Chapter 32:

Chapter 32: A Challenge Issued (Elly)

The Heir of the Dragon

It’s okay, it’ll all be okay…

Elly stood outside the door of the Stars Cohort classroom, her heart pounding in her chest. This was her first day back in class after being let out of the infirmary this morning, her first day showing everyone her new self.

She was a brand new Elly now, a more confident Elly.

And a big part of her new self was a realization of the kind of person she was before. Elly had always been scared of people seeing her ears and thinking less of her, that had been why she’d hidden behind her hood for so long. Even though her cohort had known for months about her being a half-elf, she’d still hidden behind that hood.

But not anymore.

Elly had packed her hood away, and was going to face them with her head held high, showing who she was. She didn’t know what it meant to be a half-elf, but she knew what it meant to be Elly. And Elly wasn’t going to hide. With her hair newly cut short to show her ears and eyes, she couldn’t hide anymore even if she wanted to.

And yes, part of her wanted to.

Elly had been rather disappointed with the realization that deciding to be more confident and standing up for herself a few times had not completely changed her shyness. Even now, she was still feeling anxious. Not even her roommates had seen her new look.

But she wasn’t going to let her anxiety get the better of her! New Elly was still nervous, but she was going to be brave! She took a deep breath and slid the door open, pushing herself into the classroom for the inspection of her peers.

Everyone’s eyes turned to her, and Elly felt the pressure of their stares.

“Is that Elly?”

“So she’s okay?”

“She cut her hair!”

Voices, people were talking about her. Hearing people talk about her brought a familiar anxiety that turned Elly’s cheeks red and made her want to duck down in shame. But she pushed those old feelings aside and held her head high.

“Good… Good morning everybody…” She squeaked out.

New Elly still needed to work on her “confident” voice.

“Elly! I’m so glad you’re okay!” Wendy burst up from her seat and jumped Elly, hugging her tightly. Elly gasped in surprise, feeling herself relax in her friend’s embrace. Melody smiled shyly at her as well, but didn’t get out of her seat. She just gave a wave.

“Yo! Elly! Looking good with that hair!” Amy came up to greet her, which was a nice surprise. “Any shorter and you’ll give Morgan a run for his money!”

Elly let the joke slide off with an awkward laugh.

“So how are you feeling? Did the nurse heal you up completely? Anywhere hurt? Everything still works, right? You can still see?” Wendy diligently fired off a bunch of questions, but right now the only thing bothering Elly was the lack of oxygen in her lungs.

“Can’t… breathe…” she said, Wendy gasping and letting her go.

Elly opened her mouth to thank her friends for being worried about her, but she never had the chance.

“I’m glad you’re back, Elly, and that you’re having such a touching reunion,” Professor Darkflame said, walking into the classroom. “But it’s class time now. Take your seats, girls.”

With some apologies the three girls returned to their seats, and as Elly did she passed by Lance. He looked up at her, and she thought she saw him smile.

There were two other things that were odd that day in class besides Elly’s transformation. For one, it was a half-day, and for the other, the professor talked to the cohort about something called “Chess Games”. Just like normal chess there were a lot of complicated rules that Elly was confused by, but she just nodded her head and went along with it.

What she could gather was that it was a competition between the cohorts, and each cohort would choose 16 people for their team, and assign them to roles to fight each other with magic. Thankfully, that meant Elly could sit out. No way she was going to make the cut.

Once she’d heard that, she’d sort of checked out of the conversation, only really coming back in when the professor finished things up by telling them that there was a chance of injury, and that participants would need to fill out forms with the school. If their cohort wanted to participate then they would need to fill in the slots for their roster by the end of the day, and could use the rest of their time as a class to figure it out.

Well, so much for half-days. At least Professor Darkflame had been nice enough to pick up sandwiches for lunch before leaving them on their own.

Elly watched from a distance as everyone gathered together in their classroom to talk about who was going to do what for their team. They were all really excited, and Elly hoped they’d do a good job. She was fine with cheering them on from a distance.

She also saw that her half-brother was in the center of the crowd, talking the most, as well. Everyone gathered around his desk while they talked. That brought a smile to her face. Lance may have been kind of stand-offish, but he seemed to be getting along with everyone.

He was even smiling himself, a little.

The most surprising thing, though, was that Blake got out of his seat and walked over to the crowd. That was the last thing she expected him to do, and she was so curious about why the normally anti-social Blake Harker was joining in on the discussion about a group activity like this that she somehow found she had joined the crowd herself before she knew it!

“I’m telling you, it’s only fitting that the prince be given the role of King!” Rafe loudly protested, glaring at Ark.

“The logical course of action would be for the most capable mage to be made the King,” Ark calmly replied, narrowing his eyes. The temperature in the room dropped. “My abilities speak for themselves.”

Lance sighed, and rubbed his temples. “Look, Ark, we can all agree that you’re the strongest one in the cohort.”

Elly was stunned. The Lance she knew would have never admitted that someone was better than he was! He wasn’t getting frustrated at being shown up by other people anymore, he was calmly admitting his limits? How much had he changed when she wasn’t looking?

“Then I should be the King,” Ark said.

“The King role isn’t just about strength, Ark,” Lance replied, tapping the sign-up form with the rules on it. “The King gives orders to the other pieces. You have to work with your cohort to get the job done. And you haven’t exactly been very social since you got here.”

Ark’s eye twitched. “It would be most efficient if we just ignored that and overwhelmed our opponents with brute force.”

“Yes, that would be the most efficient victory, but does anyone here really want to just sit back and watch Ark hide in his ice mountain all day?” Lance asked, looking around at the cohort. Elly agreed that sounded boring. Besides, her brother might not be as strong as Ark, but she still thought he was pretty strong. And he’d also beaten Ark at chess before, so maybe that meant he was the better fit? Unlike the aloof Ark, Lance drew in people like Rafe, Est, and Josie.

Ark’s stoic glare morphed into a scowl as he saw that no one was going for it.

“…Fine,” he agreed. “You can be the King. Then I’ll be the Queen.”

Elly felt herself nodding. That sounded like the perfect arrangement! Lance contemplated it for a second, and then shook his head.

“No, you’ll be a Rook,” he decided.

“A Rook?” Ark asked. “So you want me to use my magic to defend.”

“Your ice wall is a good last resort defense,” Lance acknowledged. “With the ability to sense when enemies are coming and react, you’ll make a good Rook.”

Ark stroked his chin and nodded. “Logical decision.”

“And of course, I should be the Queen,” Sabine obnoxiously interjected, pushing her chest out and smiling arrogantly as she stood over the seated Lance.

Absolutely not.” Elly didn’t see the look her half-brother gave Sabine when he said this, but the way her face went pale and she shook told her it was a scary one.

Lance turned away from Sabine, and his eyes landed on her. For an instant Elly feared he was going to name her as the Queen!

“She’s going to be the Queen,” he said, Elly sighing in relief as she followed his finger past her… and onto Chloe Bellajean, who had been sleeping at her desk the entire class period.

A few people looked confused, but remembering the magic Chloe had displayed in their practical exams quickly got them on board. Chloe may have the social skills of a rock, but even more than Ark she couldn’t be compared in raw power.

“Are you sure? Does she even know what’s going on?” Amy asked. Lance glanced at her and stood up, walking over to the sleeping Chloe and gently shaking her awake.

“…Whaaaat…?” Chloe yawned, sitting up and stretching.

“Chloe, over this weekend we’re going to be participating in the Chess Games as a cohort,” Lance informed her. “Were you listening to the professor’s explanation?”

Chloe listlessly shook her head. Lance sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Well, I’ll have someone explain it to you later,” he decided. “For now, are you willing to use your Dream Magic to help us win, as the Queen?”

Chloe blinked, and then nodded her head. “’Kay,” she agreed. “G’night.”

Chloe slumped over and promptly went back to sleep. Lance returned to the group with a shrug. “And that’s that.”

Elly wasn’t sure it would go that well, but she believed in her half-brother’s decisions and Chloe’s incredible power.

“Now then, Audrey, what about you?” Lance asked, picking up the sheet and turning to the silver-haired girl who was surprisingly not involved in the conversation.

Audrey set her book down and glanced up at Lance, her eyes cold. “I have no interest in this game,” she calmly stated. “Nor do I have any interest in playing piece to a King like you.”

Lance frowned, and shrugged. “Well, I can’t force you.”

“Hmph! And to think you could have played a Knight!” Sabine snorted. “It appears that the great Audrey Angelique isn’t so bold after all!”

Audrey’s eyes flashed and she began to rise from her seat. “Oh?”

Sabine gulped and Elly found herself laughing at the girl’s predicament. She wasn’t even bothered by the glare Sabine shot her way!

“Well if you’re out then Amy, you’ll be our Knight,” Lance decided, turning to the tan girl, who stared at him in shock.

“M-Me?” Amy asked, pointing at herself. “Why me?”

Lance nodded. “Caelia as well,” he said, turning to the brunette. Caelia was also sitting detached from the conversation, turning to look their way when she heard her name.

“Why those two?!” Sabine protested. “I should be a Knight! Or a Bishop!”

“The role of the Knight is to move around the enemy pieces and figure out their identities,” Lance explained to Amy, ignoring Sabine’s protests. “Amy, your magic means you’re incredibly fast. I don’t know what the terrain of the battlefield will be like, but with your mobility it won’t be a problem for you to root out who are opponents are. You don’t need to worry about defeating them, just discovering them. I think it’s the perfect role for someone with your talents.”

“R-Really?” Amy asked, her green eyes bright as she blushed with joyful embarrassment. “Th-Thanks!”

Lance nodded and turned to Caelia. “Caelia, you were able to conceal your presence from Reed Rivers in the dragon hunting game, so I’m guessing you have some affinity for the Knight role as well. And with your archery you make for a very effective sniper. I had half a mind to make you a Bishop but I think a Knight will play to your skills more. So what do you think?”

Caelia considered for a second, and then nodded. “As you wish.”

Elly beamed at her half-brother. Back home, Lance had been an angry kid who scared her, someone who got mad at the fact that he couldn’t use the royal family’s Bloodline Magic. But right now he was showing off talents that had nothing to do with that. He understood the strengths of his fellow classmates and was assigning them to their perfect roles like a good leader should.

And then Lance’s eyes landed on her.

“And for our other Rook… Elly is the best choice.”

That got everyone’s attention. Elly’s most of all.

“What?!” She gasped. “But… But I can’t! My magic isn’t-!”

“Yeah! Why make her a Rook? Why put her in the game at all?!” Sabine protested. “With her mana level she’ll just be a liability!”

Elly couldn’t believe she was actually agreeing with Sabine about something. Especially with that something being her.

“I won’t deny that Elly’s abilities are lacking,” Lance admitted, causing Elly to wince even though she knew it was true. “But Elly is one of the only people here who can use defensive magic. With her barriers, she can protect the King better than most of you.”

Elly wasn’t so sure that was true. Sure, she could use Barrier Magic, but that didn’t mean she was good at it.

“I-I think she can do it!” Wendy piped up. “I vote for Elly!”

“Me too,” Melody agreed.

“Yeah! Go Elly!” Amy’s chipper voice making a third.

They all believed in Elly a lot more than she believed in herself.

Lance looked at her with those blue eyes flecked with gold, the same eyes she had. She had been so afraid of those eyes before, but right now they looked kind.

“What do you say, Elly?” Lance asked. “Are you up for it? You just got out of the infirmary and you might get hurt again, but I think you’ll do a good job.”

Elly didn’t think she was up for it. But the NEW Elly was going to be up for it. She wasn’t going to hide because it might be dangerous, or because she might fail! She swallowed her doubts and nodded her head.

“I-I’ll do my best,” she agreed.

Sabine slapped her hand on the desk, catching the attention of everyone.

“Pardon me, my prince,” she said, clearly trying very hard to seem polite. “What role am I going to play on this team, if I may ask?”

Lance sighed, and finally turned to her.

“You’re going to be a Pawn.”

A few seconds of silence followed that declaration before Sabine exploded.

“A PAWN?!” She exclaimed, politeness long-gone and replaced with seething anger. “Someone of my level? A mere PAWN? What madness is that? I should be one of the Bishops!”

Elly could kind of see Sabine’s point. Whatever else she was, Sabine was always among the highest in her grades for practical magic. Elly had some first-hand experience with her abilities, close up.

“That temper of yours is why you’re a Pawn,” Lance said, clearly trying hard to keep his own temper in check. “A Bishop definitely benefits from power, but if you let your frustration get the better of you and you knock out some Pawns, that will hurt our score, not help. You’ve already proven to everyone here that you can’t control yourself.”

Sabine’s turned as red as her hair in shame and frustration. “That… that was…”

But Lance didn’t give her time to explain herself, continuing “we already have one Bishop with temper issues, a second one is too much of a liability.”

Elly gasped. Two? Then who was the first one?

Lance turned to Blake. “Isn’t that right?”

Blake looked surprised. “I would have thought you wouldn’t want someone like me on your team, my prince.”

Lance gave a quick glance at Elly before returning his attention to Blake. “I’ve heard that you’re getting in a lot of practice. Both with that sword of yours, and apparently, Fire Elemental Magic.”

A few people gasped in surprise. Blake scowled, clearly not appreciating being the center of attention.

“So you’re going to use me for my strength?” He asked, his tone laced with danger. But Lance didn’t baulk.

“Is that a problem?” He calmly asked. Elly glanced back and forth between the two of them, slightly worried.

“Not at all,” Blake said, shaking his head. “It’s what I was hoping for anyway.”

That made the mood of the room lighten up, and even Sabine couldn’t protest if she was being compared to Blake.

“Then let’s put things behind us, shall we?” Lance asked, offering his hand to Blake. His face was serious, but soft.

Elly wasn’t sure if Blake would shake his hand or not, but before he could a crashing sound came from behind her and all heads turned to the window to see what had happened.

“Well, hello there, it looks like I’ve found the right place. The Stars Cohort, right?” The girl perched in the windowsill was a first year, like them, who Elly vaguely recognized. She wore a smirk on her face as she scanned the classroom with her narrowed golden eyes, licking her lips as she stood and looked down at them.

Knowing how high up off the ground they were, even her athletic figure wouldn’t have helped her jump up to that window. She must have used magic of some kind. Elly felt unnerved by her gaze, the girl looked like she wanted to eat them. Her hair was strangely layered, with a short mess of dirty blonde framing her face and a thin black train below it let loose down her back. She wore her uniform strangely, her blouse was tied up beneath her chest to expose her stomach, for some reason.

“Who are you?” Lance snarled, getting over his surprise first and addressing the girl. That was better than Blake, who had already reached for his sword.

“Taylor Piska,” the girl introduced herself, skipping down off the windowsill and crossing the room in a flash, staring the prince down. “Sun Cohort. Nice to meet you, Prince Lancelus. I must say, you’re much more handsome in person.”

“And what are you doing here?” Blake growled at her, the girl leaning back from Lance and turning her gaze towards him, running her eyes over him and licking her lips.

“Just scoping out the competition,” she coyly replied, stepping away from the crowd and leaning back on one of the desks, holding her hands behind her head. “Yep, you guys definitely seem like the cohort to beat. Consider this as a formal challenge.”

“A challenge?” Lance asked, confused. “But we’re not facing you in the bracket.”

Taylor shrugged. “Not the first day, anyway. You guys are going against the Clouds Cohort, right? We’ll be facing you after that.”

“Don’t you have to beat the Moon Cohort for that, though?” Wendy meekly replied, Taylor waving her hand and rolling her eyes.

“Bunch of weaklings. Like I said, you guys are my real competition.”

Elly was stunned by how brazen this girl was, and a little envious, too. She seemed so confident and bold, in some ways even more so than Reed or Sabine. Part of Elly wished she could be like that.

“This has gone on long enough!” Audrey growled, rising from her seat and storming over to the girl, hand on her sword. “Right now you’re disrupting our cohort activities, and you broke campus property! I insist that you remove yourself from our classroom right now!”

Taylor smirked. “My, you noble girls are so stuffy and stuck up, anyone ever teach you how to have fun? Don’t worry your pretty little silver head, I’ll go. Once I’ve finished my business.”

Taylor ignored Audrey and turned back to Lance, sauntering over to the prince leaning in close to him. He pulled back as she pressed her body against his, glaring at her.

“…Fuuu, no fun at all,” Taylor sighed with a shrug. “But on to my point. Your professor explained to you about the stakes of this little contest, right? How it’s not all about fun and games?”

Elly remembered hearing something about that, what was it, again?

“The cohort that makes it to the top of the bracket will go on a teacher-chaperoned field trip to the Eldrasil Ruins for an expedition, right?” Wendy remembered. “For three days and two nights while the other cohorts get free time to study.”

“Scrawny glasses has it right,” Taylor nodded, Wendy wincing at her rudeness. “Yep, whoever wins gets to go on a nice little trip…”

She sighed, and shrugged her shoulders, shaking her head. “And if you ask me, isn’t that the most boring prize in the sky? I know I can’t get motivated about something like that.”

“So what’s your point?” Lance scowled.

“Well, I was thinking, you know what would make this game a lot more exciting?” Taylor asked, her eyes shining with delight. “A little side wager. Get in on a piece of the action.”

“I don’t think we’re interested,” Lance replied.

“Come on, we can offer a loooot,” Taylor’s tempting voice sang out. “How about this? You guys beat us, and our class will do any one thing you guys want. Come on, think about it! Anything! Study help, back massages, show you our magic, it’s a pretty good deal, don’t you think?”

“And they’d be up for something like that?” Lance asked.

“I can be very convincing,” Taylore replied. Her voice lowered into a conspiratorial tone. “And I heard that you and Derek Lyder got in a little… skirmish. Come on now prince, wouldn’t you like the opportunity to make that guy do whatever you want?”

Elly gulped and Lance’s face darkened.

“Come on, it’s not like you’ll have to put up much if you lose,” Taylor shrugged. “You might even enjoy it!”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Lance asked suspiciously.

Taylor smirked, and her voice took on a husky tone.

“When your team loses, you,” she said, pointing at Lance, and then moving to point at Blake, “and you, will be joining me for the night.” She licked her lips. “I’ve done a lot of my cohort already but I haven’t had the pleasure of doing a prince before, or an archduke. It sounds like a wild night.”

Elly didn’t understand what she was talking about. But the way everyone’s faces were turning red made her wonder what was so bad about it. “Doing” a prince, what did that-

“You think we would agree to a vulgar wager like that?!” Sabine exclaimed, her face bright red. “You sl-sl-sleeping with Blake?! …And the prince?! Absolutely not! No way!”

Elly blinked. Wait. Sleeping with… as in…? Finally realizing what the brash girl was suggesting, Elly’s head practically exploded in embarrassment, she could NEVER be like that in a billion years!

Taylor rolled her eyes, hopping off the desk and snorting derisively, “like I said, you noble ladies are all so prudishly stuck up. None of you knows how to have real fun.”

“We’re not agreeing to that wager,” Lance said, his face turning red. Taylor clicked her tongue.

“What a pity. Would have been a lot of fun. Maybe you’ll come around later, I’m always up for-“

The door slammed open.


The blonde girl froze mid-sentence, her playful face shaken for a second. She turned to the doorway, where there stood a handsome boy who looked very similar to Taylor herself, but wearing a scowl on his face. He had the same layered hair as Taylor, but cut short in the back. His eyes were just as gold, and Elly wondered if they were siblings.

“Oh, Ty, um, this is…”

“You said you were going to greet the competition, so why did you break a window?!” The boy demanded, storming into the room and grabbing her by the collar.

“I-I needed to make a dramatic entrance, brother!” Taylor wailed, her brother dragging her towards the exit and shoving her out of the classroom. He turned to them.

“I’m Tyler,” he said, lowering his head. “I apologize for my sister, she’s… impetuous.” He lifted his head and Elly could see the spark in his eyes. He may have been more serious, but he was just as passionate as his sister was.

“…It’s not a problem,” Lance replied. “Rather, it’s flattering that you consider our cohort to be your biggest challenge.”

“Thank you for your understanding,” Tyler nodded. “And believe me. The rest of us are looking forward to the Chess Games as much as she is.”

With that, the Piska twins departed, leaving a shaken cohort to determine who their remaining members would be.

Real Aire