In her dream, Estella was a monster.
She saw the Remnant through a haze of red, small and powerless compared to herself. She heard its roar of defiance as it faced her, only for a roar of her own, deeper and more vicious, to escape her maw.
They crashed onto one another, grappling and snarling. Her claws were swords, her tail like a spear. The Remnant was a feeble creature, barely worth her strength, and she tore it with ease. The acidic blood was like water to her, and its shrieks of agony a lullaby to her ears.
She let the limp, shredded form fall to the ground, savoring its blood, then turned toward the small form resting on the wall, motionless and unconscious.
With a gentleness that belied her earlier rage, Estella scooped the body in her arms and cradled it like she would an infant.
It would be a long journey back to the surface…
When Estella opened her eyes, a broad, arched ceiling greeted her. Sunlight shone through a window on her left, bathing her in midday heat. A warm blanket covered her, and she could tell that she was no longer in her school uniform but wearing a fresh gown.
Her head pounded. Where was she? The last thing she remembered was—
Nox! She tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness swept over her before she could lift her head for more than a few inches.
“Try not to move too much,” a familiar voice said to her right. “Here, have a drink first.
Slowly, Estella turned to look. Aldros sat on a stool, staring at her with worry. There were dark bags under his eyes. In his hand was a glass of water he had grabbed from the bedside table, which he placed to her parched lips.
After drinking her fill, Estella sighed. “You’re safe,” she murmured.
“I am. And so was Erian.” He smiled faintly as he paused to set the glass back on the table. “Nox didn’t leave you until this morning. Right after I told him to get some sleep.”
Estella closed her eyes. Nox. Her squire. Safe. “What happened?”
Silence. When Estella reopened her eyes, Aldros wore a troubled expression. She frowned and repeated in a stronger tone, “What happened?”
“We found you on the ground level of the Coltar Ruins,” Aldros said slowly. He met her inquisitive gaze. “Your squire carried you. He said you both fought the Remnant.”
The Remnant. The last thing she remembered was that monster’s visage looming over her. “We did,” she said softly. She held back the tears threatening to spill from her eyes. “I didn’t think we would survive.”
“We didn’t think so, either.” A pause. Then: “You’ve been missing for five days, Ella.”
“What?” She gaped at him. By her estimate, they had spent almost two days in the tunnels until they encountered the Remnant. That meant she had asleep for three days!
Estella frowned. That wasn’t the real question, though. “And the Remnant?”
There was hesitation in Aldros’s eyes before he answered, “Nox said it was gone when he woke up. There were signs of a fight.”
A chill crept down Estella’s spine, and she remembered her dream. Had that been real? What kind of monster could kill a Remnant?
She shook her pounding head, which only made it worse. Whatever happened didn’t make sense, but she was in no state to think about it for now. The important thing was she and Nox were alive and well.
With a sigh, she tried to move her legs to a more comfortable position. She couldn’t. In fact, she couldn’t even feel them. Alarmed, she pushed herself slowly to a sitting position.
Pain surged along her lower back. She fell to the pillows with a gasp, tears in her eyes. Beside her, Aldros stared with concern.
“There’s another thing, Ella,” he said softly. “You were safe. But you weren’t exactly unharmed.”
“Tell me,” Estella hissed through the pain, now a dull throbbing by the base of her spine.
With pity in his eyes, Aldros said, “Your spine is slightly damaged. The healers said it isn’t serious; you’ll recover with ample rest and with help from a Water Wielder. But…”
“Tell me,” she growled.
Aldros sighed. “You won’t be able to walk for a month. Maybe two.”
It was evening when he entered.
Estella had felt him through the Resonance even before that, sending her a brief mental acknowledge. She sensed his relief, mixed with a subdued guilt, and a questioning thought. No doubt, Nox had sensed her mood.
She didn’t bother answering back.
She was staring at the ceiling when he settled into the stool by the side of her bed, watching her in silence. There were just the two of them in the infirmary, and the quietness dragged on for several minutes.
A month or two of recovery. Estella should be glad that it was the worst she had gotten from her ordeal, but a part of her wished she had just d—
“Don’t,” Nox said gently. “Please.”
The way he spoke made Estella’s lips trembled. She looked at him at last, fighting back the tears she had been controlling ever since Aldros had told her the terrible news. “I can’t help you against your duel with Karsos.”
It wouldn’t work. To prepare Nox for his fight, she would need to train him harder than she did before. She would need to teach him everything she knew about combat. But that was impossible, not with less than a month left before the Intra-School Competition. And not with her condition.
He grabbed her hand, kissing her knuckles softly—a pleasant sensation that stilled her tears. “You don’t have to. You’ve already done so much for me, Ella. Let me take care of it. Everything will be fine.”
His words were soothing, and Estella was tempted to leave it to Nox. To just let him bear all the burden of a situation that he had caused. To let her squire be on his own for once while she watched him from afar.
But her heart. She didn’t have the heart to do that. She had failed to protect him days ago; she couldn’t do so again.
“No,” she said firmly. Stronger, she continued. “I will help you, even if I can’t walk for now. I will teach you just as I’ve been doing before.”
“I’m your mentor, Nox.” Her voice was unwavering. “This is my duty.” She closed her eyes, the tears vanishing as newfound resolve surged within her.
She would do everything for her squire. And nothing would stop her.
Thank you for reading!