“I plan to join in the competition’s official duels.”
Estella paused with her fork halfway to her lips, fixing Nox with a sharp gaze. It was lunch break, three days before the Intra-School Competition. For a moment, she held his unwavering gaze, filled with resolved and determination. Next to them, Aldros and Erian paused their meal in surprise.
Lowering her fork slowly, Estella uttered one word: “Why?”
She had expected Nox’s prompt response, but she was still taken aback when he answered, “I’ll be dueling against Karsos. It would be a waste if that’s all I’d do.” He shrugged. “I want to test my skills against other Wielders.”
Estella pursed her lips. Her squire’s reason was valid enough; though losing against Karsos could end up with him being expelled, if Nox won against him, he could acquire more grades if he also won some of the official duels. Even better if he managed to reach the top twenty spots.
And there would be no great risk if he lost, for the official duels would simply add or deduct grades depending on the results.
“We still don’t know if you’ll win against Karsos,” she said slowly, not agreeing but also not prohibiting Nox from joining.
“If I lose, it wouldn’t matter if I had joined,” he said.
“That’s true, I suppose.” She pursed her lips. She trusted her squire’s skills to win—most of the Wielders who would join were first and second years, and Nox was stronger compared to many of them. But there were a lot of things that could potentially go wrong.
“You’ll be tired after your duel,” she said, a weak attempt to dissuade him.
“The official duels won’t begin until the second day. First day is reserved for special duels. Also, participants are given thirty minutes rest after every duel. Not to mention the elixir they’ll receive each day.”
Estella smiled. “You studied the mechanics.”
“Of course,” he said, smiling back.
With a sigh, Estella folded her hands on the table, deep in thought. If Nox was confident enough, and if he managed to at least reach the quarter finals, then there was nothing to worry about.
“As you wish, then.” Relief spread across Nox’s face. Estella added, “But if you lose and couldn’t reach the quarter finals, I will no longer be your master.” Beside her, Aldros grunted in surprise while Erian nearly choked on his meat pie.
But her squire merely frowned, his expression serious. “And if I win?”
Estella arched an eyebrow and smirked. It was a game, she finally realized. A gamble on Nox’s part. And she was willing to bet something just as equal as her threat.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. But through the Resonance, she sent her real intent.
If you win, I’ll grant you one wish.
And Nox’s eyes gleamed.
Estella tried to calm her breathing, but the sight of Nox standing on the stage sent a tightness in her chest that she couldn’t resist.
“Ella, Nox will be the one fighting against Karsos,” Aldros said. “Not you. Relax.”
“I might as well be the one fighting considering the stakes here,” she snapped, massaging her hands to ward off the chill that had crept to her skin despite the warm morning air.
Aldros didn’t respond. And just as well, too; Estella didn’t know what she’d say next if he had.
The entire southern training grounds was filled down to the last inch with students, teachers, and even villagers; it seemed not just the entire school had come to watch this momentous duel but also the villages under the influence of Karsos’s family.
Expected, but also the origin of Estella’s apprehension. Karsos would do everything to win, and that made him even more dangerous.
Not for the first time, Estella wished that Nox didn’t try to be her knight in shining armor and challenged Karsos to defend her. A foolish mistake, and one that landed them in this situation. But the damage had been done. Now all she could do was pray to the Goddess that her squire could win.
She and Aldros had chosen seats along the third tier, giving them a great view of the duel stage. Nox forty paces away from Karsos, Erebos in hand. No armor adorned his body, and he only wore his school uniform as the rules dictated. The same went for his opponent.
Estella studied Karsos. She couldn’t see his expression, but his posture was very much the same one he had when she dueled against him. That same arrogant posture, almost laidback and bored, as if his opponent wasn’t worth his time and effort.
The Resonance and all manner of communication between Knight and Squire was forbidden during the Intra-School Competition, so Estella couldn’t send her thoughts to Nox. Nevertheless, some of it must have went through, for she saw him glance briefly in her direction just as the referee stepped forward to state the participants’ names then the rules in a magically amplified voice.
“Maiming is prohibited; killing is forbidden. The duel ends when one side yields or can’t continue. Step out of the stage and the match is forfeit. Are the rules clear?… Then with the power vested to me by the Dueling Committee, let this Special Duel commence!”
With a swing of the announcer’s hand in the air, the battle began.
Nox took the initiative, and Estella stiffened as the stage was enveloped by a dome of darkness, thick as night. The crowd cried in dismay; they couldn’t see the battle unfolding within the veil of shadows.
“This is allowed, right?” Estella asked Aldros. Nox had used the same technique during his Selection Duel against her, but specific rules were implemented during entrance exams. A Special Duel was a different thing entirely.
“Technically, yes,” Aldros answered. “Rules are lax during Intra-School Competitions, remember?”
“I do. I’m just worried, is all.” In truth, Estella was beyond worried. The darkness completely hid anything from view, and there was no way to see how her squire was faring against Karsos.
But she understood the intent. They had discussed it last night, just hours after Nox barely won against Aldros and Erian. His plan was simple, and it relied on Karsos’s own arrogance, his belief that he was undefeatable.
Simple, but reckless and could put the odds against Nox’s favor quickly. She wouldn’t have agreed to it unless Nox was certain that he could pull it off.
And as expected, he said he could.
The darkness continued for several minutes. The crowd grew restless, murmuring in rising annoyance. They had come for a spectacle, Estella knew. With a smile, she shook her head. They wouldn’t see a good duel; only the end of it.
Finally, the black dome dissipated like smoke. And with it, the release of winter’s blast, as if a blizzard had erupted so early this year. For the stage had been transformed into a sculpture of ice, pierced by pillars of blue, caging Karsos in the center. One of his Animarta was trapped nearby, while he held the other and used it to break the block of ice, his expression surprisingly calm.
There was no sign of Nox.
Estella’s breath hitched. Where was he? Next to her, Aldros leaned forward he almost toppled out of his seat.
Then Estella saw movement to the left of the icy cage. Karsos glanced in the same direction, bewildered. A shadow blurred toward him. Karsos raised his Animarta in defense. There was a clang, and the shadow resolved itself into a recognizable form: Nox.
“Where did he come from?” Aldros murmured, an opinion that Estella shared. Her squire had nowhere to hide in the field of ice. Then she saw his Animarta, Erebos, writhing with shadows—shadows that also seemed to curl from Nox’s body like wisps of smoke.
A chill crept along her spine. Shadow Walk, an ability that allowed the user to become a shadow. But such a spell required a huge amount of mana.
Estella’s chest tightened. This was not part of the plan Nox had told her. And as she watched, her squire drove Karsos to the wall, exchanging blow after blow. Karsos, for the first time Estella had seen, was wild eyed with astonishment.
The crowd was cheering now, but Estella barely heard it past the pounding of her heart. Karsos was highly skilled, but Nox was relentless, pouring his entire being into every slash, every thrust and cut.
Then Karsos swung, and a blast of wind sent Nox flying ten yards away. His back struck the wall, and Estella could have sworn she heard the crunch. But he recovered quickly, charging Karsos with a fierce determination.
His opponent had not been idle, however. Karsos darted for his trapped weapon, seeking to free it from the ice. As Nox drew close, he sent another blast of wind, keeping him at bay once more.
Estella shook her head. The trap was well executed, but it would also be Nox’s undoing. The cage was too narrow, perfect for Karsos’s wind element. She should have thought of that last night.
It was too late for regrets now, but perhaps Nox could still win this duel.
There was a crack, and Karsos let out a triumphant cry as he grasped the hilt of the second short sword embedded in the ice and pulled it free just as Nox lunged. Their Animarta met in a burst of sparks, and the air in front of them blurred as they exchanged blows once more.
Estella tracked the duel from her seat, her breath held for so long that her lungs ached and she had to release the air lest she passed out. On and on the dance continued, with neither side giving ground. Nox’s face was a mask of pure concentration while Karsos grinned madly.
Their battle went for several more minutes until Nox slipped on the ice and he stumbled. Karsos lunged, but Nox rolled out of the way in time to avoid getting skewered by one of Karsos’s twin swords. He rose to his feet swiftly, deflecting a swipe at his leg, then countered with a stroke at Karsos’s right hand.
Karsos responded with casual flick of his wrist, and a blast of air struck Nox in the chest, throwing him backwards by a dozen feet. Estella winced, and it soon turned to apprehension and rising dread as Nox struggled to his feet once more.
Dread morphed into horror when Estella saw a splash of blood staining the pristine blue ice and Nox clutching his side.
With deliberate slowness, Karsos approached until he towered over Nox. And as Estella held her breath once more, she felt it.
She tried to lock her mind away, but the connection latched onto her consciousness like a leech. In it she heard Karsos’s voice as clear as if he was speaking in front of her.
“Did you really think you could defeat me? A shame. Shame that you call yourself a Squire. Shame that you possessed one of the most powerful element only to wield it like a child would a wooden sword. You don’t know how to use your own power? Pathetic.”
Estella shook her head. As strange as the situation seemed, her bewilderment was nothing compared to the rage swirling in her heart. She had been training Nox for months now. She had seen how he struggled from casting a spell to shaping ice like a sculptor would.
And a sorry excuse for a human being dared to insult that?
“Ella?” Aldros asked, looking at her warily. She glanced at him and noticed a wisp of smoke rising between them. With a start, she looked at her hands. They were coated in flames.
Estella clenched them, and the flames immediately vanished. She took a deep breath, and she had just said, “Sorry,” when Karsos’s voice echoed through the resonance again.
“How did you even survive a Remnant? Perhaps the monster grew bored with how weak you are. But I should have known; Estella probably only see you as a past time. Have she told you about her previous… toys? Or perhaps you seduced her so she would train you? What, did you make her scream whil—“
Rage. Kill. Destroy. All these emotions Estella felt, and she knew it was not hers. She froze, a coldness enveloping her entire mind.
Rage. Kill. Destroy.
On the stage, a sphere of darkness began to form around Nox.
Thank you for reading!