Cocooned in a storm of fire and ice, the monster shrieked in pain, a sound not unlike the dying cries of a horse. It was the most hideous thing Estella had laid eyes on, a creature all skin and muscles with bulbous eyes and a snake-like tongue extending from its gaping mouth, crawling on four powerful limbs and nearly twice her height.
Fighting back her revulsion, Estella charged. Nox was nowhere in sight, but she sensed his presence behind the monster. It would be a two-pronged attack, ending the fight swiftly.
But the monster was undeterred. It broke its icy bonds with a roar, and Estella saw its hide was barely affected by the conflagration that engulfed the creature before.
No matter. Estella continued, swinging Astra in a wide arc toward the monster’s chest. The tip struck, but it bounced off. Shocked, Estella leapt to the side just as a clawed hand swiped at the spot she was standing on a few seconds ago.
Nox appeared a heartbeat later, landing on the monster’s back and plunging Erebos into its spine. The accompanying scream was so loud that the trees shook and Estella dropped Astra to cover her ears. In her mind, she sensed Nox’s own discomfort, but he was still holding on to Erebos.
Are you all right? she asked in concern. He was grimacing in pain, and her heart clenched when a line of blood trickled out of his ears.
My ears are raptured. Can’t hear anything. But I’ll be fine. Your attack didn’t scratch it?
Erebos broke through the skin, but only by a few inches. It seems this one has a tough hide.
And yet the monster made that reaction when Erebos barely pierced through its spine. If they could just get through even deeper, that might kill the monster for good.
The monster roared, swinging its arms wildly. Estella jumped back, but Nox was still on the monster’s back. An arm swung over to grab him, and he finally let go, falling onto the ground and landing nimbly on his feet. He rolled out of the monster’s swipe, then melted into the shadows and reappeared next to Estella.
They charged. Their minds began to meld as thoughts passed between them. Estella saw what Nox was seeing, and she in turn lent her hearing to him. The monster bellowed in fury and met them head-on.
A single thought, and they separated. Estella leapt onto a tree branch, then another one, high above their quarry. Balancing on her feet, Estella dove toward the creature’s spine even as Nox joined her in the air.
“Engulf,” they shouted in unison.
Astra burst into writhing flames while frost enveloped Erebos’s blade, the light from Astra reflecting on its jagged azure edges. As one they fell, gravity took hold, and their Animartas sank into solid flesh and bone.
The monster shrieked, bucking like a bull and clawing at its spine. But they were already sprinting across its back, dragging their blades along the sinewy muscle until fountains of blood drenched them. The monster gave one piercing cry and reared on its hind legs, and both Estella and Nox finally leapt down to the ground as it toppled with a tremendous crash.
After twitching for several heartbeats, the monster’s heaving chest stopped moving and it lay still.
“I swear I’ll take a long bath when we get back.”
“The river is just over there. Why not now?”
Nox laughed, and Estella chuckled. She stank, and the stench wouldn’t probably go away even if she submerged herself in the academy’s baths for hours, but that didn’t matter now. What mattered was they were safe.
“How’s your ears?” she asked.
Nox touched his right ear out of reflex. “Still itchy, but I can hear fully now.”
Yvela’s Tears flowed serenely to their left, a snaking band of silver. It was still dark, but dawn was not far, and the forest didn’t seem as ominous to Estella as it had been before. Even the occasional growls no longer bothered her, though her hand and Nox’s still gripped their Animartas in readiness.
Killing that creature boosted Estella’s confidence and allayed some of her worries, but what truly eased was how close the Yvela Blossoms were. They had been walking for hours now, and from her reckoning, it wouldn’t be long before they reach the field.
Sure enough, she smelled it; a sweet fragrance wafting in the air, coming from the direction they were heading. She glanced at Nox. He nodded, and their paces increased until they were running. The underbrush gradually melted into a grassy field, rising to a hill devoid of trees save for a lone one in the center.
At the base of the hill, they stopped. They must be high, for the forest spread wide around them. Estella tried to take another stepped, but it was as if some unknown force pulled her foot back to the ground.
And then light appeared in the east, bursting into golden rays. Gradually the darkness receded, and the entire field was laid bare before them. Estella could have sworn her heart stopped beating for a single second.
To say it was beautiful would be an understatement. She couldn’t even find the words to properly describe what she was seeing. The flowers were more vibrant than any flowers she had seen, their colors shifting whenever a breeze blew—yellow, purple, blue—their scent sweeter than any wine she had smelled.
They were arranged in a ring around a lone tall tree, whose blood-red blossoms, shaped like a heart, pulled Estella. Calling to her to pluck them, smell them. Cherish and love them.
“Ella?” She heard Nox say, and she shook her head, retreating into the safety of their Resonance. It seemed that the tree held some power those looked upon it. Ella sensed Nox’s alarm, but she smiled in reassurance.
“I’m fine.” She filled her lungs with air. “Come. Let’s get this over with.”
They picked their way among the flowers, careful not to step too hard on them. As they drew nearer to the tree, Estella’s heart drummed within her chest. It had only been a day, and yet here they were now, ready to pluck the blossoms.
The flowers were even more alluring up close. But Estella resisted the urge to pick one immediately. It didn’t seem fair, and she wanted to savor this moment for as long as she could.
“Well?” Nox said when they stopped underneath a low-hanging branch.
Estella hesitated. It seemed a waste taking even a single flower and making the collection incomplete, though she knew it was an absurd thought. This was a test, after all. “Only one, right?”
Taking a deep breath, Estella reached out for the nearest blossom and pulled it free from the branch. As she held it in her hands, she stared at its mesmerizing red hue, which also seemed to shift whenever she turned it.
“Why do they even want to get these?” she muttered.
Nox shrugged. “Yvela Blossoms are used in potions for its healing properties. It’s a powerful ingredient, but very rare for obvious reasons.” He looked at the tree for a moment, then scanned their surroundings. “Looks like we’re the first ones. Sir Aldros and Erian probably went along a longer route. Shall we?”
Estella nodded and smiled at him. They placed the blossom inside an enchanted container that had been provided yesterday, which would keep it fresh for the return journey.
As they got to the base of the hill, Estella glanced back one last time, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to return to this place again… and her breath caught in her throat.
A woman stood by the tree, one hand on the trunk, smiling warmly. Her fiery red hair waved gently in the wind, and her pale blue eyes sparkled with happiness.
It took several seconds before Estella could find her voice. “Nox, look.”
“What?” He returned to her side. “Where do I look?”
Estella frowned as she glanced at him in bewilderment. “At the…” Her voice died. The woman had vanished.
“Ella?” Nox asked.
She was silent for several heartbeats then she shook her head. “Never mind. Let’s just go back.”
And so her eyes lingered briefly at the lone tree before Estella finally turned away, hugging the container tightly.
As always, thank you for your support. Only 3-4 chapters left before the finale of book 1!