“Oh, looks like she was able to cast it after all,” Nora said, sounding amused.
“Don’t change the subject!” Rosseau yelled. “What did you mean before about Lucy being expelled!? Is that really going to happen if she loses!?”
Rosseau looked irate and attempted to grab Nora’s shoulder to make her face him. Dominic dashed between them, however, and wrestled Rosseau to the ground, subduing him painfully by the arm.
“Hmph. Dom’ may not be as skilled with a sword as you, but he’s quite good at things like this,” Nora said, snuggling up to Dominic to caress his face. “Anyways, it’s quite true. I overheard her mention it herself.”
Rosseau looked up at Nora, hoping this was another one of her lies. Unfortunately, it helped explain much of Lucy’s recent behavior. And what reason would Nora have to tell him a lie like this? She didn’t—at least not one he could find.
“You…you have to lose Nora. If it’s true, then please!” he pleaded.
“Oh, Rosseau. You know a purposeful loss would be against the rules,” Nora took his arm out of Dominic’s grasp and knelt down to meet his face. Slyly, she cast a spell without Dominic’s notice, and whispered into Rosseau’s ear. “Although…I might consider it if you cooperate and truly become my knight.”
Rosseau threw an anxious glance at Dominic who smirked unexpectedly. It then became clear to Rosseau that Nora’s spell had made Dominic hear something different.
“Something for you to think about,” Nora breathed on to his ear and lingered her hand on his upper chest. Before her intentions could become obvious to Dominic, she pushed herself up from Rosseau and gave a sigh.
“Sorry, Rosseau, but it would take a miracle for that girl to defeat me. Even with her cute little charm, a girl like me has her own tricks as well.”
Nora confidently flipped her hair and motioned for Dominic to step onto the rune alongside hers for the next round. The rune beamed out another pillar of light, and disappeared to reveal Nora and Dominic transported into the arena.
Lucy and Cedric appeared on their side as well, and Nora glanced at the lights circling each of them. Their charm wouldn’t matter, she would break it and defeat them all the same.
“Don’t let yourself get shattered so embarrassingly again,” Nora said, refusing to take her eyes off Lucy. “Now, Go.”
Upon hearing the order, Dominic took the privilege of starting the round and dashed forward. Before he could get ten steps, however, a series of fireballs from Lucy forced him to strafe right. The fireballs didn’t stop coming, but the long gap between their casts made them easy for Dominic to dodge.
“That stupid girl is just casting without any strategy,” Nora muttered to herself. It was frustrating to watch such inelegance, but if the peasant was so eager to leave her defenses open, then Nora would gladly take the opening.
Having a few icicles ready, Nora combined them to form a larger one and threw it directly at Lucy. Lucy didn’t move. She didn’t even look Nora’s way and instead continued to shoot fireballs at Dominic.
Nora prepared another set of icicles and watched as her attack was on the brink of clashing with Lucy’s barrier. Before it could, though, Cedric stepped in front of it and allowed the chunk of ice to shatter against his own protection charm.
Nora wasn’t phased in the slightest. She expected some kind of last minute effort to stop the attack, but now she was sorry she had expected a more fantastic plan.
Nora shrugged. It wasn’t worth wasting another thought on strategizing against such amateurs. In a few more seconds, Dominic would close in on Lucy, and her charm wouldn’t be able to stop his close quarters swordplay. It was a simple strategy, but against these two it should be quite foolproof-
A hard slamming sound boomed from across the arena, and Nora’s eyes caught something being thrown high into the air. It flew with intense speed, making it hard to ascertain; but as it reached the peak of its rise, Nora’s mouth went agape. It was Dominic. He was at least thirty feet in the air—a near miss from the gymnasium ceiling. A second later, he crashed into the ground and his figure shattering against the arena floor.
Nora hadn’t a clue at what had just happened.
“That was a great idea, staggering wind-shots between the last few fireballs. He didn’t see it coming!” Lucy laughed.
“Well, you did good following through with it,” Cedric said. “Now we just have to figure out how to take out Nora.”
Lucy looked over towards Nora who was surrounded by an absurd amount of icicles and had an angry expression on her face. The sight lessened Lucy’s excitement.
“You run at her, I support?” Lucy asked.
“Maybe not. From the recordings, she’s fairly strong with close-quarters spell combat.”
“Okay, I run at her and you support…”
Cedric looked at Lucy, unamused by her sarcasm.
“Heh…how about we both just run at her?”
“Alright, but I’ll take the front,” Cedric said. It wasn’t a great plan, but if they stayed here, Nora wouldn’t break a sweat picking them off.
Taking a few steps to get in front of Lucy, Cedric took a deep breath before breaking into his fastest sprint.
“You call that running!?” Lucy said, following behind him.
“I’m tired from the last round,” Cedric said, trying to hide his annoyance at the comment.
At last, the next set of icicles from Nora’s arsenal were on their way, and Cedric wondered what their strategy should be.
“Make a barrier in front of me!” Cedric said.
The icicles closed in, and Lucy scrambled to balance casting a barrier and running at the same time. By the time she succeeded, two of the icicles had already passed where the barrier spawned and shattered against Cedric’s protection charm. The three that followed broke against her newly formed barrier.
Five hits so far, Cedric figured. Maybe six if the large cluster from earlier managed to hit harder than he thought, but he shouldn’t have to worry now that Lucy’s barrier held up.
Lucy and Cedric crossed the center of the arena and Nora sent out another barrage of ice which slammed against the barrier Lucy created. This time the ice didn’t shatter. It exploded into a vast cloud of powdery snow and completely obstructed their visibility. Immediately, Cedric recognized the tactic from one of Nora’s recordings.
“Run left! As far as you can!” Cedric shouted, making a dash to get out of the blinding powder.
When they emerged, Cedric looked above and confirmed what he had anticipated. A barrage of ice centered above the snowy cloud rained down. With a desperate leap, Lucy and Cedric barely evaded the attack, and the sound of crashing ice thundered behind them.
Cedric scrambled to his feet. “That attack used all of her ice. We should advance now,” he said, taking off again towards Nora.
Lucy followed behind and cast another barrier in front of Cedric.
“I can’t cast anything else if I hold this in front of you!”
“Drop it when I say, then back me up with some wind.”
“I have an idea.”
Nora looked at her two opponents with dismay as she prepared more icicles. The magicless boy had quicker wits than she anticipated. If he hadn’t been so quick to figure out what was happening, the attack would have ended the round right there. There wasn’t any point getting riled up about it, though. Soon they would be in close range—a foolish decision on their part.
Wanting to appear desperate, Nora threw a few more icicles which were easily blocked by Lucy’s barrier. The magicless then discarded his shield and took his sword in both hands. Seeing this, Nora began to channel magic for the stalagmite of ice she planned spring from the ground and impale him with. In just a few more seconds, she’d shatter him clean from the arena floor-
The familiar slamming sound from before boomed loud before Nora, and she was stunned to see that the magicless’s slow dash had developed into a speedy lunge.
Cedric clenched his jaw, doing his best to ignore the pain from Lucy’s bullet of wind that had slammed him forward so quickly. Though his cool face gave the impression that he was in full control of his trajectory, Cedric knew he was flying uncontrollably at Nora. Suddenly, he saw sharp column of ice shoot up from the ground, but he safely passed over it before it could fully extend. Pleased with his luck, he looked at Nora, who for once in the match had a genuinely distressed look on her face.
With the speed of Lucy’s wind still carrying him, Cedric readied his sword and let out a roar. He hoped it would frighten Nora into keeping still, and it seemed to prove effective. Finally, the moment came where he was completely upon Nora, and it was too late for her to do anything to stop him.
Cedric swung his blade—its power amplified by the speed Lucy had granted him. In one swift movement he slashed Nora, and the sound of the tournament’s charm shattering behind him signaled the round’s end.
“Assaut Rapide. Six Points. Hardtvelt.”
The wind finally dying out, Cedric landed into a sliding halt and looked at the scoreboard which now reflected a total of eight points for their team. He didn’t expect getting a bonus point for taking Nora and Dominic out quickly; but, seeing as the grading was up to the ref, it wasn’t something he was going to worry about. Now, they were a mere three points behind Nora.
“That was incredible!” Lucy cheered, catching up to Cedric.
“It was lucky.”
Lucy cocked her hip and pouted. “Give yourself some credit! Sure, plenty of things could have gone wrong, but luck didn’t make all of it work out.”
“It made enough of it work out.”
“Ugh, c’mon!” Lucy gave an exaggerated scoff and stamped her foot.
“Next round…” Cedric muttered.
“For the next round, I have a plan that won’t be attributed to luck at all.”
Rosseau leaned over the arena wall and watched Cedric and Lucy banter away. He couldn’t hear what they were saying—not with Nora’s shouts at Dominic drowning everything out. He did notice something peculiar, however. Lucy was smiling. In the middle of a match no less. He hadn’t seen her do that since their first match together.
“It would take a miracle for that girl to beat me…”
Rosseau echoed Nora’s statement in his mind and pondered something as he shifted his gaze towards Cedric.
“Ugh, whatever! Let’s just stick together in the next round!” Nora shouted in a huff, moving on to her charm preparations.
Once again, everyone was in the arena, and Cedric began the round by dashing from his position. Lucy followed suit. Then Nora and Dominic made their own charge as well.
“Watch her carefully this time,” Nora said, following close behind Dominic while preparing some icicles.
“Are you sure this will work?” Lucy said, concerned as she ran beside Cedric.
“No strategy is foolproof, but I think our odds are good. Now break left!”
With a hesitant expression on her face, Lucy obliged the order and branched away from Cedric to get a clear line of sight on Dominic and Nora. Channeling her magic, she fired a strong blast of wind at them, and its gust created a visible trail from the dirt it picked up.
Nora and Dominic evaded the attack easily, and as it passed by them Nora wondered what the purpose of such a simple attack was. Suddenly, however, the wind they had evaded exploded behind them, and Nora found herself being thrown forward from its force in a direct trajectory towards Cedric.
Nora’s figure shattered in an instant against Cedric’s sword—the impaling attack requiring no work on Cedric’s part. In the moment that followed, Dominic shattered as well, though it was no surprise to Cedric. Once the Lead Sorcerer was struck down, all of their team disappeared as well. The round was over, and it was another win for Lucy.
“Assaut Magnifique. Eight points. Hardtvelt”
Lucy’s eyes went wide. “Magnifique!? I never dreamed I would earn a grade like that!” she yelled, catching up to Cedric with an incredibly excited look on her face.
“You pulled it off very well,” Cedric said without any excitement.
“Thanks, but how was this plan any less lucky than the previous one?”
“Because instead of me being thrown forward uncontrollably it was Nora.”
“Hmm,” Lucy hummed exaggeratedly wanting to appear unconvinced, but as light wrapped around them to transport them to the sideline she couldn’t help but break into a smile. After all—it was thanks to Cedric that they were now in the lead by five points.
Appearing in their sideline, Lucy looked down and realized that the protection charms from the previous round were still active.
Cedric noticed as well. They hadn’t taken a single hit in that round, and the realization caused his eyes to glint with opportunity. “Hey, since you don’t need to cast the charm this time, can you try something for me?”
The round was begun by a charge from Lucy and Cedric, matched by a lone charge by Dominic.
Lucy and Cedric kept an equal pace so that neither passed up the other, and Dominic scoffed at the structure of their approach. Perhaps they figured it was better to take him on together in close-quarters. It was an expected strategy that he and Nora had an answer for.
As the three of them were on the brink of clashing, Dominic confirmed that his path was clear and dropped into a slide. His lean frame slipped between Lucy and Cedric, and he went for a strike at Cedric’s leg. Cedric hopped sideways to avoid the blow and watched helplessly as a barrage of ice sent by Nora struck against he and Lucy’s protection charms.
Wanting to take advantage of Dominic’s flanking position on the other side of Lucy and Cedric, Nora made a charge at them.
Lucy sent a few large blasts of fire towards Nora to slow her advance, but all of them were easily dodged. In the same moment, Dominic spun around and sprung himself up from the floor. He dashed at Lucy and raised his sword for a lethal blow.
Lucy turned around to face Dominic, but was in no position to cast an attack at him. Instead she only raised a hand in defense, and Dominic grinned at his apparent victory. Then, just as his sword met the tip of her finger, it disappeared from his hand.
The sudden weightlessness of his swing threw Dominic off balance and caused him to stumble past Lucy. Prostrated on the arena floor, he began to pick himself up and glanced at his empty sword-hand, completely bewildered at what had just happened. He didn’t have time to dwell on it though, for not a second later he felt himself get run through from behind by Cedric, shattering and eliminating him from the round.
“That was close,” Cedric said, regrouping with Lucy who cast a fresh barrier in front of them. “For a moment I thought he would be too quick for you to disarm.”
“Give me some credit. I’ve been using Inanimport for a while.”
Lucy and Cedric looked through the translucent barrier towards Nora. Despite losing Dominic, she continued her advancement and made a motion with her staff. Suddenly, the sound of moving earth crackled loud in front of Lucy and Cedric, and a thick column of ice crept forth from the arena floor and extended over the barrier Lucy had created.
Digging her boots into the ice’s surface, Nora began to ascend the length of the column, making the difficult trek across its slippery face seem effortless.
“Back up,” Cedric said to Lucy as he brandished his shield.
Lucy followed the command and scooted back defensively while keeping an eye on Nora. Seeing her reach the peak of the ice, Lucy dispelled her barrier to let loose a burst of wind, hoping it would catch Nora and toss her high into the air. Nora stepped back to let it pass in front of her and promptly swung the butt of her own staff at the tip of the ice pillar. With the help of some magic, Nora broke a chunk of ice from the pillar’s tip and flung it a Lucy.
Having no time to dodge, Lucy watched as the huge chunk exploded against her protection charm, its shards of ice ricocheted in every direction.
Seeing that the charm was still active, Nora growled and began to break more chunks off the pillar she stood on, throwing all of them down at Lucy.
Lucy cast another barrier to stop the barrage. However, when the ice hit, it exploded into another cloud of snow and blinded her and Cedric.
“Left agai-!?” Lucy tried to say, but she was interrupted by a harsh tugging on her back collar. The tug then turned into a forceful pull and she found herself being tossed backwards by Cedric. She felt offended at first, but the feeling subsided when a set of massive spikes of ice descended and tore into the ground where she had been standing. She was relieved that Cedric had saved her, but her relief was short-lived as she watched a second set of ice break through the haze of snow and ice, crushing and shattering Cedric.
“No!” Lucy said. She landed on the ground and tucked into a clumsy roll backwards, narrowly dodging a third set of large icicles.
Standing up, the cloud of snow still blocked Lucy’s view of Nora. Desperate, she fired another burst of wind into the haze, and its torrential power managed to dissipate the snow to give her a clear view of Nora rushing at her.
Lucy attempted to dodge, but Nora’s thrust with a short spear of ice managed to cross the perimeter of her protection charm. The charm activated, and a barrier appeared to stop the attack, but it promptly shattered along with Nora’s weapon. A mixture of ice and barrier fragments glistened around the two sorcerers, and both gripped their staves and swung at the other.
Their staves clashed with a loud clap, and, for a moment as they pushed against each other, both girls traded glances. Lucy cowered at the aggressiveness of Nora’s expression and gave a grunt from the strength it took to push back against her.
“You should have just accepted expulsion. It would have been a much less humiliating departure for you,” Nora said. Her face became smug.
“Wha-? How did you?”
“Hmph. Eavesdropping isn’t so difficult when you have actual talent for magic.”
Not wanting to hear another word, Lucy tried to step back. Nora wouldn’t tolerate the retreat, however, and followed with her own step forward to continue digging her staff into Lucy’s—relishing the strained look it caused on her face.
“You know, it’s quite humorous that the Luckless Mage of Greidwhen Academy would lean on a magicless for help.”
“Huh? Luckless what? What are you talking about?” Lucy said, still struggling to push against Nora.
Nora scoffed. “Hah! Of course you wouldn’t be aware! It’s the lovely title that Greidwhen’s students gives to the first-year with the worst magical ability!”
Lucy’s face curled, and again she tried to retreat, but Nora stuck to her with every step.
“I admit, others were hesitant to decide it so early, but after your work in Professor Farland’s homeroom the other day, there was no doubt that you deserved the title. So, congratulations! You’re the first Luckless Mage in Greidwhen’s history to be christened so quickly! You’ll also be the one expelled the fastest as well!”
Lucy looked at Nora with a terrified expression. She didn’t know what to think. Was it true? Was it a lie? Why? Why was Nora telling her this?
Pleased by the fear in Lucy’s eyes, Nora sneered as she began to channel magic into her staff. Lucy noticed the change in pressure around them and recognized Nora’s incoming attack, but she was too distraught to prepare a defense. Before the Elefrian could finish, however, both girls found themselves being consumed by pillars of light. In the next moment, they were each in their respective sidelines, and Lucy was left wondering what had happened.
“Penalty. Unsportsmanlike conduct, Straughtvern. Five points, Hardtvelt,” the head ref announced. Lucy then saw him disappear from his podium and reappear in front of Nora’s sideline. He was saying something to Nora, but Lucy couldn’t hear what.
“Do it again and you will be disqualified. Understand?” The ref said to Nora.
“Yes. My apologies,” Nora answered. Her arms were crossed, and she avoided his masked gaze with disinterest while he teleported away.
“Didn’t you go a little far, Nora? You could have just wiped her out and won us the round?” Dominic said.
Nora kept her uncaring look fixed elsewhere. “No, they can have this one.” A shrewd smile showed on her face. “I think we’ll be winning the remaining ones from now on.”
Seated at the far end of the sideline bench, Rosseau threw a concerned glance at Nora and then at Lucy, and he wondered what horrible thing Nora had just done.
“Looks like we managed to catch a break,” Cedric said. “Did she get carried away with her insults? Whatever wins us a round I suppose-”
Cedric paused himself after turning and seeing Lucy. She was crouched on the floor, and her face was buried underneath her crossed arms.
Cedric fought off a reactionary scrunch of his brow. This girl, she always seemed to be laughing one minute then crying the next.
“Cedric. Have you ever heard of this…Luckless Mage of Greidwhen Academy?” Lucy said softly, keeping her face buried.
The question surprised Cedric. “I’ve…heard of the tradition, yes,” he said, immediately noticing Lucy’s fists and shoulders tense up after.
“Is…” Lucy lifted her gaze to meet Cedric, revealing a trail of tears running down her face “Is that really what everyone thinks of me?”
Cedric was at a loss for words. So that’s what Nora had been penalized for telling Lucy. Her mood made complete sense now. He didn’t know himself if it was true or not that Lucy was this year’s target of that horrible hazing tradition, but it didn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t true, it was quite possibly the most destructive thing Nora could have said to her.
Lucy, meanwhile, was battling a mess of turmoiled thoughts. What was the point? What was the point of even being here anymore? She had wondered why her classmates had seemed so much colder lately, now she knew. They hated her. Hated the incompetent mage that she was. Nobody wanted her here. Nobody. Even Rosseau abandoned her. Why? He didn’t have to resign. He could have stood up to Nora. He could have said no and refused to sign himself over to her team. Now she was going to be expelled for his decision.
Lucy wanted to go home. To go back to her father, and the farm she used to help him tend to. This wasn’t where she belonged. Not at all. Not like her mother did. Her mother was gifted. Talented. And because of it, she was surrounded and loved by her peers and teammates. That was the difference between her and Lorena. That’s what she had learned after reading those articles Cedric showed her last night. The truth now seemed painfully explicit to Lucy: she wasn’t meant to become a mage at all.
“You know…Lorena’s final opponent of the tournament was the favorite to win. In fact, the odds were stacked against her five to one.” Cedric said, softly. Lucy kept her face buried, but Cedric could tell she was listening intently as he continued to speak.
“In an interview before that final match, Lorena was asked, ‘What is your biggest fear going into this fight?’. And Lorena answered with, ‘My biggest fear in any fight has never been that my opponent would be too strong to beat, it’s that I would believe they were unbeatable and give up before the fight was over.’”
Lucy lifted her teary eyed gaze from under her arms. “I don’t remember reading any article like that,” She said. Her voice cracked.
“I can show it to you after we win this match. The point is, if you give up now it really will be over.”
“But what’s the point of winning if nobody even wants me here?”
“You said it yourself. This year is your best chance to win the tournament and meet Lorena.”
Lucy traced her pitiful gaze across the stone floor, contemplating if such a dream was even attainable anymore.
“And, if you’re wondering about somebody who wants you to stay here…he’s right in front of you.”
Lucy tore her gaze from the floor and her eyes locked with Cedric’s. He was standing before her with his hand offered out. His eyes were sincere, though a stranger might mistake it for his usual, indifferent look that he always seemed to have. But he and Lucy were no longer strangers, and she was overcome by the subtle tenderness of his gaze and the mindfulness of his words.
Taking Cedric’s hand, Lucy let him help her up, though she hid her face behind her other arm. She didn’t want him to see the ugly scrunching of her face and the tears that ran down it. Though these tears weren’t due to feeling isolated as the previous were. They were tears born from the hope and happiness Cedric’s words gave her.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said, doing a poor job of wiping the snot and tears away with her robe sleeve.
“There’s a restroom outside the main door,” Cedric said. “Go ahead and clean up. I’ll ask them to extend the prep period so you have time.”
“Thanks,” Lucy said, opening the short door from their sideline to leave.
With Lucy finally out of sight, Cedric let out an exhausted sigh.
“You know you got that backwards, right?” A new voice called out from behind.
Cedric turned his surprised face to see the assistant referee on the other side of the short fence that separated the sideline and arena. The ref’s hood was drawn, but his stern frown was visible below the white mask that covered the top half of his face.
Cedric’s expression quickly became cool. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
The ref crossed his arms. “Lorena was the favorite to win the final match of the tournament, not her opponent. That quote came from her opponent as well—a lot good the sentiment did her when Lorena wound up walking away with the champion title…”
Cedric’s entire body tensed up.
“So, did you accidentally get the roles mixed up or what?” The ref asked, tilting his head curiously.
Cedric relaxed himself and sighed. “I changed the parts necessary to get my teammate back on track. That is all.”
“As I understand, she’s Lorena’s daughter. I get it. Was everything you said just a ruse to motivate her?”
Cedric didn’t answer, aware of what the man was asking.
“Never mind it…I only wanted to clear any confusion you may have had about that match with Lorena,” The cloaked man said as he turned to walk away. However, Cedric felt inclined to stop him.
“How do you know so much about it?”
The ref turned back to Cedric and flashed a smirk. “Lorena’s final opponent in the Sorcerer’s Tournament was Annaise Vermilithew, and I was her knight in that match twenty years ago.”
Cedric looked at the man, bewildered. His mind was suddenly filled with questions.
“It would be against the rules for a referee to give advice to one of the teams,” the ref said, reading Cedric like a book. “Though, I will say this. While I’ve seen plenty of sorcerer’s break down in a match and be consoled by their knights, I have never seen a knight lie to comfort them. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.”
The ref grinned one last time before teleporting back to his podium, just in time for Lucy to return and find a dumbfounded Cedric standing by himself.
“Are you okay?” Lucy asked.
“Your hair is pink again,” Cedric said, trying to hide the nature of his bewildered expression from her.
Lucy’s cheeks turned red. It was always embarrassed when people pointed out her unnatural hair color.
“Y-yeah. It helps me relax sometimes,” Lucy said, fluffing her two hair buns.
“It looks good on you,” Cedric said without any real thought put into it.
“T-thanks,” she said while fidgeting her fingers. She didn’t know what to say to Cedric next. He had confessed that he wanted her to stay at Greidwhen, but she couldn’t help but wonder exactly what he meant by that. A part of her also wondered if he said that just to help her calm down.
Knowing Cedric that would be the most likely reason that he-
“It wasn’t a lie you know.”
“Wha-?” Lucy was broken from her thoughts by Cedric’s words.
“When I said I wanted you to stay here. It wasn’t a lie,” Cedric said, his tone was insistent.
Lucy was at a loss for words and in the next moment she was sorry she ever doubted him. Of course Cedric wanted her here. They were friends, after all.
Lucy smiled. “I want to stay here too,” she said, finally demonstrating the confidence that Cedric had been waiting to see.
He felt relieved; and for the first time in a long time, the whispering thought that this friendship wouldn’t last was held at bay by a brighter feeling of hope.
“I’m glad,” Cedric said, a clever glint in his eye. “And you’d better be ready to prove that resolve…because I have some new ideas for how to defeat Nora.”