“What am I thinking?”
“The fact that you don’t know if this will work. Now what am I thinking?”
“About…” Estella frowned, sending her mind reaching out like grasping fingers. But Nox’s thoughts were always shielded as if within a smooth glass; she couldn’t find any entrance, and they slipped from her grasp like water. Futile as it was, she could just get a glimpse of his emotions on the surface.
“You’re… thinking that I should… put more effort into this?” She glared at him. “I’m trying my best, Nox. No need to state the obvious.”
“Yes, yes. I know you are doing your best, Ella.” He raised his hands in a placating manner, but his lips were twitching—whether in amusement or mockery, Estella didn’t know.
And that was the heart of the problem. She had done her research, and Resonating, especially the art of knowing your bonded’s thoughts, seemed to be stronger the more you know about them. But she wasn’t certain if she really knew Nox.
He always seemed a mystery to her, even now that they were together. She may have been training him for seven months now, and they had exchanged stories whenever time allowed them, but there was something missing. A piece of puzzle that she couldn’t find.
She glanced toward Nox and found him staring back at her with unwavering gaze. “You want to know more about me?”
There was sorrow in his eyes, and maybe even fear—Estella could sense that much, at least. In fact, she realized belatedly, she could always sense Nox’s emotions even if she couldn’t always read his thoughts. Perhaps she should start from there.
Estella shrugged. “It’s fine if you don’t want to speak about your past. But…”
“You want to know how I got Erebos?” His voice was wary, and she could sense hesitation. But Nox didn’t seem against discussing about it if his resigned expression was anything to judge by.
She nodded, not daring to speak lest it changed Nox’s mind. He shifted on the couch, finding a more comfortable position, and Estella leaned into him expectantly, drawn by his warmth.
With a sigh, he said, “Either I talk about my past or we do something entirely different. You choose.”
He wasn’t even hiding his thoughts, and Estella smirked at what she briefly saw in her mind. Their bodies were merely inches apart, so she wasn’t surprised that Nox thought of it. “Tempting,” Estella said, “but no, there will be time for that some day. I’m more interested in your story.”
Nox raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? It won’t be a pleasant one.”
“Life is not often pleasant.”
He was silent for a moment, chin tucked near his chest as he thought. Estella leaned back, giving him space while folding her hands across her lap. She would wait for as long as needed.
When Nox finally spoke, his voice was soft and somber. “It was a year after I became a town guard. Winter had arrived early, and a few of us were ordered to patrol the farmlands. There had been rumors of a great wolf terrorizing the cattle and sheep.
“Four of us set out to hunt it that night. Myself, Caiz, Jerod… and my friend, Ria.” He stopped momentarily, his voice faltering. Then he continued, “The hunt was supposed to be easy. It wasn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with great wolves, and all four of us had killed at least one. We thought the hunt would go just as planned.
“The first night was uneventful, but by the second, we found the great wolf stalking a farm house. It wasn’t too big. Maybe the size of a pony. Ria was our sharpshooter, so we distracted it until she found the right moment to shoot. But the wolf ran away before the arrow hit. We chased it in the forest where we finally cornered it. That’s when…”
Nox fell silent again. Estella touched his hands. They were steady, but they were cold. Through the Resonance, she could feel a dark storm churning in his mind. “Nox?” she said gently.
He shook his head and drew a deep breath. “While we were fighting the wolf, I realized that something was wrong. It was far too aggressive, almost desperate… Terrified. I thought it was us, but I remembered that great wolves weren’t afraid of humans. And this one was alone without a pack.
“Then I felt it; a terror that even my worst nightmares couldn’t compare to.” He shivered even if the sun was at its peak in the sky. “The next thing I know, the wolf was dead and Caiz’s head was rolling by my feet. Jerod tried to run, but the monster killed him before he could get away. I tried to protect Ria, but it got me as well.”
The scars in his back, Estella thought. “And yet you survived and—“
“And Ria was killed.” He met her gaze again, and there was so much pain, so much anguish in those dark eyes. “I was bleeding. I think she tried to protect me. Then I saw her bleeding even more. There’s so much blood, Ella. So much blood. I… I knew I had to do something, and it was then that I finally summoned Erebos. I killed that monster, but it was too late for Ria.”
His hands were shaking. Estella grasped them and squeezed, lending what comfort she could in that simple gesture. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
Nox shook his head, flashing her a quick but pained smile. “It’s fine. You’re right. You should know about me and my past for you to understand. And that’s why I need to tell you another thing.”
Estella thought she already knew what he was about to say; she could already sense it through their bond. “I know. I can hear your thoughts. The monster. It’s…”
He nodded. “It was a Remnant.”
It was easier after that, though Estella still struggled to hear Nox’s thoughts whenever his mind was focused on a task. Even so, she made sure to train harder.
Nox was open to revealing his mind to her, and not a minute pass when they would speak through the Resonance. The connection was weak in great distances, but Estella had learned to sense Nox’s general emotions even when they were at opposite ends of the academy.
There was a certain intimacy to this bond that was different than physical touch. Knowing her bonded’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a way that others wouldn’t was fulfilling, for it meant that she understood Nox better than anyone else.
And the more they kept the connection going, the more they grew stronger. Estella began to notice when Nox was able to counter most of her attacks during practices, or when he could answer questions and lessons in the same way she did. They instantly knew which food to choose for the other, and there was no longer a need to tell what classes they were heading into.
It was a little disconcerting at first, but Estella knew it was necessary. Besides, she could watch over Nox even if they were far apart. And that was an opportunity she would never miss.
The weeks dragged on. With the finals drawing near, tension was rising among the students. Estella saw it every year and often dismissed it as a natural occurrence, but being on the same spot now as her fellow third years was another thing.
“There are rumors of what the first part of this year’s final exams will be,” Aldros told them over dinner.
Estella paused in her meal and exchanged glances with Nox. “Tell us.”
“A trip to the Forsaken Forest.”
“You mean a culling,” Estella said with a snort. A questioning thought came from Nox, and she answered, “It’s an enchanted forest, said to be once home to the elves. No one goes there because no one who ever did has returned.” She shook her head. “Aldros, they can’t be serious. The kingdom lost a legion trying to pass through the forest.”
Nox blanched. “It did?”
“Yes, love. And that’s why my grandfather has sealed it off.”
Aldros shrugged. “It’s just a rumor. Besides, the forest’s magic has weakened considerably over the decades. It could be that we won’t have to go too deep.”
But Estella wasn’t convinced. She had witnessed two final exams before, and while they were dangerous in their own right, none had taken lives.
“What were the previous final exams like?” Nox asked.
Estella chewed a slice of salmon before replying, “Well, the one during my first year involved hunting a dragon. The second one, which I participated in, had us exploring a cave with our masters. And before you tell me, no, hunting a dragon wasn’t that dangerous compared to setting foot in that forest.”
“Okay.” She could tell that Nox found that quite amusing for some reason. “Then what are the chances that the academy would place its students in mortal danger?”
“They sent us to Coltar Ruins, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“We didn’t even know there was a Remnant in there.”
“Exactly! We didn’t know. So we don’t know if there’s also one in the Forsaken Forest.” She jabbed the fork into the salmon. “And since the academy would have to be run by fools to even consider something like this, it’s just a rumor.”
At least, that was what she wanted to believe.
They didn’t spoke about the subject after that, though Estella could tell that Nox was curious. Even as she prepared to sleep, she could feel Nox’s intrigued at the forest that had claimed so many lives.
Estella’s dreams were plagued with foreboding trees, an impenetrable mist, and strange sounds in the blackest of nights.
Thank you for reading!