The return journey to the Academy wasn’t easy for Estella.
For every bump in the road, pain would surge along her back. She didn’t get much sleep even with the tonics and potions she drank, and every single day was an eternity. She couldn’t even step outside for some fresh air.
It was worse when they had arrived. Though she had been given a wheelchair and Nox constantly hovered by her side, she couldn’t do most of the physical activities she was used to.
Worst of all were the stares, the looks of pity, and even a few passing glances of delight and contempt from people who envied her strength and power. She did her best to ignore them, focusing on her tasks instead.
Her sole consolations were the recovery time—it would take six weeks before she could use her legs again, shorter than expected—and Nox’s presence. He took care of her needs, even going so far as to prioritize her over his classes.
“You can’t keep ignoring your schedule,” she said at the end of the first week after their return from the expedition. “It will affect your grades.”
It had been another grueling day, and they hadn’t even started training again. With only two weeks left before the duel, she didn’t know how Nox could win.
He smiled at her from across the table they always shared during meals. “I’m fine, Ella. I’m taking make-up classes during the weekends.”
She had forced him to take a break during the weekends, so it didn’t surprise her that he would use those two days to compensate for taking care of her. “Two days aren’t enough,” she said, frowning. “And we still haven’t—“
“I have,” he interrupted her. “I’ve been training, Ella. You don’t need to worry.”
“Even so, I need to start training you again.” Her voice was firm. “I don’t have a lot of homework tomorrow. We can train at the eastern grounds after your classes.”
He didn’t argue anymore, for which she was glad.
The sun was starting to dip when they began.
Sitting on her wheelchair, Estella watched with a critical eye as Nox performed the advanced sword techniques she had taught him, flowing from pose to another in fluid motions. His posture was excellent, with none of the stiffness that had plagued their training five months ago.
Still, excellence wouldn’t be enough to defeat Karsos. “He’s a patient man,” she told Nox when they took a short break. “He’ll let you strike first, defend constantly, then counter your moves once he’s learned them.”
“A lot like me,” Nox commented.
Estella nodded, remembering their first duel. “And yet also different. He’d toy with you, Nox. Humiliate you until you fall into his trap and make a mistake. And that’s how he’ll deal the fatal blow.”
Her squire raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess: you almost fell to that same trap?”
She glared at him. “Yes. It’s not funny and not pleasant. Now shut up and let me finish.” She ignored his amused chuckles and recollected her thoughts.
“Karsos is a Tri-Wielder,” she continued, taking a sip from a glass of orange juice. “That’s one of the things you’ll have to consider when fighting him. It’s not going to be easy.”
“What elements can he control?”
“Fire, wind, and lightning.” She paused. “But that’s not the real problem.”
Nox stared at her intensely. “What do you mean?” He must have sensed her troubled thoughts through their Resonance.
“His Animarta,” Estella answered grimly, “it’s a Spirit-type.”
A heavy silence enveloped them. Nox summoned Erebos and gazed at it calmly. “What kind?” he asked.
Estella furrowed her brows, memories of her duel with Karsos flashing in her mind. “A bird, which could transform into twin short swords or a bow.” A deadly combination, and one that almost defeated Estella if not for her Supernova.
“Spirit-types are rare, right?”
“Very. In this school, only three wielded them: Karsos, Lady Lyris, and the Headmaster.” She fixed Nox with a serious look. “You will be hard pressed to defeat Karsos.”
“But not impossible.” Nox dismissed Erebos and smiled at her. Estella’s heart skipped a little, but she couldn’t look away. “Tell me what can I do.”
With a sigh, Estella looked away. “First, we have to work on your magic.”
The second week flitted by like a breeze. With each passing day, Estella grew anxious. They were making progress, but it was still slow compared to what they could have done if she wasn’t injured.
By the third week, Estella could feel a little of her toes and legs, which was something she was grateful for. Still, she wouldn’t recover fast enough to help Nox in the Intra-School Competition.
Nox was improving. He could already maintain spells for longer than fifteen minutes, and his casting time was faster than before. However, it wasn’t enough. Especially his swordsmanship. He would lose, Estella knew.
Thus, she asked Aldros for help.
Her best friend and vice president agreed to assist her despite his reluctance. It was an indirect way of testing what Nox had learned, but there was no other option. Estella recruited Erian too, in the hopes that he could provide a good practice for Nox.
They started late afternoon as always, after class was finished. Thankfully, Nox didn’t seem to mind. He was even looking forward to dueling against two Wielders.
Estella watched the mock battle from the sidelines, writing her observations into a pad. It was a two against one battle, so Nox was at a disadvantage. But it was what he needed; Aldros was a melee-oriented fighter, while Erian struck from long range. A combination mirroring Karsos’s fighting style, despite Aldros’s weapon.
The duel was short but intense. Nox, as always, watched his opponents’ attack patterns before fully committing himself to an all-out assault. He went after Erian first, attempting to disarm the archer, but Aldros was always intercepting him and preventing his approach. Nox switched target and focused on the Earth Wielder instead.
It was quite a mismatch. Nox was agile and nimble, while Aldros’s blows were slow but strong. And yet the battle was not one-sided. Estella’s heart soared as her squire held his own against two Wielders, one of them on par with her skills.
By the end of it, Nox and Aldros were both sweating from the exertion. Erian had remained unscathed; he barely moved from his spot as he rained arrows at Nox, who deflected it easily even while fighting against Aldros.
It was a draw. Nox couldn’t defeat his opponents, but the timer ran out.
“Not bad,” Aldros said, dismissing his Animarta. “A few more minutes and you could have defeated me.”
Nox chuckled. “Only for Erian to shoot me at the back.”
“Indeed.” Aldros cast a critical eye over him. “You’re much better than before.”
“He is,” Estella agreed with a proud smile. It was difficult to imagine that Nox could barely keep up with maintaining a spell five months ago.
“I have a good teacher,” Nox said. He dismissed Erebos and bowed to Aldros, then returned to Estella’s side.
“You still need more practice,” she said. Until her squire could at least defeat Aldros, she wouldn’t be satisfied with the training.
“I know.” Sitting next to her and rolling his shoulders, he asked, “What do you think about the fight today?”
She pondered that for a minute. “Your skills have improved, there’s no denying that. I only know almost a dozen people who could last long against Aldros. And he had Erian helping him.” She paused. “But…”
Nox smiled faintly. “It’s not enough. I know.”
“You’ll be fine.” Estella didn’t know if she meant that for herself. Perhaps it was. “As long as you remain calm during your duel against Karsos, you have nothing to fear.”
The next day’s training ended with almost the same results, though Nox was nearly able to defeat Erian after a clever trick that briefly immobilized Aldros. Even so, the timer ran out again, ending the duel in a draw.
“You’re focusing too much on defeating the support,” Estella admonished once they were in their dorm room. “Aldros is your opponent, Nox. He’s the one who’ll defend Erian.”
Her squire shrugged, sighing. “I was hoping to remove Sir Aldros’s range support first.”
“In an even battle, that will work. But this isn’t a fair fight. There’s two of them. You’re alone.” Estella grimaced. It was her idea, but clearly it wasn’t the right one.
He touched her shoulder gently, smiling. “It’s fine. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
“We only have less than five days,” she murmured, placing her hand on his. She looked at him. “Have you studied Karsos’s fighting style?”
Nox shook his head. He sat down next to her. “I tried to, but he doesn’t train in the grounds. Neither could I watch him during his classes. We don’t share the same schedule.”
“But everyone could see our training,” she muttered, glancing around warily. Seldom was the northern training grounds used, but it was connected to a wing frequented by students.
It was unfair, and Estella had a mind to take the training somewhere less open. However, that would take even more time. If only Nox could see her memories of her duel against Karsos and learn from it.
Memories. Thoughts. The Resonance.
Nox looked at her with interest, his eyebrows rising as Estella shared the idea through their link. “Am I actually thinking…”
“What I’m thinking?” Estella finished for him with a smirk. She held out her hand, palm upward. Nox took it reluctantly.
She smiled. “Let’s see if this will work.”
Estella closed her eyes, as did Nox, as the Resonance flared to life.
Thank you for reading!