Dread clutched Estella’s heart, though she didn’t know why.
The sphere of darkness had cocooned Nox, but it didn’t stop there. Soon it enveloped a startled Karsos then began to spread outward like a disease. Whatever it was, even the overseer and the teachers found it unsettling.
The crowd murmured as the sphere expanded outward in growing speed. Murmurs turned to agitation, for the darkness continued past the edges of the stage.
“We should leave,” Aldros said, rising swiftly and pulling on the handles of Estella’s wheelchair. “I don’t like this.”
Estella wanted to protest. Nox was still on the stage, and she could feel his fury boiling like lava. But there was something else too. A malevolence that was not there before.
She shook her head, thoughts of destruction crossing her mind. Don’t give in, she said through her connection with Nox. For whatever was happening, it was undoubtedly caused by her squire.
Then the darkness reached the seats, and all light vanished. The crowd screamed, and Estella felt Aldros looming protectively over her like the golems of old watching over the walls of Faven. Chaos would overtake reason soon, Estella knew, and there would be a stampede that could get a lot of people hurt.
The Headmaster’s calm voice boomed across the school, magnified by magic: “Everyone, please remain in your seats to avoid unnecessary injuries. This is merely a special, ah, event to enhance our viewing pleasure of this one-in-a-lifetime duel. Everything will return to normal in a few moments.”
To say that Estella was stunned would be an understatement, for she knew that what the Headmaster had said was only an alibi. There was no way this darkness was part of the duel.
Still, she and the others had no choice but to comply and remain where they were. Not that they could do much anyway. At least the Headmaster had the sense to pacify everyone before things went out of hand.
And it was not as if the fight had stopped. Though the darkness robbed everyone of sight, they could still hear. The sound of clashing Animarta rang from the direction of the stage, mixed with a lot of shouting and thunderous explosions.
At first, Estella thought it came from Nox. But soon she realized that it was Karsos, his voice somehow tinged with panic. Whatever was happening in there, he sounded… worried.
One part of Estella was glad for that. Karsos had given her nothing but trouble, and she loved to see the bastard be put into his place—by her own squire, no less. And yet a part of her was curious how such a strong Wielder could struggle against Nox in mere seconds when their earlier fight saw Karsos winning decisively.
Against her better judgement, Estella closed her eyes and sent her thoughts through the Resonance, hoping to glean something of this strange phenomena. More than that, she wanted to know how Nox was faring after hearing Karsos’s words earlier.
It took her several minutes. The connection was unusually muddled this time, as if her mind waded through a rushing river, and Nox’s thoughts flowed to her in a jumbled mess.
Rage. Pain. The desire to kill, the desire to destroy. Protect her, protect her, protect her. Have to restrain myself, have to—NO, DON’T!
Estella gasped and withdrew to herself. In the direction of the stage, Karsos yelled, seemingly terrified. Then a loud rumble shook the grounds, rattling Estella’s wheelchair. She felt Aldros’s hand steady her, but her thoughts were elsewhere to fully comprehend everything.
Nox’s mind, his emotions, she didn’t know what to make of them. His presence was there and yet not there, as if another entity had gotten hold of him.
What was happening?
Then the darkness began to recede, slowly at first, like a smoke blown away by the wind. Estella’s eyes quickly adjusted to the daylight and stared ahead, where she gasped at the state of the stage.
The ice covering it had shattered, huge chunks scattered everywhere. Piles of soot lay where Karsos’s flames and lightning had erupted, or so Estella thought, for it was the only explanation for the wisps of smoke curling in them and the puddle of melted ice pockmarking the stage. Of the Wielder himself, Karsos still stood, though his Animarta was nowhere in sight and half of his body was encased in ice.
And in front of him was Nox, kneeling on one knee, supporting himself with Erebos. Even as Estella watched, her squire rose on wobbly legs, intending to continue fighting despite his shredded uniform and bleeding right arm.
He didn’t have to. As soon as he had taken a step, Karsos toppled backwards.
For a single heartbeat there was silence. Then Nox thrust Erebos high in the air, and the entire western training grounds erupted in a deafening cheer.
You won, Estella sent the thought through the Resonance as tears streamed down her cheeks. An unwise decision after what she had sensed earlier, but it was the only way she could speak with Nox without shouting herself hoarse.
To her surprise, Nox answered immediately. No. We won.
We won. She smiled at that. She got a lot of questions to ask, but for now she was content to see her squire basking in the glory of his victory. Their victory.
They had won.
“Easy, easy,” Nox said as Estella dabbed at his injured arm with a healing salve.
She raised an eyebrow. “Well, you should have thought this would happen when you went off diverging from the plan you told me last night.”
He chuckled at that, which quickly turned into a wince when Estella’s fingers somehow slipped and pressed harder on the wound. “Ow!”
“Ow,” Estella repeated with an amused smile. Nox’s injuries weren’t life-threatening—she had seen and experienced far worse—but they were still worrisome that they had to be treated to avoid complications.
The infirmary’s second ward was empty save for the two of them. And as Estella moved on to other lesser wounds, she dared to ask, “How did you defeat Karsos?”
Nox didn’t answer for a moment, though he shifted on the bed. But Estella didn’t mind; she understood the importance of keeping his skills a secret even to her, especially with the Year-End Assessment drawing near.
Still, she wished that Nox would tell her a little about it, if only to understand what he was capable of.
It was minutes before he finally spoke, just as Estella finished bandaging his right arm. “It’s not something I can easily tell you, Ella,” he said softly. “Even if I want to.”
“So you’ve been holding back all this time?” She held his gaze in a steady grip.
Nox didn’t look away, shaking his head. “No. My abilities are as you’ve seen, and I have to thank you for that.” He smiled faintly, but it soon vanished. “Only, I have my own trump card. Just like you have.”
“All Wielders do,” Estella said. That much she understood. “So, the darkness earlier was yours?”
“Part of it, yes.” He seemed to be hesitant, and Estella didn’t press on further. Still, he continued, “I can only do it rarely.”
“Only when I have to.”
“And you didn’t do it when we fought the Remnant?”
“If I did, that would mean our deaths.”
There was no deception in his voice, and Estella could feel his sincerity through the Resonance. She nodded. “Good thing you didn’t, then.”
“I would if it could save you, though.”
Estella smiled, her heart skipping a beat. “Well, I don’t need you to try and save me often. Not if it meant getting yourself injured.” She poked Nox in his bandaged arm, making him wince. “You can’t save someone if you’re bleeding all over the place.”
“It’s not that bad,” he said defensively. “Besides, you know I’ve experienced much worse.”
“That’s no reason to keep jumping into obvious danger.” She shook her head, sighing. Her squire’s selflessness could be the death of them someday.
Nox arched an eyebrow. “You’d rather I’m selfish?”
“Not selfish. But someone with a bit more self-preservation,” Estella replied with a snort. “I can’t have you dying, you know. If you placed in the top twenty spots, I wouldn’t be able to grant you a wish.”
“A wish.” Amusement danced in his eyes. “We’ll have to talk about that after the competition.”
“Do you already have one in mind?” Estella scratched at the bed’s white linen with a fingertip.
Estella frowned. Curious, she tried to read his mind, but all she felt was a wall of random thoughts. She pulled back with a sigh. “Fine. If you don’t want me to know, fine.” She huffed. “Are you well enough to fight tomorrow, though?”
Nox nodded, his voice steady with confidence. “I am. And just like today, we will win.”
Thank you for reading!