"What’s the basic rule of manifesting an Animarta?”
“Master, I know the basic rule. I can manifest Erebos just fine,” Nox said with a sigh.
Estella glared at him. “Just answer the question, Nox.”
He grunted, and crossed his arms. “A Wielder needs a desire to manifest their Animarta. The stronger the desire, the stronger the Animarta will be.”
“And what is this desire?”
Nox shrugged. “It can be anything. Love, victory, the desire to be stronger.”
“The desire to succeed,” Estella said. The first time she manifested Astra was still fresh in her memory. She was just seven then, and she had badly wanted to defeat her mother in a duel that Astra came to her in a whirl of flames and a blinding flash of light. “What about you? What’s your desire?”
She wanted to know. No, she needed to know. What fueled her Squire to be able to match her? To Resonate with her?
“I want to be a Knight,” he answered in a flat tone. Simple and to the point.
“I see.” Estella didn’t let her disappointment show. Was that all there was to it? She had expected something grand, like wanting to be a hero or to become the strongest Wielder. She had not expected something so common and typical.
Still, she was not that different. Her desire was very much the same, albeit for a higher rank.
For the next couple of hours, Estella tested Nox on various subjects—history, magic, politics, strategy, among other things. Surprisingly, he answered most of the basic questions, a testament of his extensive knowledge prior to the Selection Day. But when it came to those that any second-year should know, he failed horribly.
“Haven’t you been paying attention to your classes?” she grumbled during a break. They were in the library, so they had enough research materials to review from. But Nox was lagging behind considerably compared to the other sophomores. She would need to teach him during her free time, and maybe even until the evening.
“I was.” He spoke slowly, and something about his tone made Estella frown. Finally, he sighed and said, “I have trouble keeping up with my studies.”
Estella closed the book and stared at him with interest. “Why is that?”
Nox shifted in his chair uneasily. “I don’t know. Ever since I was a child, I have difficulties absorbing information.”
“Unless it involves swordsmanship or magic.”
He nodded, and Estella could detect the ghost of a smile. “Yes. I can memorize techniques and spells just fine.”
“Well, you’re not the only one.” Estella shook her head. She had given her tutors endless headaches because she kept ignoring other branches of knowledge except for those that interested her. “But that can be fixed, especially if someone helps you.”
Nox grimaced. “Is that really necessary?”
“Unless you want to fail the Assessment Exam and disgrace me, yes, it is.” Her tone was sharp. She really had to fix that lone wolf attitude of his. “Now then, I need to go attend History.” She handed him a sheet of paper, which he scanned over. When he finished, he looked at her with a scowl.
“I’m suppose to read all of this?” he asked, bewildered.
She smirked. “Not suppose to. You will, my Squire. I expect nothing but the best from you. Oh, and starting tonight, you will be sleeping next to my room. Make sure you bring everything you need. I want you to be there by eight in the evening. We still have much to discuss.”
She stood, leaving him with a dismayed look. If it were any other individual, they would probably be drooling at the prospect of sleeping near her, but it didn’t have such an effect on Nox. If anything, he seemed uncomfortable.
It should be an interesting year.
For the rest of the afternoon, Nox’s training preoccupied Estella’s mind. He had the makings of a powerful Wielder, she knew. And with his growth, she would be able to graduate with the highest grades possible, especially if the field exam took them to an undiscovered ruin.
But first she had to train him, and that would mean leaving most of her Student Council duties to her trusted officers.
“Aldros, are there any important matters for the rest of the month that we need to discuss?” she said that late afternoon when they held their regular meeting.
Her vice-president shuffled the papers he were reviewing and answered, “Just the school festival next month. Some of the clubs want additional budget for this year.”
Estella frowned. “They asked for an increase last year too. We gave them twelve percent already.”
“They are requesting for five percent this year,” her treasurer, Salvia, said.
“Give them three percent,” Estella decided. “If they keep insisting, tell them we’ll cut half of their budget for this year.” She shook her head. Some of the clubs weren’t even necessary, but the Headmaster seemed to take a liking to them, especially the Frog Hunters Club.
She stayed in the student council meeting room for a few more minutes, and when everything was settled, Estella picked up her bag and left for the dorms.
Dinner was already waiting for her, and she took a bath first before indulging in the roast mutton and potato salad. As she ate, her gaze wandered around the lounge. It was still bare—she had only started to sleep here a week before the Selection Duels—and she hadn’t done much decorating since the school year started. But she was slowly adding little things in her room; that flower vase in the corner with the yellow tulips. Several books she had bought, mostly to pass the time. A painting of her mother, which she did when she was ten, hung near her bed, a constant reminder of her goal.
There was a knock from the door. Estella checked the clock on the shelf: 7:30 in the evening.
Her eyebrows raised, she stood up to open the door with a smile.
“You’re early,” she told Nox, leaning on the door frame. He carried a large bag in one hand, and a smaller one was slung over a shoulder.
“I don’t want to disappoint, Master,” he said flatly.
“Good. Come inside then.” She led him inside. “My room is on the right, yours is on the left. If you get hungry, the kitchen is over there.” She pointed to a small section next to her room. It was a standard suite for Knights and their Squire, though she had chosen one where she could see the sun rose.
“Can I put my bags inside my room?” Nox asked.
Estella nodded. “Once you’re done settling in, return here. We need to talk about your training.”
As Nox entered his room, Estella strode back to the sofa and finished her meal. She had just started on her tea when Nox returned, wearing a fresh set of shirt and trousers.
Estella set down her tea cup and stood just as Nox was about to sit down. “No, wait. Stand there for a moment.”
Perplexed, Nox did as she told, and Estella began to circle him. She inspected his arms, laid bare by his sleeveless shirt. The muscles there were densely packed, which accentuated his lean frame.
“May I?” Estella asked. He nodded with a frown, and she grasped his right forearm. She began tracing the muscles, determining where they were forming.
“When did you first manifest Erebos?” She knew he had been swinging his Animarta for years, but she had to know for how long. The shape of muscles put him around four years, which was natural for most Wielders.
She was quite surprised when he answered, “About two years ago.”
Estella blinked. That was quite late, but not unheard of. There were a few rare cases when Wielders couldn’t manifest Animartas until their early twenties. “And before that, what was your profession?” She pressed on, her hands traveling down to his wrist.
“Ah. So you’ve been swinging a sword before Erebos. Since when?”
“Since I was twelve.”
Estella nodded. Four years, just as she had expected. She checked his other arm, and its muscles were also well formed. She doubted if he could improve much in there, but she was not finished yet.
“Take off your shirt:” she said, circling again until she stood behind him.
Nox balked at that. “What?”
Estella tried not to grin. “You heard me, my Squire. Take off your shirt so I can check the muscles on your back."
He hesitated, but sighed and pulled his shirt over his head in one fluid motion.
As soon as his back was bare, Estella gasped.
A faint white line crossed the entirety of his back, running from the base of his neck all the way to his right hip—a scar.
“What gave you this?” she asked sharply.
It took a few seconds before Nox answered in an even tone, “A monster attacked my village once when I was fourteen. Tore off my back and nearly killed me. Fortunately, I managed to summon Erebos for the first time.”
“Because you wanted to live,” Estella said softly, tracing it gently with a finger.
Nox shivered at her touch. “Yes,” he said, and she knew he was trying to remain calm. “A healer fixed it and made sure it wouldn’t leave something ugly.”
Estella hummed, hiding her wonder in a mask of nonchalant interest. It would explain his affinity with Shadow—near-death experiences sometimes triggered that, especially one with the strong will to live. And Nox had been lucky to have survived.
Her inspection continued for a few more minutes. Like his arms, the muscles on his back was honed to near perfection, and so were those in his torso. His only real problem, then, was his footwork.
“All right. You may put your shirt back on now,” she said, sitting back on the sofa and crossing her arms.
“You sure you’re not going to ask me to take off my trousers?” he said, his voice dry as a summer wind.
This time, Estella grinned. “If you want to, my Squire.”
Their gazes met, and for a moment, Estella saw something primal in those dark eyes of his. But it soon passed, and he quickly pulled his shirt over him.
“What else, Master?” he said in a formal tone.
Trying not to let her disappointment show, Estella laid down their schedule for the next three weeks. She focused on his academics, with emphasis on magical theory. Of course, they would still need to hone their swordsmanship, and Estella knew that Nox really needed to improve his footwork.
When she finished, Nox gave her a respectful bow and returned to his room. Estella watched him go, not bothering to hide the amusement on her face. Nox was… interesting, to say the least. And she would not deny that she found him attractive, especially with that scar across his back.
The scar… It bothered her for some reason. Nox had been honest, but she could also tell that he was hiding something.
What kind of monster attacked his village for him to suffer such an injury?
Fifth chapter is here!