A trickle of sweat ran down the side of Lucy’s face and past her thrilled smile. A moment ago it felt like her heart was going to explode from staring down Nora’s attack, but now that fear had transformed to excitement. All of Nora’s icicles had stopped dead in the air before Lucy, and she could feel every one of them through her staff—waiting to move at her command.

It seemed obvious now, and Lucy wondered how she hadn’t thought of it before. Ice was only a different form of water, and controlling water was one of the few things she had become decent at in her short time at Greidwhen. There was a difference in the way all the shards stirred under her control, though. They felt coarse and uneven; as if there wasn’t as much freedom in what she could do with them compared to water. Lucy knew she didn’t have the time to learn the best way to use the ice, so, with a wide swing of her staff, she hurtled the shards right back at Nora.

Lucy didn’t think much of the attack and already began to channel for a blast of fire. Cedric paid close attention, however, and was intrigued when he saw Nora block the ice rather than regain some type of control on it.

“We should rush her,” Cedric said, earning a puzzled gaze from Lucy. “Nora has no idea what’s going on, and if she thinks her stalagmites are going to help her like last time, then we should take advantage of that.”

“Are you saying I can stop her stalagmites too?”

“One-hundred percent provided you can react fast enough.”

Cedric expected Lucy to show some hesitancy, but he was surprised by the confident look she returned. It was a jarring difference when Cedric compared it to Nora’s current, nervous expression. It was peculiar. Somehow, the attitudes of both Lead Sorcerers had completely swapped.

The round didn’t last much longer after that. Lucy and Cedric charged down the arena floor, throwing back every icicle that Nora tried to stop them with, and when the time came for her stalagmites, Lucy was able to stop them too, just as Cedric had said. The whole experience felt exhilarating to Lucy, and when Nora finally slipped up and left an opening on herself, Lucy was more than happy to roast the girl with a blast of fire.

“…Six Points, Hardtvelt.” The faint echo of the ref’s declaration fell on Nora’s ears while she collapsed to the floor. She was now behind Lucy by twenty-four points.

“Like I said…” Nora heard Rosseau mutter. She turned her flustered gaze to see him discussing something closely with his parents. All of them briefly sided eyes at her before turning back, and a short, “Agreed” from Rosseau’s mother fueled Nora’s irritation even more.

What was Rosseau scheming?

“Nora,” a shrill voice called out. “What in heaven’s name was that display?”

Nora’s shoulders dropped, and a chill ran down her back as she turned to see her mother returning with a rash face.

“I…I’m sorry,” Nora said, keeping her gaze low and trying her best not to stammer. “I…she… something unexpected happened.” Nora’s mind replayed every one of her ice spells being stopped by Lucy—even the stalagmites.

“Excuses. Is this the type of behavior Greidwhen has instilled you with? I knew I should have sent you to Northorn after all. They teach their students to adapt when plans go awry, not stand there exposing their defenses.”

Nora winced and put all her effort into avoiding meeting her mother’s gaze. “I promise I’ll handle it,” Nora said.

Lady Straughtvern looked at her daughter with suspicious eyes. “I should hope so…”

“Can’t you use something besides ice?” Dominic asked, and before he could register the offended reactions of everyone around him, a sharp column of ice broke through the stone floor and stopped just short of his neck.

“Right…sorry,” he muttered and gave his throat a quick rub while the column crackled and collapsed into a mound of snow at his feet.

Nora held in a huff, unable to believe what Dominic had just said. She had told him dozens of times what ice magic meant to the Straughtvern family. Nearly every know ice spell originated from the early roots of their ancestors. The cold element was their legacy—and to suggest giving up on it was the same as declaring that it was a legacy of weakness.

“Forgive him, Mother. He didn’t mean it as an insult, but as a strategic option. An option I won’t reduce myself to consider.” Nora bowed, knowing the flattery would be enough to satisfy her mother for now.

The runes in their box began to glow, prompting relief from Nora that she would be able to distance herself from the judgmental gaze her mother was aiming at her. However, as the rune’s light bubbled up and wrapped around her, a new knot of fear twisted her stomach. One that came from knowing she had no plan for dealing with her ice being stopped by Lucy.

The next round begun with another charge by Lucy and Cedric while Nora rummaged her mind for how exactly she was going to handle her ice being stopped so effortlessly. Her mind flashed back to the mound of snow in front of Dominic’s feet, and Nora realized there was one thing she hadn’t used against Lucy’s trick.

Desperate, Nora began crafting as many icicles she could while dodging and blocking Lucy’s long-range blasts of fire and wind. If she was going to do this—she was going to do it with as much ice as possible.

“I don’t like all those icicles,” Cedric said, losing track after counting forty while he and Lucy advanced across the arena’s midpoint.

“What do we do?”

“Have you figured out the deflection yet?”

“No,” Lucy shook her head, watching Nora and Dominic evade another pair of wind blasts that failed to do what she wanted. “The timing is impossible.”

“Well, it may be our only option right now. If she turns all of that ice into snow, then we might be done for.”

“Why? I can just take control of it?”

Cedric shook his head. “Don’t be so sure,” he said just as his prediction came to fruition. Every one of the icicles floating beside Nora exploded into snow, obscuring her and Dominic from view with its snowy haze.

“Just great,” Cedric said, sliding to a halt.

Lucy checked if she could control the snow just as she did with the ice, but nervousness began to seep in when she realized she could only grab a small fraction of it. The cloud was too immense. And not only that. It was moving—twisting itself in different directions that kept her from maintaining ahold of it.

“I can’t control it,” she said while already firing the blasts of wind she knew Cedric would ask her to try out. However, even with their violent, gusty explosions, the wind only carved out a small fraction of the haze, whose space immediately closed back up.

“Barrier. Now,” Cedric ordered.

Lucy obliged, casting a barrier between them and the haze.

“Is it just me, or is it getting closer?” she said.

Cedric noticed as well. Slowly but surely, the haze’s tall edge was drawing towards them, and the ground it passed over was being consumed by a thick layer of frost that followed along with it.

“I don’t think warmth is gonna be effective this time,” Cedric said as he and Lucy began to back away. But, before they could put any distance between them, the cloud accelerated and blew past them—blinding them with its glittering, periwinkle haze.

Seeing the ice already begin to form on them, Lucy quickly cast warmth on them both. The ice didn’t slow or turn to slush, though. It was just as Cedric had said.

“The cold is too overwhelming,” Cedric huffed through his shivering breaths. There was only so much heat inward-warmth could provide before it became dangerous. And its limit was being completely beat out by the cloud’s chill this time.

Lucy heard Cedric mutter something unpleasant while the ice spread quickly around the rest of his body. From the look of it, the ice was being focused to take him out first, and Cedric wondered if that was Nora’s intent, or if she simply couldn’t tell him and Lucy apart inside the haze.

In the end, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t move, and the ice that had grown thickly around his entire body began to squeeze him. A second later, he shattered.

“NO!” Lucy cried out to Cedric’s glistening remains. She couldn’t dwell on his departure for long, though, as she could feel the ice on her body work faster to take her out in the same way.

“Stupid! Stupid! Ice!” Lucy shouted between the whacks of her staff against her frozen ankles. “Just when I thought I could control you-!!”

Lucy’s eyes widened, and an idea immediately formed in her head. She didn’t know if it would work, but she had to believe there was some consistency to the spell’s rules.

Hoping she could make it in time before the ice stopped her from moving completely, Lucy took her staff into both hands and cast the spell that had allowed her to stop solid ice once before—Draw Water.

The spell’s magic pulsed through Lucy’s body and into her staff, and immediately the ice’s crackling movement across her body quieted to a halt. It had worked.

But…what was she supposed to do now?

Lucy tried to get the ice to bend to her will. Crack? Move? She would take anything at this point, but it wasn’t responding. In fact, it felt like the ice was resisting her.

Lucy felt like she could hear Cedric chiding her that the ice was still under Nora’s control, which made sense. It was just like when she interfered with Nora’s stalagmites earlier. Lucy could stop them, but that was all she could do. She couldn’t turn them back on Nora like she could the icicles.

“The mechanics are different,” she imagined Cedric say.

It was clear to Lucy, now. She was in a battle against Nora for control of the ice, but neither was gaining any ground. It was an effective stalemate—until a fast patter of crunching snow began to draw near her.

A shadow came into Lucy’s view. One she wasn’t thrilled to see. It was Dominic, and he was charging straight at her.

Lucy released her hold on Nora’s ice and cast a fireball which Dominic narrowly juked, and what came next wasn’t much of a surprise to Lucy.

Free from her control, the ice enveloped the rest of her body, and before it could finish her off, Dominic took the opportunity to swing his blade straight through Lucy’s neck.

The next thing she knew, she was on her back and looking up at a discouraged Cedric.

“This might be a problem,” he said.

“A marvelous six points,” Nora’s father applauded as she and Dominic appeared in their box. “You see Freida, our daughter knows what she’s doing.”

Nora glanced anxiously at her mother, whose expression still gave an air of suspicion. “Perhaps,” the beautiful woman finally said. “It was quite the display. And with the spell we taught her, no less…”

Nora looked away nervously as she began to cast her charms for the next round.

“…Let’s hope she can keep it up.”

“I was able to stop it. Until Dominic showed up and I was forced to let go,” Lucy told Cedric, who looked to be listening intently. His eyes stared at nothing, but they darted calculatingly.

“That’s good to know, but our biggest concern is finding a way to stop Nora from gathering all of that ice together in the first place.”

Lucy looked at the floor. “The deflection, right?”

“I think it’s the only thing we have that can stop her,” Cedric answered. But despite his attempt to not highlight the root of the issue, Lucy knew it was her own fault that it was their only option. There were plenty of spells that could keep Nora from focusing her magic for so long—ones that had even been covered in their classes—but she didn’t know how to cast them.

Lucy could feel Cedric pitying gaze, and she tried to show him a confident face. It wouldn’t do any good to think about how things could have been better. All she could do was try with the abilities she had now.

“I’ll do my best.”

The next round was as relentless as the previous. Despite the dozens of attempts to hit Nora by deflecting one blast of wind off the other, her aim always fell short. The only saving grace was that Nora appeared unwise to their strategy—probably from focusing all of her attention onto creating ice and dodging spells.

It was the last attempt that came the closest, but after it missed, Nora exploded her ice into another vast haze of snow; and, again, Lucy and Cedric had no answer for its slow but inevitable takeover of the air around them.

The ice appeared to focus first on Cedric again, and despite Lucy’s attempt to keep it from spreading on him, another appearance by Dominic forced her to break her hold on it.

It was a fruitless effort to defend herself from Dominic, though. Cedric was helpless to give any assistance as the ice covered him, and Dominic had no issue evading Lucy’s simple blasts of fire and wind. Even her effort to surprise him with another shield to the face fell flat after he expertly ducked under it the moment it appeared.

There was only one other thing Lucy could think to do as Dominic closed the gap. Channeling Inanimport, she aimed it at his sword, figuring it would at least give her an extra moment to think. Her hopes were dashed, however, when the spell failed to make his sword disappear.

The cocky smile on Dominic’s face told Lucy that it wasn’t random chance that his weapon was still there, and she didn’t have time to theorize on the reason why as he finished her off with a clean slash across the chest.

The ref announced another six points for Nora, and Lucy realized that in the last ten minutes, her twenty-four-point lead had shortened to a mere twelve points.

“They’re imbuing his sword with magic,” Cedric said after Lucy explained what happened with Dominic. “They were being cautious of after all. If they weren’t sure we were using Inanimport before, they are now.”

“So it can be countered that easily?” Lucy asked softly.

“Unfortunately. Inanimport was designed to be an optimal method of teleporting inanimate objects. As a consequence, it fails completely if you use it on anything else.”

Lucy gave a frustrated look. “But a sword is inanimate.”

“Normally, yes, but it had magic in it at the time, classifying it as animate according to academic definitions.”

Lucy grunted out of frustration. Every time she thought she was beginning to understand something, a new caveat seemed to appear. Stalagmites were animate when they were shooting up from the ground, but not when they had finished growing. Icicles were animate while they were forming, but not after being thrown. And now, apparently, anyobject could be imbued with magic, nullifying Inanimport’s usefulness completely.

“We haven’t lost all our options. We still have Draw Water..”

“Except, I can’t even use it against her crazy ice cloud.”

“A cloud she is only using because you’ve cornered her into using it.”

“And now she’s going to win because there’s nothing I can do to stop her-!”

“Attention! Team Straughtvern has requested an extended preparation period. The match will resume in ten minutes.”

Cedric watched the clock stop on the arena’s scoreboard. Seventeen minutes left—more than enough time for Nora to close the gap and overtake them in points.

“I’m sorry,” Lucy said, taking a seat on the bench. “I’m just….I know you said not to give up. And I’m not. But…I’m just scared of losing.”

Cedric looked carefully at Lucy. He wasn’t surprised that she was feeling the weight of her deal with the Headmaster now that the match was approaching its end. He had hoped a larger lead would make her feel more at ease when they reached this point; but even their previous twenty-four-point gap wouldn’t have helped while they didn’t have a plan to stop Nora’s new strategy.

Cedric took a seat beside her, folding his hands as he leaned forward in thought.

“There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of losing. I wouldn’t expect anybody in your shoes to be callous about it. But, we still have a twelve point lead. Our chances aren’t hopeless…”

“…And what if we lose that lead without finding how to stop Nora?” Lucy whispered.

Cedric took a long pause, thinking again.

“If it does comes to that…it’ll be more important than ever that you don’t give up…”

“I won’t…I promise.”

Lucy’s mind echoed her answer to Cedric as she cast another pair of wind blasts, trying to hit Nora with one deflected by the explosion of the other. At this point, she could probably deflect it to hit a target that wasn’t moving, but Nora was more than happy to demonstrate how light on her feet she was.

Lucy fired another pair off, trying to anticipate where Nora would move. At the very least, each blast that Nora dodged was another second added to the time it took to conjure her ice. Cedric had mentioned before the round started that they should focus on stalling her as long as possible. It was the same reason he and Lucy had remained at their end of the arena.

When the time came that Nora created her immense cloud of snow, Lucy and Cedric could only watch as it drifted towards them.

The cloud spanned the entire width of the arena and left no gaps for them to pass safely through.

“When it gets close, cast as large a blast of fire as you can straight into it. We may be able to run through the tunnel it creates.”

When the haze was about to completely descend upon them, Lucy did what Cedric asked, and the two sprinted into the cotton-looking tunnel that was already closing around them. Cedric wondered why he didn’t see an opening on the other side, only to come upon a wall of ice that was bordering the rear edge of the haze.

“Can you break through it with Draw Water?” Cedric asked.

“I’m a little- *Gah* occupied right now!”

Cedric turned to find Lucy batting away at some ice that had managed to cover past her ankle. Her quick wit led her to stop it’s advance with Draw Water, but when she realized that Nora wasn’t giving up control, Lucy decided she should chip herself free.

Cedric began to run over to help her, but his attention was broken by the sound of a heavy thump and metallic clanging from behind.

“Look out!” Lucy yelled. Even without her help, though, Cedric knew what was happening, and he promptly brandished his shield with both hands just in time to block a strike from Dominic.

Dominic laughed, digging his blade into Cedric’s shield. “Abandoning your offense, I see.” He eyed Cedric’s sword that lay between them.

“Sorry, I’m not interested in making banter,” Cedric replied before pushing Dominic off his shield and putting some distance between them.

Dominic shrugged, and said nothing more, choosing instead to let loose a flurry of slashes against Cedric’s shield. Each hit reverberated painfully through Cedric’s arms, but he had to hold on and keep the round going for as long as possible. It was the only strategy he and Lucy had in this situation.

Cedric backed off after absorbing another set of blows from Dominic who seemed to enjoy witnessing his struggle. He couldn’t afford to pushed back anymore, though. If he did, Dominic would have a clear shot at Lucy who was still occupied with the ice around her foot.

“I’m almost free!” Lucy said, still whacking at the ice around her ankle. Then it broke suddenly; but not from her chipping away at it. Rather, the ice stopped resisting Lucy’s control, and the pressure she’d been exerting with Draw Water caused it to shatter.

Lucy was about ready to cheer, until she realized something. If Nora gave up control, then she was probably preparing something else.

“Lucy!” Cedric yelled, alarming the girl. Turning her focus on him, she saw her fears realized by the sight of ice covering Cedric’s body.

Lucy desperately tried to stop it with her magic, but it had already frozen Cedric’s feet to the ground, leaving him unable to move while Dominic ran him through with his blade.

Seeing Cedric shatter, Lucy ran for it. She didn’t get far, though, as the ice froze her foot to the ground again, allowing Dominic to shatter her without incident.

When she appeared in the box again, the ref announced another five points for Nora, as well as another extension of the prep-period per Nora’s request—stopping the clock just before it could fall below twelve minutes.

The next two rounds played out nearly the same. Lucy failed to deflect any blast of wind into an unsuspecting Nora who eventually cornered them with her cloud of snow after a few minutes.

Lucy carved another path through the haze with her fire, hoping there would be enough time to try blasting through the icy wall at its rear, but Nora’s haze was too efficient. Running quickly through it didn’t help. The ice stuck to her either way—managing again to freeze her to the ground so that she couldn’t attempt to blast out of the haze.

Dominic appeared again, enjoying his one-sided fights with Cedric way too much. And again, they were bested—giving up another five points to Nora in both rounds.

Now, less than two minutes remained, and Nora had turned her twenty-four-point loss into a three-point lead.

“We request an extended preparation,” Cedric said quickly, prompting the ref to stop the time and announce the ten-minute extension.

He then turned his attention to Lucy, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. She sat quietly on the bench and completely avoided his gaze.

This was it. This was their last chance.

“How are you feeling?” Cedric asked, immediately thinking how lame his question was.

“Oh, y’know… just mentally preparing for the round that will decide if I get to stay here.” Lucy punctuated with a fake laugh. “How are you feeling?”

Cedric was caught off guard by her question. He had been so focused on keeping her stable that he hadn’t considered his own view about everything.

“I’m…not sure.”

Lucy fidgeted with her robe’s pink sash, trying to find any release for her nervousness. “Well, look on the bright side. If I leave, you won’t have to deal with my pestering for lessons anymore.”

Lucy gave another fake laugh, not really thinking about what she said. She was only trying to ease her nerves, and maybe a part of Cedric knew that, but another part of him didn’t enjoy the statement.

“That…isn’t even close to a bright-side in my opinion.”

Lucy’s fidgeting ceased, and she raised her surprised gaze to meet Cedric. For once, though, he was averting his gaze from hers.

Lucy’s heart fluttered, and her eyes began to water.

She brought her gaze down quickly, not wanting him to see. It happened so fast. Her face was scrunched, and tears were pouring down her cheeks.

Cedric shifted anxiously, not sure what he should do about the girl crying before him. Between her whimpers, though, he could hear her try saying something.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” Lucy finally managed to choke out. “It’s not fair. It’s not. Why did we have to meet like this?”

Cedric remained silent while Lucy rubbed face of tears and snot to no end.

“I don’t want to give up…but how can I fight when I know what losing the match will mean?”

Lucy continued to sniffle, failing to stop her tears from spilling out. She promised Cedric she wouldn’t give up, but nothing prepared her for how hard it would be to enter arena knowing that she was one mistake away from losing everything.

Lucy’s mind began to fall blank, not wanting to accept the reality she was facing.

And suddenly, it all faded, as she felt a warmness wrap around her hand.

Lucy lifted her messy gaze to see Cedric kneeling before her—her hand taken into his.

“You’re doing exactly what I asked you not to,” he said without a trace of elegance, earning a dumbfounded look from Lucy.

Turning Lucy’s palm up, he unfurled a handkerchief from his pocket and lay it in her hand.

“I know it must feel like you don’t have a chance…but, just think about how far you’ve actually come. Five days ago, it would have been impossible for you to stand toe-to-toe with Nora—and now here you are going into the final round with a mere three-point gap between you.”

Lucy sat still, captivated by Cedric’s sincere gaze as he continued.

“You asked how you can fight knowing what there is to lose…but, I think that’s the reason you should fight. It isn’t a chance to lose everything you love. It’s a chance to fight against it being taken away…” Cedric paused, and his eyes turned downward as if he was remembering something until he faintly shook his head and returned his gaze to hers. “…a fight you won’t have to make alone…because…”

Lucy’s eyes glossed with fresh tears while Cedric helped wrap her fingers onto the handkerchief he gave her.

“…I’m not ready to say goodbye either.”