense power coalesced a few meters above her head. The virya became unfathomably dense as it took shape in an instant and fell to the ground like a star crashing down from the heavens. Amidst the storm of dirt thrown up by the impact, Camilla could be seen closing her hand on the shaft of a huge hammer.
The weapon’s head looked like a boulder rather than something forged by man, the long shaft seemingly growing from the thing like a stalactite. A burst of mineral ore formed a counter-weight on the other end of the handle. Casually, Camilla lifted the monstrous thing and held it high in salute.
“Astralis Imperatrix,” Volta intoned. Roisin, along with the rest of the crowd, cheered. The starter waited for the two fighters to appear ready, then fired his pistol.
Immediately, the white-clad woman bounded forward with steps that destroyed the field in the few places where she touched it as she seemed to glide over the distance almost in flight. She landed some ways too far in front of Roland to reach him with the maul, except that her momentum could not be stopped by the dirt underfoot.
Driving a furrow into the field, she slid into range while swinging an avalanche down onto her opponent. He planted himself firmly and caught the incoming meteor with both hands raised above his head. For a moment, he was lost to view as the earth around where he stood was transformed into a geyser from the collision between the two.
When the loosened dirt fell back down, Roland remained standing, struggling to hold up the hammer. His feet had been driven several feet under the surface level and a hole excavated around him, but he was unbowed.
Camilla pulled her Astralis away and whirled around to deliver a sweeping blow before Roland could free himself from the ground. He put up his arms to block the train rolling towards him, but as soon as they made contact he was blasted from the spot.
Roland went sailing away through the air before falling low enough to strike out at the ground with his leg and begin tumbling to a stop. The white-clad warrior followed him every step of the way. Even before he had regained his footing, another meteor fell upon him. This he dodged, allowing the ground to be smashed apart in his stead.
The silver armored fighter released a left hook around the haft of the hammer, but the attack was too slow. Camilla turned the weapon about and deflected his fist with the counter-weight, itself almost large enough to be called a warhammer in its own right. They were both knocked away a step by the force of the exchange.
Simultaneously, they lunged forward to swing against each other. Gauntlet collided with megalith, sounding out like the bell marking the death of the world. The ground trembled. Roland pushed on with a flurry of punches, but each time he was met with the head, haft, or pommel of the sledge which Camilla hefted as though it weighed no more than an ordinary quarterstaff.
The field beneath the two suffered the worst, they remained on their feet and fighting while the force of their battle churned the earth as though a cavalry regiment had charged through the area during a heavy rain. Manfred was reminded of Roland’s brawl with Augustus, although by the end of this he might have to reconsider that duel as a mild tussle.
“Well, I suppose that’s the limit of his ability,” Volta said without any emotion behind her voice.
Roisin spoke across him to ask her, “What do you mean? They seem a fair match.”
“She is still holding back quite a bit, despite what she said. She must, this Nest is too weak to contain her potential. If she released her true power here, it would lead to a rather unsatisfying conclusion.”
“That Astralis, what is it?” he inquired, sensing some mystery to it. Volta considered for a moment how much to reveal with a stern look on her face.
“That weapon doesn’t just increase her strength, it reinforces the concept of its own power. That includes her physical capabilities and proficiency in wielding it. The more…---...she becomes, the more it grows in power and then elevates her to its level,” she said with some hesitancy. He did not probe further.
On the field, Camilla rushed into Roland with her hammer held out ahead of her. He grasped the earthshaker and tried to push back against her bulldozing, but the ground gave out beneath his feet. The white-clad duelist pushed the silver mountain across the field, leaving a wake of earth torn asunder.
Roland shifted himself under the weight, then pushed the hammer skyward. Not hesitating, he twisted his body and spun into a powerful kick that caught Camilla in the side. It was her turn to be sent flying through the air.
Righting herself, she planted the bottom of her hammer in the ground and dragged it along to anchor herself to a stop. Again, the duelists charged into each other. The meteor fell and would have destroyed the world had a silver hero not resisted its impact with his mighty frame. The challenger stretched out his arm to strike the white demigod a blow that sent her staggering back before she balanced herself with the mass of her weapon.
“At least he’s strong enough to let her have some fun for once,” Volta remarked.
Below, the two fighters smashed apart the field and sent each other hurtling across the pitted earth. They showed no signs of tiring, nor of being slowed by the monumental forces with which they crashed. Trading fearsome blows, the pair fought back and forth over the arena floor.
Manfred watched the battle intently. He was being reminded of just how weak he really was, just what sort of monsters might be lurking around any corner. Even taking the power of a dozen ergaleia, he doubted that he could stand against Camilla for even a second.
Then, the scales tipped. Manfred noticed that the energy overflowing from Camilla was becoming still even more overwhelming. The air seemed to hum with the uncontainable power released from her body. Her movements became blurred images of violence too awesome to comprehend, and Roland was the target of that furious storm.
Each blow of the hammer knocked him away like a rag-doll. Her pursuit left him only enough time to pick himself back up and present his next ineffective defense against an oncoming strike. Where he blocked the smiting boulder, his armor glowed with the intense discharge of silver light that marked the limit of its strength.
Roisin murmured under her breath, so quiet that only Manfred could hear her, "I haven't seen anything like this back home; it's truly terrifying. And to think, there are probably some people here watching this who still regard it as mere child's play."
As Camilla closed in at lightning speed, Roland stood in her path and leaped forward to try to intercept her with a haymaker. His fist hung in midair as a falling star descended onto him from above. The field where the two met exploded upward as the impact cratered the ground.
Manfred could not believe that the seismic blast had not ended the match, but the duel continued. At the center of the depression, Roland struggled to raise himself from the dirt, his entire suit of plates glowing softly. Camilla was upon him in an instant.
She swung the pommel of her weapon upward and propelled the fallen man into the air in front of her. With a devastating finality, the white-clad woman swung the massive hammer horizontally to swat the silver figure like an insignificant gnat. He smashed into the side wall of the arena hard enough to break apart the stonework. A wave of force rippled around the entire ring of the wall, the shock-wave from the collision being refracted inward by the Nest’s mystic barrier and shattering the stone along the length of the wall.
Roland's silver armor remained in a viscous state of clinging light even as he stumbled up and onto his feet. Absorbing the titanic hits from Camilla’s Astralis had chipped away at his energy. Manfred could no longer distinguish his presence from the maelstrom of her power.
Even still, he charged toward her with a loud battle cry. Even as his armor dripped from his body in rivulets of quicksilver that dimmed from existence as they fell away, he ran into the waiting maw of the dragon. The first strike that came for him was a crushing landslide which he avoided by feinting with his footwork.
But he could not reach her before Camilla turned her weapon and brought a brutal follow up to bear on him. Throwing himself to the side, he barely managed to tumble around the boulder’s path. Roland closed in with his right fist raised and let fly a punch backed by all the power he had remaining.
Just before the meteor blew him away, his gauntlet smashed into her helm and tore it free from her brow. Then the world was rent by the sound of a bomb’s detonation, the sound of his body being struck by an unstoppable force. She swung through the motion like a batter sending the last pitch of the game straight over the backfield wall.
They had only an instant to see the shock-wave released by the impact tearing apart what remained of the field and his body cast toward oblivion at high speed. The moment passed, all that was damaged was made whole. Roland and Camilla stood again on the marble platforms, his brazier extinguished.
He was once more reduced to the black uniform of the Men’s Academy and her hammer had vanished back to the cosmic sea from which it had emerged.
The noise of the battle was replaced with the noise of the audience, who filled the stadium with cheering and applause. The duelists stood in the tide of their glory, waving to the crowds and eventually to each other. Manfred saw their mouths moving, but there was no hope of trying to hear what they said. He knew only that they both wore broad smiles.
Instead, he followed Volta’s gaze, which swept through the stands like a hawk’s glare. He picked out pockets of individuals who were not joining in the festival mood, who seemed displeased or disgusted with what they had observed.
“Well that was exciting, how about we muscle our way out of here before everyone else has the same idea?” Roisin shouted to her bodyguards over the din. “I do have an appointment to keep.”
Manfred and Volta looked at each other, nodded, and rose from the bench in unison.