The flames roared, and her opponent fell.
As they always did.
Estella sighed, dismissing Astra with a flick of her wrist. Her Animarta vanished in orbs of light, along with her remaining hope of finding someone strong enough to last three strikes against her.
In front of her, the boy with the blue scimitar collapsed to his knees, chest heaving. He was… passable, she’d like to admit. Good form, good balance, a solid grasp of magic. But passable was not enough. Not for her. Not for the Academy.
“I’ll give you a C,” Estella said. Some in the crowd watching the duel groaned, including several teachers. C was already an achievement by her standards. “Next.”
As the boy struggled to his feet and limped away, Estella glanced at the others waiting their turn. Five more—three boys and two girls. Most fidgeted, eyeing her with apprehension. The last batch of enrollees were often nervous, especially after seeing the display of power from the seniors. To her left, she could see Aldros swinging his massive hammer at the poor kid who had the misfortune to be tested by him. Compared to her vice-president’s gigantic Animarta, the enrollee’s bow was a stick against a boulder. Even the gathered crowd was starting to murmur, noting how ridiculous and downright unfair the pairing was.
“Nox Stigan, please proceed to Stage B,” the teacher overseeing the Selection Duel announced.
Estella returned her focused ahead of her at the mention of her Stage, sighing. Another enrollee, another C. Or maybe it was a B this time. Hopefully. She rarely gave a B.
Then she saw him.
Hair as black as the night, so opposite hers, which people said was like liquid starlight. His eyes, a deep shade of onyx, if that was even possible. She didn’t know anyone could have such eyes, like she was looking at two pits leading into the abyss. Fit he was, his muscles compact. And judging by the callouses on his fingers, he was skilled with a weapon.
Good. Perhaps this one would be an actual challenge.
The boy, Nox, stopped twenty feet away from her. Estella regarded him as the overseer announced the rules for the fortieth time that day.
“No maiming, no killing. Grades will be given based on how long you can withstand the assessor’s assault. Defeat the assessor, and you will be guaranteed the rank of Second Class when you become a Knight.”
Nox simply nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on Estella.
She frowned. Usually, enrollees would be excited at the prospect of becoming Second Class Knights by defeating their assessors. But Nox seemed unperturbed by it. How odd.
“Dame Estella, if you will,” the teacher said.
She twisted sideways, presenting her left side, and extended a hand, fingers splayed wide. “Come, Astra.”
As always, there was that warmness spreading from her heart and enveloping her body. It reminded her of her mother’s embrace, loving and reassuring, but hiding a fierce protectiveness. It soon seeped into her open palm, and in a flash of blinding light, she was holding her Animarta again, silver as the stars, sharper than the sharpest swords.
She grasped the white hilt with both hands, raising it perpendicular to the floor and parallel to her right shoulder, and waited.
Nox simply kept his hands to the side. His right hand was wide open.
“Help me, Erebos.”
The crowd gasped. Even Estella’s eyes widened.
Shadows churned along Nox’s right arm, twisting and writhing like snakes. They merged in his hand, first the black hilt, then the blade that was just as dark as his eyes. When he raised it in front of him in a guarded stance, wisps of black smoke curled at the edges.
A Shadow-forged Animarta. A rare kind, just like her Light-forged Astra.
The overseer raised a shaking hand. “B-Begin!”
As his hand cleaved the air, Estella charged.
She covered the distance in a second. Most of her opponents would have been already startled by this, too surprised to defend against her first swing. Speed was always one of her greatest ally.
She swung, aiming for Nox’s throat. The tip of her Animarta merely had to touch the skin and the fight would end.
Nox blocked the strike, then another, and another.
Three swings. Three blocks.
Estella smiled and continued. A fourth swing from the left. Parried. An overhead cut. Evaded. The sixth one was meant to sever Nox’s right shoulder if this had been a real fight, but he deflected it with a casual flick of his wrist, disrupting Estella’s pattern.
She pirouetted on her feet, swinging Astra to Nox’s unprotected left. He moved to avoid it, but Estella feinted at the last second and swung downward, straight for his left leg.
Again, it was blocked. But Nox didn’t stop.
This time, he was the one who swung his Animarta.
Estella raised Astra in defense. Steel rang loudly. Their Animartas locked for a moment, pushing against each other, a contest of strength.
She gazed into his eyes, a pair of void that sucked light. There was no emotion in there save for an ironclad resolve to win, to defeat her.
The air grew cold. Shadows writhed up the length of Nox’s sword. Estella threw her weight forward and pushed, sending Nox skidding back by a few feet. As he did, Estella thrust out her left hand, fingers splayed wide. In the center of her palm, a swirling ball of flame erupted.
The fireball blasted forward. In answer, Nox pointed his sword at it—no, at her!—and said, “Engulf.”
Utter darkness. Estella swiveled her gaze around, but she couldn’t see anything. It was as if her eyes had lost their ability to see. A blinding spell? No, wait. There was coldness too, like the frigid winds of the far north. But it was the height of spring, and the weather was sunny when they began the fight. And she couldn’t hear anything except her own pounding heart. If this darkness was only in her eyes, her sense of feeling and hearing shouldn’t have been affected.
Her lips curved upward. She switched into a guarded stance. Sure enough, there was a whoosh of air behind her, and she whirled around to parry it.
There was a grunt, then the presence retreated.
“How did you sense that I’m coming?” a voice, cool and smooth, said.
“Attacking your opponent from behind is the easiest way to defeat them,” Estella answered, “especially if they can’t see you.”
There was no answer save for another whoosh of air. This time, the attack came from her left, and she blocked it promptly.
She moved three paces to the right. No doubt, Nox could see her. But staying in one spot was not wise if she couldn’t detect her opponent.
She was fortunate that Selection Duels were not timed battles. If they were, she would have lost already. But the point of these battles was to test a knight’s endurance and magic capacity. And if Nox could last long like this despite the active magic field suppressing her vision, his potential was high.
Definitely a B. No, maybe even an A.
Finally, there was a shift. The temperature around her dropped. An icy feeling started at her feet, crawling up her legs, freezing them. Try as she might, she couldn’t move them, encased as they were in what she had no doubt to be ice. And it didn’t stop. Soon her torso was covered, the frost traveling to her arms, transforming her into a living statue of ice. Only her head was left untouched.
Estella laughed softly. “A dual affinity. You’re full of surprises, Nox Stigan.” She smiled and added, “Unfortunately, you should have frozen my head first.”
Finally, there was a shift. The temperature around her dropped. An icy feeling started a her feet, crawling up her legs, freezing them. Try as she might, she couldn’t move them, encased as they were in what she had no doubt to be ice. And it didn’t stop. Soon her torso was covered, the frost traveling to her arms, transforming her into a living statue of ice. Only her head was left untouched.
And the ground shook, a terrible judgement from the heavens. Astra blazed like the Arrow, and the darkness dissolved like a cloud, revealing Nox twenty feet away, charging right toward her with a bewildered expression.
Then the flames came, roaring around Estella, a tornado of fire and destruction, melting the ice and freeing her at last. Around the Stage, the crowd gasped.
She sent the flames sweeping outward. Nox thrust his arm forward, calling forth a wall of ice. But it was not enough, not for her second most powerful spell.
The ice wall melted. When the steam finally dissipated, Estella saw Nox kneeling on one knee, Erebos planted on the ground as support. He was breathing heavily, his mana depleted.
The entire Stage had blackened from the fires of Supernova.
Estella dusted off the soot from her skirt then approached him. She loomed over Nox, regarding him. In turn, he gazed at her warily.
She had only used Suprrnova twice in her lifetime.
The third was during this battle.
She dismissed Astra, and smiled at Nox.
Thank you for deciding to read my story. This project is part of Owl Tribe’s activity for November. I was inspired to write this after watching Chivalry of a Failed Knight recently, and the Asterisk War long before that. Regarding the story itself, it is just the first draft. Think of it as a web novel, where nothing is really set in stone. But despite that, I will try to maintain its quality, so I can’t guarantee a regular update.