Estella drew a deep breath as she buckled the final straps of her armor and she stared at herself in the mirror.
It was not full plate—she would never be able to move encased in that. Instead, a lighter chestplate covered her torso while greaves and bracers protected her arms and legs yet still allowed flexibility in movement.
The last time she wore this was during the expedition to the Arsari Cave with her master last year, and then during their final duel. Estella hadn’t used it since then. She found it still cumbersome, and she preferred to fight without any hinderance.
But now she must. Now she would once again participate in a final exam, as a Knight this time and against her own Squire.
Excitement flooded her veins. She wanted to cross Animartas with Nox again in a real duel, like they did during their first meeting. She wanted to know how much he had grown as a Wielder, and if she had been a good mentor.
More than that, she wanted him to succeed, to prove that he deserved all the recognition, and that she didn’t make a mistake choosing him as her Squire. As her lover.
Satisfied with her look, Estella exited her room. Nox had left early for the western training grounds. No words were spoken between them when they woke up nor before they slept last night. No words were needed to now that their Resonance waxed stronger—the strongest it had been ever since returning from the Forsaken Forest.
The hallways were empty, as expected during final exam day. But Estella didn’t mind the silence. It helped ease her mind and prepare herself for the duel. She could feel Nox in the distance, waiting for her.
Just before Estella entered the hallway that connected directly to the western training grounds, she found Aldros leaning on the wall, his arms crossed. He gave her a critical look and smiled. “Well, that’s a sight I rarely see. Are you ready?”
She stopped before him. “I am. You?” His body was fully encased in black steel, though his head was bare.
Aldros shrugged. “Actually, I just finished.” He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Erian was good, I’ll admit. Even if I didn’t train him as much as you trained Nox.”
Only then did Estella noticed the bruises in Aldros’s head, and no doubt other parts of his body that was concealed by his armor. She chuckled. “Well, you’d be sorry excuse of a mentor if he still loses despite you neglecting his training.”
“That’s true, I suppose.” He regarded her with some worry. “Are you really sure you’re ready? This is not like Selection Day, Ella.”
She nodded despite the knots slowly twisting in her stomach. She knew what Aldros meant. “I am ready. I’ve always been since I chose him as my Squire.”
“Then good luck. I’ll see you both later.” He patted her on the shoulder and strode away.
For a moment, Estella stayed rooted on her feet, staring at the door that led to her and Nox’s future. Whatever happened today, nothing would change between them. That was the promise they made yesterday.
She took a deep breath and continued toward the door.
Save for the low thrum of murmurings from the crowd of students and teachers, it was almost quiet when she emerged into the vast grounds and climbed the steps to the raised stage where she and Nox would fight.
He was already there clad in light plate armor, no different than her own. Even his head was bare, and Estella could see the smile on nis lips and the anticipation and excitement dancing in his eyes.
And she couldn’t help but return the smile. They were both waiting for this moment when they could give their all in a duel ever since that day when they first met and fought.
The overseer stood between them, his voice ringing across the grounds. “No maiming, no killing. Grades for both parties will be given based on they can withstand each other’s assault and the skills they will display. No time limit. The duel will end when either side yields, can no longer fight or leaves the boundary of the stage.”
A battle of endurance, as it always had been. Estella recalled that her own final duel with her master lasted half an hour. Would it be the same today or would Nox prove that he was better than her and end their fight faster?
“Wielders, summon your Animartas,” the overseer continued.
Estella held her right hand in front of her and dug within her being, grasping the fiery power that lay inside her soul. “Come, Astra.”
In a swirl of raging flames and dazzling light, Astra’s gleaming silver blade appeared in her hand and Estella grabbed the hilt. It was warm in her skin, and vibrating, almost as if it was responding to her own excitement.
“Help me, Erebos.”
Nox’s Animarta answered his call, tendrils of shadows wrapping around his hand to reveal a blade of black steel that seemed to absorb the light around it. And though Estella had seen it countless of times, the sight of the Animarta, darker than night itself, was still as magnificent as the day she first saw it.
“Wielders, to your positions,” the overseer said.
They retreated until a wide gap of forty feet separated them. Nox seemed so far away, but Estella knew that it was merely an illusion for them; they could cover that distance in less than three seconds.
The overseer raised his hand. Estella met Nox’s gaze, and through their connection, she felt his resolve and determination rolling in waves as well as a clear thought.
Today, I’ll make you proud.
“Begin!” The overseer’s hand cut through the air.
Nox burst forward and disappeared in a cloud of shadow. The crowd gasped, but Estella remained calm. Just like every final exam, a Knight and their Squire is allowed to keep their Resonance active; it was even recommended to completely test their skills.
Thus, Estella knew where Nox would reappear, and she was ready to meet his blow. Twisting to the left, she raised her sword to block Nox’s first strike. Clang! The sound was loud in her ears. Their Animartas connected in a burst of sparks.
It lasted only a second. Nox swung again and Estella parried the strike then countered with her own. But Nox ducked, sweeping a leg underneath her—a move she had not seen him use before.
She smiled and leapt backwards, and charged again before Nox could regain his stance. His eyes widened, but he was fast enough to roll out of her overhead swing. As Astra touched the ground, Estella uttered, “Ignite!”
A wave of searing heat bloomed outwards from Astra’s tip. She was already moving again when Nox shouted, “Engulf!”
Estella jumped, knowing what was coming. Sure enough, the ground frosted over as a thick sheet of ice blanketed the stage. Flames burst from Estella’s legs as she landed, melting the frost in her spot in a hot steam.
She charged, leaving puddles of hissing water in her path. Nox met her head on, and soon they were in a vicious dance, Estella using her flame-coated legs as much as her Animarta.
They weaved a complex pattern, but no matter how much they tried to overcome one another, they couldn’t. Estella knew where Nox would strike next, what he would do, and when he would do it. She knew the intent behind every feint, behind every action.
And he was the same.
“Burst!” Estella shouted as she leapt backwards, unleashing a barrage of fireballs directly in his path. Nox swung Erebos and cut them all down before dashing past the smoke—exactly what Estella wanted.
She closed her eyes, pointed Astra at him and invoked, “Ignite!”
There was a bright flash, followed immediately by Nox’s own magic: “Engulf!”
The moment her vision darkened, Estella knew what he did. She opened her eyes, and sure enough, she couldn’t see anything else around her, as if a deep night had descended upon the stage. There was no sound save for her own breathing and the pounding of her heart.
She smiled and expanded her mind’s reach, tracing Nox to her left, standing still, waiting for her to attack. She may not be able to see with her eyes, but her mind was clear and she knew where he was.
Without hesitation, Estella accepted the challenge. They moved as one, their minds melding fully, and the ringing of their Animartas filled their ears like an orchestra. They weaved complex patterns in the air, their movements fluid as dancers. Fire and ice writhed around them, following their every command, and yet no one had the upper hand for they were one in the Resonance.
The darkness receded, and Estella heard the crowd gasped in awe. When her vision adjusted to the light, she was not surprised that the stage had been torn from the clash.
Nox stood ahead, shadows coiling around him, a determined expression on his face that Estella mirrored as she raised Astra to the sky. She dug deep into her being, calling on to the power she held, and tapped into the energy flowing between her and Nox through the Resonance. But she was not alone, for she felt a call just as strong from her Squire.
Their voices rang together.
Astra’s flames roared around Estella like a primal beast of old, a tornado of fire that swept over the stage in a blast of scorching heat before meeting an expanding wall of ice, colder than the lands of the north. A chill far greater than the coldest of winters.
Estella sucked her breath at the beauty of it, fire and ice meeting in equal strength, two opposites joining together. And yet neither side waxed nor waned, neither side gave ground to each other.
In retrospect, it was just like her and Nox. Their minds were joined as one so seamlessly that they knew what each other thought. What they would do and what they loved. Right now, Nox wanted to show her that this was his power now, that he could finally protect her on his own.
And yet, as his master, Estella couldn’t just accept that; she should be protecting him, and the sheer force of her will slammed into his, driving her intent forward. But no matter what she did, Estella couldn’t penetrate his Cocytus.
Somehow, it disappointed her. But that didn’t compare to the pride she felt seeing her pupil, her lover, stand against her assault. For what use was their Resonance if they couldn’t be equal?
With a smile of content, Estella released her hold on the spell, even as she sent a single thought to him.
I’m so proud of you.
And she lowered Astra, and the icy blast fully hit her.
Only one or two chapters left before the finale of book 1!