Summer vacation came and went like a breeze, and it was the last summer vacation that Estella knew she would cherish the most.
For the past two weeks, she had finally managed to learn more about her squire’s life, at least the tidbits he was willing to reveal. The time she had spent with him—eating under the tree, their training and study sessions, or simply exchanging stories about themselves—was an unforgettable experience for her. True, she still didn’t know much about his powers. But she had learned about him.
For now, she was happy with that.
As vacation ended and classes resumed, however, a gnawing fear settled in her stomach. The Assessment Exam was drawing near, and while Estella was confident that she could pass hers, it was Nox she was worried about. He had improve vastly, especially in academics, but his practical application of magic was still unimpressive. He could cast a spell that all second years knew, but he always ended up canceling it after several seconds.
It was driving Estella crazy, and her mood soured with each passing day. Unlike Aldros’s squire, who could keep a wind tornado manifested for over two minutes, Nox could barely keep three ice spears floating in the air for thirty seconds.
“Again!” Estella barked when the spears evaporated once again during one of their afternoon training sessions three days before the exam. They had been doing this for half an hour now, and each time Nox canceled the spell, the duration grew shorter.
She shook her head, watching him took a breath first. Nox’s mana capacity was astounding, but Estella couldn’t understand why he had difficulty maintaining a spell for long. It was as if he was using too much mana trying to sustain the casting duration.
“Nox,” she began, approaching him, circling around until she stood behind him. “Let’s try something. When you cast the spell, I’ll check your mana flow.”
His shoulders stiffened, but he nodded wordlessly and took off his shirt. She would need direct skin contact for this.
“Now, cast the spell,” Estella ordered as she pressed her right palm by his spine, opening herself to the rush of magic.
Nox chanted, and Estella closed her eyes. As soon as he finished speaking, she gasped. The mana flowing within him raged like a stormy sea. It rushed to form the spell, but it also spilled in a great surge, dissipating into the air.
A terrifying flaw. How did Nox even managed to score high during the Selection Duels? If a Wielder couldn’t control their magic, any spell they casted would go awry and kill them at once. It was actually a miracle that Nox was still alive.
“Stop!” Estella said when the first ice spear materialized, glinting in the dying rays of the sun. At her command, Nox glanced over a shoulder, perplexed, but did as she had said. The ice spear evaporated once more in curls of steam.
Estella stepped back and crossed her arms. “Do you know what you’re doing?” she demanded.
He had the decency to look guilty, at least. “Yes, I know. I’m burning up mana every time I cast a spell.”
“Since… Since I learned how to cast a spell.”
“And you’re still alive?” She shook her head, exasperated. If he was not her squire, she would have stopped teaching him now. “Didn’t no one teach you how to properly control your mana?”
Nox’s words were slow as he responded, “There was no one skilled enough. I lived in a remote village, remember?”
She glared at him. "Fine. But you have to stop doing that. I'll teach you how."
He nodded. "Of course, Master."
The next day was a brutal challenge for Estella. With only two days left, there was no time for Nox to perfect his control over his mana.
Nevertheless, Estella drilled into him everything she knew. They were running out of time, so the lessons were crude and poorly structured, but Nox seemed to have understood the basics. He was not burning as much mana as he had before when he attempted the spell again, and that was a good thing.
The day before the exam, Estella had him take a rest. He protested at first, insisting that there was still time to train. But she rejected his pleas.
"You can only cram so much information in your brain, Nox," she told him during lunch. "Doing that a day before an exam never goes well. We've already done all we can. Now, you need to rest and prepare."
He didn’t argue with that, and the day passed by like a swift wind. The next morning dawned bright and clear, and Estella rose from her bed with apprehension.
Today, she would find out if Nox was indeed worthy of being her squire.
She didn’t worry about her own exam—she knew she could pass it. But her squire was a different matter. Nox was not the typical student; his magic, his control over his mana, none of it was typical. And there were still a lot oof things that they had not prepared for.
Breakfast was lively, but there was a thick veil of anxiety hanging over most students. For her part, Estella did her best to eat as much as she could, ignoring the worry gnawing in her stomach.
And she could tell that Nox felt the same. His expression didn’t show it, but his shoulders were stiff and his movements were sharp and quick. He barely spoke too, much more than before.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” Estella smiled at him, hoping to quell his unease while subduing her own.
He looked at her, his lips curved slightly. “Of course, it will. I have a great teacher.”
“Flattery will not make me lessen the difficulty of your training, my squire,” she teased, though her smile broadened.
“Who says I want to?” he shot back.
She arched an eyebrow at that. Bold of him, and yet it sent a pleasant shiver down her spine. “My, my, now you’re learning.”
He grunted, turning his gaze back to his food. But the tension in his shoulders was gone, and the churning in Estella’s stomach had eased.
The Assessment Exam began at noon in Vileza Hall, where nearly three hundred and fifty students, divided by seniority, convened with several of the teachers. For three grueling hours, they would be subjected into a two-part test where they had to show everything they had learned during the last three months.
The first part was the written test, which was not too difficult but was the longest in the exam. Many of the questions involved rote memorization, and Estella finished them all thirty minutes before the timer ran out.
As she waited on the side, she searched the crowd for Nox. Vileza Hall was divided into three sections to accommodate everyone, but there was no boundary separating them; part of the exam’s goal was to ensure that squires felt comfortable taking on challenges with their masters. For that, they had to see them struggling as well.
She soon located him by the tenth seat in the third row, his pen flying across the paper. His face was a mask of pure concentration, but five minutes later, he raised a hand, signaling that he was finished.
Estella exhaled slowly as he settled with his fellow second years. She tracked his movements, noting how his shoulders sagged with relief. Their eyes met briefly, and he returned the smile she gave him.
An hour and a half later, the first part was over and the second one followed: the practical test. Focusing on a student’s magic, it was undeniably the hardest part, even more than the first one.
“Estella Faven, please step into the circle.”
Taking a deep breath, Estella did as the overseer had said and stood in the middle of the magic circle drawn on the floor, alongside hundreds of others. Her hands clenched and unclenched, but it was not because she was nervous about her performance.
She tried to look over her shoulder to check on Nox, but the teacher was already speaking again, instructing her on what she needed to do. Reluctantly, she faced him. Her squire would be fine, she told herself. Nox would be fine.
The tasks were all relatively easy. The overseer had her form various shapes in varying elements, maintain certain spells for a certain duration, and even combining elements to create a range of effects.
Estella performed them all, even though her mind kept wandering to her squire. But she couldn’t break her focus, not until the tests were done. So she resigned herself to waiting for her turn to be over.
Finally after an exhausting hour, the teacher announced her completion. Estella wasted no time in hopping outside the circle and twisting around. She quickly caught sight of Nox, standing firmly inside his magic circle, concentrating. The ice in front of him was shaped like a dragon, very much similar to what Estella had made earlier.
But far larger.
Her breath caught as it flew effortlessly in the air, twisting and turning. The size determined the mana being infused into the spell, and the dragon was as large as a full-grown stallion. Even the teacher looked impressed, and many of the onlookers gaped in awe at its majestic sight.
When the exam finally ended, she sought Nox among the crowd, her heart soaring in delight. The results wouldn’t be announced until tomorrow. But she knew, without a doubt, that Nox would pass.
She found him near the door, waiting. When he saw her approaching, he inclined his head. “Master.”
Estella smiled, unable to keep her excitement from spilling over her expression. “That was an impressive display.”
He grunted, but returned her smile with a slight quirk of his lips. “It was harder than it looked. I still couldn’t control my mana flow.”
“It will get easier with more practice,” she said, interlacing her fingers behind her back. “Look. Some of them are impressed.”
“Yeah.” His gaze darted around for a moment before coming back to her. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, want to go have some snacks?”
Estella tilted her head in surprise. Nox… was asking her? Her smile broadened. “Well, who am I to reject my squire’s request?” Then she snatched his arm, earning her a quiet yelp, before she led him out of Vileza Hall.
The next morning came, and after breakfast, Estella rushed to her classroom, eager to be done with her morning classes.
The results’ announcement was brief, and she barely paid attention when her teacher congratulated her for placing first. She had already expected that, after all.
No, she was more eager to find out what Nox’s grades were.
So when lunch period came, she hurried to the cafeteria. As always, Nox had already started eating, and she grinned as she approached, noting the various looks people were sending her squire.
Her smile faltered when she noticed his expression; stoic, silent, and dejected.
No. Please, no. Her heart started to pound, and she strode towards him. She passed by Aldros and Erian, staring at her with pity. And their expressions sent a chill down her spine. Finally, she stood beside Nox, he didn’t even bother to look at her. Next to his plate, a thin sheet of paper was lying face down.
“Nox?” she murmured. She touched his shoulder, but there was no response. Her hands trembling, she sat down and grasped his hand. Failing the Assessment Exam was one step closer to expulsion; such was the cruel rule of the Favenian Academy of War and Magic.
“It’s okay,” she said, even if this would affect her own grades as a Master. She took a deep breath. “There’s still the Intra-School Competition. We can… We can make up for this.”
“I know.” His voice was soft and emotionless, and her heart ached.
What had she done wrong? Was it because they didn’t study enough? She should have been more attentive to his needs, his shortcomings. She should have tried harder as his teacher.
She snatched the paper and flipped it. It’s okay. His grades would tell her what she should focus on, which points were Nox’s weakest. It would—
Her hands froze as she read the results.
Spell Theory: B+
Slowly, she turned to him and was met with a grateful smile.
“Thank you, Ella.”
A clap rang, and it was soon followed by many more, until the entire dining hall broke into cheers. But Estella didn’t hear any of that.
She engulfed Nox in a tight embrace and burst into tears.
New year, new chapter! Thank you for your support!